Vlad, this is Don. I made Comey disappear like Richard Simmons, so my troubles are over, right?

No, all these calls are being intercepted. You will still hang. So will that despised despot you love so much.

You mean you or Rodrigo Duterte?

No, the other one.

 

• The GOP’s odd Trump support may be partisanship. Could be something worse.

Zeynep Tufekci writes of the failings of the press during this desperate time.

Garry Kasparov talks technology, chess, Russia and more with Tyler Cowen.

 Yuval Harari imagines what will become of the post-work “useless class.”

• The ransomware attack reminds that a computerized world is a fraught one.

Michael Bess believes the ETA for profound bioenhancement is 2050.

The driverless future may leave Uber and Lyft on the side of the road.

• Old Print Article: Cranks and criminals that worry the wealthy. (1905)

• A brief note from 1949 about Il Duce’s stolen loot.

• This week’s Afflictor keyphrase searches: Caroline Cushing Graham, etc.

As we build a society that resembles a machine, we can’t assume it will be one of loving grace.

I don’t subscribe to John Markoff’s idea that we can coolly decide the path forward. These decisions will be made in the heat of battle–state versus state, corporation versus corporation. Nor am I completely deterministic about the outcome. Miracles will intermingle with malice, and constant attention and intervention will be required to mitigate the latter. 

As today’s widespread, pernicious ransomware attack of European and Asian countries the globe reminds, a world in which everything is a computer–even our brains–is a fraught one.

The opening of a New York Times article by Dan Bilefsky and Nicole Perlroth:

LONDON — An extensive cyberattack struck computers across a wide swath of Europe and Asia on Friday, and strained the public health system in Britain, where doctors were blocked from patient files and emergency rooms were forced to divert patients.

The attack involved ransomware, a kind of malware that encrypts data and locks out the user. According to security experts, it exploited a vulnerability that was discovered and developed by the National Security Agency.

The hacking tool was leaked by a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers, which has been dumping stolen N.S.A. hacking tools online beginning last year. Microsoft rolled out a patch for the vulnerability last March, but hackers took advantage of the fact that vulnerable targets — particularly hospitals — had yet to update their systems.

The malware was circulated by email; targets were sent an encrypted, compressed file that, once loaded, allowed the ransomware to infiltrate its targets.

By then, it was already too late. As the disruptions rippled through hospitals, doctors’ offices and ambulance companies across Britain on Friday, the health service declared the attack as a “major incident,” a warning that local health services could be overwhelmed by patients.•

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The New York Times, the Washington Post and the rest of what remains of the high-wattage mainstream news organizations have done a fairly good job during these dark hours of untangling White House drama in its aftermath (with some glaring exceptions, of course), but they’ve thus far failed in the most fundamental way.

None of these outlets to this point have proven to possess good sources in regards to Russiagate, which is what we desperately require now. “Credible media” is too focused on parsing “official statements,” reacting to surface outrages and ladling out punditry, the latter of which is far cheaper content to produce than painstakingly crafted reportage. That’s a fault of the press but also the reality of the shocking media shift we’ve experienced over the last 20 years, as we’ve moved into the Digital Age, which has caused enough belt tightening to crack a hip. Well-staffed overseas bureaus with connections to European Intelligence might have come in handy right about now.

Without the ability to dig beneath the surface, and those muscles seem to have atrophied across the board, a news org. can be useful and instructive and entertaining, but it can’t be essential. An individual with some deep sources and a Twitter account is just as likely to deliver what’s most needed.

A really smart entry from the Politico piece “What the Press Still Doesn’t Get About Trump“:

9. The media’s priorities are all wrong.

Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science and author of the forthcoming Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.

The press faced a range of structural weaknesses that led to its failures before the 2016 election. These weaknesses are persisting—albeit with slightly better optics because journalists face a more adversarial administration, which creates a misleading illusion of improvement.

The problem is both structural and ethical. For starters, media are clustered, and prone to herding. Not only did this cause them to underestimate Trump’s election chances, but they continue to miss the dynamics of polarization in this country, and what that means for politics. Pundits and many journalists also remain attracted to horse-race stories that resemble fiction (stumble in the second act! comeback in the third act!), which causes them to miss real dynamics because they are too busy fitting their reporting into interesting narrative structures. This also does a disservice to journalists’ remaining essential role: telling the rest of us about important questions of policy and substance that we cannot easily access, investigate or absorb on our own.

What’s more, many journalists still practice “access journalism”—which is futile. Thanks to social media and partisan cable channels, politicians now easily have their own access to audiences. The old style of access journalism often amounts to little more than reporters being subjected to spin by the insiders. But even after the election, process and inside-the-White House stories continue to interest journalists (and a large section of the so-called chattering classes) disproportionate to those stories’ political or policy importance.

Structurally, the digitally led decoupling of individual stories from newspapers has meant that solid investigative work is no longer financed by ads and gossipy punditry. But gossipy punditry and contrarianism can still bring clicks—the way sugary soda sells. So they persist, and the whole news ecology is further degraded, despite the fact that there are many really good investigative journalists out there. Finally, media are still getting played by outlets like WikiLeaks that simply prey on journalists’ weaknesses—being prone to gossip; not understanding technical stuff; prizing “copy” at regular intervals so they can’t take their eyes off drip-drip-drip leaks to figure out what’s going on.

One bright spot in all this is that subscriptions are rising: That may allow media outlets some independence, but improvements will likely come only if subscribers match their money with a demand that the media reckon with their profound and historic failure in 2016.

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Intelligent doesn’t necessarily mean good, in humans or machines.

I doubt I’ve come across any public figure who’s read more books than Tyler Cowen, yet in the country’s darkest hour, he’s pulled his punches with his fellow Libertarian Peter Thiel, who’s behaved abysmally, dangerously, in his ardent Trump support. The Administration, a gutter-level racist group, has apparently allowed Russian espionage to snake its way into the U.S. and is working in earnest to undo American democracy, to put itself beyond the reach of the law. Those who’ve gone easy on its enablers are complicit.

Maybe the machines will behave more morally than us when they’ve turned away from our lessons to teach themselves? Maybe less so?

· · · 

The pro-seasteading economist just interviewed Garry Kasparov, whose new book, Deep Thinking, I’m currently reading. Likely history’s greatest chess player, the Russian was turned deep blue by IBM during the interval between Cold Wars, when he could conjure no defense for the brute force of his algorithmically advantaged opponent.

Initially, Kasparov was too skeptical, too weighed down by human ego, to fully appreciate the powers of computers, but sometimes those who’ve most fiercely resisted religion become the most ardent believers, redirecting their fervent denial into a passionate embrace. That’s where Kasparov seems to be now in his unbridled appreciation for what machines will soon do for us, though I can comment more once I’ve completed his book.

He’s certainly right that much of what will happen with AI over the course of this century is inevitable given the way technologies evolve and the nature of human psychology. With those developments, we’ll enjoy many benefits, but with all progress comes regress, a situation heightened as the tools become more powerful. It’s clear to me that we’re not merely building machines to aid us but permanently placing ourselves inside of one with no OFF switch.

An excerpt:

Tyler Cowen:

A lot of humans don’t play chess, but we’re looking at a future where AI will make decisions about who gets a monetary loan, who is diagnosed as being schizophrenic or bipolar. How cars drive on the road increasingly is controlled by software.

The fact that the decisions of the software are not so transparent — and you see this also in computer chess — how will ordinary human beings respond to the fact that more and more of their lives will be “controlled” by these nontransparent processes that are too smart for them to understand? Because in your book, you have emotional conflict with Deep Blue, right?

Garry Kasparov:

Exactly. I’m telling you that it’s inevitable. There are certain things that are happening, and it’s called progress. This is the history of human civilization. The whole history is a steady process of replacing all forms of labor by machines. It started with machines replacing farm animals and then manual laborers, and it kept growing and growing and growing.

There was a time I mentioned in the book, people didn’t trust elevators without operators. They thought it would be too dangerous. It took a major strike in the city of New York that was equal a major disaster. You had to climb the Empire State Building with paralyzed elevators.

