The problem with treating fledgling fascists like jokes is that’s what they all seem like, at least initially.

I’m sure Benito Mussolini originally appeared to be a vulgar cartoon too outlandish to be feared, until it was too late, his entire country perverted into something awful before his murderous gaze. One of the least-insane things he did: In 1933, Il Duce ordered all Italian newspapers to push aside current events and dedicate their front pages to articles about Julius Caesar. The message was clear, that Mussolini was a latter-day Caesar and would rule with absolute authority. Tragically, that’s how things went, until he found himself hanging from the business end of a meat hook from the roof of an Esso gas station in 1945. The odd decree was covered in an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in September of that year.


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We’re clever enough to kill ourselves en masse, that much we know, but are we adequately creative to save our species from a human-made disaster that seems more and more likely to visit devastation upon us? Can the collateral damage caused by our intelligence be undone with more intelligence?

In an Atlantic post, Ross Andersen interviews Oliver Morton, author of The Planet Remade, and wonders if we need to be more aggressively redesigning our environment. As he writes, “the geoengineers offer us a third way,” one beyond status quo as we attempt to worm our way through the Anthropocene, and immediately abandoning the fossil fuels we heavily rely upon.

Even the seemingly outré proposals bandied about by scientists and technologists don’t seem theoretically impossible, but most aren’t feasible in the near future, and they certainly will have their own unintended consequences. I would think geoengineering is certainly a piece of the answer as we move forward, but a dedicated effort to change the way we go about business better accompany it.

An excerpt:

Ross Andersen:

In your book, you argue that it would be impossible to transition away from fossil fuels quickly, because our current global-energy infrastructure simply can’t be replaced within a single generation. Can you give me a sense of the scale of that infrastructure? What would need replacing?

Oliver Morton:

Well, you have to remember that over 80 percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels—and the world uses a lot of energy, and will be using even more energy soon. There are, after all, a large number of people who still don’t have access to modern energy services. In the beginning of the 20th century, no one lived the sort of life that well-off people in developing countries live or aspire to. Now about 1.6 to 2 billion people live that kind of life. And that’s great, but there are 5 billion people who aren’t leading that kind of life. They are going to use a lot of energy.

At the end of this century there will be 9 or 10 billion people on the face of the planet. You would kind of hope that in a century’s time, they would all have the access to energy that you and I enjoy. That would mean going from 2 billion people with access to 10 billion, a much larger increase than we saw during the 20th century.

Of course, there’s a huge amount that we can do with better energy technology over the course of the 21st century. But as the world develops, I think there’s still going to be an awful lot of fossil fuels burned. I think it’s a fundamental mistake to think that with just a bit more political will, you can suddenly go to a zero-carbon world.•

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Everybody could be wrong. It’s wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe the new technologies will birth plentiful jobs and industries we just can’t yet imagine. Or perhaps we will have to radically think our economy in a climate that favors machine labor over the human kind. 

It’s striking that the worlds of Silicon Valley and Washington D.C. seem almost alternative universes, with a growing number in the former acknowledging that Guaranteed Basic Income may need become a reality, and the latter, represented last night by the GOP debate, in which it’s not even part of the conversation. I believe Marco Rubio spoke up against the minimum-wage hike because it would make “people more expensive than machines,” which glancingly acknowledges the actual world we’re living in, but doesn’t offer any sort of solution. Be poor or automation will make you poorer isn’t the best we can do.

From Kim-Mai Cutler at Techcrunch:

In the face of rising U.S. income inequality and concerns about job loss to automation, some of Silicon Valley’s best-known names including Y Combinator’s Sam Altman have spoken up in favor of a universal basic income that would give people a baseline standard of living in an economy that may not be able to produce enough decently compensated work for everyone.

A mix of technologists, policy wonks and creatives are trying to kickstart a bigger movement around that idea this coming weekend with a Basic Income Createathon.

“Everyone in the country having jobs is not going to make sense anymore because we’re going to have computers and robots doing what we’re doing most of what we’re doing today,” said Jim Pugh, who got a Ph.D in distributed robotics before he worked on the original 2008 Obama campaign. “If you accept that as a premise, what we need to do as a society is not made up of small changes. It’s actually a fairly radical change and basic income seems to be an elegant solution for doing that.”

A basic income is a kind of Social Security system where all citizens or residents get an unconditional amount of money on top of whatever their wages are from elsewhere. It assumes that, above this minimum level of income, people will still be motivated to work for more money or on more meaningful projects. …

Pugh said the point of the Createathon is to build energy for a broader political movement that will advocate for universal basic income and push for small pilots to test the idea out in the United States.

To be fair, not everyone prominent in the tech industry agrees with the premise that there won’t be enough jobs for everyone.•




The real problem isn’t that your Vizio Smart TV is watching you though, sure, that’s not good. The main issue is that when the Internet of Things becomes the thing, when everything is a computer, objects of all sorts will be quietly collecting information about us just the way the Internet does. There will be no opt-out switch, no notification, no hum to clue you in. The new arrangement will be silent and seem perfectly normal.

From Julia Angwin at ProPublica:

TV makers are constantly crowing about the tricks their smart TVs can do. But one of the most popular brands has a feature that it’s not advertising: Vizio’s Smart TVs track your viewing habits and share it with advertisers, who can then find you on your phone and other devices.

The tracking — which Vizio calls “Smart Interactivity” — is turned on by default for the more than 10 million Smart TVs that the company has sold. Customers who want to escape it have to opt-out. 
In a statement, Vizio said customers’ “non-personal identifiable information may be shared with select partners … to permit these companies to make, for example, better-informed decisions regarding content production, programming and advertising.”

