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.
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.•
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 ofpharmaceuticals 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.
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.
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.•
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.”•
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.
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 belowarticlefrom 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.
Talk-show host Stanley Siegel just died, and at one point that would have been huge news in New York City.
Before Howard Stern and Reality TV, venues that encourage emotionally damaged recruits to act out every last pathology to pump up the ratings, television host Siegel and his questionable taste and utter neuroses were considered controversial. During the 1970s, his raucous live morning show on the local ABC affiliate made his name as famous in New York as any politician, athlete or Broadway star.
Siegel invited his therapist to psychoanalyze him each week on the air, allowed awasted Truman Capoteto sit down as a guest when he was clearly in no condition to do so and angered a good number of politicos and entertainers with his brash, often-insulting questions. He was the anti-Carson, and it worked wonderfully well for a while.
In the 1977 New York magazine article, “Give Us a Kiss, Stanley,” which was written by journalist and playwright Jonathan Reynolds, Siegel was analyzed a little bit more, captured at the height of his entertaining narcissism. An excerpt:
Every day, Siegel wallows guiltlessly in his own persona, exulting in the dust, high jinx and cobwebs he reveals. He is funny, frightened, confused, weepy, sexual, evangelistic, and overbearing right in front of everybody’s eyes. In terms of emotional exhibitionism, Stanley Siegel makes Jack Paar look like Thomas Pynchon.
In the nearly two years he has been on WABC-TV at 9am, he has sextupled the ratings of his dreary predecessors, increased WABC’s rate card from $35 to $100 for every 30-second spot sold, knocked the venerable Not for Women Only and mega-venerable Concentration out of their time slots, and gained a host of admirers from Robert Evans to Eleanor Holmes Norton.
People tune in to the Stanley Siegel Show to see how Stanley feels–for if there is one predictable element in the program, it is that it will always be clear just how Stanley feels — for if there is one predictable element in the program, it is that it will always be clear just how Stanley feels. He has turned famous guests, WABC-TV’s employees and batches of stay-at-homes into an army of psychotherapists, and how can a psychotherapist not tune in to see how the patient is progressing–or deteriorating?•
Art Linkletter’s daughter Diane plunged to her death from a six-story window in 1969,perhaps influenced to suicide by LSD. Timothy Leary was, of course, the most famous proponent of the drug, so Siegel, that button-pusher, thought it a good idea in 1977 to have Linkletter and the guru speak by phone on live TV.
At the 4:30 mark a passage from one of the most infamous TV interviews ever, Siegel questioning a seriously inebriated Truman Capote in 1978, a time before the commodification of dysfunction was prevalent.
One of my favorite video clips of all time: Smartmouth Siegel interviews labia salesman Al Goldstein and comedian Jerry Lewis in 1976. When not busy composing the world’s finest beaver shots, Goldstein apparently had a newsletter about tech tools. He shows off a $3900 calculator watch and a $2200 portable phone. Lewis, easily the biggest tool on the stage, flaunts his wealth the way only a truly insecure man can.
For every action, a reaction: Small drones, in addition to all the good they can do, can be used for illicit surveillance and delivering explosives and smuggling, among other nefarious deeds, so Michigan researchers created a concept prototype of an anti-drone tool called “robotic falconry,” which nets the interloping technology and commandeers it to a safe place. What will the countermeasure be when spy drones can fit on the head of a pin? There’ll be a market, so something will emerge.
In January 2015, a Washington, DC, hobbyist accidentally flew his DJI Phantom quadcopter drone over the White House fence and crashed it on the lawn.
Two years earlier, a prankster sent his drone toward German prime minister Angela Merkel during a campaign rally.
Small drones have also proven to be effective tools of mischief that doesn’t make the national news, from spying to smuggling to hacking. So when Mo Rastgaar was watching World Cup soccer and heard about snipers protecting the crowd, he doubted that they’d fully understood a drone’s potential.
“I thought, ‘If the threat is a drone, you really don’t want to shoot it down—it might contain explosives and blow up. What you want to do is catch it and get it out of there.’”
Safe Drone Catcher
So Rastgaar, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Michigan Technological University, began work on a drone catcher, which could pursue and capture rogue drones that might threaten military installations, air traffic, sporting events—even the White House.•
Tom Chatfield, an uncommonly thoughtful commenter on the technological world we’ve built for ourselves, is interviewed by Nigel Warburton of Aeon about staying human in a machine age. In the seven-minute piece, Chatfield notes that games in the Digital Age have become more meaningful than work in many instances because the former builds skills in players while the latter looks to replace the messy human component.
A much more exiting model of human-machine interaction, Chatfield offers, is one where we maximize what people and AI are each good at. That would be great and is doable in the short run if we choose to approach the situation that way, but I do believe that ultimately, whatever tasks that both humans and machines can do will be ceded almost entirely to silicon. A freestyle-chess system to production will have a short shelf life in most applications. We may be left to figure out brand new areas in which we can thrive and define why we exist.
At any rate, smart stuff about automated systems. Watch here.
Hanna Reitsch would have been a feminist hero, if it weren’t for the Nazism.
Like the equally talented Leni Riefenstahl, politics made her story the thorniest thing. Reitsch was a pioneering, early-20th-century test pilot, an aviatrix as she was called in that era, but her gifts and great daring were used in the service of the Nazi Party beginning in the 1930s. Her importance in the scheme of things was such that she visited Hitler in his bunker in 1945.
Although her reputation always sullied–and, of course, should have been–Reitsch nonetheless did enjoy considerable standing despite her past, becoming a champion glider, and even being invited as a guest of the White House during the Kennedy Administration.
In 1976, three years before her death, Reitsch was interviewed about her aerial exploits.
Even though he remains one of the pantheon filmmakers, Fritz Lang had mixed feelings about the medium. Talkies initially left him cold and later on he found then Hollywood studio system a discombobulating compromise.
In 1972, Lang was interviewed by two reporters, Lloyd Chesley and Michael Gould, and confided in them that he had tired of directing movies by the advent of talking pictures and decided to recreate himself as a chemist. A disreputable money man dragged him back into the business and gave him the creative freedom to make the chilling classic, M. An excerpt from the interview:
Your themes changed from epic to intimate when you began making sound films.
I got tired from the big films. I didn’t want to make films anymore. I wanted to become a chemist. About this time an independent man—not of very good reputation—wanted me to make a film and I said ‘No, I don’t want to make films anymore.’ And he came and came and came, and finally I said ‘Look, I will make a film, but you will have nothing to say for it. You don’t know what it will be, you have no right to cut it, you only can give the money.’ He said ‘Fine, understood.’ And so I made M.
