What should we do if the President is a demagogue, a fascist, and a vicious bigot who surrounds himself with more of the same? What if he tramples on the Constitution, slanders other public figures and makes up bullshit incessantly? What about if it’s becoming increasingly clear that his campaign colluded with the Kremlin to corrupt our election process? What if he’s using his office to greatly enrich himself and his family? What if he’s trying to delegitimize the free press and the judiciary branch so that he won’t have any checks on his worst impulses? What if he’s already committed several impeachable acts and nothing has happened?

What then?

In a Medium essay, Bernie Sanders asks “What Should We Do If the President Is a Liar?” The piece was written in response to ridiculous charges made by Amber Phillips of the Washington Post, who derided the Vermont Senator for “lowering the state of our political discourse” by pointing out that the President frequently lies, which he does.

This kind of knuckle-rapping is exactly what a Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini depends on–it’s what all fascists rely upon. They behave as disgracefully as possible, accepting no basic rules or laws, while decent people are pinioned by polite norms, too afraid to say what’s blindingly apparent. Her comparison of Sanders’ rebuke to Rep. Joe Wilson yelling “you lie!” during an Obama State of the Union address is foolishly disingenuous and false moral equivalency of the highest order for many reasons, the biggest one being Obama wasn’t a serial liar and conspiracy-theory peddler while Trump is. Phillips’ description of Trump’s assertion of widespread voter fraud, which is a complete lie, as an “eyebrow-raising claim,” is one way to put it, just not the honest way.

· · ·

You know what would be good? If the Twitter brain trust announced they were revoking Trump’s account because he slandered President Obama with serious, baseless claims of wiretapping. They could point out that no one has an absolute right to tweet, that it’s a privilege. It’s a very, very easy privilege to earn, but there have to be some rules. If Trump can produce proof his tweets weren’t slanders, he can have his account reactivated. Until then, farewell.

· · ·

In “How Trump Became an Accidental Totalitarian,” Nick Bilton’s smart Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, the writer theorizes the new President’s outrageous and unhinged behavior isn’t the product of a Machiavellian mastermind but the acts of an unintelligent person who “doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing in the White House.” The opening:

Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking a lot of late about Donald Trump and his infamous Twitter meltdowns—trying to deduce exactly what he’s up to regarding his constant, and seemingly never-ending, attacks on the press. The more that Trump has pushed the narrative that all unfavorable reportage of his regime is “fake news,” the more I’ve noticed a leitmotif. Trump, it seems, is using Twitter the way despotic politicians have manipulated the media throughout the past century when they needed a comfortable vessel for their lies.

Just travel back to Weimar Germany, where during his ascent to power in 1920, Adolf Hitler purchased outright a newspaper called The Volkischer Beobachter, which would grow its circulation to more than 1 million readers in the 40s as it became the organ of the National Socialist regime. The Beobachter, as it was often called, facilitated the Nazis’ revolting propaganda and culture of genocidal hatred. It allowed Hitler and Goebbels the opportunity to publish countless fake news stories about adversarial countries, about Jews, and, indeed, the press.

In some ways, Hitler set an early precedent for how to propagate fake news (or call real news “fake”) at the dawn of the information age. Kim Jong Il would control state media to his advantage much the same way. Saddam Hussein and his sons “owned” a dozen newspapers in Iraq, controlling virtually everything that was printed, and what was not. Vladimir Putinmanipulates the press in Russia. (He also allegedly has journalists killed.)

Freedom of the press is a sacrosanct right of Western democracies. But Trump, who has upended so much of what we believe in, has proved that the First Amendment is no longer enough to keep honest reporting unmolested. Indeed, were Hitler or Saddam to operate in our modern times, God forbid, they wouldn’t need to go through the hassle of running a state organ or Beobachter news outlet. They could simply open up their smartphones, sign up for a Twitter account, and start tweeting lies 140 characters at a time, both pushing their own agenda and decrying as false anything that they disagreed with.•

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I’ve read the full canon of the deeply humane short story writer and journalist George Saunders to this point, and I’m three books (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, My Struggle: Book Five and Difficult Women) from digging into his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

Even at his most outlandish, Saunders never seems to be writing about the future but instead providing social critiques about contemporary life. What is the quiet nightmare The Semplica Girls Diaries about if not the growing divide between the haves and have-nots as we shift from the Industrial Age to the Digital one, the way technocracy removes the friction from our lives and disappears the “downsized” from our minds?

In that same vein, the New York Times T Magazine published, in 2014, new notations the writer made about his 1996 collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. An excerpt: 

Closing thought: I like the audacity of this book. I like less the places where it feels like I went into Auto-Quirky Mode. Ah youth! Some issues: Life amid limitations; paucity. Various tonalities of defense. Pain; humiliation inflicted on hapless workers – some of us turn on one another. Early on, this read, could really feel this young writer’s aversion to anything mild or typical or bland. Feeling, at first, like a tic. But then it started to grow on me — around “400 Pound CEO.” This performative thing then starts to feel essential; organic somehow – a way to get to the moral outrage. I kept thinking of the word “immoderation.” Like the yelp of someone who’s just been burned.

Sadly those sick feelings have fully metastasized in the intervening 20 years, and now CivilWarLand isn’t the only thing in bad decline. 

In a Guardian essay, Saunders does a brilliant job explaining the process of creative writers, though I think he actually explains creativity more broadly. It’s largely about noticing small details and extemporaneously making connections between them.

An excerpt:

A guy (Stan) constructs a model railroad town in his basement. Stan acquires a small hobo, places him under a plastic railroad bridge, near that fake campfire, then notices he’s arranged his hobo into a certain posture – the hobo seems to be gazing back at the town. Why is he looking over there? At that little blue Victorian house? Stan notes a plastic woman in the window, then turns her a little, so she’s gazing out. Over at the railroad bridge, actually. Huh. Suddenly, Stan has made a love story. Oh, why can’t they be together? If only “Little Jack” would just go home. To his wife. To Linda.

What did Stan (the artist) just do? Well, first, surveying his little domain, he noticed which way his hobo was looking. Then he chose to change that little universe, by turning the plastic woman. Now, Stan didn’t exactly decide to turn her. It might be more accurate to say that it occurred to him to do so; in a split-second, with no accompanying language, except maybe a very quiet internal “Yes.”

He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them.

An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Gerald Stern put it this way: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking – then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”•

Developing visual recognition in machines is helpful in performing visual tasks, of course, but this ability has the potential to unfold Artificial Intelligence in much broader and significant ways, providing AI with a context from which to more accurately “comprehend” the world. (I’m not even sure if the quotation marks in the previous sentence are necessary.)

In an interview conducted by Tom Simonite of Technology Review, Director of AI Research at Facebook’s AI research director Yann LeCun explains that exposing machines to video will hopefully enable them to learn through observation as small children do. “That’s what would allow them to acquire common sense, in the end,” he says.

An excerpt:

Question:

Babies learn a lot about the world without explicit instruction, though.

Yann LeCun:

One of the things we really want to do is get machines to acquire the very large number of facts that represent the constraints of the real world just by observing it through video or other channels. That’s what would allow them to acquire common sense, in the end. These are things that animals and babies learn in the first few months of life—you learn a ridiculously large amount about the world just by observation. There are a lot of ways that machines are currently fooled easily because they have very narrow knowledge of the world.

Question:

What progress is being made on getting software to learn by observation?

Yann LeCun:

We are very interested in the idea that a learning system should be able to predict the future. You show it a few frames of video and it tries to predict what’s going to happen next. If we can train a system to do this we think we’ll have developed techniques at the root of an unsupervised learning system. That is where, in my opinion, a lot of interesting things are likely to happen. The applications for this are not necessarily in vision—it’s a big part of our effort in making progress in AI.•

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When it comes to technology, promises often sound like threats. 

In a very smart Edge piece, Chris Anderson, the former Wired EIC who’s now CEO of 3DRobotics, holds forth on closed-loop systems, which allow for processes to be monitored, measured and corrected–even self-corrected. As every object becomes “smart,” they can collect information about themselves, their users and their surroundings. In many ways, these feedback loops will be a boon, allowing (potentially) for smoother maintenance, a better use of resources and a cleaner environment. But the new arrangement won’t all be good.

The question Anderson posed which I used as the headline makes it sound like we’ll be able to control where such technology snakes, but I don’t think that’s true. It won’t get out of hand in a sci-fi thriller sense but in very quiet, almost imperceptible ways. There will hardly be a hum. 

At any rate, Anderson’s story of how he built a drone company from scratch, first with the help of his children and then a 19-year-old kid with no college background from Tijuana, is amazing and a great lesson in globalized economics.

From Edge:

If we could measure the world, how would we manage it differently? This is a question we’ve been asking ourselves in the digital realm since the birth of the Internet. Our digital lives—clicks, histories, and cookies—can now be measured beautifully. The feedback loop is complete; it’s called closing the loop. As you know, we can only manage what we can measure. We’re now measuring on-screen activity beautifully, but most of the world is not on screens.                                 

