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If you put a gun to my head and asked what I thought was the best novel ever written in English, I would think you were crazy. Why are you pointing a gun at my head?!? Why not just ask me without the threat of murder?!? Do you want me to call the police?!?

After you were disarmed and arrested, I would think about the question again and just as likely choose Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s tale of monstrous love, as anything else. The language is impeccable, amazingly weighty and nimble all at once, and the book overall both profoundly funny and sad.

Art is one thing, however, but life another. The book’s main inspiration may have been von Lichberg or it may have been a very real horror, a 1940s NYC child abduction perpetrated by a felon in a fedora named Frank La Salle. (Or perhaps it was a combination of the two.) Via Longreads, a passage from “The Real Lolita,” an historical inquiry by Sarah Weinman published at the Penguin Random House blog:

“Nabokov said he conjured up the germ of the novel—a cultured European gentleman’s pedophilic passion for a 12-year-old girl resulting in a madcap, satiric cross-country excursion—’late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris, at a time when I was laid up with a severe attack of intercostal neuralgia.’ At that point it was a short story set in Europe, written in his first language, Russian. Not pleased with the story, however, he destroyed it. By 1949, Nabokov had emigrated to America, the neuralgia raged anew, and the story shifted shape and nagged at him further, now as a longer tale, written in English, the cross-country excursion transplanted to America.

Lolita is a nested series of tricks. Humbert Humbert, the confessing pervert, tries so hard to obfuscate his monstrosities that he seems unaware when he truly gives himself away, despite alleging the treatise is a full accounting of his crimes. Nabokov, however, gives the reader a number of clues to the literary disconnect, the most important being the parenthetical. It works brilliantly early on in Lolita, when Humbert describes the death of his mother—’My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three’—or when he sights Dolores Haze in the company of her own mother, Charlotte, for the first time: ‘And, as if I were the fairy-tale nurse of some little princess (lost, kidnaped, discovered in gypsy rags through which her nakedness smiled at the king and his hounds), I recognized the tiny dark-brown mole on her side.’ The unbracketed narrative is what Humbert wants us to see; the asides reveal what is really inside his mind.

Late in Lolita, one of these digressions gives away the critical inspiration. Humbert, once more in Lolita’s hometown after five years away, sees Mrs. Chatfield, the ‘stout, short woman in pearl-gray,’ in his hotel lobby, eager to pounce upon him with a ‘fake smile, all aglow with evil curiosity.’ But before she can, the parenthetical appears like a pop-up thought balloon for the bewildered Humbert: ‘Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle [sic], a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?'”

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Nabokov discusses Lolita in the 1950s:


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The standing desk, a truly bad idea, is not likely to be the furniture of tomorrow’s office. The Dutch firm, RAAAF, has come up with an alternative proposal that’s even battier. It’s ergonomics run amok. From “The Weirdest Proposal Yet for the ‘Office of the Future,'” a Wired piece by Margaret Rhodes:

“The designers are especially interested in supported standing, which standing desks don’t offer. Supported standing, like upright leaning, can engage the muscles—hopefully enough to prevent the drop in fat-burning enzymes that occurs during long periods of sitting—without tiring out the employee’s legs and lower back quite so much. The maze-like series of angled and tapered frames create an infinite number of leaning spots, for workers of any height. There are no fixed desks, so employees might find it natural to roam around and be active.

That feature is also one of the obvious impracticalities of ‘The End of Sitting.’ Without desks, how do staffers keep track of supplies, notes, or work documents? Without offices or conference rooms, how can people have meetings that don’t disrupt everyone else’s concentration? ‘The End of Sitting’ is both an art installation and an experiment, so it’s not actually concerned with answering those questions. Instead, Rietveld says this is “about showing a different way of thinking.'”

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“Sitting kills”:

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Anthony Burgess, with Dick Cavett in 1971, thinking racial strife in London had been solved and discussing Shakespeare.

