Billionaires vs. the Press

Emily Bazelon in The New York Times:

NewsIn 2005, Tim O’Brien, then a financial reporter at The New York Times, published the book “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald.” O'Brien talked to sources with an up-close view of Donald J. Trump’s finances, who concluded that the real-estate developer’s net worth was $150 million to $250 million, rather than the $2 billion to $5 billion Trump had variously claimed. Trump, who had courted O’Brien by taking him for rides in his Ferrari and private jet, sued O’Brien for libel in New Jersey in 2006. Trump called O’Brien a “wack job” on the “Today” show — while, O’Brien says, continuing to curry favor with him privately. O’Brien’s publisher, Warner Books, was also named in the suit and hired top lawyers who put Trump through an unsparing two-day deposition. Asked about his finances, Trump was caught lying or exaggerating 30 times. “He thought he’d get a friendly judge, and we would roll over,” says O’Brien, who is now the executive editor of Bloomberg View. “We didn’t.” The case went through four judges and was dismissed in 2009. Trump’s suit against O’Brien is one of seven forays President-elect Trump and his companies have made as libel plaintiffs. He won only once, when a defendant failed to appear. But the standard measure — defending his reputation and achieving victory in court — isn’t how Trump says he thinks about his investment. “I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees, and they spent a whole lot more,” he told The Washington Post in March about the hefty sum he spent on the case against O’Brien. “I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.”

Trump was wrong: Warner Books spent less than he did, and O’Brien paid nothing. But that doesn’t make Trump’s central idea any less jarring: that libel law can be a tool of revenge. It’s disconcerting for a superrich (if maybe not as rich as he says) plaintiff to treat the legal system as a weapon to be deployed against critics. Once installed in the White House, Trump will have a wider array of tools at his disposal, and his record suggests that, more than his predecessors, he will try to use the press — and also control and subdue it. As a candidate, Trump blustered vaguely that he wanted to “open up our libel laws.” I asked his spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, by email what he meant by that, but she didn’t answer the question (or others I posed). It’s not within the president’s direct powers to change the rules for libel suits. But our legal safeguards for writers and publishers aren’t foolproof. In the last few years, Trump has been joined by at least two billionaires who are determined to exploit cracks in the wall of defense around the press. The members of this club are innovators. They have sued or funded suits to defend reputations or protect privacy. But an underlying aim appears to be to punish critics like O’Brien or even destroy entire media outlets.

More here.

‘Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake’, by Leo Damrosch

51QRtiFZJtL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_James Ward at The Dublin Review of Books:

William Blake sets out his vision of the universe in the volumes known as his prophetic books. Botched creation, cruelty and liberation are the obsessive themes of his cosmogony, focused through filters of sexuality and gender difference. Famously described by Northrop Frye as being “in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry” in English, these books still go largely unread. But they were not really designed to be read according to conventional practice of deriving meaning from lines and blocks of text. Instead, on every page, serpentine lines writhe, coil and contort across fields of spectacular colour to form bodies and letters which combine to remind us that to “illustrate” means to make words lustrous. Much as “watching” falsely imputes careful monitorship to our consumption of television, “reading” hardly seems an adequate name for what goes on when we look at these works. Even though comics and graphic novels have made the pleasure a familiar one, there is still no good word in English for the simultaneous comprehension of words and pictures, which underlines the exceptional originality of what Blake was doing back at the turn of the eighteenth century. Hand-inscribed, chemically etched and mechanically printed, Blake’s visual-verbal poems represent a heroic but thankless effort to divert the historic course of book technology and propel the illuminated manuscript into the age of print. They could in theory have sold by the thousand but the intensity of labour involved in their production, the obtuse incomprehension of contemporaries and the indifference of the public meant that few copies were produced, and fewer bought, in his lifetime.

Even after his acceptance as a major poet (which came as late as the 1950s), reading Blake in anthologies or paperback classics feels wrong because the images are either entirely omitted or confined to a few grainy reproductions, with the unified whole inaccessible until very recently to those lacking privileged access to scholarly archives or expensive facsimile editions.

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This Francis Picabia Retrospective Is a Call to Mutiny

18-francis-picabia-002.nocrop.w529.h565Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine:

Who was Picabia? On some level it is astonishing that anyone would have to ask. Born wealthy in Paris in 1879, Picabia is a crucial co-inventor of five of the most far-reaching movements of the 20th century — Cubism, Dada (which he broke with), Surrealism (which he renounced), abstraction, and postmodernism. Provocative from start, he claimed to have made perfect copies of the art in his parent's home, selling the originals and replacing them with his own work. Picabia was smash success by the age of 26, called “a master” for his stiff Impressionism. The next year, he was showing internationally; the year after that brought the first monograph on his work. Revolutionary until the day he died, a bon vivant and ladies' man who often had overlapping wives or mistresses all living and traveling together, he said the “phallus should have eyes” to see “love up close.” (Put eyes inside the vagina as well and who could not love him!)