We started to write the script and I talked with my wife, Thea von Harbou, and I said ‘What is the most insidious crime?’ We came to the fact of anonymous poison letters. And then one day I said I had another idea—long before this mass murderer,[Peter] Kurten, in the Rhineland. And if I wouldn’t have the agreement for no one to tell me anything, I would never, never have made M. Nobody knew Peter Lorre.•
In 1975, Lang and William Friedkin, two directors transfixed by extreme evil, engaged in conversation.
John Cale sometimes seems exhausted talking about The Velvet Underground, and who could blame him? An unlikely rock star to begin with, the Welsh musician was a classically trained violinist with strong avant garde leanings who arrived in New York City just as its rock and art scenes were exploding into one another, collaborating almost immediately with volatile Lou Reed and soon enough vampiric Andy Warhol. Cale lasted two albums with the band, but has never left its reputation. How could he?
“In Chicago, I was singing lead because Lou had hepatitis, no one knew the difference. We turned our faces to the wall and turned up very loud. Paul Morrissey (later the director of Trash) and Danny Williams had different visions of what the light show should be like and one night I looked up to see them fighting, hitting each other in the middle of a song. Danny Williams just disappeared. They found his clothes by the side of a river, with his car nearby … the whole thing. He used to carry this strobe around with him all the time and no one could figure out why till we found out he kept his amphetamine in it.”
“We worked the Masonic Hall in Columbus Ohio. A huge place filled with people drinking and talking. We tuned up for about ten minutes, tuning, fa-da-da, up, da-da-da, down. There’s a tape of it. Played a whole set to no applause, just silences.”
“In San Francisco, we played the Fillmore and no one liked us much. We put the guitars against the amps, turned up, played percussion and then split. Bill Graham came into the dressing room and said, ‘You owe me 20 more minutes’. I’d dropped a cymbal on Lou’s head and he was bleeding. ‘Is he hurt?’ Graham said, ‘We’re not insured.'”
“Severn Darden brought this young chick up to meet me there and he introduced her as one of my ardent admirers. This was a long time ago and I didn’t know about such things, so I said, ‘Pleased to meet you,’ and walked off. Two days later in L.A., here comes Severn again with this girl. I say hello again and leave. We’re all staying at the castle in L.A., and things are very hazy, if you know what I mean. Well, this girl is there too. I smile but I still don’t understand. About two in the morning the door of my room opens and she walks in naked and gets into bed. Went on for five nights. I don’t think I even got her address.”
The Velvets suffered from all kinds of strange troubles. They spent three years on the road away from New York City, their home, playing Houston, Boston, small towns in Pennsylvania, anywhere that would pay them scale.
“We needed someone like Andy,” John says. “He was a genius for getting publicity. Once we were in Providence to play at the Rhode Island School of Design and they sent a TV newsman to talk to us. Andy did the interview lying on the ground with his head propped up on one arm. There were some studded balls with lights shining on them and when the interviewer asked him why he was on the ground, Andy said, “So I can see the stars better.” The interview ended with the TV guy lying flat on his back saying, “Yeah, I see what you mean.”•
A 21-year-old John Cale the year he arrived in NYC and the one before he met Reed, on I’ve Got a Secret.
When the grounds shift beneath our feet, we tend to hold on for dear life. We try to retreat into the world we knew, even if it’s no longer viable.
Our communications have been reconfigured by the Second Machine Age, and it appears the same is happening to our economic model. That’s scary. It causes fingers to be pointed, blame assigned. Such transitions may be the natural order of things, but to mere mortals they can feel very unnatural. Is the realization of the Global Village that frightened Marshall McLuhan so much what’s behind the ripples of nativism and violent expressions of fundamentalism across the globe?
Appearing recently at the Royal Geographical Society in London, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, author of the wondrous Sapiens, argues that the ferocious reactions to hierarchal transformation at the outset of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century are being replayed now in the early Digital Age. Harari feels certain that withdrawals into old orthodoxies will fail today as they did then, with ancient scriptures having no answers to new questions, leaving techno-ideologies to own the future.
By the 1960s, Glenn Gould believed the new technologies would allow for the sampling, remixing and democratization of creativity, that erstwhile members of the audience would ultimately ascend and become creators themselves. He hated the hierarchy of live performance and was sure its dominance would end. It was probably partly a rationalization that helped enable his reclusiveness, but rise up the audience did.
Mr. Gould himself seemed to grow out of no particular musical tradition. He stressed, in fact, that his musical goal was to rethink the repertory in a radically different fashion. Though he had a career of nine years as a popular and critical success on the concert stage, after a performance in Chicago in March 1964, he never played in public again; after 1967, he said, he never even attended a concert.
He said he considered the concert form an ”immensely distasteful” musical compromise that leads to ”tremendous conservatism” in musical interpretation. Mr. Gould contended that the concert’s aura of commerce, its performing stage and its listening audience interfere with music, turning the artist into a ”vaudevillian.”
”The concert is dead,” he proclaimed. For him, the recording represented the musical future. Mr. Gould was also among the first classical musicians to treat the recording as a distinct art form, with its own possibilities and requirements. The phonograph record, for Mr. Gould, was no more a ”record” of an actual continuous performance than a movie was a record of actual continuous events. It was a spliced construction, edited from recording tape.
”During the last 15 years,” Mr. Gould said in an interview last year, ”I spent very little time at a recording session actually recording.”
About eight minutes an hour were spent at the piano, he explained, producing perhaps four different versions of two minutes of music. The rest of the hour would be spent editing, choosing aspects of one version to merge with those of another. His recording of Sibelius’s works, for example, experiments with different aural atmospheres in each musical section. In his most recent recordings, he acted as producer, working in his own studio.
The musical result could be a concentrated interpretation, put together with as much care as a film editor might put together a movie. Mr. Gould believed such pastiche no more detracted from spontaneity and energy than editing would detract from a well-paced film.
The results, though, have been controversial.•
“I detest audiences,” Gould tells that magnificent bastard Alex Trebek (unseen) in 1966.
From a1969 Life piece in which Oriana Fallaci recalls her misbegotten interview with Muhammad Ali:
Has anyone actually threatened to break your nose off for something you wrote?