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Carl Sagan waxing philosophically about the need for humans to eventually colonize space, to curl up like newborns on comets and fly like birds on Titan, going on after the sun dies but before the universe does.

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As long as there are movies, I think we’ll watch Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which boldly aimed to journey beyond the stars, to second-guess the future, and remarkably pulled it all off. Keir Dullea, the actor who portrayed astronaut Dave Bowman, just did a HAL-centric AMA at Reddit. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

What is something people misunderstand or misinterpret about Kubrick?

Keir Dullea:

I’m often asked: Was Kubrick a task master? The answer is no; anything but. He never raised his voice, he had a quiet droll sense of humor and was a man with great curiosity.

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Question:

What preparation or research did you do before filming 2001? Did Kubrick give you any insight into how the character should be portrayed, or did he give you freedom to explore that?
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Keir Dullea:

Not a lot. Don’t forget, Arthur C. Clarke, who, aside from being the great writer that he was, was a scientist in his own right and was able to portray the future in such a specific way that the script in itself gave us everything we needed.

The only suggestion Kubrick gave overall was that he did not want us to portrayal scientists in the way they had been portrayed in grade B science fiction movies of the past, that is, men with goatees and outlandish clothes, speaking in some kind of pseudo babble.

One of the definitions I think of a great director is that they cast greatly. If you cast very well, and Stanley being the genius that he was did that in all his films, you don’t need to do a lot of direction, just give the actors the relaxation and space that they need and they will come through.

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Question:

What was your favorite scene you participated in?

Keir Dullea:

I think my favorite scene was where I’m dismantling HAL’s brain. It reminded me a bit of a famous movie and also play called Of Mice and Men when Lenny is speaking with George regarding their plans to start a farm. This is a scene that comes at the end of the film after Lenny has indadvertedly caused the death of a young woman. Now there’s a posse that is looking for him intending possibly to string him up. This discussion of their plans to start a farm has been heard throughout the film, and so with some love and compassion, with a hidden pistol behind his back George reviews their plans with Lenny and half-way through their discussion he shoots him behind his back to avoid him being killed by a posse of men. In some way, emotionally, that scene from Of Mice and Men affected the way I played the scene with HAL.

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Question:

Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist. Do you have any interesting anecdotes about that?

Keir Dullea:

On the first day of shooting, Stanley noticed my shoes and felt they weren’t right. We stopped shooting for the rest of the day until they found the right pair. Let’s face it, feet don’t play a huge role in films.

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Question:

What is your favorite sci-fi movie?

Keir Dullea:

2001: A Space Odyssey.

Question:

APART FROM 2001 … what is your favorite sci-fi movie?

Do you enjoy the genre apart from being one of its greatest exponents?

Keir Dullea:

Yes, I enjoy sci-fi and Blade Runner is my other favorite of the genre.•

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“Out here among the stars lies the destiny of mankind”:

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Apart from yikes!, I’m sort of out of words when it comes to Asuna, the tween robot created by Japanese inventor Hiroshi Ishiguro, which tries to exit the uncanny valley at the far end. Currently controlled remotely, an autonomous version is, of course, in the works. From Maria Khan at IBT:

“Life-like robots are taking Japan by storm and will soon be seen as actresses and even used as clones of the deceased.

‘Earlier this month, Robotics Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro showcased his latest creation, Android ‘Asuna’ at the Tokyo Designers’ Week.

Dubbed a ‘geminoid’, Asuna was well-liked by the visitors at the show, who said the robot was very human-like and had a nice voice.

‘[Asuna] would make a good date; a cheap date!’ said one man.

Most of the visitors remarked ‘sukoi’ meaning ‘amazing’ upon seeing Asuna, due to her human-like skin and facial expressions.

Some visitors, assuming Asuna was just another human, respectfully bowed before her requesting a selfie with her.

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Consciousness is the hard problem for a reason. You could define it by saying it means we know our surroundings, our reality, but people get lost in delusions all the time, sometimes even nation-wide ones. What is it, then? Is it the ability to know something, anything, regardless of its truth? In this interview with Jeffrey Mishlove, cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky, no stranger to odysseys, argues against accepted definitions of consciousness, in humans and machines.