Vizio’s actions appear to go beyond what others are doing in the emerging interactive television industry. Vizio rivals Samsung and LG Electronics only track users’ viewing habits if customers choose to turn the feature on. And unlike Vizio, they don’t appear to provide the information in a form that allows advertisers to reach users on other devices.•



Years before he was to become a Hollywood heavyweight, Ivan Reitman helped launch the career of affable, parody-ready illusionist Doug Henning, who came to attention in Canada with the stage performance Spellbound. Relocated to Broadway in the mid-1970s and rechristened The Magic Show, it was a long-running sensation. After a break from the NYC boards and some permutations in his personal life, Henning tried, with disastrous results, to recapture the old magic with his 1983 creation, Merlin. Before it was delivered a death blow to the stomach, à la Houdini, by indifferent audiences, Henning was profiled by Mary Vespa of People. The opening:

Doug Henning learned one of his most valuable tricks not from another magician but from the manager of the famous mime Marcel Marceau: “Keep yourself scarce.” He has. Though he’s been doing his annual NBC-TV specials for eight years now, and frequently takes his act on the road, he hasn’t set foot on Broadway since The Magic Show, the popular revue that established him as big box office when he starred in it from 1974 to 1977. Now he’s back, this time with Merlin, a musical with a $4 million budget, lavish sets, stunning effects and stunts on a scale that, he says, “staggers the imagination.”

Indeed, the Mark Hellinger Theater has never seen quite such goings-on. There is exotic music. Beautiful women emerge from fire, burst into a constellation of stars, disappear into thin air. Chita Rivera, as the evil queen intent on doing in the young Merlin (Henning) before he meets the future King Arthur, changes a black panther into a temptress who tries to distract him from his magic. But Henning survives this and other hazards—at one point he disappears from a flaming cage being lifted above the stage—to triumph in the end.

Whether all this will dazzle the critics won’t be clear until the show, now playing to preview audiences, opens on Jan. 9. But for Henning, at least, Merlin is already a milestone that is not only professional but personal: The show’s water spirit, a lithe brunette dream woman he levitates above a fountain, is in fact a new wife who’s given him a badly needed lift.

Cut to 1981. Henning was trying to bounce back from a busted marriage. Exhausted after doing one of his TV shows, he retreated to a favorite haunt, the Transcendental Meditation Center at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa. “Doug was just so sad and lonely,” recalls friend Jim Bagnola. “It seemed as though he was achieving all his goals and still remaining unfulfilled.” Call it luck. Timing. Or was it life playing a trick on a superillusionist? There, at a banquet, he met a beauty who would sweep away his woes like, well, magic.

“My friends said there was practically a flash of light,” says Henning, 35. “I had never felt anything like it in my whole life.” The dazzler was Debby Douillard, 27, an abstract painter with bottomless blue eyes who was taking classes at the university and also had just separated from her spouse. She, too, felt Cupid’s bolt: “It was like I blossomed right on the spot.”

They got engaged within the week and wed last December. He still marvels at the sorcery she’s worked on him. “When I perform, I could love a million people,” Henning admits, “but I had trouble loving one person. I would separate love and sex. Debby’s helped me overcome my fear of intimacy.” Her problem was shyness, and Henning’s Rx has been to use her not only in Merlin but also on tour, where she performs as a singer, dancer and his assistant. “I have a tendency to be inward,” says Debby. “Doug’s turning me inside out. Sometimes it’s painful, but it’s a great growing experience.”•

Not content with merely being a magus, Henning also founded a political organization, The Natural Law Party, which helped him lose elections very badly in both the UK and Canada. Sometimes democracy works.


Wielikowskij (1)

Immanuel Velikovsky was an outsider scientist whose work was impressively elaborate nonsense. “Astronomers at Harvard consider the sensational theory of Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky that the earth stood still a couple of times in Biblical days sheer nonsense,” noted Popular Science in 1950. A charismatic guy, he nonetheless managed to befriend some of the greatest minds of the 20th century, including Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan and Freeman Dyson. In a New York Review of Books piece, Dyson recalled their friendship. An excerpt:

After I came to America, I became a friend of Immanuel Velikovsky, who was my neighbor in Princeton. Velikovsky was a Russian Jew, with an intense interest in Jewish legends and ancient history. He was born into a scholarly family in 1895 and obtained a medical degree at Moscow University in 1921. During the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution he wrote a long Russian poem with the title “Thirty Days and Nights of Diego Pirez on the Sant Angelo Bridge.” It was published in Paris in 1935. Diego Pirez was a sixteenth-century Portuguese Jewish mystic who came to Rome and sat on the bridge near the Vatican, surrounded by beggars and thieves to whom he told his apocalyptic visions. He was condemned to death by the Inquisition, pardoned by the pope, and later burned as a heretic by the emperor Charles V.

Velikovsky escaped from Russia and settled in Palestine with his wife and daughters. He described to me the joys of practicing medicine on the slopes of Mount Carmel above Haifa, where he rode on a donkey to visit his patients in their homes. He founded and edited a journal, Scripta Universitatis atque Bibliothecae Hierosolymitanarum, which was the official journal of the Hebrew University before the university was established. His work for the Scripta was important for the founding of the Hebrew University. But he had no wish to join the university himself. To fulfill his dreams he needed complete independence. In 1939, after sixteen years in Palestine, he moved to America, where he had no license to practice medicine. To survive in America, he needed to translate his dreams into books.

