AI is now remorselessly generating tragedy

Wednesday, February 28th, 2024

The amount of AI-generated content is beginning to overwhelm the internet, Erik Hoel argues:

Or maybe a better term is pollute. Pollute its searches, its pages, its feeds, everywhere you look. I’ve been predicting that generative AI would have pernicious effects on our culture since 2019, but now everyone can feel it. Back then I called it the coming “semantic apocalypse.”

[…]

Now that generative AI has dropped the cost of producing bullshit to near zero, we see clearly the future of the internet: a garbage dump. Google search? They often lead with fake AI-generated images amid the real things. Post on Twitter? Get replies from bots selling porn. But that’s just the obvious stuff. Look closely at the replies to any trending tweet and you’ll find dozens of AI-written summaries in response, cheery Wikipedia-style repeats of the original post, all just to farm engagement. AI models on Instagram accumulate hundreds of thousands of subscribers and people openly shill their services for creating them. AI musicians fill up YouTube and Spotify. Scientific papers are being AI-generated. AI images mix into historical research. This isn’t mentioning the personal impact too: from now on, every single woman who is a public figure will have to deal with the fact that deepfake porn of her is likely to be made. That’s insane.

[…]

YouTube for kids is quickly becoming a stream of synthetic content. Much of it now consists of wooden digital characters interacting in short nonsensical clips without continuity or purpose. Toddlers are forced to sit and watch this runoff because no one is paying attention. And the toddlers themselves can’t discern that characters come and go and that the plots don’t make sense and that it’s all just incoherent dream-slop. The titles don’t match the actual content, and titles that are all the parents likely check, because they grew up in a culture where if a YouTube video said BABY LEARNING VIDEOS and had a million views it was likely okay. Now, some of the nonsense AI-generated videos aimed at toddlers have tens of millions of views.

[…]

For the first time in history developing brains are being fed choppy low-grade and cheaply-produced synthetic data created en masse by generative AI, instead of being fed with real human culture. No one knows the effects, and no one appears to care.

[…]

That is, the OpenAI team didn’t stop to think that regular users just generating mounds of AI-generated content on the internet would have very similar negative effects to as if there were a lot of malicious use by intentional bad actors.

[…]

Since the internet economy runs on eyeballs and clicks the new ability of anyone, anywhere, to easily generate infinite low-quality content via AI is now remorselessly generating tragedy.

Despite hating mobs and technically being a nobleman, Napoleon welcomed the Revolution

Saturday, February 24th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsDespite hating mobs and technically being a nobleman, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), Napoleon welcomed the Revolution:

At least in its early stages it accorded well with the Enlightenment ideals he had ingested from his reading of Rousseau and Voltaire. He embraced its anti-clericalism and did not mind the weakening of a monarchy for which he had no particular respect. Beyond that, it seemed to offer Corsica prospects of greater independence, and far better career opportunities for an ambitious young outsider without money or connections. Napoleon believed that the new social order it promised to usher in would destroy both of these disadvantages and would be built on logic and reason, which the Enlightenment philosophes saw as the only true foundations for authority.

[…]

Although Napoleon faithfully carried out his military duties, putting down food riots in Valence and Auxonne — where some men from his own regiment mutinied and joined the rioters — he was an early adherent of the local branch of the revolutionary Society of the Friends of the Constitution.

[…]

Napoleon was unimpressed by what he found in Paris. ‘The men at the head of the Revolution are a poor lot,’ he wrote to Joseph. ‘Everyone pursues his own interest, and searches to gain his own ends by dint of all sorts of crimes; people intrigue as basely as ever. All this destroys ambition. One pities those who have the misfortune to play a part in public affairs.’

[…]

Napoleon was in Paris on June 20, 1792 when the mob invaded the Tuileries, captured Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and forced the king to wear a red cap of liberty on the palace balcony. Bourrienne had met him at a restaurant on the rue Saint-Honoré, and when they saw a heavily armed crowd marching towards the palace, he claims that Napoleon said, ‘Let’s follow the rabble.’ Taking their place on the riverside terrace, they then watched with (presumably well-disguised) ‘surprise and indignation’ the historic scenes that followed.

