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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:


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:


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.


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.


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.•


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.•


“ISSAC, Will You Please Help Me Up?”

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The physicist and entrepreneur Joseph F. Engelberger, who died late last year, was a pioneering industrial roboticist. In 1978, he predicted in the pages of Penthouse it would take 100 years before blue collar workers would be replaced by automation. He peevishly blamed labor unions and politics for the slow transition, though the scientist didn’t offer many suggestions for what the newly unemployed would do to survive. Well, factories have, to a great degree, fallen to our silicon sisters far ahead of that schedule, and workers with white collars are also being watched opportunistically by the bionic eye.

As Erica Phillips writes in her WSJ article, Labor has so far been able to largely forestall robotics at American shipping terminals, but the arrow is pointed in one direction, and that’s toward Engelberger’s vision of the future. An excerpt:

Many in the industry believe automation, which boosts terminal productivity and reliability while cutting labor costs, is critical to the ability of ports to cope with the surging trade volumes and the huge megaships that are beginning to arrive in the U.S. Analysts estimate the technology can reduce the amount of time ships spend in port and improve productivity by as much as 30%.

“We have to do it for productivity purposes, to stay relevant and to be able to service these large ships,” said Peter Stone, a member of TraPac’s board.

Yet the TraPac site is one of only four cargo terminals in the U.S. using the technology. That is fewer automated terminals than there are at the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands alone.

Supporters of robotic cargo handling are getting a new showcase this month with the phased-in opening of an automated terminal at the Port of Long Beach, next door to the Los Angeles port. At a cost of over $1 billion to complete and the capacity to handle 3.3 million 20-foot container units—nearly half of the entire port’s volume last year—the Orient Overseas (International) Ltd. site is a big bet on the future.

A successful operation in Long Beach could persuade other U.S. ports to follow, said Mark Sisson, a senior port planner with infrastructure-development group Aecom. “The industry at a global level is rushing hard into this technology,” he said. “That trend is only going to go in one direction. It’s just a question of timing.”

Experts in port-terminal infrastructure and operations say the U.S. has been slow to adopt the technology because of years of resistance by longshore labor unions. Some studies have shown robotic cargo handling can reduce the need for longshore labor by as much as 50%.•


Engelberger conducts a demo for Johnny Carson in 1966, at the 9:09 mark.

Tags: , former baseball catcher Joe Garagiola, who sadly just died, was thought of as very American and very nice during a flush time in our country when that was more than enough for a minor celebrity to enjoy a long, well-compensated career.

His unspectacular MLB stint concluded in 1954, and the final statistics were not kind, though he enjoyed a remarkably successful second act as a talking head on TV, a business less built in those years on gaudy numbers than on enduring relationships with corporate suits and sponsors. Garagiola was clearly more steady than spectacular behind a microphone, merely showing up and not annoying anyone, unless you were peeved by amiable mediocrity. At any rate, he seemed like a solid guy. Across the years he announced pro wrestling and baseball, hosted game shows, kept the seat warm for Johnny Carson and pitched all manner of products, including President Gerald Ford, another pleasant and middling Midwestern fellow, whom he fervently supported in his failed 1976 bid to retain the White House. Below are three videos from Garagiola’s TV work.


In 1975, Garagiola hosted a remarkably stupid and wonderful bubble-gum blowing competition among baseball players, which was sponsored by Bazooka, a brand of gum favored by hobos during World War II. They should have used the “specially built calipers” to measure Philadelphia catcher Tim McCarver’s head, which was the size of a medicine ball.

Watch Sally Field wince as she’s introduced as the “Flying Nun” on a 1971 game show hosted by Garagiola.

John Lennon later described his 1968 appearance with Paul McCartney on a Tonight Show episode substitute hosted by Garagiola (along with the reliably loopy Tallulah Bankhead) as the “most embarrassing thing I’ve ever been on,” which is saying something, because he’d been on Yoko Ono. (The archival video is pretty much ruined, so it’s just the audio I’ve embedded.)


There’s something wrong with people who play pranks. It seems like fractured sexual energy fashioned into a whoopee cushion. But as any longtime reader of this site knows, I’m fascinated by the legendary hoaxster Alan Abel, a blend of Lenny Bruce and Allen Funt whose deadpan presentation bedeviled broadcasters when TV was the primary American media. Abel’s gift is being able to divine our desires and fears before we can name them, and then reflect them through ridiculous stunts that are obviously fake yet fool the masses because of the collective holes in our souls. More than anyone else, he’s the cultural antecedent to Sacha Baron Cohen.