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In the 1968 New York Times Book Review, Dan Wakefield wrote of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, rightfully lavishing praise on what was an instant journalistic classic and one that has since stood the test of time. Didion had escaped New York for the West Coast to write most of the pieces, struck almost silent by a sort of aphasia induced by an indeterminant anxiety. She still managed to communicate. An excerpt:

“The author writes about the contemporary world– quite often the Western United States where she grew up and where she has returned after the writer’s almost obligatory boot-camp training in New York City– and though her own personality does not self-indulgently intrude itself on her subjects, it informs and illuminates them.

The reader comes to admire what can only be called the character of this observer at work, looking in as well as out, noting, for instance, in a piece about a young California Maoist that is a classic portrayal of a certain kind of political zealot of either left or right:

‘As it happens I am comfortable… with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or history.’

In her portraits of people, Miss Didion is not out to expose but to understand, and she shows us actors and millionaires, doomed brides and naïve acid-trippers, left-wing ideologues and snobs of the Hawaiian aristocracy in a way that makes them neither villainous nor glamorous, but alive and botched and often mournfully beautiful in the midst of their lives’ debris. Her portrayals remind me most of the line of a great poem of Robert Frost that says, speaking of us all, ‘Weep for what little things could make them glad.’

Miss Didion is the only writer I know who has captured something of the real mystique and essence of Joan Baez, a frank but elusive subject whom more than one reporter has muffed in the most hopeless manner. (I know; I am one of them.) The fragile innocence as well as the pathos of the students at Miss Baez’s Workshop for Non-Violence are caught in Miss Didion’s description of one of their sessions breaking up as the sky turns dark in the late afternoon, and how they all are ‘reluctant about gathering up their books and magazines and records, about finding their car keys and ending the day, and by the time they are ready to leave Joan Baez is eating potato salad with her fingers from a bowl in the refrigerator, and everyone stays to share it, just a little while longer where it is warm.’

The title piece is about Haight-Ashbury, and conveys the complexity and the ‘atomization’ of the hippie scene not as the latest fashionable trend, but as a serious advanced stage of society in which things are truly ‘falling apart’ as in Yeats’s poem. Compare this piece with Time magazine’s hapless cover story on the hippies last year, and you will see why ‘group journalism’ is usually inferior to a single, talented writer using the ‘method’ explained by Miss Didion: ‘When I went to San Francisco in that cold late spring of 1967 I did not even know what I wanted to find out, and so I just stayed around a while, and made a few friends.’

That is how the best things are always done– a fact they won’t believe when you try to explain it at a writers conference. (They think you’re keeping a secret about how it’s really done.)”

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In the 1970s, Tom Brokaw profiles Didion:

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How I love Jon Stewart. I’ve only been critical of him once in the time I’ve been doing this blog, and there’s even a slight chance he deserved it, but I hope I will be forgiven. Along with Louis C.K. and Chris Rock, Stewart has capably carried the mantle of George Carlin, my choice for the greatest comedian our modest, understated nation has ever turned out. A few exchanges follow from Stewart’s new Reddit AMA, which is timed to the release of Rosewater.

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Question:

You are President for a day… What is your 1st piece of legislation? Who is the 1st person you hire? Who would you pardon?

Jon Stewart:

I think the first thing I might do is photocopy my balls and send it to every teacher i had in high school.

THEN, onto the legislating.

My first presidential hire would have to be Colbert.

And I would pardon… oh wow… that’s a good one. I think I’m gonna have to check the list of pardon people.

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Question:

Can you describe your personal and professional feelings the day that the Anthony Weiner scandal hit?

Jon Stewart:

That’s a good question.

I think I was… sad. For the individual that i knew as a friend.

And that colored, you know, the general process of creating the humor. I also think I may have overcompensated by doing more material on it than we might have normally.

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Question:

Mr. Stewart, how does Stephen Colbert smell?

