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

  1. new jesse ventura tv show
  2. trump authoritarian crisis
  3. is rick perry dumb?
  4. we’re already living inside a computer
  5. futuristic ambient technology
  6. jules streicher nazi trial
  7. knut hamsun and hitler
  8. bob and carol and ted and alice big sur scene
  9. death of george eastman
  10. nation-states are myths

This week, when dotard and moron Donald Trump was finished throwing paper towels at hurricane survivors, he looked at his shocking poll numbers.

Wow, I’m in a deeper hole than Alan Thicke! I need to think fast.

I know! I’ll find two other assholes to hang around with to make myself look not as uniquely shitty.

Yes, you’re both invited.

The White House has sent a private plane for us, Biebs.

 

• We’re in the midst of building a surveillance state that can be used for nefarious means by a paper-towel-tossing, son-of-a-bitch-calling, refugee-bashing, pussy-grabbing, private-plane-riding, self-dealing, race-baiting Presidential Administration.

Donald Trump is a moron, and Rex Tillerson isn’t much better.

• Facebook is the McDonald’s of communication—cheap, easy and bad for you.

• The Internet’s troll army using Google to wage an Information War.

• The new podcast series Cults examines Marshall Applewhite and Heaven’s Gate.

Arthur Janov, creator of Primal Scream Therapy, just passed away.

• AI pioneer Terry Winograd thinks AI is “facilitating huge problems for our society.”

• A brief note from 1911 about late-life Harriet Tubman.

• A brief note from 1863 about Mrs. Lincoln’s “Southern sympathies.”

• This week’s Afflictor keyphrase searches: Ray Bradbury, CTE, Robert E. Lee statue.

General Artificial Intelligence is likely possible, but it’s unlikely we’ll create it from the methods we’re now utilizing. It’s not that we can’t use the current blueprint to build something strong enough to greatly improve life—or end it—but it won’t be human-like but rather something that’s at best parallel to humanness. We’ll learn about this pseudo-superintelligence by trial and error for the foreseeable future, which is always perilous when we’re talking about powerful tools that develop gradually—and then all at once.

Terry Winograd, an AI pioneer who had second thoughts, tells Aaron Timms in an Outline Q&A that correcting the mistakes that develop along the way to more and more profound machine intelligence usually will require a large-scale failure that will elicit a course correction. “You have to wait for breakdowns,” he says, using Facebook’s great election-year failure as an example. An excerpt:

Question:

How close do you think we are to achieving “general AI”?

Terry Winograd:

I’m still in the agnostic phase — I’m not sure the techniques we have are going to get to general AI, person-like AI. I believe that nothing’s going on in my head that isn’t physical — so in principle if you could reproduce that physical structure, you could build an AI that’s just like a person. Today’s techniques are not close to that in a direct sense. Everybody knows that my brain does not operate by having trillions of examples. The mechanisms that work for AI practically today aren’t mirrors of what goes on in the brain.

Question:

How do you judge this moment in the public debate about AI? Is all this fear-mongering a useful contribution? Is it fair? Is it silly?

Terry Winograd:

Having those questions out for discussion is good, getting large amounts of hysteria and publicity isn’t. The question is: How do you raise these issues in a thoughtful way without saying, “Skynet is upon us”? Musk, I think, is more on the “clickbait” end of the public discussion about AI. But I do believe that AI is facilitating huge problems for our society — not because it’s going to be smart like a person but because robotics is going to change the whole employment picture, and because the use of AI in decision making is going to move decision-making toward directions that may not have the element of human consideration.•

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Some perfectly bright people, like Matthew Yglesias, cling to the notion that Donald Trump must be very intelligent despite all evidence to the contrary, because he and his have avoided prison despite the dubiousness of their “business deals,” and Trump was even able to weasel his way into the White House. I, however, instead see a remarkably dumb and damaged person who wasn’t long ago checked into the Graybar Hotel along with some of his nearest and dearest because of an American failure to curb criminal activity of the white-collar variety. That’s due to how riddled by money our political system has become.

Just this week, a joint report by the New Yorker, ProPublica and NPR revealed how the two elder Trump offspring were on the verge of being indicted for fraud in regards to Trump SoHo when family lawyer Marc Kasowitz visited DA Cyrus Vance Jr., a politician the attorney has supported financially. That the case almost immediately went away is less a sign of innocence than a sign of the times. The putrid paterfamilias himself never being placed in a pen for his exorbitant money laundering and numerous other offenses isn’t a display of his effectiveness but of our societal failure. 

As far as Trump landing in the Oval Office by hook or especially by crook, it probably wasn’t any native genius that enabled him to run a Bull Connor-as-a-condo-salesman campaign aimed at the worst of us and, quite possibly, to conspire with the Kremlin in upsetting our democracy. Let’s not confuse pathological shamelessness with intelligence. There will always be terrible people who disgracefully attempt to bilk a system. A culture that allows them to thrive is corrupt and…moronic.

Two excerpts follow.

__________________________

From “Is Trump a Moron? Duh.” by Max Boot in USA Today:

Trump journeyed to Puerto Rico on Tuesday to try to dispel that image. Again, it was a comedy of errors. The most widely seen picture from the trip showed Trump throwing paper towels at hurricane survivors as if they were seals receiving fish from a trainer. Trump refused to meet with Cruz, leading to more quotes from her lambasting him. “This terrible and abominable view of him throwing paper towels and throwing provisions at people, it does not embody the spirit of the American nation,” she said.

Wait. Trump wasn’t done.

At a news conference at an Air National Guard base in Puerto Rico, the president lauded the Coast Guard as “special, special, very brave people.” Then he turned to a man in uniform and asked, “Would you like to say something on behalf of your men and women?” His response: “Sir, I’m representing the Air Force.”

Mixing up Coast Guard and Air Force uniforms is understandable for a newly elected president with no military experience; it’s less excusable after more than eight months in office.

At this same briefing, Trump also said, in that tone-deaf way of his, “You can be very proud. Everybody around this table, and everybody watching, can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico,” because fewer people died than during Hurricane Katrina. So Puerto Ricans should be proud of the catastrophe engulfing them because other disasters were even worse? It’s like telling New Yorkers that they can be proud that 9/11 didn’t kill as many people as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Little wonder that only 32% of respondents in a recent poll approved of Trump’s handling disaster relief in the U.S. territory. His overall approval ratings aren’t much higher.

The real scandal isn’t that Trump’s secretary of State called him a moron. It’s that his job performance lends so much credence to that description.•

__________________________

While Tillerson is right in his gauging of Trump’s idiocy, he probably should look in the mirror when tossing around the m-word given how abysmally he’s performed as Secretary of State. From 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s job is at imminent risk.

In the wake of Wednesday’s NBC News report that Tillerson had called President Trump a “moron” in July, the Secretary of State was forced to give an unusual and bizarre press conference in which he denied any intent to leave. But when the Washington Post spoke to 19 current and former White House officials about the controversy, the clear consensus was that TIllerson is not likely to survive such public reports of insubordination.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. The consensus among foreign policy observers is that Tillerson’s tenure as secretary of state as been an unmitigated disaster.

“Tillerson would be at or near the bottom of the list of secretaries of state, not just in the post-Second World War world but in the record of US secretaries of state,” says Paul Musgrave, a scholar of US foreign policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The former Exxon Mobil CEO — whose nomination was initially greeted warmly by prominent foreign policy hands — has failed to wield any significant influence in internal administration debates over issues like Syria, North Korea, or Russia.

His push to slash “inefficiencies” in the State Department and seeming disinterest in working closely with longtime staff were even more damaging. By failing to get people into vital high-level posts and actively pushing out talented personnel, he ended up making America’s response to major crises incoherent and weakening the State Department for a “generation,” according to George Washington University’s Elizabeth Saunders.

This can’t all be blamed on Tillerson: Even a skilled and experienced diplomat would have had trouble maintaining influence in the chaotic Trump White House, where people like UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Jared Kushner wield major influence and foreign policy is often made by tweet.

Yet both nonpartisan experts and high-ranking State Department appointees in the past two administrations believe he personally deserves much of the blame.

“I think he really will go down as one of the worst secretaries of State we’ve had,” Eliot Cohen, counselor to the State Department under President George W. Bush, told Axios’s Jonathan Swan. “He will go down as the worst secretary of state in history,” tweeted Ilan Goldenberg, an Obama-era official who worked on Israel-Palestine issues.•

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There’s no more towering figure in American annals than Harriet Tubman, who was so bravely and rigorously stationed on the right side of history that she became history, and it’s an outrage that those far her inferior—and that includes pretty much all of us—are open to reneging on plans to place her likeness on U.S. currency. To be fine with slave owners being on dollars and coins but not a former slave who became a liberator is the very definition of white supremacy.

In the last years before her death in 1913, when Tubman had given absolutely everything for the cause, she was left financially destitute and was rescued from poverty by funds raised through women’s clubs and charities she herself began. An article from the June 1, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

If we avoid the most pernicious effects of all the paper-towel-tossing, son-of-a-bitch-calling, refugee-bashing, pussy-grabbing, private-plane-riding, self-dealing, race-baiting, Constitution-shredding behavior of this Presidential Administration, the worst we’ve ever known, it will be because of how mired it is in ineptitude.  