[…]

Bourrienne later reported that Napoleon remarked: ‘What madness! How could they allow that rabble to enter? Why do they not sweep away four or five hundred of them with cannon? Then the rest would take themselves off very quickly.’ The humiliation of the royal family on that occasion further lowered the monarchy in Napoleon’s estimation. He supported the toppling of the king but could not understand why Louis XVI had meekly allowed himself to be humiliated. As it was, the royal couple had less than two months of this hazardous liberty left to them.

[…]

Napoleon’s contempt for the pusillanimity of the Bourbons was again made clear on August 10, when the mob returned to arrest the king and queen and massacred their Swiss Guards.

[…]

Che coglione!’ (‘What asses!’) he exclaimed in Italian when, from an upstairs window, he saw the Swiss Guards refrain from firing on the mob, at what turned out to be the cost of their lives.

[…]

Napoleon didn’t deny his own Jacobin past when he ruled France, saying, ‘At one time every man of spirit was bound to be one’, and he gave two of Robespierre’s female relatives annual pensions of 7,200 francs and 1,800 francs respectively.

[…]

By mid-October Napoleon was back in Ajaccio promoting the Jacobin cause, returning to his lieutenant-colonelcy of the Corsican National Guard rather than taking up the captaincy of the 4th Regiment of Artillery in France’s regular army. He found the island far more anti-French than it had been when he left, especially after the September Massacres and the declaration of the Republic. Yet he remained, as he put it, ‘persuaded that the best thing Corsica could do was to become a province of France’.

[…]

‘Had the French been more moderate and not put Louis to death,’ he later opined, ‘all Europe would have been revolutionized: the war saved England.

It is a disturbing tale, full of violent late-teenage angst

Saturday, February 17th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon was a writer manqué, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), penning around sixty essays, novellas, philosophical pieces, histories, treatises, pamphlets and open letters before the age of twenty-six:

In early May 1786, aged sixteen, Napoleon wrote a two-page essay entitled ‘On Suicide’ which mixed the anguished cry of a romantic nationalist with an exercise in classical oratory. ‘Always alone and in the midst of men, I come back to my rooms to dream with myself, and to surrender myself to all the vivacity of my melancholy,’ he wrote. ‘In which direction are my thoughts turned today? Toward death.’

[…]

A few days after the successful conclusion of the shell-testing project, Napoleon wrote the first paragraph of his ‘Dissertation sur l’Autorité Royale’, which argued that military rule was a better system of government than tyranny and concluded, unambiguously: ‘There are very few kings who would not deserve to be dethroned.’

[…]

Luckily, just as he was about to send his ‘Dissertation’ to a publisher, the news arrived that Étienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne, Louis XVI’s finance minister, to whom the essay was dedicated, had been dismissed. Napoleon quickly rescinded publication.

His writing mania extended to drafting the regulations for his officers’ mess, which he somehow turned into a 4,500-word document full of literary orotundities such as: ‘Night can hold no gloom for he who overlooks nothing that might in any way compromise his rank or his uniform. The penetrating eyes of the eagle and the hundred heads of Argus would barely suffice to fulfil the obligations and duties of his mandate.’

In January 1789 he wrote a Romantic melodrama, ‘The Earl of Essex: An English Story’, not his finest literary endeavour. ‘The fingers of the Countess sank into gaping wounds,’ begins one paragraph. ‘Her fingers dripped with blood. She cried out, hid her face, but looking up again could see nothing. Terrified, trembling, aghast, cut to the very quick by these terrible forebodings, the Countess got into a carriage and arrived at the Tower.’ The story includes assassination plots, love, murder, premonitions, and the overthrow of King James II.

Continuing in this melodramatic style, in March 1789 Napoleon wrote a two-page short story called ‘The Mask of the Prophet’, about a handsome and charismatic Arab soldier-prophet, Hakem, who has to wear a silver mask because he has been disfigured by illness. Having fallen out with the local prince, Mahadi, Hakem has his disciples dig lime-filled pits, supposedly for their enemies, but he poisons his own followers, throws their bodies into the pits and finally immolates himself. It is a disturbing tale, full of violent late-teenage angst.

