Image by Ted Streshinsky.

In his New Yorker piece about Tracy Daugherty’s Joan Didion biography, The Last Love Song, Louis Menand states that “‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ was not a very good piece of standard journalism.” Well, no. Nor was the Flying Burrito Brothers very good classical music, but each of those assessments is probably beside the point.

Menand claims Didion poorly contextualized the Hippie movement, but the early stages of his own article suffers from the same. He asserts the Flower Child craze and the thorny period that followed it was similar to the Beats of the previous decade, just weekend faddists lightly experimenting with drugs. But the counterculture of the late-1960s blossomed into a massive anti-war movement, a much larger-scale thing, and the youth culture’s societal impact wasn’t merely a creation of opportunistic, screaming journalism. Menand wants to prove this interpretation wrong, but he doesn’t do so in this piece. He offers a couple of “facts” of indeterminate source about that generation’s drug use, and leaves it at that. Not nearly good enough.

I admire Menand deeply (especially The Metaphysical Club) the way he does Didion, but I think her source material approaches the truth far more than this part of Menand’s critique does. Later on in the piece, he points out that Didion wasn’t emblematic of that epoch but someone unique and outside the mainstream, suggesting her grasp of the era was too idiosyncratic to resemble reality. But detachment doesn’t render someone incapable of understanding the moment. In fact, it’s often those very people who are best positioned to.

The final part of the article which focuses on how in the aftermath of her Haight-Ashbury reportage, Didion had a political awakening from her conservative California upbringing, though not an immediate or conventional one. This long passage is Menand’s strongest argument.

An excerpt:

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is not a very good piece of standard journalism, though. Didion did no real interviewing or reporting. The hippies she tried to have conversations with said “Groovy” a lot and recycled flower-power clichés. The cops refused to talk to her. So did the Diggers, who ran a sort of hippie welfare agency in the Haight. The Diggers accused Didion of “media poisoning,” by which they meant coverage in the mainstream press designed to demonize the counterculture.

The Diggers were not wrong. The mainstream press (such as the places Didion wrote for, places like The Saturday Evening Post) was conflicted about the hippie phenomenon. It had journalistic sex appeal. Hippies were photogenic, free love and the psychedelic style made good copy, and the music was uncontroversially great. Around the time Didion was in San Francisco, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and soon afterward the Monterey Pop Festival was held. D. A. Pennebaker’s film of the concert came out in 1968 and introduced many people to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Ravi Shankar. Everybody loved Ravi Shankar.

Ravi Shankar did not use drugs, however. The drugs were the sketchy part of the story, LSD especially. People thought that LSD made teen-age girls jump off bridges. By the time Didion’s article came out, Time had run several stories about “the dangerous LSD craze.” And a lot of Didion’s piece is about LSD, people on acid saying “Wow” while their toddlers set fire to the living room. The cover of the Post was a photograph of a slightly sinister man, looking like a dealer, in a top hat and face paint—an evil Pied Piper. That photograph was what the Diggers meant by “media poisoning.”•

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If there’s one person Jesus Christ would not approve of, it would be a racist, adulterous, thrice-married braggart who builds gaudy buildings and casinos and vomits gold paint onto them. Christian conservatives who support “President” Trump have shown their so-called faith never had anything to do with religion. It’s always been about race and privilege. 

More worrisome is how the U.S. press has handled his odious campaign, treating it like a summer blockbuster full of fun special effects. Riveting! A joyride! Fun for the whole family!

It behooves journalists to cover any candidate making xenophobic comments seriously. When CNN announced that Trump drew 30,000 spectators in Alabama to hear him speak when the 45,000-seat stadium was more than half-empty, they aren’t doing their job but instead feeding a monster. When Maureen Dowd of the New York Times yukked it up with the vulgar hatemonger, it’s clear Trump wasn’t the only wealthy, out-of-touch person involved in the interview. (Thankfully, others at the Times are treating the matter more soberly.)

Even if the miserable magnate is deflated and floats away like a Thanksgiving Day balloon that marched into a pin, the paraders following him will still be there, full of rage and bigotry and entitlement.

From Edward Luce at the Financial Times:

It is February 2016 and the sky is falling on our heads. Donald Trump has just won the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. Those who predicted he would have long since imploded are scrambling to fallback positions. He will flame out on Super Tuesday, they insist. He will be ejected by primary voters in Jeb Bush’s Florida in March, they add.