In a smart Priceonomics post, Zachary Crockett profiles man who is–and isn’t–serious. The opening (followed by video of a few Abel hoaxes):

On May 27, 1959, a mysterious, bespectacled man in a suit appeared on The Today Show. After briskly introducing himself, he turned to the camera and told America of his mission: to “clothe naked animals for the sake of decency.”

The man went by the name of G. Clifford Prout, and he claimed to be the president of an organization called The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (S.I.N.A.). Naked animals, he harped, were “destroying the moral integrity of our great nation” — and the only solution was to cover them up with pants and dresses.

Prout’s impassioned speech did not fall on deaf ears: within days, S.I.N.A. attracted more than 50,000 members. For the next four years, the organization and its leader topped news headlines, made the rounds on talk shows, and spurred heated debates among pundits.

But S.I.N.A. was not real: it was the invention of Alan Abel, history’s greatest media hoaxster.

Over his 60-year “career” as a professional hoaxster, Abel orchestrated more than 30 high-profile stunts — from faking his own death to convincing the press he had the world’s smallest penis. He tricked top New York Times reporters, trolled Walter Cronkite, and weaseled his way into tens of thousands of print publications and talk shows.

His hoaxes attempted to make some kind of political commentary — on censorship, backwards moral standards, or the vapidity of daytime television. But often, they would be taken literally, riling up supporters and revealing ugly truths about America. He preyed on the media’s hunger for juicy stories, and ultimately revealed its gullibility.•


A funny and prescient piece of performance art in which Abel responded to an ad placed by a 1999 HBO show seeking men willing to discuss their genitalia. Abel presented himself as a 57-year-old musician with a micro-penis. The hoaxer was ridiculing the early days of Reality TV, in which soft-headed pseudo-documentaries were offered to the public by cynical producers who didn’t exactly worry about veracity. Things have gotten only dicier since, as much of our culture, including news, makes no attempt at objective truth, instead encouraging individuals to create the reality that comforts or flatters them. Language is NSFW, unless you work in a gloryhole.


In this ridiculous interview from basic cable decades ago, Abel satirized our wish for fame, youth and immortality, marrying the emerging celebrity culture to new scientific possibilities. He pretended that he’d created a sperm bank in which only stars like John Wayne and Johnny Carson were allowed to make deposits. And he was going to cryogenically freeze a young woman and tour her body across America. Everyone would be a star and live forever.


In a 1970s scam, the wiseacre posed as a tennis-loving sheik, playing off America’s fear and loathing of newly minted OPEC millionaires, at a time when our post-WWII lustre had faded. Abel created the character of Prince Emir Assad, who competed in a Pro-Am tourney.


Abel pulled a prank during the economic downturn of the early 1990s in which he pretended to be a financially desperate man willing to sell his kidneys and lungs. The ruse was eagerly devoured by news media because it toyed furiously with the fear of falling being experienced by a shrinking American middle class, which was under extreme pressure from a dwindling manufacturing base, anti-unionists and technology-driven downsizing. Things have clearly grown even worse.

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Nuclear spaceships aren’t a new proposition. In the late 1950s, a group of American scientists, including Freeman Dyson, worked on Project Orion, a plan to boom us to Mars by 1965 and Saturn by 1970. It didn’t seem outlandish scientifically, but the work had to be scrapped after the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, which forbid nuclear-powered space exploration. 

Of course, a rogue state with enough knowledge and money could still go for it, and Russia, unsurprisingly, is interested in being that nation. The former Soviet Union long worked on their own nuke-space schemes, and the interest has reawakened. From Nick Stockton at Wired:

The engines the Soviets and Americans were developing during the Space Race, on the other hand, had at least double a chemical rocket’s specific impulse. Modern versions could likely do even better. Which means spaceships would be able to carry a lot more fuel, and therefore fire their thrusters for a longer portion of the trip to Mars (bonus: artificial gravity!). Even better, a thermal fission spaceship would have enough fuel to decelerate, go into Martian orbit, and even return to Earth.