Eleven years later, Macmillan published Worlds in Collision, and it became a best seller. Like Diego Pirez, Velikovsky told his dreams to the public in language they could understand. His dreams were mythological stories of catastrophic events, gleaned from many cultures, especially from ancient Egypt and Israel. These catastrophes were interwoven with a weird history of planetary collisions. The planets Venus and Mars were supposed to have moved out of their regular orbits and collided with the Earth a few thousand years ago. Electromagnetic forces were invoked to counteract the normal effects of gravity. The human and cosmic events were tied together in a flowing narrative. Velikovsky wrote like an Old Testament prophet, calling down fire and brimstone from heaven, in a style familiar to Americans raised on the King James Bible. More best sellers followed:Ages in Chaos in 1952, Earth in Upheaval in 1955, Oedipus and Akhnaton in 1960. Velikovsky became famous as a writer and as a public speaker.

In 1977 Velikovsky asked me to write a blurb advertising his new book, Peoples of the Sea. I wrote a statement addressed to him personally:

First, as a scientist, I disagree profoundly with many of the statements in your books. Second, as your friend, I disagree even more profoundly with those scientists who have tried to silence your voice. To me, you are no reincarnation of Copernicus or Galileo. You are a prophet in the tradition of William Blake, a man reviled and ridiculed by his contemporaries but now recognized as one of the greatest of English poets. A hundred and seventy years ago, Blake wrote: “The Enquiry in England is not whether a Man has Talents and Genius, but whether he is Passive and Polite and a Virtuous Ass and obedient to Noblemen’s Opinions in Art and Science. If he is, he is a Good Man. If not, he must be starved.” So you stand in good company. Blake, a buffoon to his enemies and an embarrassment to his friends, saw Earth and Heaven more clearly than any of them. Your poetic visions are as large as his and as deeply rooted in human experience. I am proud to be numbered among your friends.

I added the emphatic instruction, “This statement to be printed in its entirety or not at all.” A quick response came from Velikovsky. He said, “How would you like it if I said you were the reincarnation of Jules Verne?” He wanted to be honored as a scientist, not as a poet. My statement was not printed, and Peoples of the Sea became a best seller without my help. We remained friends, and in that same year he gave me a copy of his Diego Pirez poem, which I treasure as the truest expression of his spirit. I hope it will one day be adequately translated into English.•

Here is an amusing 1972 BBC doc about the Velikovsky and his catastrophist claptrap.



Here’s an oddity: In 1991, Doris Tate, mother of actress Sharon Tate who was among those murdered by the Manson Family, appeared on To Tell the Truth hosted by Alex Trebek. The elder Tate became a campaigner for the rights of crime victims. This short-lived iteration of the venerable game show, which had a harder, more provocative edge than such fare usually has, provided a platform for Tate’s work. She passed away the following year as a result of a brain tumor. Begins at the 8:18 mark.


If we don’t extinct ourselves in the short run, it will seem almost beyond imagination one day, and hopefully one day soon, that we ever stubbornly continued to get the majority of our energy from sources other than the sun. Children born into a solar world won’t understand why we didn’t sooner heavily invest in R&D try to exploit this clean, natural abundance.

In Ed Crooks and Lucy Hornby’s FT Magazine piece, “Sunshine Revolution,” the writers look at, among other things, Las Vegas as an “unlikely hotbed of radicalism” for U.S. solar conversion, a shift driven more by lower costs than the bigger picture. The opening:

The suburbs of Las Vegas do not look like the cradle of a revolution. Golden stucco-clad houses stretch for street after identical street, interspersed with gated communities with names such as Spanish Oaks and Rancho Bel Air. The sky is the deepest blue, the desert air is clear and the distant mountains are beautiful. The only sounds are the buzz of a gardener’s hedge trimmer and a squeaking baby buggy pushed by a power-walking mother. The bright lights of Sin City seem a very long way away.

Yet these quiet streets are being changed by a movement that is gathering momentum across America and around the world, challenging one of the most fundamental of economic relationships: the way we use and pay for energy. There are now more than 7,000 homes in Nevada fitted with solar panels to generate their own electricity, and the number is rising fast. Just five years ago, residential solar power was still a niche product for the homeowner with a fat wallet and a bleeding heart. Not any more. Technology, politics and finance have aligned to move it into the mainstream. Solar power has become the fastest-growing energy source in the US.

For decades the electricity industry has been a cautious and conservative business, but the plunging prices of solar panels, down by about two-thirds in the past six years, have woken it up with a bang. Dynamic rooftop solar power companies have entered the market, in the most radical change to electricity supplies since the industry was born in the 19th century. It has been described as the equivalent of the mobile revolution in telephony, or the PC in computing.•

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When things take a turn for the worse, people often follow course, the need to blame seemingly wired into the less-blessed areas of our brains. As globalization and technology have conspired to assail the privileges of the American white middle class, fingers have increasingly been pointed, especially in this political season. Somehow, Mexicans are supposedly culpable, even though they were long welcomed here, legal or not, to work our farmland. 

Except that Mexican people are trying to beat the border patrol in Arizona in greatly diminished numbers, an inconvenient truth for panderers. Many of the immigrants attempting to stealthily enter the U.S. are Central Americans arriving in Texas. Why the shift? In an excellent London Review of Books report, Tom Stevenson answers that question and visits the checkpoints to see the harsh reality awaiting those seeking refuge. An excerpt:

If you take Route 281 south from San Antonio, past the billboards (‘We buy ugly houses – call this number’; ‘AAA finance loans from $50-$1280’), you eventually reach Falfurrias, the largest place in Brooks County but still a one-horse town. The Dairy Queen burned down in May and the Walmart closed in July. Falfurrias once had a reputation as a hub for illegal gambling but this summer the gaming houses were raided and shut down. The town seems abandoned, apart from a border patrol station and a detention centre. The United States Border Patrol operates checkpoints on main roads many miles from the actual frontier. Falfurrias is 70 miles from the border and one of the inspection points is just outside town. If you’re an undocumented migrant this is where you leave the highway and walk for miles through the wilderness. More migrants die from thirst and injury in Brooks County than anywhere else in the United States.