If worst comes to worst, he will meet his Waterloo at the Republican convention in July — the first such brokered event in decades. Fear not, wise heads will reassure us, that man could never be president of the United States.

Like a stopped clock, conventional wisdom must eventually be right on Mr Trump. It goes without saying that sane people should hope so. Last week two of the billionaire’s more inflamed supporters beat up a homeless Hispanic man. All Mr Trump could initially say was that his followers were “passionate”. Make no mistake, the property tycoon who would be president is an unpleasant piece of work.

Conservatives should be especially worried. His plans to round up and deport the estimated 11.5m undocumented immigrants would require the federal power of a police state. His plan to scrap the 14th amendment’s birthright to US citizenship would corrode America’s soul.

Yet he must be taken seriously.•

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bigdogrun

In between GE’s clumsy 1968 Pedipulator, an elephant-esque walking truck, and Boston Dynamics’ stunningly agile Big Dog and Cheetah, biomimetics went through plenty of growing pains. It’s a smart concept: Examine how land and marine creatures overcome obstacles and ape it with AI. Easier said than done, though. In “They’re Robots? Those Beasts!” a 2004 New York Times article, Scott Kirsner profiled Northeastern University’s Joseph Ayers and other roboticists exploring nature for inspiration. The opening:

JOSEPH AYERS was crouched over a laptop in a cool cinder block shed barely big enough to house a ride-on lawn mower, watching a boxy-shelled black lobster through a rectangular acrylic window.

Dr. Ayers’s shed is adjacent to a fiberglass saltwater tank that looks like a big above-ground swimming pool, and through the window, he observed as the seven-pound lobster clambered across the sandy bottom and struggled to surmount small rocks.

”He’s pitched backwards onto his tail, and his front legs aren’t really touching the ground,” said Dr. Ayers, a professor of biology at Northeastern University in Boston, sounding vexed.

A few minutes later, Dr. Ayers noticed a screw missing from one of the trio of legs extending from the right side of the lobster’s abdomen. Were this lobster not made of industrial-strength plastic, metal alloys and a nickel metal hydride battery, Dr. Ayers — the author of several lobster cookbooks, including ”Dr. Ayers Cooks With Cognac” — seemed frustrated enough to drop the robotic lobster into a boiling pot of water and serve it up for dinner.

Dr. Ayers was at his university’s Marine Science Center on the peninsula of Nahant, which pokes out into Massachusetts Bay. He was trying to get his robotic lobster ready for a demonstration in late September for the military branch that funds his work, the Office of Naval Research. By then, he hopes to have the lobster using its two claws as bump sensors.

”When it walks into a rock,” he explained, ”it’ll be able to decide whether to go over it or around it, depending on the size of the rock.”

Dr. Ayers is one of a handful of robotics researchers who regard animals as their muses.•

 

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

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From the September 29, 1891 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

This week, Maureen Dowd, who used column space to portray racist, xenophobic Donald Trump as an amusing character, is working on a piece about film and food with the help of two more fun guys.

This week, Maureen Dowd, who inexplicably used her column to yuk it up with fascist combover Donald Trump, is interviewing two more amusing guys to write a snappy piece about film and food.

 

  • Maureen Dowd of the NYT apparently thinks Donald Trump’s racism and xenophobia are a laugh riot, treating him like an amusing character rather than the hatemonger he is. 
  • Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld outdid themselves with their Amazon profile
  • Tesla could possibly operate an autonomous EV taxi fleet by 2025.

The Nobel Physicist Frank Wilczek, author of A Beautiful Question, thinks CERN may soon go a long way beyond the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle and prove supersymmetry. In a Spiegel Q&A conducted by Johann Grolle, the scientist also explains what the consistency of natural laws says to him:

Spiegel:

Are you astonished that nature obeys laws that we humans are able to understand?

Frank Wilczek:

This fact has deep meaning, and is not at all guaranteed. As a thought experiment, let us assume that the whole world is just a simulation on a gigantic supercomputer, where we are also just part of this simulation. So, roughly speaking, we are talking about a world in which Super Mario thinks that his Super Mario world is real. The laws in such a world wouldn’t necessarily be beautiful or symmetric. They would be whatever the programmer put in there, which means these laws could be arbitrary, they could suddenly change or be different from place to place. And there would be no simpler description of these laws than a very long computer program. Such a world is logically possible, but our world is different. It is a glorious fact that in our world, when we go really deep, we can understand it.•

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It’s no surprise documentarian Frederick Wiseman was asked about Reality TV in his Reddit AMA, since that form perverts his observational mode and cinéma vérité to communicate a simulacrum of truth, though it’s not true at all. Unsurprisingly, Wiseman is not a fan of the genre. 

