When Mark Lilla, Bernie Sanders and others on the Left decry identity politics, they’re not really being honest (or at least not very observant). If they were to say that the Democrats can’t win right now by stressing how our history of racism continues to play out in heartbreaking ways today because it will turn off too many white voters, that’s an argument to make. (It’s obviously a lot easier for Lilla to make because he isn’t running for office.) But to say that identity politics are, in general, doomed is to ignore that Donald Trump just won the Presidency with a shockingly overt white nationalist campaign. Since the end of Woodrow Wilson’s second term, no one has put the white in White House more than Trump. Somehow when struggling Caucasians are appealed to, that’s fine, but if the same is done with African-Americans who have been left behind, there’s something sinister about it.

That has more to do with than just winning and losing, and it’s embedded deeply in the very nature of America.

· · ·

On Twitter, Reagan whisperer Peggy Noonan derided people in favor social justice who peacefully tap out 140 characters and lauded those who died fighting to defend a system of legal enslavement, rape, torture, maiming and murder. Nothing says white privilege more than Noonan possessing a Pulitzer.

· · ·

In “The First White President,” a great Atlantic essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author speaks to these points and others in explaining how Trump’s ascendance was an attempt at Obama erasure, and how those who supported him if not all white supremacists were at least racist-friendly. To deny so is to perpetuate a society in which we are separate and unequal. Two short excerpts below, but the whole piece should be read from start to finish.

_____________________________

The focus on one subsector of Trump voters—the white working class—is puzzling, given the breadth of his white coalition. Indeed, there is a kind of theater at work in which Trump’s presidency is pawned off as a product of the white working class as opposed to a product of an entire whiteness that includes the very authors doing the pawning. The motive is clear: escapism. To accept that the bloody heirloom remains potent even now, some five decades after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a Memphis balcony—even after a black president; indeed, strengthened by the fact of that black president—is to accept that racism remains, as it has since 1776, at the heart of this country’s political life. The idea of acceptance frustrates the left. The left would much rather have a discussion about class struggles, which might entice the white working masses, instead of about the racist struggles that those same masses have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of. Moreover, to accept that whiteness brought us Donald Trump is to accept whiteness as an existential danger to the country and the world. But if the broad and remarkable white support for Donald Trump can be reduced to the righteous anger of a noble class of smallville firefighters and evangelicals, mocked by Brooklyn hipsters and womanist professors into voting against their interests, then the threat of racism and whiteness, the threat of the heirloom, can be dismissed. Consciences can be eased; no deeper existential reckoning is required.

_____________________________

When David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, shocked the country in 1990 by almost winning one of Louisiana’s seats in the U.S. Senate, the apologists came out once again. They elided the obvious—that Duke had appealed to the racist instincts of a state whose schools are, at this very moment, still desegregating—and instead decided that something else was afoot. “There is a tremendous amount of anger and frustration among working-class whites, particularly where there is an economic downturn,” a researcher told the Los Angeles Times. “These people feel left out; they feel government is not responsive to them.” By this logic, postwar America—with its booming economy and low unemployment—should have been an egalitarian utopia and not the violently segregated country it actually was.

But this was the past made present. It was not important to the apologists that a large swath of Louisiana’s white population thought it was a good idea to send a white supremacist who once fronted a terrorist organization to the nation’s capital. Nor was it important that blacks in Louisiana had long felt left out. What was important was the fraying of an ancient bargain, and the potential degradation of white workers to the level of “negers.” “A viable left must find a way to differentiate itself strongly from such analysis,” David Roediger, the University of Kansas professor, has written.•

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A recent Spiegel essay argued that the contemporary dynamics of Germany’s political-party machinery makes it impossible for that country to elect a Trump-ish figure. That’s likely true, but what if a significant segment of the citizenry would like to elect someone with his nativist mindset (though not his benighted mind)? Could the gaskets eventually blow in a different and more dangerous way? Not that Germany has a history of horrible political outcomes. Oh, wait!

In “I’ve Never Seen So Much Hate,” a new piece in the same publication, Nils Minkmar interviews psychologist Stephan Grünewald, who’s conducted studies on a cross-section of the electorate. An excerpt:

Spiegel: 

What did you discover?

Stephan Grünewald: 

In the in-depth interviews, all people wanted to talk about was the refugee crisis, refugee crisis, refugee crisis. Despite being so elegantly left out of the campaign, it is still a sore spot that hasn’t been treated by politicians.

Spiegel:

What exactly is the problem?

Stephan Grünewald: 

The crisis two years ago plunged voters into a dilemma for which they still haven’t found a clear response. Do I open the door, or do I close it? On one hand, they want to be part of the welcoming culture, but they are also afraid of being overwhelmed by foreigners and of no longer being able to recognize their own country. As a result, they want policymakers to develop a plan, to establish a compromise position. But they haven’t, and now voters feel abandoned.

Spiegel:

What is the consequence of this?

Stephan Grünewald: 

Voters are disoriented, full of uncertainties. They describe Germany either as an ailing, run-down country or as a secure island of affluence in a sea of risk. It’s all very fragile and leads to emotional outbursts. I have never before seen so much anger and hatred among test subjects.•

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Yuval Noah Harari so calmly and clinically describes a fascistic, post-human future driven by algorithms and biotech that his prognostications seem fait accompli. His ideas should be read instead as cautionary tales. As Swift used the undersized and super-sized proportions of Lilliputians and Brobdingnags, respectively, to provoke, lecture and caution, Harari’s monstrous machines and microscopic laboratory manipulations should encourage debate about how even far less of a technological society than he envisions can still impact us with potentially negative consequences, intended or unintended.

In a Los Angeles Review of Books piece by Philip Kitcher, the writer reviews Harari’s most recent title, Homo Deus, along with Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg’s A Crack in Creation, two volumes dedicated to the next big thing: that moment when we co-opt evolution and become something like gods. Kitcher asserts rightly, I believe, that those who fear germline modifications of genes (changes made in the womb that would eradicate diseases from future generations) are worrying most likely needlessly, at least if we’re talking about truly awful outcomes and not just less-favorable ones (ALS as opposed to being somewhat less than average height).

His lack of concern about enhancement in general, however, seems, myopic to me. He can say in a vacuum that “genetic enhancement should not cater” to those who aim to turn out superior offspring, but in the competition among states and corporations, those neat lines of distinction will be blurred. It we got even foggier once the tools of the cell biologist’s trade are in the hands of the many—when they are fast, cheap and (perhaps) out of control.

An excerpt:

What of enhancement? Here, the case against using tools of gene editing appears even stronger. Nevertheless, as Doudna and Steinberg partly appreciate, revulsion stems from fixating on a specific type of example. When ambitious parents hope their children will exhibit particular characteristics — being tall or intelligent, for example — the desire is often comparative: they want the kids to be taller or smarter than their peers. Genetic enhancement should not cater to that sort of wish. A society in which privileged people buy further biological advantages for themselves and their dependents is an ethically hideous prospect, as exemplified by the alphas, betas, gammas, and deltas of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

When competition plays no role, however, genetic enhancement can be harmless, even benign. The losses affecting us as we age are familiar facts of human life. Hearing becomes less sensitive, and memory declines. Although the causal details underlying these processes are not yet fully known, it is easy to imagine that they might be discovered — and that the discovery could allow somatic interventions to preserve our youthful capacities as we age. People benefiting from those interventions would be genetically enhanced, equipped with abilities no normal human being has ever had. If the interventions were available to all, parts of the standard health protections delivered by all (enlightened) societies, it is hard to see what objections could be leveled against them. …

Yuval Noah Harari is also interested in the threats attending the human future, and impressed with the possibilities of applying biological knowledge to modify human genomes. But in Homo Deus, he paints on a far larger canvas. Scientific advances have provided our species with godlike opportunities. Computer technology and molecular biology together will transform human lives and what it means to be human. Most members of our species will become redundant. All of us will have to face the fact that we are not, and have never been, autonomous agents. The flaws in humanism will be exposed. A new religion in which the flow of data becomes central — becomes the reigning deity — will triumph.