Something like it happened with Cassius Clay. I had seen him a couple of times, and I went back to his house in Miami to finish the interview. He was eating a melon. I said, Good Morning, Mr. Clay. He keeps on eating the melon and suddenly belches very loud. I think he is just being impolite and I sit down with my tape recorder. And then oooaaagh. He belches again. A big one. Well, I said, let’s go on anyway. And just at that moment, buurp, buurp, whoops, whoops. I turned to him and shouted, I am not going to stay with an animal like you. And I was undoing my recorder, when he took the microphone and threw it against the wall. My microphone! I saw it flying past my head and I took my fists and bam, bam. Went against him. He stood there. So enormous. So tall. And he watched me in a way an elephant watches a mosquito. Black Muslims suddenly came out of all the doors into the room. Evil. Evil. They began to chant. You came for evil. It was like a nightmare. I backed out to my cab, trying to keep my dignity, but really afraid, and went straight to the airport. After the interview was published, Cassius Clay said he was going to break my nose if he ever saw me again. I said, we’ll see, if he breaks my nose, he is going to jail and we will have beautiful news in the papers. I saw him later in New York. I passed with my nose in the air, and he went by without looking at me.•
In 1976, when he was already showing the early, subtle signs of Parkinson’s Syndrome, Muhammad Ali sat for a wide-ranging group interview on Face the Nation, in which he was mostly treated as a suspect by a panel of people who enjoyed privileges that were never available to the boxer. Fred Graham, the Arkansas-born correspondent who’s distinguished himself in other ways during his career, doesn’t come across as the most enlightened fellow here, asking at one point, “Is there ever going to be another Great White Hope, a white heavyweight who will come in and whip all you black heavyweights?” Hyper-political earlier in life, Ali dodged election-year questions as much as possible.
Sailor, fisherman, OSS spy and all-around non-conformist, actor Sterling Hayden was ultimately as interesting just being himself as he was when inhabiting a character. In Kim Morgan’s 2014 LARB roundtable interview with Robert Altman collaborators Elliott Gould, George Segal and screenwriter Joseph Walsh, Hayden was discussed. An excerpt:
So you, George, and Elliott were both in movies with Sterling Hayden [Loving and The Long Goodbye].
I loved Sterling in the movies, but I never met him personally. [To Segal and Gould] Did you love Sterling?
I loved him. Dan Blocker was supposed to play the part. He was a very good friend of Altman’s. Dan Blocker died and the picture almost went south. And so then we were talking about John Huston, who I loved. Bob cast Sterling Hayden. So Sterling had been in Ireland doing something with R. D. Laing, the poet and philosopher who wrote a book called Knots. And so I asked to spend a little time, a moment alone with Sterling in the house where we shot, where Kathryn and Bob lived, down in Malibu. So we spent that moment alone. And so I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I understood him. So I just loved him.
I liked the way he wanted to live his life, Sterling Hayden.
I visited him on his péniche, which is like a barge. He had it in France on the Seine and I saw him there. And then he had it sent to Northern California and I visited him there too. He was a great guy. I think he worked in the Yugoslavian Underground during World War II.
Did he really? Wow. Okay.
And what’s interesting in The Long Goodbye is this modernized Marlowe, from what Bogart or Powell did but …
Oh, Humphrey Bogart was perfect. Our Marlowe was not perfect at all.
No, of course. But that’s what I love about it. And that Sterling Hayden, who is now an icon in film noir, he’s really this counterculture type of guy in real life. He fit perfectly in that Altman universe.•
In 1981, Hayden, a restless soul who began looking late in life like Tom Waits’ hobo uncle, visits with Tom Snyder for a long-form interview. In part one, Hayden discusses his failed attempts at writing an article for Rolling Stone about the funeral of Yugoslavia’s late dictator Marshal Tito.
Russia in the time of Vladimir Putin, a capo with nuclear capabilities, is the strangest thing. A kleptocracy littered with petro-oligarchs and poisoned journalists, it’s hard to get to the truth even when everyone knows where it lies.
Even beyond the Kremlin, the deaths can be shockingly violent and the crimes baffling and awful. Case in point: the Bolshoi Ballet, that grand thing, became a lurid headline after a sulfuric acid attack on its artistic director, Sergei Filin, at the outset of 2013.
As HBO prepares to screen Bolshoi Babylon, the New York Times’ Gia Kourlas (an excellent person I worked with once) has scored an interview with the Bolshoi’s usually reticent longtime principal dancer, Maria Alexandrova. It speaks to the opaqueness of the company and the wider culture.
New York Times:
Do you have much contact with Sergei Filin?
We practically have no relationship. He just basically publishes on the board what performances he wants me to dance, and I dance them. We say hello to each other as civilized people, but we have no relationship whatsoever. I’m not outside his office begging for parts. He gives me the parts. I dance them. And what he gives me, I use the opportunity and what he doesn’t, I use that opportunity to be involved in other projects.
New York Times:
Was it like that before the acid attack too?
Before that, when he was dancing, he was my main partner for eight years. [Nikolai] Tsiskaridze and Filin were my main two partners. You don’t necessarily have to love or hate someone; you just get on with it. There was no conflict. In Russian ballet, there are no easy people. We’re all difficult characters. Some are more intelligent and some are less intelligent, but you don’t have any people in Russian ballet who are angelic with easy characters. We live in a difficult country; we work in a difficult theater; we depend only on ourselves or you find whichever other way you want.
New York Times:
Within the Bolshoi, people took sides after the acid attack: Filin’s or Dmitrichenko’s? [The dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko was found guilty of arranging the attack and sentenced to five and a half years in prison.] Which were you on?
I chose the theater. I chose my profession. The hardest thing is to explain to people within the company, yes, a terrible tragedy has happened, but it’s part of life, and we should not take sides and divide people between good and bad and black and white. That was always my position. We should think of our profession; we should think of our theater. Even now, I am absolutely deeply convinced that we still don’t know the truth of what really happened and why it happened.•
The chess world–and the human race itself, by extension–was famously rocked in 1997 when Garry Kasparov was spooked and conquered by Deep Blue. Not as well known: This rise of the machines had been presaged five years earlier in the less complicated and revered game of checkers when the all-but-undefeatable champion, the mathematician Marion Tinsley, was lucky to escape with a victory after losing twice in his series against an AI known as Chinook, designed by Canadian computer science professor Jonathan Schaefer.
In the odd world of checkers—a 5,000-year-old game that almost everyone knows how to play but only a few thousand people compete in seriously—Tinsley is a legend. “Dr. Tinsley has taken the game beyond what anybody else ever conceived,” says Charles Walker, the founder and director of the International Checkers Hall of Fame, in Petal, Miss. Tinsley’s edge is his unparalleled knowledge of the game, which originated in Egypt but assumed its modern form some 700 years ago in Scotland. Holder of a doctorate from Ohio State in the mathematical discipline of combinatorial analysis, Tinsley has a better-than-computer-like grasp of the 500 billion billion or so possible moves in a checkers game, an understanding that allows him to see 30 moves ahead, as opposed to the 24-move prescience of Chinook. “I’ve got a better programmer,” he explains. “God.”
Tinsley, who is a lay preacher in the Disciples of Christ church, was born in Ironton, Ohio, to a schoolteacher and a farmer turned sheriff. The boy was reading and memorizing poetry by the age of four. But the precocious youth, who skipped four of his first eight grades, was confounded by elementary school mathematics until he discovered geometry. His family was then living in Columbus, and one day, while researching a math problem in the library at nearby Ohio State, he came across several books about checkers. He studied them, hoping to silence an elderly woman who boarded with his family and who let loose a grating cackle every time she bested him in a game. “I had visions of beating Mrs. Kershaw,” Tinsley recalls.