I understand that today, people are concerned about self-driving cars, absolutely. But now let us imagine that there was a time, I’m sure, people were really concerned, they were scared stiff of autopilots. Now, I think if you tell them that autopilot’s not working in the plane, they will not fly because they understand that, in the big numbers, these decisions are still more qualitative.

While I understand also the fear of people who might be losing jobs, and they could see that machines are threatening their traditional livelihood, but at the same time, even these people whose jobs are on chopping block of automation, they also depend on the new wave of technology to generate economic growth and to create sustainable new jobs.

This is a cycle. The only difference with what we have been seeing throughout human history is that now, machines are coming after people with college degrees, political influence, and Twitter accounts.•

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Since Trump is a strange, Twitter-enabled Nixon, might today’s Woodwards and Bernsteins will be equally strange and Twitter-enabled?

I ask because the MSM has done an uneven job in dealing with what’s gone on in the open with the Trump Administration, while failing to make any headway in regards to its possible treasonous acts. Sure, there’s a chance there’s nothing to be seen there, but that possibility grows slimmer seemingly daily. Judy Woodruff telling her PBS NewsHour staff that “they would cover this President just as they would any other” does not reassure, because this is not the same old. This is an emergency.

The dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, deep into an investigation of Russian collusion and requesting more money to further the probe, is particularly stunning. Despite what’s gone over the last year, Comey was likely our best hope for finding out what lies beneath.

The firing has led Matt Yglesias to suggest that Trump may have committed an impeachable offense in th form of obstruction of justice. The Vox writer is as smart as can be, but he maintains that if the GOP Congress doesn’t allow an independent investigation, it’s because of partisanship or dysfunction. I think it’s fair at this point to consider that it may be something far more sinister. 

In the piece, Yglesias references evidence published by “credible journalists in credible publications,” but these are incredible times. The answers may be in the margins.

An excerpt:

REPUBLICANS HAVE THEIR HEADS IN THE SAND

The key leaders of the Republican Party are, once again, protecting and defending Donald Trump. And once again, there is a small thread of dissent, with various more vulnerable members of Congress suggesting that they find the timing suspicious or otherwise troubling. John McCain is even back to making trouble about the need for a more serious independent inquiry into Russia matters.

But while the Russia matter is, of course, important, at this point, to simply focus on Russia is to miss the elephant in the room: Trump and obstruction of justice.

Congress ought to investigate what really happened here. Did Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein really write a memo about Comey’s handling of the emails that was so persuasive it convinced Sessions and Trump to both change their minds and fire Comey? Or, as seems much more plausible, was he tasked with writing up a memo that would validate an already-made decision on the theory that if the Trump administration aligned themselves with earlier Democratic criticism of Comey, they would be unable to knock him for the firing?

And if so, what was the real reason Comey was fired — and how did it relate to the president’s anger over the Russia investigation and its forward progress?

The odds that a Congress under continued GOP control will pursue such questions seem slim. During the 2016 presidential campaign, few Republicans in Congress were under the delusion that Trump’s rise to prominence was a good thing for the conservative movement. They worried, overwhelmingly, that his erratic ways were going to drag them down with him.

Ever since Election Day, they have operated in a strange moral and intellectual miasma that’s led them to forget all that and invest their energy in defending him, believing that to be the best path forward for American conservatism. One can only hope at this point that they’ll reconsider before it’s too late. If not, America is going to need a different group of Congress members.•

From the September 7, 1949 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Of the many consequences, intended and not, of driverless cars, the fate of Uber is one of the least important unless you happen to be an investor in the rideshare company or an interested party hoping to see Travis Kalanick’s oft-irresponsible outfit get driven from the road. More vital will be the disappearance of millions of jobs, the saving of that many lives over time, the impact on the environment, etc.

Still, it’s a fascinating business story. Uber’s massive disruption of the taxi industry may be soon viewed as a staggering, though short-lived, victory, much the way CDs wrecked the market for LPs and cassettes, before being quickly usurped by a better technology.  

When autonomous cars do become a going concern, eventually there won’t be any need for a middle man, and, perhaps, ownership of any kind. The fleets will drive themselves in all senses.

Two new excerpts on the topic are followed by a piece from a retro 1969 National Geographic feature.


From a Forbes article by Chunka Mui about Google driverless guru Chris Urmson’s predictions for the sector:

To the inevitable question of “when,” Urmson is very optimistic. He predicts that self-driving car services will be available in certain communities within the next five years.

You won’t get them everywhere. You certainly not going to get them in incredibly challenging weather or incredibly challenging cultural regions. But, you’ll see neighborhoods and communities where you’ll be able to call a car, get in it, and it will take you where you want to go.

(Based on recent Waymo announcements, Phoenix seems a likely candidate.)

Then, over the next 20 years, Urmson believes we’ll see a large portion of the transportation infrastructure move over to automation.

Urmson concluded his presentation by calling it an exciting time for roboticists. “It’s a pretty damn good time to be alive. We’re seeing fundamental transformations to the structure of labor and the structure transportation. To be a part of that and have a chance to be involved in it is exciting.”•


The opening of Christopher Mims’ smart WSJ piece about the potential fall of Uber:

If Uber Technologies Inc. ever collapses, historians may trace its undoing not to its troubles with labor relations, intellectual property, regulatory conflicts or sexual-harassment allegations, but to technological disruption.

This would be the same technological disruption the company itself pledged to use to upend the auto industry and the $2 trillion a year tied to it.

Less than a year ago, Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalanick described self-driving cars as an “existential” threat to his company, saying that his team must get the technology to market before competitors do, or at least at around the same time. Self-driving vehicles would ultimately be much cheaper to operate than ones requiring human drivers—robots work tirelessly and don’t demand raises. The first companies to roll out fleets of automated taxis could quickly drive their human-powered competition into oblivion.

Uber’s philosophy, both internally and in its pitch to consumers, is that it’s a hassle to own a car. The irony is, for the pay-by-the-ride future of transportation to be realized, someone has to own a lot of cars. Chances are, it won’t be Uber.•


Three months before we reached the moon, a moment when machines eclipsed, in a meaningful way, the primacy of humanity, National Geographic published the 1969 feature “The Coming Revolution in Transportation,” penned by Frederic C. Appel and Dean Conger. The article prognosticated some wildly fantastical misses as any such futuristic article would, but it broadly envisioned the next stage of travel as autonomous and, perhaps, electric.

The two excerpts I’ve included below argue that tomorrow’s transportation would in, one fashion or another, remove human hands from the wheel. The second passage particularly relates to the driverless sector of today. Interesting that we’re skipping the top-down step of building “computer-controlled” or “automated” highways, something suggested as necessary in this piece, as an intensive infrastructure overhaul never materialized. We’re attempting instead to rely on visual-recognition systems and an informal swarm of gadgets linked to the cloud to circumvent what was once considered foundational.

· · ·

“People Capsule”: Dial Your Destination

Everywhere I found signs that a revolution in transportation is on the way. 

The automobile you drive today could probably move at 100 miles an hour. But you average closer to 10 as you travel our clogged city streets.

Someday, perhaps in your lifetime, it could be like this….

You ride toward the city at 90 miles an hour, glancing through the morning newspaper while your electrically powered car follows its route on the automated “guideway.”

You leave your car at the city’s edge–a parklike city without streets–and enter on the small plastic “people capsules” waiting nearby. Inside, you dial your destination on a sequence of numbered buttons. Then you settle back to reading your paper. 

Smoothly, silently, your capsule accelerates to 80 miles an hour. Guided by a distant master computer, it slips down into the network of tunnels under the city–or into tubes suspended above it–and takes precisely the fastest route to your destination.

Far-fetched? Not at all. Every element of that fantastic people-moving system is already within range of our scientists’ skills.

· · ·

Car-trunk Computer Issues Orders

Consider automated cars–and when you do, look at the modern automobile. Think of the rapid increase, in the past decade, of electric servomechanisms on automobiles. Power steering, antiskid power brakes, adjustable seats, automatic door locks, automatic headlight dimmers, electronic speed governors, self-regulated air conditioning.

Detroit designers, already preparing for the day your vehicle will drive itself, are getting practical experience with the automatic devices on today’s cars. When more electric devices are added and the first computer-controlled highways are built, the era of the automated car will be here.

