Ron Rosenbaum

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Easily the best article I’ve read about E.L. Doctorow in the wake of his death is Ron Rosenbaum’s expansive Los Angeles Review of Books piece about the late novelist. It glides easily from Charles Darwin to Thomas Nagel to the hard problem of consciousness to the “electrified meat” in our skulls to the “Jor-El warning” in Doctorow’s final fiction, Andrew’s Brain. That clarion call was directed at the Singularity, which the writer feared would end human exceptionalism, and, of course, it would. More a matter of when than if.

An excerpt:

Not to spoil the mood but I feel a kind of responsibility to pass on Doctorow’s Jor-El warning, even if I don’t completely understand it. I would nonetheless contend that — coming from a person as steeped as he is in the contemplation of the Mind and its possibilities, the close reading of consciousness, of that twain of brain and mind and the mysteries of their relationship — attention should be paid. It seemed like a message he wanted me to convey.

I asked him to expand upon the idea voiced in Andrew’s Brain that once a computer was created that could replicate everything in the brain, once machines can think as men, when we’ve achieved true “artificial intelligence” or “ the singularity” as it’s sometimes called, it would be “catastrophic.”

“There is an outfit in Switzerland,” he says. “And this is a fact — they’re building a computer to emulate a brain. The theory is, of course, complex. There are billions of things going on in the brain but they take the position that the number of things is finite and that finally you can reach that point. Of course there’s a lot more work to do in terms of the brain chemistry and so on. So Andrew says to Doc ‘the twain will remain.’

“But later he has this revelation because he’s read, as I had, a very responsible scientist saying that it was possible someday for computers to have consciousness. That was said in a piece by a very respected neuroscientist by the name of Gerald Edelman. So the theory is this: If we do ever figure out how the brain becomes what we understand as consciousness, our feelings, our wishes, our desires, dreams — at that point we will know enough to simulate with a computer the human brain — and the computer will achieve consciousness. That is a great scientific achievement if it ever occurs. But if it does, all the old stories are gone. The Bible, everything.”


“Because the idea of the exceptionalism of the human mind is no longer exceptional. And you’re not even dealing with the primary consciousness of animals, of different degrees of understanding. You’re talking about a machine that could now think, and the dominion of the human mind no longer exists. And that’s disastrous because it’s earth-shaking. I mean, imagine.”•

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In a new Afterword (published at the Los Angeles Review of Booksto the updated version of 1998’s Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum looks at the architect of Nazism in light of 9/11, arguing that Hitler was not a failed dictator but a successful terrorist. An excerpt:

“For Hitler, it was not a matter of making the trains run on time so much as making the trains never stop running to Auschwitz and Treblinka. One relatively new aspect of Holocaust study is a focus on what happened when the trains finally did stop running, because the Russians were about to overrun the mainly Polish-based camps. The full story, much of which was new to me, can be found in Daniel Blatman’s 2011 work, The Death Marches: The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide.

When the camps were disbanded, the large SS and native Polish and Ukrainian guard troops feeding the gas chambers were not redeployed to stave off the Russians. Instead they were ordered to take all the living and half-dead captives on the road in what became the final phase of the Final Solution: the Death Marches. Hundreds of thousands of closely-guarded prisoners were mercilessly beaten or shot when they couldn’t keep up, starved to death while being harried along icy roads to . . . where? There was no sanctuary left safe for killing, but the killing had to continue at all costs, a horror at least as unfathomable as the camps themselves. The Death March commanders didn’t have to ‘follow orders.’ They had incorporated Hitlerism so deeply, they wanted to follow orders. As Evans argues, killing Jews was more important than military objectives. These commanders risked their own lives to continue the murder.

What’s worse, Blatman reports, is that it was not just military men but civilians along the way who gleefully took part in murdering the half-dead Jews. For those, like me, who thought it impossible to be further shocked by Hitler’s willing accomplices, reading about the Death Marches introduced a new level of horror.

It is a testament to how deeply dyed the souls of the killers were. Hitler was possessed, some might say, but he was also the cause of possession in others. …

Hitler didn’t lose the war. Not the war Evans argues was most important to him: the racial war. Hitler won that war. Six million to one. Yes, he committed suicide at the end. (And yes, 50 million others lost their lives so he could win the part of the war he cared about most. Collateral damage.)