He never did—Mrs. Kershaw moved away before he mastered checkers—but Tinsley did win the national championship in 1948 at age 21. He won the world title several years later, in 1955, by defeating Walter Hellman of Gary, Ind. Defending his title successfully in 1958, he retired from competition to devote himself to teaching and preaching. After 11 years at Florida State in Tallahassee, he moved across town to Florida A&M, in part because he saw teaching at the predominantly black school as an extension of the preaching he did at the predominantly black St. Augustine Street Church of Christ in Tallahassee. “I had thought of going to Africa as a self-supporting missionary,’ ” he says, “until a sharp-tongued sister pointed out to me that most people who wanted to help blacks in Africa wouldn’t even talk to blacks in America.”
It wasn’t until 1970 that Tinsley was coaxed back into competition by Don Lafferty, one of the many checkers devotees who still make pilgrimages to his home in Tallahassee. He won the U.S. championship that year, and in 1975 he regained the world title from Hellman, as it now seems, for good. Despite Tinsley’s long retirement and Hellman’s having officially held the title during that time, checkers cognoscenti view Tinsley’s championship reign as continuous. “No one presumed to think they could beat him,” says Walker. “When he loses one game, it is an event.”
Small wonder that the 50 or so spectators who gathered each day in London to watch Tinsley’s title defense were stunned when Tinsley found himself down two games to one after 14 games with Chinook. Tinsley, who was hospitalized with phlebitis in Florida after the tournament, blames grueling games and jet lag for the sleeplessness that left him exhausted during the first week of play. “A London fog rolled in on me, and I made mistakes,” he says. The fog lifted in the 18th game. In tournament checkers each player must make 20 moves in an hour. Inexplicably, Chinook froze 27 minutes into the first hour of the 18th game and neither Schaeffer nor his three assistants could thaw out the program. They resigned the game to even the match at 2—all. “I think Dr. Tinsley viewed it as divine intervention,” Schaeffer says ruefully.
The following day, Sunday, Tinsley went to church, and he returned on Monday, in Schaeffer’s eyes, “revitalized.” He won the 25th game two days later, and after 13 more draws, he got his fourth victory, winning the championship in the 39th game. Tinsley was characteristically humble afterward, crediting God with his victory. He said that he was looking forward to beating Chinook again when they rekindle their man-versus-machine rivalry next August outside London.
Eventually, though, Tinsley will almost certainly fall to the Canadian computer. Schaeffer believes that checkers, like tick-tacktoe, is “solvable”—that is, that it can be played perfectly, so every game ends in a draw at worst. Already Chinook has in its memory every outcome possible with seven or fewer pieces on the board. Within the decade, Schaeffer says, the computer will know how the game will turn out even before it begins. Until then Tinsley expects no serious human challenge. “I’d be surprised if somebody could actually beat me,” he says mildly. “I really hate to lose.”•
A 1994 rematch between Tinsley and Chinook was halted after six games when the champ took ill. Subsequently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Tinsley died the following year.
At the 16:30 mark, Tinsley appears on a 1957 edition of What’s My Line?
Engineers have dreamed of driverless for almost as long as there have been cars. The first demo I’ve come across isone by Westinghouse in 1930, which utilized telephone instructions, electric eyes and beams of light to maneuver a robocar. It appears to have been merely a novelty, with no actual plans to commercialize the technology. In the 1970s, the efforts were much more earnest, with long-term hopes of monetization. This 1971 video about work being done by the Road Research Laboratory has been released by the Associated Press.
Lucian Truscott IV, the great, great, great, great grandson of Thomas Jefferson and graduate of the United States Military Academy, began his writing career penning pieces on hippies and heroin addiction, eventually making his mark at the Village Voice and Rolling Stone. In 1972, he was assigned by the former to reviewHunter S. Thompson’s genius, drug-fuelled phantasmagoria Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. An excerpt:
Hunter Thompson lived in Aspen then, and his ranch, located outside town about 10 miles, tucked away up a valley with National Forest land on every side, was the first place I stopped. It was late afternoon and Thompson was just getting up, bleary-eyed and beaten, shaded from the sun by a tennis hat, sipping a beer on the front porch.
I got to know him while I was still in the Army in the spring of 1970, when he and a few other local crazies were gearing up for what would become the Aspen Freak Power Uprising, a spectacular which featured Thompson as candidate for sheriff, with his neighbor Billy for coroner. They ran on a platform which promised, among other things, public punishment for drug dealers who burned their customers, and a campaign guaranteed to rid the valley of real estate developers and ‘nazi greedheads’ of every persuasion. In a compromise move toward the end of the campaign, Thompson promised to “eat mescaline only during off-duty hours.” The non-freak segment of the voting public was unmoved and he was eventually defeated by a narrow margin.
In the days before the Freak Power spirit, Thompson’s ranch served as a war room and R&R camp for the Aspen political insurgents. Needless to say there was rarely a dull moment. When I arrived last summer, however, things had changed. Thompson was in the midst of writing a magnum opus, and it was being cranked out at an unnerving rate. I was barely across the threshold when I was informed that he worked (worked?) Monday through Friday and saved the weekends for messing around. As usual, he worked from around midnight until 7 or 8 in the morning and slept all day. There was an edge to his voice that said he meant business. This was it. This was a venture that had no beginning or end, that even Thompson himself was having difficulty controlling.
“I’m sending it off to Random House in 20,000-word bursts,” he said, drawing slowly on his ever-present cigarette holder. “I don’t have any idea what they think of it. Hell, I don’t have any idea what it is.”
“What’s it about?” I asked.
“Searching for The American Dream in Las Vegas,” replied Thompson coolly.•
In 1974, Truscott, again representing the Voice, tagged along with another gonzo character, Evel Knievel, at the time of his Snake River Canyon spacecycle jump, a spectacle promoted (in part) by professional wrestling strongman Vince McMahon Jr. Truscott shows up in this awesome video at 6:22, giving the event all the respect it deserved while simultaneously summing up his reporting career. (Because of privacy settings, you have to click through and watch it on the Vimeo site.)
