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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 article on Wells’ concerns about wealth inequality in the age of machines.

 


From Higgs:

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.•


From Lanier:

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):

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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 wentcampaign 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.

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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.•

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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.

From Jack Jenkins at Think Progress:

A NEW KIND OF RELIGIOUS KINGMAKER

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.”

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The VCR, which helped the masses shift time and become programmers, is no more, with the last company that produced the technology, Japan’s Funai Corporation, bowing from the anachronistic business.

Excerpts follow from 1) Jonah Engel Bromwich’s New York Times article “The Long, Final Goodbye of the VCR,” and 2) Lillian Ross’ 1970 New Yorker piece (subscription required) about the Cartrivision system, which offered a proto-Netflix service.


From Bromwich:

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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?”

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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:

Omni:

What’s good about genetic engineering?

Alvin Toffler:

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.

Omni:

What is the downside?

Alvin Toffler:

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”

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Toffler called for the dismantling of the U.S. public-education system in a 2007 interview at Edutopia. An excerpt:

Edutopia:

You’ve been writing about our educational system for decades. What’s the most pressing need in public education right now?

Alvin Toffler:

Shut down the public education system.

Edutopia:

That’s pretty radical.

Alvin Toffler:

I’m roughly quoting Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who said, “We don’t need to reform the system; we need to replace the system.”

Edutopia:

Why not just readjust what we have in place now? Do we really need to start from the ground up?

Alvin Toffler:

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”

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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.

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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.

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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 Sentinel profile by Scott Eyman, and two videos, the first about Project Venus and the second a 1974 interview conducted by a pre-suspenders Larry King.


From Bloomberg:

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.•


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The winners of the 1960 Olympic medals for light heavyweight boxing on the winners' podium at Rome: Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali) (C), gold; Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland (R), silver; and Giulio Saraudi (Italy) and Anthony Madigan (Australia), joint bronze. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

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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.

From Lipsyte:

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.•


A lot of Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder success is due to his tele

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:

People:

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.

People:

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.”

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YIWU, CHINA - MAY 18: (CHINA OUT) A "female" robot waiter delivers meals for customers at robot-themed restaurant on May 18, 2015 in Yiwu, Zhejiang province of China. Sophomore Xu Jinjin in 22 years old from Hospitality Management of Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College managed a restaurant where a pair of robot acted as waiters. The "male" one was named "Little Blue" (for in blue color) and the "female" one was "Little Peach" (for in pink) and they could help order meals and then delivered them to customers along the magnetic track and said: "Here're your meals, please enjoy". According to Xu Jinjin, They had contacted with the designer to present more robot waiters to make the restaurant a real one that depends completely on robots. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

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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.•

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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.

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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.

Theremin making music himself.

Author Richard Brautigan 1968

A miscast spokesperson of drugged-out hippies, the writer Richard Brautigan wasn’t enamored with narcotics nor the wide-eyed, bell-bottomed set. He wrote two things I love: The 1967 novel Trout Fishing in America and the 1968 poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

What follows is an excerpt from Lawrence Wright’s 1985 Rolling Stone article about 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.”


From Wright:

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.


The German TV interview.

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JFK conspiracists seem nuts to me, but Mark Lane, author of 1966’s Rush 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 1978 descended 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.

However, it was definitely that horrible day in Dallas that allowed Lane, an anti-Vaughn Meader, to shoot to prominence. From his New York Times obituary by Keith Schneider:

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.

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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.”

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Speaking of mind-altering substances, when a teenager, the French Surrealist writer René Daumal blasted his brain with the carbon tetrachloride he normally used to kill beetles for his insect collection. Not a good idea. By the time he was 36, he’d joined the bugs in the great beyond, no doubt in part because of his amateur chemistry experiments.

Known primarily today for the novel Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidean and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures, which Alejandro Jodorowsky used as the basis for his crazy-as-fuck 1973 film, Holy Mountain, Daumal’s recollection of his auto-dosing, “A Fundamental Experiment,” was reprinted in a 1965 Psychedelic Review. The opening:

The simple fact of the matter is beyond telling.  In the 18 years since it happened, I have often tried to put it into words.  Now, once and for all, I should like to employ every resource of language I know in giving an account of at least the outward and inward circumstances. This ‘fact’ consists in a certainty I acquired by accident at the age of sixteen or seventeen; ever since then, the memory of it has directed the best part of me toward seeking a means of finding it again, and for good.