As we get better and better at measuring the world—wearables, Internet of Things, cars, satellites, drones, sensors—we are going to be able to close the loop in industry, agriculture, and the environment. We’re going to start to find out what the consequences of our actions are and, presumably, we’ll take smarter actions as a result. This journey with the Internet that we started more than twenty years ago is now extending to the physical world. Every industry is going to have to ask the same questions: What do we want to measure? What do we do with that data? How can we manage things differently once we have that data? This notion of closing the loop everywhere is perhaps the biggest endeavor of our age.                                 

Closing the loop is a phrase used in robotics. Open-loop systems are when you take an action and you can’t measure the results—there’s no feedback. Closed-loop systems are when you take an action, you measure the results, and you change your action accordingly. Systems with closed loops have feedback loops; they self-adjust and quickly stabilize in optimal conditions. Systems with open loops overshoot; they miss it entirely. …

I use the phrase closing the loop because that’s the phrase we use in robotics. Other people might use the phrase big data. Before they called it big data, they called it data mining. Remember that? That was nuts. Anyway, we’re going to come up with a new word for it.                                 

It goes both ways: The tendrils of the Internet reach out through sensors, and then these sensors feed back to the Internet. The sensors get smarter because they’re connected to the Internet, and the Internet gets smarter because it’s connected to the sensors. This feedback loop extends beyond the industry that’s feeding back to the meta-industry, which is the Internet and the planet.•

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In the latest round of what may be gamesmanship between the American Intelligence Community and Russia, Wikileaks released information about purported CIA spying techniques, which included, among other tricks of the trade, a way to remotely hack smart televisions so that the watchers would become the watched. Such methods should surprise no one.

What does startle me is how receptive Americans are to being watched, as if in this decentralized media age, we’ve accepted, finally and completely, that all the world actually is a stage. It goes far beyond the way we revel in the modern freak show of Reality TV or allow social networks access to our private lives in return for a cheap platform on which to peddle our personalities. As sensors and microchips proliferate, we’re gradually turning every object into a computer from which we can be monitored and quantified. Big Brother will eventually have several siblings in every room. The shock is that we’re so willing to be members of this non-traditional family.

Chance the Gardner was all of us when he said, “I like to watch.” Apparently, we also like to be watched.

The opening of Sapna Maheshwari’s smart New York Times piece on the topic:

While Ellen Milz and her family were watching the Olympics last summer, their TV was watching them.

Ms. Milz, 48, who lives with her husband and three children in Chicago, had agreed to be a panelist for a company called TVision Insights, which monitored her viewing habits — and whether her eyes flicked down to her phone during the commercials, whether she was smiling or frowning — through a device on top of her TV.

“The marketing company said, ‘We’re going to ask you to put this device in your home, connect it to your TV and they’re going to watch you for the Olympics to see how you like it, what sports, your expression, who’s around,’” she said. “And I said, ‘Whatever, I have nothing to hide.’”

Ms. Milz acknowledged that she had initially found the idea odd, but that those qualms had quickly faded.

“It’s out of sight, out of mind,” she said, comparing it to the Nest security cameras in her home. She said she had initially received $60 for participating and an additional $230 after four to six months.

TVision — which has worked with the Weather Channel, NBC and the Disney ABC Television Group — is one of several companies that have entered living rooms in recent years, emerging with new, granular ways for marketers to understand how people are watching television and, in particular, commercials. The appeal of this information has soared as Americans rapidly change their viewing habits, streaming an increasing number of shows weeks or months after they first air, on devices as varied as smartphones, laptops and Roku boxes, not to mention TVs.

Through the installation of a Microsoft Kinect device, normally used for Xbox video games, on top of participants’ TVs, TVision tracks the movement of people’s eyes in relation to the television. The device’s sensors can record minute shifts for all the people in the room.•

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Masha Gessen has made it clear she doesn’t believe Russia is responsible for America electing an autocratic sociopath, and in the big picture she’s right.

I don’t doubt Kremlin interference one bit, nor that it was likely committed in concert with high-ranking members of the Trump campaign if not the President himself, but there’s no real excuse for nearly 63 million citizens voting for a candidate who was clearly a habitual liar, vicious demagogue and utter incompetent. That’s on us.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t aggressively strive for the truth in this gravely serious matter, and that arrests shouldn’t be made and impeachment be pursued if illegal activities can be proven. Certainly Congress would be investigating the matter at full throttle if a Democratic President had behaved in a similar manner, but partisan hackery has become a hallmark of the legislative branch.

In a Gessen piece just published at the New York Review of Books, the reporter wonders why the Russian espionage is a more important lie to many in the media and the Intelligence Community than the avalanche of dishonesty Trump and his cabinet regularly send down the mountain. On this point, I’ll disagree with her.

She’s right that it would be foolish to focus on the Putin connection to the exclusion of the many other assaults on liberal governance we’re enduring nearly daily, but an American President conspiring with an adversarial foreign power to gain office–whether the machinations actually helped him win votes or not–would be a singular shock to the system. Destroying health care and lowering taxes on the highest earners would be awful policy, but it wouldn’t be treason. The suspicious activity proceeding the election may very well be.

From Gessen:

The dream fueling the Russia frenzy is that it will eventually create a dark enough cloud of suspicion around Trump that Congress will find the will and the grounds to impeach him. If that happens, it will have resulted largely from a media campaign orchestrated by members of the intelligence community—setting a dangerous political precedent that will have corrupted the public sphere and promoted paranoia. And that is the best-case outcome.

More likely, the Russia allegations will not bring down Trump. He may sacrifice more of his people, as he sacrificed Flynn, as further leaks discredit them. Various investigations may drag on for months, drowning out other, far more urgent issues. In the end, Congressional Republicans will likely conclude that their constituents don’t care enough about Trump’s Russian ties to warrant trying to impeach the Republican president. Meanwhile, while Russia continues to dominate the front pages, Trump will continue waging war on immigrants, cutting funding for everything that’s not the military, assembling his cabinet of deplorables—with six Democrats voting to confirm Ben Carson for Housing, for example, and ten to confirm Rick Perry for Energy. According to the Trump plan, each of these seems intent on destroying the agency he or she is chosen to run—to carry out what Steve Bannon calls the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” As for Sessions, in his first speech as attorney general he promised to cut back civil rights enforcement and he has already abandoned a Justice Department case against a discriminatory Texas voter ID law. But it was his Russia lie that grabbed the big headlines.

The unrelenting focus on Russia has yielded an unexpected positive result, however. Following Flynn’s resignation, Trump designated Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, a thoughtful and highly respected military strategist, as his national security adviser. And Fiona Hill, probably the most knowledgeable American scholar of Putin’s Russia, is expected to take charge of Russia policy at the National Security Council. Hill has been a consistent and perceptive critic of Putin, and a proponent of maintaining sanctions imposed by the United States following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both of these appointments—and the fact that sanctions remain in place six weeks into Trump’s fast-moving presidency—contradict the “Putin’s puppet” narrative (as does the fact that Russian domestic propaganda has already turned against Trump). But such is the nature of conspiracy thinking that facts can do nothing to change it.

Imagine if the same kind of attention could be trained and sustained on other issues—like it has been on the Muslim travel ban. It would not get rid of Trump, but it might mitigate the damage he is causing. Trump is doing nothing less than destroying American democratic institutions and principles by turning the presidency into a profit-making machine for his family, by poisoning political culture with hateful, mendacious, and subliterate rhetoric, by undermining the public sphere with attacks on the press and protesters, and by beginning the real work of dismantling every part of the federal government that exists for any purpose other than waging war. Russiagate is helping him—both by distracting from real, documentable, and documented issues, and by promoting a xenophobic conspiracy theory in the cause of removing a xenophobic conspiracy theorist from office.•

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Margaret Atwood is in an odd position: As our politics get worse, her stature grows. Right now, sadly (for us), she’s never towered higher.

Appropriate that on International Women’s Day and the A Day Without a Woman protests, the The Handmaid’s Tale novelist conducted a Reddit Ask Me Anything to coincide with the soon-to-premiere Hulu version of her most famous work. Dystopia, feminism and literature are, of course, among the discussion topics. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

Thank you so much for writing The Handmaid’s Tale. It was the book that got me hooked on dystopian novels. What was your inspiration for the story?

Margaret Atwood:

Ooo, three main things: 1) What some people said they would do re: women if they had the power (they have it now and they are); 2) 17th C Puritan New England, plus history through the ages — nothing in the book that didn’t happen, somewhere and 3) the dystopian spec fics of my youth, such as 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, etc. I wanted to see if I could write one of those, too.


Question:

What would you be doing right now if you were an American? Would you run for office? Would you protest? Would you be planning to resist ICE?

