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

From Feder:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“ISSAC, Will You Please Help Me Up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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garagiolaplayerjohn.lennon.paul.mccartney.tonight.show.2.1968Joe_Garagiola-Gerald_FordThe former baseball catcher Joe Garagiola, who sadly just died, was thought of as very American and very nice during a flush time in our country when that was more than enough for a minor celebrity to enjoy a long, well-compensated career.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Black Lives Matter Protest Disrupts Holiday Shoppers At Mall Of America

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

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

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

He was surprised. “What do you mean?”

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

Silence.

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

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Mall of America, opening weekend, August 1992.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“I am here to deliver.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The great pod-car dream of yore.

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

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

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

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

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“The possibilities of game play are endless.”

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

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

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

From Julian E. Barnes at the Wall Street Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The opening:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marjoe Gortner–in Sensurround!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 a wasted Truman Capote to 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?•

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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.

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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.

From Marcia Goodrich at Michigan Tech News:

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.•

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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.

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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.

The text of “Girl Rode Robot Bomb To Test It, Nazis Reveal,” the July 27, 1944 Brooklyn Daily Eagle account of her most storied and dangerous mission, for which she received the Iron Cross:

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In 1976, three years before her death, Reitsch was interviewed about her aerial exploits.

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1950s --- Fritz Lang, Austrian-American film director and producer, wearing his habitual monocle. --- Image by © Heinz-Juergen Goettert/dpa/Corbis

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:

Michael Gould:

Your themes changed from epic to intimate when you began making sound films.

Fritz Lang:

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.

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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?

Some reminiscences of the group from his 2012 Guardian interview:

“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.

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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.

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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.

From his 1982 New York Times obituary by Edward Rothstein:

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. 

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From a 1969 Life piece in which Oriana Fallaci recalls her misbegotten interview with Muhammad Ali:

Question:

Has anyone actually threatened to break your nose off for something you wrote?

Oriana Fallaci:

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.

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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:

Question: 

So you, George, and Elliott were both in movies with Sterling Hayden [Loving and The Long Goodbye].

Joseph Walsh:

I loved Sterling in the movies, but I never met him personally. [To Segal and Gould] Did you love Sterling?

Elliott Gould: 

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.

Question: 

Did you ever read his book Wanderer?

Elliott Gould: 

Yes. When he kidnapped his kids, right?

Joseph Walsh:

I liked the way he wanted to live his life, Sterling Hayden.

Elliott Gould:

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.

Joseph Walsh:

Did he really? Wow. Okay.

Question: 

And what’s interesting in The Long Goodbye is this modernized Marlowe, from what Bogart or Powell did but …

Elliott Gould:

Oh, Humphrey Bogart was perfect. Our Marlowe was not perfect at all.

Question: 

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. 

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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.

The opening:

New York Times:

Do you have much contact with Sergei Filin? 

Maria Alexandrova:

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?

Maria Alexandrova:

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?

Maria Alexandrova:

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.•

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