Of course, there’s always the chance that this won’t be the worst government America ever has, that perhaps there will be another just as evil but far more competent, and that the ubiquitous surveillance apparatus we’re constructing for ourselves in our streets and homes will fall into the worst possible hands. Even if we don’t wind up in that place there’ll always be plenty of nations that do. Soon, a technologically enabled police state will be affordable to even the most modestly funded authoritarian regime.

Two excerpts follow.

_________________________________

From “Privacy Is Under Threat From the Facial Recognition Revolution” in the Financial Times:

Unlike fingerprints, retinal scans or blood samples, it is easily performed without the subject’s knowledge. It will affect how we travel, live, shop, and much else. It will force changes in the way privacy is defined and protected. If those who care about individual rights do not start thinking about the implications now, those changes will be forced upon us rather than chosen.

Facial recognition is already in use around the world. The Chinese equivalent of Amazon, Alibaba, allows people to “pay with a smile” using facial recognition in stores, for example. The potential for good is obvious. Think of the hours that could be saved if facial recognition were to become the default identification tool at airports.

These benefits will have to balanced against the loss of anonymity. In Russia, an app called FindFace identifies individuals in photos, linking them to profiles on a social network called VKontakte. A similar service, if linked to Facebook and other networks, could put names to billions of faces. In the city of Shenzhen jaywalkers are identified using CCTV, and their faces and addresses posted on a large screen to shame them into better behaviour.

The technology will not be limited to connecting a face with information already present on the internet. A facial recognition model developed at Stanford, when presented with paired photos of individuals who self-identify as gay or straight, could tell which was which with 81 per cent accuracy in men and 74 per cent in women. Humans given the same task were much less accurate. Yes, the sample was limited and the study needs to be replicated with a more refined methodology. The results cannot be dismissed, though. Nor can the frightening implications. Consider an algorithm identifying sexual minorities deployed in an intolerant, authoritarian state. The technology may misclassify many, but tyrants lose little sleep over false positives.•

· · ·

From “Amazon’s Latest Alexa Devices Ready To Extend Company’s Reach Into Your Home,” Mark Harris’ Guardian article:

Amazon, hoping to replicate the success of its Echo device, is poised to extend its eyes and ears into every part of your life with the launch of new voice-controlled and camera-equipped Alexa devices designed for bedrooms, living rooms and even your car.
 
“Voice control in the home will be ubiquitous,” predicted David Limp, an Amazon senior vice-president who is in charge of the Echo devices, at an event in Seattle on Wednesday. “Kids today will grow up never knowing a day they couldn’t talk to their houses.”

The Echo has been Amazon’s surprise hit in the three years since it launched, finding its way into tens of millions of kitchens around the world, offering internet radio, timers, weather and news reports and voice calls. Now Amazon will start selling a smaller, cheaper version of the original Echo, with fabric and wood veneers, as well a new flagship device called the Echo Plus that promises to work instantly with dozens of smart home devices, such as locks, lights and electric sockets.

“Setting up your smart home is still just too hard,” Limp said. “It can take up to 15 steps to do something as simple as set up a lightbulb.”

Amazon’s vision is of homes with Echo devices in every room, listening to every word you say.•

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I wonder if it dawned on Soviet refugee and Google guy Sergey Brin when he joined the January pro-immigration protests at San Francisco International Airport that his company, founded not even 20 years ago with the “Don’t Be Evil” tagline, played a large role in enabling a xenophobic, anti-refugee Administration into the White House, and it was more than just an egregious oversight. It wasn’t a bug but a feature. Something tells me that Brin avoided too much reflection on this point, that the primary thought among the major communications players in Silicon Valley has been how to do damage control without doing any damage to the bottom line.

· · ·

In the Web 1.0 days, editors who argued against selling prime real estate in search results to the highest bidder within an automated system were told that they not only didn’t understand business but that they didn’t understand the future. Both sides were right, in a sense. Tomorrow was indeed up for sale, and sites and groups, many of them under the auspices of the Kremlin and some run by neo-Nazis, paid for placement and gamed the system, meaning that everything those editors feared—and far worse—came to fruition. 

· · ·

Google, with its outsize control over Internet communications, is one of the major culprits in the new abnormal, but it isn’t alone, as Facebook and Twitter have also done harm, and it wasn’t an accident. From a Bloomberg report published a few hours ago: 

Facebook Inc. is pledging greater transparency about who’s behind election-related ads online. For years, the company fought to avoid it. Since 2011, Facebook has asked the Federal Election Commission for blanket exemptions from political advertising disclosure rules — transparency that could have helped it avoid the current crisis over Russian ad spending ahead of the 2016 U.S. election. Communications law requires traditional media like TV and radio to track and disclose political ad buyers. The rule doesn’t apply online, an exemption that’s helped Facebook’s self-serve advertising business generate hundreds of millions of dollars in political campaign spots. When the company was smaller, the issue was debated in some policy corners of Washington. Now that the social network is such a powerful political tool, with more than 2 billion users, the topic is at the center of a debate about the future of American democracy.

· · ·

Carole Cadwalladr, who’s done excellent work in the Guardian this year in trying to untangle the impact the Mercers and Cambridge Analytica had on Brexit and the U.S. Presidential election, also published a piece on the army of trolls that pollutes the Internet with hatemongering and misinformation, a regiment that is continuing to grow in size and impact. One expert on the topic tells her about these nefarious agents: “It’s an information war…it’s a network…it’s far more powerful than any one actor…and it’s learning…every day, it’s getting stronger.”

An excerpt:

Stories about fake news on Facebook have dominated certain sections of the press for weeks following the American presidential election, but arguably this is even more powerful, more insidious. Frank Pasquale, professor of law at the University of Maryland, and one of the leading academic figures calling for tech companies to be more open and transparent, calls the results “very profound, very troubling”.

He came across a similar instance in 2006 when, “If you typed ‘Jew’ in Google, the first result was jewwatch.org. It was ‘look out for these awful Jews who are ruining your life’. And the Anti-Defamation League went after them and so they put an asterisk next to it which said: ‘These search results may be disturbing but this is an automated process.’ But what you’re showing – and I’m very glad you are documenting it and screenshotting it – is that despite the fact they have vastly researched this problem, it has gotten vastly worse.”

And ordering of search results does influence people, says Martin Moore, director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King’s College, London, who has written at length on the impact of the big tech companies on our civic and political spheres. “There’s large-scale, statistically significant research into the impact of search results on political views. And the way in which you see the results and the types of results you see on the page necessarily has an impact on your perspective.” Fake news, he says, has simply “revealed a much bigger problem. These companies are so powerful and so committed to disruption. They thought they were disrupting politics but in a positive way. They hadn’t thought about the downsides. These tools offer remarkable empowerment, but there’s a dark side to it. It enables people to do very cynical, damaging things.”

Google is knowledge. It’s where you go to find things out. And evil Jews are just the start of it. There are also evil women. I didn’t go looking for them either. This is what I type: “a-r-e w-o-m-e-n”. And Google offers me just two choices, the first of which is: “Are women evil?” I press return. Yes, they are. Every one of the 10 results “confirms” that they are, including the top one, from a site called sheddingoftheego.com, which is boxed out and highlighted: “Every woman has some degree of prostitute in her. Every woman has a little evil in her… Women don’t love men, they love what they can do for them. It is within reason to say women feel attraction but they cannot love men.”

Next I type: “a-r-e m-u-s-l-i-m-s”. And Google suggests I should ask: “Are Muslims bad?” And here’s what I find out: yes, they are. That’s what the top result says and six of the others. Without typing anything else, simply putting the cursor in the search box, Google offers me two new searches and I go for the first, “Islam is bad for society”. In the next list of suggestions, I’m offered: “Islam must be destroyed.”

Jews are evil. Muslims need to be eradicated. And Hitler? Do you want to know about Hitler? Let’s Google it. “Was Hitler bad?” I type. And here’s Google’s top result: “10 Reasons Why Hitler Was One Of The Good Guys” I click on the link: “He never wanted to kill any Jews”; “he cared about conditions for Jews in the work camps”; “he implemented social and cultural reform.” Eight out of the other 10 search results agree: Hitler really wasn’t that bad.

A few days later, I talk to Danny Sullivan, the founding editor of SearchEngineLand.com. He’s been recommended to me by several academics as one of the most knowledgeable experts on search. Am I just being naive, I ask him? Should I have known this was out there? “No, you’re not being naive,” he says. “This is awful. It’s horrible. It’s the equivalent of going into a library and asking a librarian about Judaism and being handed 10 books of hate. Google is doing a horrible, horrible job of delivering answers here. It can and should do better.”•

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Came across a TV report on Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy when I was a child, and it scared the hell out of me. Watching adults, doubled over in emotional pain, screaming and crying as shamelessly as newborns, was more than I could process.

Of course, getting the hell out of people was what psychiatrist Arthur Janov, who just passed away, made his goal after stumbling onto the method during a session in the 1960s. He believed patients regressing to trace the trail of tears back to the womb could free them of the burdens they shouldered. It would likely have been just one more barely noticed fringe therapy, a lot of hokum, were Janov’s book on the treatment not published in 1970, a moment when American culture had cracked open.