Or will it?•

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From the November 29, 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Vladimir Putin is good at being a troll, a spoiler and a poisoner, but he’s piss-poor at running a country. The future does not belong to him. Even in the present, as he basks in the disruption of democratic elections and toys with Donald Trump like the cornered rat he is, Russia is falling behind the world by many vital measures. His aggressions, actual and virtual, have provoked numerous nations to enforce sanctions on his state, which ensures the backpedaling will only increase. There’s just so long you can live on aging oil wells and kleptocracy, and in trying to Make Russia Great Again, Putin has made it into a low, lawless joke. 

Like a Silicon Valley startup guru or an Oxford intellectual, Putin has decided that Artificial Intelligence is a grave threat to the world and the country that emerges as world leader will rule the globe. In his bottomless beneficence, the capo with nuclear capabilities promises Russia will selflessly share AI with the world the way it does bots should his nation emergence victorious in this new arms race. He’s full of shit, and, oh, Russia isn’t winning that contest.

Most likely no one single nation will outpace all others, as it’s not a zero-sum game. There will likely be a few “winners” and they will have burdens and responsibilities that go far beyond nuclear power. 

The opening of James Vincent’s Verge piece:

Russian president Vladimir Putin has joined the war of words concerning the international race to develop artificial intelligence. Speaking to students last Friday, Putin predicted that whichever country leads the way in AI research will come to dominate global affairs.

“Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind,” said Putin, reports RT. “It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

The development of artificial intelligence has increasingly become a national security concern in recent years. It is China and the US (not Russia) which are seen as the two frontrunners, with China recently announcing its ambition to become the global leader in AI research by 2030. Many analysts warn that America is in danger of falling behind, especially as the Trump administration prepares to cut funding for basic science and technology research.

Although it’s thought that artificial intelligence will help boost countries’ economies in a number of areas, from heavy industry to medical research, AI technology will also be useful in warfare. Artificial intelligence can be used to develop cyber weapons, and control autonomous tools like drone swarms — fleets of low-cost quadcopters with a shared ‘brain’ that can be used for surveillance as well as attacking opponents.

Both China and the US are currently researching this technology, and in his speech on Friday, Putin predicted that future wars would be fought by countries using drones. “When one party’s drones are destroyed by drones of another, it will have no other choice but to surrender,” said the Russian president, according to the Associated Press.

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I’ve criticized Malcolm Gladwell for his oft-repeated claim that satire can’t be very valuable in the face of emergent tyranny because it didn’t prevent the rise of Nazism. Yes, that’s so, but you could say the same of diplomacy, protest, government, media and other forces that also couldn’t stem its rise. All those entities and actions retain potency despite their inability to curb the horrors of ’30s and ’40s Europe and so does satire. 

Sometimes a series of accidents and incidents defy the odds, and history finds itself adrift on a disastrous course. Given enough time and chances, that will eventually occur, and our ever-more-powerful tools and technologies will wind up in the wrong hands. From a 1996 Psychology Today interview of Carl Sagan:

Psychology Today:

You point to the statistical likelihood of people in power periodically showing up in the guise of a Stalin or a Hitler. Given this probability, and given nuclear proliferation, what are your feelings about the future?

Carl Sagan:

Well, it’s a very serious issue. We are, fortunately, in a time when the United States and the former Soviet Union are divesting their nuclear arsenals. According to the present treaties, agreed to if not ratified, each side will go down to something like 3,000 strategic weapons and delivery systems by the first decade of the 21st century, from 10 times that number. So that’s very good news. On the other hand, there are only about 2,300 cities on the planet, so if each side gets 3,000 weapons, that means that each side retains the ability to annihilate every city on earth. That is certainly not comfortable news, because if you wait long enough you are bound to have a madman at the helm in one of these countries.

Psychology Today:

Are you saying it’s inevitable?

Carl Sagan:

If you look at the history of the world, such people regularly come to power. We may comfort ourselves in the United States that it hasn’t happened to us, but even here I would say that a number of times in our recent history we’ve come close to having somebody dangerously incompetent or drunk or crazy in power in a time of crisis. Hitler and Stalin are reminders that the most advanced countries on earth can have such leaders.•

In order to reach that tipping point, however, it takes a village of citizens pulling in the wrong direction, and MAGA caps were the symbols of those dark energies at work in America in 2016. Donald Trump wasn’t the cause of our fall from grace but merely the perfect messenger to activate and embolden the ugliness that had been building for decades. It’s now overwhelmingly clear that what the Republican Party has become since Goldwater is a dirty pool.

Ronald Brownstein’s Atlantic article about young GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson looks at how some people who should know better still cling to the party even after decades of welfare queens, Willie Hortons, racist push polling, Fox News, Cliven Bundy, Trump’s white-nationalist campaign and Charlottesville, not believing what’s been in their eyes and ears forever. Anderson’s looked at the depressing numbers but still hasn’t completely gotten the memo, though she’s now considering leaving the roost for more moderate third-party options. An excerpt:

Anderson’s fear is that in a rapidly diversifying America, Trump is stamping the GOP as a party of white racial backlash—and that too much of the party’s base is comfortable with that. Trump’s morally stunted response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this month unsettled her. But she was even more unnerved by polls showing that most Republican voters defended his remarks.

“What has really shaken me in recent weeks is the consistency in polling where I see Republican voters excusing really bad things because their leader has excused them,” she told me. “[Massachusetts Governor] Charlie Baker, [UN Ambassador] Nikki Haley, [Illinois Representative] Adam Kinzinger—I want to be in the party with them. But in the last few weeks it has become increasingly clear to me that most Republican voters are not in that camp. They are in the Trump camp.”

The portion of the party coalition willing to tolerate, if not actively embrace, white nationalism “is larger than most mainstream Republicans have ever been willing to grapple with,” she added.

Anderson’s gloom is understandable. Even before Trump’s emergence, the GOP relied mostly on the elements of American society most uneasy with cultural and demographic change—the primarily older, blue-collar, rural, and evangelical whites who make up what I’ve called the “coalition of restoration.” As a candidate and as president, Trump has yoked the party even more tightly to those voters’ priorities—a tilt evident in everything from his “very fine people” remarks about the white-supremacist protesters in Charlottesville to his recent pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.•

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10 search-engine keyphrases bringing traffic to Afflictor this week:

  1. prisoner from arpaio’s tent city prison
  2. the arpaio pardon
  3. wallace shawn political cruelty
  4. chekist-style disinformation
  5. robert redford on donald trump
  6. achzivland
  7. douglas rushkoff metadata
  8. god sees everything, including the blind
  9. austrian rocketeer max valier
  10. céline journey to the end of the night

This week, Donald Trump was summoned to flood-ravaged Houston to show empathy, clearly not his strong suit.

Don’t just sit there, Abbott, we’ve got work to do.

Are you white or black or what?

Don’t worry, lady, you’ll float.

Have a good time, everybody. I’m dismantling the EPA, so when chemical plants explode, take refuge in a megachurch.

We’re kinda closed now. Maybe try Airbnb or something?

 

• Trump’s Russia problem and autocratic dreams may meet headlong before long.

• Masha Gessen writes of Trump enabling hooligans and militias, a measure often employed by autocrats.

• Zoning is often the target of Libertarians, but Houston proves it has its merits.

• Are the machines are coming for our jobs? Max Tegmark and Nicholas Carr comment.

• Myriad challenges stand in the way of the proposed “space nation” Asgardia.

• Old Print Article: Madame Tussaud, doyenne of the decapitated. (1912)

• Old Print Article: George Eastman commits suicide. (1932)

• This week’s Afflictor keyphrase searches: Andrew O’Hagan, Lew Wallace, etc.