In Falfurrias I met Lavoyger J. Durham, a large man with a deep voice who drives a big 4×4. He was born on the King Ranch – Texas’s best-known agribusiness, roughly the size of Cornwall – and he has been a cowboy all his life. In his home he has framed copies of magazines in which he’s featured: on the front of the Cattleman he appears on horseback lassoing a calf. He has managed the El Tule ranch, just outside Falfurrias, for 25 years. His grandfather, he told me proudly, signed up with Captain Leander McNelly, a Confederate officer and Texas Ranger, to ‘clean South Texas’ of ‘bandits’, most of them Mexican: McNelly’s militia hanged hundreds of people in the 1870s. But Lavoyger is now worried about the number of would-be migrants dying on south Texas’s ranches. He’s half Mexican himself – what would his grandfather have made of that? – and speaks fluent Spanish. On the way to El Tule, he gossips about the Bush family – ‘Barbara was at my second wedding but not, well … involved’ – and plays around with names for the borderlands that don’t quite hit the mark: the ‘catch me if you can’ zone comes after the ‘free nilly willy’ zone, and so on.

I asked him how many people had been found dead in Brooks County so far this year. He wasn’t sure of the exact number and phoned the sheriff. ‘How many dead people we got this year?’ The answer was 28. ‘Tell your daughter I love her.’ That the remains of 28 migrants had been discovered in just one of Texas’s 254 counties in a six-month period ought to be remarkable, especially given that the sheriffs estimate only 10 to 15 per cent of those who die are ever found. There are no figures on the total number of undocumented migrant deaths in Texas. Lavoyger himself has come across more than two dozen bodies over the years. On the ranch he showed me a clearing littered with half-rotten clothes, although these filthy coats and jeans in this macabre collection didn’t necessarily come from dead bodies; as Lavoyger explained, most of the dead are found without clothes, and usually it’s the local wildlife – vultures circling or coyotes playing with the bones – that point to their whereabouts.

So how does an undocumented migrant end up dead on Lavoyger’s ranch?•


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Retired chess champion Garry Kasparov, a real-life John Henry, is still fighting machines, chiefly Vladimir Putin’s. The Russian autocrat has led his nation to re-embrace the failed aggressions of the twentieth century rather than create a modern state based on the German model, doing so in the manner of an underworld mob boss, a capo with nuclear capabilities. His most outspoken Russian-born critic sat for an interview with Erich Follath of Spiegel, expressly accusing President Obama and the West of appeasement, which seems more than a little hyperbolic. The opening:


Mr. Kasparov, you call Vladimir Putin the greatest threat to world peace. Don’t we need the Russian president’s help now more than ever to end wars and contain terrorism?

Garry Kasparov:

Russia is a mafia state today, and Putin is its top godfather. The regime is in trouble economically and can no longer offer anything to its citizens. That’s why Putin has to pursue an aggressive foreign policy, so he can serve his people the fairy tale of Russian pride and regaining its strength as a major power. But he uses fascist propaganda to do so. From Ukraine to Syria, he is behaving like the world’s new general and celebrating victories, while the American president sits on the sidelines and Europe sleeps. The West’s behavior toward Putin is political and moral capitulation.


Now you’re really exaggerating.

Garry Kasparov:

No, I’m not. People would have been shaking their heads in disbelief if someone had predicted, 15 months ago, that Putin would annex Crimea and grossly violate European postwar borders. Then came the expansion into eastern Ukraine, and now the direct military intervention in the Syrian war, on the side of mass murderer Bashar Assad. Putin needs wars to legitimize his position. It’s the only move he has left. And his appearance before the United Nations General Assembly in late September is typical for action and counter reaction.


What do you mean?

Garry Kasparov:

Putin spoke unabashedly about the importance of national sovereignty in Syria, a concept apparently near and dear to his heart, unless it comes to the sovereignty of Georgia, Ukraine or any other country in which he intervenes. Then he offered his cooperation, but without making any concrete concessions at all. And he didn’t have to, either. He knows what he can rely on. He has assets that are more valuable than words: He has tanks in Ukraine, fighter jets in Syria — and Barack Obama in the White House. His speech before the UN only an hour earlier was completely toothless. The West can’t come up with anything to deal with Moscow, except appeasement.•


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In his Reddit AMA, David Eagleman, neuroscientist/writer/host of PBS show The Brain, was unsurprisingly asked one of the key questions in his field, whether machine intelligence can ultimately become conscious. The excerpt:


Does it seem plausible to you that consciousness could arise from a machine/computer? Is this not all the brain itself is?

David Eagleman: 

It does seem plausible to me that consciousness could arise from a machine. However, we should note that this is just a hypothesis, and none of us yet know if it’s true. The idea is called the Computational Hypothesis, which proposes that the mind emerges from the interactions of the billions of neurons over their trillions of connections. Implicit in this idea is that the mind is the software that runs on top of the hardware of the brain, and that the same software could be run on any substrate, from beer cans and tennis balls to zeros and ones in a computer. In this view, there’s nothing special about the biological wetware — all that matter are the computations that run on top.