The volume was rightfully met with skepticism by book reviewers and medical professionals alike, but it resonated with certain high-profile actors and musicians, especially appealing to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who were in the midst of their walkabout through the counterculture. Their recordings based on Primal Scream, particularly Lennon’s searing “Mother,” which sounds like a nursery song sung to a crib covered in blood, were aided by the method even more than Bob Dylan’s singing had been by the Buddhist breath control taught to him by Allen Ginsberg. “You’re so astounded by what you find out about yourself,” Lennon said initially, but he almost immediately worried about encouraging others to see Janov as a guru, especially since the doctor was not shy about self-aggrandizement.

In retrospect, Janov’s shocking method tells us very little about human psychiatry, but it does remind that once people have fulfilled the basics of food and water and shelter, they have the time to notice the well of disenchantment inside them, and that can be a positive thing or it can be manipulated into something menacing.

Two excerpts follow.

______________________

From Margaralit Fox’s New York Times obituary of Janov:

Arthur Janov, a California psychotherapist variously called a messiah and a mountebank for his development of primal scream therapy — a treatment he maintained could cure ailments from depression and alcoholism to ulcers, epilepsy and asthma, not to mention bring about world peace — died on Sunday at his home in Malibu, Calif. He was 93.

The office manager of his organization, the Janov Primal Center in Santa Monica, Calif., confirmed the death.

A clinical psychologist, Dr. Janov conceived primal therapy, as his method is formally known, after an epiphany in the late 1960s. He introduced it to the world with his first book, “The Primal Scream,” published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1970. The book attracted wide attention in newspapers and magazines and made a celebrity of Dr. Janov, who became a ubiquitous presence on the talk-show circuit.

Primal therapy became a touchstone of ’70s culture, especially after it drew a stream of luminary devotees to Dr. Janov’s Los Angeles treatment center, the Primal Institute, among them John Lennon, Yoko Ono, James Earl Jones and the pianist Roger Williams.
 
“Few treatments have been more dramatic, more highly touted or quicker to catch on than primal therapy,” The Los Angeles Times wrote in 1971.

Mr. Williams, the article continued, had publicly counted Dr. Janov “as one of history’s five greatest men (along with Socrates, Galileo, Freud and Darwin).”

Dr. Janov appeared to concur. Primal therapy, he told an interviewer in 1971, was “the most important discovery of the 20th century.”

Reporting in 1971 on a visit to the Primal Institute, which Dr. Janov had established three years before, The Boston Globe wrote:

“He has equipped his therapy chambers with an array of nursery props — teddy bears, cribs, playpens, dolls, football helmets, baby rattles, security blankets — all to help adults turn the clock back.”

The primal scream that could result from these sessions (“It sounds,” Dr. Janov told People magazine in 1978, “like what you might hear from a person about to be murdered”) was not the objective of the therapy per se. It was rather, he said, a sonic barometer of its liberating effects.•

· · ·

The opening of Eleanor Hoover’s People piece in 1978:

Since psychologist Arthur Janov published his book The Primal Scream in 1970, more than 3,000 people—including John Lennon, actors Robert Mandan (Soap) and James Earl Jones and UCLA anthropologist Bernard Campbell—have undergone the regression-to-birth therapy he advocates. Janov’s original clinic in Los Angeles is flourishing, and he recently opened a New York branch. He has written four follow-up books, and three more are in progress.

All are aimed at an understanding of what he insists is a global crisis. “The world,” says Janov, 53, “is having a nervous breakdown, and Valium is the only glue that holds it together.” Critics disagree with Janov’s cosmic fears and especially his claim that his treatment of neurosis is the only one that works. “He’s good at taking people apart,” says one L.A. psychologist, “but not so good at putting them back together.”

In Janov’s view, the repressed pain of traumatic childhood experiences eventually produces an emotionally damaged adult. These experiences include not only obvious physical and psychological injuries, but also subtle slights like parents’ failure to comfort a child. Janov’s “cure,” Primal Therapy (a trademarked term), involves reliving the trauma in cataclysmic, emotional outbursts called “primals.” Through them patients exorcise the pain and alleviate such psychosomatic ailments as colitis, asthma, etc., caused by its repression.

“Our research,” Janov declares, “shows that patients after eight months of treatment have a permanent lowering of such vital signs as pulse, blood pressure and core body temperature. This has real implications for the prevention of hypertension and heart disease.”

The therapy costs $6,600 and lasts for at least a year. It begins with 24 hours of total isolation followed by an intense three weeks of daily one-to-one sessions. After that the patient attends primal groups once or twice a week, and some may continue with occasional private sessions.

Janov, son of a Los Angeles butcher, is a UCLA alumnus with a psychology doctorate from the Claremont Graduate School and had a conventional practice until 1967. He stumbled upon the basic idea for Primal Therapy when a patient told him of his fascination with a comedian who wandered around the stage dressed in a diaper shouting “Mommy! Daddy!” Janov persuaded the young man to dredge up memories of his own parents, and the patient began to sob. Finally an ear-shattering scream welled up and convulsed his whole body; then he became calm and said again and again, “I made it. I made it.”

The scream is crucial to the therapy. “It sounds,” says Janov, “like what you might hear from a person about to be murdered.” Some critics have suggested that patients scream because they are expected to. Janov answers: “It comes from a person’s depths and cannot be fabricated.”•

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Some people search and find the wrong thing.

Such was the case with the followers of the technologically friendly cult Heaven’s Gate, which stunned the world when 38 members committed a mass suicide in 1997 at the behest of the group’s leader Marshall Applewhite, a bisexual man deeply troubled by his orientation, who founded the pseudo-religion 22 years earlier in Los Angeles. The guru believed the Hale-Bopp Comet would be tailed by a UFO which would take them to heaven if they killed themselves at just the right moment, and somehow a diverse group of basically intelligent people heeded his call. 

I thought of this sad and strange chapter from America’s recent past (on another sad and strange day) when I came across Fiona Sturges’ Financial Times report on the new podcast series Cults, which covers Heaven’s Gate and other dangerous group dynamics. It reminds that the stories we tell ourselves as small clans or large nations can sustain life or get plenty of us killed. That’s why we need to be sane and rational about the narratives we choose.

Just after the mass death 20 years ago, People magazine profiled Applewhite and some of his acolytes. An excerpt:

Marshall Herff Applewhite 65, music teacher turned cult leader

Missouri prosecutor Tim Braun never forgot the car-theft case that came his way in 1974, when he was a novice St. Louis County public defender. “Very seldom do we see a statement that ‘a force from beyond the earth has made me keep this car,’ ” he says. The defendant: Marshall Herff Applewhite. The sentence: four months in jail.

His early life offers few hints of what led Applewhite—son of a Presbyterian preacher and his wife—to abandon his career as a music professor for a life chasing alien spacecraft. Married with two children, he seemed the devoted family man. But his marriage broke up in the mid-’60s, and he moved to Houston, where he ran a small Catholic college’s music department and often sang with the Houston Grand Opera.

A sharp dresser whose taste in cars ran to convertibles, and in liquor to vodka gimlets, he became a fixture of Houston’s arts scene—and, less overtly, its gay community. “Everybody knew Herff,” says Houston gay activist and radio host Ray Hill. But in 1970, Applewhite left the college, apparently after allegations of an affair with a male student.

Soon afterward, Houston artist Hayes Parker recalls, Applewhite claimed to have had a vision during a walk on the beach in Galveston, Texas. “He said he suddenly had knowledge about the world,” recalls Parker. Around that time he met nurse Bonnie Nettles, with whom he formed an instant bond that became the basis of a 25-year cult odyssey. They wandered the country, gathering followers and attracting so much curiosity that by the mid-’70s he had been interviewed by The New York Times. “Some people are like lemmings who rush in a pack into the sea,” Applewhite said of other alternative lifestyles. “Some people will try anything.”

· · ·

Cheryl Butcher 42, computer trainer

Butcher was a shy, bright, self-taught computer expert who spent half her life in Applewhite’s orbit. Growing up in Springfield, Mo., she was “the perfect daughter,” says her father, Jasper, a retired federal corrections officer. “She was a good student. She did charity work, candy striper stuff.” But according to Virginia Norton, her mother, she was also “a loner. She watched a lot of TV and read. Making friends was hard for her.” That is, until she joined the cult in 1976. “She wrote me a letter once,” says Norton, “that said, ‘Mother, be happy that I’m happy.’ Another time she ended a letter with ‘Look higher.’ “

· · ·

David Van Sinderen 48, environmentalist

“When I was 4, he saved me from drowning,” says publicist Sylvia Abbate of her big brother David. The son of a former telephone company CEO, David became an environmentalist. ” ‘Don’t be hurt, I’m not doing this to you,’ ” Abbate says he told his family after he joined the cult in 1976. ” ‘It’s something I have to do for me.’ ” Visiting his sister in ’87, he puzzled her with his backseat driving, then apologized, explaining that cult members drove with a partner so they would have an extra set of eyes. Says Abbate: “That’s the kind of care they had for one another.”

