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For many of us the idea of a tyrant in the White House is unthinkable, but for some that’s all they can think about. These aren’t genuinely struggling folks in the Rust Belt whose dreams have been foreclosed on by the death rattle of the Industrial Age and made a terrible decision that will only deepen their wounds, but a large number of citizens with fairly secure lifestyles who want to unleash their fury on a world not entirely their own anymore.

I was in a coffee shop in New Jersey yesterday (not in a downtrodden area) and listened to a casually dressed man in his sixties have a loud phone conversation about the incoming Trump Administration. He laughed gleefully as he talked about how the new President would crush the protesters, jail journalists and chase Mexicans and Muslims from the nation at gunpoint. There were sexist obscenities hurled at Hillary and Chelsea Clinton and also Katy Perry, who supported the Democratic nominee. He didn’t seem to be a computer-friendly Facebook user but a likely Limbaugh listener who wanted to Make America White Again. You could say this was an isolated incident, but I had conversations with hundreds of Trump supporters over the last year from the Tri-State area and Florida, people with decent jobs or good pensions, who expressed the same. They wanted to roll back the advances of women and people of color and “stand up for white people,” hoping to somehow silence or imprison a reality that now seems foreign to them. That doesn’t take a village but an autocrat.

In “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” an excellent New York Review of Books essay by Masha Gessen, the writer addresses the spooky parallels between Russia and this new U.S., as we begin what looks to be a Trump-Putin bromance. An excerpt:

I have lived in autocracies most of my life, and have spent much of my career writing about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I have learned a few rules for surviving in an autocracy and salvaging your sanity and self-respect. It might be worth considering them now:

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. This will happen often: humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable. Back in the 1930s, The New York Times assured its readers that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was all posture. More recently, the same newspaper made a telling choice between two statements made by Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov following a police crackdown on protesters in Moscow: “The police acted mildly—I would have liked them to act more harshly” rather than those protesters’ “liver should have been spread all over the pavement.” Perhaps the journalists could not believe their ears. But they should—both in the Russian case, and in the American one. For all the admiration Trump has expressed for Putin, the two men are very different; if anything, there is even more reason to listen to everything Trump has said. He has no political establishment into which to fold himself following the campaign, and therefore no reason to shed his campaign rhetoric. On the contrary: it is now the establishment that is rushing to accommodate him—from the president, who met with him at the White House on Thursday, to the leaders of the Republican Party, who are discarding their long-held scruples to embrace his radical positions.

He has received the support he needed to win, and the adulation he craves, precisely because of his outrageous threats. Trump rally crowds have chanted “Lock her up!” They, and he, meant every word. If Trump does not go after Hillary Clinton on his first day in office, if he instead focuses, as his acceptance speech indicated he might, on the unifying project of investing in infrastructure (which, not coincidentally, would provide an instant opportunity to reward his cronies and himself), it will be foolish to breathe a sigh of relief. Trump has made his plans clear, and he has made a compact with his voters to carry them out. These plans include not only dismantling legislation such as Obamacare but also doing away with judicial restraint—and, yes, punishing opponents.

To begin jailing his political opponents, or just one opponent, Trump will begin by trying to capture of the judicial system. Observers and even activists functioning in the normal-election mode are fixated on the Supreme Court as the site of the highest-risk impending Trump appointment. There is little doubt that Trump will appoint someone who will cause the Court to veer to the right; there is also the risk that it might be someone who will wreak havoc with the very culture of the high court. And since Trump plans to use the judicial system to carry out his political vendettas, his pick for attorney general will be no less important. Imagine former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie going after Hillary Clinton on orders from President Trump; quite aside from their approach to issues such as the Geneva Conventions, the use of police powers, criminal justice reforms, and other urgent concerns.•

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If Hillary Clinton had won a small amount of votes in a few key states, everything would be different, at least outwardly.

The country certainly would have been a million times better off in her hands than in the clutches of an ego-drunk buffoon and his cadre of anti-Semites, sexists and xenophobes. But the distance between a superpower and an also-ran can be razor-thin, and the final tally showed that a frightened populace reached inside for their better angels and came up empty-handed, installing one of the worst among us in the Oval Office. If Clinton had been victorious, she would have been a capable steward who would have offered protections for workers’ rights, but it’s not easy to see what she would have done about manufacturing jobs that aren’t returning even as the factories are re-shored. Machines can handle most of that work now, and not everyone will be able to transition into being a driverless-car engineer. There are no simple answers.

George Packer of the New Yorker has done some great reporting in the pages of that magazine and in The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America on the seismic changes U.S. citizens have experienced (and endured) during this millennium, as the Industrial Age ran out of steam. Two Packer pieces follow about the vanishing of our critical institutions, the second one from his entry in this week’s “Sixteen Writers” feature in the New Yorker.


From 2014:

I began to wonder what a company worker looked like. I found it hard to come up with an image. Amazon’s workforce is made up mainly of computer engineers and warehouse workers, but when you think of Amazon you don’t picture either one (and there aren’t many photographs to help your imagination). What you see, instead, is a Web site with a button that says “add to cart” and a cardboard box with a smile printed on the side. Between clicking “buy” and answering the door when U.P.S. arrives lies a mystery—a chain of events that only comes to mind if you make a conscious effort. The work is done by people you don’t see and don’t have to think about, which is partly what makes Amazon’s unmatched efficiency seem nearly miraculous.

The invisibility of work and workers in the digital age is as consequential as the rise of the assembly line and, later, the service economy. Whether as victim, demon, or hero, the industrial worker of the past century filled the public imagination in books, movies, news stories, and even popular songs, putting a grimy human face on capitalism while dramatizing the social changes and conflicts it brought. The guy stocking shelves and the girl scanning purchases at Target never occupied much of a place in the public mind, and certainly never a romantic one (no one composed a “Ballad of the Floor Associate”), but at least you had to look at them whenever you ventured out to stimulate the economy. They reminded you that low-priced Chinese-made goods were a mixed blessing—that many of the jobs being created in post-industrial America were crappy ones.

With work increasingly invisible, it’s much harder to grasp the human effects, the social contours, of the Internet economy.•


From this week:

All the pieces are in place for the abuse of power, and it could happen quickly. There will be precious few checks on President Trump. His party, unlike Nixon’s, will control the legislative as well as the executive branch, along with two-thirds of governorships and statehouses. Trump’s advisers, such as Newt Gingrich, are already vowing to go after the federal employees’ union, and breaking it would give the President sweeping power to bend the bureaucracy to his will and whim. The Supreme Court will soon have a conservative majority. Although some federal courts will block flagrant violations of constitutional rights, Congress could try to impeach the most independent-minded judges, and Trump could replace them with loyalists.

But, beyond these partisan advantages, something deeper is working in Trump’s favor, something that he shrewdly read and exploited during the campaign. The democratic institutions that held Nixon to account have lost their strength since the nineteen-seventies—eroded from within by poor leaders and loss of nerve, undermined from without by popular distrust. Bipartisan congressional action on behalf of the public good sounds as quaint as antenna TV. The press is reviled, financially desperate, and undergoing a crisis of faith about the very efficacy of gathering facts. And public opinion? Strictly speaking, it no longer exists. “All right we are two nations,” John Dos Passos wrote, in his “U.S.A.” trilogy.