Margaret Atwood:

I would make a very bad politician, so no, I wouldn’t run for office. But I would support those who were running. I would certainly turn out for protests, as I did here in Toronto, wearing a rather strange pink hat. I don’t know what else I would do! We are in a time when reality seems to shift every day…


Question:

What is a book you keep going back to read and why?

Margaret Atwood:

This is going to sound corny but Shakespeare is my return read. He knew so much about human nature (+ and minus) and also was an amazing experimenter with language. But there are many other favourites. Wuthering Heights recently. In moments of crisis I go back to (don’t laugh) Lord of the Rings, b/c despite the EVIL EYE OF MORDOR it comes out all right in the end. Whew.


Question:

How, if at all, has your feminism changed over the last decade or so? Can you see these changes taking place throughout your literature? Lastly, can you offer any advice for feminists of the millennial generation? What mistakes are we making/repeating? What are our priorities in this political climate?

Margaret Atwood:

Hello: I am so shrieking old that my formative years (the 40s and 50s) took place before 2nd wave late-60’s feminist/women’s movement. But since I grew up largely in the backwoods and had strong female relatives and parents who read a lot and never told me I couldn’t do such and such because of being a girl, I avoided the agit-prop of the 50s that said women should be in bungalows with washing machines to make room for men coming back from the war. So I was always just very puzzled by some of the stuff said and done by/around women. I was probably a danger to myself and others! (joke) My interest was in women of all kinds — and they are of all kinds. They are interesting in and of themselves, and they do not always behave well. But then I learned more about things like laws and other parts of the world, and history… try Marilyn French’s From Eve to Dawn, pretty massive. We are now in what is being called the 3rd wave — seeing a lot of pushback against women, and also a lot of women pushing back in their turn. I’d say in general: be informed, be aware. The priorities in the US are roughly trying to prevent the roll-back that is taking place especially in the area of women’s health. Who knew that this would ever have to be defended? Childbirth care, pre-natal care, early childhood care — many people will not even be able to afford any of it. Dead bodies on the floor will result. It is frightful. Then there is the whole issue of sexual violence being used as control — it is such an old motif. For a theory of why now, see Eve’s Seed. It’s an unsettled time. If I were a younger woman I’d be taking a self-defense course. I did once take Judo, in the days of the Boston Strangler, but it was very lady-like then and I don’t think it would have availed. There’s something called Wen-Do. It’s good, I am told.


Question:

The Handmaid’s Tale gets thrown out as your current worst-case scenario right now but I read The Heart Goes Last a few months ago and I was surprised how possible it felt. Was there a specific news story or event that compelled you to write that particular story?

Margaret Atwood:

The Heart Goes Last — yes, came from my interest in what happens when a region’s economy collapses and people are really up against it, and the only “business” in which people can have jobs is a prison. It pushes the envelope (will there really be some Elvis robots?) but again, much of what was only speculation then is increasingly possible.


Question:

How did your experience with the 2017 version differ from the 1990 version of The Handmaid’s Tale?

Margaret Atwood:

Different times (that world is closer now!) and a 90 minute film is a different proposition from a 10 part 1st season series, which can build out and deep dive because it has more time. The advent of high-quality streamed or televised series has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for longer novels. We launched the 1990 film in West and then East Berlin just as the Wall was coming down… and I started writing book when the Wall was still there… Framed it in people’s minds in a different way. Also, then, many people were saying “It can’t happen here.” Now, not so much….•

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Andrew Ng’s predictions about Artificial Intelligence carry more weight with me than the projections of many of his peers because he never seems driven by irrational exuberance. In fact, he often urges caution when talk about the imminent arrival of driverless cars and other landscape-changing tools becomes overheated. 

So, when Baidu’s Chief Scientist asserts AI will soon deliver to us a brave new world, one in which, for instance, speech recognition is all but perfected, it’s probably wise to take notice. Computer conversation that’s wholly convincing should give us pause, however. Any technology that becomes seamless should be met as much by concern as enthusiasm.

An excerpt from a smart Wall Street Journal interview Scott Austin conducted with Ng and Neil Jacobstein of Singularity University:

Andrew Ng:

In addition to strengthening our core business, AI is creating a lot of new opportunities. Just as about 100 years ago electrification changed every single major industry, I think we’re in the phase where AI will change pretty much every major industry.

So part of my work at Baidu is to systematically explore new verticals. We have built up an autonomous driving unit. We have a conversational computer, similar to Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. And we’re systematically pursuing new industries where we think we can build an AI team to create and capture value.

Question:

Let’s talk about speech recognition. I believe someone in your program has said that the hope is to get to the point where it is 99% accurate. Where are you on that?

Andrew Ng:

A couple of years ago, we started betting heavily on speech recognition because we felt that it was on the cusp of being so accurate that you would use it all the time. And the difference between speech recognition that is 95% accurate, which is where we were several years ago, versus 99% accuracy isn’t just an incremental improvement.

It’s the difference between you barely using it, like a couple of years ago, versus you using it all the time and not even thinking about it. At Baidu we have passed the knee of that adoption curve. Over the past year, we’ve seen about 100% year-to-year growth in the daily active use of speech recognition across our assets, and we project that this will continue to grow.

In a few years everyone will be using speech recognition. It will feel natural. You’ll soon forget what it was like before you could talk to computers.•

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From the December 30, 1934 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Economist Tyler Cowen just did a fun Ask Me Anything at Reddit, discussing driverless cars, the Hyperloop, wealth redistribution, Universal Basic Income, the American Dream, etc.

Cowen also discusses Peter Thiel’s role in the Trump Administration, though his opinion seems too coy. We’re not talking about someone who just so happens to work for a “flawed” Administration but a serious supporter of a deeply racist campaign to elect a wholly unqualified President and empower a cadre of Breitbart bigots. Trump owns the mess he’s creating, but Thiel does also. The most hopeful thing you can say about the Silicon Valley billionaire, who was also sure there were WMDs in Iraq, is that outside of his realm he has no idea what he’s doing. The least hopeful is that he’s just not a good person.

A few exchanges follow.


Question:

What is an issue or concept in economics that you wish were easier to explain so that it would be given more attention by the public?

Tyler Cowen:

The idea that a sound polity has to be based on ideas other than just redistribution of wealth.


Question:

What do you think about Peter Thiel’s relationship with President Trump?

Tyler Cowen:

I haven’t seen Peter since his time with Trump. I am not myself a Trump supporter, but wish to reserve judgment until I know more about Peter’s role. I am not in general opposed to the idea of people working with administrations that may have serious flaws.


Question:

In a recent article by you, you spoke about who in the US was experiencing the American Dream, finding evidence that the Dream is still alive and thriving for Hispanics in the U.S. What challenges do you perceive now with the new Administration that might reduce the prospects for this group?

Tyler Cowen:

Breaking up families, general feeling of hostility, possibly damaging the economy of Mexico and relations with them. All bad trends. I am hoping the strong and loving ties across the people themselves will outweigh that. We will see, but on this I am cautiously optimistic.


Question:

Do you think convenience apps like Amazon grocery make us more complacent?

Tyler Cowen:

Anything shipped to your home — worry! Getting out and about is these days underrated. Serendipitous discovery and the like. Confronting the physical spaces we have built, and, eventually, demanding improvements in them.


Question:

Given that universal basic income or similar scheme will become necessity after large scale automation kicks in, will these arguments about fiscal and budgetary crisis still hold true?

And with self driving cars and tech like Hyperloop, wouldn’t the rents in the cities go down?

Tyler Cowen:

Driverless cars are still quite a while away in their most potent form, as that requires redoing the whole infrastructure. But so far I see location only becoming more important, even in light of tech developments, such as the internet, that were supposed to make it less important. It is hard for me to see how a country with so many immigrants will tolerate a UBI. I think that idea is for Denmark and New Zealand, I don’t see it happening in the United States. Plus it can cost a lot too. So the arguments about fiscal crisis I think still hold.


Question:

What is the most underrated city in the US? In the world?

Tyler Cowen:

Los Angeles is my favorite city in the whole world, just love driving around it, seeing the scenery, eating there. I still miss living in the area.


Question:

I am a single guy. Can learning economics help me find a girlfriend?

Tyler Cowen:

No, it will hurt you. Run the other way!•

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In the Financial Times interview with Daniel Dennett I recently blogged about, a passage covers a compelling idea hatched by the philosopher and MIT’s Deb Roy in “Our Transparent Future,” a 2015 Scientific American article. The academics argue that the radical transparency now taking hold because of new technological tools, which will only grow more profound as we are lowered even further into a machine with no OFF switch, is akin to the circumstances that may have catalyzed the Cambrian explosion.