At the General Motors Technical Center near Detroit, I drove a remarkable vehicle. It was the Unicontrol Car, one step along the way to the automated family sedan.

In the car a small knob next to the seat (some models have dual knobs) replaced steering wheel, gearshift lever, accelerator and brake pedal.

Moving that knob, I learned, sends electronic impulses back to a sort of “baby computer” in the car’s trunk. The computer translates those signals into action by activating the proper servomechanism–steering motor, power brakes, or accelerator.

Highways May Take Over the Driving

Simple and ingenious, I thought, as I slid into the driver’s seat. Gingerly I pushed the knob forward. Somewhere, unseen little robots released the brake and stepped on the gas.

So far, so good. Now I twitched the knob to the left–and very nearly made a 35-mile-an-hour U-turn!

But after a few minutes of practice, I found that the strange control method really did feel comfortably logical. I ended my half-hour test drive with a smooth stop in front of a Tech Center office building and headed upstairs to call on Dr. Lawrence R. Hafstad, GM’s Vice President in Charge of Research Laboratories. 

The Unicontrol Car–a research vehicle built to test new servomechanisms–is easy to drive. Still, it does have to be driven. I asked Dr. Hafstad about the proposed automated highways that would relieve the driver of all responsibilities except that of choosing a destination.

“Automated highways–engineers call them guideways–are technically feasible today,’ Dr. Hafstad answered. “In fact, General Motors successfully demonstrated an electronically controlled guidance system about ten years ago. A wire was embedded in the road, and two pickup coils were installed at the front of the car to sense its position in relation to that wire. The coils sent electrical signals to the steering system, to keep the vehicle automatically on course.

“More recently, we tested a system that also controlled spacing and detected obstacles. It could slow down an overtaking vehicle–even stop it, until the road was clear!”

Other companies are also experimenting with guideways. In some systems, the car’s power comes from an electronic transmission line built into the road. In others, vehicles would simply be carried on a high-speed conveyor, or perhaps in a container. Computerized guidance systems vary, too. 

“Before the first mile of automated highway is installed,” Dr. Hafstad pointed out, “everyone will have to agree on just which system is to be used.”• 

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Smarter, stronger and healthier are just a few of the advantages bioengineering and informatic machines will deliver to us, likely sometime this century. By then, our hands will have taken control of evolution, and our heads will be in the cloud. These miracle tools will also be attended by a raft of ethical issues and unintended consequences.

In an excellent Vox Q&A conducted by Sean Illing, Michael Bess, author of Our Grandchildren Redesignedbelieves the ETA for this brave new world is 2050 or so. He fears the possibility of a whole new different level of wealth inequality, but he doesn’t think we should be overly deterministic about the effects of these technologies, arguing we can consciously direct their course despite not really having the time to get ahead of the onrushing problems.

In a perfectly flat world, sure. In a globe filled with competing states and corporations and groups and individuals, however, there will be no consensus. Some actors will push the envelope, hoping for an edge, and others may react in kind. This dynamic will be especially true since the machinery and materials won’t be rare, expensive and closely held, like in the case of nuclear weaponry. As Freeman Dyson has written: “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous.”

An excerpt:

Sean Illing:

And this revolution in biotechnology, in the ability to tinker with the human genome and alter our own biology, is coming whether we want it to or not, right?

Michael Bess:

It is, but I’m always careful about saying that, because I don’t want to fall into technological determinism. Some of the writers like Ray Kurzweil, the American inventor and futurist, have tended to do that. They say it’s coming whether we like it or not, and we need to adapt ourselves to it.

But I don’t see technology that way, and I think most historians of technology don’t see it that way either. They see technology and society as co-constructing each other over time, which gives human beings a much greater space for having a say in which technologies will be pursued and what direction we will take, and how much we choose to have them come into our lives and in what ways.

And I think that is important to emphasize — that we still have agency. We may not be able to stop the river from flowing, but we can channel it down pathways that are more or less aligned with our values. I think that’s a very important point to make when we talk about this.

What’s happening is bigger than any one of us, but as we communicate with each other, we can assert our values and shape it as it unfolds over time, and channel it on a course that we’d prefer.

Sean Illing:

Whatever shape it does take, we’re not talking about some distant future here — we’re talking about the middle years of this century, right?

Michael Bess:

Absolutely.

Sean Illing:

How will human life improve as a result of this revolution?

Michael Bess:

I think it’s going to improve in countless ways. These are going to be technologies that are hard to resist because they’re going to be so awesome. They’re going to make us live longer, healthier lives, and they’re going to make us feel younger.

So some of the scientists and doctors are talking about rejuvenation technologies so that people can live — have a longer, not only life span, but health span — which would mean that you could be 100 years old but feel like a 45-year-old, and your mind and body would still be young and vigorous and clear. So one aspect has to do with just quality of basic health and having that for a longer period of time.

Some of these chemicals — maybe some of the new bioelectronic devices — will allow us to improve our cognitive capacities. So we’ll be able to have probably augmented memory, maybe greater insight, maybe we’ll be able to boost some of the analytical functions that we have with our minds. And, in other words, sort of in a broad-spectrum way, make ourselves smarter than we have tended to be.

There will also be a tendency for us to merge our daily lives, our daily activities, ever more seamlessly with informatic machines. It’s science fiction now to talk about Google being accessible by thought, but that’s not as farfetched as many people think. In 30 or 40 years, it’s possible to envision brain-machine interfaces that you can wear, maybe fitted to the outside of your skull in a sort of nonintrusive way, that’ll allow you to connect directly with all kinds of machines and control them at a distance, so your sphere of power over the world around you could be greatly expanded.

And then there’s genetic technologies. I imagine that some of them will be a resistance to cancer — or perhaps to certain forms of cancer — that could be engineered into our DNA at the time of conception. What’s more exciting to me is going beyond the whole concept of designer babies and this whole new field of epigenetics that is coming out.

What I see there as a possibility is that you’ll be able to tinker with the genetic component of what makes us who we are at any point in your life. One of the most awful aspects of designer babies is somebody’s shaping you before you’re born — there’s a loss of autonomy that’s deeply morally troubling to many people. But if you’re 21 years old and you decide, okay, now I’m going to inform myself and make these choices very thoughtfully, and I’m going to shape the genetic component of my being in precise, targeted ways.

The way it’s looking with epigenetics is we’re going to have tools that allow us to modify our character, the way our body works, the way our mental processes work, in very profound ways at any point in our lives, so we become a genetic work in progress.

Sean Illing:

What you’re describing is utterly transformative, and in many ways terrifying.•

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Yawning wealth inequality breeds suspicion for haves and have-nots alike.

Many among today’s Silicon Valley super-rich and deep-pocketed folks are increasingly convinced U.S. society may collapse and are working accordingly on plans to allow them to ride out the storm. Escaping an American nightmare isn’t just for Peter Thiel anymore, as some of his peers are purchasing wooded acreage, stocking up on gold coins and learning survival skills. Prepping 2.0 is for the money makers more than the Jim Bakkers.

What could be spooking them so? We now have more guns than people, traditional institutions are under siege, wealth inequality is spiraling out of control, political polarization has reached its zenith, climate change is worsening, a seeming sociopath is in the White House and tens of millions of citizens are looking for someone, anyone, to blame. Doesn’t sound like a menu for a Sunday picnic.

In a recent New Yorker piece, Evan Osnos reported on the financial elite readying themselves for the big withdrawal. One retired financial-industry lobbyist told him: “Anyone who’s in this community knows people who are worried that America is heading toward something like the Russian Revolution.”

In 1905, when New York City had nearly a thousand millionaires, seemingly everyone wanted to part them from their money. Cranks would frequently write a jaw-dropping number on a piece of scrap paper and expectantly hand it to a bank teller, believing it was a sure thing. They were escorted from the building–and often sent to Bellevue. But in the waning days of the Gilded Age, some took things a step further, paying unannounced visits to the well-to-do in their mansions. The deep-pocketed were shaken, and precautions were taken, which included cannons, howitzers and fatal electric shocks.