It’s not easy to generalize about what his work looks like since what really characterized his life was his overwhelming aesthetic restlessness. Picabia is the least know of the great modern masters. His animalistic unwillingness to be caged into any style or ism, his “can't step in the same river twice” insistence on constant artistic flux makes Picabia the Heraclitus-like God of Change of Modern Art. He said “the only movement is perpetual movement”; called isms “absurd traffic”; espoused a continuous “revolution in taste”; asserted that anything not modern has “no reason to exist.” Importantly, he refused to see art as a career, calling painting movements and isms the “paintocracy.”

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Amartya Sen: India is the only country trying to become a global economic power with an uneducated and unhealthy labour force

Sonali Campion and Taryana Odayar at the website of the London School of Economics:

SC: You have said that looking at the end point of a debate is not an ideal way of understanding the wider discussion. This seems relevant in relation to economic policy today, where developing countries aspire to high and continuous growth. What’s your view on the current Indian government’s manner of pursuing growth?

Amartya_Sen_NIHAS: Let me make a clarification first. The point about the end point not being the only issue asks what were the counter arguments that were considered? What were the different points of view that may or may have not have been aired, even if the end point is correct? That only becomes relevant when you agree with the end point. In the case of the policy as it stands now, that is not the case. I think the end point is wrong. The argumentation process is wrong as well, but there are two distinct issues here.

India is the only country in the world which is trying to become a global economic power with an uneducated and unhealthy labour force. It’s never been done before, and never will be done in the future either. There is a reason why Europe went for universal education, and so did America. Japan, after the Meiji restoration in 1868, wanted to get full literate in 40 years and they did. So did South Korea after the war, and Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China.

The whole idea that you could somehow separate out the process of economic growth from the quality of the labour force is a mistake against which Adam Smith warned in 1776. It’s an ancient danger, and he might have been right to think that the British government at the time did not pay sufficient interest in basic education for all. Unfortunately that applies today to government of India as well. It doesn’t acknowledge the relevance of the quality of human labour.

More here.

‘Millennium’ is full of gratitude for the staggering advances of 1,000 years

Steven Donoghue in The Christian Science Monitor:

BookPause for a moment from your rapt attention to this review of Ian Mortimer's terrific new book Millennium and look up. Look around you. Try to see the layers of time that blanket every feature of your world. It's a gambit that Mortimer employs often throughout his study of “how civilization has changed over a thousand years,” and it's unfailingly instructive. You're able to read this at all, in the first place, whereas for most of the previous thousand years, you probably wouldn't have been able to, unless you were a member of the clerical or landed elite. You're reading it in English, which no national publication would have used in the 11th century or for a good deal of time afterwards. The review is about a book, which scarcely anybody would have owned. Likewise the review assumes a common readership, which would have been forbidden – sometimes by fire or the rack – for more than half of the centuries under Mortimer's consideration. And if you're reading this on some kind of electronic device, we suddenly exclude all of history right up until the last twenty years. But it's more than that. One of the most bracing aspects of “Millennium” is the breadth of factors it covers, from food production to sanitation conditions to the Christian Church Militant to the development of firearms to radical changes in transportation of both people and products. If you employ a similar wide angle, the sheer scope of the changes Mortimer analyzes becomes staggering.

…The four core changes he identifies in his book, the “four primary sources underlying change over the last millennium,” are a) the weather in terms of how it affected food supply, the need for security, the fear of sickness, and the “desire for personal enrichment.” And the method Mortimer uses to track the fluctuating fortunes of these four core items (and plenty more) is at once thought-provoking and self-evidently artificial: He looks at each of the last 10 centuries as discreet, watertight eras and tries to assess the predominant changes each century saw that the others didn't see, prefacing the whole exercise with a smile-inducing bit of understatement: “Many of the important developments in Western culture do not fit neatly within the borders of a single century.”

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Fuck work


James Livingston in Aeon:

Work means everything to us Americans. For centuries – since, say, 1650 – we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labour, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve believed that, even if it sucks, a job gives meaning, purpose and structure to our everyday lives – at any rate, we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.

These beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills – unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.