Thinking about that suicide now, in the light of 9/11 and the subsequent exaltations of suicide bombing on messianic, theological grounds, does in fact offer a radical new way of characterizing Hitler. In retrospect at least, it’s tempting to argue that Hitler was, if not the first, then by far history’s greatest single suicide bomber. He blew up Europe to kill the Jews in it, even if it meant killing himself and tens of millions of others in the end.”

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I’ve of course read Ron Rosenbaum’s seminal 1971 Phone Phreak story in Esquire, but I hadn’t come across the coverage of that subculture from Ramparts until now. In 1972, that publication ran step-by-step instructions of how someone could receive phone calls for free, sans blue box. In 1993, it published a piece by Bruce Sterling about the history of hacking which explained the pre-Phreak politicized past of phone rip-offs, which was a signature of the Yippie movement. An excerpt:

“Abbie Hoffman is said to have caused the Federal Bureau of Investigation to amass the single largest investigation file ever opened on an individual American citizen. (If this is true, it is still questionable whether the FBI regarded Abbie Hoffman a serious public threat -quite possibly, his file was enormous simply because Hoffman left colorful legendry wherever he went). He was a gifted publicist, who regarded electronic media as both playground and weapon. He actively enjoyed manipulating network TV and other gullible, imagehungry media, with various weird lies, mindboggling rumors, impersonation scams, and other sinister distortions, all absolutely guaranteed to upset cops, Presidential candidates, and federal judges. Hoffman’s most famous work was a book self-reflexively known as Steal This Book, which publicized a number of methods by which young, penniless hippie agitators might live off the fat of a system supported by humorless drones. Steal This Book, whose title urged readers to damage the very means of distribution which had put it into their hands, might be described as a spiritual ancestor of a computer virus.

Hoffman, like many a later conspirator, made extensive use of pay- phones for his agitation work — in his case, generally through the use of cheap brass washers as coin-slugs.

During the Vietnam War, there was a federal surtax imposed on telephone service; Hoffman and his cohorts could, and did, argue that in systematically stealing phone service they were engaging in civil disobedience: virtuously denying tax funds to an illegal and immoral war. But this thin veil of decency was soon dropped entirely. Ripping-off the System found its own justification in deep alienation and a basic outlaw contempt for conventional bourgeois values. Ingenious, vaguely politicized varieties of rip-off, which might be described as ‘anarchy by convenience,’ became very popular in Yippie circles, and because rip-off was so useful, it was to survive the Yippie movement itself. In the early 1970s, it required fairly limited expertise and ingenuity to cheat payphones, to divert ‘free’ electricity and gas service, or to rob vending machines and parking meters for handy pocket change. It also required a conspiracy to spread this knowledge, and the gall and nerve actually to commit petty theft, but the Yippies had these qualifications in plenty. In June 1971, Abbie Hoffman and a telephone enthusiast sarcastically known as ‘Al Bell’ began publishing a newsletter called Youth International Party Line. This newsletter was dedicated to collating and spreading Yippie rip-off techniques, especially of phones, to the joy of the freewheeling underground and the insensate rage of all straight people.

As a political tactic, phone-service theft ensured that Yippie advocates would always have ready access to the long-distance telephone as a medium, despite the Yippies’ chronic lack of organization, discipline, money, or even a steady home address.

Party Line was run out of Greenwich Village for a couple of years, then ‘Al Bell’ more or less defected from the faltering ranks of Yippiedom, changing the newsletter’s name to TAP or Technical Assistance Program. After the Vietnam War ended, the steam began leaking rapidly out of American radical dissent. But by this time, ‘Bell’ and his dozen or so core contributors had the bit between their teeth, and had begun to derive tremendous gut-level satisfaction from the sensation of pure technical power.

TAP articles, once highly politicized, became pitilessly jargonized and technical, in homage or parody to the Bell System’s own technical documents, which TAP studied closely, gutted, and reproduced without permission. The TAP elite revelled in gloating possession of the specialized knowledge necessary to beat the system.