· · ·

Alan Bowers 45, oysterman

Bowers had spent eight years with the cult in the ’70s before returning to Fairfield, Conn., in the early ’80s to work as a commercial oysterman. In 1988 his life derailed when his wife divorced him and his brother Barry drowned in a boating accident. Bowers, who had three children, moved to Jupiter, Fla., near his stepsisters Susan and Joy Ventulett. “He came down here to make a new start,” says Susan, but he could never quite get it together. Then in 1994, Bowers, while working for a moving company, ran into someone he knew from Applewhite’s legions at a McDonald’s in New Mexico. “He felt it might have been destiny,” says Joy. “He was a little vulnerable. He was searching for peace.”

· · ·

Margaret Bull 54, farm girl

Peggy Bull, among the cult’s first adherents in the mid-’70s, grew up on a farm outside little Ellensburg, Wash. Though shy, she was in the high school pep club and a member of the Wranglerettes, a riding drill team. Later “she belonged to all the intellectual-type groups,” says Brenda McIntosh, a roommate at the University of Washington, where Bull earned her B.A. in 1966. “It was sometimes hard to talk to her because she was so smart.” Recalls English professor Roger Sale: “She was a open and ready intellectually.” Her father, Jack, died less than three weeks before Bull’s suicide, says Margaret’s childhood friend Iris Rominger, who assumed that Bull had left the cult. “I guess it’s kind of a blessing.”•

My feeling about Facebook has long been that it’s the McDonald’s of communication—cheap, easy and bad for you—but that may not be fair to the Golden Arches. The fast-food chain will gladly pour sludge in your aortic valves in exchange for a modest fee, but it’s main interest is not in sizing you up, surveilling you and selling your attention to anyone with money to spend, be they capitalists or Nazis or the Kremlin. Mark Zuckerberg may see his “nation” of users as the next step in global comity, but it’s instead just a mirror, a magnifier, held up to this menacing American moment, with strong supporting roles for Putin thugs and all manner of chaos agents.

Eric Schmidt once called the Internet the “largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.” That’s what it still is, despite Zuckerberg wanting us to believe the his enormous piece of the real estate is a bright, welcoming place for the whole family. Facebook and Google were in the news today again for all the wrong reasons. In the wake of the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, both companies were used to spread “hoaxes, completely unverified rumors, failed witch hunts, and blatant falsehoods.” Algorithms were again insufficient.

Many of us have looked at Zuckerberg’s 2017 “listening tour,” his manifesto and his hiring of a former Hillary Clinton pollster as perhaps a prelude to a Presidential run, but it could be that he fears his empire walls have begun to crumble. A legal and political reckoning will come for what went on during the 2016 election, and depending on the severity of what’s learned, oversight could be on the table for communications platforms like Facebook and Google and Twitter, which may not be too big to fail but too big to succeed.

Two excerpts follow.

_________________________ 

In a New York essay by Max Read:

Nowhere was this confusion about Facebook’s and Zuckerberg’s role in public life more in evidence than in the rumors that the CEO was planning to run for president. Every year, Zuckerberg takes on a “personal challenge,” a sort of billionaire-scale New Year’s resolution, about which he posts updates to his Facebook page. For most Facebook users, these meticulously constructed and assiduously managed challenges are the only access they’ll ever have to Zuckerberg’s otherwise highly private personal life. Thousands of people cluster in the comments under his status updates like crowds loitering outside Buckingham Palace, praising the CEO, encouraging him in his progress, and drawing portraits of his likeness.

This year, Zuckerberg’s challenge has been to meet people in all the states of the U.S. that he hadn’t yet visited. His first stop, in January, was Texas; since then, he’s been to 24 other states. Zuckerberg has adamantly denied that the trips are a trial run for the campaign trail, and, having spoken with many of the people he’s met with over the course of his ­journeys—not to mention stern Facebook publicists — I tend to believe him. He limits his tour activity to interactions in private groups or unannounced visits — no speeches, no barnstorms, no baby-kissing. He’s issued no policy prescriptions and inserted himself into political debates rarely and in limited ways. And yet, the road trip sure looks like a campaign — or at least the sort of “listening tour” that politicians sometimes stage to convince voters, before even announcing, that their hearts are in the right place.

To some extent, of course, the media curiosity is his own fault. (After all, he did choose to be professionally photographed while eating fried food and staring intently at machinery.) But it’s hard for me not to think that the incessant speculation is a function of our own incomplete view of Facebook. The Zuckerberg-for-president interpretation of his project understands Facebook as a large, well-known company, from which a top executive might reasonably launch a political career within the recognizable political framework of the U.S. electoral process.

But if Facebook is bigger, newer, and weirder than a mere company, surely his trip is bigger, newer, and weirder than a mere presidential run. Maybe he’s doing research and development, reverse-­engineering social bonds to understand how Facebook might better facilitate them. Maybe Facebook is a church and Zuckerberg is offering his benedictions. Maybe Facebook is a state within a state and Zuckerberg is inspecting its boundaries. Maybe Facebook is an emerging political community and Zuckerberg is cultivating his constituents. Maybe Facebook is a surveillance state and Zuckerberg a dictator undertaking a propaganda tour. Maybe Facebook is a dual power — a network overlaid across the U.S., parallel to and in competition with the government to fulfill civic functions — and Zuckerberg is securing his command. Maybe Facebook is border control between the analog and the digital and Zuckerberg is inspecting one side for holes. Maybe Facebook is a fleet of alien spaceships that have colonized the globe and Zuckerberg is the viceroy trying to win over his new subjects.

Or maybe it’s as simple as this: If you run a business and want to improve it, you need to spend time talking to your customers. If you’ve created a hybrid state–church–­railroad–mall–alien colony and want to understand, or expand, it, you need to spend time with your hybrid citizen-believer-passenger-customer-­subjects.•

· · ·

In Read’s analysis, there’s also this passage: “The nightmare possibility is that the money was spent strategically in an effort to selectively target swing voters with specific interests in important electoral districts — white working-class Obama voters in Michigan who’d joined anti-immigrant Facebook groups, say — pushing divisive issues that encouraged or discouraged certain voting patterns.” Each day, this possibility becomes more likely a plausibility.

The opening of Mike Isaac and Scott Shane’s NYT piece “Facebook’s Russia-Linked Ads Came in Many Disguises,” which may be flawed only by using past tense in the title:

SAN FRANCISCO — The Russians who posed as Americans on Facebook last year tried on quite an array of disguises.

There was “Defend the 2nd,” a Facebook page for gun-rights supporters, festooned with firearms and tough rhetoric. There was a rainbow-hued page for gay rights activists, “LGBT United.” There was even a Facebook group for animal lovers with memes of adorable puppies that spread across the site with the help of paid ads.

Federal investigators and officials at Facebook now believe these groups and their pages were part of a highly coordinated disinformation campaign linked to the Internet Research Agency, a secretive company in St. Petersburg, Russia, known for spreading Kremlin-linked propaganda and fake news across the web. They were described to The New York Times by two people familiar with the social network and its ads who were not authorized to discuss them publicly.

Under intensifying pressure from Congress and growing public outcry, Facebook on Monday turned over more than 3,000 of the Russia-linked advertisements from its site over to the Senate and House intelligence committees, as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee. The material is part of an attempt to learn the depth of what investigators now believe was a sprawling foreign effort spanning years to interfere with the 2016 United States presidential election.

“We’re obviously deeply disturbed by this,” Joel Kaplan, Facebook vice president for United States public policy, said in an interview. “The ads and accounts we found appeared to amplify divisive political issues across the political spectrum,” including gun rights, gay rights issues and the Black Lives Matter movement.•

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From the April 17, 1863 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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

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Please send help. The people of Puerto Rico are starving.

Let them eat cake.

Mar-a-Lago has the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake.

It’s so delicious, Puerto Rico, but you don’t get any because you people want everything done for you.

I’m going straight to hell, aren’t I?

Why do they always send me the worst people?!?

 

Extreme violence drove Russian journalist Yulia Latynina from her homeland.

• Hugh Hefner’s agoraphobic, technological lifestyle proved prophetic.

• Doug Bock Clark penned an excellent exegesis of Kim Jong-nam’s airport murder.

• Old Print Article: Father Charles Coughlin, The “Radio Priest,” Has Plug Pulled. (1940)

• This week’s Afflictor keyphrase searches: Charlie Brooker, Masha Gessen, etc.

Probably because I came before smartphones, I often catch myself thinking of them as not exactly a fad but as future artifacts of a period that will ultimately pass. I’ll be happier once people stop staring at them in a daze, living inside them, once this epidemic has ended. It must be a temporary form of insanity. In those moments it seems similar to the opioid crisis.

Of course, that’s not going to work out as my fantasy would have it. The shape of the tool may change—perhaps disappear entirely—but we’ll come to realize belatedly that we were in their pockets all along, not the other way around.

James Cameron, a truly miserable man in so many ways, is right when he tells the Hollywood Reporter that the machines are already our overlords, the emergence of superintelligence not even necessary for the transition of power. Then again, living under even the most soul-crushing machines would probably be preferable than having to answer to Cameron. The interview of the director and Deadpool helmer Tim Miller was conducted by Matthew Belloni and Borys Kit. An excerpt:

Question:

The conflict between technology and humanity is a theme in a lot of Jim’s movies. Does technology scare you?