My memories of child-hood and adolescence are deeply marked by a series of attempts to experience the beyond, and those random attempts brought me to the ultimate experiment, the fundamental experience of which I speak.

At about the age of six, having been taught no kind of religious belief whatsoever, I struck up against the stark problem of death.

I passed some atrocious nights, feeling my stomach clawed to shreds and my breathing half throttled by the anguish of nothingness, the ‘no more of anything’.

One night when I was about eleven, relaxing my entire body, I calmed the terror and revulsion of my organism before the unknown, and a new feeling came alive in me; hope, and a foretaste of the imperishable. But I wanted more, I wanted a certainty. At fifteen or sixteen I began my experiments, a search without direction or system.

Finding no way to experiment directly on death-on my death-I tried to study my sleep, assuming an analogy between the two.

By various devices I attempted to enter sleep in a waking state. The undertaking is not so utterly absurd as it sounds, but in certain respects it is perilous. I could not go very far with it; my own organism gave me some serious warnings of the risks I was running. One day, however, I decided to tackle the problem of death itself.

I would put my body into a state approaching as close as possible that of physiological death, and still concentrate all my attention on remaining conscious and registering everything that might take place.

I had in my possession some carbon tetrachloride, which I used to kill beetles for my collection. Knowing this substance belongs to the same chemical family as chloroform (it is even more toxic), I thought I could regulate its action very simply and easily: the moment I began to lose consciousness, my hand would fall from my nostrils carrying with it the handkerchief moistened with the volatile fluid. Later on I repeated the experiment –in the presence of friends, who could have given me help had I needed it.

The result was always exactly the same; that is, it exceeded and even overwhelmed my expectations by bursting the limits of the possible and by projecting me brutally into another world.

First came the ordinary phenomena of asphyxiation: arterial palpitation, buzzings, sounds of heavy pumping in the temples, painful repercussions from the tiniest exterior noises, flickering lights. Then, the distinct feeling: ‘This is getting serious. The game is up,’ followed by a swift recapitulation of my life up to that moment. If I felt any slight anxiety, it remained indistinguishable from a bodily discomfort that did not affect my mind.

And my mind kept repeating to itself : ‘Careful, don’t doze off. This is just the time to keep your eyes open.’

The luminous spots that danced in front of my eyes soon filled the whole of space, which echoed with the beat of my blood- sound and light overflowing space and fusing in a single rhythm. By this time I was no longer capable of speech, even of interior speech; my mind travelled too rapidly to carry any words along with it.

I realized, in a sudden illumination, that I still had control of the hand which held the handkerchief, that I still accurately perceived the position of my body, and that I could hear and understand words uttered nearby–but that objects, words, and meanings of words had lost any significance whatsoever. It was a little like having repeated a word over and over until it shrivels and dies in your mouth: you still know what the word ‘table’ means, for instance, you could use it correctly, but it no longer truly evokes its object.

In the same way everything that made up ‘the world’ for me in my ordinary state was still there, but I felt as if it had been drained of its substance. It was nothing more than a phantasmagoria-empty, absurd, clearly outlined, and necessary all at once.

This ‘world’ lost all reality because I had abruptly entered another world, infinitely more real, an instantaneous and intense world of eternity, a concentrated flame of reality and evidence into which I had cast myself like a butterfly drawn to a lighted candle.

Then, at that moment, comes the certainty; speech must now be content to wheel in circles around the bare fact.

Certainty of what?

Words are heavy and slow, words are too shapeless or too rigid. With these wretched words I can put together only approximate statements, whereas my certainty is for me the archetype of precision. In my ordinary state of mind, all that remains thinkable and formulable of this experiment reduces to one affirmation on which I would stake my life: I feel the certainty of the existence of something else, a beyond, another world, or another form of knowledge.

In the moment just described, I knew directly, I experienced that beyond in its very reality.

It is important to repeat that in that new state I perceived and perfectly comprehended the ordinary state of being, the latter being contained within the former, as waking consciousness contains our unconscious dreams, and not the reverse. This last irreversible relation proves the superiority (in the scale of reality or consciousness) of the first state over the second.

I told myself clearly: in a little while I shall return to the so-called ‘normal state’, and perhaps the memory of this fearful revelation will cloud over; but it is in this moment that I see the truth.