Calling for a fission mission to Mars is great for inspiring space dreamers, but Russia’s planned engine could have practical, near-term applications. Satellites need to fire their thrusters every so often to stay in their ideal orbits (Also, to keep from crashing to Earth). Sokov thinks the main rationale for developing a nuclear thermal engine would be to allow for more of these orbital corrections, significantly increasing a satellite’s working lifespan. Fission power would also give probes more maneuverability. “One civilian application is to collect all the space junk,” says Sokov. “You are free to think of other, perhaps not as innocent applications.”

Russia may have the will to go nuclear, but it probably lacks the means.•


“First time we tried it, the thing took off like a bat out of hell.”


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In 1973, the former child preacher Marjoe Gortner was hired by OUI, a middling vagina periodical of the Magazine Age, to write a deservedly mocking article about the American visit of another youthful religious performer, the 16-year-old Maharaj Ji, an adolescent Indian guru who promised to levitate the Houston Astrodome, a plot that never got off the ground. More than any other holy-ish person of the time, the Indian teenager would have fit in quite nicely in Silicon Valley of our time. He was a technocrat who believed he could disrupt and improve the world. Sound familiar? Two excerpts from the resulting report, which profiled the futurist cult leader.


The guru’s people do the same thing the Pentecostal Church does. They say you can believe in guru Maharaj Ji and that’s fantastic and good, but if you receive light and get it all within, if you become a real devotee-that is the ultimate. In the Pentecostal Church you can be saved from your sins and have Jesus Christ as your Saviour, but the ultimate is the baptism of the Holy Ghost. This is where you get four or five people around and they begin to talk and more or less chant in tongues until sooner or later the person wanting the baptismal experience so much-well, it’s like joining a country club: once you’re in, you’ll be like everyone – else in the club.

The people who’ve been chanting say, “Speak it out, speak it out,” and everything becomes so frenzied that the baptismalee will finally speak a few words in tongues himself, and the people around him say, “Oh, you’ve got it.” And the joy that comes over everybody’s faces! It’s incredible. It’s beautiful. They feel they have got the Holy Spirit like all their friends, and once they’ve got it, it’s forever. It’s quite an experience.

So essentially they’re the same thing pressing on your eyes while your ears are corked, and standing around the altar speaking in tongues. They’re both illuminating experiences. The guru’s path is interesting, though. Once you’ve seen the light and decided you want to join his movement, you give over everything you have–all material possessions. Sometimes you even give your job. Now, depending on what your job is, you may be told to leave it or to stay. If you stay, generally you turn your pay checks over to the Divine Light Mission, and they see that you are housed and clothed and fed. They have their U. S. headquarters in Denver. You don’t have to worry about anything. That’s their hook. They take care of it all. They have houses all over the country for which they supposedly paid cash on the line. First class. Some of them are quite plush. At least Maharaj Ji’s quarters are. Some of the followers live in those houses, too, but in the dormitory-type atmosphere with straw mats for beds. It’s a large operation. It seems to be a lot like the organization Father Divine had back in the Thirties. He did it with the black people at the Peace Mission in Philadelphia. He took care of his people-mostly domestics and other low-wage earners–and put them up in his own hotel with three meals a day.

The guru is much more technologically oriented, though. He spreads a lot of word and keeps tabs on who needs what through a very sophisticated Telex system that reaches out to all the communes or ashrams around the country. He can keep count of who needs how many T-shirts, pairs of socks–stuff like that. And his own people run this system; it’s free labor for the corporation.


The morning of the third day I was feeling blessed and refreshed, and I was looking forward to the guru’s plans for the Divine City, which was soon going to be built somewhere in the U. S. I wanted to hear what that was all about.

It was unbelievable. The city was to consist of ‘modular units adaptable to any desired shape.’ The structures would have waste-recycling devices so that water could be drunk over and over. They even planned to have toothbrushes with handles you could squeeze to have the proper amount of paste pop up (the crowd was agog at this). There would be a computer in each communal house so that with just a touch of the hand you could check to see if a book you wanted was available, and if it was, it would be hand-messengered to you. A complete modern city of robots. I was thinking: whatever happened to mountains and waterfalls and streams and fresh air? This was going to be a technological, computerized nightmare! It repulsed me. Computer cards to buy essentials at a central storeroom! And no cheating, of course. If you flashed your card for an item you already had, the computer would reject it. The perfect turn-off. The spokesman for this city announced that the blueprints had already been drawn up and actual construction would be the next step. Controlled rain, light, and space. Bubble power! It was all beginning to be very frightening.•


“The Houston Astrodome will physically separate itself from the planet which we call Earth and will fly.”