James Cameron:

Technology has always scared me, and it’s always seduced me. People ask me: “Will the machines ever win against humanity?” I say: “Look around in any airport or restaurant and see how many people are on their phones. The machines have already won.” It’s just [that] they’ve won in a different way. We are co-evolving with our technology. We’re merging. The technology is becoming a mirror to us as we start to build humanoid robots and as we start to seriously build AGI — general intelligence — that’s our equal. Some of the top scientists in artificial intelligence say that’s 10 to 30 years from now. We need to get the damn movies done before that actually happens! And when you talk to these guys, they remind me a lot of that excited optimism that nuclear scientists had in the ’30s and ’40s when they were thinking about how they could power the world. And taking zero responsibility for the idea that it would instantly be weaponized. The first manifestation of nuclear power on our planet was the destruction of two cities and hundreds of thousands of people. So the idea that it can’t happen now is not the case. It can happen, and it may even happen.

Tim Miller: 

Jim is a more positive guy [than I am] in the present and more cynical about the future. I know Hawking and Musk think we can put some roadblocks in there. I’m not so sure we can. I can’t imagine what a truly artificial intelligence will make of us. Jim’s brought some experts in to talk to us, and it’s really interesting to hear their perspective. Generally, they’re scared as shit, which makes me scared.

James Cameron:

One of the scientists we just met with recently, she said: “I used to be really, really optimistic, but now I’m just scared.” Her position on it is probably that we can’t control this. It has more to do with human nature. Putin recently said that the nation that perfects AI will dominate or conquer the world. So that pretty much sets the stage for “We wouldn’t have done it, but now those guys are doing it, so now we have to do it and beat them to the punch.” So now everybody’s got the justification to essentially weaponize AI. I think you can draw your own conclusions from that.

Tim Miller:

When it happens, I don’t think AI’s agenda will be to kill us. That seems like a goal that’s beneath whatever enlightened being that they’re going to become because they can evolve in a day what we’ve done in millions of years. And I don’t think that they have the built-in deficits that we have, because we’re still dealing with the same kind of urges that made us climb down from the trees and kill everybody else. I choose to believe that they’ll be better than us.•

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For a long time, Hugh Hefner was ahead of his time and behind the curve, progressive and regressive, a liberator and a jailer. He was right about America’s phony flirtation with Puritanism but was very pleased to uphold patriarchy to gain wealth and satisfy his lusts. His empire was always built on the backs—and other parts—of women, but his last decades, when he OD’d on silicone and Reality TV, were exceptionally sad. By then, the terminal playboy was just desperately trying to keep pace with a culture of titillation that left him behind for lower pastures.

Working in the fields of pornography and media from the 1950s forward, Hefner was bound to be branded again and again by the seismic technological shifts we’ve experienced with ever greater frequency. An orgiastic agoraphobic, he believed the future would look a lot like himself—homebound, wired to copious machines and pleasured by endless thrills. Below is a re-post that perfectly captures his mindset while he was in his prime.

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hugh-hefner-chicago-playboy-townhouse-bed

During the heyday of the Magazine Age, when Playboy was still based in Chicago, Hugh Hefner thought most people would soon be enjoying his lifestyle. Well, not exactly his lifestyle.

The mansion, grotto and Bunnies were to remain largely unattainable, but he believed technology would help us remove ourselves from the larger world so that we each could create our own “little planet.” The gadgets he used five decades ago to extend his adolescence and recuse himself are now much more powerful and affordable. Hefner believed our new, personalized islands would be our homes, not our phones, but he was right in thinking that tools would make life more remote in some fundamental way.

In 1966, Oriana Fallaci interviewed Hefner for her book, The Egotists. Her sharp introduction and the first exchange follow.

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First of all, the House. He stays in it as a Pharaoh in a grave, and so he doesn’t notice that the night has ended, the day has begun, a winter passed, and a spring, and a summer–it’s autumn now. Last time he emerged from the grave was last winter, they say, but he did not like what he saw and returned with great relief three days later. The sky was then extinguished behind the electronic gate, and he sat down again in his grave: 1349 North State Parkway, Chicago. But what a grave, boys! Ask those who live in the building next to it, with their windows opening onto the terrace on which the bunnies sunbathe, in monokinis or notkinis. (The monokini exists of panties only, the notkini consists of nothing.) Tom Wolfe has called the house the final rebellion against old Europe and its custom of wearing shoes and hats, its need of going to restaurants or swimming pools. Others have called it Disneyland for adults. Forty-eight rooms, thirty-six servants always at your call. Are you hungry? The kitchen offers any exotic food at any hour. Do you want to rest? Try the Gold Room, with a secret door you open by touching the petal of a flower, in which the naked girls are being photographed. Do you want to swim? The heated swimming pool is downstairs. Bathing suits of any size or color are here, but you can swim without, if you prefer. And if you go into the Underwater Bar, you will see the Bunnies swim as naked as little fishes. The House hosts thirty Bunnies, who may go everywhere, like members of the family. The pool also has a cascade. Going under the cascade, you arrive at the grotto, rather comfortable if you like to flirt; tropical plants, stereophonic music, drinks, erotic opportunities, and discreet people. Recently, a guest was imprisoned in the steam room. He screamed, but nobody came to help him. Finally, he was able to free himself by breaking down the door, and when he asked in anger, why nobody came to his help–hadn’t they heard his screams?–they answered, “Obviously. But we thought you were not alone.”

At the center of the grave, as at the center of a pyramid, is the monarch’s sarcophagus: his bed. It’s a large, round and here he sleeps, he thinks, he makes love, he controls the little cosmos that he has created, using all the wonders that are controlled by electronic technology. You press a button and the bed turns through half a circle, the room becomes many rooms, the statue near the fireplace becomes many statues. The statue portrays a woman, obviously. Naked, obviously. And on the wall there TV sets on which he can see the programs he missed while he slept or thought or made love. In the room next to the bedroom there is a laboratory with the Ampex video-tape machine that catches the sounds and images of all the channels; the technician who takes care of it was sent to the Ampex center in San Francisco. And then? Then there is another bedroom that is his office, because he does not feel at ease far from a bed. Here the bed is rectangular and covered with papers and photos and documentation on Prostitution, Heterosexuality, Sodomy. Other papers are on the floor, the chairs, the tables, along with tape recorders, typewriters, dictaphones. When he works, he always uses the electric light, never opening a window, never noticing the night has ended, the day begun. He wears pajamas only. In his pajamas, he works thirty-six hours, forty-eight hours nonstop, until he falls exhausted on the round bed, and the House whispers the news: He sleeps. Keep silent in the kitchen, in the swimming pool, in the lounge, everywhere: He sleeps.

He is Hugh Hefner, emperor of an empire of sex, absolute king of seven hundred Bunnies, founder and editor of Playboy: forty million dollars in 1966, bosoms, navels, behinds as mammy made them, seen from afar, close up, white, suntanned, large, small, mixed with exquisite cartoons, excellent articles, much humor, some culture, and, finally, his philosophy. This philosophy’s name is “Playboyism,” and, synthesized, it says that “we must not be afraid or ashamed of sex, sex is not necessarily limited to marriage, sex is oxygen, mental health. Enough of virginity, hypocrisy, censorship, restrictions. Pleasure is to be preferred to sorrow.” It is now discussed even by theologians. Without being ironic, a magazine published a story entitled “…The Gospel According to Hugh Hefner.” Without causing a scandal, a teacher at the School of Theology at Claremont, California, writes that Playboyism is, in some ways, a religious movement: “That which the church has been too timid to try, Hugh Hefner…is attempting.”

We Europeans laugh. We learned to discuss sex some thousands of years ago, before even the Indians landed in America. The mammoths and the dinosaurs still pastured around New York, San Francisco, Chicago, when we built on sex the idea of beauty, the understanding of tragedy, that is our culture. We were born among the naked statues. And we never covered the source of life with panties. At the most, we put on it a few mischievous fig leaves. We learned in high school about a certain Epicurus, a certain Petronius, a certain Ovid. We studied at the university about a certain Aretino. What Hugh Hefner says does not make us hot or cold. And now we have Sweden. We are all going to become Swedish, and we do not understand these Americans, who, like adolescents, all of a sudden, have discovered that sex is good not only for procreating. But then why are half a million of the four million copies of the monthly Playboy sold in Europe? In Italy, Playboy can be received through the mail if the mail is not censored. And we must also consider all the good Italian husbands who drive to the Swiss border just to buy Playboy. And why are the Playboy Clubs so famous in Europe, why are the Bunnies so internationally desired? The first question you hear when you get back is: “Tell me, did you see the Bunnies? How are they? Do they…I mean…do they?!?” And the most severe satirical magazine in the U.S.S.R., Krokodil, shows much indulgence toward Hugh Hefner: “[His] imagination in indeed inexhaustible…The old problem of sex is treated freshly and originally…”

Then let us listen with amusement to this sex lawmaker of the Space Age. He’s now in his early forties. Just short of six feet, he weighs one hundred and fifty pounds. He eats once a day. He gets his nourishment essentially from soft drinks. He does not drink coffee. He is not married. He was briefly, and he has a daughter and a son, both teen-agers. He also has a father, a mother, a brother. He is a tender relative, a nepotist: his father works for him, his brother, too. Both are serious people, I am informed.