From an article in the November 12, 1905 New York Times:

…The Morosini mansion at Riverdale-on-the-Hudson is equipped with very extraordinary and picturesque apparatus as a proof against burglars and other unwelcome visitors. Several small-bore cannon and sundry howitzers are planted around the house, each piece of ordinance being connected with the house by an electric wire.

Whenever occasion demands, a button may be pressed inside the mansion, and any one or all of the cannon can be fired off. In addition to this novel safeguard the grounds surrounding the mansion can be illuminated by means of electric bulbs scattered thickly among the trees and shrubbery.

Recently there was occasion one night for the police to answer a call from the Morosini mansion, two servants having become obstreperous. As the vehicle containing two officers from the King’s Bridge Station passed through the gate, the lawn for a hundred feet about suddenly burst into light. Adjacent trees glowed with a hundred dazzling flashes. Surprised, the officers came to an abrupt halt. But presently continuing on toward the house, every foot of the way was similarly illuminated, lights budding everywhere, making the grounds almost as brilliant as day. During a subsequent survey of the premises the police learned that all the windows on the ground floor were connected with heavily charged electric wires. When the family retires a switch is turned on, and any one attempting to open a window from the outside is apt to be fatally shocked.•

Epochs pass, cultures rise and fall, but if they do so between a telephone call and the reply, they can cause a shock to the system of individuals and societies that are difficult to withstand.

Despite the racist scapegoating of the recent Presidential election, most jobs that have been disappeared from Middle America’s manufacturing sector have vanished into the zeros and ones of automation rather than through offshoring. Many have puzzled over why this transition hasn’t resulted in a productivity spike. Is there not enough demand because of the decline of wages? Is there another inscrutable reason? 

Tough to say, but while economists are working out the fine points, more jobs, and even industries, will be placed in robotic hands, and the pace of the changeover will quicken as the tools become more powerful. If the process happens too rapidly, however, the driverless cars will handle smoothly but our ride will be bumpy. In an Atlantic article by Alana Samuels about the regions of America most likely to be upended by algorithms in the near term, there’s this harrowing passage:

Previously, automation had hurt middle-class jobs such as those in manufacturing. Now, it’s coming for the lower-income jobs. When those jobs disappear, an entire group of less-educated workers who already weren’t making very much money will be out of work. [Johannes] Moenius worries about the possibility of entire regions in which low earners are competing for increasingly scarce jobs. “I wasn’t in L.A. when the riots happened, but are we worried about this from a social perspective?” he said. “Not for tomorrow, but for 10 years from now? It’s quite frankly frightening.”•

That’s a particularly dystopic view, and maybe technological progress will be slower than expected, but sooner or later, we’ll be forced to change our focus as we’re relieved of our traditional duties. As Kevin Kelly says: “We’re constantly redefining what humans are here for.”

In a clever Guardian essay, Yuval Noah Harari wonders about the future of the post-work “useless class.” In the piece, the historian tries to divine what we’ll be using our wetware for should intelligent machines permanently displace a wide swath of the citizenry. He believes we’ll subsist on Universal Basic Income and occupy ourselves playing video games enhanced by VR and AR. An endless, mass participation version of Pokémon Go, would be, god forbid, the new religion, though Harari is contrarian in believing it won’t be much different from the life we already know.

Hundreds of millions already spend countless, unpaid hours creating free content for Facebook, so I suppose his vision is possible if not plausible. Either way, let’s hope tomorrow will involve more than Taylor Swift and an Oculus Rift.

The opening:

Most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. As artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs. Many new professions are likely to appear: virtual-world designers, for example. But such professions will probably require more creativity and flexibility, and it is unclear whether 40-year-old unemployed taxi drivers or insurance agents will be able to reinvent themselves as virtual-world designers (try to imagine a virtual world created by an insurance agent!). And even if the ex-insurance agent somehow makes the transition into a virtual-world designer, the pace of progress is such that within another decade he might have to reinvent himself yet again.

The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms. Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable.

The same technology that renders humans useless might also make it feasible to feed and support the unemployable masses through some scheme of universal basic income. The real problem will then be to keep the masses occupied and content. People must engage in purposeful activities, or they go crazy. So what will the useless class do all day?

One answer might be computer games. Economically redundant people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual reality worlds, which would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the “real world” outside. This, in fact, is a very old solution. For thousands of years, billions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games. In the past, we have called these virtual reality games “religions.”

What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together?•

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10 search-engine keyphrase searches bringing traffic to Afflictor this week:

  1. charles lindbergh feud with roosevelt
  2. caroline cushing graham essay about david frost
  3. nixon credibility gap trump
  4. francis fukuyama on autocrat trump
  5. mass weddings in fascist italy
  6. silicon valley and trump
  7. silicon valley immortalists
  8. harry tracy wild west outlaw
  9. westworld robot outlaws
  10. lawrence summers robots

This week, Mark Zuckerberg bottle-fed farm animals, perhaps hoping the photo op would help him in the 2020 Presidential race. He got the idea from a politician who’s been very successful in U.S. elections.

 

The American hard right has gone soft on the Kremlin. Why?

• Timothy Snyder predicts Trump will attempt an unconstitutional power grab.

Google wants to build a discrete city to conduct experiments.

Elon Musk wants to implant electrodes in our brains.

Yuval Harari asks if biometrics and algorithms can commandeer art.

• Siri’s Tom Gruber believes “personal memory enhancement” inevitable.

• Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the Carrie Nation of holy water, predicted US fascism.

• Lee Smith eulogizes Edie Sedgwick chronicler Jean Stein.

Algorithms tell Facebook when you’re sad and help judges determine sentences.

• Some U.S. workers training AI to complement them (replace them?).

• A brief note from 1932 about Dunninger the Mentalist.

• A brief note from 1932 about an octopus attack.

This week’s Afflictor keyphrase searches: John DeLorean, Anwar Sadat, etc.

Andy Warhol was shot, somehow, only once.

He was, no doubt, a brilliant visionary who knew decades early the Reality Age was approaching, even if he calibrated the time span we’d all be famous far too cautiously. The Pop Artist and keen media philosopher, however, was careless about those troubled souls he assembled in his Factory, his role that of the foreman unconcerned about the safety of the ones working on the floor. It was somehow glamorized, though it had all the charm of a heroin souk on Halloween. The scene in Midnight Cowboy when Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo wander, shocked, through a decadent party inside a Warholian vomitorium seems apt.

Warhol wasn’t responsible for those in his constellation, but he didn’t need to be so irresponsible. He didn’t have to be a father, but he should have been a better friend.

In Gatsby terms, he curated a “rotten crowd” in the Sixties, and into their spin waltzed New England patrician purity in the slight form of Edie Sedgwick, who was destined to be a star of the shooting variety. An aristocrat descending into hades, how amazing! Except that it wasn’t. Within a few years she was worn out, used up and dead of a drug overdose. Like Zelda Fitzgerald, she’d been burned alive.

A decade after her death, Jean Stein, a restless type of Hollywood royalty, created a great oral history of Sedgwick that also spoke to the era. Not that Stein’s book fully captured the 1960s anymore than did Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, both volumes laser focused on the dark side of the decade. But you also couldn’t tell nearly as well the story of that tumultuous time without their reporting.

Stein just died in a fall from her 15th-floor Manhattan apartment, likely a suicide, after sliding into a depression. Lee Smith of the Weekly Standard, a former employee and confidante of the author and editor, wrote the best obituary about her, an uncommonly deep dive into her psyche and milieu. An excerpt from the obit is followed by one from Michiko Kakutani’s 1982 review of Stein’s Sedgwick book and a 1965 video of Andy and Edie in an appropriately odd appearance on Merv Griffin’s talk show.


From Smith:

Most people speak because they like to hear themselves speak, and the trick for a journalist is to respect, and then profit from, human frailty long enough to keep your own mouth shut. But other people, usually more interesting people, don’t want to speak. Jean’s genius was in getting those people to talk by speaking herself. She understood that social space wants to be filled. Everyone fears certain types of silence, so they fill it with talk, the question then is about the quality of the talk. By exposing parts of her own pain, Jean made her subjects not only willing to reveal some of their own, but also, and more importantly, keen to protect her and join her at the place of her pain so she wouldn’t be left alone.