I would say that this is the assumption many of us work under, but not all neuroscientists agree. Some very important thinkers (e.g. Christof Koch, David Chalmers) argue that consciousness will not emerge from a computer simulation, because consciousness may be a property of matter that cannot be simulated, in the same way that a weather simulation does not actually get wet (see panpsychism).•


An Englishman in New York who decamps to the rural South and writes reports of lurid local love for things bestial and martial can easily come across as the worst type of tourist. Except, that is, if he really, really is in love with the place and its people, which thankfully seems an apt description of Richard Grant, who was lured to the Mississippi Delta by a cheap house and found a rich home, if a perplexing one. He recently wrote an article of his experiences for the New York Times, one tied to the release of his new book, Dispatches From Pluto

An excerpt from the NYT piece:

Opening the local newspaper in hunting season, we stared at photographs of women who were killing deer with pink arrows for breast cancer awareness. Bizarre crimes came in a steady stream. An unlicensed mortuary was busted on a residential street. Motorists were warned not to stop for police officers because someone posing as a cop had killed two people.

In the dilapidated old cotton town of Greenwood, an oncologist was arrested for hiring two men to murder the lawyer who lived across the street. He was found unfit to stand trial and remanded to the state mental hospital. His devoted patients are still clamoring for his release.

In the same town, a man was caught in a police sting operation while having carnal relations with show hogs. We had never even heard of show hogs, so our friend Martha Foose, a Delta-born cookbook writer, had to explain. “We have beauty pageants for our swine,” she said. “And they get those hogs dolled up. They shave their underparts, curl their eyelashes, buff their little trotters, and I guess it’s more than some guys can stand. I call it ‘dating down the food chain.’”

After nearly three years here, it still feels like we’re scratching the surface. Even for a native like our friend Martha, it’s hard to say what accounts for the Delta’s eccentricities. Maybe it’s the strain of living in a dysfunctional third world society in the heart of America. A white pseudo-aristocracy maintains genteel airs and graces amid crumbling towns and black rural poverty reminiscent of Haiti. It’s all stirred up with whiskey, denial and fire-breathing religion.•

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Considering the poll numbers of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, we all owe Sarah Palin an apology, don’t you think? 

You remember Sarah Palin, right? She was a bear-meat peddler who briefly governed the petro-socialist state of Alaska. I think she once hired a hit man to kill a rival cheerleader. Okay, I’m not sure about that part. That might have been the plot of a Lifetime movie I watched once in an airport lounge. But it still brings her to mind, doesn’t it?

I can still recall those halcyon days of 2008 when a young Sarah Palin took the stage at the Republican National Convention. Well, maybe she wasn’t that young, but she’d gotten a lot of quality cosmetic surgery and it flattered her. She was eventually voted off the island due to her sheer idiocy and meanness, exiled to Elba or Arizona or somewhere. Now she’s merely a hologram of hate, activated occasionally in her camera-filled basement.

On behalf of everyone, I’ll offer the mea culpa: Sorry, you horrible person, that you aren’t the dangerously unprepared nutbag to capture the imagination of nationalist half-wits this time around. Take solace in knowing that this year’s models and their overt bigotry have served to redeem you from the absolute worst to almost the absolute worst, the way you once managed to make Dan Quayle seem interchangeable with Thomas Jefferson. You wore your simple mind on your sleeve but at least not on your hat.

From Eric Bradner’s CNN report on the GOP campaign, a modern story of belt buckles and pharaohs:

[Trump] said he hopes Carson “comes out great” from the scrutiny.

But Trump also implied that Carson’s story about attempting to stab someone in his youth — only to have his knife broken when he hit a large belt buckle — was hard to believe.

“Belt buckles really pretty much don’t stop stabbing,” Trump said. “They turn, they twist, things slide off them — pretty lucky if that happened.”

Trump said Carson’s description of his childhood temper as “pathological” is disturbing.

“It’s a serious statement when you say you have a pathological disease, because if I understand it, you can’t really cure it,” Trump said.

Speaking on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday morning, Trump also cited Carson’s belief that the pyramids were built to store grain as another reason to question his judgment.

“So, you’re talking about storing grain in the pyramids. Well, they have very little space. They have space for small rooms, where the pharaohs had their coffins and where the pharaohs were buried, essentially,” Trump told host John Dickerson. “So, a lot of — a lot of things are going on. And I don’t know. I just don’t know what to think. I hope it — I hope it works out fine for Ben. I just don’t know what to think.”•

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From the July 23, 1901 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:


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Just to make clear the utter uselessness of polls at this point in the Presidential race, I’ll point out the most recent Quinnipiac survey which reports that Gov. Chris Christie, who’s been pushed from the main stage in the upcoming GOP debate because he’s failed to register 2.5% support, would theoretically defeat Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head general-election matchup. Ben Carson, who would lose horribly in the general, is currently destroying Clinton by 10%. From Politico:

Among Democratic and Democratic-leaning independent voters, Clinton bested Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to the tune of 53 percent to 35 percent, a 10-point jump for both from the same poll in September.

In general election matchups, Carson beat Clinton 50 percent to 40 percent, outdrawing the former secretary of state in the share of both men (55 percent to 35 percent) and of women (45 percent to 44 percent). Clinton also came up on the short end of hypothetical head-to-heads against Rubio (41 percent to 46 percent), Cruz (43 percent to 46 percent) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (43 percent to 46 percent), who drew less than Bush among Republican voters. Quinnipiac did not test a Bush-Clinton matchup.

Matched up against Trump, however, Clinton held a lead of 46 percent to 43 percent.•


The best follow-up reporting I’ve read about the eye-popping Anne Case-Angus Deaton study on the shocking spike in mortality among white American adults (which I blogged about here) is Julia Belluz’s Vox piece. It’s clear that oxycodone and the like are contributing furiously to the early deaths, but the question is why the usage has become so widespread. What is the void this group of people is trying to fill? Deaton discusses his theory with Belluz, though such overarching narratives are always somewhat slippery. An excerpt:

2) Deaton thinks middle-aged white Americans have “lost the narrative of their lives”

But what’s behind the substance abuse? One possible factor here: This demographic group has faced a rise in economic insecurity over the past decade, driven by things like the financial crisis and the collapse of manufacturing.