Recently, the excellent Open Culture site tweeted the suicide note of George Eastman, the Kodak magnate who took his own life in 1932 with single bullet to the chest, despondent about the chronic pain of spinal stenosis and seemingly weary of a world of wealth, safaris, philanthropy and fame. The goodbye was brief:

To my friends

My work is done

Why wait?

GE

It was his invention of roll film in 1884 that brought photography to the masses and soon enough made motion pictures possible. The vast sums of money that followed allowed Eastman to become one of the leading benefactors of his era, and his life was unmarked by scandal until he sent some gathered friends out of a room he was occupying in his handsome Rochester home and carried out his shocking ending. The gun’s explosion caused them to scurry back where they found the inventor, now dead or dying, and his last written words. The lead story in the March 14, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle told of his demise.

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“The future is speeding at us, and it’s almost abusive how deeply cynical both sides are,” the Republican political consultant Rick Wilson recently said, speaking of the response from his party and the Democrats to manufacturing and automation. Specifically, he was referring to how the Trump Administration has promised a return to glory for plants and mines and the Democrats belief that every worker formerly on the assembly line can be upskilled into a software engineer. I doubt most conservatives beyond Trump believe the former and it’s dubious the majority of Democrats believe the latter. Those ideas, however, have been prominent in the last year.

· · ·

The idea that robotics will displace many American workers is true now as it has been for at least a century. As long as there have been machines, really, they’ve always gradually taken over some work as new opportunities were created. The question is whether we’re on the verge of an AI boom that will speed this transition beyond management. Such rapid progress would mean we’re becoming wealthy in the aggregate, but distribution would likely be a huge problem. That’s why so many in the tech field have suggested a Universal Basic Income, something for everyone, not just a reverse tax credit to boost the less fortunate from poverty. But while this work-less future is possible, it seems far from plausible. 

· · ·

Currently there’s wide agreement on all sides that production numbers don’t show a radical expansion of technology displacing workers and boosting output. The only caution is that advances are sometimes overpromised, then ridiculed and then they deliver in a massive way. Not so with cold fusion, but that certainly was the case with computers and the Internet.

In 1985, the lively New York Times reporter Erik Sandberg-Diment sarcastically eulogized the laptop, laughing at what Silicon Valley had believed could be the future. The opening:

“WHATEVER happened to the laptop computer? Two years ago, on my flight to Las Vegas for Comdex, the annual microcomputer trade show, every second or third passenger pulled out a portable, ostensibly to work, but more likely to demonstrate an ability to keep up with the latest fad. Last year, only a couple of these computers could be seen on the fold-down trays. This year, every one of them had been replaced by the more traditional mixed drink or beer.

Was the laptop dream an illusion, then?

Imagine his humbling just two decades later when the Feynman’s “Plenty of Room at the Bottom” theory was proven correct and the iPhone was introduced.

· · ·

Robots will show up in China just in time,” Daniel Kahneman has said. In order to sustain its giant population, China will need robotics on a mass scale. It’s neighbor Japan will probably require automation on a much grander scale despite a much smaller population. An ardently anti-immigrant country with a graying citizenry, Japan is among the states that could be asking an inverse question: What will happen if robots don’t take all the jobs?

· · ·

My best guess is that there will always be work to do in the future, but sometimes not enough. Not every job needs to disappear to destabilize society in a serious way, just enough. If entire industries vanish into the zeros and ones in too fast a fashion the way video stores across America were decimated by Netflix’s 3,500 employees and endless algorithms (and, yes, I define algorithms as robots), that can leave sectors in the dust. Many of those positions at first will be lousy jobs (e.g., truck driver), but that doesn’t mean those already settled into such careers will have an easy time of it. AI may not be an avalanche that crushes us all, but it could be a continuous series of small earthquakes.

Two excerpts on opposite sides of the argument follow.

_______________________

An exchange about a potential AI revolution from a Reddit AMA by Life 3.0 author Max Tegmark:

Question:

Do you believe AI will take over the majority of “menial” jobs within the working world, and if so how will we as people adjust to support those who would have been employed within those positions?

Max Tegmark:

Not only menial jobs, but also many jobs that require lots of training for us humans, such as analyzing radiology images to determine whether patients have cancer. To safeguard your career, go for jobs that machines are bad at – involving people, unpredictability and creativity. Avoid careers about to get automated away, involving repetitive or structured actions in a predictable setting. Telemarketers, warehouse workers, cashiers, train operators, bakers or line cooks. Drivers of trucks, buses, taxis and Uber/Lyft cars are likely to follow soon. There are many more professions (including paralegals, credit analysts, loan officers, bookkeepers and tax accountants) that, although they aren’t on the endangered list for full extinction, are getting most of their tasks automated and therefore demand much fewer humans. I give more detailed job advice in Chapter 3 of my new book. If machines becomes able to do all our jobs in a few decades, that doesn’t have to spell doom and gloom as is commonly assumed. It could give everyone who wanted a life of leisure and play if we as a society share the vast new wealth produced by machines in a way such that nobody gets worse off. The’ll be plenty enough resources to do this, but whether there’s the political will is another matter, and currently I feel that things are moving in the opposite direction in the US and most western countries, with the large groups of people getting steadily poorer in real terms – creating anger which helps explain the victories of Trump & Brexit.•

______________________

From Nicholas Carr’s latest Rough Type rebuttal to the idea that the robots are coming for us:

You can see the robot age everywhere but in the labor statistics, I wrote a few months ago, channeling Robert Solow. The popular and often alarming predictions of a looming unemployment crisis, one that would stem from rapid advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and other computer automation technologies, have become increasingly hard to square with the economy’s rebound to near full employment. If computers were going to devastate jobs on a broad scale, one would think there’d be signs of it by now. We have, after all, been seeing remarkable gains in computing and software for many decades, while the broadband internet has been working its putative magic for more than twenty years. And it’s not like a shortage of corporate cash is curtailing investment in technology. Profits have been robust and capital cheap.

Still, even as jobs rebounded from the depths of the Great Recession, overall wage growth has appeared sluggish, at times stagnant. It has seemed possible that the weakness in wages might be the canary in the automated coal mine, an early indication of a coming surge in technological unemployment. If humans are increasingly competing for jobs against automatons, of both the hardware and software variety, that might explain workers’ inability to reap wage gains from a tightening labor market — and it might presage a broad shift of work from people to machines. At some point, if automation continued to put downward pressure on pay, workers would simply give up trying to compete with technology. The robots would win.

But even here, there’s growing reason to doubt the conventional wisdom.•

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Donald Trump explicitly deputized his supporters during the campaign to commit violence in his name, promising to pay their legal fees. As many of his past contractors could have warned them, even with a signed contract this vow wasn’t worth much. Nobody got too caught up in the fine print on the march to Election Day, however, as nearly 63 million Americans looked the other way, pretending a vicious, white-nationalist campaign wasn’t what was occurring. Perhaps some were fooled. Most were not.

Seemingly beholden to the Kremlin, Trump recently stumbled upon some perfectly Putin-like thugs when the absolute worst of the Goy Division descended upon Charlottesville to preach hate and commit a murder. He’s since doubled down on his support of these racist miscreants and others who reenacted Kristallnacht, claiming “many sides” deserve blame, further normalizing the aberrant behavior of his goon squad and encouraging them to further brutish intimidation.

Soon thereafter, Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the country’s most obvious symbol of bigoted lawlessness, and authorized state and local police forces to load up on military-grade weapons, which he may believe will provide him with a second unit to take down resistance by force. Whether these departments actually allow themselves to be used in this fascistic manner is questionable at best, but these are clearly the actions of an aspiring autocrat, one who believes he will soon need to protect his power with force. The orange supremacist hopes to provoke a Constitutional crisis and political unrest, then use these conflicts of his own making to rationalize even greater savagery to quell them.