All this came to me without words; meanwhile I was pierced by an even more commanding thought. With a swiftness approaching the instantaneous, it thought itself so to speak in my very substance: for all eternity I was trapped, hurled faster and faster toward ever imminent annihilation through the terrible mechanism of the Law that rejected me.

‘That’s what it is. So that’s what it is.’

My mind found no other reaction. Under the threat of something worse, I had to follow the movement.

It took a tremendous effort, which became more and more difficult, but I was obliged to make that effort, until the moment when, letting go, I doubtless fell into a brief spell of unconsciousness. My hand dropped the handkerchief, I breathed air’, and for the rest of the day I remained dazed and stupefied-with a violent headache.•


“Nothing in your education or experience can have prepared you for this film.”

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When salesmen began traveling by airwaves rather than highways, Philip Kives was the king of the road.

The Canadian-born wheeler and dealer’s company, K-Telhad a knack for making and marketing products you didn’t really need but wanted nonetheless: Veg-O-Matics, Bonsai Knives, Sno-Bloc Makers. They were designed well, packaged handsomely, priced fairly and they sold, oh how they sold. Perhaps just as impressive as the plastic and metal pieces themselves was the tagline on the ubiquitous ads, “As Seen on TV,” which ingeniously seemed to confer some status upon the odd items while feeding our psychological need for viral, communal participation long before the Internet made instant the gratification of that urge. 

The excellent New York Times writer Margalit Fox penned a postmortem of Kives, who just died. An excerpt:

If K-tel’s rhetoric seemed sprung from the lips of an old-time midway barker, there was a reason: As a young man, Mr. Kives had plied that trade, hawking cookware and other goods at county fairs and on the boardwalk of Atlantic City.

By all accounts as skilled a salesman in person as he was en masse, he was one of the last living links between the “Step right up!” pitchman of the early 20th century and his expansive electronic-age heir.

Philip Kives was all but born scrappy, in a Jewish agricultural colony near Oungre, Saskatchewan, on Feb. 12, 1929. His parents, Kiva and the former Lily Weiner, had met and married in Turkey, where they had been settled by the Jewish Colonization Association to avoid persecution in their native Eastern Europe.

In 1926, the organization resettled the Kives family once more — to a farm on the Canadian prairie with neither electricity nor running water.

Amid the Depression, they battled drought, crop failure and insect infestations that seemed to rival the biblical plagues, living for many years on welfare. Philip grew up milking cows, hauling drinking water and earning money by trapping weasels and selling their fur.

In 1957, the young Mr. Kives left the farm for Winnipeg, where he worked as a cabby and a short-order cook. He began selling sewing machines and vacuum cleaners door to door, following the wires strung over newly electrified parts of town to find and court his customers.

He soon became a Paganini of pitchmen, hawking products at fairs throughout Canada and the United States.•


When music was as much held as listened to, the Record Selector and Tape Selector came in handy.

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From the November 3, 1952 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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The Univac 1 computer got off to a good start in 1952 when it predicted that Eisenhower would win easily over Stevenson even though the press thought the reverse outcome was a near-certainty. It faltered a bit in the 1954 midterm Senate races and was mocked. (“Tilt!” was hollered in the newsroom by one wiseass when it became clear that the prognostications were errant.) But by the 1956 Presidential election, the computer once more nailed the Eisenhower triumph over Stevenson. No TV broadcast of any major election ever went without a computer again. 

In this 1952 clip, Walter Cronkite cedes the floor the machine which at this early point in the night thought Eisenhower was a 100-1 favorite to win. Nervous CBS brass were so concerned that the “electronic brain” was wrong that they initially pretended it had mechanical difficulties and was being unresponsive.

Rasputin must have been a complicated dad, huh?

The infamous Russian mystic’s elder daughter, Maria, had a wild and woolly life as you might expect, what with the political revolution and the circus-animal training and all. She died in 1977 in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, having spent the final leg of her life collecting Social Security checks and complaining bitterly about communists to Hollywood gossip columnists. Here’s a portrait of her at age 69 from the November 12, 1968 Daily Progress of Charlottesville, Virginia:

We had a pleasant encounter with history last week by taking the daughter of Rasputin, “the mad monk of Russia,” to the Gaslight for a hamburger.

She was in town over the weekend with her friend Patricia Barham, a film and theatre columnist from Los Angeles. While here, they tried and failed to get the apparent Grand Duchess Anastasia to leave her Albemarle County farm for L.A. smog.