In that epoch, it might have been an abundance of light that shined through in a newly transparent atmosphere which forced organisms to adapt and led to tremendous growth–and also death. Dennett and Roy believe that society’s traditional institutions (government, marriage, education, etc.) are facing the same challenge to reinvent themselves or else, due to the tremendous flow of information we have today at our fingertips. Now that privacy is all but impossible, what is the best way to arrange ourselves? 

The opening:

MORE THAN HALF A BILLION YEARS AGO A SPECTACULARLY CREATIVE burst of biological innovation called the Cambrian explosion occurred. In a geologic “instant” of several million years, organisms developed strikingly new body shapes, new organs, and new predation strategies and defenses against them. Evolutionary biologists disagree about what triggered this prodigious wave of novelty, but a particularly compelling hypothesis, advanced by University of Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker, is that light was the trigger. Parker proposes that around 543 million years ago, the chemistry of the shallow oceans and the atmosphere suddenly changed to become much more transparent. At the time, all animal life was confined to the oceans, and as soon as the daylight flooded in, eyesight became the best trick in the sea. As eyes rapidly evolved, so did the behaviors and equipment that responded to them. 

Whereas before all perception was proximal—by contact or by sensed differences in chemical concentration or pressure waves—now animals could identify and track things at a distance. Predators could home in on their prey; prey could see the predators coming and take evasive action. Locomotion is a slow and stupid business until you have eyes to guide you, and eyes are useless if you cannot engage in locomotion, so perception and action evolved together in an arms race. This arms race drove much of the basic diversification of the tree of life we have today.

Parker’s hypothesis about the Cambrian explosion provides an excellent parallel for understanding a new, seemingly unrelated phenomenon: the spread of digital technology. Although advances in communications technology have transformed our world many times in the past—the invention of writing signaled the end of prehistory; the printing press sent waves of change through all the major institutions of society—digital technology could have a greater impact than anything that has come before. It will enhance the powers of some individuals and organizations while subverting the powers of others, creating both opportunities and risks that could scarcely have been imagined a generation ago. 

Through social media, the Internet has put global-scale communications tools in the hands of individuals. A wild new frontier has burst open. Services such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, WhatsApp and SnapChat generate new media on a par with the telephone or television—and the speed with which these media are emerging is truly disruptive. It took decades for engineers to develop and deploy telephone and television networks, so organizations had some time to adapt. Today a social-media service can be developed in weeks, and hundreds of millions of people can be using it within months. This intense pace of innovation gives organizations no time to adapt to one medium before the arrival of the next.

The tremendous change in our world triggered by this media inundation can be summed up in a word: transparency. We can now see further, faster, and more cheaply and easily than ever before—and we can be seen. And you and I can see that everyone can see what we see, in a recursive hall of mirrors of mutual knowledge that both enables and hobbles. The age old game of hide-and-seek that has shaped all life on the planet has suddenly shifted its playing field, its equipment and its rules. The players who cannot adjust will not last long.

The impact on our organizations and institutions will be profound. Governments, armies, churches, universities, banks and companies all evolved to thrive in a relatively murky epistemological environment, in which most knowledge was local, secrets were easily kept, and individuals were, if not blind, myopic. When these organizations suddenly find themselves exposed to daylight, they quickly discover that they can no longer rely on old methods; they must respond to the new transparency or go extinct.•

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A little more on Cambridge Analytica, which Carole Caldwalla reported on recently in the Guardian. The audience-targeting company is being given significant credit by some for powering the Trump campaign to Electoral College victory. My main hesitation with believing online fake news was an predominant factor in the recent election is that Trump won overwhelmingly with older Americans, who seem to have been more plugged into Fox News than Facebook. It may have played a role, but did it really have a greater impact than, say, a legacy-media company like the New York Times, running an un-skeptical headline above the fold about the FBI suspiciously reopening the investigation into the Clinton emails? Or Russia hacking the election? It’s hard to untangle what just went on, but looking for a single smoking gun will probably always prove unsatisfactory. 

From Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim of the New York Times

Cambridge Analytica’s rise has rattled some of President Trump’s critics and privacy advocates, who warn of a blizzard of high-tech, Facebook-optimized propaganda aimed at the American public, controlled by the people behind the alt-right hub Breitbart News. Cambridge is principally owned by the billionaire Robert Mercer, a Trump backer and investor in Breitbart. Stephen K. Bannon, the former Breitbart chairman who is Mr. Trump’s senior White House counselor, served until last summer as vice president of Cambridge’s board.

But a dozen Republican consultants and former Trump campaign aides, along with current and former Cambridge employees, say the company’s ability to exploit personality profiles — “our secret sauce,” Mr. Nix once called it — is exaggerated.

Cambridge executives now concede that the company never used psychographics in the Trump campaign. The technology — prominently featured in the firm’s sales materials and in media reports that cast Cambridge as a master of the dark campaign arts — remains unproved, according to former employees and Republicans familiar with the firm’s work.

“They’ve got a lot of really smart people,” said Brent Seaborn, managing partner of TargetPoint, a rival business that also provided voter data to the Trump campaign. “But it’s not as easy as it looks to transition from being excellent at one thing and bringing it into politics. I think there’s a big question about whether we think psychographic profiling even works.”•

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Late to Industrialization, China entered the process knowing what much of the Western world had to learn the hard way in the 1970s: Urbanizing and modernizing an entire nation brings with it tremendous economic growth, but it can’t be sustained by the same methods–or perhaps at all–when the mission is complete. It’s a one-time-only bargain.

A richer nation can’t grow endlessly on the production of cheap exports, so the newly minted superpower is pivoting more to domestic demand, a nuance no doubt lost in the Trump Administration’s ham-handed appreciation of global politics. In “Trump’s Most Chilling Economic Lie,” a Joseph Stiglitz Vanity Fair “Hive” article, the economist highlights the insanity of America engaging in a trade war with China and expecting to emerge the richer. An excerpt:

Trump’s team may be tempted to conclude, naively, that because China exports so much more to the U.S. than the U.S. exports to China, the loss of a huge export market would hurt them more than it would hurt us. This reasoning is too simplistic by half. China’s government has far more control over the country’s economy than our government has over ours; and it is moving from export dependence to a model of growth driven by domestic demand. Any restriction on exports to the U.S. would simply accelerate a process already underway. Moreover, China’s government has the resources (it’s still sitting on some $3 trillion of reserves) and instruments to help any sector that has been shut out—and in this respect, too, China is better placed than the U.S.

China has already shown how it is likely to respond if Trump should launch a trade war. At Davos, President Xi Jinping came out as the great supporter of globalization and the international rule of law—as well China should. China, with its large emerging middle class, is among the big beneficiaries of globalization. Critics have said that China does not always play fair. They complain that as China has grown, it has taken away some of the privileges, some of the tax preferences, that it gave to foreigners in earlier stages of development. They are unhappy, too, that some Chinese firms have learned quickly how to compete—some of them even appropriating ideas from others, just as we appropriated intellectual property from Europe more than a century ago.

It is worth noting that, although large multinationals complain, they are not leaving. And we tend to forget the extensive restrictions we impose on Chinese firms when they seek to invest in the U.S. or buy high-tech products. Indeed, the Chinese frequently point out that if the U.S. lifted those restrictions, America’s trade deficit with China would be smaller.

China’s first response will be to try to find areas of cooperation. They are experts in construction. They know how to build high-speed trains. They might even provide some financing for these projects. Given Trump’s rhetoric, though, I suspect that such cooperation is just a dream.

If Trump insists on an adversarial stance, China is likely to respond within the framework of international law even if Trump puts little weight on such agreements—and thus is not likely to retaliate in a naive, tit-for-tat way. But China has made it clear that it will respond. And if history is any guide, it will respond both forcefully and intelligently, hitting us where it hurts economically and politically—where, for instance, cutbacks in purchases by China will lead to more unemployment in congressional districts that are vulnerable, influential, or both. If Boeing’s order book is thin, it might, for instance, cancel its purchases of Boeing planes.•

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Some things take on a life of their own, even when they’re not actually living. AI will likely slot into this category.

When Bill Gates suggests America tax robots not only to provide opportunities to those squeezed from the middle class but to also slow down innovation, he’s analyzing the situation as it if it existed inside a vacuum. That’s not the way technology proceeds.

Developing new tools is part of a constant competition among and within states and corporations. Innovating is paramount to maintaining a competitive edge in the marketplace or battlefield. Of course, holding your position or gaining an advantage means a nation (or nations) may be careering down a perilous path. Being militarily prepared for danger can, paradoxically, be very dangerous. The same will be true of biotech.

From Morgan Chalfant’s The Hill story about the surprising speed with which robotic soldiers may be reporting for duty:

Peter Singer, a strategist at the New America Foundation, said that artificial intelligence is among potential “disruptions” being developed in the realm of cyber conflict. 

“It’s not just when is it going to happen, but we don’t yet know is it going to privilege the offense or defense, what are going to be the affects of it,” Singer said, recommending that Congress hold a classified hearing on where the U.S. stands in comparison to likely adversaries on this capability. 