These days, everybody from Left to Right – from the economist Dean Baker to the social scientist Arthur C Brooks, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump – addresses this breakdown of the labour market by advocating ‘full employment’, as if having a job is self-evidently a good thing, no matter how dangerous, demanding or demeaning it is. But ‘full employment’ is not the way to restore our faith in hard work, or in playing by the rules, or in whatever else sounds good. The official unemployment rate in the United States is already below 6 per cent, which is pretty close to what economists used to call ‘full employment’, but income inequality hasn’t changed a bit. Shitty jobs for everyone won’t solve any social problems we now face.

Don’t take my word for it, look at the numbers. Already a fourth of the adults actually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line – and so a fifth of American children live in poverty. Almost half of employed adults in this country are eligible for food stamps (most of those who are eligible don’t apply). The market in labour has broken down, along with most others.

Those jobs that disappeared in the Great Recession just aren’t coming back, regardless of what the unemployment rate tells you – the net gain in jobs since 2000 still stands at zero – and if they do return from the dead, they’ll be zombies, those contingent, part-time or minimum-wage jobs where the bosses shuffle your shift from week to week: welcome to Wal-Mart, where food stamps are a benefit.

More here.

Making a Man of the Mad Monk


Boris Dralyuk in the LARB:

For all the talk of seduction, depravity, and treason, Rasputin’s greatest crime was, it seems, to have been born a peasant with ambitions. The speed with which he had clambered up the social ladder, all the way into the throne room, left the country baffled. How did this happen? It had to have been his sexual prowess, or the work of “dark forces.” His growing philosemitism didn’t help matters. Here is another — and far profounder — irony in Rasputin’s story: superstition and mystical thinking, which had secured him the royal couple’s confidence, also fueled the frenzied reaction to his rise. The crumbling Russian Empire that emerges in Smith’s pages is distinctly pre-secular. It is also — in the parlance of today’s political analysts — distinctly post-factual.

From about 1908 until his death, Rasputin was the subject of near-constant surveillance. His code name in the Okhrana (secret police) files was first “The Russian,” then “The Dark One.” An agent’s report from 1912 reads: “‘The Russian’ […], when he is walking alone, particularly in the evening, talks to himself, waves his arms around, and slaps himself about the torso, which attracts the attention of passers-by.” Smith comments:

If these details are indeed accurate it should not be too surprising, for the pressure on Rasputin continued to mount and the scandals continued to grow […]. Throughout it all the press and the police had never left him alone. Rasputin was being hunted like an animal.

The countless investigations into Rasputin’s behavior were indeed witch hunts; so-called “reports” were biased allegations, either trumped-up or pulled out of thin air.

More here.

How to win arguments in the post-truth era


Bruno Diaz in 3:AM Magazine:

“I only know what I believe.” Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference Speech, 2004.
According to the likes of Faisal Islam, Ralph Keyes, and The New York Times we’ve entered the post-truth era. If they’re right, it’ll be a time when, like Tony Blair, we will eschew the achievements of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and base what we know not on what we prove through intellectual enquiry, but on what we believe as articles of faith. In this new world, as both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have shown, facts and experts will be pushed aside in favour of populism and emotion. Public opinion and government policy will be moulded by those whose words provoke the most hysteria. It’ll be a place where controversial opinion pieces, and the polemicists who write them, will be in great demand.
So with a cry of “The White House Here We Come!” these are some tips on how to get your opinions sounding like cast iron “facts” straight from the columns of Peter Hitchens, Owen Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos.

1. Be Perfectly Reasonable

Whatever or whoever you’re criticising, start out by saying that you think they’re great.
If it’s a person or an institution you’re targeting, follow Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s example in his critique of Guardian journalist Zoe Williams: “Williams is a great writer – original, clever and with a fine turn of phrase.”

If you’ve got a whole industry such as banks in your sights, take time to praise certain aspects of the financial sector, or to point out that you’re not talking about all banks, just a few bad apples. Whether or not you believe what you’re saying doesn’t matter – the point is to come across as someone filled with well-mannered common sense who would only be critical if it was absolutely necessary. Once the reader thinks of you in this way, it’ll seem perfectly reasonable, and believable, when you tar the Co-Op and Nationwide with the same brush as Bear Sterns, Lehmans and Deutsche.

As French playwright Jean Giraudoux put it: “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.”

More here.


CxKvZUmVIAEgHU2Forrest Gander at Literary Hub:

I’m not going to foretell the poems that I can’t read out loud without tearing up. But it might be fun to consider a single poem, the oddest in the collection, the one that gave the Spanish-language editors fits. A typed version of this poem, dated June 1968, was found in a filing cabinet with some conference papers. Subsequently, a handwritten version turned up.