Among the institutions in decline are the political parties. This, too, was both intuited and accelerated by Trump. In succession, he crushed two party establishments and ended two dynasties. The Democratic Party claims half the country, but it’s hollowed out at the core. Hillary Clinton became the sixth Democratic Presidential candidate in the past seven elections to win the popular vote; yet during Barack Obama’s Presidency the Party lost both houses of Congress, fourteen governorships, and thirty state legislatures, comprising more than nine hundred seats. The Party’s leaders are all past the official retirement age, other than Obama, who has governed as the charismatic and enlightened head of an atrophying body. Did Democrats even notice?•

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In the hours after Donald Trump’s heartbreaking victory, many liberal talking heads and talk-show hosts urged all Americans to “work with” a President-Elect who degraded Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans, women, disabled people, POWs and threatened mass deportation and the building of a wall. That advice was stupid. 

They somehow thought he was only bullshitting long enough to get into the White House and then would moderate, but as 2016 wore on, you had to be a fool to think so. Now that the Breitbart anti-Semite and white supremacist Steve Bannon has been named Chief Strategist, let’s hope there’ll be an abrupt end to all this ridiculous conciliatory nonsense from liberals who seem to not get that this isn’t business as usual. Opposition is the only option if you believe in America as a beacon of the world and one that ensures justice for all.

Trump actually is going to break some of his promises, the ones regarding ending crony capitalism. Every venal right-winger is going to have his or her (but mostly his) hand in the till. You can’t “drain the swamp” when you’re campaign has been aided and abetted by all manner of sea monsters.

But he is going to keep most of his other promises: altering tax codes to benefit the already wealthy, harassing and hampering women and immigrants and all shades of non-white people and besieging basic freedoms of speech, assembly and the press. U.S. citizens have been bamboozled before, but this may be the big con to beat all. Nothing in my lifetime has brought us closer to large-scale failure.

Paul Sullivan’s New York Times article examines the new Administration’s aim to enrich those who least need it and further exacerbate wealth inequality, writing that “Mr. Trump’s estate tax plan seems tailored for someone like himself.” Anyone impressed by the President-Elect’s vow to not accept a salary should think about that. The opening:

If Donald J. Trump follows through on his campaign promises, a host of taxes that affect only the very richest Americans may be eliminated, along with almost all tax incentives to be philanthropic. As a result, wealthy families may find it much easier to amass dynastic levels of wealth.

At the top of the list is the estate tax. Currently, the rules are straightforward: A married couple is exempt for the first $10.9 million in their estate, and they pay a 40 percent tax on the amount above that.

Mr. Trump’s campaign proposal seems straightforward: Repeal the estate tax — the death tax, in his words. …

The Trump plan, as some attorneys and accountants have read it, would allow the wealthiest heirs to never pay capital gains taxes if they did not sell what they inherited. This would be difficult for those with a modest inheritance because they generally sell and spend what they get. But it might not be for people with a large inheritance, like Mr. Trump’s children, who would receive a portfolio of income-producing real estate and golf courses, which they could borrow against and never sell.•

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Shaping a turd into a circle and poking a hole in the center does not make a donut. Some who otherwise abhor Donald Trump are still enamored with his pledge to rebuild infrastructure, a very necessary priority, but they’re neglecting to notice the details of his plan reveal a cruller made of crap.

President Obama noted recently in a Carnegie Mellon address that the government is here to do the hard, unglamorous, unprofitable work that private enterprise wants no part of, “dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.” The Trump plan, however, will neglect the tough jobs that could pay off long-term dividends (e.g., repairing highways, modernizing schools, etc.), instead being a windfall for a few without a return for the many.

From Lawrence Summers at the Financial Times:

I have long been a strong advocate of debt-financed public investment in the context of low interest rates and a decaying US infrastructure, so I was glad to see Mr Trump emphasise it. Unfortunately, the plan presented by his advisers, Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross, suggests an approach based on tax credits for equity investment and total private sector participation that will not cover the most important projects, not reach many of the most important investors, and involve substantial mis-targeting of public resources.

Many of the highest return infrastructure investments — such as improving roads, repairing 60,000 structurally deficient bridges, upgrading schools or modernising the air traffic control system — do not generate a commercial return and so are excluded from his plan. Nor can the non-taxable pension funds, endowments and sovereign wealth funds that are the most promising sources of capital for infrastructure take advantage of the program.

I am optimistic regarding the efficacy of fiscal expansion. But any responsible economist has to recognise that, past a point, it can lead to some combination of excessive foreign borrowing, inflation and even financial crisis. As Dornbusch showed, in emerging markets this can happen quite quickly. In the US the process would take longer.

Even without taking account of the likely costs of the infrastructure plan (which the Trump team badly underestimates) or the proposed defence build-up, the Trump tax reform proposals are too expensive. Many, like the proposed abolition of the estate tax, will only benefit the high-saving wealthy.•

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It almost never ends well for a demagogue, nor for the demagogue’s people. Fascists are merely vulgar clowns until they’re in a position to do grave damage. Then the gloves come off.

Was reading a passage from a 1925 article that ran in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle which begins this way: “Benito Mussolini is a fascinating personality.” The writer wonders why Il Duce’s insane utterings demand rapt attention when others making similar statements would be jeered from the stage. That thought, of course, brings to mind the horrible reality of an Oval Office stuffed with Donald Trump, a deeply wounded man who worked the American living room like Torquemada as a Reality TV host.

Such a sick, authoritarian mind even scribbling in the margins of the Constitution could wreak havoc. The scariest part of the report below is that it argued the Italian dictator was already in steep decline, but just think how much suffering he caused before ultimately meeting the business end of a meat hook.

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Make no mistake about it: America has elected Marine Le Pen, Joseph McCarthy and Bull Connor as President. It’s actually happened.

The wall may or may not be built, but the authoritarian crackdown promised in the election was no idle threat. Trump’s cabinet, as his campaign was, will be littered with what’s worst about America, with Newt Gingrich already dreaming of getting the band back together at HUAC. Some who should have known better were asleep, claiming that a singularly sociopathic bully in the Oval Office would be pinioned by law, somehow not realizing how much evil this aspiring war criminal could accomplish between the lines.

One such person was James Baker. While it’s no surprise Donald Rumsfeld spouted his tortured word salad in favor of Trump, the former Bush 41 Secretary of State should have been alarmed by what he was hearing. He was not. 

In a Financial Times profile written by Lionel Barber in June, Baker didn’t take the opportunity to chide Trump for his racism, xenophobia, Mussolini-ish machinations, mockery of the disabled and military veterans, megalomania and spoiled-brat behavior, focusing instead on questions of power and policy. Such pragmatism may not be surprising for a lifelong political operator, but it’s still disappointing. An excerpt:

As a Bush loyalist, Baker is too discreet to talk about the abject failure of Jeb Bush’s campaign. Insiders say he was disappointed that the former Florida governor spent so much time talking about the past and the Bush dynasty rather than his own plans for the future. Trump’s “low energy” jibe struck a chord with voters, like his invective about immigration and blue-collar workers losing out in the age of globalisation. “That’s the thing about Trump. As much as we might disagree with his position, the voters don’t.” he says. “The question is whether a ‘faceless’ establishment decides where our party goes or do the voters.” …

The number one foreign policy challenge for the US is China, he says.

“We have to be smart enough to manage the differences,” he says.

And how might a President Trump manage those differences, I ask. Baker offers general advice only.

“Isolationism and protectionism won’t work. Don’t talk no trade deals; make a better deal. Don’t talk about making Japan and South Korea nuclear powers. Don’t talk about negotiating down the American debt.”