Here’s a practical example: Next time you attend a party and are called on to introduce two people but have forgotten the name of one or both, stutter. At least one, most likely both, will quickly volunteer their names in order to rescue you from your awkwardness. Why? Arguably, it’s because people are good. In any case, Jean’s aesthetic was premised on the idea that people are basically good and don’t want others to hurt, especially not in public. And that was perhaps Jean’s great theme—public hurt, American pain.

Her first book, also edited by Plimpton, was American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy, an oral biography centered around the funeral train that took Kennedy’s body from New York City to Washington, D.C. But Edie was Jean’s masterpiece, also an oral biography, a book that I think is generally misunderstood as a love song to the Warhol gang and the groovy 1960s underground.

Generations of young women, up to the present, have gone to New York with the legend of young Edie Sedgwick, the beautiful and doomed socialite celebrity, on their minds, steered by half-formed dreams of becoming the next “It” girl. One of those young women, a friend of mine, visited the Grand Street office when Jean was there and gushed to her about how much she loved the book, the scene it portrayed, the ethos of the moment. Jean’s face became very serious. She shook her head emphatically. “It was not glamorous,” she told my friend. And then I started to imagine how Jean must have seen it—like a vision of the underworld with generations of beautiful and naïve young women on the arm of some painter, or writer, or actor, eventually to be discarded and left alone in hell. That’s who Edie was, a kid who didn’t learn quickly enough the cost of not leaving a parade of death.

The space Jean Stein occupied was unique, moral, ambiguously optimistic in the American style, and is filled now by her books, a central part of the historiography of 20th-century America.•


From Kakutani:

Beautiful and charming, she had an ability to conjure up a magical world of grace and fun, and when she came to New York in 1964, she almost immediately became the leading lady of the fashionable demimonde. Her arrival happened to coincide with that period when all the old rules were suddenly breaking down – her gift for the outrageous seemed, to many, to personify the times – and she quickly replaced Baby Jane Holzer as Andy Warhol’s newest star. Mr. Warhol, with his gift for exploiting image and personality, escorted her to parties and featured her in his films, and Vogue magazine was soon dubbing her a ”Youthquaker,” ”22, going whither, God knows, but at a great rate!”

A friend who knew Edie as a teen-ager recalls in the book that she always ”liked walking very close to extinction,” and the world of Warhol’s Factory – with its drugs and sexual experimentation – fueled her fatal predilections. There were shoplifting sprees at department stores, injections of LSD and speed, and increasingly frequent stays at hospitals and clinics. Although Edie finally left New York, returning to California, where she got married, she never seemed to get the hang of ordinary life. Happiness and the order that her grandparents had once predicated their lives on remained elusive, and on Nov. 16, 1971, she died from ”acute barbiturate intoxication.” She was 28 years old.•


Warhol refuses to speak during a 1965 appearance on Merv Griffin’s talk show, allowing a still-healthy-looking Sedgwick to handle the conversation. Not even the Pop Artist himself could have realized how correct he was in believing that soon just being would be enough to warrant stardom, that it wouldn’t matter what you said or if you said a thing, that traditional content would lose much of its value.

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Exactly a century ago, people were treated to an early glimpse of what would eventually become the changeover from the Industrial Era to the Information Age when Marcel Duchamp took a crude if useful manufactured fixture of the age (the urinal) and reinvented its meaning simply by presentation. All he added was an idea, pure information. Nothing had changed but perspective, which, of course, can be everything. It was artful, and it was art.

Now that we exist in a data-rich world and are constantly lowering ourselves deeper and deeper into the machine, our emotions, a key component of the artistic experience, are increasingly being played by social networks and search engines. In a Bloomberg View essay, historian Yuval Noah Harari considers a time when data, rather than human inspiration, will inform art. He believes biometrics and algorithms will combine to read our moods and feed us music, which will eventually be composed by computers.

An excerpt:

If art defined by human emotions,  what might happen once external algorithms are able to understand and manipulate human emotions better than Shakespeare, Picasso or Lennon? After all, emotions are not some mystical phenomenon — they are a biochemical process. Hence, given enough biometric data and enough computing power, it might be possible to hack love, hate, boredom and joy.

In the not-too-distant future, a machine-learning algorithm could analyze the biometric data streaming from sensors on and inside your body, determine your personality type and your changing moods, and calculate the emotional impact that a particular song — or even a particular musical key — is likely to have on you.

Of all forms of art, music is probably the most susceptible to Big Data analysis, because both inputs and outputs lend themselves to mathematical depiction. The inputs are the mathematical patterns of soundwaves, and the outputs are the electrochemical patterns of neural storms. Allow a learning machine to go over millions of musical experiences, and it will learn how particular inputs result in particular outputs.  

Supposed you just had a nasty fight with your boyfriend. The algorithm in charge of your sound system will immediately discern your inner emotional turmoil, and based on what it knows about you personally and about human psychology in general, it will play songs tailored to resonate with your gloom and echo your distress. These particular songs might not work well with other people, but are just perfect for your personality type. After helping you get in touch with the depths of your sadness, the algorithm would then play the one song in the world that is likely to cheer you up — perhaps because your subconscious connects it with a happy childhood memory that even you are not aware of. No human DJ could ever hope to match the skills of such an AI.•

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From the January 25, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Like Steve Jobs during his walkabout between stints as Apple’s visionary, Google’s Larry Page grew as a businessperson in the years he spent in the shadow of Eric Schmidt, the CEO whom investors forced him to hire as “adult supervision.” Although Page still has none of the late Apple co-founder’s charisma and communication skills, that social shortcoming might be a blessing some ways, since his vision of a future automated enough to satisfy Italo Balbo might give many pause, despite Page’s seemingly good intentions.

In 2013, he expressed his desire to partition some land to be used for potentially dangerous experiments that would otherwise be illegal. Like Burning Man with robots or flying cars or something. The Verge reported the technologist as saying:

There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation. And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world…some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.•

His vision falls in line with H.G. Wells’ definition of Utopia as a place that would separate pristine living spaces from the despoiled, industrialized areas that would be exploited to support them. 

It’s not a particularly honest or self-aware argument, however, because Google and other Silicon Valley superpowers are conducting experiments every day on the general public in regards to widespread surveillance, psychological manipulation and communications, all of which may be antithetical to stable democracies, the Internet being, what Schmidt himself termed that same year, the “largest experiment involving anarchy in history.” Indeed.

According a Statescoop article by Jake Williams, Google is moving forward with its plans to build Experiment City. Whatever explosions may occur in Page’s testropolis, they will likely be less dangerous than the eruptions the company is enabling every day in our “pristine” world.

An excerpt:

Sidewalk Labs, which Google kickstarted almost two years ago, may soon develop a “large-scale district” to serve as a living laboratory for urban innovation technologies, Dan Doctoroff, founder and CEO of the company, said at the Smart Cities NYC conference Thursday.

The company is having conversations now with city leaders across the country, Doctoroff said. While nothing is final, Sidewalk Labs could hold a competition — similar to the one held by the U.S. Department of Transportation last year — to spur excitement from leaders who want to make their cities smarter, while also providing a national model for what the cities of tomorrow look like.

“The future of cities lies in the way these urban experiences fit together and improve quality of life for everyone living, working and growing up in cities across the world,” Doctoroff said. “Yet there is not a single city today that can stand as a model — or even close — for our urban future.”

This city would be “built from the internet up,” Doctoroff said, and would test the theories and models that the company has asserted since its creation. …

While all these ideas include technology, the concept is about more than just connecting the physical space with sensors, internet and data, he said — it’s about making an impact on society.

“I’m sure many of you are thinking this is a crazy idea: building a city new — the most innovative, urban district in the world, something at scale that can actually have the catalytic impact among cities around the world,” Doctoroff said. “We don’t think it’s crazy at all. People thought it was crazy when Google decided to connect all the world’s information, people thought it was crazy to think about the concept of a self-driving car.”•

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In 1989, six years before her murder, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the Carrie Nation of holy water, was profiled by Lawrence Wright, then of Texas Monthly. The outrageously quotable, oft-jailed atheist activist was no doubt a welcome assignment for a budding journalistic talent like Wright, who visited her Austin offices a quarter century after her strident efforts had removed compulsory prayer from American public schools.