Still, it’s difficult to put together a full story of what’s going on. After all, if the recession or decline of manufacturing was the only factor, we might expect to see a similar uptick in mortality rates among middle-aged people in places such as Europe. But America seems to be unique in this regard.

“An anthropologist friend here says that [white, middle-age Americans] have lost the narrative of their lives — meaning something like a loss of hope, a loss of expectations of progress,” he explained.

Though African Americans as a group are still worse off overall, Deaton added, their quality of life has improved over the past several decades. “And when Hispanics look back, they may look back to where they came from, or what their parents or grandparents had,” he continued.

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The Paul family had become a de facto none-of-the-above box on GOP ballots, the happy recipients of the base’s increasingly loud “no” to the status quo. In the fractiousness of the current election cycle, Sen. Rand Paul was supposed to see his hodgepodge of unorthodox views rewarded with serious consideration atop the ticket. In a 2014 article I questioned at the time, the New York Times Magazine essentially prophesied it.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. In 2015, Paul has found his waiting pockets picked by Trump and Carson, the new standard-bearers of no standards, whose bigotry, paucity of policy and inanity provides the party faithful with an ever-more-forceful rebuke to its leadership. Not even Rick Santorum and the sweater-vest wing of the party is out there enough to get in on the action. The voters, disappointed repeatedly by the core, want to go as far away from it as possible.

Maybe that’s all this strange contest is, not some cult of personality working its voodoo on brains softened by Reality TV. Not even a sharp shift to the hard right. Perhaps it’s just “no.”

In a Politico Magazine article, Michael Lind traces the decline and fall of the modern American conservative movement, thinking that perhaps Trump’s rise is somewhat more nuanced than just mere negation. The opening:

There is an air of desperation out there on the GOP campaign trail. It’s impossible not to sense it in the kinds of things being said by teetering establishment Republican candidates like Jeb Bush and John Kasich, both of whom started off the last debate virtually pleading with base voters to come to their senses about Donald Trump, who is barely identifiable as a conservative by any standard measure of ideology. Not to mention Ben Carson, whose views sound like a grab bag of life philosophies. “I want you to know I’m fed up. I’ve about had it with these people,” a flustered Kasich told a rally in his home state of Ohio this week. “What happened to our party? What happened to the conservative movement?”

It’s an excellent question. And maybe it’s time we stopped blaming the lack of traction experienced by establishment conservatives like Bush, Kasich, and Chris Christie on things like personality and debating skill, and started talking again about that thing known as “the conservative movement.” Maybe the real problem is less Jeb’s awkwardness, or Kasich’s personality, or Christie’s New Jersey bravado, than an issue that runs much deeper. The establishment candidates in this year’s Republican primary nomination campaign are out there reciting all the formulas that worked for Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes—supply-side tax cuts and more military spending. Yet the old-time conservative religion doesn’t seem to fire up the congregation, many of whose members have become idol-worshippers of strange new gods like Trump and Carson.

Why isn’t the old-time conservative religion working to fire people up any more? Maybe the reason is that it’s really, really old. So old it’s decrepit.•

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zumbaIn a dark, mostly serious 2010 Globe and Mail piece, Douglas Coupland wrote: “The middle class is over. It’s not coming back.” It seemed at the time the author may have been leaning too heavily on his sci-fi instincts the way he did in thinking the Segway the best thing since the invention of the wheel, but time seems to have been his friend.

In a Guardian essay, Charles Arthur has a go at the 2013 Frey-Osborne paper about automation that alarmed so many, arguing that while scarcity won’t likely be a problem of tomorrow, distribution may be in a big way. An excerpt:

So how much impact will robotics and AI have on jobs, and on society? Carl Benedikt Frey, who with Michael Osborne in 2013 published the seminal paper The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation? – on which the BoA report draws heavily – says that he doesn’t like to be labelled a “doomsday predictor.”

He points out that even while some jobs are replaced, new ones spring up that focus more on services and interaction with and between people. “The fastest-growing occupations in the past five years are all related to services,” he tells the Observer. “The two biggest are Zumba instructor and personal trainer.”

Frey observes that technology is leading to a rarification of leading-edge employment, where fewer and fewer people have the necessary skills to work in the frontline of its advances. “In the 1980s, 8.2% of the US workforce were employed in new technologies introduced in that decade,” he notes. “By the 1990s, it was 4.2%. For the 2000s, our estimate is that it’s just 0.5%. That tells me that, on the one hand, the potential for automation is expanding – but also that technology doesn’t create that many new jobs now compared to the past.”

This worries Chace. “There will be people who own the AI, and therefore own everything else,” he says. “Which means homo sapiens will be split into a handful of ‘gods,’ and then the rest of us.

“I think our best hope going forward is figuring out how to live in an economy of radical abundance, where machines do all the work, and we basically play.”

Arguably, we might be part of the way there already; is a dance fitness programme like Zumba anything more than adult play? But, as Chace says, a workless lifestyle also means “you have to think about a universal income” – a basic, unconditional level of state support.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that there has been so little examination of the social effects of AI.•

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Certainly loan officers at traditional banks are on the chopping block, but are the banks themselves? A confluence of changes in technology and legislation is set to remake lending and borrowing in America, and there are costs and risks embedded in the convenience and opportunity. Maybe the early startups go bust, but the territory is likely to be “settled” sooner or later, much the same way that ridesharing is here to stay regardless of Uber’s fate.