“We don’t want to fall behind,” he said. 

Healey expressed concerns about the possibility of artificial intelligence augmenting our adversaries’ offensive capabilities more significantly than the United States’ defense of its critical infrastructure. 

“The part of it that particularly worries me the most is that on the defensive side many people are thinking that artificial intelligence, new heuristics, better analytics and automation are going to help the defense, that if only we can roll these things out faster we will be better and the system will be more stable,” Healey explained.

“I think that these technologies are going to aid the offense much more than it aids the defense because to defend against these kinds of attacks, you need your own super computer,” he continued. 

Healey warned that while the Pentagon can afford computer systems necessary to defend against adversaries using artificial intelligence, small- or mid-sized enterprises that own U.S. critical infrastructure cannot.

“It leaves much of America undefended,” he said.•

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Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is the “little” 1974 psychological thriller he squeezed in between the first two Godfather films, which fast-forwarded the disquiet of Antonioni’s Blow-Up into the Watergate Era, even if the director has always considered it more a personal than political film. The movie, which hangs on San Francisco surveillance expert Harry Caul’s descent into madness, remains a classic and has actually grown in stature as the Digital Age replaced the analog one. When I wrote briefly about the cerebral movie six years ago, I concluded with this:

In the era that saw the downfall of an American President who listened to the tapes of others and erased his own, The Conversation was amazingly relevant, but in some ways it may be even more meaningful in this exhibitionist age, in which we gleefully hand over our privacy to satisfy our egos. As Caul and Nixon learned, and as we may yet, those who press PLAY don’t always get to choose when to press STOP.•

This weekend, we had a sitting American President (baselessly) accuse his predecessor of tapping his phone lines, all the while the Intelligence Community searches for real tapes of this Administration’s officials conspiring with the Kremlin during the campaign. Such evidence would be treasonous.

It’s not shocking that Trump’s viciously ugly brand of nostalgia has forced us backwards into a Cold Way type of paranoia, in which 20th-century espionage is predominant. The greater insight to take from The Conversation may be more about the near future, however, when nobody has to hit PLAY because there’s no longer a STOP.

In an amazing find, the good people at Cinephilia & Beyond published a 1974 Filmmakers Newsletter interview in which Brian De Palma quizzed Coppola about this masterwork. It’s more a discussion of cinema than of Watergate, and there’s a very interesting exchange in which the subject reveals why he doesn’t regard Hitchcock with awe.

Here’s the opening:


Here’s a wonderful making-of featurette about The Conversation, which asked questions about a world where everyone is a spy and spied upon. The surprise more than 40 years later: Few seemed upset as we crept into the new order of the techno-society. We haven’t been trapped after all; we’ve logged on and signed up for it.

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

  1. the idiot culture carl bernstein
  2. stupid seems to be everywhere these days jesse ventura
  3. modern conspiracy theories
  4. robots will show up in china just in time
  5. brain emulations
  6. does it matter that we might be living in a simulation?
  7. will the computer eventually be as common as the typewriter?
  8. edda mussolini
  9. please forget the statue of liberty
  10. statue of liberty daredevil

Vlad, it’s Don. The situation is getting extremely hot. You have to help me.

Too busy. Going to see Fifty Shades Darker with Steven Seagal.

Wait, what?

I hope it is sexy movie.

 

  • Trump’s address caused Van Jones and David Duke to orgasm simultaneously. A few notes.
  • Tim Harford thinks we’re at an inflection point with “fake news.”
  • Marc Levinson argues the postwar economic boom will not be replicated.
  • Yuval Harari talks the power of meditation with Ezra Klein.

When the idea of online personalization was first presented to me by an Web 1.0 entrepreneur, I was unimpressed and uninterested, saying I preferred newspapers and magazines introducing me to ideas I hadn’t been seeking. You could have your very own tailor-made newspaper or magazine, I was told, but I insisted that wasn’t what I would subscribe to. I naively believed others would feel the same way.

When the very young version of Mark Zuckerberg (who is still young) infamously said “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” he betrayed himself as stunningly callous at that point in his life but also demonstrated the myopia of personalization. Our new tools can enable us to live in a bubble, but that doesn’t mean they ennoble us.

Targeted information helps maximize online advertising revenue, but it’s lousy for democracy, paradoxically offering us greater freedom while simultaneously undermining it. Whether the Internet is inherently at odds with liberty is a valid question. And considering Fox News has been fake news for more than 20 years, the decentralized media in general has to similarly analyzed.


The opening of Tim Harford’s latest Financial Times column:

“Our goal is to build the perfect personalised newspaper for every person in the world,” said Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in 2014. This newspaper would “show you the stuff that’s going to be most interesting to you.”

To many, that statement explains perfectly why Facebook is such a terrible source of news.

A “fake news” story proclaiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump was, according to an analysis from BuzzFeed, the single most successful item of news on Facebook in the three months before the US election. If that’s what the site’s algorithms decide is interesting, it’s far from being a “perfect newspaper.”

It’s no wonder that Zuckerberg found himself on the back foot after Trump’s election. Shortly after his victory, Zuckerberg declared: “I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way . . . is a pretty crazy idea.” His comment was greeted with a scornful response.

I should confess my own biases here. I despise Facebook for all the reasons people usually despise Facebook (privacy, market power, distraction, fake-smile social interactions and the rest). And, as a loyal FT columnist, I need hardly point out that the perfect newspaper is the one you’re reading right now.

But, despite this, I’m going to stand up for Zuckerberg, who recently posted a 5,700-word essay defending social media. What he says in the essay feels like it must be wrong. But the data suggest that he’s right. Fake news can stoke isolated incidents of hatred and violence. But neither fake news nor the algorithmically driven “filter bubble” is a major force in the overall media landscape. Not yet.•


From Eli Pariser in the New York Times in 2011:

Like the old gatekeepers, the engineers who write the new gatekeeping code have enormous power to determine what we know about the world. But unlike the best of the old gatekeepers, they don’t see themselves as keepers of the public trust. There is no algorithmic equivalent to journalistic ethics.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, once told colleagues that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” At Facebook, “relevance” is virtually the sole criterion that determines what users see. Focusing on the most personally relevant news — the squirrel — is a great business strategy. But it leaves us staring at our front yard instead of reading about suffering, genocide and revolution.

There’s no going back to the old system of gatekeepers, nor should there be. But if algorithms are taking over the editing function and determining what we see, we need to make sure they weigh variables beyond a narrow “relevance.” They need to show us Afghanistan and Libya as well as Apple and Kanye.

Companies that make use of these algorithms must take this curative responsibility far more seriously than they have to date. They need to give us control over what we see — making it clear when they are personalizing, and allowing us to shape and adjust our own filters. We citizens need to uphold our end, too — developing the “filter literacy” needed to use these tools well and demanding content that broadens our horizons even when it’s uncomfortable.

It is in our collective interest to ensure that the Internet lives up to its potential as a revolutionary connective medium. This won’t happen if we’re all sealed off in our own personalized online worlds.•

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In his NYRB review of Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, Thomas Nagel is largely laudatory even though he believes his fellow philosopher ultimately guilty of “maintaining a thesis at all costs,” writing that:

Dennett believes that our conception of conscious creatures with subjective inner lives—which are not describable merely in physical terms—is a useful fiction that allows us to predict how those creatures will behave and to interact with them.

Nagel draws an analogy between Dennett’s ideas and the Behaviorism of B.F. Skinner and other mid-century psychologists, a theory that never was truly satisfactory in explaining the human mind. Dennett’s belief that we’re more machine-like than we want to believe is probably accurate, though his assertion that all consciousness is illusory–if that’s what he’s arguing–seems off.

Dennett’s life work about consciousness and evolution has certainly crested at right moment, as we’re beginning to wonder in earnest about AI and non-human-consciousness, which seems possible at some point if not on the immediate horizon. In a Financial Times interview conducted by John Thornhill, Dennett speaks to the nature and future of robotics.

An excerpt:

AI experts tend to draw a sharp distinction between machine intelligence and human consciousness. Dennett is not so sure. Where many worry that robots are becoming too human, he argues humans have always been largely robotic. Our consciousness is the product of the interactions of billions of neurons that are all, as he puts it, “sorta robots”.

“I’ve been arguing for years that, yes, in principle it’s possible for human consciousness to be realised in a machine. After all, that’s what we are,” he says. “We’re robots made of robots made of robots. We’re incredibly complex, trillions of moving parts. But they’re all non-miraculous robotic parts.” …

Dennett has long been a follower of the latest research in AI. The final chapter of his book focuses on the subject. There has been much talk recently about the dangers posed by the emergence of a superintelligence, when a computer might one day outstrip human intelligence and assume agency. Although Dennett accepts that such a superintelligence is logically possible, he argues that it is a “pernicious fantasy” that is distracting us from far more pressing technological problems. In particular, he worries about our “deeply embedded and generous” tendency to attribute far more understanding to intelligent systems than they possess. Giving digital assistants names and cutesy personas worsens the confusion.