I try one last shot. Are America and its institutions strong enough to survive any shock, even one as seismic as Donald Trump in the White House?

“Yes,” declares Baker, emphatically.

“I won’t get my panties in a wedge because of what I am hearing from the political candidates. What they say in the campaign and what they do once they are in the White House are not the same thing.”•

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The election was all about the economic downfall of Caucasian males, or maybe it wasn’t. Analysts disagree.

Some (like me) view it as an ugly expression of identity politics by white Americans who fear a more diverse future that has all but arrived, and that includes Trump voters in big cities as well as small hamlets, the ones who are dismayed that the nation has become too “politically correct,” which is essentially a complaint that they can’t use slurs anymore without consequence. Others see the stomach-turning election results as an expression of frustration by forgotten voters who wanted to rage against the machine, though it’s difficult to accept that anyone believes Trump will “drain the swamp” when he’s flanked by Gingrich and Giuliani, two creatures from the black lagoon who’ve been feasting on a corrupt system the majority of their adult lives.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between, though the dormant racial and xenophobic hatred awakened by Trump, which has expressed itself repeatedly in words and deeds, was always there and it can’t be explained away by economic fears. It’s heartbreaking that so many of us pulled the lever for a candidate who ran a shameful, fascistic campaign of bigotry, full of anti-Muslim rhetoric, misogynistic insults and anti-Semitic memes.

An amoral enabler like Peter Thiel supported and emboldened such a disgraceful figure–and one who’s wholly unprepared for the job–because of his fealty to his idiotic theories, and anyone who labels him a “winner” of the election defines that word differently than I do. As part of the new administration’s transition team, he has a lot of work to do, but so did Hitler’s secretary. That many consider him a serious intellectual because of his billions and contrarian “ideas” is appalling.

The clearest view in the wake of the election is that we’re still exceptionally divided, with Hillary Clinton set to win the popular vote by probably more than two million while losing the election overall. Outside of racial lines, the fissure is probably strongest in geography, with those on the coasts now being referred to as “elites” who don’t listen to what Sarah Palin used to call the “real America.”

When Charles Murray and Thiel rail against so-called liberal elites, I have to laugh. Having grown up in a very blue-collar background, it’s hard to accept those who’ve spent their whole lives in the halls of power posturing as if they’re horse whisperers to the poor. They’re not; they’re opportunists in love with ideology far more than people. 

The idea that tone-deaf people in NYC, SF, DC and LA selfishly make decisions that effect the lives of those in the middle of the country is maddening, because those same folks choose congresspeople, senators and Presidents without calling the coasts first, and no one expects them to. Those decisions impact citizens living in major metropolises in a real way and not always for the better. We’re all living in bubbles now, and that may cause problems, but that’s on all of us, not just some.

Culturally and economically, however, it does appear urban and rural Americans have different needs, a situation growing more extreme. Two excerpts follow.


From “The Election Highlighted a Growing Rural-Urban Split,” by Emily Badger, Quoctrung Bui and Adam Pearce of the New York Times:

The widening political divergence between cities and small-town America also reflects a growing alienation between the two groups, and a sense — perhaps accurate — that their fates are not connected.

The University of Wisconsin political scientist Katherine J. Cramer, the author of The Politics of Resentment, described what this looked like during years of field research in Wisconsin in an insightful interview with Jeff Guo at The Washington Post. The people she met across a state that Mrs. Clinton ultimately lost felt deeply disrespected (and suspicious of a white-collar academic from uber-blue Madison). “They would say, ‘The real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us,’ ” Ms. Cramer said. “ ‘They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges that we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.’ ”

Cities, for their part, are easily branded with some dissonance as embodying either professional elites or poor people who don’t deserve benefits (thus both Madison and Milwaukee, two very different places, come in for equal resentment within Wisconsin). Many of the young Democratic voters who live in blue cities like these, as Alec MacGillis has noted, have gravitated away from redder parts of the country from which they felt alienated. “There’s just nothing to do in Ohio,” lamented one voter who grew up there but now lives in Los Angeles. “The jobs are limited, but it’s not just the jobs and the industries that are in Ohio, it’s the mind-set that I didn’t gravitate to.”

As the relationship between density and partisanship has grown stronger over the last half-century, the structure of the economy has also changed in ways that reinforce the divide.•


From Patrick Thornton’s Roll Call essay “I’m a Coastal Elite From the Midwest: The Real Bubble is Rural America“:

To pin this election on the coastal elite is a cop-out. It’s intellectually dishonest, and it’s beneath us.

We, as a culture, have to stop infantilizing and deifying rural and white working-class Americans. Their experience is not more of a real American experience than anyone else’s, but when we say that it is, we give people a pass from seeing and understanding more of their country. More Americans need to see more of the United States. They need to shake hands with a Muslim, or talk soccer with a middle aged lesbian, or attend a lecture by a female business executive.

We must start asking all Americans to be their better selves. We must all understand that America is a melting pot and that none of us has a more authentic American experience.

If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent apartments to black people. If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man who called Mexicans rapists, drug dealers and criminals. If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man who called for a complete ban on Muslim immigration.•

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Familiarity breeds contempt, as the Internet Age has taught us. 

That medium has shrunk the world in ways Marshall McLuhan couldn’t fully imagine when he was panicking about television ushering in the Global Village, which now seems positively halcyon by comparison. In this decentralized age, we all got drunk and hooked up, but not everyone is sure they want to move in together.

Luckily for the skittish, the new tools contain no center but instead multitudes, with ways to personalize and edit feeds to eliminate friction, so it’s possible for me to sing the song of myself, to disappear into an echo chamber. There’s no need to even think about it: It’s all automated.

A perplexingly large segment of us want to force the physical world to follow suit, to build an actual wall that buffers and protects life a firewall. It seems impossible, but some are willing to die trying.

From Douglas Rushkoff’s excellent Primer Stories essay “The New Nationalism“: 

The television era was about globalism, international cooperation, and the open society. TV let people see for the first time what was happening in other places, often live, as it happened. We watched the Olympics, together, by satellite. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Even 9-11 was a simultaneously experienced, global event.

Television connected us all and broke down national boundaries. Whether it was the British Beatles playing on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York or the California beach bodies of Baywatch broadcast in Pakistan, television images penetrated national divisions.

I interviewed Nelson Mandela in 1994, and he told me that MTV and CNN had more to do with ending the divisions of apartheid than any other force.

But today’s digital media environment is different. At the height of his media era, a telegenic Ronald Reagan could broadcast a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and demand that Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” Today’s ultimate digi-genic candidate Donald Trump demands that we build a wall to protect us from Mexicans. This is because the primary bias of the digital media environment is for distinction. Analog media such as radio and television were continuous, like the sound on a vinyl record. Digital media, by contrast, are made up of many discrete samples. Likewise, digital networks break up our messages into tiny packets, and reassemble them on the other end. Computer programs all boil down to a series of 1’s and 0’s, on or off.•

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If you’re wealthy and amoral like, say, Peter Thiel, then you should be fine during a Trump Administration. But if you’re a working-class person who’s benefited from President Obama’s executive orders on Labor, oh well. It’s funny we experienced a backlash against “elites” (if that’s what it was) the year after U.S. middle-income earners had the biggest spike in household income in 50 years. That’s because 2016 was about Identity Politics, not economics, but as Karl Rove used to say, elections have consequences. The ones who went for it are the same ones who fell for the “Family Values” crap that neither Newt Gingrich nor Rove cared about. They just wanted power to further loot a corrupt system. That’s about to happen again, and a painful number of Americans are going to feel like Trump University graduates.