From Zachary Karabell’s lucid WSJ essay:

The most immediate change will be an explosion in peer-to-peer lending. Just as Uber returns us to a world where anyone with a car could offer a ride to anyone with a thumb, peer-to-peer lending is both new and old. Before there was a robust retail and commercial banking system, there were people with money to lend and people who wanted to borrow it. But the current wave of peer-to-peer services takes this much further, into a hypercharged virtual realm where pools of small lenders can combine online to disperse pools of small loans. And they can do it without the friction, cost or heavy regulatory hurdles of traditional banking.

There are already many players in this field, such as Lending Club and Prosper, but most are already a decade old—ancient by tech standards. With less than $7 billion in loans in 2014, they are tiny in the multi-trillion-dollar lending world. Now the sector is showing explosive growth. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that it could be a $150 billion business by 2025.

The downside is that peer-to-peer interest rates are higher than at mainstream banks, sometimes well into the teens. The upside is that people who need modest sums (one site caps them at $35,000) can easily obtain funds from small individual lenders looking for a high return. What makes it attractive for lenders is that they can spread their capital over far more loans than any one peer could make to another peer, which reduces their risk.

And the options are proliferating.•



Historically, the best answer to high unemployment has been to create more jobs. It’s a wonder if that’s still true, including in America, which has seen diminished and less-secure positions created in this very uneven economic recovery.

Utrecht is to experiment with Universal Basic Income on the city level, and now Finland may give it a go nationally. Can this social safety net work in some countries and not others? In all? In none?

From Chris Weller at Tech Insider:

Over the past decade, unemployment has risen drastically in the small Nordic country, home to just 5.4 million people.

In response, the Finnish Social Insurance Institution, known as KELA, has proposed an experiment to allot a monthly income of 800 euros (or roughly $881) tax-free. The cash will act as a replacement for other social benefits like housing and income support, but people will get it whether they work or not.

In other words, free money for all.

If approved in 2016, the project would begin with a pilot program in which people receive 550 euros per month and retain their benefits, before the model moves on to the real thing.

In purely democratic countries, like the US, basic income has remained on the fringes for decades. The Nixon administration tested out a form of the basic income model in the 1960s, but was met with little success. 

“The biggest challenge for the basic income movement is convincing the larger public that it makes sense to redistribute economic resources to provide a basic income to all,” Almaz Zelleke, a basic income expert and associate professor at NYU Shanghai, tells Tech Insider. It involves “persuading the public that a basic income should be viewed as a basic democratic right, like the vote.”

In socially democratic countries, like the Netherlands and Finland, that idea has more legs.•

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

  1. richard brautigan poem about computers
  2. marciano ali fight decided by computer
  3. can you die from a nosebleed?
  4. modern reading of 1976 movie a man who fell to earth
  5. stephen hsu superintelligent human beings
  6. charlie smith former slave who attended moon launch
  7. instant newspapers printed by electromagnetic waves
  8. documentary about internet entrepreneur josh harris
  9. did guglielmo marconi contact martians?
  10. wolf attacks in russia
This week, Donald Trump published a new book without giving proper credit to his ghostwriter.

This week, Donald Trump published a book without giving credit to his ghostwriter.

I'm too busy bullshitting these rubes in Iowa to write a book. I'll call my agent and have him hire a ghostwriter.

I’m too busy working these rubes in Iowa to pen a book. You’re my agent. Get me a ghostwriter.

Donnie, I know the perfect one to hire.

I know the perfect one, dickhead.

Can he write words good like Hemingway?

Can he write words good, like Hemingway?

He's the classiest, dum-dum.

He’s the classiest, assbreath.

Tell him to get to work. I need 169 pages of bullshit right away.

Tell him to get to work. I need 169 pages of poorly sourced bullshit right away.

Will do, assface.

Will do, fuckface.



  • Edward Luce analyzes two vastly different books about Trump.
  • Ben Carson seems less concerned with whistle-stop tours than the gravy train.
  • The “economic singularity” is probably not upon us.
  • Virtual Reality will improve education and help people masturbate with ghosts.
  • Buzz Aldrin thinks we should send people to Mars on one-way trips.
  • Japan wants to have driverless taxis by the 2020 Games.
  • A brief note from 1901 about a bad bet.



It certainly says something about a country’s leadership when it decides to build the new capital city in the middle of the desert, a suburb of sand. That’s what the Egyptian government has announced its doing, and it says that they aren’t exactly enamored with the nation as it is; they look at chaotic Cairo and dream of dashing Dubai. The utopian quest seems a heated response to the booming population and unpredictable nature of the current capital, though it remains to be seen if a technocratic development in the dunes will be able to effect a cure for what elites believe ails the surrounding areas.

From Nicola Abé at Spiegel:

The Egyptian government has decided to build a new capital city east of Cairo, smack in the middle of the desert. “A global capital,” the building minister announced at a conference on the Red Sea in March. At the event, investors from the Gulf states, China and Saudi Arabia gathered around a model of the new metropolis, admiring the business quarter, with its Dubai-style skyscrapers, the small residential homes in greenbelts and the football stadium. The city is to be situated on 700 square kilometers of land, with an airport larger than London’s Heathrow. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi even wooed investors himself. He recently announced that construction would begin in January.

It is to be a capital created in accordance with the wishes of the country’s leadership elite. It may not fit well with the country as it currently exists, but it will conform to their visions of Egypt’s future — a planned, manageable city conceived from the top down in the same way the pharaohs once created the pyramids. The new Cairo will be a beautiful place, an “innovation center,” environmentally sustainable, with a high quality of life, city planners are pledging. They want it to be a city where people can breathe without having to cough.