“All we’re going to see in our own lifetimes are intelligent tools, not colleagues. Don’t think of them as colleagues, don’t try to make them colleagues and, above all, don’t kid yourself that they’re colleagues,” he says.

Dennett adds that if he could lay down the law he would insist that the users of such AI systems were licensed and bonded, forcing them to assume liability for their actions. Insurance companies would then ensure that manufacturers divulged all of their products’ known weaknesses, just as pharmaceutical companies reel off all their drugs’ suspected side-effects. “We want to ensure that anything we build is going to be a systemological wonderbox, not an agency. It’s not responsible. You can unplug it any time you want. And we should keep it that way,” he says.•

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Autocracy instills fear and fuels paranoia not only in the people but in the autocrat as well. The walls are always moving in for a better look.

The sickening, silent video-surveillance footage that captured the Malaysian airport assassination of Kim Jong-nam, a possible weapon of mass destruction pressed against his face with a piece of cloth, isn’t even likely the most recent example of the madness of tyranny at work, not with the mounting, suspicious body count of Russian diplomats of the past few months. Regardless of what our current President may say, Americans don’t dispatch of their political enemies like murderous despots.

Long before Kim Jong-un terrorized North Korea, Joseph Stalin did the same to the Soviet Union, and Leon Trotsky was the “brother” who most concerned him, even though he had been exiled long ago and far away in Mexico.

The end came in 1940 for the Marxist theorist. What machine guns failed to do in May, a romantic interlude and an ice ax accomplished before summer’s end. A Brooklyn woman who’d become part of Trotsky’s inner circle unwittingly had an affair with Russian operative Ramón Mercader, which allowed him access to his prey. A single blow, though somewhat botched, proved decisive.

Three articles on the topic from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle follow.


From May 24, 1940:

From August 21, 1940:

From August 22, 1940:

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Ezra Klein of Vox has an excellent interview about meditation and much more with Yuval Noah Harari, though I don’t know that I’m buying the main premise which is that the Israeli historian can so ably communicate such cogent ideas because of his adherence to this “mind-clearing” practice.

If that’s so, then I would have to suppose Harari was meditating far less while writing Homo Deus than when composing Sapiens, because the follow-up, while still worth reading, is not nearly as incisive or effective as his first book. (Jennifer Senior had a very good review of the sophomore effort in the New York Times.)

What separates Harari from other historians trying to communicate with a lay audience is his ability to brilliantly synthesize ideas in a very organic way. Even when I’m not sure if I’m totally buying one of these combinations (e.g., Alan Turing created a test in which a computer could pass for a human because he spent his brief, tragic life trying to pass for heterosexual), it still provokes me to think deeply on the subject.

I would assume this talent is more a quirk of his own brain chemistry and diligent development of natural gifts than anything else. Of course, meditation could be aiding in the process, or, perhaps, the practice of Vipassana is more correlation than causation. I doubt even Harari truly knows for sure.

The two opening exchanges:

Ezra Klein:

You told the Guardian that without meditation, you’d still be researching medieval military history — but not the Neanderthals or cyborgs. What changes has meditation brought to your work as a historian?

Yuval Noah Harari:

Two things, mainly. First of all, it’s the ability to focus. When you train the mind to focus on something like the breath, it also gives you the discipline to focus on much bigger things and to really tell the difference between what’s important and everything else. This is a discipline that I have brought to my scientific career as well. It’s so difficult, especially when you deal with long-term history, to get bogged down in the small details or to be distracted by a million different tiny stories and concerns. It’s so difficult to keep reminding yourself what is really the most important thing that has happened in history or what is the most important thing that is happening now in the world. The discipline to have this focus I really got from the meditation.

The other major contribution, I think, is that the entire exercise of Vipassana meditation is to learn the difference between fiction and reality, what is real and what is just stories that we invent and construct in our own minds. Almost 99 percent you realize is just stories in our minds. This is also true of history. Most people, they just get overwhelmed by the religious stories, by the nationalist stories, by the economic stories of the day, and they take these stories to be the reality.

My main ambition as a historian is to be able to tell the difference between what’s really happening in the world and what are the fictions that humans have been creating for thousands of years in order to explain or in order to control what’s happening in the world.

Ezra Klein:

One of the ideas that is central to your book Sapiens is that the central quality of Homo sapiens, what has allowed us to dominate the earth, is the ability to tell stories and create fictions that permit widespread cooperation in a way other species can’t. And what you count as fiction ranges all the way from early mythology to the Constitution of the United States of America.

I wouldn’t have connected that to the way meditation changes what you see as real, but it makes sense that if you’re observing the way your mind creates imaginary stories, maybe much more ends up falling into that category than you originally thought.

Yuval Noah Harari:

Yes, exactly. We seldom realize it, but all large-scale human cooperation is based on fiction. This is most clear in the case of religion, especially other people’s religion. You can easily understand that, yes, millions of people come together to cooperate in a crusade or a jihad or to build the cathedral or a synagogue because all of them believe some fictional story about God and heaven and hell.

What is much more difficult to realize is that exactly the same dynamic operates in all other kinds of human cooperation. If you think about human rights, human rights are a fictional story just like God and heaven. They are not a biological reality. Biologically speaking, humans don’t have rights. If you take Homo sapiens and look inside, you find the heart and the kidneys and the DNA. You don’t find any rights. The only place rights exist is in the stories that people have been inventing.

Another very good example is money. Money is probably the most successful story ever told. It has no objective value. It’s not like a banana or a coconut. If you take a dollar bill and look at it, you can’t eat it. You can’t drink it. You can’t wear it. It’s absolutely worthless. We think it’s worth something because we believe a story. We have these master storytellers of our society, our shamans — they are the bankers and the financiers and the chairperson of the Federal Reserve, and they come to us with this amazing story that, “You see this green piece of paper? We tell you that it is worth one banana.”

If I believe it and you believe it and everybody believes it, it works. It actually works. I can take this worthless piece of paper, go to a complete stranger who I never met before, give him this piece of paper, and he in exchange will give me a real banana that I can eat.

This is really amazing, and no other animal can do it. Other animals sometimes trade. Chimpanzees, for example, they trade. You give me a coconut. I’ll give you a banana. That can work with a chimpanzee, but you give me a worthless piece of paper and you expect me to give you a banana? That will never work with a chimpanzee.

This is why we control the world, and not the chimpanzees.•

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  • Oprah over that sociopath Trump, sure, but somebody qualified over either one of them. Turning the American Presidency into the prize of a celebrity Reality TV show is dangerously stupid. We truly are amusing ourselves to death.
  • Just hours before Trump’s address last night, he suggested Jewish Americans were responsible for terrorizing themselves (historically a ruse of Nazis and the KKK) and passed the buck for the botched, needless Yemen raid on to his generals and the Obama Administration. Then the circle jerks on cable news swooned over a speech in which he lied incessantly and calmly vowed to initiate an office dedicated solely to crimes of immigrants rather than, say, one that focuses on sexual predators in the White House. Van Jones and David Duke may have enjoyed a simultaneous orgasm.
  • A white nationalist candidate flanked by Bannon and Miller doesn’t get to disentangle himself from the racially motivated murder of an Indian-American man in Kansas and the serial desecration of Jewish cemeteries after a couple of sentences read from a Teleprompter, especially as he continues to paint bull’s-eyes on the backs of immigrants and minorities. The Make America White Again campaign didn’t end less night. It was just embedded in platitudes meant to normalize it. But Trump is still deeply abnormal.

A few excerpts follow.


From Calvin Woodward and Christopher S. Rugaber of the Associated Press:

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump boasted in his speech to Congress that new money “is pouring in” from NATO partners, which it isn’t. He also took credit for corporate job expansion and military cost savings that actually took root under his predecessor.

A look at some of his claims Tuesday night:

TRUMP: Speaking of the NATO alliance, “Our partners must meet their financial obligations. And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that. In fact, I can tell you the money is pouring in. Very nice. Very nice.”

THE FACTS: No new money has come pouring in from NATO allies. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made a strong case when he met with allied defense ministers at a NATO meeting last month, pressing them to meet their 2014 commitment to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024. He and other leaders said the allies understood the message and there was some discussion about working out plans to meet the goal.

Only five of the 28 member countries are meeting the 2 percent level, and no new commitments have been made since the NATO meeting.