If I had one question to ask the filmmaker, it would be this: When making Titicut Follies, did you feel like slapping the cigarette from the mouth of the hospital worker who was tube-feeding a patient, his ashes hanging precariously over the funnel? Fly on the wall or not, it must have been hard to resist.

A few exchanges follow.

_________________________

Question:

Were there any of the early ‘reality shows’ that you were curious about? Do they fit in a tradition, in terms of TV or were people correct to think it was a new kind of thing?

Frederick Wiseman:

The longest I’ve ever watched a reality television show was 20 seconds. And that was once.

_________________________

Question:

Has the proliferation of media (especially documentaries, news magazine shows, and reality TV) in the last 25 years changed the way subjects interact with a camera? Are they more rehearsed?

Frederick Wiseman:

In my experience, there is no difference between in shooting films now than when I started in 1966. Most people – 99% of people – don’t have any problem with being photographed and do not act for the camera.

_________________________

Question:

Where do you draw the line when editing? Would you pull speech or sounds out of context, would you cut two shots together to look continuous if they were filmed weeks apart? Do you have explicit rules, or go with your gut?

Frederick Wiseman:

All editing requires compression of the sequence from its original length. I never change the order of events within a sequence, but necessarily have to condense the sequence while trying to remain faithful to my understanding of what is going on among the participants.

_________________________

Question:

What do you think of personality driven documentaries? (e.g. Michael Moore)

Frederick Wiseman:

I don’t comment on other people’s work.

_________________________

Question:

When you watch a documentary, are there any hack things people do that make you cringe?

Frederick Wiseman:

I don’t watch many movies of any sort – documentaries or fiction.

_________________________

Question:

What are some of your favorite films?

Frederick Wiseman:

Ivan the Terrible, To Be Or Not To Be, A Day at the Races. And: Duck Soup.

_________________________

Question:

What made you chose to focus on documentaries rather than fiction films?

Frederick Wiseman:

Technological advances in the late 1950s made it possible to make a movie about any subject where there was enough light to shoot film. Therefore, every aspect of contemporary life could be explored on film. There is great drama, tragedy, comedy in ordinary experience, which if you happen to be lucky enough to be present when it occurs, you can use in film. My goal is to make films of as many different aspects of life as I can.•

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Ethel_Rosenberg_mugshot

In a time of hysteria, justice is only the first casualty. Human lives often follow.

It’s hard to make sense in retrospect of the 1950s trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, accused Soviet spies, because there was very little sensible about the Communist witch hunt of that era. Charged with a crime that “jeopardizes the lives of every man, woman and child in America,” the couple certainly didn’t get a fair hearing.

I thought of this agonizing piece of our history when E.L. Doctorow, author of The Book of Daniel, a fictionalized take on the topic, died recently. As the novel reminds, it was an especially painful period for many Americans because the two Rosenberg children, Michael and Robert (later adopted by Abel and Anne Meeropol), were collateral damage. Embedded is a January 4 1953 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article which covers the boys visiting their parents six months before their execution.

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In a Wall Street Journal article, Christopher Mims writes that killer robots aren’t inevitable, spoiling it for everyone. I mean, we need to be obliterated by really smart robots, the sooner, the better. Please.

Mims is right, of course, that banning research on Strong Ai is the wrong tack to take to ensure our future. This work is going to go ahead one way or another, so why not proceed, but with caution? He also points out that many of the scientists and technologists signing the Open Letter on Artificial Intelligence are engaged in creating AI of all sorts.

An excerpt about the bad news:

Imagine the following scenario: It’s 2025, and self-driving cars are widely available. Turning such a vehicle into a bomb isn’t much harder than it is to accomplish the same thing with a conventional vehicle today. And the same goes for drones of every scale and description.

It’s inevitable, say the experts I talked to, that nonstate actors and rogue states will create killer robots once the underpinnings of this technology become cheap and accessible, thanks to its commercial use.