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Just after David Bowie’s death, Saturday Night Live reran his December 5, 1979 performance, in which he was accompanied by Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias. While singing “The Man Who Sold the World,” Bowie donned a geometrically daring suit that seemed torn from Lewis Carroll’s REM stage. It was all very cutting edge–in 1923.

That’s when the artist Sonia Delaunay dreamed up a similar design for the Tristan Tzara play The Gas Heart. The prolific visionary, who coincidentally died ten days before the aforementioned Bowie appearance, was the subject of a 1924 Brooklyn Daily Eagle profile, thanks to her outré outfits.






Words from a late-life Delaunay, for those of you who know French.

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Black Lives Matter Protest Disrupts Holiday Shoppers At Mall Of America

Prior to the rise of the Internet and the fall of the Towers, is it possible we were unwittingly living in a golden age? Maybe for a moment.

If the 1990s was a good time, it was only briefly so. In the United States, the decade began with liberal Bill Clinton, Nirvana and brick-and-mortar, which gave way before the bell tolled to conservative Bill Clinton, Marcy Playground and point-and-click. In his latest Financial Times column, Douglas Coupland has warm thoughts about the pre-Internet era, fondly recalling the shopping mall, its fabricated community and food courts and fake trees, before we shrunk it all down to fit inside our phones. The opening:

On August 11 1992 I was in Bloomington, Minnesota, close to Minneapolis. I was on a book tour and it was the grand opening day of Mall of America, the biggest mall in the US. The local radio affiliate had a booth set up in front of the indoor roller coaster that strafed the booth like an air strike every 75 seconds. I was up on the stage with them doing a live interview for half an hour while thousands of people were walking by with “country fair face” — goggle-eyed and feeding on ice cream. I felt like I was inside a Technicolor movie from the 1950s. The show’s host assumed I was going to be an ironic, slacker wise-ass and said: “I guess you must think this whole mall is kind of hokey and trashy,” and I said: “No such thing.”

He was surprised. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that I feel like I’m in another era that we thought had vanished, but it really hasn’t, not yet. I think we might one day look back on photos of today and think to ourselves, ‘You know, those people were living in golden times and they didn’t even know it. Communism was dead, the economy was good and the future with all of its accompanying technologies hadn’t crushed society’s mojo like a bug.’”


And it’s true. Technology hadn’t hollowed out the middle class and turned us into laptop click junkies, and there were no new bogeymen hiding in the closet. We may well look back at the 1990s as the last good decade.•


Mall of America, opening weekend, August 1992.



When Amazon overlord Jeff Bezos unveiled his prototype flying delivery drone a couple Christmases ago, it was criticized as a publicity ploy, which it was, of course. But it also was the future, and not the far-flung one suggested by many observers. The aviation aspect presented profound difficulties with safety and legislation, but flight, while very useful, wasn’t an absolutely necessary aspect required to disrupt the delivery industry. 

In England and the U.S., Starship Technologies is ready to test its app-friendly, self-driving “ground drones,” which putter along at four miles per hour but get the job done. From John Bacon at USA Today:

A British invasion of “ground drone” delivery robots that could easily be mistaken for rolling toilet bowls is set to begin this spring.

Starship Technologies, based in England and Estonia, plans to start trial bot deliveries in London next month. U.S. trial runs are set for April.

Starship CEO Ahti Heinla says the company’s bots are compact, safe, environmentally sound “and best of all, earthbound.” And he said they can deliver packages and groceries at a fraction of the cost of vehicles that require drivers.

“Our vision revolves around three zeroes — zero cost, zero waiting time and zero environmental impact,” Heinla said. “We want to do to local deliveries what Skype did to telecommunications.”

The ground drones are capable of carrying the equivalent of two grocery bags, and customers set the time for the delivery. Fully loaded, they weigh about 40 pounds and travel at a speed of about 4 miles an hour, the equivalent of a brisk walk or slow jog.•


“I am here to deliver.”


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When the planners cancelled the driverless pod cars, I knew there was trouble in Masdar City.

The proposed green oasis on the fringes of Abu Dhabi was supposed to be a zero-carbon technotopia, a city of 50,000 centered around green-tech industry, but ten years after its auspicious beginnings, the entire project may be driving into a ditch like its zippy, futuristic vehicles. From Suzanne Goldenberg at the Guardian:

Years from now passing travellers may marvel at the grandeur and the folly of the futuristic landscape on the edges of Abu Dhabi: the barely occupied office blocks, the deserted streets, the vast tracts of undeveloped land and – most of all – the abandoned dream of a zero-carbon city.