· · ·

In “Trump’s Hoodlums,” Masha Gessen’s latest New York Review of Books piece about our imperiled democracy, she writes that the President, now surrounded by generals-cum-babysitters who run the Administration like a “large family-owned business after the patriarch has developed dementia,” has begun to place his trust in hooligans, militias and extrajudicial actions. The opening: 

Turn on Russian television any day of the week and you are certain to stumble upon a show in which a group of people who appear to be regular citizens (that is, they have no uniforms or government-issued documents) stage a raid of one sort or another. They barge into a store or a restaurant, for example, and demand to see employees’ identity documents, the storage area, or the cooking facilities. Without fail, they find violations of laws or regulations: the staff, natives of Central Asia, don’t have work permits! The store stocks vodka bottles with no alcohol-tax stamps affixed to them! The cook doesn’t cover her hair! At the end of the show, the raiders often pass their tearful, terrified victims to uniformed law enforcement officers, who sometimes appear less than enthusiastic about the task being handed to them.

These raiders have no official titles or legal powers. What directs their actions are the militant rhetoric and the promise of broad impunity that emanate from the Kremlin—and, of course, the glory and recognition of being on television. YouTube and RuTube contain a trove of other vigilante videos, including of self-appointed vice squads who beat up gay men or suspected drug dealers on camera.

Sometimes these vigilantes get in trouble with the law: occasionally a murderer of gay men is caught and jailed, and once in a while a vigilante-gang leader is reined in, though his partners in crime continue to roam free. But in general, the arrangement is low-risk for the perpetrators and convenient for the Kremlin. Vigilantes work fast. Russian law enforcement is not exactly subject to a lot of institutional constraints, but it can be sluggish, and it carries out violence in a dragged-out, bureaucratic way. The vigilantes, on the other hand, make a spectacle of their work, creating the sort of generalized dread on which autocracies thrive. At the same time, vigilantes, who work in small clumps, do not pose the sort of threat to the autocrat that powerful institutions of state sometimes can.

Putin did not invent vigilantes, of course: autocrats frequently rely on delegating violence to extralegal actors or, as in the case of Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, on the willingness of law enforcement officers to carry out extralegal violence in exchange for the promise of impunity. Duterte has made this promise explicit; more often, incitement to violence contains a tacit guarantee of protection.

Over the last two weeks, we have seen Donald Trump send out both kinds of signals to the vigilantes of his own choosing.•

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Paying taxes is deeply repellent to many Americans who profit daily from what these collected monies make possible. Corporations particularly find this process galling. Paul Ryan visited Boeing in Washington State a week ago to give full-throated disapproval of the 35% corporate tax rate. Of course, the airplane manufacturer pays closer to 5%. Apple’s payout is often essentially negligible. The average effective corporate tax rate in the U.S. is roughly 27% thanks to myriad loopholes.

The House Speaker, the Oval Office and usually warring factions of Republicans all agree the number needs to be lowered to between 15-20%. Experience shows this reduction won’t create new jobs, just enrich the already wealthy. When Americans wonder where all the money went and why we can’t build infrastructure without ballooning the deficit — which exists largely because of Dubya’s tax cuts for the wealthy in 2001 — the answer rests mostly in congressional offices and corporate suites.

· · ·

One of the main bugaboos plaguing Russian businessman and scientist Igor Ashurbeyli’s proposed Asgardia: The Space Nation (as opposed to Asgardia: The Thing That Guards My Ass) is the issue of taxes, though that’s hardly the only obstacle. His vision is one of “Space Arks” orbiting the Earth and being home to a “democratic utopia,” a nation-state beyond the rules of Earth that works to protect the mothership.

Hundreds of thousands folks from a variety of nations have already applied for citizenship (damn foreigners!), though, as you might expect, there are some details to be worked out even beyond preventing everyone from dying in a container in the stratosphere. As Charles Rollet explains in a Wall Street Journal article, the entrepreneur has decided taxes will be voluntary, perhaps not the easiest way to build a new civilization.

The opening:

It’s tough enough to create a nation in space. There’s the Earth-orbiting colony to plan, the provisioning to figure out and the technical challenge of launching thousands of people.

On top of that, you have to make folks get along before they even rocket up there.

The scale of the human task is dawning on Russian businessman and scientist Igor Ashurbeyli, who last year drew headlines with his plan for a peaceful democratic utopia dubbed Asgardia above the stratosphere.

More than 300,000 people from 217 countries and territories signed up online to be Asgardians—among them starry-eyed dreamers, sci-fi fans and political idealists—and 110,000 of them are now officially citizens.

While Dr. Ashurbeyli’s lofty plan involves launching “Space Arks” into lower Earth orbit by 2025, he has found himself caught up in earthly debates among his people about pesky details such as the space nation’s constitution and potential taxes.

Not to mention its prospective shortage of women.

Among problems facing Asgardia, “the biggest is self-organization,” said Dr. Ashurbeyli, 53, “because no one has ever tried organizing…what is today 100,000 citizens from 200 countries who don’t know each other and live in different places on Earth.”

Dr. Ashurbeyli, based in Moscow, has few details about how Asgardia, named after Asgard, the godly realm of Norse mythology, would be built, launched and run. Specifics are to be decided by the nation’s parliament.•

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Louise Mensch would make an amazing fictional character, but she’s unfortunately an actual person.

I’ve believed from the start that some unaffiliated person with Intelligence Community connections and a Twitter account could aid in unraveling the issue of Russian collusion, which the mainstream American media failed to address during the campaign. Perhaps a reporter squeezed from a post covering the FBI or a foreign intelligence agency in this time of media company die-offs and consolidations could provide a loose strand or two? Maybe the Woodwards or Bernsteins of this era could come from outside of institutions like the Washington Post?

Possible, but it certainly wasn’t going to be Mensch, who seems to be just as much a bewildering Philip K. Dick creation as John McAfee, a fugitive from, among other things, common sense. Claude Taylor, Mensch’s sometimes cohort who added a dollop of gravitas to the online operation by virtue of having worked in a low-level job for the Clinton Administration, doesn’t seem nearly as off-kilter, though he too is overmatched in trying to crack the code. 

In a Guardian article published on Monday, Jon Swaine reported that allegations of Trump being involved with an underage sex ring via his defunct modeling agency had been passed to the duo not by a Mark Felt but by a hoaxer who felt they were marks. It was Derp Throat. From Swaine:

The hoaxer, who fed the information to Taylor by email, said she acted out of frustration over the “dissemination of fake news” by Taylor and Mensch. Their false stories about Trump have included a claim that he was already being replaced as president by Senator Orrin Hatch in a process kept secret from the American public.

“Taylor asked no questions to verify my identity, did no vetting whatsoever, sought no confirmation from a second source – but instead asked leading questions to support his various theories, asking me to verify them,” the source said in an email.•

Just because the experts failed us in the run-up to the election doesn’t mean the amateurs are a better bet now.

· · ·

What’s most perplexing about false narratives being sold, whether for personal gain or simply because of good intentions run amok, is that the noose appears to be genuinely tightening around Trump in regards the Kremlin investigation and other legal matters. WaPo and the New York Times have one-upped each other the past few days by publishing damning articles newly linking Trump’s camp to veteran face-stabber Felix Sater, a Brooklyn-born “legitimate businessman” with ties to Russia’s upper class and underworld. Equally important is that Trump’s most recent provocations (the Arpaio pardon, drawing moral equivalence between white supremacists and those who protest them, allowing local police forces to arm themselves with military weaponry) seem aimed at enabling an authoritarian power grab should Mueller produce evidence of collusion, financial crimes or other seriously illegal behaviors. These two factors may meet headlong before long.

Two excerpts follow.

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From Sarah Lyall’s NYT conversation with British spy novelists John le Carré and Ben Macintyre:

Question:

Do you think the Russians really have something on Trump?