“I look back 10 years, and who would have thought people would be using cellphone technology to detonate IEDs?” says retired Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, who as chief of research spent four years heading up the Navy’s work on autonomous systems.

And what about killing machines driven by artificial intelligence, which could learn to make decisions themselves, a fear that recently bubbled to the surface in an open letter signed by the likes of Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. The letter warned that an arms race was “virtually inevitable” between major powers if they continue to develop these kinds of weapons.•

 

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Back!

Miss me? No?!?

Be Brave

Should be back tomorrow. Don’t do anything rash!–Darren

743px-Weeping_Parisian_from_NARA_Ww2-81

Will get back to posting once things are resolved.–Darren

Was anybody else put off by Maureen Dowd’s New York Times op-ed about Donald Trump, in which she allowed the hideous hotelier to run roughshod over her column space, while labeling him as a “braggart” or “cartoonish,” when a more accurate description would have been “vicious racist”? Does it seem that an attempt at a fun piece about a gutter-level racist is wrong?

Not only is he king of the Birthers, but the hideous hotelier has also said that “laziness is a trait in blacks” and described Mexicans as “rapists.” That’s not someone who should be treated as an amusingly undiplomatic blowhard who sticks his foot into it by boasting about his golf courses or denying Heidi Klum perfect-ten status. 

Dowd treated the whole sordid affair as if it was just harmless entertainment, an amusing sideshow (even featuring an extra-fun lightning round!), when Trump’s bigotry and those attracted to it are anything but a laugh. It’s unadulterated ugliness that should be called out by anyone who interviews him. Believing that the campaign is foolishness that will eventually blow away isn’t an excuse for a reporter to abdicate responsibility. In this instance, Dowd failed to be the equal of Megyn Kelly.

From her NYT piece:

The billionaire braggart known for saying unfiltered things is trying to be diplomatic. Sort of.

It has suddenly hit Trump that he’s leading the Republican field in a race where many candidates, including the two joyless presumptive nominees, are sputtering. He’s got the party by the tail — still a punch line but not a joke.

The Wall Street Journal huffed that Trump’s appeal was “attitude, not substance,” and the nascent candidate is still figuring out the pesky little details, like staff and issues, dreaming up his own astringent campaign ads for Instagram on ISIS and China.

The other candidates, he says, “have pollsters; they pay these guys $200,000 a month to tell them, ‘Don’t say this, don’t say that, you use the wrong word, you shouldn’t put a comma here.’ I don’t want any of that. I have a nice staff, but no one tells me what to say. I go by my heart. The combination of heart and brain. When Hillary gets up there she reads and then goes away for three days.”

As he headed off this weekend to see the butter cow in Iowa — “Iowa is very clean. It’s not like a lot of places where you and I would go, like New York City” — Trump is puzzling over a conundrum: How does he curb the merciless heckler side of himself, the side that has won over voters who think he’s a refreshing truth teller, so that he can seem refined enough to win over voters who think he’s crude and cartoonish?

How does he tone it down when he’s proud of his outrageous persona, his fiery wee-hours Twitter arrows and campaign “gusto,” and gratified by the way he can survive dissing John McCain and rating Heidi Klum when that would be a death knell for someone like Scott Walker?

“Sometimes I do go a little bit far,” he allowed, adding, after a moment: “Heidi Klum. Sadly, she’s no longer a 10.”

 

 

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It’s a very big if, but if Tesla has an autonomous electric-car service on the roads by 2025, as Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas predicts, well, that would change everything. No one, though, can predict precisely what it would mean, except that it likely would be bad for Labor. Still, you have to bet it will take much longer to build such a global, robotic fleet.

From CNN Money:

Jonas believes that within the next 18 months, Tesla will share plans for an app-based, on-demand “mobility service.” Commercial introduction to this Uber-like service could occur in 2018, with the Model 3 serving as the backbone.

The first version of this service would be human-driven, just like today’s other ride hailing services. But then Tesla could move to a model where robots do virtually all the work even though real people sit at the driver’s seat just in case it’s required.

Jonas predicted Tesla could transition to a fully autonomous service by 2025, that it would have nearly 600,000 cars in its global fleet — or roughly the same size as Hertz today.