‘Al Bell’ dropped out of the game by the late 70s, and ‘Tom Edison’ took over; TAP readers (some 1400 of them, all told) now began to show more interest in telex switches and the growing phenomenon of computer systems. In 1983, ‘Tom Edison’ had his computer stolen and his house set on fire by an arsonist. This was an eventually mortal blow to TAP (though the legendary name was to be resurrected in 1990 by a young Kentuckian computeroutlaw named ‘Predat0r.’)

Ever since telephones began to make money, there have been people willing to rob and defraud phone companies. The legions of petty phone thieves vastly outnumber those ‘phone phreaks’ who ‘explore the system’ for the sake of the intellectual challenge. The New York metropolitan area (long in the vanguard of American crime) claims over 150,000 physical attacks on pay telephones every year! Studied carefully, a modern payphone reveals itself as a little fortress, carefully designed and redesigned over generations, to resist coinslugs, zaps of electricity, chunks of coin-shaped ice, prybars, magnets, lockpicks, blasting caps. Public pay- phones must survive in a world of unfriendly, greedy people, and a modern payphone is as exquisitely evolved as a cactus.”

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From Ron Rosenbaum’s reliably idiosyncratic work, his 1993 New York Times Magazine article about the violent underbelly of Long Island’s bedroom communities, where the only rest for the weary is often the big sleep:

A UNIFIED FIELD theory of longing would go a long way toward explaining what sometimes seems like an epidemic of desperate — and often desperately incompetent — spouse-murder plots on the Guyland. Recently I immersed myself in some 10 years of tabloid clippings on sensational Long Island homicides and came away with two powerful impressions. First, that the most sensational ones were almost always intrafamily homicides or spouse slayings. Now it’s true that, cross-culturally, homicides among intimates occur more frequently than ‘stranger’ homicides. But in another sense of the word, there’s no doubt Long Island has some of the stranger family homicides, stranger and more desperate. That was the second impression I had from study of the tabloid clips: the desperate longing to get the deed done — however bizarrely, incompetently or self-revealingly — often proved to be the undoing of the doer.

Consider this 1988 New York Post story, not one of the most sensational but representative of the broad midrange of Long Island spouse slayings. It appeared under the headline: ACCUSED HUBBY-KILLER’S HUNT FOR HIT MAN

The trial testimony therein described a woman who might be called the Ancient Mariner of Spouse Slayers — she soliciteth one of three:

‘A Long Island housewife on trial for arranging her husband’s murder openly sought a hit man several times, witnesses testified.’

The key word here is ‘openly.’ She ‘tried to hire a fellow church member, a county official and an undercover cop to kill [ her husband ] prior to his November 1986 bludgeoning death.’

‘Are you connected to the mob?’ she asked a county official with an Italian surname shortly after meeting him. ‘I’m looking for someone to kill my husband.’

Yes, surely this goes on in the rest of America, but not, I feel, with the urgency Long Islanders bring to it.” (Thanks TETW.)


In 1979, an earnest Merv Griffin interviews Kathleen and George Lutz, the Long Island couple at the center of the Amityville Horror hokum.

Read also:


Quite a while ago, I posted an excerpt from Ron Rosenbaum’s seminal 1971 Esquire blue-box article, which inspired the young Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) to become phone phreaks and begin their little computer company. At Slate, Rosenbaum recalls meeting Jobs in the ’80s and learning of his role in the birth of Apple. An excerpt:

“The lunch with Jobs took place in a huge hangar-like restaurant—then-fashionable, now-defunct—called, I swear, ‘America.’ I had been doing a story about California surfer-styled ad man Jay Chiat, the one who devised the Apple’s turning-point ‘1984’ ad, depicting a lithe young woman hurling a hammer at a screen upon which an evil looking Big Brother-type was delivering a harangue. The ad captured—or created—the Apple ethos of rebellion against the tyranny of conformity.