In the twilight of the Reagan years, O’Hair thought the country was headed toward a Neo-fascism enabled by a confluence of plutocracy, technology and religion. In retrospect, not a bad prediction.

An excerpt from the Texas Monthly piece is followed by some other articles and videos about her.


From Wright:

As with most Americans my age, my life already had been given a good shaking by Madalyn Murray O’Hair. For the first ten years of my schooling, I listened to prayers and Scripture every morning following the announcements on the P.A. system. I don’t recall ever questioning the propriety of such action or wondering what my Jewish classmates, for instance, might think about hearing Christian prayers in public school. But in the fateful fall of 1963 we began classes amid the enormous hubbub that followed the Supreme Court decision. The absence of morning prayers was widely seen as a prelude to the fall of the West. And the woman who had toppled civilization as we knew it was some loudmouthed Baltimore housewife—that was my impression—who then proceeded to wage another legal campaign to tax church property. She was the first person I had ever heard called a heretic. She jumped out of the front pages with one outrageous statement after another; indeed, the era of dissent in the sixties really began with Madalyn Murray, who styled herself as the “most hated woman in America.”

Certainly she was the most provocative. Soon after the school-prayer decision, Mrs. Murray, as she called herself then, was charged with assaulting 10 Baltimore policemen (she has inflated the number of policemen to 14, then 22, and then 26). She fled first to Hawaii, where she took refuge in a Unitarian church. Then she went to Mexico, which summarily deported her to Texas in 1965. Her odyssey ended in Austin, where she successfully fought extradition to Maryland, married an ex-FBI informer named Richard O’Hair, and remained long after the Maryland charges were dropped.

Over the years I followed Madalyn O’Hair in the way one keeps tabs on celebrities, as she bantered with Johnny Carson, sued the pope, or burst into a church and turned over bingo tables. When I was in college, she came to speak. By then she had achieved a kind of sainthood status with the undergraduate intelligentsia. True to her billing, she raked over capitalism and Christianity and especially Catholicism, unsettling if not actually insulting every person in the auditorium. Afterward she repaired to the student center and held forth in the lobby, giving an explicit and highly titillating seminar on the variations of sexual intercourse. I had never seen anyone with such a breathtaking willingness to endure public hatred. “I love a good fight,” she boasted to the press. “I guess fighting God and God’s spokesmen is sort of the ultimate, isn’t it?”

Neutrality is never present around Madalyn O’Hair; she polarizes everyone. …

“I do think we’re in a steady retreat. There’s an absolute steady retreat into what I call a neofascism—but it’s really old-time fascism—into a robber-baron society and a religiously dominated society, and that’s not cyclical, because they have new weapons at hand now, mainly communications technology with which they can rapidly disperse ideas…”•


The atheist crusader was right that children should not be forced to pray in public school, but that doesn’t mean she was an ideal parent. O’Hair had dissent in her family that she would not brook: Her eldest son, William, became a religious and social conservative in 1980. His mother, showing characteristic outrage, labeled him a “postnatal abortion” and cut off all communication. From a 1980 People article about the familial rift:

He traces her atheism to that self-absorption and hubris and to an aggressive antiestablishment streak that led her (with her two sons) into a variety of left-wing causes—even, he claims, to the Soviet embassy in Paris in search of exile. Rejected by Moscow, she retreated angrily back home to Baltimore where, as he puts it, “The rebel found a cause in prayer at school.”

As the pawn of her crusade, Bill was excoriated by fellow students, given extra homework by his teachers and baited into schoolyard fights; once, he remembers, some classmates tried to push him in front of a bus. “While Madalyn was busy with her rhetoric, newsletters, fund raising and publicity,” he says, “I was fighting for my life.” At 17, Murray ran afoul of the law. He eloped with a girl despite an injunction won by her parents that prohibited him from seeing her. Police intervened, and both Bill and his mother were charged with assaulting them. (The young woman left Bill and their infant daughter two years later.) 

Throughout Bill’s life his mother’s reputation has been a millstone. Drafted a year after his marriage broke up, he was subjected to grueling Army interrogation about Madalyn’s activist causes—and asked to sign a statement repudiating her left-wing politics (he did). After discharge he took a series of jobs in airline management and remembers living in fear that his employers would find out who his mother was and fire him. He complains she even threatened to expose him herself when he balked at giving her discounted airplane tickets that were due him as an employee. 

In 1969 he asked Madalyn for his daughter, whom she had kept while he was in the Army. She refused, they fought a custody suit and Madalyn won. Still, in 1974, when her second husband was ailing and the AAC foundering, Bill agreed to come to Austin and help out. He did so with great success—and increasing doubts. He multiplied the AAC’s annual income, which underwrote a flurry of new lawsuits—over church tax exemptions, the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and ‘In God We Trust’ on coins. But Bill says he began to wonder: “Why couldn’t we buy a new X-ray machine for a hospital? Why did we have to buy a new Cadillac and mobile home for Madalyn, or sue somebody to prevent prayer in outer space? I started to think it was because my mother was basically negative and destructive.’ He began to drink too much—”diving into the bottle to forget,” as he describes it. Six months after he came to Austin, Madalyn turned her animus on him once too often. “I told her to get f——-,” he recalls, ‘and got the hell out.”

By that time Bill was an alcoholic. He had a new marriage and a new job as an airline management consultant, but felt his life was falling apart.”•


From the 1965 Playboy interview with the “most hated woman in America”:

Playboy:

What led you to become an atheist?

Madalyn Murray O’Hair:

Well, it started when I was very young. People attain the age of intellectual discretion at different times in their lives — sometimes a little early and sometimes a little late. I was about 12 or 13 years old when I reached this period. It was then that I was introduced to the Bible. We were living in Akron and I wasn’t able to get to the library, so I had two things to read at home: a dictionary and a Bible. Well, I picked up the Bible and read it from cover to cover one weekend — just as if it were a novel — very rapidly, and I’ve never gotten over the shock of it. The miracles, the inconsistencies, the improbabilities, the impossibilities, the wretched history, the sordid sex, the sadism in it — the whole thing shocked me profoundly. I remember l looked in the kitchen at my mother and father and I thought: Can they really believe in all that? Of course, this was a superficial survey by a very young girl, but it left a traumatic impression. Later, when I started going to church, my first memories are of the minister getting up and accusing us of being full of sin, though he didn’t say why; then they would pass the collection plate, and I got it in my mind that this had to do with purification of the soul, that we were being invited to buy expiation from our sins. So I gave it all up. It was too nonsensical.•


A 30-minute documentary about O’Hair, and a 1970 Donahue episode in which she debated Rev. Bob Harrington (voice and picture not properly synced.)

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The moon landing was supposed to be our greatest triumph, Homo sapiens having made the giant leap from living in cave systems to conquering the solar system, but as Norman Mailer wrote presciently at the time: “Space travel proposed a future world of brains attached to wires.” The macho author knew machine intelligence had won, and boxing matches, bullfights and other human struggles were crude pantomimes compared to a space odyssey. Even Mailer’s ample intelligence and elephantine ego, however, couldn’t have known how right he was.

He further wrote:

He had no intimations of what was to come, and that was conceivably worse than any sentiment of dread, for a sense of the future, no matter how melancholy, was preferable to none–it spoke of some sense of the continuation in the projects of one’s life. He was adrift. If he tried to conceive of a likely perspective in the decade before him, he saw not one structure to society but two: if the social world did not break down into revolutions and counterrevolutions, into police and military rules of order with sabotage, guerrilla war and enclaves of resistance, if none of this occurred, then there certainly would be a society of reason, but its reason would be the logic of the computer. In that society, legally accepted drugs would become necessary for accelerated cerebration, there would be inchings toward nuclear installation, a monotony of architectures, a pollution of nature which would arouse technologies of decontamination odious as deodorants, and transplanted hearts monitored like spaceships–the patients might be obliged to live in a compound reminiscent of a Mission Control Center where technicians could monitor on consoles the beatings of a thousand transplanted hearts. But in the society of computer-logic, the atmosphere would obviously be plastic, air-conditioned, sealed in bubble-domes below the smog, a prelude to living on space stations. People would die in such societies like fish expiring on a vinyl floor.•

Okay, fish on a vinyl floor may be melodramatic, but Elon Musk and others wants to go much further than accelerating cerebration via pills, aiming, with Neuralink, to implant electrodes in our brains in order to link us directly to the cloud. Musk thinks “we need brain-computers to avoid becoming ‘house cats’ to artificial intelligence.”