Oriana Fallaci did as much serious journalism as anyone during her era, but she wasn’t above the lurid if the story was good and the check likely to clear. Case in point: Her 1967 Look magazine article “The Dead Body and the Living Brain,” about pioneering head-transplant experimentation. In the piece, Fallaci reports on the sci-fi-ish experiments that Prof. Robert White was conducting with rhesus monkeys at a time when consciousness about animal rights was on the rise. The opening:
Libby had eaten her last meal the night before: orange, banana, monkey chow. While eating she had observed us with curiosity. Her hands resembled the hands of a newly born child, her face seemed almost human. Perhaps because of her eyes. They were so sad, so defenseless. We had called her Libby because Dr. Maurice Albin, the anesthetist, had told us she had no name, we could give her the name we liked best, and because she accepted it immediately. You said “Libby!” and she jumped, then she leaned her head on her shoulder. Dr. Albin had also told us that Libby had been born in India and was almost three years, an age comparable to that of a seven-year-old girl. The rhesuses live 30 years and she was a rhesus. Prof. Robert White uses the rhesus because they are not expensive; they cost between $80 and $100. Chimpanzees, larger and easier to experiment with, cost up to $2,000 each. After the meal, a veterinarian had come, and with as much ceremony as they use for the condemned, he had checked to be sure Libby was in good health. It would be a difficult operation and her body should function as perfectly as a rocket going to the moon. A hundred times before, the experiment had ended in failure, and though Professor White became the first man in the entire history of medicine to succeed, the undertaking still bordered on science fiction. Libby was about to die in order to demonstrate that her brain could live isolated from her body and that, so isolated, it could still think.•
Fallaci wasn’t always insightful when assessing her subjects, missing out entirely on Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial leanings and Alfred Hitchcock’s deep seediness, but she was accurate in her judgment of Muammar el-Qaddafi when conversing with that shock jock Charlie Rose in 2003.
In Fran Lebowitz’s 1993 Paris Review Q&A, the writer’s maternal nature, or something like it, came to the fore. An excerpt:
Young people are often a target for you.
I wouldn’t say that I dislike the young. I’m simply not a fan of naïveté. I mean, unless you have an erotic interest in them, what other interest could you have? What are they going to possibly say that’s of interest? People ask me, Aren’t you interested in what they’re thinking? What could they be thinking? This is not a middle-aged curmudgeonly attitude; I didn’t like people that age even when I was that age.
Well, what age do you prefer?
I always liked people who are older. Of course, every year it gets harder to find them. I like people older than me and children, really little children.
Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom?
No, I’m just intrigued by them, because, to me, they’re like talking animals. Their consciousness is so different from ours that they constitute a different species. They don’t have to be particularly interesting children; just the fact that they are children is sufficient. They don’t know what anything is, so they have to make it up. No matter how dull they are, they still have to figure things out for themselves. They have a fresh approach.•
In this 1977 Canadian talk show, Lebowitz, selling her bookMetropolitan Life,was concerned that digital watches and calculators and other new technologies entitled kids (and adults also) to a sense of power they should not have. She must be pleased with smartphones today.
For a 1975“Talk of the Town” piecein the New Yorker, Anthony Hiss toured Los Angeles, that strange and fascinating turf, enjoying near journey’s end an audience with Philip K. Dick, whose visions weren’t fully appreciated during his abbreviated lifetime and were even sort of undersold in this article. An excerpt:
In the afternoon, we drove over to Fullerton to see Philip K. Dick, my favorite science-fiction writer, author of 33 novels and 170 short stories. Past the House of Egg Roll, past Moy’s Coffee Shop (Chop Suey, Hot Cakes), past Bowser Beautiful, through Bel Air. We drove to the end of Sunset Boulevard, where we saw seagulls, 18 surfers in wet suits, a blue suggestion of Catalina to the southwest, and an Indian girl in a green-and-gold sari on the beach. Then south, past a concrete wall painted ‘TOMMY SURKO SAYS FOR MY KIND OF GIRL THERE’S ONLY ONE! TOMMY SURKO!’ Behind the tall palms on Venice we could see snow on the mountains. Kids were skateboarding down a hill on Lincoln. Past Woody’s Smorgasburger, onto a freeway to Fullerton.
Philip K. Dick lives in an apartment full of books and records and photographs with his wife, Tessa; his small son, Christopher; and two cats, Harvey Wallbanger and Sasha. He is jolly and tubby and bearded. His books, which are hilarious, are popular in France, because the French think they are about how grim everything is. Dick showed us a French newspaper piece about him—the subtitles were ‘Le Chaos,’ ‘L’Acide,’ ‘Le Suicide,’ ‘Les Machines’ ‘La Société Totalitaire,’ ‘La Paranoïa.’ Dick has just finished a book about Tim Leary and the LSD crowd, and what happened to them.
We had stopped in to make a short call of homage, and wound up talking along for hours, drinking wine, and Tessa going out for some Chinese food, and then talking about cosmologies until it was almost time for our plane back to N.Y. The apartment also contains a two-foot-high metal rocket ship on a wooden base—this is his Hugo Award, the highest award in science fiction. The plaque is missing, though, because Dick once used the award to break up a fight. ‘It grabs good,’ he says. As for the cosmologies, this is what emerged from our discussions: cosmologies all seem to be based on repetition—you know, first the universe expands, then it contracts, then it expands again, etc.—but maybe that’s not so. Maybe this whole expansion business that the universe is currently embarked upon is going to happen only once. That would mean that every day really is a new day, right? Also, maybe it’s not true that Einstein was smarter than Newton. Maybe Newton’s laws accurately described the universe as it then existed. But since then it’s expanded and got more complicated, and can be accurately described only by Einstein physics. Which will eventually become outdated, maybe.•
In 1977, PKD described tangential, alternative worlds which he felt may have existed in reality–or perhaps just his mind.
One who sees the curtain coming down sooner than later is the Christian evangelist and dapper apocalypse salesman Hal Lindsey, co-author with Carole C. Carlson of the meshuganah 1970 bestseller,The Late Great Planet Earth,which estimated 1988 as the Judgement Day. Missed by that much. Lindsey, who’s still alive as are many of us, spends his dotage accusing President Obama of being “the Antichrist.” Whatever.
In 1979, when the batshit book had been made into a film–with Orson Welles picking up late-life wine-and-bullfight money for handling the narration–Lindsey was profiled in a People pieceby Lucretia Marmon. The opening:
In 1938 Orson Welles terrified radio listeners with War of the Worlds, an imaginative report of a Martian invasion. Now Welles, as gloomy-voiced narrator of a film, The Late Great Planet Earth, out this fall, tells another frightening tale. This time it is a movie version of the end of the world, based on a scenario by evangelist-author Hal Lindsey. The script, claims Lindsey, really isn’t his. It’s all in the Scriptures.
Lindsey’s book Earth, published in 1970, has been translated into 31 languages and 10 million copies have been sold. The public also snapped up five subsequent Lindsey books on the same subject, running his sales total to over 14 million.
Thus Lindsey, 47, may now be the foremost modern-day Jeremiah. ‘If I had been writing 15 years ago I wouldn’t have had an audience,’ he concedes. ‘But a tremendous number of people are worried about the future. I’m just part of that phenomenon.’