And then I am informed that the Pharaoh has awakened, the Pharaoh is getting dressed, is going to arrive, has arrived: Hallelujah! Where is he? He is there: that young man, so slim, so pale, so consumed by the lack of light and the excess of love, with eyes so bright, so smart, so vaguely demoniac. In his right hand he holds a pipe: in his left hand he holds a girl, Mary, the special one. After him comes his brother, who resembles Hefner. He also holds a girl, who resembles Mary. I do not know if the pipe he owns resembles Hugh’s pipe because he is not holding one right now. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and, as on every Sunday afternoon, there is a movie in the grave. The Pharaoh lies down on the sofa with Mary, the light goes down, the movie starts. The Bunnies go to sleep and the four lovers kiss absentminded kisses. God knows what Hugh Hefner thinks about men, women, love, morals–will he be sincere in his nonconformity? What fun, boys, if I discover that he is a good, proper moral father of Family whose destiny is paradise. Keep silent, Bunnies. He speaks. The movie is over, and he speaks, with a soft voice that breaks. And, I am sure, without lying.

Oriana Fallaci:

A year without leaving the House, without seeing the sun, the snow, the rain, the trees, the sea, without breathing the air, do you not go crazy? Don’t you die with unhappiness?

Hugh Hefner:

Here I have all the air I need. I never liked to travel: the landscape never stimulated me. I am more interested in people and ideas. I find more ideas here than outside. I’m happy, totally happy. I go to bed when I like. I get up when I like: in the afternoon, at dawn, in the middle of the night. I am in the center of the world, and I don’t need to go out looking for the world. The rational use that I make of progress and technology brings me the world at home. What distinguishes men from other animals? Is it not perhaps their capacity to control the environment and to change it according to their necessities and tastes? Many people will soon live as I do. Soon, the house will be a little planet that does not prohibit but helps our relationships with the others. Is it not more logical to live as I do instead of going out of a little house to enter another little house, the car, then into another little house, the office, then another little house, the restaurant or the theater? Living as I do, I enjoy at the same time company and solitude, isolation from society and immediate access to society. Naturally, in order to afford such luxury, one must have money. But I have it. And it’s delightful.•

In “The Sadness of the Kardashians,” Sophie Gilbert’s Atlantic essay about the Reality TV family that has stretched its 15 minutes of fame into a decade-long stay in a Warholian vomitorium, the writer shines a light on the melancholia the women may be feeling about their less-than-brilliant careers, which seems like an odd place to put the piece’s emphasis. “If Kris were offered the same Faustian bargain again,” the article asks, “would she accept, knowing everything the next 10 years would bring?”

Hell yeah, she would. Kris Jenner is a monstrous person who was happy to shamelessly sell her soul as well as her daughters to the highest bidder in exchange for some recognition and a string of shiny baubles. Even if she hadn’t been especially good at her disgraceful line of work and they’d never managed to attract an unblinking spotlight to their famous-for-nothing act, they would have been a damaged brood drowning in their own tears. With that mother, they were doomed from the start.

The more important questions are what enabled the Kardashians to be famous, and why do so many people all over the globe wish for the kind of notoriety they possess? The first question is easier to answer. Two technological changes made the brand possible: A decentralized media allowed for an explosion of channels on TV and the Internet which created an overwhelming need for cheap content and new stars, and the advent of computer-based non-linear editing systems for video made such Reality fare technologically simple to piece together. The second query is more knotty. There is currently a hole inside us that makes many crave for attention beyond all satisfaction. The Kardashians may best represent that dynamic, but they are far from alone.

· · ·

In Doug Bock Clark’s excellent GQ exegesis of Kim Jong-nam’s Malaysian airport murder, he writes of how simple it was for North Korean agents to dupe fame-hungry young women into unwittingly committing murder with a nerve agent by convincing them they were merely participating in a hidden-camera Reality TV show. As shocking as the wetwork was—and it was purposely so bizarre to send a chilling message to the world—you could hardly blame the clueless culprits for failing to recognize the ruse, not in a world of endless cameras and emotional cruelty, in which reality and fiction have become so blurred. 

An excerpt:

After James enticed Siti [Aisyah] with his too-good-to-be-true offer of salvation, they toured the luxury hotels and malls of Kuala Lumpur from January 5 through 9, smearing oil and hot sauce on Chinese-looking men. Each prank was rewarded with another windfall.

According to Siti’s lawyer, Gooi Soon Seng, before long, “Siti started telling James she was tired of her present career, and that she looked forward to the new life of being a star.” She bragged to acquaintances that she was going to be a celebrity. When a friend video-called Siti on her birthday and joked with her that she would soon outshine a famous Malaysian actress, Siti agreed, laughing and jauntily flipping her hair.

At least once, Siti asked to see the recordings of herself, but James told her the film was still being edited and, according to her cousin, wouldn’t let her see it because it would make her self-conscious. 

Then, on January 21, James flew her to Cambodia for more “spoofing,” as they called it. Gooi told me, “It was when she went overseas that she really started to believe she could escape her old life.” James had even suggested she might spoof people in America.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, James informed Siti that “Chang,” a 34-year-old “Chinese” man who spoke fluent Bahasa, would replace him. Chang led Siti through three practice sessions at the airport.

Siti passed the end of the month back home in Ranca Sumur, with her family. She was there when Chang called, ordering her to return to Kuala Lumpur. Before flying out of Jakarta, Siti visited her son a final time.

On February 3, 4, and 7, Siti dirtied victims at Kuala Lumpur’s airport under Chang’s supervision. He increased her salary to two American Benjamins per hit, instead of half that in Malaysian ringgits. On February 8, Chang gave Siti $4,000 to arrange a trip to Macau—Jong-nam’s home. But the next day he canceled that. Jong-nam was already in Malaysia.

Two days later, she practiced again at the airport. It was Siti’s 25th birthday, and when they were finished, Chang bought her a taxi ticket home as a present. He told her that the next prank would be in a few days, on February 13.

Siti spent her last innocent night at a Hard Rock Cafe decorated with an enshrined Gwen Stefani bra. Her friends chipped in for a steak that cost two-thirds of her monthly salary at the sweatshop. An American pop song wailed over the speakers: I was supposed to do great things. At a table laden with fruit-bedecked cocktails, a friend announced, “And now the person next to me will become a celebrity!” Siti exposed her braces and bashfully tossed her hair. After her friends sang “Happy Birthday,” she blew out a lone candle on a cupcake-sized cake. Then they clubbed into the witching hours.

By 8 A.M., Siti was drinking coffee with Chang in a faux-Colonial coffeehouse that offered an excellent view of the airport terminal. Finally, Chang led her behind a pillar near the AirAsia self-check-in kiosks. There, Chang told her that a second woman would join the prank and that she should leave after the second woman struck. When Jong-nam strolled into the terminal, Chang identified him to Siti by noting his gray blazer and dark backpack. Then he told her to look away and stick out her hand, likely while unwrapping something from a white plastic bag he’d withdrawn from his black backpack. An oily substance slicked her palm. She noticed it smelled like machine oil, though the previous liquids had been odorless. Chang reminded her to apologize after striking and to leave quickly, since the target “looks rich.”

As Jong-nam approached, Chang ducked away, and Siti advanced on her target. After rubbing Jong-nam’s face, Siti fled. Her first few strides were measured, but by the time she neared the bathrooms, she was running. There, as she’d been instructed, she washed her hands of the affair. Then she went shopping at a middle-class mall. By the afternoon, she was laboring again at the spa, awaiting the next spoof, which would inch her closer to the life she had dreamed of when she had left Ranca Sumur.

_________________________

What Siti would not comprehend until weeks later was that the North Koreans had stage-managed every detail of her recruitment and the assassination.•

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An audacious, overconfident bigot who twisted radio tubes into a grotesque pulpit, Father Charles Coughlin was a 1930s menace in America, but at least he was never President. 

The Catholic priest, a Michigan immigrant via Canada, became a wildly famous demagogue when he combined a flair for the nouveau mass media of radio, populist impulses and deep-seated bigotry, which attracted tens of millions of weekly listeners at his zenith as well as a sizable number of vocal detractors.

While the beginning of the decade saw him support Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, Coughlin turned viciously on the President for not sharing his anti-Semitism, among other reasons. At different times, he blamed Jews for both capitalism (“money‐changers in Wall Street”) and communism, which would have kept a relatively small population awfully busy.

His addresses gradually adopted the tone of Hitler and Mussolini: “I take the road of Fascism,” he admitted in 1936. They were also marked by calls for isolationism and whispers of conspiracy theories, and were laced with suggestions of violence directed at “Jewish bankers.” His response to the horror of Kristallnacht was a bizarre case of “whataboutism,” arguing that the persecution of Jewish people was merely a reversal of suffering they’d caused. Unsurprisingly, his words encouraged acts of Nazi vandalism in America, with swastikas painted on the doors of Jewish homes by his supporters, often members of the Christian Front, which enjoyed the encouragement of Coughlin.

Vatican and U.S. government officials alike thought him a dangerous embarrassment, but the “radio priest” had the unwavering support of Bishop Michael Gallagher, the Detroit clergyman who was his direct superior (and a loyal Roosevelt voter). Coughlin was ultimately forced from the air in early 1940 by the church (Gallagher died in 1937) and FDR officials, who also worked to stem the mailing of his vile printed materials after America entered World War II. 