Hmm, that’s an odd way to add it all up. Becoming a computer (to a good degree) in order to avert the dominance of computers is sort of like killing yourself to prevent death.

It’s very possible that tomorrow’s challenges may require such drastic measures for our species, but let’s not pretend we’re maintaining humanity when we’re drastically altering it.

From Christopher Markou at The Conversation:

Depending on who you ask, the human story generally goes like this. First, we discovered fire and developed oral language. We turned oral language into writing, and eventually we found a way to turn it into mechanised printing. After a few centuries, we happened upon this thing called electricity, which gave rise to telephones, radios, TVs and eventually personal computers, smart phones – and ultimately the Juicero.

Over time, phones lost their cords, computers shrunk in size and we figured out ways to make them exponentially more powerful and portable enough to fit in pockets. Eventually, we created virtual realities, and melded our sensate reality with an augmented one.

But if Neuralink were to achieve its goal, it’s hard to predict how this story plays out. The result would be a “whole-brain interface” so complete, frictionless, bio-compatible and powerful that it would feel to users like just another part of their cerebral cortex, limbic and central nervous systems.

A whole-brain interface would give your brain the ability to communicate wirelessly with the cloud, with computers, and with the brains of anyone who has a similar interface in their head. This flow of information between your brain and the outside world would be so easy it would feel the same as your thoughts do right now.

But if that sounds extraordinary, so are the potential problems.•

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Nations that embraced the Industrial Age became far wealthier, but there were considerable hidden costs. The environmental damage has been profound, and we’ve been unable thus far to wean ourselves from the substances that could mark our doom. It may be what we’re experiencing is a slowly unfolding Pyrrhic victory.

The Digital Age is even more challenging since the tools are more powerful. Robots will make us richer financially, but distribution won’t be easy since industries will rise and fall rapidly. For instance, compact discs were the most profitable medium in music history until, suddenly, they were valueless. It may not quite be Freeman Dyson’s more long-term outlook that “whole epochs will pass, cultures rise and fall, between a telephone call and the reply,” but it will be increasingly jarring nonetheless. And that’s not even considering the other thorny aspects of a more algorithmic age, including endless surveillance with no opt-out button.

In a really insightful NYT piece by Daisukaisuke Wakabayashi, a quintet of American workers who are training AI to complement them–replace them?–discuss the process. They seem mostly in denial, as Garry Kasparov was in 1989 when he said that he couldn’t conceive of a time when a “computer is stronger than the human mind.” Of course, AI doesn’t have to play by the rules of our gray matter to win, and in many non-dangerous fields, it doesn’t even have to be as good as humans to consume jobs. If it’s almost there and far cheaper, the transition will happen. 

Embrace of intelligent machines will, as the Industrial revolution did, make us wealthier in the aggregate, but the path to a just society in a time of this new normal will be daunting.

An excerpt:

‘It made me feel competitive’

Rachel Neasham, travel agent

Ms. Neasham, one of 20 (human) agents at the Boston-based travel booking app Lola, knew that the company’s artificial intelligence computer system — its name is Harrison — would eventually take over parts of her job. Still, there was soul-searching when it was decided that Harrison would actually start recommending and booking hotels.
 
At an employee meeting late last year, the agents debated what it meant to be human, and what a human travel agent could do that a machine couldn’t. While Harrison could comb through dozens of hotel options in a blink, it couldn’t match the expertise of, for example, a human agent with years of experience booking family vacations to Disney World. The human can be more nimble — knowing, for instance, to advise a family that hopes to score an unobstructed photo with the children in front of the Cinderella Castle that they should book a breakfast reservation inside the park, before the gates open.

Ms. Neasham, 30, saw it as a race: Can human agents find new ways to be valuable as quickly as the A.I. improves at handling parts of their job? “It made me feel competitive, that I need to keep up and stay ahead of the A.I.,” Ms. Neasham said. On the other hand, she said, using Harrison to do some things “frees me up to do something creative.” …

Lola was set up so that agents like Ms. Neasham didn’t interact with the A.I. much, but it was watching and learning from every customer interaction. Over time, Lola discovered that Harrison wasn’t quite ready to take over communication with customers, but it had a knack for making lightning-fast hotel recommendations.

At first, Harrison would recommend hotels based on obvious customer preferences, like brands associated with loyalty programs. But then it started to find preferences that even the customers didn’t realize they had. Some people, for example, preferred a hotel on the corner of a street versus midblock.

And in a coming software change, Lola will ask lifestyle questions like “Do you use Snapchat?” to glean clues about hotel preferences. Snapchat users tend to be younger and may prefer modern but inexpensive hotels over more established brands like the Ritz-Carlton.

While Harrison may make the reservations, the human agents support customers during the trip. Once the room is booked, the humans, for example, can call the hotel to try to get room upgrades or recommend how to get the most out of a vacation.

“That’s something A.I. can’t do,” Ms. Neasham said.•

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If Twitter pulled the plug on Trump for his repeated slanders, how would he go about presenting his alternative reality? He could rely on traditional-media blitzes as he did yesterday when he flubbed both history (Andrew Jackson) and current events (Kim Jong-un), but he would receive pushback from most non-Fox interlocutors and accommodating an endless parade of talking-heads wouldn’t leave him much time for running the country and golfing.

In the direct aftermath of the recent Tax Day protest, Trump took to his favorite online platform and repeated the claim he and other Republicans offer whenever #Resist assembles in large numbers: The protesters were few and paid. It’s obviously an effort to undercut the legitimacy of those marching for essential American ideals.

When interviewed in the middle of February in Süddeutsche Zeitung,Yale historian Timothy Snyder explained the tactic this way:

The idea is to marginalize the people who actually represent the core values of the Republic. The point is to bring down the Republic. You can disagree with them. but once you say they have no right to protest or start lying about them, you are in effect saying: “We want a regime where this is not possible anymore.“  When the president says that it means that the executive branch is engaged in regime change towards an authoritarian regime without the rule of law. You are getting people used to this transition, you are inviting them into the process by asking them to have contempt for their fellow citizens who are defending the Republic.•

At that moment, Snyder believed we had a year to save liberal democracy in the U.S. In an excellent new Q&A with Chauncey DeVega of Salon, the academic says he believes the Administration’s heretofore failed efforts at legislation make a unconstitutional, near-term power grab even likelier. I will say that the sycophantic media reaction to the Syria bombings probably made might seem more right than ever to a jittery, unhinged Oval Office.

Gun to his head (figuratively, I mean), Snyder guesses the attempt at authoritarianism will fail. He also provides a smart analysis of why a cartoonish TV personality like Trump is judged by a very different standard by a wide swath of the public.

An excerpt:

Question:

In your book [On Tyranny] you discuss the idea that Donald Trump will have his own version of Hitler’s Reichstag fire to expand his power and take full control of the government by declaring a state of emergency. How do you think that would play out?

Timothy Snyder:

Let me make just two points. The first is that I think it’s pretty much inevitable that they will try. The reason I think that is that the conventional ways of being popular are not working out for them. The conventional way to be popular or to be legitimate in this country is to have some policies, to grow your popularity ratings and to win some elections. I don’t think 2018 is looking very good for the Republicans along those conventional lines — not just because the president is historically unpopular. It’s also because neither the White House nor Congress have any policies which the majority of the public like.

This means they could be seduced by the notion of getting into a new rhythm of politics, one that does not depend upon popular policies and electoral cycles.

Whether it works or not depends upon whether when something terrible happens to this country, we are aware that the main significance of it is whether or not we are going to be more or less free citizens in the future.