Jon Stewart:

Stephen smells like – it’s a cross between -

Squints into distance

Persimmons and a tattered copy of THE HOBBIT.

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Question:

Mr Stewart, if you could go back in time and interview someone from history, who would it be and why?

Jon Stewart:

Uh… I would say Abraham Lincoln.

For the obvious historical importance aspect, as well as the “secret to the confidence of being able to rock the top hat and Amish beard.”

Respect.

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Question:

Jon, I know that you said Hugh Grant was your least favorite guest you’ve had on the show. Just curious, have you seen or heard from him since?

Jon Stewart:

Hehehehehee!

Uh, we have not gotten together. Since… that. And I imagine it is not forthcoming.

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Question:

Will you and Bill O’Reilly just kiss already? The sexual tension is palpable.

Jon Stewart: 

Right?

It’s really the height differential that keeps us from consummating.•

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Stewart, in 1994, interviewing Anna Nicole Smith (whom he once impersonated):

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In the 1950s, MIT computer scientist John McCarthy coined the term “Artificial Intelligence,” and in the next decade he organized a transcontinental telegraph computer chess match, pitting an American program versus a Soviet counterpart. In this video, he’s interviewed by psychologist Jeffrey Mishlove. Without mentioning it by name, they wonder over Moravec’s paradox, and McCarthy says that computer programs as intelligent as humans may have already been (stealthily) created or perhaps they will require another 500 years of work.

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John C. Lilly, neuroscientist, psychonaut and dolphin procurer, is remembered for the isolation tank, LSD experimentation and computerized interspecies communication attempts. In 1998, three years before his death, Lilly and his coonskin cap were interviewed by Jeffrey Mishlove about the “human biocomputer,” sensory isolation, altered states, ketamine usage, the multiverse and hallucinations focused on penis removal. The sound from the guest’s microphone isn’t great.

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In a Reddit AMA conducted by new Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer (who describes the acquisition as “not awesome and not bad” financially) and Harvard computer science professor David Parkes, the duo discuss the intersection of basketball and technology. An excerpt

Question:

I was wondering what you feel the future is for technology in basketball?

Steve Ballmer:

There is a lot more tech than I knew changing basketball and the sports fan experience broadly. My favorite is the use of machine learning technology to process game videos from the celling to understand, categorize and analyze game play. One of the ML experts at second spectrum was a 6″9″ Hooper from MIT so so cool ML rocks! The tech can help understand almost anything. Harvard CS will use it and other technologies to transform so many fields and maybe even more for sports.

David Parkes:

Harvard researchers in the school of engineering and applied sciences and statistics are working on probabilistic models to predict the outcome of a particular matchup of two players on the court. Just this week in my class we discussed the use of Markov chains to predict the outcome of NCAA games. Harvard rocks!”

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Don Knuth, the “Electronic Coach,” in 1959:

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave Vladimir Putin his blessing for engagement in Ukraine twenty years in advance, and while Henry Kissinger doesn’t go that far, he is seriously sympathetic to the embattled Russian leader, who seems a twentieth-century figure unfortunately cast into the future, a man out of time. From a Q&A with the former Secretary of State conducted by Juliane von Mittelstaedt and Erich Follath of Spiegel:

Spiegel:

So let’s talk about a concrete example: How should the West react to the Russian annexation of Crimea? Do you fear this might mean that borders in the future are no longer incontrovertible?

Henry Kissinger: 

Crimea is a symptom, not a cause. Furthermore, Crimea is a special case. Ukraine was part of Russia for a long time. You can’t accept the principle that any country can just change the borders and take a province of another country. But if the West is honest with itself, it has to admit that there were mistakes on its side. The annexation of Crimea was not a move toward global conquest. It was not Hitler moving into Czechoslovakia.

Spiegel:

What was it then?