Lindsey splices Bible prophecies of doom with contemporary signs. For instance, he says the Bible pinpoints Israel’s rebirth as a nation as the catalyst to Judgment Day, which will probably occur by 1988. The intervening years will see the emergence of a 10-nation confederacy (prophet Daniel’s dreadful 10-horned beast) or, as Lindsey sees it, the European Common Market. Eventually Russia (biblical Magog) will attack Israel and precipitate a global nuclear war. Only Jesus’ followers will be spared. Hence, Lindsey advises, “the only thing you need to understand is that God offers you in Jesus Christ a full pardon.”
Meanwhile, is Lindsey cowering in his fallout shelter? Not at all. Sporting a gold Star of David around his neck and another on his pinky (‘After all, Jesus was a Jew’), Lindsey zips around Southern California in a Mercedes 450 SL. He conducts services on the beach and indulges in his hobbies of photography and surfing.•
There’s nothing quite like the IBT columns of antisocial antivirus expert John McAfee, pieces that read like PKD-esque fever dreams propelled by acute paranoia, actual knowledge and perhaps pharmaceuticals. In a recent article, he warned that Electromagnetic Pulse generators (or EMPs) could be used to destroy an American city at any moment. An excerpt:
EMPs can be generated in many ways. Much has been said about nuclear EMPs, but that threat concerns me far less than other, more specific means of generating EMPs. The US recently announced our ownEMP weapon, which can be carried aboard a missile. Using a technology based on hydraulically compressing and decompressing rods made of specific elements, the device is able to create multiple EMPs very quickly.
The weapon can be focused to take out individual buildings within a city and can take out dozens of individual buildings in a single pass of the missile. I will admit that such technology is beyond the reach of the average individual. But what if the individual is not concerned with precision strikes and merely wants to take out an entire city block or the entire city? Well, that technology is readily available, cheap, and simple to construct.
I am not going to give a course on constructing EMP weapons. I am only trying to raise the awareness of the world to a real and imminent threat.
I also received many questions about how an EMP could kill people. The answer is easy. A large-scale localized attack that involved all of our power stations would leave us all permanently without power. An attack that included our water processing plants would leave us without potable water, except that which we could purchase at the supermarket.
Localized attacks on food processing plants, attacks on mass transportation and attacks on centralized communication organizations would leave us without food and communications. Attacks on oil processing plants would ultimately leave us without individual transportation. What percentage of the population do you think would survive such a catastrophe? And all of this without a single nuclear explosion.•
In our facacta political season, McAfee is, of course, running for President, decrying the cyber illiteracy of the average Washington representative. Despite being an erstwhile murder suspect, he’s not even close to the most deplorable candidate. Here he is in September announcing his campaign to Greta Van Susteren, a Scientologist with an unsustainable face.
Racing legend Jackie Stewart was king of a sport in which his competitors–his friends–kept dying, one after another on the dangerous-as-can be-courses of the ’60s and early ’70s. The opening of Robert F. Jones 1973 Sport Illustrated article “There Are Two Kinds of Death“:
Contrasted with the current woes of the real world—the new Arab-Israeli war, the old Watergate maunder-ings—it might have seemed a week of minor tragedy on the Grand Prix circuit. But for John Young Stewart, 34, the finest road racer in the game, it was perhaps the most agonizing week of his life. A month earlier, at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Stewart had captured his third world driving championship in five years. During the course of this racing season he had become the most successful Formula I driver ever, with 27 Grand Prix victories to his credit (compared with 25 for his late Scottish countryman, Jim Clark, and 24 for his idol, Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio). And certainly Stewart had outdone both of them in the main chance of racing: money.
Jackie Stewart is the canniest man ever to don a fireproof balaclava—and certainly the gutsiest ever to con a sponsor. Earning close to $1 million a season in prize money and other emoluments, Stewart seemed to have turned motor racing into some kind of a private treasure trove—and survived to enjoy it. Then why not retire?
That was the first source of his agony last weekend. At Watkins Glen for the 15th running of the U.S. Grand Prix, Stewart played coy with the question. Indeed, even his business agent claimed that the wee Scot was hung on the horns of that old sportsman’s dilemma: quit on a peak of success, or press on to try for even greater rewards? The business agent also was well aware that the timing of a retirement statement by a figure so prominent as Stewart could bring in lots of bucks, and perhaps the coyness was merely a question of timing to suck up more cash. “If Jackie were single,” said his lovely wife Helen, “there would be no question. He would continue to race. I would like to see him retire, but I cannot press him. No, there is nothing that could fill the role of racing for him if he were to quit.”
Stewart himself was brusque on the question. He sidestepped it with every slick word at his command—and they are as many and as evasive as the black grouse of Scotland’s moors. But still it all seemed a game.
Then, on qualifying day before the race, Stewart’s good friend and teammate, Francois Cevert, was killed in a smashup during practice. Stewart had already lost three close friends to the sport: Clark in 1968, Piers Courage and.Jochen Rindt in 1970. In his poignant account of that last tragic season in his recent book, Faster! A Racer’s Diary, Stewart had likened Grand Prix racing to a disease and wondered in painful print if he himself were not a victim. With Cevert’s death last Saturday, it seemed to many that Stewart must at last accept the prognosis. He must—finally—retire and let sad enough alone.•
A 1973 documentary about Formula One racing, known at various times as One by One, Quick and the Dead, and Champions Forever, this interesting period piece with a funked-up score focuses on Stewart, Peter Revson and their peers. Stacy Keach is the cool-as-can-be narrator, but Cévert sums it up simply and best, admitting, “steering is hard.”
My favorite book published in the U.S. in 2015 isSapiens, a brilliant work about our past (and future) by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. In a New Statesman essay, the author argues that if we’re on the precipice of a grand human revolution–in which we commandeer evolutionary forces and create a post-scarcity world–it’s being driven by private-sector technocracy, not politics, that attenuated, polarized thing. The next Lenins, the new visionaries focused on large-scale societal reorganization, Harari argues, live in Silicon Valley, and even if they don’t succeed, their efforts may significantly impact our lives. An excerpt:
Whatever their disagreements about long-term visions, communists, fascists and liberals all combined forces to create a new state-run leviathan. Within a surprisingly short time, they engineered all-encompassing systems of mass education, mass health and mass welfare, which were supposed to realise the utopian aspirations of the ruling party. These mass systems became the main employers in the job market and the main regulators of human life. In this sense, at least, the grand political visions of the past century have succeeded in creating an entirely new world. The society of 1800 was completely destroyed and we are living in a new reality altogether.
In 1900 or 1950 politicians of all hues thought big, talked big and acted even bigger. Today it seems that politicians have a chance to pursue even grander visions than those of Lenin, Hitler or Mao. While the latter tried to create a new society and a new human being with the help of steam engines and typewriters, today’s prophets could rely on biotechnology and supercomputers. In the coming decades, technological breakthroughs are likely to change human society, human bodies and human minds in far more drastic ways than ever before.