The apparent Grand Duchess is, of course, Anna Anderson, the woman who has claimed for 50 years to be the surviving daughter of the last Russian royal family.

If you missed the social news of the summer, Anna moved here from Germany in August and may settle permanently in Albemarle.

Rasputin’s daughter, Maria, has been in the U.S. since 1937 and in Los Angeles since 1965. As was reported during her earlier visit here in August, she came to this country as a circus animal trainer with Ringling Bros.

We learned this trip she was a member of the Hagenbach Brothers animal act, a job she took after several years touring Europe as a Russian folk dancer.

Making a living was a problem for Russian emigres during the 20s and 30s and Maria grabbed at an offer to go on the stage. Girls like Maria who spent their childhood having tea with the Czar’s children every Wednesday weren’t trained to make a living, but Maria had some talent and endless spunk, it appears.

For although Maria was mauled by a bear in Peru, Indiana, she stayed with the circus until the traveling show played Miami, Florida, where she quit and went to work as a riveter in a defense shipyard, she related Saturday night.

She stayed in defense plant work until 1955 when she was laid off because of her age, 66. Since then she has been working in hospitals and baby sitting for friends.

Since credibility gap had yawned intrusively into the conversation, we asked her how she got into the animal training game, and where she got the courage to whip up on lions and tigers. She learned in London, was her unelaborated answer though she noted, ‘After you’ve been the target of a revolution, nothing scares you anymore.’

Gregori Rasputin, her father, was tied in with the Russian royal court as religious advisor.

That lasted until personal enemies decided Rasputin-style religion was going too far and they ended him in a legendary assassination said to involve poisoning, stabbing, and drowning.

Maria said she had it rough in the Bolshevik revolution the year after her father was murdered and eventually left Russia for Berlin, Bucharest, Paris, London, and Miami.

Her English vocabulary isn’t all it might be, she readily admits. She says she speaks Russian best but also German and French. When the time came to write a book – and virtually every notable Russian emigre wrote at least one in the decade 1925-1935 – she dictated her memoirs and the result was, My Father, an anecdotal book on Rasputin published in 1932.

Her friend Pat Barham is in the throws of re-write on a second Rasputin book based on Maria’s recollections. She intends to call it, The Rape of Rasputin and described it as ‘sexsational and exciting’ but not funny.

Maria claims a leaning to be psychic and Pat affirms that on election morning two weeks ago, Maria said that Mrs. Richard Nixon had come to her in a dream and smiled. Maria has ‘signs’ like that often, Pat said.

“Little Mother,” Pat calls Maria for her continual worrying about handbags within reach of strangers in restaurants, suitcases open in hotel rooms, and columnists getting a comfortable chair for interviews.

Since being interviewed is an old game for Rasputin’s only legitimate daughter, she talks willingly and seemingly without reservation. This prompted Gaslight owner John Tuck to volunteer that the father of one of his boyhood chums was one of the band of assassins that did Rasputin in.

‘Why didn’t he like my father?’ Maria asked with genuine curiosity. John didn’t know, or at least didn’t say.

“My father was a kind man,” Maria later said when we returned to her hotel. “Once he was savagely attacked by the most powerful newspaper in Russia. Friends asked why he didn’t close the paper down since he could have done it like this,” she said with a snap of fingers.

“Let them write about me,” her father reportedly said. “Let them make money.” Maria described him as “a kind man who would never have closed the paper.”

Historians may not agree Rasputin was kind but there’s no doubt Maria is thoughtful. “When you leave the hotel, stop at the desk,” she said as the interview closed.

We did and found waiting a pot of white chrysanthemums to carry home through the season’s first snow flurry.•


Footage of Maria as an animal trainer:

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Plastics made for a great one-word metaphor in The Graduate, Mike Nichols’ 1967 film about the end of youth in a tumultuous time when many young people wanted nothing to do with advancement in a world of wars and wares. But it wasn’t great career advice. As Juan Enriquez noted in a recent TED Talk about bioengineering, Benjamin Braddock would have received far better counsel had he been offered a different term: Silicon.

For this year’s grads, the academic suggests the best tip would be Lifecode, which he defines as the “various ways we have of programming life.” He also refers to it as a “superpower,” which is not hyperbolic. The engineering of evolution, which will increasingly be in our hands, will require great care if we are to get things right, ethically as well as scientifically. Enriquez notes rightly, however, that waiting too long to use these new tools is as risky as rushing in headlong.