In fact, Germany’s foreign minister said Wednesday he is skeptical about his country’s plans to increase defense spending, saying it could raise concerns in Europe by turning Germany into “a military supremacy.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said her country will meet its commitment to raise defense spending by the 2024 deadline. In any event, the commitment is for these nations to spend more on their own military capabilities, which would strengthen the alliance, not to hand over money.•


From Micah Zenko of Foreign Policy:

The White House pledged that President Donald Trump’s prime-time joint address to Congress on Tuesday night would “lay out an optimistic vision for the country,” adding that the theme would be a “renewal of the American spirit.” In keeping with his many previous speeches, Trump was incapable of delivering such an address. Instead, he offered repeated encouragement to Americans to show the “bravery to express the hopes that stir our souls,” which resembled nothing so much as the performance of a motivational speaker, only with less specific guidance for how the audience might improve their lives.

One poignant moment, however, unintentionally revealed a great deal not just about what sort of leader the president is but how disengaged America’s political class has always been with the country’s more than 15-year war on terrorism. In an overt and calculated effort to deflect attention from a failed military operation, Trump turned to the widow of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed in a Navy SEAL raid in central Yemen for which, earlier in the day, the president had shirked all responsibility.

In fact, he went beyond shirking responsibility for the Jan. 28 raid, which killed Owens along with several suspected al Qaeda-affiliated fighters and an unknown number of Yemeni civilians — all while producing no significant intelligence, according to Defense Department officials. On Tuesday morning, Trump took the astonishing step of blaming his subordinates. During an interview with Fox and Friends, the commander in chief declared, “This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something [the generals] wanted to do. They came to see me; they explained what they wanted to do — the generals — who are very respected. My generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”

In other words, Trump laid the blame for a failed military operation that he authorized on the previous administration and on the military commanders who oversaw it. This distancing of authority and redirection of accountability are unprecedented in modern military history. Several active-duty and retired military officers I have heard from in the past two days have (quietly) expressed their deep disappointment with Trump’s comments. Unfortunately, Republican congressional members who lead the oversight committees for such operations will likely defend or tolerate his actions, simply because the president belongs to their political party.•


From Charles P. Pierce of Esquire:

The speech was chock-full of barefaced non-facts regarding crime, immigrants, crime committed by immigrants, the accomplishments of the current administration, and the condition of the country when it handed itself over to his half-baked stewardship last November. I don’t care if you sell your mendacity in perfect iambic pentameter in the voice of Laurence Olivier. It’s still bullshit, and dangerous bullshit at that. And it will sell. That’s the heart and start of it. The people who bought this when it was poured out to them straight up during the campaign certainly will buy it now that it’s mixed with some sweetener lifted whole from every middle-school graduation speech ever given.

There is one portion of the speech that transcended the obvious prevarication and sent the speech spiraling into the near suburbs of outright fascism.

I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American Victims. The office is called VOICE—Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement. We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.

What media ignored these crimes? What special interests silenced their families? He doesn’t know and he doesn’t care.

Is it even necessary to outline how perilous to democracy this is? You can see it even without being reminded that, a) under Steve Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart inaugurated a section called “Black Crime,” or b) the Nazi regime constructed an elaborate bureaucratic mechanism to catalogue alleged Jewish crimes against innocent Aryan citizens, although you probably ought to keep those two precedents in mind. The Department of Homeland Security never has been a terrific idea, but to invest something like this new propaganda ministry with the power and influence of an actual Cabinet department is like giving Steve Bannon’s old news sewer its own Special Forces.


From Jeet Heer of the New Republic:

While the more positive parts of the speech were articulated with generalities about working together, the dark passages were presented as vivid narratives with clear heroes and villains.

Immigrants, whether documented or not, commit less crime than other Americans, but Trump talks about these crimes with a melodramatic bluster:

Joining us in the audience tonight are four very brave Americans whose government failed them.

Their names are Jamiel Shaw, Susan Oliver, Jenna Oliver, and Jessica Davis.

Jamiel’s 17-year-old son was viciously murdered by an illegal immigrant gang member, who had just been released from prison.  Jamiel Shaw Jr. was an incredible young man, with unlimited potential who was getting ready to go to college where he would have excelled as a great quarterback.  But he never got the chance.  His father, who is in the audience tonight, has become a good friend of mine.

Also with us are Susan Oliver and Jessica Davis.  Their husbands—Deputy Sheriff Danny Oliver and Detective Michael Davis—were slain in the line of duty in California.  They were pillars of their community.  These brave men were viciously gunned down by an illegal immigrant with a criminal record and two prior deportations. 

To address this imagined crisis, Trump said he has “ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American victims” of crimes committed by immigrants—a statistically minuscule problem, as crime in America goes. And in a press release sent during the speech, the White House heralded Trump’s Blue Lives Matter agenda by noting that he directed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “develop a strategy to more effectively prosecute people who engage in crimes against law enforcement officers”—also a statistically minuscule problem. In short, Trump’s meager policy solutions aren’t commensurate with his graphic portrait of a broken America.

It’s understandable why people want to believe that the Trump of “American carnage” has pivoted into a more inspirational president. But any attention to his words makes clear that an extremely disturbing, distorted vision of America still defines this presidency.•

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New Texas Monthly EIC Tim Taliaferro was quoted in the Columbia Journalism Review as saying that “Texans don’t care about politics,” so the publication was moving in a new and softer direction. Oil itself couldn’t be more Texan than politics, so the editor quickly found himself sliding around in a slick and backpedaled as hastily as possible. Who knows what the future holds for the legendary long-form magazine, but it doesn’t sound hopeful.

One of the linchpins of Texas Monthly reportage–and, more broadly, of the New Journalism of the ’60s and ’70s–was Gary Cartwright, a Dallas-Fort Worth gonzo who just passed away. The hard-drinking, freewheeling writer was an exquisite prose producer and confidante of Jack Ruby, who spent many of the days leading up to his murder of Lee Harvey Oswald planted, along with his stripper girlfriend Jada, on Cartwright’s couch. The scribe wrote of the two-bit assassin who dreamed of global fame: “He didn’t make history; he only stepped in front of it. When he emerged from obscurity into that inextricable freeze-frame that joins all of our minds to Dallas, Jack Ruby, a baldheaded little man who wanted above all else to make it big, had his back to the camera.”


From Manny Fernandez’s New York Times obituary of the writer:

In the 1960s and ’70s Mr. Cartwright belonged to a group of writers — including Mr. Shrake, Dan Jenkins, Billy Lee Brammer and Larry L. King, one of the writers of the hit Broadway musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” — whose hard, boozy living and freewheeling prose captured and exemplified the era.

“It seemed like they were living lives of joy and engagement and with a sense of recklessness that was beyond the reach of most of us,” Joe Holley, a columnist and editorial writer for The Houston Chronicle, said in an interview. “They lived hard. They wrote well, and they seemed to be intensely alive.

“What we didn’t realize until later, when the heart attacks began and when they started writing confessional memoirs, was that hard living exacted a price.”

Mr. Cartwright published another memoir, The Best I Recall, in 2015. He also wrote screenplays and novels.

He was born in Dallas in 1934 and grew up in the tiny West Texas oil town of Royalty in the late 1930s. With defense plants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area hiring after the start of World War II, the family moved to Arlington, the Dallas suburb, where his mother worked in a dress shop. His father worked at a defense plant in Fort Worth.

After high school Mr. Cartwright attended Arlington State College and the University of Texas, enlisted in the Army for a two-year stateside stint and earned his bachelor’s degree afterward at Texas Christian University.

He got his start in journalism in the mid-1950s, covering the police and sports for newspapers in Fort Worth and Dallas. He became the anchor of Texas Monthly and mentored a generation of young journalists, including Nicholas Lemann, the author and former dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

“Gary was a Texas news guy to the core — somebody who grew up in old-school, smoke-filled, blue-collar newsrooms and went on to become one of the first Texas journalists to make a national reputation in long-form journalism,” Mr. Lemann said.


The opening of Cartwright’s great 1976 Texas Monthly profile of notorious Dallas stripper Juanita Dale Slusher, aka Candy Barr:

On the road home to Brownwood in her green ’74 Cadillac with the custom upholstery and the CB radio, clutching a pawn ticket for her $3000 mink, Candy Barr thought about biscuits. Biscuits made her think of fried chicken, which in turn suggested potato salad and corn. For as long as she could remember, in times of crisis and stress, Candy Barr always thought of groceries. It was a miracle she didn’t look like a platinum pumpkin, but she didn’t: even at 41, she still looked like a movie star.

For once, the crisis was not her own. It was something she had read a few days earlier about how the omnipotent, totalitarian they were about to jackboot the remnants of the once happy and prosperous life of a 76-year-old Dallas electrician named O. E. Cole. Candy had never heard of O. E. Cole until she spotted his pitiful tale in the Brownwood newspaper. She didn’t know if Cole was black or white, mean or generous, judgmental or forgiving. She only knew he was in trouble. For nearly fifty years Cole had been an upright, hardworking citizen of a city Candy Barr had every reason to hate; then his wife Nettie suffered a stroke and lingered in a coma for eighteen months while their savings were sucked away. According to the newspaper account, Cole spent $500 for Nettie’s headstone, which left him a balance of $157. Before he could use that money to cover mortgage payments on his home and the electrician’s shop at the back, a gunman shot and robbed him. Now, when he was too old to apply for additional credit, they were prepared to foreclose.