Whereas the Nazis sought to create superhumans through selective breeding, we now have an increasing arsenal of bioengineering tools at our disposal. These could be used to redesign the shapes, abilities and even desires of human beings, so as to fulfil this or that political ideal. Bioengineering starts with the understanding that we are far from realising the full potential of organic bodies. For four billion years natural selection has been tinkering and tweaking with these bodies, so that we have gone from amoebae to reptiles to mammals to Homo sapiens. Yet there is no reason to think that sapiens is the last station. Relatively small changes in the genome, the neural system and the skeleton were enough to upgrade Homo erectus – who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives – to Homo sapiens, who produces spaceships and computers. Who knows what the outcome of a few more changes to our genome, neural system and skeleton might be? Bioengineering is not going to wait patiently for natural selection to work its magic. Instead, bioengineers will take the old sapiens body and intentionally rewrite its genetic code, rewire its brain circuits, alter its biochemical balance and grow entirely new body parts.
On top of that, we are also developing the ability to create cyborgs.•
In a London TED Talk from earlier this year, Harari details why Homo sapiens came to rule the world, and why that development wasn’t always such a sure bet.
In an interesting Guardian article, Nicola Davis and Rachel David survey a large number of the smart-home technologies currently gestating in the hopes that they may one day quantify you within an inch of your life. The home of the future, even if a few of these tools should come to fruition, is a very helpful and very invasive thing. An excerpt about the bathroom of tomorrow:
Morning ablutions might seem a private affair, but that could all change as technology finds its way into the smallest room in the house.
Among those vying to keep an eye on your vital statistics is Withings, whose “Smart Body Analyzer” makes your old nemesis – the bathroom scales – look positively friendly. Claiming to measure your weight, body fat, heart rate and BMI, it will not only terrorise your tiled floor, but take to your phone: an accompanying app tracks your activity and adjusts your calorie budget for the day to meet your health goals. Think that teatime biscuit looks good? Think again.
Even that most benign of bathroom essentials, the humble loo, is in for an upgrade. Smart toilets have already hit the stores, withAmerican firm DXVanticipating what it somewhat alarmingly terms a “contemporary movement” through its heated seats, night lights and remote controls. But alternatives are already in the offing that can monitor your bodily extrusions better than an over-competitive parent. Japanese company Toto has unveiled itsFlowskytoilet that keeps tabs on your rate of gush, whileMIT SENSEeable City Labis working on a loo that can not only recognise the be-throned, but analyse their excrement to shed light on the state of their health and microbiome.
The bathroom might well become the domain of Big Mother. Water-wasters will be chivvied by warning lights thanks to devices like Drop from Qonserve Technologiesthat displays a red light when the taps have been left running, while bathroom hoggers will be ousted by“water pebbles” that can be programmed to flash red when bathtime’s up. Baths and showers too will be cleaning up their act, withOrbital Systems developing filtersto recycle water as it is used andNebiaoffering a water-saving shower based on an intense mist of water rather than a traditional deluge. And our towels might even be cleaned without H2O: designerLeobardo Armentaenvisages a nifty device that eschews the washing machine for a doughnut-like contraption with a fan to dry the towel and UV light to kill bacteria.•
In 1967, Walter Cronkite looks at the living room, kitchen and home office of the future.
Werner Erhard, the shouting est salesman, is still working it, though opinions will vary on what it is.
When you’re born John Rosenberg, rechristen yourself after a Nazi rocketeer (misspelling it!), and unabashedly tell people that you’re a hero, you may be questionable. Nonetheless, the profane self-help peddler who came to wide prominence in the 1970s, with the aid of apostles in entertainment and intellectual circles, from John Denver to Buckminster Fuller, continues apace at 80 and has reinvented himself yet again, after nearly being permanently knocked from his pedestal by health issues, an IRS imbroglio, a shattering 60 Minutes profile and ongoing gamesmanship with Scientologists.
A really fun New York Times piece by Peter Haldeman looks at the latest Erhard iteration, while offering an alternative version of how the Dale Carnegie of sleep deprivation came to rename himself. The opening:
The silver-haired man dressed like a waiter (dark vest, dark slacks) paced the aisle between rows of desks in a Toronto conference room. “If you’re going to be a leader, you’re going to have to have a very loose relationship with this thing you call ‘I’ or ‘me,’” he shouted. “Maybe that whole thing in me around which the universe revolves isn’t so central!”
He paused to wipe his brow with a wad of paper towels. An assistant stood by with a microphone, but he waved her off. “Maybe life is not about the self but about self-transcendence! You got a problem with that?”
No one in the room had a problem with that. The desks were occupied by 27 name-tagged academics from around the world. And in the course of the day, a number of them would take the mike to pose what their instructor referred to as “yeah buts, how ’bouts or what ifs” in response to his pronouncements — but no one had a problem with them.
In some ways, the three-day workshop, “Creating Class Leaders,” recalled an EST training session. As with that cultural touchstone of the 1970s, there was “sharing” and applause. There were confrontations and hugs. Gnomic declarations hovered in the air like mist: “We need to distinguish distinction”; “There’s no seeing, there’s only the seer”; “There isn’t any is.”
But the event was much more civilized than EST. There were bathroom breaks. No one was called an expletive by the teacher.
This is significant because the teacher was none other than the creator of EST, Werner Erhard.•
In 1973, Denver, substitute host on the Tonight Show, invited his guru to chat.
Ron Popeil, the American inventor and TV pitchman behind the Pocket Fisherman and so much more crap you never knew you wanted, just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit, providing ample opportunity to underemployed smartasses to sass the Ronco entrepreneur. One example:
It is true you invented the technology to keep heads alive in jars, but just haven’t released it yet?