It will be years before they can offer new, redesigned ADB headlights

Thursday, February 15th, 2024

In Europe and Asia, many cars offer adaptive driving beam headlights that can bath the road ahead in bright light without ever blinding other drivers:

ADB is a lighting technology that has been available for many years in other parts of the world including Europe, China and Canada, but not in the United States.

It can actually shape the light coming from headlights rather than scattering it all over the road. If there’s a car coming in the other direction, or one driving ahead in the same lane, the light stays precisely away from that vehicle. The rest of the road is still covered in bright light with just a pocket of dimmer light around the other vehicles. This way a deer, pedestrian or bicyclist by the side of the road can still be seen clearly while other drivers sharing the road can see, too.

In America, the closest we can get to that today are automatic high beams, a feature available on many new cars that automatically flicks off the high beams if another vehicle is detected ahead. But that still means driving much — or most — of the time using only low beam headlights that don’t reach very far. That can be dangerous.

US auto safety regulations enacted in 2022 were supposed to finally allow ADB headlight, something for which the auto industry and safety groups had long been asking for. But, according to automakers and safety advocates, the new rules make it difficult for automakers to add the feature. That means it will probably be years before ADB headlights are widely available in the US.

ADB-enabled headlights already are sold on some luxury cars in America. They just lack the software to perform the way they were designed to. Some American Mercedes drivers can enjoy a dazzling light display as they start up or shut off their cars at night. Moving streaks of light wash across the pavement or walls in front of the car like a glittering snowstorm. But, while driving, the lights work just like standard high beam, low beam headlights. Their adaptive capabilities aren’t enabled here because they still don’t meet US rules.

Some ADB headlights work like digital projectors, using a million or more LED pixels to project light patterns on the road. Even in the US, some Mercedes vehicles can project symbols like arrows or lines on the road to guide drivers. Less expensive systems in Europe and Asia use several thousand or even fewer light emitters, reflectors or shutter systems to create adaptive beams,

Until two years ago, US auto safety regulations, written for traditional headlights, simply didn’t allow for adaptive headlight technology at all. Light beams wrapping around other vehicles just wasn’t something the regulations could encompass so the technology wasn’t allowed here by default.

That changed in early 2022 when, after a decade of work on it, America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finalized regulations for adaptive beam headlights. But because the US regulations are so different from those in other countries, with requirements so difficult to meet, automakers still can’t offer it here. It will be years before they can offer new, redesigned ADB headlights that meet the standards, auto industry sources say.

[…]

NHTSA’s rules require the ADB headlights to respond extremely swiftly after detecting another vehicle within reach of the lights, much faster than other standards require in the EU and Canada. Also much faster than a human could switch off an ordinary high beam headlight. They also dictate extreme narrow lines between bright and dark regions.

He had little interest in equality of outcome, human rights, freedom of the press or parliamentarianism

Saturday, February 10th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsBy the time Napoleon had spent five years at Brienne and one at the École Militaire, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), he was thoroughly imbued with the military ethos:

His acceptance of the revolutionary principles of equality before the law, rational government, meritocracy, efficiency and aggressive nationalism fit in well with this ethos but he had little interest in equality of outcome, human rights, freedom of the press or parliamentarianism, all of which, to his mind, did not. Napoleon’s upbringing imbued him with a reverence for social hierarchy, law and order, and a strong belief in reward for merit and courage, but also a dislike of politicians, lawyers, journalists and Britain.

As Claude-François de Méneval, the private secretary who succeeded Bourrienne in 1802, was later to write, Napoleon left school with ‘pride, and a sentiment of dignity, a warlike instinct, a genius for form, a love of order and of discipline’. These were all part of the officer’s code, and made him into a profound social conservative. As an army officer, Napoleon believed in centralized control within a recognized hierarchical chain of command and the importance of maintaining high morale. Order in matters of administration and education was vital. He had a deep, instinctive distaste for anything which looked like a mutinous canaille (mob). None of these feelings was to change much during the French Revolution, or, indeed, for the rest of his life.