It begins: “Roa Lynn and Patrick Morgan / were moored in these waters.” In the next lines, Lynn and Morgan sail off “to sea or to hell” while the dark river bearing “grief and blubbering” and all the particulars of our tumultuous world rushes toward us carrying—what else is it carrying? Something remarkable, we gather from the last lines. For the editors of the Spanish edition, this is an apocalyptical poem and the names Roa Lynn and Patrick Morgan refer to two of the ships’ figureheads that Neruda collected and fondly nicknamed Jenny Lind and Captain Morgan. How Jenny Lind became Roa Lynn and why the famous pirate Captain (Henry) Morgan changed his name to Patrick remain unexplained. But to make matters a little less clear, the editors add a series of curious etymological details, starting with the information that “roa,” in some language, may be a nautical term for the prow of a ship.

more here.

the things they burned

Imgres-1Jennifer Percy at The New Republic:

Specialist Nicolas Plantiko burned dogs. Sergeant Thomas J. Brennan burned lithium ion batteries, flame-resistant FROG suits, and MK-19 rounds. He burned plastic chemical drums, nylon, tires, wires, and tarps. He burned shit and piss.Sergeant Bill Moody’s unit burned a Porta-John, dried-up MREs, and 500 loaves of moldy bread. Staff Sergeant Louis Levesque burned bunk beds. Private Johnnie Stevenson burned plastic bottles because he loved the way they hissed. Airborne infantryman Dennis St. Pierre burned radio batteries and chemlights. Sergeant Carlos Castro joked about burning another soldier for talking too much. Captain Matthew Frye burned a packet of Tabasco sauce that exploded and nearly took out the JTAC’s eye. Staff Sergeant Tim Wymore burned 25 loads of DEET-soaked tents and walked around with the taste of smoke in his mouth. Sergeant Zachary Bell burned batteries because the Taliban used the carbon rods for IED triggers. Specialist Dante Sowell burned burlap bags so he wouldn’t have to fill them up with sand. Captain Adrian Bonenberger watched a Christmas tree go into a burn pit. Private George Snyder burned Private Stuart Decker’s one confirmed kill. Sergeant Casey Rohrich burned a human toe. They burned magazines, movies, junk food, college brochures, and pamphlets for the GI Bill. They burned amputated body parts and Humvee parts. They burned human waste and plastic meal trays. They burned the blood and clothes of the wounded.

Everything—all the trash of the war—was thrown in a burn pit, soaked with jet fuel, and torched. There were hundreds of open-air garbage dumps, spread out across Afghanistan and Iraq, right next to encampments where American soldiers lived and worked, ate and slept. The pits burned day and night, many of them around the clock, seven days a week. There were backyard-size pits lit by patrols of a few dozen men, and massive, industrial-size pits designed to incinerate the endless stream of waste produced by U.S. military bases.

more here.

Friday Poem

Robert Harrington 1558

Get you, with your almain rivetts (latest
fad from Germany), and your corselet,
and your two coats of plate! How much harness

does a man need? None, when he’s in his grave.
Your sons may have it, together with your
damask and satin gowns to show off in;

while you go to lie down in Witham church,
and the most armour I’ve seen in a will
rusts or turns ridiculous in this world.

by Fleur Adcock
from Glass Wings
publisher: Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 2013

The Sublime Obsession of Plane Spotting

1-1Rose Lichter-Marck at VQR:

Plane spotters—or “avgeeks,” as some call themselves—travel around the world in order to hang out near airport runways so that they can watch and document planes as they take off and land. Before the advent of the internet, spotters would meet up at conventions or connect in the back pages of enthusiast magazines in order to trade mounted film slides of their best shots. Now they post pictures on online forums such as,, and, as well as on Flickr and Facebook groups dedicated to the art and practice of aviation enthusiasm.

The details they collect provide an open-source trove of data about global commerce and politics, which has been invaluable to journalists and whistleblowers (not to mention various intelligence-gathering agencies) seeking to identify planes and their passengers. When Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s private plane flew to Florida in the summer of 2014, his visit was documented by spotters at Miami International, which allowed reporters to predict the return of LeBron James to his hometown. In December 2014, spotting data helped analysts track unlisted flights between Tel Aviv and the United Arab Emirates, despite the fact that Israel had a limited diplomatic relationship with the monarchies of Persian Gulf states. In the fall of 2015, Israel announced it would be opening it’s first diplomatic mission in the UAE. In 2007, Tunisian blogger Astrubal searched plane-spotting sites for Tunisia’s presidential plane. His crowdsourced effort revealed that although the president had made only three state-sanctioned trips, the plane had left the country more than ten times, with visits to European capitals where there was no record of official business.

more here.