From Laura Clawson at Daily Kos:

With Donald Trump having vowed to, on his very first day in office, repeal every executive order President Obama has signed, let’s take a look at some of what that means. Obviously, Obama’s immigration actions are on the chopping block. But Obama has also made a number of moves to make workers’ lives better, which we can also wave good-bye to. 

The orders apply to workers at companies with federal contracts—if a company wants federal money, it might have to live up to a slightly higher standard than otherwise. Obama signed a $10.10 minimum wage for federal contract workers. And an order against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. And an expansion of equal pay protections. And paid sick leave. And a ban on labor law violators getting federal contracts—because, come on, if a company actually breaks the law, it really shouldn’t get federal money. These actions affect—or affected, or would have affected—hundreds of thousands of workers.•

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Mentioned my love of Leonard Cohen just yesterday, and now he’s sadly gone. In 1966, he said, “I think history and time pretty much build obsolescence into poetry unless it’s really, really the great stuff.” His was.

Would there have been the same backlash if Cohen, rather than Bob Dylan, had won the Nobel Prize for Literature? I don’t know. As monumental as Cohen was as a songwriter, he retained an outsider status, a mystique, that might have made him more acceptable to those who cried the award should have instead gone to Margaret Atwood or Philip Roth (who, of course, are both very deserving, as is Dylan). He also wrote poetry and novels, so perhaps that would have made him more palatable, though it was clearly his lyrics that would have earned him the honor if it had happened.

Cohen, who was never sanguine about the present, spoke fearfully and prophetically, in 1992, about the future, tapping into a violence, an invasion, that he thought was fast approaching. He believed there would be a seismic shift, that privacy would become a thing of the past, and he was right. He didn’t, however, foresee that the centralization of media power–what he had decried earlier in “Tower of Song” as “the rich having their channels in the bedrooms of the poor”–would be overturned by new technology. The channels grew exponentially and were now in our hands. We’ve thus far clearly fumbled them, or is there just no way they can be handled?

THE FUTURE

Give me back my broken night

my mirrored room, my secret life

it’s lonely here,

there’s no one left to torture

Give me absolute control

over every living soul

And lie beside me, baby,

that’s an order!

 

Give me crack and anal sex

Take the only tree that’s left

and stuff it up the hole

in your culture

Give me back the Berlin wall

give me Stalin and St Paul

I’ve seen the future, brother:

it is murder.

 

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions

Won’t be nothing

Nothing you can measure anymore

The blizzard, the blizzard of the world

has crossed the threshold

and it has overturned

the order of the soul

 

When they said REPENT REPENT

I wonder what they meant

When they said REPENT REPENT

I wonder what they meant

When they said REPENT REPENT

I wonder what they meant

 

You don’t know me from the wind

you never will, you never did

I’m the little Jew

who wrote the Bible

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall

I’ve heard their stories, heard them all

but love’s the only engine of survival

Your servant here, he has been told

to say it clear, to say it cold:

It’s over, it ain’t going

any further

And now the wheels of heaven stop

you feel the devil’s riding crop

Get ready for the future:

it is murder

 

Things are going to slide …

There’ll be the breaking of the ancient

western code

Your private life will suddenly explode

There’ll be phantoms

There’ll be fires on the road

and the white man dancing

You’ll see a woman

hanging upside down

her features covered by her fallen gown

and all the lousy little poets

coming round

tryin’ to sound like Charlie Manson

and the white man dancin’

 

Give me back the Berlin wall

Give me Stalin and St Paul

Give me Christ

or give me Hiroshima

Destroy another fetus now

We don’t like children anyhow

I’ve seen the future, baby:

it is murder

Things are going to slide …

When they said REPENT REPENT …

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From the July 20, 1901 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Chad: Hey, bro.

Every urban myth, old wives tale and piece of propaganda should be obviated with a few clicks in the Internet Age, but those tubes travel both ways. The decentralization of information made it possible to spread lies and confusion as well as truth, so we now have access to more knowledge than at any point in history–and more bullshit. Choose wisely.

Whether pushing tobacco or a politician, moneyed interests invest heavily on disinformation to aid their cause, and that was so even before viral videos had their moment. In a smart BBC Future piece, Georgina Kenyon profiles Stanford science historian Robert Proctor, who studies the willful spread of ignorance. He’s the world’s foremost “agnotologist.” An excerpt:

A new era of ignorance

“We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise,” says Proctor. Even though knowledge is ‘accessible’, it does not mean it is accessed, he warns.

“Although for most things this is trivial – like, for example, the boiling point of mercury – but for bigger questions of political and philosophical import, the knowledge people have often comes from faith or tradition, or propaganda, more than anywhere else.”

Proctor found that ignorance spreads when firstly, many people do not understand a concept or fact and secondly, when special interest groups – like a commercial firm or a political group – then work hard to create confusion about an issue. In the case of ignorance about tobacco and climate change, a scientifically illiterate society will probably be more susceptible to the tactics used by those wishing to confuse and cloud the truth.

Consider climate change as an example. “The fight is not just over the existence of climate change, it’s over whether God has created the Earth for us to exploit, whether government has the right to regulate industry, whether environmentalists should be empowered, and so on. It’s not just about the facts, it’s about what is imagined to flow from and into such facts,” says Proctor.•

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The photo at top is from 2005, which might as well be a million years ago. Commuters on the NYC subway were that recently digesting every kind of printed matter, with newspapers especially prominent. We will never witness that scene again, as we’ve transitioned into the age of smartphones, a medium that has disappeared the broadsheet and tabloid and paperback. These tools are wonderfully portable and can hold far more information, though some things have been lost in the changeover. That’s not to say America was wonderful in 2005 and isn’t now–both times were rather grim–but not much good can come of making words shrink, eliminating them, even.

To paraphrase Norma Desmond: News *is* big. It’s the *gadgets* that got small. Reading on smartphones isn’t easy, so skimming headlines about current events is about the best anyone can do now. It’s not just the size of the characters that’s daunting but also the speed with which they travel, as they ping, prompt and interrupt us nonstop. News is always breaking until it feels broken.

Nicholas Carr, one of our time’s preeminent critics (cultural, social and media), has penned a really wonderful Nieman Reports piece on the “nowness” of the news, the concept of fast and first run amok. As he writes, “for 500 years the medium of print has been training us to pay attention.” Not any longer. The opening:

“Thought will spread across the world with the rapidity of light, instantly conceived, instantly written, instantly understood. It will blanket the earth from one pole to the other—sudden, instantaneous, burning with the fervor of the soul from which it burst forth.”

Those opening words would seem to describe, with the zeal typical of the modern techno-utopian, the arrival of our new online media environment with its feeds, streams, texts and tweets. What is the Web if not sudden, instantaneous and burning with fervor? But French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine wrote these words in 1831 to describe the emergence of the daily newspaper. Journalism, he proclaimed, would soon become “the whole of human thought.” Books, incapable of competing with the immediacy of morning and evening papers, were doomed: “Thought will not have time to ripen, to accumulate into the form of a book—the book will arrive too late. The only book possible from today is a newspaper.”

Lamartine’s prediction of the imminent demise of books didn’t pan out. Newspapers did not take their place. But he was a prophet nonetheless. The story of media, particularly the news media, has for the last two centuries been a story of the pursuit of ever greater immediacy. From broadsheet to telegram, radio broadcast to TV bulletin, blog to Twitter, we’ve relentlessly ratcheted up the velocity of information flow.