The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows

Friday, February 9th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonKay S. Hymowitz reviews Rob Henderson’s Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class:

In Rob Henderson’s first recounted memory in his new memoir, Troubled, he is three years old, screaming in terror and clinging to his mother as two policemen wrestle handcuffs onto her wrists. He had no idea why this was happening, of course; the scuffle likely had something to do with his mother’s incorrigible drug addiction. A Korean-born college dropout, she relied on prostitution to support her habit. When she and Rob weren’t living in a car, she would tie him to a chair in the apartment to attend to her customers. Her other two boys, Rob’s brothers, had different fathers; Rob would never know them or learn what became of them.

[…]

His life took a turn for the better when, lacking alternatives, he enlisted in the Air Force. Conventional wisdom has it that boys like Rob learn self-discipline and responsibility from military life, but Henderson has a different take. The military didn’t “transform” him, he argued — it merely stopped him from becoming a self-destructive basket case. Most kids with his background are not so lucky.

[…]

Later, he was accepted at Yale University. For all elite universities’ problems — Henderson spotted them quickly — Yale was rocket fuel for his under-exercised brain. Henderson sounded like the kind of student that professors pray for but rarely see: mature, mindful, and hungry for knowledge. He didn’t just “do the reading;” he tested the ideas he encountered against own experiences and observations.

Class by Paul Fussell

Henderson’s restless mind had been particularly stimulated by a 1983 book called Class: A Guide Through America’s Status System by the iconoclastic historian-critic Paul Fussell. Class opens Henderson’s eyes to the distance between forlorn places like Red Bluff and the towns of his Yale classmates’ upper middle-class upbringings. He noticed more than the obvious markers of privilege, like the students in $900 Canadian Goose jackets who strode around campus; he discovered the more subtle ways people like him were kept from moving up. Voguish words like “heteronormative” and “cisgender,” for instance, signaled that the speaker was a member of the educated class. Fussell had remarked that upper-class people often name their pets after literary or historical figures to flaunt their education. Sure enough, one of the first Yalies Henderson met had a pet cat named “Learned Claw,” a play on the name of jurist Learned Hand.

Henderson became fascinated by “class divides and social hierarchies,” adding Pierre Bourdeau, Emile Durkheim, and Thorstein Veblen to his reading list. His primary source, however, was Yale itself. In Red Bluff, hardly anyone went to college or even aspired to go; at Yale, he watched The Sopranos and was struck by Carmella’s dedication to getting daughter Meadow into Columbia. College, he realized, was the most powerful class signifier of all.

Troubled’s penultimate chapter, which might be subtitled “What I Learned at Yale,” is a tour de force that in a more rational world would be required reading for all incoming college students at elite schools. In it, Henderson developed his now widely cited concept of “luxury beliefs.” Yale students, appearing aware of their own advantages and compassionate to the downtrodden, would proudly repeat ideas that the boy from Red Bluff knew would harm the marginalized. Many of the parents of his childhood friends were drug addicts, yet his college peers cheered on drug liberalization, for example. And why not? It seemed enlightened and cost people like them nothing.

For Henderson, the most painful luxury beliefs were those that undermined families and the childhood stability he had so desperately craved. “Monogamy is kind of outdated,” a Yale graduate announced. She admitted that she had grown up with both parents and hoped someday to marry — monogamously, of course. In such people’s minds, to acknowledge the benefits of two-parent families and the stability that they are more likely to confer is to be insensitive to less fortunate families with different family structures. This attitude gets things backward, Henderson writes: “It’s cruel to validate decisions that inflict harm, especially on those who had no hand in the decision—like young children.” Luxury believers pay no price for ignoring the harms they endorse. In fact, it’s the opposite — they gain social currency at places like Yale. “The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows,” Henderson said.

Harvard is something of a national institution, and its admissions policies have become everyone’s business

Wednesday, January 31st, 2024

Harvard admissions should be more meritocratic, Steven A. Pinker, Contributing Opinion Writer, opines:

Thanks to its tax-exempt status, federal funding, and outsize role as a feeder school to the American elite, Harvard is something of a national institution, and its admissions policies have become everyone’s business.

Others argue that holistic admissions are necessary to avoid a class of grinds and drudges. But elite universities should be the last to perpetuate this destructive stereotype. It would be ludicrous if anyone suggested that Harvard pick its graduate students or faculty for their prowess in athletics or music or improv comedy, yet these people are certainly no shallower than our undergraduates.