Henry Kissinger:

One has to ask one’s self this question: Putin spent tens of billions of dollars on the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The theme of the Olympics was that Russia is a progressive state tied to the West through its culture and, therefore, it presumably wants to be part of it. So it doesn’t make any sense that a week after the close of the Olympics, Putin would take Crimea and start a war over Ukraine. So one has to ask one’s self why did it happen?

Spiegel:

What you’re saying is that the West has at least a kind of responsibility for the escalation?

Henry Kissinger:

Yes, I am saying that. Europe and America did not understand the impact of these events, starting with the negotiations about Ukraine’s economic relations with the European Union and culminating in the demonstrations in Kiev. All these, and their impact, should have been the subject of a dialogue with Russia. This does not mean the Russian response was appropriate.

Spiegel:

It seems you have a lot of understanding for Putin. But isn’t he doing exactly what you are warning of — creating chaos in eastern Ukraine and threatening sovereignty?

Henry Kissinger:

Certainly. But Ukraine has always had a special significance for Russia. It was a mistake not to realize that.”

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At the 15:40 mark of this episode of The Baseball of World of Joe Garagiola, we see Kissinger, who could only seem competent when standing alongside that block of wood Bowie Kuhn, being honored at Fenway Park before the second game of the sensational 1975 World Series.

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Staying the same is surest prescription for falling behind. Nations that didn’t enter the Industrial Age largely did not turn out well and still are playing catch-up. (To be fair, they also didn’t contribute to environmental devastation like the rest of us.) The countries that master the Digital Age will ensure themselves of wealth in the aggregate, though disparity may continue, technological unemployment and wage suppression might accelerate. At the far end of the dream is a better world, but how do we get there?

In his 1964 “Automation Song,” Phil Ochs, a singing journalist of sorts, greeted the roboticized future with alarm. At first blush, he seems to be communicating nostalgia for the past, but he’s also subtly calling for political solutions for tomorrow.

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The full version of 1969’s Will the Real Peter Sellers Please Stand Up?, a bizarre behind-the scenes look at the comic chameleon during the making of The Magic Christian. Some discussion of Sellers’ serious heart problems.

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Robots can serve the drinks, sure, but they also can “stomp” the grapes, make the wine. 

Financial Times reporter Caroline Daniel covered the waterfront of technology with Peter Thiel at the Web Summit 2014 in Dublin, discussing monopolies, immortality, AI, etc. On Artificial Intelligence, he states that the creation of truly intelligent AI, something he estimates to be a century in the future, would be the equivalent of extraterrestrials landing on Earth.

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Just once I came across George Whitman in the Paris Shakespeare & Company, but I didn’t pay the eccentric and legendary owner much mind, so distracted I was by the leaking ceiling and broken floor. Still, wow, what a bookshop. From Bruce Handy’s new Vanity Fair piece about the fabled store:

“You know who else loved Shakespeare and Company and who wasn’t a writer with skin in the game? Frank Sinatra—according, that is, to Ed Walters, a former pit boss at the Sands, in Las Vegas, who was taken under Sinatra’s wing in the 1960s and offered this account for a forthcoming history the store plans to publish:

What few Sinatra fans know is that he loved books, especially history books. He was in the casino at a 21 table, playing blackjack and talking with his friends. He told the guys, ‘I’m giving Eddie some books to educate him. He needs it.’

He asked about a book he’d given me, was I reading it. He said, ‘Eddie you must travel and when you do, go to Paris, go to the Shakespeare bookstore. I know the guy there. . . . Go see the guy George—he’s a guy that lives with the books.’