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Kevin Kelly believes he’s seen the future of Virtual Reality, and it’s name is Magic Leap, a Florida-based firm which awed him when he visited the company’s campus. An excerpt from early in his Wired article:

In this prototype headset, created by the much speculated about, ultrasecretive company called Magic Leap, this alien drone certainly does seem to be transported to this office in Florida—and its reality is stronger than I thought possible.

I saw other things with these magical goggles. I saw human-sized robots walk through the actual walls of the room. I could shoot them with power blasts from a prop gun I really held in my hands. I watched miniature humans wrestle each other on a real tabletop, almost like a Star Wars holographic chess game. These tiny people were obviously not real, despite their photographic realism, but they were really present—in a way that didn’t seem to reside in my eyes alone; I almost felt their presence.•

At first, such tools tool may be toys. Starbreeze Studios announced plans to open a Los Angeles VR arcade. It would be a chance to introduce the technology to the masses that so far have only read the glowing reports. From the press release:

Starbreeze AB, an independent creator, publisher and distributor of high quality entertainment products, today at VRLA Winter Expo announced its intention to establish a VR arcade venue in Los Angeles, named Project StarCade. Aiming to make premium VR experiences accessible for the masses, Starbreeze will create a StarVR powered arcade hall, where VR enthusiasts and novices alike are welcome to experience the exciting technology in an immersive setting.

“We continue to iterate the fact that VR really needs to be experienced in person to fully be able to appreciate the phenomenon, and why not have your first experience in a real premium setting in our StarVR headset? We’ve managed to secure a prime location where people are welcome to step into our StarCade and enjoy our OVERKILL’s The Walking Dead VR experience.” said Starbreeze CTO Emmanuel Marquez. He continued, “We’re developing our own StarCade catalogue of experiences, but we’re open to any content. We will invite developers to join us and give them the opportunity to put their content in our StarCade. We as an industry continuously need to educate ourselves to make VR truly successful, and this is just the first step in our planning to do so.”

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

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

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Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten has been recommended for parole by a California review board, which is just what Doris Tate feared. Convicted for the LaBianca murders, which were perpetrated the night after some of her fellow cultists killed Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski and Steven Parent.

Van Houten, who’s been denied parole 19 times previously, is been described as a model prisoner. It’s difficult to imagine that would have mattered much to the elder Tate, who crusaded during her life to keep Manson and his minions permanently behind bars.

In 1991, Tate appeared on an episode of To Tell the Truth hosted by Alex Trebek. This short-lived iteration of the venerable game show, which had a more provocative edge than such fare usually has, provided a platform for Tate’s crusade. Her statement on the program read: “When the parole hearings began for Sharon’s killers, I began to realize it was my mission to speak out for those who couldn’t…the victims.” Doris Tate passed away a year after this appearance as a result of a brain tumor. Begins at the 8:18 mark.

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Nancy Reagan married well. A starlet who never came close to shuffling free of the suffix, she wed a marginally more successful Hollywood player who graduated from the studio system to the political machine. He enjoyed shocking success, first in the California Governor’s mansion and then the White House.

As an older First Lady, she always displayed grace and looked the part, advised the children to simply “just say no” the way a grandmother can because she doesn’t have the responsibility of actually raising the kids. She was a mixed blessing for the country, asinine with astrology and awful on AIDS but admirable with Alzheimer’s. Perhaps most importantly, she was on the right side of history when a thaw in the Cold War seemed possible. The stars were aligned correctly.

The opening of the great critic Tom Carson’s MTV obituary of the First Lady:

Once upon a time, a now-forgotten saloon singer named Francis Albert Sinatra recorded a tune called “Nancy (With the Laughing Face).” A sentimental fellow whenever he wasn’t threatening mayhem to anyone who dared to criticize him, Frank thought it had been composed in honor of his newborn daughter, and the songwriters decided they’d let him roll with that illusion. It wasn’t the truth, but it was only a song. 

Decades later, “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” entered political history. Now a lot burlier, more reliant on toupees, and even more prone to threatening mayhem to anyone who dared to criticize him, the self-same Frank Sinatra sang it — with revised lyrics — at Ronald Reagan’s inaugural. What’s a bungled notion of hailing your daughter compared to celebrating the new first lady of the United States?