The old Cairo is an ugly city, an affront to the senses. Even as you begin heading into the city from the airport, the buildings are already blackened from pollution. The cacophony of car horns is painful to the ears and during winter months, the smog hangs like thick fog over the Nile. The city suffers from thrombosis, with streets so crammed with cars they’re like clogged arteries. Yet women in high-heel shoes saunter along the banks of the Nile smiling. Even though the place seems unbearable, Cairo is loved.•

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Donald Trump is really busy right now trying to sell bibles to Iowans he clearly sees as rubes, so he paid a ghostwriter to knock out a quickie volume for him so he could make a few dollars. By all accounts, it’s thin gruel, more cheap, mediocre product from America’s leading vulgarian, which wouldn’t be such a damning descriptor if he wasn’t also racist, xenophobic, sexist, etc. 

In a Financial Times column, Edward Luce analyzes not just the Reality TV realtor’s book but also Michael D’Antonio’s title about him, Never Enough, a work he praises. An excerpt:

Donald first came to public attention in 1973, when the civil rights division of the US Justice Department launched a case against the Trumps for allegedly discriminating between black and white tenants in the public housing that he ran. Donald hired Roy Cohn, a notorious lawyer who had once worked for Joe McCarthy, the senator who spearheaded the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. It was a classic Trump response. If someone attacks you, hit back 10 times harder. If you are accused of something, label your accuser with something far worse. (It is a tactic he is putting to good use on the 2016 campaign trail.) Cohn hit the government with a $100m damages lawsuit claiming that federal officials were like “storm troopers” who had used “Gestapo-like tactics” to defame their client. The case was settled. Trump went on to win far bigger contracts. In Trump’s world, money is the measure of success. According to his own book, he has made “more than $10 billion”. According to Bloomberg, his net wealth is around $2.9bn.

D’Antonio aims to do more than explain the life of America’s best known property developer. He also links it to the unfolding story of Trump’s times. Trump was reared on the kind of self-help and get-rich-quick books that he now so frequently churns out himself (starting with The Art of the Deal, which came out in 1987, Trump has written more than a dozen). Raised on Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), the young Trump was taught that life was all about winning. His biggest influence was Norman Vincent Peale, a Presbyterian pastor whose book The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) sold 2m copies in its first two years. Trump and his father regularly attended Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Peale’s theology was devoid of sin or guilt. The only belief it commanded was in oneself. Confidence was the key. Prosperity would follow. “Learn to pray big prayers,” advised Peale. “God will rate you according to the size of your prayers.”•


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Zentralbild-Biscan bgm-Zi 13.8.1964 "Aufgeblasene Männer" für den Transport Garderobenformer, wie sie in Färbereien, Reinigungsanstalten, und Kleiderfabriken benötgt werden,produziert die mit staatlicher Beteiligung arbeitende Fa.Horst Gessner KG in Güsten, Kreis Staßfurt. Jürgen Stein ist gerade bei der Montage und Erprobunmg einer Bügelpuppe. Mit diesen Dampf-,und Bügelpuppen, die von innen mit Dampf und Luft aufgeblasen werden, dauert das Bügeln von Mänteln, Kleidern und Sakkos nur noch etwa zwei Minuten.Dieser Betrieb wird in diesem Jahr für 400000 Mark mehr Erzeugnisse produzieren als vorgesehen und hat bereits 3-4 des Exportsplanes erfüllt."

Theologians and technologists have their similarities, with both believing in a magical higher power of sorts and sometimes showing a lack of fondness for humans beings. Bishop John Fisher argued in 1535 that a person is merely a “satchel full of dung.” Compared to that epithet, Marvin Minsky defining us as “meat machines” in nearly a compliment. 

Ari Schulman’s Washington Post opinion piece asks the question, “Do we love robots because we hate ourselves?” If that’s so, I would say humans have a higher degree of self-awareness than I’ve given us credit for. An excerpt:

Even as the significance of the Turing Test has been challenged, its attitude continues to characterize the project of strong artificial intelligence. AI guru Marvin Minsky refers to humans as “meat machines.” To roboticist Rodney Brooks, we’re no more than “a big bag of skin full of biomolecules.” One could fill volumes with these lovely aphorisms from AI’s leading luminaries.

And for the true believers, these are not gloomy descriptions but gleeful mandates. AI’s most strident supporters see it as the next step in our evolution. Our accidental nature will be replaced with design, our frail bodies with immortal software, our marginal minds with intellect of a kind we cannot now comprehend, and our nasty and brutish meat-world with the infinite possibilities of the virtual.

Most critics of heady AI predictions do not see this vision as remotely plausible. But lesser versions might be — and it’s important to ask why many find it so compelling, even if it doesn’t come to pass. Even if “we” would survive in some vague way, this future is one in which the human condition is done away with. This, indeed, seems to be the appeal.

It’s not exactly a boutique idea, either.•

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From the October 21, 1901 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:



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In a short Washington Post Q&A conducted by Robert Gebelhoff, philosopher Nick Bostrom explains why he favors human enhancement. It will be a thorny thing to implement, but it’s going to happen if humans don’t succumb first to an existential risk. In fact, cognitive enhancement may be the only way we don’t become extinct. An excerpt:


You’ve written in favor of human enhancement — which includes everything from genetic engineering to “mind-uploading” — to curb the risks AI might bring. How should we balance the risks of human enhancement and artificial intelligence?

Nick Bostrom:

I don’t think human enhancement should be evaluated solely in terms of how it might influence the AI development trajectory. But it is interesting to think about how different technologies and capabilities could interact. For example, humanity might eventually be able to reach a high level of technology and scientific understanding without cognitive enhancement, but with cognitive enhancement we could get there sooner.

And the character of our progress might also be different if we were smarter: less like that of a billion monkeys hammering away furiously at a billion typewriters until something usable appears by chance, and more like the work of insight and purpose. This might increase the odds that certain hazards would be foreseen and avoided. If machine superintelligence is to be built, one may wish the folks building it to be as competent as possible.•


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