“The holy grail of shared mobility is replacing the mistake-prone, fatigued and expensive human driver with a robot that drives with greater accuracy and precision,” Jonas wrote.•

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If gene-editing was utilized to keep animals from wanting to harm one another–no more predators, no more prey–you think there might be a few unintended consequences? Some, right? David Pearce, a philosopher and Transhumanist, wants to engineer all suffering out of existence, from the ecosystem to the human brain. Given enough time, I suppose anything is possible. Excerpts follow from two interviews with Pearce.

______________________

The opening of a 2014 i09 Q&A by George Dvorsky:

Question:

The idea of re-engineering the ecosystem such that it’s free from suffering is a radically ambitious project — one that’s been referred to as the “well intentioned lunacy” of a futurist. That said, it’s an idea rooted in history. From where do you draw your ideas and moral philosophy?

David Pearce:

Sentient beings shouldn’t harm each other. This utopian-sounding vision is ancient. Gautama Buddha said “May all that have life be delivered from suffering”. The Bible prophesies that the wolf and the lion shall lie down with the lamb. Today, Jains sweep the ground in front of their feet rather than unwittingly tread on an insect.

My own conceptual framework and ethics are secular — more Bentham than Buddha. I think we should use biotechnology to rewrite our genetic source code; recalibrate the hedonic treadmill; shut down factory farms and slaughterhouses; and systematically help sentient beings rather than harm them.

However, there is an obvious problem. On the face of it, the idea of a pain-free biosphere is ecologically illiterate. Secular and religious utopians tend to ignore the biology of obligate carnivores and the thermodynamics of a food chain. Feed a population of starving herbivores in winter and we’d trigger a population explosion and ecological collapse. Help carnivorous predators and we’d just cause more death and suffering to the herbivores they prey on. Richard Dawkins puts the bioconservative case quite bluntly: “It must be so.” Fortunately, this isn’t the case.•

______________________

From a 2007 interview by Ingo Niermann of the German edition of Vanity Fair:

Vanity Fair:

You claim that it is possible to eradicate all suffering on earth, whether physical or mental. When?

David Pearce: 

It will technically be possible to get rid of all suffering within a century or two. Its abolition would be practical only if it were agreed in the sense of something like the moon program or the human genome project – if there was a degree of social consensus. There are certainly technological obstacles, but they are dwarfed by the ethical-ideological ones. Many people’s negative reaction to the idea of a world without suffering comes from a fear that someone is going to be manipulating and controlling them. Partly, too, the abolition of suffering seems to make a mockery of one’s life projects. Most of us spend the greater part of our lives seeking happiness for ourself and others we care about. But we do so in extremely inefficient and in many cases self-defeating ways. This is a problem with existing human society. Even though we have made extraordinary progress technologically and medically, we aren’t any happier than our ancestors. Even if we could arrange society in the most utopian way imaginable, there would be some people who would still be depressed and anxious. There would be some people who would be consumed by jealousy or unhappy love affairs. No amount of environmental reform or manipulation is going to get rid of suffering. Only biotechnology can eradicate its neural substrates.

Vanity Fair: 

Statistics say that on the average people in Bangladesh are happier than in the Western World.

David Pearce: 

In Bangladesh, if you lose a child through malnourishment or disease it’s absolutely dreadful, just as it is if you lose a child here. But yes, statistically the hedonic set-point around which our lives fluctuate is pretty similar whether you live in London, Berlin or Bangladesh. If someone offers you a million dollars, for instance, you get a quick boost in the same way that (to use a more extreme example) crack-addicts do. Even though crack-addicts know that the drug is going to make them awfully miserable in the long-term, they still strive for their next hit. Here in the rich West, we know money won’t make us happy, but we strive for it compulsively.

If you take suffering seriously, the only way to eradicate it is by biological reprogramming. In the short run, this may involve superior designer drugs. In the long run, the only realistic way to abolish suffering is through genetic engineering.

Vanity Fair: 

There would be a very simple method to make all people happy straight away: by putting electrodes in their pleasure centres.

David Pearce: 

Wireheading is offensive to human dignity, to our conception of who we are. The real value of wireheading is that it serves as an existence-proof for people who are sceptical that it is possible to be extremely happy indefinitely. Wireheading shows there is no tolerance to pure pleasure. The normal process of inhibitory feedback doesn’t seem to kick in. We don’t understand why this is the case. When we do, it will be a very important discovery.

Vanity Fair: 

The anaesthetist Stuart Meloy discovered accidentally that by putting an electrode in a certain area of the spinal cord a woman could experience endless orgasms. But he had a hard time finding enough people volunteering for a trial.