Anyway Jobs was in town and he came to the lunch with Chiat, and after the introductions, he told me about how the blue box article had inspired him and Wozniak. How they’d taken down the cycles-per-second of the tones AT&T used to translate phone numbers into audio signals, some of which I’d disclosed in the article, and how they’d found the others in some obscure technical journals and had begun building their own blue boxes, hoping to sell them on the underground market. (Gamblers and mobsters liked to use them to keep their communications outside the system.)

Even then, at that lunch, Jobs displayed his characteristic design sensibility when talking about these illicit gadgets. Some of the sleeker ones were about the size of cigarette pack, with silvery keyboard panels—not too different in appearance from the later iPod—and I remember his keen interest in what model, what design, I’d gotten hold of.

But he came across as a very level-headed guy, unpretentious even though his company was then blowing up big time. I remember being gratified at my story having some influence, and indeed I put Jobs’ revelation into the story about Chiat, but it was cut by an otherwise astute editor. Jobs just wasn’t that important then.”


Jobs tells the blue-box story:

Another Ron Rosenbaum post:

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I’ve long admired “Staring Into the Heart of the Heart of Darkness,” Ron Rosenbaum’s 1995 New York Times Magazine essay. In it, he looked at how Tarantino subtly introduced the idea of moral relativism into key scenes of Pulp Fiction. I think ideas of depth are scarce in film right now. Offhand, I can only think of Dogtooth and Exit Through the Gift Shop from last year as being rife with ideas. And certainly the Coens’ A Serious Man from the previous year. But there’s currently little such cinema. Hollywood used to dream the biggest dreams and science-fiction used to predict science, but no more. I try to figure out why there are so many ideas in tech right now and so few in film, since both are aimed at a global audience. I suppose it’s because film is about content and tech about function, and function is more readily translatable if it’s intuitive. Anyhow, an excerpt from Rosenbaum’s essay:

PERHAPS IT’S UNDERSTANDABLE THAT SO MUCH OF THE critchat discussion about Pulp Fiction has missed the point: the flashy violence, trashy language and bloody brain spatterings are red herrings that easily distract.

In fact, in its own sly but serious way, Pulp Fiction is engaged in a sustained inquiry into the theological problem of the relativity of good and evil. What I love about Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay is how apparently throwaway time-passing dialogue often embodies tricky theological questions.

Consider the much-discussed but little-understood ‘mindless chitchat’ about the French names for Big Macs and Quarter Pounders with cheese that preoccupies the hit men, Vincent and Jules, as they cruise through L.A. on the way to commit a contract hit for their big-time drug-dealer boss.

Just two bored ‘thick-witted hit men’ (as the jacket copy for the published version of the screenplay inaccurately describes them) filling time. No, wrong: the Quarter Pounder exchange is one of the key poles of the sophisticated philosophic argument underlying Pulp Fiction.

Like the discussion of the contextual legality of hash bars in Amsterdam (‘It’s legal, but it ain’t a hundred percent legal’) and the gender-based framework for judging the transgressiveness of giving the boss’s wife a foot massage (‘You’re sayin’ a foot massage don’t mean nothin’ and I’m sayin’ it does. . . . We act like they don’t, but they do’), the exchange about Quarter Pounders is ultimately about the relativity of systems of value.”


Royale with cheese:

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An original Blue Box at the Computer History Museum. Al Gilbertson invented the first such box, which gave callers the same control over the phone system as an operator. (Image by RaD man.)

Before the World Wide Web allowed most of the planet to be readily connected, people were already using whatever techological gadget they had at hand to try to reach out-of-the-way places and obscure information. Phone phreaks were pre-computer revolution hackers who figured out ways to place free phone calls and learn the finer points about the phone company’s computer system. For phreaks (including the pre-Apple Steves, Jobs and Wozniak), this hacking was a training ground for future endeavors in the computer industry.

The phone company was not amused, however, so these phreaks hid behind aliases like “Captain Crunch” and “Legion of Doom.” It was a subculture that few knew about until 1971, when Ron Rosenbaum’s Esquire article, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” profiled hacker Al Gilbertson. An excerpt:

“There is an underground telephone network in this country. Gilbertson discovered it the very day news of his activities hit the papers. That evening his phone began ringing. Phone phreaks from Seattle, from Florida, from New York, from San Jose, and from Los Angeles began calling him and telling him about the phone-phreak network. He’d get a call from a phone phreak who’d say nothing but, ‘Hang up and call this number.’