“This is a goddamn crime!” Candy raged, throwing her suitcase on the bed and barking a string of orders to her houseguests: Scott, her 22-year-old boyfriend of the moment, and Susan Slusher, her 17-year-old niece who had recently come to stay with “Aunt Nita” from a broken home in Philadelphia.

Scott and Susan had been around just long enough to know that when Candy blew—as often as she did without warning—to look not for explanations but for something sturdy to hang onto. Try to imagine a hurricane in a Dixie Cup. The laughing tropical green eyes boiled, and the innocence that had made that perfect teardrop face a landmark in the sexual liberation of an entire generation of milquetoasts became the wrath of Zeus. They say she once sat waiting in a rocking chair talking to sweet Jesus and when her ex-husband kicked down the door she threw down on him with a pistol that was resting conveniently in her lap. She shot him in the stomach, but she was aiming for the groin. When she caught mobster Mickey Cohen talking to another woman, she slugged him in the teeth. She carved her mark on a dyke in the prison workshop: this was not a lovers’ quarrel, as an assistant warden indicated on her record, but a disagreement stemming from Candy’s hard-line belief that a worker should take pride in her job.

Candy had a cosmic way of connecting things, which to the more prosaic mind might appear coincidental. So it was that the ill-fated placement of a Citizens National Bank of Brownwood ad next to the article outlining the plight of O. E. Cole ignited her fuse. The bank ad suggested that had it not been for a Revolutionary War banker named Robert Morris, we might all be sipping tea with crumpets and begging God to save our Queen. What the average eye might take as harmless Bicentennial puffery hit Candy’s heart dead center.

“I watched the bastards do the same thing to my daddy,” Candy fumed, removing her mink from the cedar chest and raking bottles and jars of cosmetics into her overnight bag. “I sold my hunting rifle three times to help my daddy. It’s a crime what they can do to people, a goddamn crime. Don’t call me a criminal if you’re gonna be one.”

With the skillful employment of her CB radio, “The Godmother” and her two young companions made the 160 miles to Dallas in less that two hours. Candy hocked her mink for $250, then called on dancer Chastity Fox and other friends to help raise another $150. Then Candy painted her face with soft missionary shades of tan and gold and called on O. E. Cole, introducing herself as Juanita Dale Phillips of Brownwood and presenting the goggle-eyed electrician with $400 and a copy of her book of prison poems, A Gentle Mind … ConfusedCole couldn’t have been more confused if he had found Fidel Castro in his refrigerator. When I spoke with Cole two weeks later, there were still some blank spaces behind his eyes, but the crisis had passed.

“I didn’t know who she was till I saw her name on that little book,” he told me. “Oh, yes, I knew the name Candy Barr. You couldn’t live in Dallas long as I had and not know that name. But it wasn’t for me to judge her. What is past is past. It’s what a person is now I go on, and she was awful nice. We sat around and talked for hours. In fact, we talked all night long.”•

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Rebuilding the world has to rank at the top of economic low-hanging fruit of the last century. America, its forces marshaled, played a leading role in piecing together the shattered globe in the wake of WWII. Yes, four decades of unfortunate tax rates, globalization, automation and the demise of unions have all abetted the decline of the U.S. middle class, but just as true is that the good times simply ended, the job completed (more or less), the outlier ran headlong into entropy. The contents of this half-empty glass finally spilled all over the world in 2016, provoking outrageously regressive political shifts, with perhaps more states becoming submerged this year.

As An Extraordinary Time author Marc Levinson wrote in 2016 in the Wall Street Journal: “The quarter-century from 1948 to 1973 was the most striking stretch of economic advance in human history. In the span of a single generation, hundreds of millions of people were lifted from penury to unimagined riches.” In “End of a Golden Age,” an Aeon essay, the economist and journalist further argues the global circumstances of the postwar era were a one-time-only opportunity for runaway productivity, a fortunate arrangement of stars likely to never align again.

Well, never is an extremely long stretch (we hope), but the economic-growth-rate promises brought to the trail by Sanders and Trump, which have made it to the White House with the unfortunate election of the latter candidate, were at best fanciful, though delusional might also be a fair assessment. If I had to guess, I would say someday we’ll see tremendous growth again, but when that happens and what precipitates it, I don’t know. Nobody really does.

An excerpt:

When it comes to influencing innovation, governments have power. Grants for scientific research and education, and policies that make it easy for new firms to grow, can speed the development of new ideas. But what matters for productivity is not the number of innovations, but the rate at which innovations affect the economy – something almost totally beyond the ability of governments to control. Turning innovative ideas into economically valuable products and services can involve years of trial and error. Many of the basic technologies behind mobile telephones were developed in the 1960s and ’70s, but mobile phones came into widespread use only in the 1990s. Often, a new technology is phased in only over time as old buildings and equipment are phased out. Moreover, for reasons no one fully understands, productivity growth and innovation seem to move in long cycles. In the US, for example, between the 1920s and 1973, innovation brought strong productivity growth. Between 1973 and 1995, it brought much less. The years between 1995 and 2003 saw high productivity gains, and then again considerably less thereafter.

When the surge in productivity following the Second World War tailed off, people around the globe felt the pain. At the time, it appeared that a few countries – France and Italy for a few years in the late 1970s, Japan in the second half of the ’80s – had discovered formulas allowing them to defy the downward global productivity trend. But their economies revived only briefly before productivity growth waned. Jobs soon became scarce again, and improvements in living standards came more slowly. The poor productivity growth of the late 1990s was not due to taxes, regulations or other government policies in any particular country, but to global trends. No country escaped them.

Unlike the innovations of the 1950s and ’60s, which were welcomed widely, those of the late 20th century had costly side effects. While information technology, communications and freight transportation became cheaper and more reliable, giant industrial complexes became dinosaurs as work could be distributed widely to take advantage of labour supplies, transportation facilities or government subsidies. Workers whose jobs were relocated found that their years of experience and training were of little value in other industries, and communities that lost major employers fell into decay. Meanwhile, the welfare state on which they had come to rely began to deteriorate, its financial underpinnings stressed due to the slow growth of tax revenue in economies that were no longer buoyant. The widespread sharing in the mid-century boom was not repeated in the productivity gains at the end of the century, which accumulated at the top of the income scale.

For much of the world, the Golden Age brought extraordinary prosperity. But it also brought unrealistic expectations about what governments can do to assure full employment, steady economic growth and rising living standards. These expectations still shape political life today.•

The recent Presidential election revealed that U.S. citizens either have a terrible understanding of economics or they’re willing to surrender their security in the name of identity politics. Both are likely true to a significant extent.

Immigrants were blamed for the downgrading of the American worker on the trail while automation was never discussed, and Michigan voters swung to Trump, largely because Washington had supposedly forgotten about them, after the Obama Administration wagered $79 billion on bailing out the Detroit auto industry. Not too long after that salvage job by the federal branch, the state’s populace voted in an anti-union governor in Rick Snyder. The locals may have forgotten about themselves more than D.C. ever did.

Another vital topic of discussion that was never broached during the campaign was the role that contracted work has played in shrinking middle class. For several decades, American companies have been outsourcing mail-room work, maintenance, security and other “non-core” tasks to subcontractors who would save them some money by lowering salaries and reducing benefits to laborers. This shift created a separate class. Executive pay ballooned while those with more modest pay stubs took the elevator downward, further exacerbating wealth inequality.

I’ve written before about this destabilizing phenomenon. More from Eduardo Porter of the New York Times:

…Mr. Trump is missing a more critical workplace transformation: the vast outsourcing of many tasks — including running the cafeteria, building maintenance and security — to low-margin, low-wage subcontractors within the United States.

This reorganization of employment is playing a big role in keeping a lid on wages — and in driving income inequality — across a much broader swath of the economy than globalization can account for.

David Weil, who headed the Labor Department’s wage and hour division at the end of the Obama administration, calls this process the “fissuring” of the workplace. He traces it to the 1980s, when corporations under pressure to raise quarterly profits started shedding “noncore” tasks.

The trend grew as the spread of information technology made it easier for companies to standardize and monitor the quality of outsourced work. Many employers took to outsourcing to avoid the messy consequences — like unions and workplace regulations — of employing workers directly.

“It’s an incredibly important part of the story that we haven’t paid attention to,” Mr. Weil told me.

“Lead businesses — the firms that continue to directly employ workers who provide the goods and services in the economy recognized by consumers — remain highly profitable and may continue to provide generous pay for their work force,” he noted. “The workers whose jobs have been shed to other, subordinate businesses face far more competitive market conditions.”

The trend is hard to measure, since subcontracting can take many forms. But it is big.•

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