David Pearce: 

I can’t see wireheading as an evolutionary stable solution. Wireheads will not want to have children, or want to look after their children.

Vanity Fair: 

But what is your idea of paradise engineering? What should an ever-happy life be like?

David Pearce: 

It is not a uniform happiness but a world with a motivational system based entirely on gradients of well-being. Think of your ideal fantasy. With the right biological substrates, the reality could be millions of times better.•

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Col. William “Billy” Breakenridge was tossed into the belly of the beast in 1879 when he became Assistant City Marshal of the hell-raising, often-lethal city of Tombstone, Arizona. Somehow he lived to tell the story, which he did quite literally nearly 50 years later, soon before his death, when he published his autobiography, Helldorado. Even this literary effort, far removed from the gun-slinging madness, caused conflict, as Wyatt Earp, portrayed in its pages as a low-down scoundrel, protested its verity. An article about the book was published in the June 12, 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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Like many in postwar America, Ray Kroc found it rather easy to make money. It’s different today for the franchise, struggling in a much more competitive global economy. The typical McDonalds restaurant has half the staff it did 50 years ago, and there’s a chance that number could go much lower, owing to automation.

How much of the human element can be sacrificed from the Hospitality Industry (restaurants, hotels, etc.)? Probably a good deal, enough to hollow out staffs peopled by low-skill workers as well as novices and retirees. The push for a national $15 minimum wage (which workers dearly need) has some wondering if the process will be hastened.

From Lydia DePillis at the Washington Post:

Of course, it’s possible to imagine all kinds of dramatic productivity enhancements. Persona ­Pizzeria’s [Harold] Miller predicts that drone delivery systems will eventually get rid of the need to come into a restaurant at all, for example. [Middleby Corp COO Dave] Brewer has a bold prediction: He thinks that all the automation working its way into restaurants could eventually cut staffing levels in half. The remaining employees would just need to learn how to operate the machines and fix things when they break.

“You don’t want a $15-an-hour person doing something that the person who makes $7 an hour can do,” Brewer said. “It’s not downgrading the employees. It’s that the employees become managers of a bunch of different systems. They’ll become smarter and smarter.”

The value of a human touch

Not everybody, however, agrees that machines could make that much of a dent in labor costs. Implementing new systems is expensive, and mistakes can be devastating. And for some concepts, it’s possible that the presence of employees is actually a restaurant’s competitive advantage. Compared with grocery stores and gas stations, many people come to restaurants exactly because they want some human interaction.•

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An industrial video from 50 years ago about AMF, which brought automation and computers to bowling, trying to make fast food even more inhuman.

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In 1999, Michael Crichton played what he knew to be a fool’s game and predicted the future. He was not so successful about culture. Things he got wrong: Printed matter will be unchanged, movies will soon be dead, communications will be consolidated into fewer hands. Well, he did foresee YouTube.

Crichton, who was fascinated by science and often accused of being anti-science, commenting in a 1997 Playboy interview on technology creating moral quandaries we’re not prepared for:

I think we’re a long way from cloning people. But I am worried about scientific advances without consideration of their consequences. The history of medicine in my lifetime is one of technological advances that outstrip our ethical systems. We’ve never caught up. When I was in medical school—30-odd years ago—people were struggling to deal with mechanical-respiration systems. They were keeping alive people who a few years earlier would have died of natural causes. Suddenly people weren’t going to die of natural causes. They were either going to get on these machines and never get off or—or what? Were we going to turn the machines off? We had the machines well before we started the debate. Doctors were speaking quietly among themselves with a kind of resentment toward these machines. On the one hand, if somebody had a temporary disability, the machines could help get them over the hump. For accident victims—some of whom were very young—who could be saved if they pulled through the initial crisis, the technology saved lives. You could get them over the hump and then they would recover, and that was terrific.

But on the other hand, there was a category of people who were on their way out but could be kept alive. Before the machine, ‘pulling the plug’ actually meant opening the window too wide one night, and the patient would get pneumonia and die. That wasn’t going to happen now. We were being forced by technology to make decisions about the right to die—whether it’s a legal or religious issue—and many related matters. Some of them contradict longstanding ideas in an ethically protected world; we weren’t being forced to make hard decisions, because those decisions were being made for us—in this case, by the pneumococcus.