Masdar City, when it was first conceived a decade ago, was intended to revolutionise thinking about cities and the built environment.

Now the world’s first planned sustainable city – the marquee project of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) plan to diversify the economy from fossil fuels – could well be the world’s first green ghost town.

As of this year – when Masdar was originally scheduled for completion – managers have given up on the original goal of building the world’s first planned zero-carbon city.

Masdar City is nowhere close to zeroing out its greenhouse gas emissions now, even at a fraction of its planned footprint. And it will not reach that goal even if the development ever gets fully built, the authorities admitted.

“We are not going to try to shoehorn renewable energy into the city just to justify a definition created within a boundary,” said Chris Wan, the design manager for Masdar City.

“As of today, it’s not a net zero future,” he said. “It’s about 50%.”


The great pod-car dream of yore.

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AI cracked backgammon in 1979, putting all other games on notice. But today’s announcement about a Google computer system besting a human Go champion was still surprising since most researchers thought we were years, perhaps a decade, from machine intelligence accomplishing such a feat in the complex, ancient game. What does this mean for Artificial General Intelligence and where does research head next? In a Conversation piece, Peter Cowling and Sam Devlin try to answer. An excerpt:

However the real world is a step up, full of ill-defined questions that are far more complex than even the trickiest of board games. The techniques which conquered Go can certainly be applied in medicine, education, science or any other domain where data is available and outcomes can be evaluated and understood.

The big question is whether Google just helped us towards the next generation of Artificial General Intelligence, where machines learn to truly think like – and beyond – humans. Whether we’ll see AlphaGo as a step towards Hollywood’s dreams (and nightmares) of AI agents with self-awareness, emotion and motivation remains to be seen. However the latest breakthrough points to a brave new future where AI will continue to improve our lives by helping us to make better-informed decisions in a world of ever-increasing complexity.

Now that Go has seemingly been cracked, AI needs a new grand challenge – a new “lab rat” – and it seems likely that many of these challenges will come from the $100 billion digital games industry. The ability to play alongside or against millions of engaged human players provides unique opportunities for AI research. At York’s centre for Intelligent Games and Game Intelligence, we’re working on projects such as building an AI aimed at player fun (rather than playing strength), for instance, or using games to improve well-being of people with Alzheimer’s. Collaborations between multidisciplinary labs like ours, the games industry and big business are likely to yield the next big AI breakthroughs.•


“The possibilities of game play are endless.”

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Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responds to a question as he defends President Bush's proposed $439.3 billion defense budget for 2007 during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2006. Beyond budget matters, Rumsfeld told the panel that the U.S. military must continue to change in order to defend the nation against enemy terrorists who could acquire a nuclear weapon or launch a chemical attack against a major U.S. city. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Original Filename: RUMSFELD_DCSA106.jpg

Strategy would not seem to be Donald Rumsfeld’s strong suit.

Despite that, the former Dubya Defense Secretary marshaled his forces and created an app for a strategic video game called “Churchill Solitaire,” based on actual card game played incessantly during WWII by the British Prime Minister. If you’re picturing an ill-tempered, computer-illiterate senior barking orders into a Dictaphone, then you’ve already figured out Rumsfeld’s creative process. At least tens of thousands of people were not needlessly killed during the making of the app.

From Julian E. Barnes at the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Rumsfeld can’t code. He doesn’t much even use a computer. But he guided his young digitally minded associates who assembled the videogame with the same method he used to rule the Pentagon—a flurry of memos called snowflakes.

As a result, “Churchill Solitaire” is likely the only videogame developed by an 83-year-old man using a Dictaphone to record memos for the programmers.

At the Pentagon, Mr. Rumsfeld was known for not mincing words with his memos. Age hasn’t mellowed him.

“We need to do a better job on these later versions. They just get new glitches,” reads one note from Mr. Rumsfeld. “[W]e ought to find some way we can achieve steady improvement instead of simply making new glitches.”

Other notes were arguably more constructive, if still sharply worded.

“Instead of capturing history, it is getting a bit artsy,” he wrote in one snowflake in which he suggested ways to make the game better evoke Churchill—including scenes from World War II and quotes from the prime minister, changes that made it into the final game.•


“One of the strangest interviews I’ve ever done.”