John Freeman in Literary Hub:

ScreenHunter_2395 Nov. 24 20.48I would like to say on his behalf that Colson Whitehead that he is overjoyed to be here, even if he does not show it. “I have a good poker face,” Whitehead wrote in Noble Hustle, his book about gambling and Las Vegas, “because I am half dead inside.” “I was a skinny guy, but I was morbidly obese with doom.”

We know him in NYC as Mr. Sunshine, and, to a small, small cadres, Cuddles, but no writer across all of America has had more fun with serious things in the last twenty years as Colson Whitehead. If Ishmael Reed & Thomas Pynchon collaborated to put together an absurdist theater group, they might call it Colson Whitehead. It would have been established in 1969, in Manhattan, nurtured at Harvard, and workshopped at the Village Voice, where Colson Whitehead was for a few years a TV critic.

He once said he liked that job because he could work four hours a week. It was in the other thirty that he began his first book, The Intuitionist, a parody of a detective story about a woman named Lila Mae in the Department of Elevator Inspectors who has stumbled on a moment of intrigue. That novel was a brilliant evocation of the notion of racial uplift in a city much like New York, just slightly different.

Across the rest of his career, Whitehead has been the dour-faced poet laureate of the city which is his home.

More here.

U.S. Military researchers are developing responses for accidental or malicious “genetic spills”

Josie Garthwaite in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_2394 Nov. 24 20.41If a tanker splits its hull and dumps oil into the sea, trained teams show up with specialized gear to begin the process of stanching the flow and cleaning up the spill. Today, there’s no equivalent team or tools for resolving a “spill” of genetic material into the environment, but that could soon change.

Over the next four years a new program in the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) plans to cultivate, among other things, a kind of cleanup crew for engineered genes deemed harmful to or undesirable in an ecosystem. The initiative, called Safe Genes, comes at a time when so-called “gene drive” systems, which override the standard rules of gene inheritance and natural selection, are raising hopes among some scientists that the technology could alter or suppress populations of disease-carrying insects or other pests in as few as 20 generations.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sees so much promise in gene drive technology that it plans to double spending on its Target Malaria initiative, which aims to create systems for driving genes in two species of malaria mosquitoes, to $70 million. Yet without careful precautions, a gene drive released into the wild could spread or change in unexpected ways. Kevin Esvelt, head of the Sculpting Evolution lab at MIT Media Lab, which is applying for Safe Genes funding in collaboration with eight other research groups, predicts that eventually, perhaps around 15 years from now, an accident will allow a drive with potential to spread globally to escape laboratory controls. “It’s not going to be bioterror,” he says, “it’s going to be ‘bioerror.’”

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Physics Thanksgiving

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

ScreenHunter_2393 Nov. 24 20.36This year we give thanks for a feature of the physical world that many people grumble about rather than celebrating, but is undeniably central to how Nature works at a deep level: the speed of light. (We’ve previously given thanks for the Standard Model Lagrangian, Hubble’s Law, the Spin-Statistics Theorem, conservation of momentum, effective field theory, the error bar, gauge symmetry, Landauer’s Principle, the Fourier Transform and Riemannian Geometry.)

The speed of light in vacuum, traditionally denoted by c, is 299,792,458 meters per second. It’s exactly that, not just approximately; it turns out to be easier to measure intervals of time to very high precision than it is to measure distances in space, so we measure the length of a second experimentally, then definethe meter to be “the distance that light travels 299,792,458 of in one second.” Personally I prefer to characterize c as “one light-year per year”; that’s equally exact, and it’s easier to remember all the significant figures that way.

There are a few great things about the speed of light. One is that it’s a fixed, universal constant, as measured by inertial (unaccelerating) observers, in vacuum (empty space). Of course light can slow down if it propagates through a medium, but that’s hardly surprising. The other great thing is that it’s an upper limit; physical particles, as far as we know in the real world, always move at speeds less than or equal to c.

That first fact, the universal constancy of c, is the startling feature that set Einstein on the road to figuring out relativity. It’s a crazy claim at first glance: if two people are moving relative to each other (maybe because one is in a moving car and one is standing on the sidewalk) and they measure the speed of a third object (like a plane passing overhead) relative to themselves, of course they will get different answers. But not with light. I can be zipping past you at 99% of c, directly at an oncoming light beam, and both you and I will measure it to be moving at the same speed. That’s only sensible if something is wonky about our conventional pre-relativity notions of space and time, which is what Einstein eventually figured out.

More here.