My gut feeling is that Trump and his administration will try and that it won’t work. Not so much because we are so great but because we have a little bit of time to prepare. I also think that there are enough people and enough agencies of the government who have also thought about this and would not necessarily go along.•

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Facebook has been shown in repeated studies over numerous years to make its users unhappy, but there’s a bright side. For Facebook, that is.

Knowing when someone is sad is useful when trying to manipulate them to buy stuff or stay on the social network longer. It’s good for the bottom line, and it happens so quietly you don’t even notice it. That’s true about so much of our tacit agreement with Digital Age technology. The “free” things we receive have very large hidden costs.

Mark Zuckerberg can go on all the listening tours he likes and bottle-feed cattle in photo ops, but the communications monster he’s raised feels like it was stuffed with an abnormal brain.

Two pieces follow about algorithms snaking through our society in dubious ways, one about Zuckerberg’s unhappiness machine acting unethically and another about stealth algorithms being utilized to sentence criminals.


From Jessica Guynn of USA Today:

SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook admits it didn’t follow its own policies when it showed at least one advertiser how to reach emotionally insecure and vulnerable teens.

But, it says, Facebook does not offer tools to target advertising to users based on their emotional state.

According to a report by The Australian, the social network shared a 23-page presentation with a bank that showed Facebook’s ability to detect when users as young as 14 are feeling emotions such as defeat, stress, anxiety or simply being overwhelmed.

“Anticipatory emotions are more likely to be expressed early in the week, while reflective emotions increase on the weekend,” according to the leaked Facebook presentation. “Monday-Thursday is about building confidence; the weekend is for broadcasting achievements.”

Facebook said sharing the research was an “oversight.” It also said the data was collected anonymously and was not used to target ads.•


From Adam Liptak of the New York Times:

When Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. visited Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute last month, he was asked a startling question, one with overtones of science fiction.

“Can you foresee a day,” asked Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the college in upstate New York, “when smart machines, driven with artificial intelligences, will assist with courtroom fact-finding or, more controversially even, judicial decision-making?”

The chief justice’s answer was more surprising than the question. “It’s a day that’s here,” he said, “and it’s putting a significant strain on how the judiciary goes about doing things.”

He may have been thinking about the case of a Wisconsin man, Eric L. Loomis, who was sentenced to six years in prison based in part on a private company’s proprietary software. Mr. Loomis says his right to due process was violated by a judge’s consideration of a report generated by the software’s secret algorithm, one Mr. Loomis was unable to inspect or challenge.
 
In March, in a signal that the justices were intrigued by Mr. Loomis’s case, they asked the federal government to file a friend-of-the-court brief offering its views on whether the court should hear his appeal.

The report in Mr. Loomis’s case was produced by a product called Compas, sold by Northpointe Inc. It included a series of bar charts that assessed the risk that Mr. Loomis would commit more crimes.

The Compas report, a prosecutor told the trial judge, showed “a high risk of violence, high risk of recidivism, high pretrial risk.” The judge agreed, telling Mr. Loomis that “you’re identified, through the Compas assessment, as an individual who is a high risk to the community.”•

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Over the weekend, the President of the United States held a Pennsylvania rally that played out like a Maoist “Speak Bitterness” meeting, threatened First Amendment rights and invited murderous Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte to the White House. All of that was appalling, though it can’t be considered shocking at this point.

This morning, I read Peter Baker’s NYT take on Trump’s first 100 days, which was way too hopeful based on anything remotely connected to reality, and then, this afternoon, I came across this tweet:

Has everyone lost their damn mind?

Trump is incompetent, a sociopath and a kleptocrat, that’s clear, but what’s still TBD is the extent of Russian interference in our election and who was complicit. The lack of Congressional interest in this potential scandal could be partisanship or it may be something more sinister. Not to go all Louise Mensch, but there seems to be an endless stream of smoke. Let’s hope James Comey and the IC community are true or we may never know the answers. 

Despite all those questions, one thing, however, is certain: We have a dreadful, deeply un-American person in the highest office in the land, and nearly 63 million citizens approve.

· · ·

Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger’s WaPo piece about the hard right going soft on the Kremlin wonders about the reasons for Putin and his cohort’s return of admiration, which likely stems from something other than mere camaraderie. As retired CIA Russian expert Steven L. Hall tells them, “My assessment is that it’s definitely part of something bigger.”

An excerpt:

On issues including gun rights, terrorism and same-sex marriage, many leading advocates on the right who grew frustrated with their country’s leftward tilt under President Barack Obama have forged ties with well-connected Russians and come to see that country’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, as a potential ally.

The attitude adjustment among many conservative activists helps explain one of most curious aspects of the 2016 presidential race: a softening among many conservatives of their historically hard-line views of Russia. To the alarm of some in the GOP’s national security establishment, support in the party base for then-candidate Donald Trump did not wane even after he rejected the tough tone of 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who called Russia America’s No. 1 foe, and repeatedly praised Putin.

The burgeoning alliance between Russians and U.S. conservatives was apparent in several events in late 2015, as the Republican nomination battle intensified.

Top officials from the National Rifle Association, whose annual meeting Friday featured an address by Trump for the third time in three years, traveled to Moscow to visit a Russian gun manufacturer and meet government officials.

About the same time in December 2015, evangelist Franklin Graham met privately with Putin for 45 minutes, securing from the Russian president an offer to help with an upcoming conference on the persecution of Christians. Graham was impressed, telling The Washington Post that Putin “answers questions very directly and doesn’t dodge them like a lot of our politicians do.”•

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Forgetting is, to some extent, necessary. Letting go and moving on makes life manageable. In a 2012 Five Books interview, Joshua Foer described Solomon Shereshevsky (or “S”), the subject of neuropsychologist Aleksandr Luria’s The Mind of Mnemonist, this way:

S seemed to remember too well. He was ineffectual as a journalist and ultimately couldn’t make a living as anything other than a stage performer — a memory freak. I think that points to something profound. Forgetting is an important part of learning, it teaches us to abstract. Because S remembered too much, he couldn’t process what he witnessed, and as a result he couldn’t make his way in the world.•

Many new technologies, however, want us to remember. 

It can be small things like Facebook enabling us to attend a high-school reunion (if a virtual one) every day, or those writ large like “telepathy startups” that aim to use implants to make thoughts uploadable and downloadable, so that everything can be recorded and recalled. Everything.

There will be a time (probably this century) when “visiting the cemetery” will come to mean conversing with a VR version of late loved ones. Maybe some will be repelled by this development and employ companies that routinely “wash” memories, as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Perhaps these are some of the exciting new fields that will emerge to provide jobs for those squeezed from manufacturing.

In a Maya Kosoff Vanity Fair piece, Siri cofounder Tom Gruber believes “personal memory enhancement” inevitable. He acknowledges there will be danger. “It’s absolutely essential that this be kept very secure,” he says, which almost certainly won’t happen. We will be hacked.

An excerpt:

Speaking onstage at the TED 2017 conference in Vancouver, Canada, Gruber illustrated his vision for a world in which technology records and remembers every event in our lives—the names of every person we meet, all the places we have been, and all of our life events. “I believe A.I. will make personal memory enhancement a reality. I think it’s inevitable,” he said onstage this week, arguing that smart computers could be used to reinforce existing human capacity for memory.

Gruber’s not the first tech entrepreneur to suggest that some kind of brain-computer interface is the next frontier for Silicon Valley: Elon Musk’s new “telepathy” start-up, Neuralink, is developing a “neural lace” technology that would involve “implanting tiny brain electrodes that may one day upload and download thoughts.” Facebook has also hinted that it is working on similar sorts of technology that could help people with disabilities. (“What if you could type directly from your brain?” Regina Dugan, who leads Facebook’s secretive hardware development initiative, mused at the company’s developers conference last week.)

Still, there’s a long way to go when it comes to such technologies: the surgical procedures involved are dangerous, and the privacy implications are incredibly serious. “We get to choose what is and is not recalled and retained,” Gruber said onstage. “It’s absolutely essential that this be kept very secure.”•

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From the August 11, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:


Dunninger exposing “spirit swindlers”:

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