Whitman died on December 14, 2011, two days after his 98th birthday. Unlike many once young bohemians and idealistic self-proclaimed Communists, he hewed to his ideals all the way through to the end. He made a fetish of thriftiness, sometimes cooking from restaurant and market leavings for himself and guests. Unwilling to pay for haircuts, he trimmed his by lighting it on fire with candles. (You can see him do so in a video on YouTube that is equal parts beguiling and horrifying.) His one concession to fashion: a grotty paisley jacket he wore for decades and which had already seen better days when the poet Ted Joans described it as never-been-cleaned in 1974. In short, he was the rare businessman who cared little for money except as a vehicle to expand his shop, which over the decades grew from a single ground-floor room into the multi-floor, ad-hoc institution it is today. In a eulogy he wrote for Whitman, Ferlinghetti described Shakespeare and Company as ‘a literary octopus with an insatiable appetite for print, taking over the beat-up building … room by room, floor by floor, a veritable nest of books.’ I like to think of it as a half-planned, half-accreted, site-specific folk-art masterpiece: the Watts Towers of bookselling, with its warren of narrow passageways lined by casually carpentered bookshelves; its small rooms adorned with whimsical names (OLD SMOKY READING ROOM and BLUE OYSTER TEAROOM); its owner’s favorite epigrams painted above doorways and on steps (LIVE FOR HUMANITY and BE NOT INHOSPITABLE TO STRANGERS LEST THEY BE ANGELS IN DISGUISE); its scavenged floorings, including, in one of the ground-floor rooms, marble tiling Whitman is said to have stolen decades ago from Montparnasse Cemetery and laid down in an abstract mosaic around the store’s ‘wishing well’—a hole in which customers toss coins to be harvested by the store’s more impecunious residents. (Sign: FEED THE STARVING WRITERS.)

Sinatra was right, by the way: Whitman did live with the books, eventually taking a small apartment on the building’s fourth floor (or third, by French floor-numbering convention), which was really just an extension of the store. His own back bedroom had three walls of bookshelves, double-lined with books: novels, poetry, biographies, philosophy, complete sets of Freud and Jung—pretty much anything you can think of, plus the detective novels he kept stashed under his pillows. That bedroom is where, following a stroke, he passed away, so Sinatra could have said he died with the books, too.”

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Dictaphones and typewriters were becoming office heirlooms decades ago, as demonstrated in this 1976 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation video about the computerized, automated office of tomorrow.

There’s really no representative person who raises a 340-pound log above his head. Case in point: Andrew Palmer, the seventh strongest man in the world (or at least on the strongman-competition circuit), a mountainous software engineer who moonlights by moving trees with his limbs, while performing in a surprisingly subdued modern Herculean sideshow. An excerpt follows from “Carry That Weight,” Alex Pappademas’ very fun Grantland portrait of Palmer.

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There are no typical strongmen. Michael Caruso is also a microbiologist. The Bulgarian Dimitar Savatinov came to the sport after a stint as an actual strongman with Ringling Brothers, where his act, according to the web site Rogue Fitness, involved “laying [sic] on broken glass while a board on his chest had twelve performers dancing on it, bending iron bars, [and] holding and spinning seven girls on a  human carousel[.]“ Five days a week, Andrew Palmer works as a software engineer at a startup in Seattle. Before that he worked for Microsoft. He played high school football and was briefly the only 300-pound forward on the school soccer team. After college, he slowed down, gained desk-job weight. He started training for his first strongman contest — the 2008 NorCal Winter Strongman Challenge, in Concord, California — the way you might set your sights on a half-marathon. It was a reason to go to the gym. He figured he’d do it and go to the contest and get his ass kicked. Instead he came in second, just behind a more experienced strongman named Chris Grantano. That was how it started.

Palmer had some issues with depression when he was younger, and the lifting helps with that. It helps him sleep. It’s almost like meditation. It does what meditation is supposed to do — it takes him off the wheel of thought and experience for a little while. “When you’re grinding out reps,” he told me in Vegas, “you fall into a tunnel vision where there’s literally nothing but the movement. You’re doing that movement over and over, and then it stops, and you come back, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m back. I remember who I am again.’”