This is just one example of an ethical issue raised by technology. Cloning is another. If you’re knowledgeable about biotechnology, it’s possible to think of some terrifying scenarios. I don’t even like to discuss them. I know people doing biotechnology research who have decided not to pursue avenues of research because they think they’re too dangerous. But we go forward without sorting out the issues. I don’t believe that everything new is necessarily better. We go forward with the technology while the ethical issues are still up in the air, whether it’s the genetic variability of crop streams, which is a resource in times of plant plagues, to the assumption that we all have to be connected all the time. The technology is here so you must use it. Do you? Do you have to have your cell phone and your e-mail address and your Internet hookup? I was just on holiday in Scotland without e-mail. I had to notify people that I wouldn’t be checking my e-mail, because there’s an assumption that if I send you an e-mail, you’ll get it. Well, I won’t get it. I’m not plugged in, guys. Some people are horrified: “You’ve gone offline?” People feel so enslaved by technology that they will stop having sex to answer the telephone. What could be so important? Who’s calling, and who cares?•

I can’t find a transcript of the recent address by NASA’s Parimal Kopardekar at an unmanned aerial systems conference at the Ames Research Center, but there’s some coverage of it by Elizabeth Weise at Stuff.co.nz. The aviation expert thinks we’ll all soon–very soon–have a drone to do our bidding, conducting research and running errands. Of course, once they’re ubiquitous, it will be easy to introduce mayhem into the system, easier than it is with the traditional postal system. That’s something we’ll have to work on.

Weise’s opening:

Forget getting the latest, greatest cell phone. The next indispensable tech tool may be a drone of your own. And daily life may never be the same.

“I see a time when every home will have a drone. You’re going to use a drone to do rooftop inspections. You’re going to be able to send a drone to Home Depot to get a screw driver,” said Parimal Kopardekar, manager of Nasa’s Safe Autonomous System Operations Project at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

And this won’t happen in some long-distant future. “This is in five or 10 years,” Kopardekar said.

Kopardekar gave a keynote talk at a conference on Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management hosted by Nasa and the Silicon Valley Chapter of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International last week.

“We can completely transform aviation. Quickly,” said Dave Vos, lead of Google’s secretive Project Wing, which is working with Nasa – as are some 100 other companies – on an air traffic control system for small, low-altitude drones.

An effective air traffic system – needed to keep the skies under 500 feet from turning into a demolition derby – will play a major role in turning drones from a plaything into an engine of the economy, one affecting package delivery, agriculture, hazardous waste oversight and more.•

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Sometimes life takes a sharp turn for the better and it seems like progress, like we’ve moved onward and upward for good. Probably more often than not, these jolting victories are transient, a brief interlude. So it was for American cinema in the late ’60s and ’70s, a fascinating time of personal filmmaking that disrupted and then dissipated. 

That’s not to say the Studio System that preceded it or the globalized Blockbuster Era which has replaced it haven’t turned out great movies, but damn, that auteur period had soul. It’s not unfair to say that those producers and directors pushed envelopes and their successors push product. 

One of the greats of that golden era, William Friedkin, was interviewed by Mike Fleming Jr. of Deadline. The opening:

Question:

Today’s executives and filmmakers say they revere the 70s, but they are under pressure for formulaic global blockbusters that lack edge and authorship. What made that era possible that isn’t in place today?

William Friedkin:

There were a number of factors. Studios were run by guys who really loved films, and many of them had been producers. Probably the biggest factor is, there were no formulas. A studio did not have to turn out a number of films that had to be formulaic, like they do today. A whole movement back then was spurred by the release of Easy Rider. Studios felt that if a couple of hip filmmakers could go out, without a script, with a small crew and make a film like that with very few resources, then the directors must know what they were doing. This benefited the younger guys of my generation. The studios just felt that maybe we had some formula.

Question:

Did you?

William Friedkin:

We didn’t. We were mostly influenced by the European films of the ‘60s. The French New Wave. Italian neo-realism. Kurosawa and other Japanese filmmakers. We were inspired by them and not bound to any formula. The French Connection, for all its success, was a real departure for a cop film, which was why it took us two years to get it made. Every studio turned it down. Many of them turned it down two or three times over a two year period.

Question:

Why?