When he dialed the number he’d find himself tied into a conference of a dozen phone phreaks arranged through a quirky switching station in British Columbia. They identified themselves as phone phreaks, they demonstrated their homemade blue boxes which they called ‘M-F-ers’ (for ‘multi-frequency,’ among other things) for him, they talked shop about phone-phreak devices. They let him in on their secrets on the theory that if the phone company was after him he must be trustworthy. And, Gilbertson recalls, they stunned him with their technical sophistication.

I ask him how to get in touch with the phone-phreak network. He digs around through a file of old schematics and comes up with about a dozen numbers in three widely separated area codes.

‘Those are the centers,’ he tells me. Alongside some of the numbers he writes in first names or nicknames: names like Captain Crunch, Dr. No, Frank Carson (also a code word for a free call), Marty Freeman (code word for M-F device), Peter Perpendicular Pimple, Alefnull, and The Cheshire Cat. He makes checks alongside the names of those among these top twelve who are blind. There are five checks.

John T. Draper, the computer legend also known as "Captain Crunch." (Image by Aaron Getting.)

I ask him who this Captain Crunch person is.

‘Oh. The Captain. He’s probably the most legendary phone phreak. He calls himself Captain Crunch after the notorious Cap’n Crunch 2600 whistle.’ (Several years ago, Gilbertson explains, the makers of Cap’n Crunch breakfast cereal offered a toy-whistle prize in every box as a treat for the Cap’n Crunch set. Somehow a phone phreak discovered that the toy whistle just happened to produce a perfect 2600-cycle tone. When the man who calls himself Captain Crunch was transferred overseas to England with his Air Force unit, he would receive scores of calls from his friends and ‘mute’ them — make them free of charge to them — by blowing his Cap’n Crunch whistle into his end.)

‘Captain Crunch is one of the older phone phreaks,’ Gilbertson tells me. ‘He’s an engineer who once got in a little trouble for fooling around with the phone, but he can’t stop. Well, this guy drives across country in a Volkswagen van with an entire switchboard and a computerized super-sophisticated M-F-er in the back. He’ll pull up to a phone booth on a lonely highway somewhere, snake a cable out of his bus, hook it onto the phone and sit for hours, days sometimes, sending calls zipping back and forth across the country, all over the world….’

Back at my motel, I dialed the number he gave me for ‘Captain Crunch’ and asked for G—- T—–, his real name, or at least the name he uses when he’s not dashing into a phone booth beeping out M-F tones faster than a speeding bullet, and zipping phantomlike through the phone company’s long-distance lines.

When G—- T—– answered the phone and I told him I was preparing a story for Esquire about phone phreaks, he became very indignant.

‘I don’t do that. I don’t do that anymore at all. And if I do it, I do it for one reason and one reason only. I’m learning about a system. The phone company is a System. A computer is a System. Do you understand? If I do what I do, it is only to explore a System. Computers. Systems. That’s my bag. The phone company is nothing but a computer.'”

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The late David Foster Wallace has seven articles on Kelly's Top 100 list. (Image by Steve Rhodes.)

All-around brilliant guy Kevin Kelly is trying to decide which (English-language) magazine articles are the greatest ever. He’s come up with a list of 100 suggestions for the best and is asking readers to suggest their own and vote for their faves. Titles below are the leaders thus far. View the whole list.

David Foster Wallace, “Federer As Religious Experience.” The New York Times, Play Magazine, August 20, 2006.

David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster.” Gourmet, Aug 2004.

Neal Stephenson, “Mother Earth, Mother Board: Wiring the Planet.” Wired, December 1996. On laying trans-oceanic fiber optic cable.

Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Esquire, April 1966.

Ron Rosenbaum, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box.” Esquire, October 1971. The first and best account of telephone hackers, more amazing than you might believe.

Jon Krakauer, “Death of an Innocent: How Christopher McCandless Lost His Way in the Wilds.” Outside, January 1993. Article that became Into the Wild.

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