To Shakespeare, ripeness was all. Today, ripeness doesn’t seem to count for much. Nowness is all.•

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Are we obsessed with dystopias because we fear we won’t go on or because we fear we will? I’m split on that.

The amount of content, high and low, pop and academic, concentrated on the death of us all (or most of us) by climate and AI and zombies is astounding. It plays on a deep-seated knowledge that things fall apart–and they do. Despite what some philosophers will tell you these days about species-extincting computers, the only real existential risk right now, apart from an accident with an asteroid, is global warming. 

In a Boston Review interview conducted by Avni Majithia-Sejpal, Junot Diaz, who’s editing a 2017 issue on the topic of global dystopias for that publication, discussed the “default narrative” of a generation. The opening:

Question: 

You are editing a special literary issue of Boston Review, to be published in 2017, on global dystopias. Can you tell us about your vision for this issue: why dystopia, and why now?

Junot Díaz: 

Certainly we are at peak dystopia. We are in a moment where there is, first of all, the creative problem that there is a lot of praxis around dystopia. It has become, along with apocalyptic narrative, the default narrative of the generation. Our political horizons have become distorted by dystopian imaginaries. Our sense of what is possible in the civic is being slowly dragged away from the standard post-World War Two techno-positivism towards a darker, more ruinous vision. It is not only a kind of vocabulary and idiom; it is a useful arena in which to begin to think about who we are becoming as a planet. The steady drum beat of reports from our best and brightest scientists has made it explicitly clear that whether we like or whether we want to admit it or not we have damaged our planet in ways that have transformed us into a dystopian topos. When I think of it in The Hunger Gameswhere, either the movie or the book, a group of people come together and design arenas where people—young people—kill themselves and compete: these are the game makers. We are making the genre in which we are living, and we are making it at such an extraordinary rate. 

There are also questions of politics, questions of subjectivity, questions of responsibility in the civic that dystopia brings out. We have a great tradition of dystopia in the West as a way for us to imagine our way through our present and to indicate towards the future. I have always enjoyed Tom Moyland’s idea of the critical dystopia: the purpose of the critical dystopia, how the critical dystopia is implicated with the utopia, and that a critical dystopia is not just something that is “the bad place.” It is something that maps, warns, and hopes. In that way—as an arena of intellectual engagement—the critical dystopia taken to a lower level could be something regenerative and something useful. And that’s what we would like to see from this special issue.•

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Pretty much said most of what I wanted to say about the election on Sunday, when I feared it had become a toss-up. I felt that way since the FBI’s shenanigans, though in retrospect the race was always probably much closer than it seemed. That’s likely not due to pollster incompetence but because many didn’t want to admit they were voting for Trump’s “Make America White Again” campaign.

This election was clearly not one about economics or small government, not with Trump’s budget-busting proposals. He wasn’t elected because of policy or even because most of his supporters truly believe he’ll build a wall. They just wanted to stamp their feet and blame others for awhile. It’s not that the factories are disappearing, but that America as the property of white males is.

That acting-out will cost dearly, in fact it will hurt many of the Trump voters worst of all. As with the insincere sellers of “Family Values” of the ’80s, ’90s and aughts played the masses in order to gain power, Trump used anxieties about a non-white world to achieve the same. The only difference is the Gingriches and Roves desired power for political reasons while Trump wanted it because of his deep psychological neediness. But the awful cast who surround him–Giuliani, Thiel, Bannon, etc.–definitely aim to use the authority to shape the country for decades. It will be a shape that fits the new populace poorly.

You can take some solace from Hillary likely winning the popular vote–at least a slim majority of us aren’t in support a deeply racist, sexist, xenophobic clown, a mix of Lampanelli and Mussolini–but it’s just a sliver of peace. For all the pundits now rushing to make lists of “Winners” and “Losers” and treat the country like’s it’s merely a game, a horse race, go fuck yourselves. The loser is America and everything it supposedly stands for.

David Remnick spoke to the horrible results immediately, beautifully and passionately. I’d much rather be focusing on his recent Leonard Cohen profile–one of my favorite writers writing about one of my favorite writers–but today’s not that day. In one section, the New Yorker EIC addresses something I’ve discussed in the days leading to the election, that our new technological tools have not made us better as was promised. He asserts that “on Facebook, articles in the traditional, fact-based press look the same as articles from the conspiratorial alt-right media. Spokesmen for the unspeakable now have access to huge audiences.” So true. An excerpt:

In the coming days, commentators will attempt to normalize this event. They will try to soothe their readers and viewers with thoughts about the “innate wisdom” and “essential decency” of the American people. They will downplay the virulence of the nationalism displayed, the cruel decision to elevate a man who rides in a gold-plated airliner but who has staked his claim with the populist rhetoric of blood and soil. George Orwell, the most fearless of commentators, was right to point out that public opinion is no more innately wise than humans are innately kind. People can behave foolishly, recklessly, self-destructively in the aggregate just as they can individually. Sometimes all they require is a leader of cunning, a demagogue who reads the waves of resentment and rides them to a popular victory. “The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion,” Orwell wrote in his essay “Freedom of the Park.” “The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”

Trump ran his campaign sensing the feeling of dispossession and anxiety among millions of voters—white voters, in the main. And many of those voters—not all, but many—followed Trump because they saw that this slick performer, once a relative cipher when it came to politics, a marginal self-promoting buffoon in the jokescape of eighties and nineties New York, was more than willing to assume their resentments, their fury, their sense of a new world that conspired against their interests. That he was a billionaire of low repute did not dissuade them any more than pro-Brexit voters in Britain were dissuaded by the cynicism of Boris Johnson and so many others. The Democratic electorate might have taken comfort in the fact that the nation had recovered substantially, if unevenly, from the Great Recession in many ways—unemployment is down to 4.9 per cent—but it led them, it led us, to grossly underestimate reality. The Democratic electorate also believed that, with the election of an African-American President and the rise of marriage equality and other such markers, the culture wars were coming to a close. Trump began his campaign declaring Mexican immigrants to be “rapists”; he closed it with an anti-Semitic ad evoking “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”; his own behavior made a mockery of the dignity of women and women’s bodies. And, when criticized for any of it, he batted it all away as “political correctness.” Surely such a cruel and retrograde figure could succeed among some voters, but how could he win? Surely, Breitbart News, a site of vile conspiracies, could not become for millions a source of news and mainstream opinion. And yet Trump, who may have set out on his campaign merely as a branding exercise, sooner or later recognized that he could embody and manipulate these dark forces. The fact that “traditional” Republicans, from George H. W. Bush to Mitt Romney, announced their distaste for Trump only seemed to deepen his emotional support.•

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When he was born in 1830, nobody could have imagined Henry Hale Bliss would be killed 69 years later by a horseless, electric automobile, or that such a thing could even exist. In modern context, it would be similar to someone birthed in 1980 dying in 2050 because their driverless vehicle was hacked by a terrorist with a smartphone. Things change, sometimes with surprising swiftness.

The death of the New Yorker remains notable because he was the first recorded fatality of an American car accident, his head and chest crushed by a Manhattan taxicab as he exited a streetcar. Bliss’ demise was covered in an article in the September 14, 1899 New York Times. The story:

H. H. Bliss, a real estate dealer, with offices at 41 Wall Street, and living at 235 West Seventy-fifth Street, was run over last night at Central Park West and Seventy-fourth Street. He was injured fatally.