Ben Macintyre:

I can tell you what the veterans of the S.I.S. [the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6] think, which is yes, kompromat was done on him. Of course, kompromat is done on everyone. So they end up, the theory goes, with this compromising bit of material and then they begin to release parts of it. They set up an ex-MI6 guy, Chris Steele, who is a patsy, effectively, and they feed him some stuff that’s true, and some stuff that isn’t true, and some stuff that is demonstrably wrong. Which means that Trump can then stand up and deny it, while knowing that the essence of it is true. And then he has a stone in his shoe for the rest of his administration.

It’s important to remember that Putin is a K.G.B.-trained officer, and he thinks in the traditional K.G.B. way.

John le Carré:

The mentality that is operating in Russia now is absolutely, as far as Putin is concerned, no different to the mentality that drove the most exotic conspiracies during the Cold War. It worked then, it works now. As far as Trump, I would suspect they have it, because they’ve denied it. If they have it and they’ve set Trump up, they’d say, “Oh no, we haven’t got anything.” But to Trump they’re saying, “Aren’t we being kind to you?”

Ben Macintyre:

And today you get this wonderful Russian lawyer woman [Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was in the pre-election meeting at Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr.] who is straight out of one of our books, a character that is possibly connected to the Russian state. Who knows? They exist somewhere in that foggy, deniable hinterland. It’s called maskirovka — little masquerade — where you create so much confusion and uncertainty and mystery that no one knows what the truth is.

John le Carré:

For Putin, it’s a kind of little piece of background music to keep things going. The smoking gun might or might not be the documents exchanged about the Trump Tower in Moscow [which Trump is said to have been planning to build]. Then there’s the really seedy stuff in the Caucasus. There are bits of scandal which, if added up, might suggest he went to Russia for money. And that would then fit in with the fact that he isn’t half as, a tenth as rich as he pretends to be.•

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The opening question from Chauncey DeVega’s latest Salon Q&A with historian Timothy Snyder:

Question:

We talked several months ago about Trump’s election and the state of American democracy. Much has happened since our first conversation. How is the country doing?

Timothy Snyder:

I think the most predictable thing, because it does not have to do with legislation, was the moral effect that his presence would have.

This works three ways. It works by what Trump does and says. For example, the outrageous things he says about the press and his obsession with violence. It also works by the things he doesn’t say and the things he doesn’t condemn. “On the one hand and on the other hand” is a way to destroy values and virtues, because if the leader of the country does not have a firm opinion about good and evil then it becomes very hard for other people to have firm opinions about good and evil.

People who have opinions which are in fact absolutely evil are supported by this kind of relativism. With the attempted terrorist attacks, defacing the Holocaust Memorials, and defacing the Lincoln Memorial — which just happened, by the way — you are looking at the demoralization of a society.

The second big trend is that we are hanging by our teeth to the rule of law. That was my judgment at the beginning of his presidency and it is still my judgment now. The rule of law is what gives us a chance to rebuild the system after this is  all done.•

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When creating the wax faces that would make her world famous, Marie Tussaud did not work from memory. She reportedly was often aided in her work by decapitated heads.

When the Internet recently blew up over the relative pallor of the Beyoncé figure at Madame Tussauds New York, I reflected on the gruesome origins of the now-placid institution that caters to tourists in many major cities. The artist began her brilliant career in 1877, when she fashioned a likeness of Voltaire, but it was during the French Revolution when she nearly lost her life and created the work that would later allow her to gain great notoriety.

During the Reign of Terror, Tussaud was among the many targeted to literally lose their heads. Having lived in Versailles for many years while in the employ of the king and queen, she was imprisoned for being loyal to the crown and had her skull shaved in preparation for a visit to the guillotine. Freed from this terrible end by powerful friends, she utilized the wax art taught to her by her uncle to make the death mask into a political prop and, ultimately, a pop culture item. Among her grisly, lifelike creations of the executed were the sculpted crowns of her former employers King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (third photo), which she reputedly created from their freshly severed heads which were hurriedly delivered to her studio. So the story goes, anyhow.

In the new century she moved to London with her work and established a museum that became as sensation, aided by a Punch magazine piece that dubbed it a “chamber of horrors” because she had begun creating life-size dioramas of ghastly crime and accident scenes. Her legacy continues nearly 170 years after her death, though now Tussauds artists work from photographs or have celebrities, heads still attached, pose for them.

A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article on June 22, 1912 recalled her strange life and career.

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This spectral photo of residents inside a Galveston assisted-living facility soaking calmly in the deep waters of Harvey is among the more haunting images to come out of Texas during this hellacious weather onslaught, the kind of “once-in-a-century” storm that is now occurring several times a decade in America alone. It looks like a Beckett play being performed on the Titanic, which is also a description that can be applied more broadly to this vertiginous moment in history, a time of woe for both political and climatic reasons.

Certainly global warming has played an outsize role in supersizing natural disasters, but Houston was particularly prone to devastation for a couple of other reasons: 1) It’s home to the greatest concentration of petrochemicals in the country, and 2) The city has been under-regulated and overbuilt, with paved streets now sprawled over prairies that formerly absorbed tons of excess water. 

Despite frequently serving important purposes, zoning and building regulations are oft-cursed bête noires to Libertarians and other laissez faire economists and politicos. From a 2014 Time article that encouraged the rest of America to follow Texas’ lead in instituting more lenient zoning laws:

Among the policies [Tyler] Cowen proposes as we move into this future: cheaper education (to allow workers to upgrade their skills), looser building and zoning regulations (to radically reduce the price of housing across America), and a loosening of occupational licensing at the state and local level (to open up many more low-skill jobs).•

Certainly there are building codes and zoning rules driven by greed rather than merit, but the unintended consequences that follow rampant deregulation can be deadly. Houston now knows this all too well.

· · ·

From “Boomtown, Floodtown,” a December 2016 piece by Neena Satija, Kiah Collier and Al Shaw of ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, which predicted Houston would have a problem:

The area’s history is punctuated by such major back-to-back storms, but many residents say they are becoming morefrequentand severe, and scientists agree.

“More people die here than anywhere else from floods,” said Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher who specializes in natural hazards mitigation. “More property per capita is lost here. And the problem’s getting worse.”

Why?

Scientists, other experts and federal officials say Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes — including Virginia Hammond’s.

On top of that, scientists say climate change is causing torrential rainfall to happen more often, meaning storms that used to be considered “once-in-a-lifetime” events are happening with greater frequency. Rare storms that have only a miniscule chance of occurring in any given year have repeatedly battered the city in the past 15 years. And a significant portion of buildings that flooded in the same time frame were not located in the “100-year” floodplain — the area considered to have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year — catching residents who are not required to carry flood insurance off guard.•

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10 search-engine keyphrases bringing traffic to Afflictor this week:

  1. may otis blackburn los angeles cult
  2. gen. lew wallace ben-hur author
  3. bombing of hiroshima
  4. death of polish president andrzej duda
  5. jobs fully automated out of existence
  6. people who clone their pets
  7. sebastian thrun flying cars
  8. andrew o’hagan technology and the novel
  9. robert louis stevenson death in samoa
  10. it’s almost like a conspiracy

This week, Sebastian Gorka was fired from his White House post. If he’s eventually forced to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, many think he’ll be a must-see.

He seems, however, to be more like a not-see.

 

• As Donald Trump speaks out for white supremacists, Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson suggest America found a “new republic.”

• Wallace Shawn talks about people, including our Entertainer-in-Chief, using cruelty to amuse.

• A WaPo op-ed argues Gawker is desperately needed during the Trumpocalypse. Seems a grandiose statement.

Tyler Cowen worries about designer babies. I’m worried that he thinks Rex Tillerson might be a good Secretary of State.

Spiegel explains why modern Germany couldn’t elect a Trump-ish figure.

• Tom Simonite says “banning ‘killer robots’ just isn’t practical.” Probably correct.

• Bill Joy believes we should “put everything online.” Not a great idea.

• A rare TV appearance from Jerry Lewis’ long, complicated life.

• Old Print Article: John Wilkes Booth receives a second burial.