Soon before he was to broadcast for the final time, Coughlin made strange comments about a “sinister” plot against him, which were reported in an article from the January 29, 1940 Brooklyn Daily Eagle

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The modern Republican Party used to claim to stand for certain principles—fiscal responsibility, military might, small government—which turned out to be very negotiable. Money and power by any means were really all that mattered. It’s certainly not the only party to covet such things, but the GOP has distinguished itself by securing those rewards by any means necessary—even by traitorous behavior.

Trump began working from the Kremlin playbook early in the campaign, but it was after his dubious election that he fully drew equivalence between the White House and the Kremlin. “You think our country’s so innocent?” he asked during an interview Super Bowl Sunday, which makes even more ridiculous his intolerance of African-American NFL players practicing their First Amendment rights. Of course, the U.S. isn’t so innocent, but until Trump the country wasn’t in cahoots with Putin’s murderous mafia state nor a test case for authoritarianism. That shift was the handiwork of not only Trump but numerous high-profile Republicans.

Newt Gingrich, that erstwhile commie-baiter, flipped even earlier, throwing the Statue of Liberty under the bus in a German magazine interview when asked about Russian interference in our election: “Well, as you know, Obama was even eavesdropping on your chancellor. You know, countries often do such things. I know of nothing the Russians did which had any effect on the American election.”

Those are just two examples of GOP making excuses for Putin. Manafort, Sessions, Flynn, Kushner may also be complicit. The same goes for everyone at Fox News and Breitbart who suspiciously parrots RT talking points, and Mitch McConnell, who preferred squelching news about Kremlin interference during campaign season.

America, for all its flaws, is not Russia under Putin, and while making it so may not have been the goal of every Republican elected official as it was for Trump, too many were willing look the other way for a chance at money and power. The GOP is now the party of complicity.

· · ·

The opening of journalist Yulia Latynina’s Moscow Times report on the escalating Russian violence that forced her from her homeland:

In July, someone released some sort of gas into our family home.

For about a week, Russian police held watch near our house. When they left I felt at ease, thinking the attackers had considered it a signal. But apparently they didn’t.

In August they set alight my car, which was parked near the house. My father doused the flames so that the house wouldn’t catch fire. Had the car exploded it would have cost him his life. So we left. I cannot risk my parents’ lives.

I don’t think the goal was to kill me or my parents, but once the ball starts rolling such attacks can have unforeseeable consequences. I left because I was horrified by people’s lack of responsibility.

My departure from Russia comes as a surprise — even to me. I always laughed at those who, seven or eight years ago, said Russia was a dangerous country and that Putin was worse than Stalin. Because this was not the case.

Russia was a very violent country in the 20th century. If you compare that to Stalin, we were living in vegetarian times. Putin was never worse than Stalin and he still isn’t.

When Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006 we journalists understood this to be an exception — she had been investigating Chechnya. There were cases where people were poisoned, like Alexander Litvinenko, but we understood that he was a former KGB agent and Putin regarded him as a traitor.

There were highly suspicious cases too: the death of Stephen Curtis during the Yukos trial, or the death of Alexander Perepilichny. The death of Sergei Yushenkov belonged to the category of freak accidents and if it said something about Russia, it was that unbelievable things happen.

Those were deaths, killings, murders. But every time you could account for it and explain why it happened.•

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

  1. edward luce western liberalism
  2. flat earth theories colorado
  3. expansion of the surveillance state
  4. tim berners-lee fixing the internet
  5. masha gessen military coup
  6. trump consummate narcissistic salesman
  7. daniel dennett radical transparency
  8. camels delivering u.s. mail
  9. charlie brooker futurist
  10. peter thiel backup country new zealand

Donald Trump in 2017: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.”

Donald Trump in 1955: “Get that son of a bitch off the bus right now.”

 

Jesse Ventura is now being paid to deny Russian interference in the American election on Putin’s propaganda channel.

Ian Bogost argues that we’re already living inside a computer.

Jamie Wheal, “Flow State” salesman, is profiled by the New York Times.

• Nicholas Carr analyzes Sandy Pentland’s ideas about social physics.

• Bob Woodruff conducted a Reddit AMA about North Korea.

Nation-states may be a passing fancy—or perhaps not.

• A brief note from 1928 about future foods.

• This week’s Afflictor keyphrase searches: Mark Lilla, woolly mammoths, etc.

Should the machines come for our jobs, not everyone will be able to shift into a rewarding career as a Zumba instructor. Someone will actually have to be in the Zumba class. That Zumba ain’t gonna do itself.

Luckily the Flow Industry is here to provide good jobs. As Casey Schwartz writes in a smart NYT Style piece “How to Hack Your Brain (for $5,000),” some are making a killing selling a “brain-shifting” system that allegedly allows people to “upgrade their nervous systems” and live in the moment. A former Esalen instructor named Jamie Wheal is a leader among the Flow educators, peddling the process with anti-Information Age fervor that ultimately sounds suspiciously like a slick Silicon Valley sales pitch, what with its promises of “hacking” and “optimization.” He hopes to increasingly marry the meditative method to neuroscience and heighten the results.

At present, his shoeless acolytes attend multi-day summits in Utah, listen to lectures in a white dome (“Flow Dojo”), do light exercise, engage in hyperventilation, live temporarily in tents and use centrally located porta-potties, which makes it possible for them to avoid shitting on the ground. It may seem like I’m making fun of those seeking to raise their consciousness—and I am!—but I also have a soft spot for people trying to comprehend the world at an off-center angle, if not for the ones charging thousands a head to “change minds.”

An excerpt:

But what is flow?

First popularized decades ago by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an elusive state cultivated by artists, athletes and others, that of being so absorbed in what they’re doing that they lose track of time and thought, finding themselves guided rather by instinct and intuition. It has also been referred to as the Zone — not to be confused with the diet of the same name — or just “being in the moment.” And for those who have experienced it, there is no denying its magic.
 
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, who turns 83 this month, is a deeply philosophical academic formerly of the University of Chicago (now at Claremont Graduate University) and still publishing. In 2004 he gave a Ted Talk that has been viewed over four million times.

Mr. Wheal has taken a somewhat brisker, more commercial approach. He has advised members of the United States Navy Special Operations, top-ranked athletes and executives of technology companies on “optimizing performance” through flow, receiving six-figure fees for some of his consultations.

His five-day retreat, at a sprawling, privately held property known as Summit and convened the day before the solar eclipse, cost almost $5,000 and was a sort of beta test for spreading his gospel to a larger public audience. (He also offers free assessments and videos on his website.)

Attendees were housed in white tepee-like tents, with portable toilets set up down a dirt path. The camp had been erected quickly by the “glamping” company Aether Camp, to Mr. Wheal’s specifications.

Mr. Wheal, who said his father was a test pilot for the British royal navy, came to the United States from England at age 8 and speaks rapidly in a mash-up accent, dropping idiosyncratic phrases and erudite references to the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, to Cincinnatus and Aldous Huxley. At moments he is given to phrases that are not immediately comprehensible, like “We are broaching the possibility of midwifing humanity into the infinite game.”

But his larger message came through clearly. In our digital age, loud with bottom-feeder commentary, the ping of incoming emails and bleating social media, the pursuit of flow is all the more urgent.

“Honestly, have we abdicated our purpose just because of these insistent micro asks?” Mr. Wheal said. “Have we just completely ceded our center, completely ceded clarity, and it was all just based on 20-something bro-grammers trying to crack our attention spans?”

To fulfill his flow-finding mission, Mr. Wheal wants to bring what he calls his Dojo Domes to locations around the world.•

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As the dissolute dotard and the porcine airport poisoner play a game of nuclear chicken with our hides, it’s clear that going forward there’s no positive military option and several truly awful ones. While both blustery parties may have begun this war as one of of words, matters have now escalated past the danger point. Trump and Kim both regard themselves so highly that you would think that their own greedy self-preservation would safeguard the rest of us, but neither leader seems particularly grounded in reality. You don’t behave the way they do if survival if your first impulse.

Christopher Hitchens dubbed North Korea a “nation of racist dwarfs” in 2010, which doesn’t exactly tell the whole picture. It’s a sick society, no doubt, the body diseased from the head down, but one that clearly possesses advanced technological acumen despite its isolation, poverty and want. The late provocateur summed up the populace this way: “Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult.” That may be how things appear to an outsider, especially a serial sensationalist like Hitchens, but I doubt those living beneath a brutal authoritarian regime are truly expressing how they feel. Nuance, that great mitigator, was lacking in Hitchens’ article and it has been in the dialogue spit between Trump and Kim. Its absence could get millions killed.

Two excerpts follow.

_______________________

A few Reddit AMA exchanges about North Korea from ABC’s Bob Woodruff, who’s made eight trips to the isolated country:

Question:

As someone who has been to the country frequently, what do you think the greatest misconception of North Korea is?

Bob Woodruff:

I would have to say that in the country’s capital of Pyongyang they seem to be westernized in many ways. Of course there are many soldiers walking around in their uniforms but for the others they now have american looking clothes and shoes. They now have cell phones although they cannot extend outside the city. What we really don’t see are the countrysides and the prison camps. So I don’t know what our misconceptions would be there.

_______________________

Question:

With all the rhetoric flying around, mixed with the stories of almost cartoonish absurdity from the regime all the time, what would you say is the biggest/most common misconception that the average Westerner has about North Korea and the Kim regime these days?