Bliss, accompanied by a woman named Lee, was alighting from a south-bound Eighth Avenue trolley car, when he was knocked down and run over by an automobile in charge of Arthur Smith of 151 West Sixty-second Street. He had left the car, and had turned to assist Miss Lee, when the automobile struck him. Bliss was knocked to the pavement, and two wheels of the cab passed over his head and body. His skull and chest were crushed. 

Dr. David Orr Edson, son of ex-Mayor Edson, of 38th West Seventy-first Street, was the occupant of the electric cab. As soon as the vehicle was brought to a standstill he sent in a call to Roosevelt Hospital for an ambulance, and until its arrival did all he could to aid the injured man. When he was taken to the hospital Dr. Murray, the house surgeon, said that Bliss was so seriously injured that he could not live.

Smith was arrested and locked up in the West Sixty-eighth Street Station. It is claimed that a large truck occupied the right side of the avenue, making it necessary for Smith to run his vehicle close to the car. Dr. Edson was returning from a sick call in Harlem when the accident happened.

Mr. Bliss boarded at 235 West Seventy-fifth Street. The place where the accident happened is known to the motormen on the trolley line as “Dangerous Stretch,” on account of the many accidents which have occurred there during the past Summer.•

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Transhumanist Presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan wants to do things with public lands and prisoners’ brains that I staunchly disagree with, but I ‘ve followed his colorful campaign of outré ideas with great interest. Perhaps I’d have a different feeling in the pit of my stomach if he were a serious contender, but his platform is interesting at a safe distance. At any rate, he’s the only candidate desiring elective surgery to amputate his limbs and replace them with robotic ones. Flat-tax proposals pale by comparison.

In an excellent New Yorker piece, Andrew Marantz profiles a candidate that I (and, probably, you) did not vote for today, revealing details about Istvan’s failed audition to be Gary Johnson’s running mate and his future political plans. The opening:

After watching the least popular Presidential candidates in modern history fight for the country’s highest office, one can’t help wondering whether the problem isn’t the political system but the species itself. Can’t we think bigger? Zoltan Istvan was in town recently, campaigning as the Presidential nominee of the Transhumanist Party. He was on track to appear on the ballot in zero states. “Politicians keep having the same old arguments about tax policy and Social Security,” he said. “Transhumanists want to talk about how science can help us radically transform the human experience, how we can cure death and disease and upload our consciousness into the cloud, things like that.” He was on a street corner in SoHo. It was raining, but he had decided to forgo an umbrella; the spokes can put an eye out, and bionic-eye implants won’t be perfected for at least five years.

He ducked into the Housing Works Bookstore Café, on Crosby Street, and ordered a coffee. Istvan is blond, Ken-doll handsome, and barrel-chested, and the paper cup looked tiny in his hand. “With some of the new robotic-arm prototypes, you get all kinds of cool functionality,” he said. “I could be warming up this cup right now, just with my fingers. Or you could add weapons, flashlights—like a Swiss Army knife. I can’t wait to cut off my arm and get a prosthetic. My wife said she’d only be O.K. with it if it looks and feels like a human arm, which is understandable, I guess.” His wife, Lisa, is an ob-gyn. When they met, on Match.com, Istvan was an entrepreneur with a small real-estate fortune, living in Marin County. After they married, he began driving across the country in a bus shaped like a coffin, protesting death, while Lisa mostly stayed in California with their two daughters. Her attitude toward transhumanism seems to be one of forbearance at best.

Istvan dragged a chair toward a wall of science-fiction novels. “I wrote a sci-fi book once,” he said. It was an Ayn Rand-esque manifesto called The Transhumanist Wager. He added, “I don’t talk about it much these days, because there’s so much authoritarianism in it.”

A man with a wild beard and half a dozen shopping bags got up, and Istvan moved to claim his table. “You a public speaker or something?” the man asked.

“Yeah, sort of,” Istvan said. “I’m running for President.”

“Cool,” the man said. “I’m a filmmaker.”•

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Discussion of the ideas in David Gelernter’s new book, The Tides of Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness, which just landed in my mailbox, forms the crux of the latest episode of EconTalk with Russ Roberts. The computer scientist talks about the variety of cognizance that forms our days, an idea he believes lost in the unstudied acceptance of binary labels “conscious” or “unconscious.” He thinks, for instance, that we operate at various levels of up- or down-spectrum consciousness, which permits us to function in different ways. 

Clearly the hard problem is still just that, and the creativity that emerges from consciousness, often the development of new symbols or the successful comparison and combination of seemingly disparate thoughts, isn’t yet understood. Someday we’ll comprehend the chemical reactions that enable these mysterious and magnificent syntheses, but for now we can enjoy though not understand them. In one passage, the author wonderfully articulates the creative process, the parts that are knowable and those that remain inscrutable. The excerpt:

David Gelernter:

You also mention, which is important, the fact that you have a focused sense when you are working on lyrics or writing poetry, let’s say. And I’ve argued, on the other hand, that you need to be well down-spectrum in order to get creativity started. That is, you can’t be at your creative peak when you’ve just got up in the morning: your attention is focused and you are tapping your pencil; you want to get to work and start, you know, getting through the day’s business at a good clip. It’s not the mood in which one can make a lot of progress writing poetry. But that’s exactly why–that’s one of the important reasons why creativity is no picnic. It’s not easily achieved. I think it’s fair to say that everybody is creative in a certain way. In the sort of daily round of things we come up with new solutions to old problems routinely. But the kind of creativity that yields poetry that other people value, that yields original work in any area, is highly valued, is more highly valued than any other human project, because it’s rare. And it’s rare not because it requires a gigantic IQ (Intelligence Quotient), but because it requires a certain kind of balance, which is not something everybody can achieve. On the one hand–it’s not my observation; it’s a general observation–that creativity often hinges on inventing new analogies. When I think of a new resemblance and an analogy between a tree and a tent pole, which is a new analogy let’s say that nobody else has ever thought of before, I take the new analogy and can perhaps use it in a creative way. One of a million other, a billion, a trillion other possible analogies. Now, what makes me come up with a new analogy? What allows me to do that? Generally, it’s a lower-spectrum kind of thinking, a down-spectrum kind of thinking, in which I’m allowing my emotions to emerge. And, I’m allowing emotional similarity between two memories that are in other respects completely different. I’m maybe thinking as a graduate student in computing about an abstract problem involving communication in a network like the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) or the Internet, in which bits get stuck. And I may suddenly find myself thinking about traffic on a late Friday afternoon in Grand Central Station in Manhattan. And the question is–and that leads to a new approach. And I write it up; and I prove a theorem, and I publish a paper. And there’s like a million other things in the sciences and in engineering technology. But the question is: Where does the analogy come from? And it turns out in many cases–not in every case–that there are emotional similarities. Emotion is a tremendously powerful summarizer, abstractor. We can look at a complex scene involving loads of people rushing back and forth because it’s Grand Central Station, and noisy announcements on [?] to understand, loudspeakers, and you’re being hot and tired, and lots of advertisements, and colorful clothing, and a million other things; and smells, and sounds, and–we can take all that or any kind of complex scene or situation, the scene out your window, the scene on the TV (television) when you turn on the news, or a million other things. And take all those complexities and boil them down to a single emotion: it makes me feel some way. Maybe it makes me happy. Maybe it makes me happy. It’s not very usual to have an emotion as simple as that. But it might be. I see my kids romping in the backyard, and I just feel happy. Usually the emotion to which a complex scene has boiled down is more complex than that–is more nuanced. Doesn’t have a name. It’s not just that I’m happy or sad or excited. It’s a more nuanced; it’s a more–it’s a subtler emotion which is cooked up out of many bits and pieces of various emotions. But the distinctive emotion, the distinctive feeling that makes me feel a certain way, the feeling that I get when I look at some scene can be used as a memory cue when I am in the right frame of mind. And that particular feeling–let’s say, Happiness 147–a particular subtle kind of happiness which is faintly shaded by doubts about the coming week and by serious questions I have about what I’m supposed to do tomorrow morning but which is encouraged by the fact that my son is coming home tonight and I’m looking forward to seeing him–so that’s Happiness 147. And it may be that when I look out at some scene and feel Happiness 147, that some other radically different scene that also made me feel that way comes to mind–looking out at that complex thing and I think of some abstract problem in network communications, or I think of a mathematics problem, or I think of what color chair we should get for the living room, or one of a million other things. Any number of things can be boiled down in principle, can be reduced, can be summarized or abstracted by this same emotion. My emotions are so powerful because the phrase, ‘That makes me feel like x,’ can apply to so many situations. So many different things give us a particular feeling. And that feeling can drive in a new analogy. And a new analogy can drive creativity. But the question is: Where does the new analogy come from? And it seems to come often from these emotional overlaps, from a special kind of remembering. And I can only do that kind of remembering when I am paying attention to my emotions. We tend to do our best to suppress emotions when we’re up-spectrum. We’re up-spectrum: We have jobs to do, we have work to do, we have tasks to complete; our minds are moving briskly along; we’re energetic. We generally don’t like indulging in emotions when we are energetic and perky and happy and we want to get stuff done. Emotions tend to bring thought to a halt, or at any rate to slow us down. It tends to be the case as we move lower on the spectrum, we pay more attention to emotions. Emotions get a firmer grip on us. And when we are all the way at the bottom of the spectrum–when we are asleep and dreaming–it’s interesting that although we–often we think of dreaming as emotionally neutral except in the rare case of a nightmare or a euphoria dream, and neither of those happen very often–we think of dreams as being sort of gray and neutral. But if you read the biological[?] literature and the sleep-lab literature, you’ll find that most dreams are strongly colored emotionally. And that’s what we would expect. They occur at the bottom of the spectrum. Life becomes more emotional, just as when you are tired you are more likely to lose your temper; you are more likely to lose your self-control–to be cranky, to yell at your kids, or something like that. We are less self-controlled, we are less self-disciplined; we give freer rein to our emotions as we move down spectrum. And that has a good side. It’s not good to yell at your kids. But as you allow your emotions to emerge, you are more likely to remember things that yield new analogies. You are more likely to be reminded in a fresh way of things that you hadn’t thought of together before.•

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“Things are going to change dramatically in the near future,” promises computer scientist Jürgen Schmidhuber, who says we’re just a few years from AI as smart as capuchin monkeys and several decades from autonomous robot factories in space. Neither one is theoretically impossible at some point, but, boy, technologists and futurists are awfully aggressive when it comes to time frames. 

Schmidhuber made these and other prognostications at a Wired conference, stressing that while machines will eventually make humans redundant in the universe, we’ll get lots of cool tech stuff before our extinction. Oh, good.

An excerpt:

Jürgen Schmidhuber is painting an image of the future of our Universe. And it’s plain to see, we are neither a real part of it, nor is it our Universe at all.

“In 2050 there will be trillions of self-replicating robot factories on the asteroid belt,” he tells the audience at WIRED2016. “A few million years later, AI will colonise the galaxy. Humans are not going to play a big role there, but that’s ok. We should be proud of being part of a grand process that transcends humankind more than the industrial revolution. It is comparable to the invention of life itself, and I am privileged to live this moment and witness the beginnings of this.”

The pioneer in deep learning neural networks should know. His work – including 333 peer-reviewed papers – has formed the foundations of many of the AI systems we see embedded in smartphones today, including Google’s voice recognition and Google Translate – “each of you has a little piece of us in your pocket,” he said.•

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Perhaps what’s most stunning about Peter Thiel’s lack of self-awareness is that he’s yet to surmise that he’s an “elite living in a coastal bubble,” a charge he levels at those perturbed by his support for Donald Trump, the Worst American™. An immigrant from a country with a horrible, Holocaust-fueled past who’s able to look around the authoritarian, racist threats of an evidently unstable person clearly doesn’t see the burning forest for the trees, but this billionaire ideologue truly believes he understands the hearts and souls of Main Street. Well, he may understand the absolute worst of that block, but that’s more an accident of similarly damaged psyches.

There’s a thought by those who know him in Silicon Valley and can’t fathom his support for a hatemonger that Thiel possesses some hidden master plan that would explain his exhortation of a bigoted monster. I would guess this is a huge rationalization by a group of people unable to accept that one of their own is an unrepentant prick. Even if their theory is true, only the most hubristic troll can be so lost in his ludicrous theories that he can sit in his well-appointed living room and dream about tearing down America and rebuilding it in his own vision. The technologists who continue to stand by Thiel have a blind spot for him as capacious as the one he has for Trump.

What is Thiel’s grand design for recreating America? I don’t give a fuck, but Nick Bilton has a smart Vanity Fair “Hive” piece that tries to discern just that and reveals much about the investor’s psychology in the process. An excerpt:

The predominant theory in Silicon Valley about Thiel’s Trumpism—or at least the version you hear uttered the most in public—suggests it’s largely a personality tick. Thiel is “a contrarian,” as Jeff Bezos noted at last month’s Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit. Others have said that he just wants the attention. “What Peter has done, is not comprehensible to me,” Michael Lazerow, an investor, said to me. “I’ve yet to be able to figure out what Peter is supporting. It’s very clear about what he’s ignoring.” Lazerow went on to say that Trump’s policies are as erratic as his temperament, but his hatred is not. Thiel appears to be supporting the latter. And then there’s the theory of ego.

Thiel evidently approves of the attention he’s getting. (In the Times story, after all, he appeared quite aware of the “intensity” of the criticism he had provoked.) But there’s also another thesis floating around the Valley. “My belief is that Peter does not personally believe in Trump, but that he wants to create what I call the ‘burn it down party’,” investor Jason Calacanis told me. “Peter would like to see Trump win because it is the quickest way to break the two-party system and create Peter’s vision for America, which he is slowly unpacking.”

That theory, no matter how dystopian, may have some credence. Thiel, wittingly or not, has been articulating a very particular vision of late. During a speech at the National Press Club, Thiel hit on some familiar territory. He noted that the tech industry is deeply out of touch with the impact that their financially successful products have on the rest of the country. (This is one area where I actually agree with Thiel: in the Valley, a majority of pointless app founders are often too able to convince themselves that they have somehow “made the world a better place.”) In general, as Adam Davidson recently explained in The New Yorker, Thiel articulated a vision of national despair and ruin centered around inequality, student debt, and the trade deficit. “The protagonists in his national drama are Trump voters,” Davidson writes. “The villains are élites in their coastal bubbles of Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., who do not intend to tolerate the views of half this country.”