• Two notes from 1930 about an eclipse “talkie”

• This week’s Afflictor keyphrase searches: Claude Shannon, oikophobia, etc

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may or may not be compromised by the deep bond he formed with Vladimir Putin while Exxon CEO, but at the very least, he seems to be challenged by basic common sense. When he spoke on the White House sending several thousand more troops to wage a war with the Taliban in Afghanistan, he offered this perplexing quote about future battles between the U.S. and our nemesis: “We may not win one, but neither will you.”

Promising a stalemate with the Taliban essentially guarantees them a win since they live there and we don’t. Eventually, you would think, we’ll leave. That’s not exactly thinking 20 moves ahead. The economist Tyler Cowen, a brilliant person who’s read as many books as anyone, sized up the Secretary of State this way in April: “I think there’s a good chance Rex Tillerson turns out to be quite good.” Missed by that much.

The Secretary of State has weakened America’s position on the world stage at every turn, even allowing his concern about “angering Moscow” to guide our policy. Max Boot put it as bluntly as possible in his new Foreign Policy piece, writing that Tillerson “should do the country a favor and resign.”

How can someone so smart not only misjudge a sleepy CEO who seems poorly equipped for the job, but also pull his punches when discussing the repeatedly gormless and hypocritical politics of Libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel? In the latter case, there may be something of a friendship the economist wants to protect (another dubious decision), but it also has to do with the nature of intelligence. IQ isn’t everything, may be no more than half the thing. Plenty of people not nearly as well-read as Cowen have long had Thiel and Tillerson pegged for what they are. They possess something lacked by him, James BakerNassim Nicholas TalebDavid Gelernter and other highly educated people, all of whom have come up small during this gigantic moment.

· · ·

In a smart Bloomberg View column, Cowen addresses his misgivings about genetic engineering being used to create “designer babies,” something that may not happen in our lifetimes in any profound way but will probably progress significantly this century. CRISPR has remarkable promise to eradicate diseases in the womb, but it also may ultimately permit parents to choose eye color, height, gender, sexual orientation and IQ. This opens a Pandora’s box of problems.

One would be the possibility that a country could try to speed ahead of the rest of the world by radically boosting intelligence in its population. That would result in a dangerous new “arms race.” It may seem we’re rushing toward a brighter future, but as I said in the opening, intelligence isn’t the only thing that matters when developing a great society.

Cowen’s opening:

There’s a lot of innovation going on in China these days, but perhaps not all of it is good. Chinese fertility centers are going well beyond American practices, using genetic diagnosis to influence how children conceived through in vitro fertilization will turn out. On one hand, the potential for improving human health is enormous. On the other hand, I am uneasy at the prospect of the power this gives parents. I don’t trust people to take so much control over the future of human nature.

Sometimes you hear it argued that the complex nature of genes will prevent major feats of genetic engineering. That may be selling short future advances in Big Data and biomedicine, but even minor changes in genetic diagnosis and selection could have significant effects. Maybe you can’t choose to have a child who will be happy, but you might be able to lower the chance of your kid having depression or social anxiety by some small amount. Over the course of generations, that will exert great influence over the nature of the human experience.

One risk, of course, is that parents will opt for some apparently desirable qualities in their children, and then the experiment will backfire, due to unforeseen genetic connections. Maybe we’ll get happier kids, but they will be less creative, or less driven, or they might care less about others. Those are valid concerns, especially in these early days of genetic engineering. But I have a deeper worry, namely that things can go badly even when parents get exactly what they want.

If you could directly alter your kids’ genetic profile, what would you want? It’s hard to know how the social debate would turn out after years of back and forth, but I was dismayed to read one recent research paper by psychologists Rachel M. Latham and Sophie von Stumm. The descriptive title of that work, based on survey evidence, is “Mothers want extraversion over conscientiousness or intelligence for their children.” Upon reflection, maybe that isn’t so surprising, because parents presumably want children who are fun to spend time with.

Would a more extroverted human race be desirable, all things considered? I genuinely don’t know, but at the very least I am concerned.•

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Sometime after January 2008, an entertainer became obsessed with the President of the United States, determined to prove him invalid and unworthy, to destroy the legacy of someone far grander than himself. Politics was part of the impetus, but the mania seemed to have a far deeper source. A similar scenario played out more than 140 years earlier with far more lethal results when another entertainer, John Wilkes Booth, was overcome by a determination to kidnap or kill Abraham Lincoln, even directing angry dialogue at the President when he happened to attend a play in which his future assassin performed. “He does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?” the President acknowledged. The thespian was a Confederate sympathizer, but his wild rage for Lincoln was driven by something beyond the question of abolition.

In the aftermath of the 1865 balcony tragedy, Booth fled and was slain by the gun of Union soldier Boston Corbett and interred in D.C. after an autopsy and the removal of several vertebrae and the fatal bullet. The body was subsequently relocated to a warehouse at the Washington Arsenal. Four years after he met with justice, the actor’s corpse was emancipated from government oversight and was allowed to be reburied in Baltimore by his family. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter happened to be visiting with President Johnson in the White House when the transfer was made, allowing him to be eyewitness to the grim process and the state of the remains, which he said retained much of the departed’s “manly beauty.” An article in an 1877 edition of the paper recalled the undertaking.

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“We need to put everything online,” Bill Joy tells Steven Levy in an excellent Backchannel interview, and I’m afraid that’s what we’re going to do. It’s an ominous statement in a mostly optimistic piece about the inventor’s advances in batteries, which could be a boon in creating clean energy.

Of course, Joy doesn’t mean his sentiment to be unnerving. He looks at sensors, cameras and computers achieving ubiquity as a means to help with logistics of urban life. But they’re also fascistic in the wrong hands–and eventually that’s where they’ll land. These tools can help the trains run on time, and they can also enable a Mussolini.

Progress and regress have always existed in the same moment, but these movements have become amplified as cheap, widely available tools have become far more powerful in our time. So we have widespread governmental and corporate surveillance of citizens, while individuals and militias are armed with weapons more powerful than anything the local police possesses. This seems to be where we’re headed in America: Everyone is armed in one way or another in a very dangerous game. 

When Joy is questioned about the downsides of AI, he acknowledges “I don’t know how to slow the thing down.” No one really seems to.

An excerpt:

Steven Levy:

In the 1990s you were promoting a technology called Jini that anticipated mobile tech and the Internet of Things. Does the current progress reflect what you were thinking all those years ago?

Bill Joy:

Exactly. I have some slides from 25 years ago where I said, “Everyone’s going to be carrying around mobile devices.” I said, “They’re all going to be interconnected. And there are 50 million cars and trucks a year, and those are going to be computerized.” Those are the big things on the internet, right?

Steven Levy:

What’s next?

Bill Joy:

We’re heading toward the kind of environment that David Gelernter talked about in his book, Mirror Worlds, when he said, “The city becomes a simulation of itself.” It’s not so interesting just to identify what’s out there statically. What you want to do is have some notion of how that affects things in the time domain. We need to put everything online, with all the sensors and other things providing information, so we can move from static granular models to real simulations. It’s one thing to look at a traffic map that shows where the traffic is green and red. But that’s actually backward-looking. A simulation would tell me where it’s going to be green and where it’s going to be red.

This is where AI fits in. If I’m looking at the world I have to have a model of what’s out there, whether it’s trained in a neural net or something else. Sure, I can image-recognize a child and a ball on this sidewalk. The important thing is to recognize that, in a given time domain, they may run into the street, right? We’re starting to get the computing power to do a great demo of this. Whether it all hangs together is a whole other thing.

Steven Levy:

Which one of the big companies will tie it together?

Bill Joy:

Google seems to be in the lead, because they’ve been hiring these kind of people for so long. And if there’s a difficult problem, Larry [Page, Google’s CEO] wants to solve it. Microsoft has also hired a lot of people, as well as Facebook and even Amazon. In these early days, this requires an enormous amount of computing power. Having a really, really big computer is kind of like a time warp, in that you can do things that aren’t economical now but will be economically [feasible] maybe a decade from now. Those large companies have the resources to give someone like Demis [Hassabis, head of Google’s DeepMind AI division] $100 million, or even $500 million a year, for computer time, to allow him to do things that maybe will be done by your cell phone 10 years later.