The trick is having an existence to come back to. Palmer likes having a circle of friends who don’t do what he does. In recent months, his Instagram feed has included blurry concert photos of Echo & the Bunnymen at the Showbox and Erasure at the 9:30 Club and EMA at a music festival in Portland. Palmer goes to a lot of rock festivals, even though whenever he’s in a crowded place with alcohol flowing, drunks invariably run up to grab his beard without asking, the way strangers feel entitled to touch a pregnant woman’s belly. Palmer likes a few beers, Palmer likes a hang. “I know guys who would never drink a beer except for the night after a contest,” he says. “More power to you, but I’m gonna drink beer more often than that. And if that means I don’t ever take top three at World’s Strongest Man, I’ll deal with that, because otherwise I could go crazy.”•

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“C’mon, Andy!”:

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Robots have entered the service sector through department stores and hotels, and now we can add cruises to the list, with the Bionic Bar aboard the new “smart ship,” Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas, which employs a “Technology Ambassador.”

You hear that Iran has sentenced a female activist to a year in prison for attending a men’s volleyball game, and it seems like the same old, a country trapped in oppressive patriarchy and backwardness. But there are some hopeful signs, both with negotiations over nukes at the top and in life below the surface. It’s hard to trust but equally difficult to completely turn away. From “The Revolution Is Over” in the Economist:

“For now, Iran is disliked and mistrusted across much of the democratic world. Terrible things have been done in the name of its revolution. Some of its leaders have denied the Holocaust. They have locked up and tortured citizens who dared to challenge them openly. The country really could be set on having a bomb. But while the world has been cut off from Iran, it has failed to notice how much Iranians have changed. No longer is the country seething with hatred and bent on destruction. Instead, the revolution has sunk into the disillusion and distractions of middle age. This is not always a nice place, perhaps, but not a Satanic one, either.

To be sure, Iran is hard to fathom. It often makes visitors feel unwelcome. Journalists who have been able to obtain a precious visa still leave with a sense of uncertainty as few Iranians feel free to speak their mind. For years the government even refused to share information with the World Bank. John Limbert, an American diplomat held hostage in Tehran in 1979 who served his country until 2010, points out that ‘almost nobody in Washington has been to Iran in decades.’

Yet the country has unmistakably changed. The regime may remain suspicious of the West, and drone on about seeding revolutions in oppressor countries, but the revolutionary fervour and drab conformism have gone. Iran is desperate to trade with whomever will buy its oil. Globalisation trumps puritanism even here.

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Iran just 35 years ago:

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Among people I’ve discussed art history with (and I’m far from an expert), Francis Bacon is the name who usually provokes the most visceral reaction–and often not a positive one. Here’s a long-form 1966 Bacon interview conducted by David Sylvester.

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Malcolm McLaren, the late rotter, introduces Conan O’Brien, in 1995, to his punkish insouciance.

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The Aloft Hotel in Cupertino currently employs a single robot butler to deliver sundries to its many guests, but soon there’ll be an army of such dumb smart waiters in all lodgings. As the poet of despair once sang: “The bell hop’s tears keep flowing / The desk clerk’s dressed in black.” From Matt McFarland in the Washington Post:

“The situation usually plays out like this. You’re unpacking in a hotel room and realize you forgot something. Rather than trek to whatever store might be near, you call the front desk and ask for a razor, toothpaste or whatever you need. The hotel then sends someone up with the delivery.

Except for the Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, Calif, which will begin using an R2D2-esque robot for such trips. Fittingly, Aloft’s parent company, Starwood Hotels, tests the latest technology at the Silicon Valley hotel. Guests can enter their rooms with a smartphone app and bypass the traditional check-in process at the front desk.

For now, only one robot will shuttle around the hotel’s hallways in a pilot program, but Brian McGuinness, global brand leader at Starwood’s Speciality Select Brands, expects multiple robots in the halls of all of Aloft’s locations by early 2016.

The robot, which Aloft is calling the Botlr, is capable of safely riding elevators and navigating winding hallways. Botlr uses a camera and sonar to map out the hotel so it isn’t smashing into walls or falling down unanticipated steps. An elevator was retrofitted to communicate wirelessly with Botlr. The elevator car alerts Botlr that it’s in the lobby and safe to board. Botlr then boards, and passes on what floor it wants to travel to.”

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