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In 1993, three years before his death, a shaky Dr. Timothy Leary was hired by ABC to interview fellow drug user Billy Idol about the new album (remember those?) Cyberpunk. From his first act as an LSD salesman, Leary was intrigued by the intersection of pharmaceuticals and technology. After a stretch in prison, the guru reinvented himself as a full-time technologist, focusing specifically on software design and space exploration. One trip or another, I suppose.

Given the year this network special (which also featured the Ramones and Television) was broadcast, it’s no surprise the pair sneer at the marketing of the Generation X concept. Leary offers that cyberpunk means that “we have to be smarter than people who run the big machines.” Or maybe it means that we can purchase crap on eBay until the Uber we ordered arrives. Leary tells Idol that his music is “changing middle-class robot society.” Oh, Lord. Well, I’ll give the good doctor credit for saying that computers would rearrange traditional creative and economic roles.

This Q&A runs for roughly the first ten minutes, and while the footage may be of crappy quality, it’s a relic worth the effort.

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Losing the first leg of the Space Race ultimately proved beneficial to the U.S. The jolt of the Soviet Sputnik 1 success spurred the government to establish DARPA and fund the ARPANET, which, of course, eventually became the Internet.

Another profound consequence of the Cold War satellite race was the creation of Astrobiology, a field that couldn’t quite form until Sputnik’s brilliant blast provided it with its raison d’être. In a beautifully written Nautilus piece, Caleb Scharf traces the branch’s beginnings, which were propelled in the late 1950s by forward-thinking American scientist Joshua Lederberg, who, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, saw the future and thought it might be murder. His work and warnings put our forays into the final frontier, as Scharf writes, in “bio-containment lockdown,” which was fortunate.

By the 1990s, the mission of astrobiology had morphed and become immense, and it will likely grow larger still as we press further across the universe.

The opening:

Astronomy and biology have been circling each other with timid infatuation since the first time a human thought about the possibility of other worlds and other suns. But the melding of the two into the modern field of astrobiology really began on Oct. 4, 1957, when a 23-inch aluminum sphere called Sputnik 1 lofted into low Earth orbit from the desert steppe of the Kazakh Republic. Over the following weeks its gently beeping radio signal heralded a new and very uncertain world. Three months later it came tumbling back through the atmosphere, and humanity’s small evolutionary bump was set on a trajectory never before seen in 4 billion years of terrestrial history.

At the time of the ascent of Sputnik, a 32-year-old American called Joshua Lederberg was working in Australia as a visiting professor at the University of Melbourne. Born in 1925 to immigrant parents in New Jersey, Lederberg was a prodigy. Quick-witted, generous, and with an incredible ability to retain information, he blazed through high school and was enrolled at Columbia University by the time he was 15. Earning a degree in zoology and moving on to medical studies, his research interests diverted him to Yale. There, at age 21, he helped research the nascent field of microbial genetics, with work on bacterial gene transfer that would later earn him a share of the 1958 Nobel Prize.

Like the rest of the planet, Australia was transfixed by the Soviet launch; as much for the show of technological prowess as for the fact that a superpower was now also capable of easily lobbing thermonuclear warheads across continents. But, unlike the people around him, Lederberg’s thoughts were galvanized in a different direction. He immediately knew that another type of invisible wall had been breached, a wall that might be keeping even more deadly things at bay, as well as incredible scientific opportunities.

If humans were about to travel in space, we were also about to spread terrestrial organisms to other planets, and conceivably bring alien pathogens back to Earth. As Lederberg saw it, either we were poised to destroy indigenous life-forms across our solar system, or ourselves. Neither was an acceptable option.•


“This is the beginning of a new era for mankind.”

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New York City has earthquakes, but they’re so minor we never feel them. In most instances, the earth prefers to swallow us up one by one. But it’s different in Los Angeles.

L.A.’s temperamental turf is the subject of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, a fine 2005 volume on the topic of secular shaking by David L. Ulin. Among other topics, Ulin’s volume looks at the thorny issue of earthquake prediction, by scientists and psychics, the concerned and the kooky. An excerpt about Linda Curtis, who works for the Southern California field office of the United States Geological Survey in Pasadena:

Curtis is, in many ways, the USGS gatekeeper, the public affairs officer who serves as a frontline liaison with the community and the press. Her office sits directly across the hall from the conference room, and if you call the Survey, chances are it will be her low-key drawl you’ll hear on the line. In her late forties, dark-haired and good-humored, Curtis has been at the USGS since 1979, and in that time, she’s staked out her own odd territory as a collector of earthquake predictions, which come across the transom at sporadic but steady intervals, like small seismic jolts themselves.