When Thiel is intellectually convinced of something—an idea, an injustice, a preference—he often seems unbothered by many of the smaller details or sensitivities or possible ramifications.•

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The amazing, Zeitgeist-capturing photograph above, taken by Brett Gundlock of Bloomberg, shows drivers in Mexico City gridlock being peppered with advertisements floated by Uber drones. While you might think it dangerous that even slow-moving vehicles are besieged by hovering appeals sent from the heavens or thereabouts, Travis Kalanick, the leading ridesharer’s CEO, wants to remove that worry, eliminating the burden of drivers so they can instead plug their ears and eyes into other machines. Why stop and smell the roses when you can count the drones?

Autonomous vehicles are likely upon us, whether that means they arrive at high speed or merge more gradually with the Digital Age. While making the roads and highways safer was the early selling point for these cars, their establishment will have a profound effect on surveillance, employment, urban design, ethics, capitalism and even human nature itself. Of course, there will be unintended consequences we can’t yet even appreciate.

It’s also worthwhile to mention that the intervening period between fully human driving and fully automated control will not be without incidence, in much the way that horse-drawn carts and internal combustion engines made for uneasy partners on the road during that earlier transition. One thing I’m sure of is driverless cars will not create a “utopian society,” a promise often assigned to new technological tools at their outset before we remember that the function they provide was never the main problem with us to start with.

In a New York Review of Books piece on Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman’s Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road AheadSue Halpern looks at the industry’s dream scenario of fleets of autonomous taxis and the significant roadblocks to its realization. Even if the challenges are met, cheaper rides might not reduce wealth inequality but exacerbate the problem.

An excerpt:

The major car makers, rushing to make alliances with tech companies, understand their days of dominance are numbered. “We are rapidly becoming both an auto company and a mobility company,” Bill Ford, the chairman of Ford Motor Company, told an audience in Kansas City in February. He knows that if the fleet model prevails, Ford and other car manufacturers will be selling many fewer cars. More crucially, the winners in this new system will be the ones with the best software, and the best software will come from the most robust data, and the companies with the most robust data are the tech companies that have been hoovering it up for years: Google most of all.

“The mobility revolution is going to affect all of us personally and many of us professionally,” Ford said that day in Kansas City. He might have been thinking about car salespeople, whose jobs are likely to become obsolete, but before that it will be the taxi drivers and truckers who will be displaced by vehicles that drive themselves. Historically these have been the jobs that have provided incomes to recently arrived immigrants and to people without college degrees. Without them yet another trajectory into the middle class will be eliminated.

What of Uber drivers themselves? These are the poster people for the gig-economy, “entrepreneurs”—which is to say freelancers—who use their own cars to ferry people around. “Obviously the self-driving car thing is freaking people out a little bit,” an Uber driver in Pittsburgh named Ryan told a website called TechRepublic. And, he went on, he learned about Uber’s plans from the media, not from the company. “If it’s a negative thing, they let you find out for yourself.” As media critic Douglas Rushkoff has written, “Uber’s drivers are the R&D for Uber’s driverless future. They are spending their labor and capital investments (cars) on their own future unemployment.”

All economies have winners and losers. It does not take a sophisticated algorithm to figure out that the winners in the decades ahead are going to be those who own the robots, for they will have vanquished labor with their capital. In the case of autonomous vehicles, a few companies are now poised to control a necessary public good, the transportation of people to and from work, school, shopping, recreation, and other vital activities. This salient fact is often lost in the almost unanimously positive reception of the coming “mobility revolution,” as Bill Ford calls it.

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Tubes would eventually bring mail to every home, but they weren’t of the pneumatic variety. In a predictive piece he wrote for the December 30, 1900 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, U.S. Postmaster General Charles Emory Smith offered that the type of inter-borough pneumatic tubing system utilized in early-1900s New York City might someday be linked to every individual residence. He was right in the big picture, even if he got the details wrong.

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In most of the world, radical politics is a result of bad times. In America, that’s not so.

In 2000, when we had an abundance of peace and prosperity, the country decided to change course, electing George W. Bush, an affable man clearly overmatched by the job. He was surrounded by hacks and butchers who gave us a needless war in Iraq which destabilized the region, as well as waterboarding, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and the Patriot Act.

No lessons were learned. After a surprisingly quick recovery from a calamitous economic collapse in 2008, America is on the rise again, though that’s not often mentioned. Not only have jobs been added at a steady pace, but household income for the middle-class and impoverished rose in 2015 at a rate that hasn’t been seen in five decades. Nearly 92% of citizens have health insurance today. We’ve taken a global leadership position in the fight against climate change, and with the proper investment and immigration policies, we stand to be one of the big winners in alternative energies, space exploration, medical science and AI. All of this has transpired while civil rights among minority groups has rushed forward without violent conflict.

Donald Trump, it has been said, is a backlash against not only these gains by minorities but also the collapse of the Industrial Age, but the numbers don’t support that latter contention. His supporters aren’t mostly those squeezed from factories–many are doing quite well–but those who wish to return to a time of superior standing by white males. The GOP nominee has no talent for governance and would be a disastrous leader for the nation. He’s guilty of almost every evil he’s accused others of because, as often is the case, the last one who should talk is the one who talks. Trump’s a singularly sociopathic bully who’s been buoyed by the ugliest identity politics imaginable, not economic concerns.

There are other reasons for this brutal campaign season. Our new tools haven’t fostered a better society, as was promised, but instead destabilized what we had, which was pretty great. These technologies allowed us to disappear into echo chambers and confirm our worst impulses. The blurring of news and entertainment has also laid us low, and that extends far beyond alt-right websites and Sean Hannity. CNN, Jeff Zucker’s clown car of infotainment, enabled Trump’s awful ascent, using it as cheap content during those vital early months. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times also initially treated Trump as a laugh riot, portraying him as a slightly irreverent uncle rather than someone who’d belittled Mexicans as rapists and African-Americans as inherently lazy. 

It wasn’t just media people who helped Trump, because it takes a village to undermine an essentially stable democracy. Political and business figures from James Baker to Peter Thiel to Rudy Giuliani have tried their damnedest to slide the nuclear codes and Constitution into the pocket of this miserable, moronic Morton Downey Jr. character. His rise is their fall. This doesn’t even get into Russian hacking, Wikileaks and the eleventh-hour shenanigans of the FBI, stories which will unfold for years.

But mostly you have to put the political surge of the hideous hotelier on the people. Regardless of how the election swings on Tuesday, who would have guessed there were so many among us who wanted to make the nation white again, just waiting for a monster, a Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini, to activate them? America is a great idea, but it’s no better than its citizens at any given moment, and the Constitution can be torn into pieces even by a despot with particularly short fingers.

In his last act before Election Day, Trump released a final missive from the troubled, paranoid mind of Steve Bannon, a TV ad that seems, unsurprisingly, bigoted. From Ed Pilkington in the Guardian:

The Democratic senator for Minnesota, Al Franken, has accused Donald Trump of launching an antisemitic TV advertisement along the lines of the fake Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Franken, who is Jewish, said he immediately was struck by what he called “a German shepherd whistle, a dog whistle” in a new two-minute advert from the Trump campaign, launched as the countdown to Tuesday’s election intensifies.

The film features lurid shots of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve interspersed with images of three prominent Jewish people: Janet Yellen, who chairs the Fed, the progressive financier George Soros and the Goldman Sachs chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein.

“The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election,” Trump is heard saying in the advert. “For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind.”

Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union, Franken told host Jake Tapper the advert was acting as a “dog whistle to a certain group in the United States”. He called the political commercial “an appeal to some of the worse elements in our society in the closing argument” of the election.•

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