Steven Levy:

Where do you weigh in on the controversy about whether AI is a threat to humanity?

Bill Joy:

Funny, I wrote about that a long time ago.

Steven Levy:

Yes, in your essay The Future Doesn’t Need Us.” But where are you now on that?

Bill Joy:

I think at this point the really dangerous nanotech is genetic, because it’s compatible with our biology and therefore it can be contagious. With CRISPR-Cas9 and variants thereof, we have a tool that’s almost shockingly powerful. But there are clearly ethical risks and danger in AI. I’m at a distance from this, working on the clean-tech stuff. I don’t know how to slow the thing down, so I decided to spend my time trying to create the things we need as opposed to preventing [what threatens us]. I’m not fundamentally a politician. I’m better at inventing stuff than lobbying.•

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In the 1990 wake of Donald Trump’s scandalous divorce and financial cratering, Liz Smith, who used the hideous hotelier for cheap, titillating content long before cable news did, wrote off his lifelong dream of acquiring the White House: “It appears Donald Trump will never be President. He can be a lot of other important things, but not the chief executive of the U.S., unless, of course, the next few generations of Americans produced are mutants with very brief memories.”

Judge for yourself if nearly 63 million of your fellow citizens fall into that unfortunate category, but Trump achieved his goal, even if it was a hostile takeover, with not only Russian interference and FBI incompetence aiding our fall from grace and into the gutter, but seismic changes in technology, media, politics and entertainment enabling the whole sordid mess.

Before a Trump presidency could became a reality, the scenario of a deeply bigoted, braggadocious, misogynistic, ignorant, money-laundering sociopath and low-brow entertainer ascending to the highest office in the land had to seem possible. That it did to so many speaks to the crumbling of our norms. 

· · ·

In “Why There Won’t Be a German Trump,” a Spiegel essay by Dirk Kurbjuweit, the writer argues that his country’s different mindset and its rigid party control over candidates negates the political “freak factor,” making it almost impossible for a lone wolf who’s crazy as a loon to succeed at the highest level. That’s likely true for now, though given enough time, anything is possible. An excerpt:

Politics emerges in the “realm of possiblity” that societies construct for themselves. What do people imagine? What kinds of leaders do they think are possible? The realm of possibility is a product of real experiences as well as that of visions, fantasies, stories and dreams. What’s crucial is the height of the wall separating reality and dreams. If it is high, the potential space is small — and vice versa.

An American film called Miss Sloane, a portrait of an ice-cold lobbyist in Washington, is currently showing in German theaters. It’s a powerful movie that will leave viewers with the impression that its depiction is, in principle, an accurate one. That the fight for majorities is carried out ruthlessly, often with lies used as weapons. The reality under Trump is being compared to “House of Cards,” a series about a brutal politician who manipulates his way into the White House.

Ronald Reagan was an actor before he became a politician. Jesse Ventura was a professional wrestler, which is to say a showbiz star, before he became the governor of Minnesota. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an actor before he became the governor of California and now he is once again an actor. Donald Trump was the lead character in a reality show before he became president. These men moved from a pseudo reality into a political reality. The American wall is low, if it exists at all — the worlds of reality and dreams flow into one another. The Hollywood dream factory is part of the truth, but it is an invented one. President Trump is the product of an enormous realm of possibility.•

There are also political lies in Germany, but not such an intense interdependence between fictional narratives and reality. Here, realism is a long-scorned and underdeveloped art form. Politics is considered too boring to produce grand narratives, a fact that keeps Germany’s realm of possibility relatively small. Someone like Trump isn’t imaginable because we haven’t seen anything like him in a movie or on a TV screen. And then there’s the fact that grand narratives, whether real or not, arise out of megalomania — something that has been viewed with intense skepticism in Germany since 1945, with good reason.

Germany has a different concept of reality than the U.S., a clear separation between the spheres of dreams and politics, a high wall that makes political reality a bit more reliable and more serious.•

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I miss Gawker, for the most part.

The evil billionaire Peter Thiel, a “genius” who was absolutely certain there were WMDS in Iraq and that Trump would be a great President, took the site away from us. Of course, he had help. When you spend your last year or so of existence as Gawker did by (allegedly) outing a magazine executive who isn’t harming anyone, risking your very existence to show a few seconds from a Hulk Hogan sex tape (I’d rather stare wide-eyed at an eclipse) and willfully making disturbing comments before a courtroom that will decide your future, you likely have entered into a fatal state of institutional delusion. This isn’t a defense of Thiel — you know how I feel about him — but to say that as much as I enjoyed Gawker sticking small pins into bloated bags of gas over the years, it often seemed as concerned with its survival as Rob Ford in a crack house.

The company’s main contribution to the culture was providing a platform for talented young writers who could go on and do better work at better publications. In that way, it will keep enriching us for a long time to come. In his Washington Post editorial “Gawker Has Been Gone For A Year. We’ve Never Needed It More Than Now,” Michael J. Socolow argues the snarky site would be a precious commodity during our Trumpocalypse. Eh. That seems more than a little grandiose.

I wish Gawker still existed, but righteous snark pours nonstop from truly brilliant and witty minds on Twitter, and the “critical autonomy” the WaPo writer lauds the outlet for was often misspent. I doubt the site would have delivered anything near as important as Elle Reeve’s brilliant Vice coverage of the Charlottesvile white supremacist rallies. What effect would Nick Denton’s pirate ship have had on improving our politics during this desperate time? A negligible one, most likely.

From Socolow:

Now that Gawker’s buried, we might consider what we lost when that mischievous and irresponsible purveyor of gossip was shuttered. Gawker was not simply an influential Web outlet; its proudly independent sensibility and critical autonomy remain rare in today’s corporate media sphere. But to consider Gawker simply a minnow in a sea of whales is to miss its true value. Gawker might have been foolhardy, reckless and ultimately self-destructive, but it was also, above all, courageous. With the hindsight of Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency, we should all recognize that courage in the media is needed now more than ever.

Gawker is mostly defined as a guilty pleasure, an exercise in prurience by bored Web surfers and their millennial progeny. Yet its impact on American media remains undeniable. It launched the careers of an excellent set of young journalists, and it demonstrated a rare independence from corporate pressure, celebrity handlers and political operatives. Its stylistic form — directly addressing its readers like friends engaged in conversation — offers an instructive lesson for all media outlets seeking loyalty from readers. Gawker didn’t disdain its commenters: It teased them, argued with them, and kept them interested and coming back. Denton and his cadre of young, underpaid editors understood effective Web journalism.

But to place Gawker only in the context of the Web era is to miss its historical significance. Like PM (New York’s experimental newspaper in the 1940s), or the Berkeley Barb and other alternative press outlets in the 1960s, Gawker began as a crusade to save journalism. Like its alternative predecessors, Gawker challenged the processed wire copy and objective norms of standardized news content with pieces that could be opinionated, sensationalistic, and occasionally bizarre. Readers would be lured in with narcissistic displays, participatory journalism, and styles of address that could range from the nihilistic to the euphoric. There’s a reason it was named “Gawker.”•

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Was looking at the wonderful The Browser earlier today, and the quote of the day was from William Carlos Williams: “That which is possible is inevitable.” So true, especially when that sentiment is applied to technology. That doesn’t mean all hope is lost and we should just idly allow the creeping — and sometimes leaping — advances of tech to roll over us, but it does speak to the competition among corporations and states that often moves forward agendas for reasons that have nothing to do with common sense or public good. 