Bob Woodruff:

Their intelligence. The people in the elite class are extremely educated. That is especially with technology. They have developed nuclear bombs, rockets, engines etc faster than ever predicted.

_______________________

Question:

Is the average North Korean citizen aware of the propaganda they are being fed and just choose to stay silent for their own well being or do they seem to genuinely believe it?

Bob Woodruff:

I think that they believed it more than now. in the doc you can see that i have been going there for more than 12 years and back then i really felt that they consider the leaders god like. Since then more have studied overseas. More importantly there are radio connections along the borders with both China and South Korea. More social media. Cell phones and conversations with family member who worked in China. Better every year.

_______________________

Question:

Aside from the U.S.A, what do north Koreans think about other countries?

Bob Woodruff:

Depends on their history etc. They have just a few allies but even they are starting to dislike NK under the leadership of Kim Jong Un. China is their number one friend but it is starting to lose its faith. Nuclear bombs and tests are frightening even to China. As you could see in our “Inconvenient Border” doc we got out yesterday, China is no longer so connected to NK because of Kim Jong Un. He has never been to China and vice versa for Xi Jingping. Their other strong historical ally is Russia. But they essentially ended their military and economic support of NK in the mid-90s. That led to starvation and mass death in NK so that relationship has descended.•

· · ·

From Ariel Dorfman’s New York Review of Books piece “Nuclear Apocalypse Now?“:

Debating whether Hiroshima was a war crime is, at this moment, anything but an academic exercise. America’s presumed innocence is not benign. It allows an ignorant and bellicose president to open the door not just to the Kim regime’s destruction, but to a possible act of collective suicide on a global scale. If Trump nukes North Korea, what will China do? And Russia?

In 1888, the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche predicted the coming of “wars the like of which have never been seen on earth before.” It seems unlikely that Trump was recalling Ecce Homo when he echoed Nietzsche’s phrase with his promise of “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” but he should consider the warning of Albert Einstein, four years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

If this president is seriously considering the first nuclear attack in more than seven decades of uneasy atomic peace, it won’t matter this time whether we call it a war crime. It would be an apocalypse that might leave no one to claim they were innocent.•

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Jesse Ventura has decried how stupid Americans are, but without so many dummies, would he even have a career?

Pat Buchanan has been called the precursor to Trump because of their shared white nationalist platforms, but Ventura is more precisely the orange supremacist’s spiritual forefather despite being five years his junior. Like Trump, Ventura crawled from the wreckage of U.S. trash culture, pro wrestling and talk radio, to win a major public office (Minnesota governor) by utilizing off-center media tactics to portray himself as some sort of vague “outlaw truth-teller” while running against the “establishment.” He was an “anti-candidate” who made politics itself and the mainstream media his enemies and the public got swept up in the rebellious facade of it all. His great joy in the process seemed to be that his upset victory, to borrow a phrase from Muhammad Ali, “shocked the world,” as if surprise and entertainment were the goals of politics and not actual good governance.

After a dismal term in office, Ventura bowed out of politics and fashioned some sort of career from Reality TV (just like Trump), peddling asinine conspiracy theories (another thing he shares with Trump) and making appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show (yet one more similarity with Trump.) He did these things in part to make money but also because he’s an exhibitionist in need of a surfeit of attention. Sound familiar?

Now both men seem to have the same boss—an often-shirtless guy named Vladimir—as Trump suspiciously refuses to say a bad word about the adversarial nation that greatly helped his candidacy, and Ventura has decided to marry his egotistical horseshit to anti-Americanism on RT, Putin’s propaganda channel. The checks must be clearing because the fake wrestler announced on the inaugural episode that Russian interference in our election is fake news. “Where’s the proof?” Ventura asks. He’ll no doubt remain in a state of disbelief even should Robert Mueller provide copious documents and recordings. The murderous dictator that employs him will demand it.

· · ·

An excellent Daily Beast report by Ben Collins, Gideon Resnick, Kevin Poulsen and Spencer Ackerman uncovered another aspect of the Kemlin’s extraordinary influence on the U.S. election, in the form of the Facebook group “Being Patriotic,” which promoted pro-Trump rallies in numerous U.S. cities. The opening:

Suspected Russia propagandists on Facebook tried to organize more than a dozen pro-Trump rallies in Florida during last year’s election, The Daily Beast has learned.

The demonstrations—at least one of which was promoted online by local pro-Trump activists— brought dozens of supporters together in real life. They appear to be the first case of Russian provocateurs successfully mobilizing Americans over Facebook in direct support of Donald Trump.

The Aug. 20, 2016, events were collectively called “Florida Goes Trump!” and they were billed as a “patriotic state-wide flash mob,” unfolding simultaneously in 17 different cities and towns in the battleground state. It’s difficult to determine how many of those locations actually witnessed any turnout, in part because Facebook’s recent deletion of hundreds of Russian accounts hid much of the evidence. But videos and photos from two of the locations—Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs—were reposted to a Facebook page run by the local Trump campaign chair, where they remain to this day.

“On August 20, we want to gather patriots on the streets of Floridian towns and cities and march to unite America and support Donald Trump!” read the Facebook event page for the demonstrations. “Our flash mob will occur in several places at the same time; more details about locations will be added later. Go Donald!”

The Florida flash mob was one of at least four pro-Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton demonstrations conceived and organized over a Facebook page called “Being Patriotic,” and a related Twitter account called “march_for_trump.”  (The Daily Beast identified the accounts in a software-assisted review of politically themed social-media profiles.)

Being Patriotic had 200,000 followers and the strongest activist bent of any of the suspected Russian Facebook election pages that have so far emerged. Events promoted by the page last year included a July “Down With Hillary!” protest outside Clinton’s New York campaign headquarters, a September 11 pro-Trump demonstration in Manhattan, simultaneous “Miners for Trump” demonstrations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in October, and a pro-Trump rally outside Trump Tower last November, after his election victory.•

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Haven’t yet gotten my stinking paws on Sandy Pentland’s new book, Social Physics: How Social Networks Can Make Us Smarter, but the Nicholas Carr critique in Technology Review is instructive even if you possess no prior knowledge of the computer scientist’s vision for the future. 

A society all watched over by machines of loving grace seems implausible to me, whether we’re talking about totalitarian states or democratic ones. The former will use sensors and chips to monitor and manipulate behavior—and so will the latter, actually. And the distance from a nudge to a shove is shorter than we may accept.

The supposed virtue of Big Data is that it can possibly view behavior and justice without prejudice, except that it’s programmed by humans who possess those preconceived notions. As Carr explains, a further failing is that skimming the surface of society for information to engineer the populace pays no mind to historical context, so it can be a feedback loop rather than a corrective. To be succinct: It lacks the depth of the past and an understanding of the very nature of being human.

An excerpt:

Ultimately, Pentland argues, looking at people’s interactions through a mathematical lens will free us of time-worn notions about class and class struggle. Political and economic classes, he contends, are “oversimplified stereotypes of a fluid and overlapping matrix of peer groups.” Peer groups, unlike classes, are defined by “shared norms” rather than just “standard features such as income” or “their relationship to the means of production.” Armed with exhaustive information about individuals’ habits and associations, civic planners will be able to trace the full flow of influences that shape personal behavior. Abandoning general categories like “rich” and “poor” or “haves” and “have-nots,” we’ll be able to understand people as individuals—even if those individuals are no more than the sums of all the peer pressures and other social influences that affect them.

Replacing politics with programming might sound appealing, particularly given Washington’s paralysis. But there are good reasons to be nervous about this sort of social engineering. Most obvious are the privacy concerns raised by collecting ever more intimate personal information. Pentland anticipates such criticisms by arguing for a “New Deal on Data” that gives people direct control over the information collected about them. It’s hard, though, to imagine Internet companies agreeing to give up ownership of the behavioral information that is crucial to their competitive advantage.

Even if we assume that the privacy issues can be resolved, the idea of what Pentland calls a “data-driven society” remains problematic. Social physics is a variation on the theory of behavioralism that found favor in McLuhan’s day, and it suffers from the same limitations that doomed its predecessor. Defining social relations as a pattern of stimulus and response makes the math easier, but it ignores the deep, structural sources of social ills. Pentland may be right that our behavior is determined largely by social norms and the influences of our peers, but what he fails to see is that those norms and influences are themselves shaped by history, politics, and economics, not to mention power and prejudice. People don’t have complete freedom in choosing their peer groups. Their choices are constrained by where they live, where they come from, how much money they have, and what they look like. A statistical model of society that ignores issues of class, that takes patterns of influence as givens rather than as historical contingencies, will tend to perpetuate existing social structures and dynamics. It will encourage us to optimize the status quo rather than challenge it.

Politics is messy because society is messy, not the other way around.•

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Anthony Fiala, right, with Theodore Roosevelt in Brazil in 1914.


Long before astronauts were chowing down of pilled and tubed food and Silicon Valley was taken with the idea of Soylent, Anthony Fiala, an American chemist and explorer who’d made his way to the Arctic and the Amazon, believed that beef-juice chewing gum and other odd deliveries of nutrition were the wave of the future, especially for wanderers like himself who didn’t have time to be foragers. From the July 8, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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