William Friedkin:

They didn’t get it. The chase scene was never in a script. I created that chase scene, with the producer Philip D’Antoni. We just spit-balled ideas. We walked out of my apartment, headed South in Manhattan and we kept walking until we came up with that chase scene, letting the atmosphere of the city guide us. The steam coming off the street, and sound of the subway rumbling beneath our feet, the treacherous traffic on crowded streets. We didn’t have a lot of time, because Dick Zanuck, who had already turned it down, told us that he would make the film for a million and a half dollars if we could get it done right away, because he knew he was going to get fired. And he was right. That’s why we settled on Gene Hackman who was not our first choice. We walked 55 blocks and came up with a chase. Nobody ever asked to see a script. We went three hundred thousand over that million and a half dollar budget, and they wanted to kill me every day for that. Nobody spent the kind of money they do today. You had groups of guys running the studios who were afraid they might be out of touch, and young filmmakers who had fresh ideas that were more like what indie film is today than what fit the classic Hollywood movie, which was the musicals of the ‘40s and the ‘50s like Singing in the Rain. What prevails in American film today that didn’t then was, if a film succeeds and seems to represent a formula, it will be repeated over and over, with more and more computer-generated images. I can’t think of any superhero film that existed in the 70s. None come to mind. No formulas and the start was the fear of those executives back then that Easy Rider caused in the hearts of guys running the studios back then.

Question:

Were you aware you were working in a special time for the movie business? What was the best thing about working in movies back then, with so much freedom?

William Friedkin:

We were not aware that it was a golden era.•

 

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Things deemed inconvenient if you are employed at Amazon: getting cancer, having a relative get cancer, miscarriages. If you are “selfish” enough to engage in these activities, you’ll be put on notice and likely reduced to tears. Jeff Bezos’ gigantic success has long been reported to be a ridiculously bruising and demanding workplace only a sociopath could love, a place that attracts the highest achievers and routinely lays them low. 

Tremendous job by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld of the New York Times for the deepest profile yet of a company that’s the envy of the business world and a pretty horrible place to work. How can Amazon get away with such practices, a seeming social experiment that preys on workers psychologically? “Unfairness is not illegal,” is the way one lawyer in the piece puts it. The question is whether some of the tools used to quantify employees at the online retail behemoth will become common. Probably.

An excerpt about Elizabeth Willet, a former Army Captain who discovered a new kind of combat during her brief employment at Amazon:

Ms. Willet’s co-workers strafed her through the Anytime Feedback Tool, the widget in the company directory that allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management. (While bosses know who sends the comments, their identities are not typically shared with the subjects of the remarks.) Because team members are ranked, and those at the bottom eliminated every year, it is in everyone’s interest to outperform everyone else.

Craig Berman, an Amazon spokesman, said the tool was just another way to provide feedback, like sending an email or walking into a manager’s office. Most comments, he said, are positive.

However, many workers called it a river of intrigue and scheming. They described making quiet pacts with colleagues to bury the same person at once, or to praise one another lavishly. Many others, along with Ms. Willet, described feeling sabotaged by negative comments from unidentified colleagues with whom they could not argue. In some cases, the criticism was copied directly into their performance reviews — a move that Amy Michaels, the former Kindle manager, said that colleagues called “the full paste.”

Soon the tool, or something close, may be found in many more offices. Workday, a human resources software company, makes a similar product called Collaborative Anytime Feedback that promises to turn the annual performance review into a daily event. One of the early backers of Workday was Jeff Bezos, in one of his many investments. (He also owns The Washington Post.)

The rivalries at Amazon extend beyond behind-the-back comments. Employees say that the Bezos ideal, a meritocracy in which people and ideas compete and the best win, where co-workers challenge one another “even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting,” as the leadership principles note, has turned into a world of frequent combat.•

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From the May 19, 1869 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

 

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

  1. dana goodyear’s julian wasser article
  2. howard hughes at the end of his life
  3. robert matthias new york messiah
  4. edmund hillary searching for abominable snowman
  5. old time explorers hunting mummies
  6. donald trump’s anus mouth
  7. reyner banham’s los angeles
  8. ludwig wittgenstein on technology
  9. recent camille paglia comments
  10. wernher von braun werner erhard
This week, Donald Trump's behavior shockingly wasn't the ugliest thing in the country.

This week, President Trump’s behavior shockingly wasn’t the ugliest thing in the country.

 

  • Garry Wills thinks William F. Buckley’s political influence was overstated.
  • The water crisis, not terrorism, is likely the biggest threat to global peace.

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