“I’ve been collecting almost since day one,’ she tells me on a warm July afternoon in her office, adding that it’s useful for USGS to keep records, if only to mollify the predictors, many of whom view the scientific establishment with frustration, paranoia even, at least as far as their theories are concerned.

“Basically,” she says, ‘we are just trying  to protect our reputation. We don’t want to throw these predictions in the wastebasket, and then a week later…” She chuckles softly, a rolling R sound as thick and throaty as a purr. “Say somebody predicted a seven in downtown L.A., and we ignored it. Can you imagine the reaction if it actually happened? So this is sort of a little bit of insurance. If you send us a prediction, we put it in the file.”•


Marjoe Gortner–in Sensurround!




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Mabel Normand was a Silent Era triple threat (writer-director-actor) who collaborated with Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Laurel & Hardy, Boris Karloff and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, so it would have taken a lot for personal life to overwhelm her career. Somehow, she managed.

Despite starring across Chaplin the first time he performed as the Little Tramp and becoming a big box-office draw, Normand’s star was dimmed by a cocaine addiction and scandal, most notably by being named the other woman in a divorce trial and by her close proximity to two mysterious shootings, one of which resulted in the death of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor. Her career had slowed considerably before tuberculosis killed her at age 37 in 1930. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced the end of her tumultuous life in the February 24, 1930 edition.




From 1914’s “Mabel’s Strange Predicament,” which introduced the Little Tramp.


wsm (2)Even by the oft-eccentric standards of mid-century cyberneticists, Warren Sturgis McCulloch was something of an outlier. Known for his diet of cigarettes, whiskey and ice cream, the MIT genius was the proud father of 17 adopted children. More than six decades ago he was extrapolating the power of then-rudimentary machines, concerned that eventually AI might rule humankind, a topic of much concern in these increasingly automated times. The below article from the September 22, 1948 Brooklyn Daily Eagle records his clarion call about the future.



In 1969, the year before McCulloch died, his opinions on the Singularity had modified.


The growling, hirsute deejay Wolfman Jack used to tell bawdy tales of David Bowie’s Los Angeles years, a period of extreme decadence that belied the rock star’s cyborg persona. In a really well-considered Economist obituary, the protean performer’s coked-up California days are recalled. An excerpt:

Some called him a chameleon, but he was the reverse. Chameleons change hue to blend in with their background; he changed to stand out, and dared others to mimic him. He was never afraid to murder his darlings. Ziggy was killed off in 1973 as he finished an exhausting worldwide tour at London’s Hammersmith Odeon; he was being too much imitated, and Mr Bowie always had to be one step ahead. One successor was Aladdin Sane, a zigzag of painted lightning across his face; another, the most troubled, was the Thin White Duke, an aristocratic cabaret singer in black trousers, waistcoat and white shirt, needing only a skull to play Hamlet.

The tragic garb was well judged. As he dashed from persona to persona, station to station, so the worlds he pushed into became darker. Shaped by the threat of nuclear war, the cultural imagination took a catastrophic turn in the 1970s—one ever-present future was no future at all. Mr Bowie was there at the turning point; his song “Five Years” says more about impending annihilation than a shelf full of reports from the RAND Corporation. Spectacular levels of cocaine abuse also shaped this nihilistic trajectory. Settled in Los Angeles from 1975, he stayed up for days on end, sitting cross-legged behind black curtains, surrounding himself with black candles and painted pentagrams.

His diet was “red peppers, cocaine and milk”; always slender, he became skeletal. He would work madly on a song for a week, only to realise that he had got no further than four bars. Nicolas Roeg had originally been set on Peter O’Toole to play the titular alien in his film The Man Who Fell To Earth. But on seeing television footage of Mr Bowie sitting utterly isolated in the back of a limousine he knew he had his not-quite-man. Mr Bowie, true to form, remembered almost nothing of the filming. There is no alienation like drugged alienation, and perhaps no worse place to experience that than “the most repulsive wart on the backside of humanity”, as he described the City of Angels.•

In 1975, Bowie visits with Dinah Shore, Henry Winkler and Nancy Walker, performs “Stay,” acknowledges he’s a “great fan of Fonzie” and takes a karate lesson.

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