The sad thing is that Nancy Reagan’s face was never exactly renowned for its bubbly gift of childish laughter. She did have a nice smile, like a superbly arranged bunch of white bullets greeting you below two anxious, frozen blueberries. But spontaneity wasn’t her specialty. The facial expression she was most famous for — others had tried, but she perfected it — was the Adoring Wife as Ronnie made one more of his gazillion speeches. At least on TV, her signature was tension disguised as pride.

She had reasons for the tension. Yet she also had reasons for the pride.•

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Sinatra, that erstwhile Liberal Democrat, supporting his Hollywood buddy Reagan at the 1980 Republican Convention. “Harry Truman played the piano…Nixon played the piano…they could entertain you also,” he said in defense of the aspiring Actor-in-Chief. Chris Wallace and Lynn Sherr do the honors. Lousy audio, but still worth it.

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Speaking of Joseph Engelberger, here’s the opening of a 1982 NYT article by Barnaby J. Feder and a video about the recently deceased roboticist’s development of the machine caretaker, ISAAC, which was meant to help astronauts and disabled people alike in completing tasks. It could roll, lift, cook and talk a little. It was a first-phase project done in conjunction with NASA and at the time promised that “when a more svelte Mark II goes into production, it will serve everyday around the clock at a cost of approximately $1.00 per hour.” That was supposed to occur in the 1990s, though the target date was too aggressive.

From Feder:

DANBURY, Conn. — FOUR decades ago, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s robot stories caught the imagination of a Columbia University physics student named Joseph F. Engelberger. Sometime in 1985, a robot named in Mr. Asimov’s honor is likely to be serving coffee to Mr. Engelberger and other directors of the nation’s first and largest industrial robot manufacturer.

Now a prototype in the company’s research laboratory, Isaac the Robot is being designed to do more than traverse the board room serving coffee. Mr. Engelberger also wants Isaac to provide snacks prepared in the adjoining kitchen’s microwave oven and wash dishes.

Mr. Engelberger’s company, Unimation Inc., has no plans to market Isaac, or similar robots, but Isaac is more than just a whimsical tribute to Mr. Asimov. Mr. Engelberger envisions Isaac – a mobile, improved version of the programmable manipulator, or PUMA robot, the company already sells – as the forerunner of a new generation of domestic and commercial service robots that Unimation and other robotics companies will begin selling during the 1990’s.

The right to be an out-of-the-closet visionary is one of the relished and hard-won benefits that the 56-year-old Mr. Engelberger has earned for his pivotal role in bringing the robot industry to life, both in the United States and abroad.

Actually, it was George C. Devol, not Mr. Engelberger, who developed and patented the basic technology on which the industry is founded. But since meeting Mr. Devol in 1956, Mr. Engelberger has preached the gospel that ”smart” machines were the key to getting people out of dangerous or tedious production jobs and a key to improving productivity. And his company, a subsidiary of the Condec Corporation of Old Greenwich, Conn., turned out the first robots that industry was willing to buy.

As a result, no robotics gathering today would be considered complete without the presence of the crew-cut, bow-tied Mr. Engelberger and his blunt observations about competitors, customers and robots themselves. ”He is as important to the industry as he is to the company, in some respects more so,” said Laura Conigliaro, the Bache Halsey Stuart Shields analyst who is Wall Street’s best known robotics expert. ”He is a spokesman and a showman, and he is good at it.”

”He was the one that listened,” said Mr. Devol, who now runs a robot leasing and consulting business from his home in Fort Ladderdale, Fla. Mr. Devol recalls numerous efforts to interest established companies in his work, including some, such as I.B.M., that have recently entered the now rapidly growing robotics field.

”George Devol was unable to restrain himself from spilling the whole dream out, which scared most businessmen off,” said Mr. Engelberger during an interview last week at Unimation’s headquarters. ”I kept myself from talking about some of the things that have happened, which he envisioned.”

The ”whole dream” is emerging now that robots have achieved acceptance in an increasing variety of industrial tasks – from materials handling to painting and welding – and are rapidly being improved to the point that more difficult jobs, such as assembly, will be economically feasible. More important, as computer-machine tool hybrids capable of being reprogrammed to adapt to changing conditions, they have been recognized as a key building block in the flexible, highly automated factory of the future.

It took American industry a long time to catch on.•

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“ISSAC, Will You Please Help Me Up?”

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