The Real Ron Popeil:
Still working on it! Send me your address so I can have someone come pick up your head.•
An excerpt from “The Pitchman,” Malcolm Gladwell’s thoroughly enjoyable 2000 New Yorker profile of a guy who is always fishing:
In the last thirty years, Ron has invented a succession of kitchen gadgets, among them the Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator and the Popeil Automatic Pasta and Sausage Maker, which featured a thrust bearing made of the same material used in bulletproof glass. He works steadily, guided by flashes of inspiration. This past August, for instance, he suddenly realized what product should follow the Showtime Rotisserie. He and his right-hand man, Alan Backus, had been working on a bread-and-batter machine, which would take up to ten pounds of chicken wings or scallops or shrimp or fish fillets and do all the work–combining the eggs, the flour, the breadcrumbs–in a few minutes, without dirtying either the cook’s hands or the machine. “Alan goes to Korea, where we have some big orders coming through,” Ron explained recently over lunch–a hamburger, medium-well, with fries–in the V.I.P. booth by the door in the Polo Lounge, at the Beverly Hills Hotel. ‘I call Alan on the phone. I wake him up. It was two in the morning there. And these are my exact words: “Stop. Do not pursue the bread-and-batter machine. I will pick it up later. This other project needs to come first.” The other project, his inspiration, was a device capable of smoking meats indoors without creating odors that can suffuse the air and permeate furniture. Ron had a version of the indoor smoker on his porch–”a Rube Goldberg kind of thing” that he’d worked on a year earlier–and, on a whim, he cooked a chicken in it. “That chicken was so good that I said to myself”–and with his left hand Ron began to pound on the table–”This is the best chicken sandwich I have ever had in my life.” He turned to me: “How many times have you had a smoked-turkey sandwich? Maybe you have a smoked- turkey or a smoked-chicken sandwich once every six months. Once! How many times have you had smoked salmon? Aah. More. I’m going to say you come across smoked salmon as an hors d’oeuvre or an entrée once every three months. Baby-back ribs? Depends on which restaurant you order ribs at. Smoked sausage, same thing. You touch on smoked food”–he leaned in and poked my arm for emphasis–”but I know one thing, Malcolm. You don’t have a smoker.”•
I wondered last week what type of “PEDs” terrorists were hopped up on when conducting suicide missions. Despite the oft-dark nature of humans, that’s just not a natural state and fanaticism or brainwashing or pharmaceuticals (or all three) are necessary to induce it.
If CNN is to be believed–and it almost never is–Syrian jihadists are dosing themselves with Captagon.
A couple months before its historic eruption on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens began to slowly awaken. Tourists toting binoculars went to the mountain to get a better look, but some experts warned them to not expect too much, predicting it very unlikely to be a major geological event. The experts were wrong. From the April 21, 1980 People magazine:
It was hardly Vesuvius or Krakatoa, but when Mount St. Helens—near Washington’s border with Oregon—began to gurgle seriously last month, geologists and thrill-seekers gathered from all over the world. They hoped to see one of the rarest and most spectacular of nature’s performances: a volcanic eruption. Not since Mount Lassen in California began seven years of activity in 1914 has a volcano in the lower 48 states put on such a show. Still, some watchers may be disappointed by Mount St. Helens. “People have this idea about lava from old South Sea movies,” says Donal Mullineaux, a volcanologist in the U.S. Geological Survey, “with everybody in sarongs hotfooting it away from this smoky, glowing stuff that comes oozing out of the crater and down the mountain like cake batter. Lava can be dangerous, sure, but that’s only a part of it.”
The rest of it—clouds of poisonous gas, searing hot winds and cascades of mud and rock—now seems unlikely at Mount St. Helens. Mullineaux, who had predicted an eruption in a scholarly 1975 article, is maintaining a vigilant calm. “The probability of a big, big eruption is very low,” he says. Asked if the gases already escaped pose a pollution threat, he smiles and says, “Any comment I could make would be facetious. I grew up in a paper-mill town.”•
The CBS News report three days after the volcano blew, with Dan Rather and his folksy whatthefuck subbing for Walter Cronkite.
Most men (and women) lead lives of quite desperation, but from Brooklyn to Big Sur Henry Miller hollered. That resulted in some genius writing and some considerably lesser material. In 1961, the author explained in a Paris Review interview how he believed his tools shaped his writing:
Do you edit or change much?
That too varies a great deal. I never do any correcting or revising while in the process of writing. Let’s say I write a thing out any old way, and then, after it’s cooled off—I let it rest for a while, a month or two maybe—I see it with a fresh eye. Then I have a wonderful time of it. I just go to work on it with the ax. But not always. Sometimes it comes out almost like I wanted it.
How do you go about revising?
When I’m revising, I use a pen and ink to make changes, cross out, insert. The manuscript looks wonderful afterwards, like a Balzac. Then I retype, and in the process of retyping I make more changes. I prefer to retype everything myself, because even when I think I’ve made all the changes I want, the mere mechanical business of touching the keys sharpens my thoughts, and I find myself revising while doing the finished thing.
You mean there is something going on between you and the machine?
Yes, in a way the machine acts as a stimulus; it’s a cooperative thing.•
Robert Snyder’s deeply enjoyable 1969 documentary of Miller in his middle years, when he had befriended, among many others, astrologer Sydney Omarr, a relationship which helped the author indulge his curiosity in the occult.
Wilt Chamberlain was a hybrid of topdog and underdog, fully aware that all his greatness could never make the public quite love a Goliath. To merely be himself was to be unfair. In Allen Barra’s 2012 Atlantic appreciation of the late NBA, volleyball and track & field star, the writer compares the legendary basketball player favorably with Babe Ruth, and recalls the humble environs in which he recorded the NBA’s only triple-digit scoring performance. An excerpt:
The celebration of Wilt Chamberlain’s career that accompanied the 50th anniversary of his 100-point game last weekend was too short and passed too quickly.
Wilt Chamberlain was the Babe Ruth of pro basketball. Like Ruth, he was by far the most dominant force in his time, and quite possibly of all time. Like the Babe, Wilt was the lightning rod for interest in the sport in a time when it was badly needed. In Chamberlain’s case, he was more important to basketball than Ruth was to baseball.
Contrary to popular opinion, baseball was doing quite well at the turnstiles when Ruth came along and would have survived the stink of the Black Sox gambling scandal with or without him (though the recovery certainly would have taken longer). But without Wilt, who knows if the NBA would have made it from the 1960s—when it was scarcely one of the big three pro sports behind baseball and football—to the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird boom of the late 1970s and the Michael Jordan tidal wave a few years later?
If you doubt this, consider one extraordinary fact: Wilt played his 100-point game not in New York or even in the Warriors’ home city of Philadelphia but in an odd-looking, plain concrete barn-like structure with an arched roof in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where the Warriors played several games a year in order to increase a fan base that wasn’t showing them overwhelming support in Philly.
Try and imagine the equivalent in baseball: Babe Ruth hitting his 60th home run in, say, Newark, New Jersey, at a Yankees “secondary” park in front of a handful of fans. If not for an unknown student listening to a late night rebroadcast of the game who thought to tape the fourth quarter on a reel-to-reel, we’d have no live coverage of the game at all.
Chamberlain’s triumph came at the Hershey Sports Arena. Today the HersheyPark Arena looks virtually the same, a practice facility for the AHL’s Hershey Bears and home ice for a local college that is also open for public skating. It’s easy to miss the notices that here Chamberlain played his landmark game: a small sign on a pole outside the main gates and a copy of the photo of Wilt holding up the handmade “100” in the back side of the lobby.
There is one primary difference between the careers of Babe Ruth and Wilt Chamberlain: Ruth was—and is—regarded by most baseball analysts as the greatest player in his game. But basketball people have never quite been able to make up their minds about Wilt.•
Ed Sullivan interviews Chamberlain soon after his heroics in Hershey.