It’s dubious we’ll come to some global consensus on inviolate rules governing genetic modifications of life forms or autonomous weapons systems. Of the two, there’s more hope for the latter than the former, considering the costs involved, though neither seems particularly promising. It won’t take a great deal of resources soon enough to rework the genome, with terrorist organizations as well as educational institutions in the game. Eventually, even startups in garages and “lone gunmen” will be able to create and destroy in this manner. This field will be, in time, decentralized.

Killer robots, conversely, aren’t going to be fast, cheap and out of control for the foreseeable future, though that doesn’t mean they won’t be developed. In fact, it’s plausible they will, even if the barrier of entry is much higher. There are currently reasons for America, China, Russia and other players to shy away from these weapons that guide themselves, but all it will take is for one major competitor to blink for everyone to rush into the future. And all sides have to keep gradually moving toward such capacity in the meantime in order to respond rapidly should a competing nation jump across the divide. Ultimately, everyone will probably blink.

“Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close,” advised an open letter from leading AI and robotics experts to the UN, encouraging the intergovernmental body to urgently address the matter of autonomous weapons. That’s certainly accurate, though the box opening seems more likely than a total ban succeeding.

· · ·

From “Sorry, Banning ‘Killer Robots’ Just Isn’t Practical,” a smart Wired piece by Tom Simonite, which speaks to how the nebulous definition of “autonomous weapons” will aid in their development:

LATE SUNDAY, 116 entrepreneurs, including Elon Musk, released a letter to the United Nations warning of the dangerous “Pandora’s Box” presented by weapons that make their own decisions about when to kill. Publications including The Guardian and The Washington Post ran headlines saying Musk and his cosigners had called for a “ban” on “killer robots.”

Those headlines were misleading. The letter doesn’t explicitly call for a ban, although one of the organizers has suggested it does. Rather, it offers technical advice to a UN committee on autonomous weapons formed in December. The group’s warning that autonomous machines “can be weapons of terror” makes sense. But trying to ban them outright is probably a waste of time.

That’s not because it’s impossible to ban weapons technologies. Some 192 nations have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention that bans chemical weapons, for example. An international agreement blocking use of laser weapons intended to cause permanent blindness is holding up nicely.

Weapons systems that make their own decisions are a very different, and much broader, category. The line between weapons controlled by humans and those that fire autonomously is blurry, and many nations—including the US—have begun the process of crossing it. Moreover, technologies such as robotic aircraft and ground vehicles have proved so useful that armed forces may find giving them more independence—including to kill—irresistible.•

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Always loved the Wallace Shawn plays Aunt Dan and Lemon and Marie and Bruce, but I wasn’t a huge fan of The Designated Mourner when it was first performed in 1998. I must say, it’s aged rather well, what with a fascist game-show host in the White House and every form of dysfunction passing for entertainment on television. What’s not often said about this supposedly golden age of TV is that it has no shortage of doltish, cruel content, people acting out the damage deep inside them for the amusement of others. Isn’t it odd that a seemingly inordinate amount of these “performers” die at a young age and nobody seems surprised? The parade of dysfunction and viciousness that Howard Stern rode to wealth and fame was co-opted by mainstream outlets just as the shock jock was largely shedding his worst impulses thanks to years of intensive therapy. 

Donald Trump, a veteran of Stern and Reality TV, didn’t invent anything new–he just took the sadistic show on the road, on the trail. What was stated repeatedly during the election season was that Trump was so much more entertaining than his competitors. He filled a void within the nation, though he did it with hate and trash.

· · ·

In a New York Review of Books piece published at the time of Mourner, Fintan O’Toole best described Shawn’s odd dual existence as mainstream comic curmudgeon and apocalyptic playwright: “The other Wallace Shawn, the playwright, is a dark figure glowering on the margins of American consumer culture, muttering about blood and sex and torture. The two aspects of his public persona seem absurdly incompatible, almost as if Samuel Beckett had made regular guest appearances on The Brady Bunch or The Lone Ranger.”

That essay came up during Adam Shatz’s London Review of Books podcast interview with Shawn. An excerpt:

Question:

Fintan O’Toole, in an essay that I thought was very perceptive about your work in the New York Review, wrote that in your plays darkness is inextricable from the popular entertainment – that wrapped up in the smooth consolations of prime time is a core of utter cruelty. I’m wondering, what do you think explains this relationship between entertainment and cruelty?

Wallace Shawn:

Well, cruelty is often expressed in entertainment …

Question:

Spectacle.

Wallace Shawn:

… obviously, the most famous being the Romans, who openly had people being killed in front of an audience.

Question:

Or lynching in the States, as well.

Wallace Shawn:

Yes. And, of course, public executions, which are still common in many countries. I mean, human beings have, one might say, in infinite well of sadism somewhere inside them, and our, you know, challenge is to try to prevent that from having everyone annihilate everyone else. But obviously there’s a tremendous amount of vicarious killing, beating and insulting that forms a large part of film and television entertainment. I mean, you know, you have to … you have to work hard to find popular pieces of entertainment – I mean, of television or films – that don’t contain those elements. But it’s … you know, when I was, I suppose … maybe nine or so, and my brother was five, we had a little Super 8 movie camera, and we made little films – and we were not very rough boys, to put it mildly, but we had guns and fist-fights, and our father tried to encourage us to make up a story that had no violence in it, and I think he gave us a head-start, you know, some suggestions on how to go about it.

Question:

This isn’t a violent story, but you do talk, in one of your essays, in a very affecting scene where you’re riding in a cab with your dad – I think you’re about ten years old – and you see some awkward, miserable-looking kid, and you start laughing at him, and your father breaks down in tears.

Wallace Shawn:

Well, he was a sensitive guy. And I don’t know if there’s any ten-year-old who is very sensitive – maybe there are. He was … yeah, it was a funny-looking, overweight kid who would have been, you know, bullied in school, and I didn’t know him, but I was indirectly bullying him just by laughing at his appearance. And, you know, that was a powerful lesson from my father, which, you know, one has to … I have to re-learn it all the time – certainly, as a short actor, I’m offered … well, I’m no longer offered many parts, because I’m declining in my popularity, but I … I have been, over the years, offered an enormous number of parts where my character, the short guy, is being bullied, and it’s supposed to be funny – and then, at a certain point, I sort of realised that was what it was, and started turning those down – along with the parts with the bullied short guy realises that he, too, can be a bully.

Question:

And turns his aggression against the other?

Wallace Shawn:

Exactly – maybe with a gun, or maybe through some clever tactic such as kicking him in the testicles, whatever.

Question:

One of the things that makes your work striking and disturbing, your plays, is that you often describe the dark allure and the pleasure that people take in cruelty, and I think, for that reason, the plays are not accusatory or pious, because you’re writing about the seductions of amorality – and the seduction of amorality is a big theme, certainly, in The Designated Mourner. Do you think that this pleasure in cruelty and aggression is a big part of Trump’s appeal? You spoke about him earlier as ‘the boot’.

Wallace Shawn:

Well, I think he certainly has concluded that that is the side of him that has made him president. I personally found his speech the other day to the policemen at the Police Academy, where he said, Don’t be too nice, one of the more horrifying moments in his presidency. I think that the pleasure that people take in cruelty, or what you would call sadism, is a very under-discussed motive for a tremendous amount of what goes on in the world – not just in our country. I mean, people take at face value the verbal explanation for why someone is being beaten up or shot, or hundreds of people being beaten up or shot, or people are being are being tortured. There are a million explanations, as there have been for every war that’s ever been fought, going back to the beginning of humanity. These … you know, there are different explanations – the explanation that is ignored is the one that isn’t put into words: the human love of cruelty, the desire to kill, the desire to torment other humans – that’s not included. I mean, the Americans say, We are fighting for freedom and democracy, and the Isis people say, We’re fighting for God, and … I mean, there have been a million explanations. But there is … an irrational desire to hurt or kill other people that is, for reasons we don’t fully understand, sometimes quiet inside humans and sometimes comes to the fore.•

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From the April 24, 1930 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

From the August 1930 Popular Science:

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