In any case, the stereotype is false. The psychologists Camilla P. Benbow and David Lubinski have found that precocious adolescents with sky-high SAT scores grew up to excel not only in academia, medicine, business, and technology, but also in literature, drama, art, and music.

Instead of “holistic admissions,” I suggest using a transparent formula that is weighted toward test scores and high school grades, adjusting it by whichever other factors can be publicly justified, such as geographic and socioeconomic diversity, and allowing for human judgment in exceptional cases. (I recognize the arguments for including race, but that has been judged unconstitutional, so the issue is moot.)

Having garbage-strewn subways that effectively serve as mobile homeless shelters is no way to run a public transit system

Monday, January 29th, 2024

It’s always jarring to come home to the US, Chris Arnade notes, often from much poorer countries, to find that our infrastructure is infinitely worse:

But it was what happened after I left the airport that convinced me that America, and especially NYC, is broken.

[…]

The train, to be fair, was on time. But it was filthy. The carriages were mostly empty, except for three or four homeless guys in each who were either sleeping or passed-out. The dozen or so of us who got on at the first stop chose our seats carefully, positioning ourselves close to each other, for safety, and as far as possible from the sprawled-out guys and their piles of trash and puddles of urine.

[…]

I thought about Sofia, where the subways and buses — and other public spaces and resources — are so much cleaner, safer, and smoother. Where workers simply wanting to get to their jobs don’t have to deal with navigating the mentally ill, addicted and desperate every day. For context, the GDP of Manhattan alone is about nine times that of the entire nation of Bulgaria. But NYC’s problems only seem to be getting worse, especially for those who have the least. I don’t have to take the subway; I have the cash for an Uber. But I try to see, and to understand a little, the world as most people see and understand the world.

[…]

Eventually, that morning, a guy covered in old vomit and carrying a cane, his trousers only just above his knees, got onto the subway train, and went up and down each carriage, hitting every sleeping or passed-out guy on the legs, yelling at them to move on, to give the rest of us some space. Everyone else pretended it wasn’t happening, hoping it wouldn’t go south, focusing instead on the floor or their phones.

[…]

But having garbage-strewn subways that effectively serve as mobile homeless shelters is no way to run a public transit system. It isn’t fair on the riders who don’t have the money to avoid the subway. It also isn’t fair on the homeless, who are being encouraged — or at least not discouraged — to hang out on crowded trains, maximising the chances that bad stuff will happen.

[…]

One of the forces that influenced LA authorities, though they won’t admit it, is homelessness. They built La Sombrita, rather than a proper bus shelter, for the same reason NYC is taking benches out of Port Authority: they don’t want people to sleep there. It’s something you see more and more in American cities: a locking down of public spaces in an attempt to deal with the growth of the homeless population. A removal of resources for the majority, because of concerns over “misuse” by less than 1% of residents.

[…]

To get big-brained about it, something like La Sombrita could only happen in a high-regulation/low-trust society like the US. If regulations massively limit both bottom-up and top-down solutions, and if those solutions are expected to protect against all sorts of bad behaviour, you end up building the least to mitigate the worst — building things the majority doesn’t want, or doesn’t find useful.

The high-regulation part of the US is usually couched in the language of safety, but it’s really about not allowing organic growth, which is messy — even though, people being people, it tends to result in things the majority really wants. Ecuador, by contrast, is a low-regulation (although low-trust) society: here, you get ad hoc, bottom-up solutions. If there is a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, without natural shade around it, riders rig an umbrella to a pole, or throw some old seats under a tree. In the US, such solutions would be dismantled within days.

But also, in places like Quito, bus stops attract street vendors, who come with umbrellas, making people feel safer by their very presence. LA has some of that, but it’s against the letter of the law, and vendors are constantly hassled with fines, or threats of shutdowns. My favourite taco place was closed down twice during my short stint in LA, for bureaucratic reasons. All this is to say that in Quito getting the bus is a much more pleasant experience than in LA — even though the latter city is roughly 1,000 times richer than Ecuador, and the latter has its own serious troubles.

Regulations themselves aren’t the problem, though. Germany, like much of northern Europe, is a high-regulation society, but it’s also high-trust, compared to the US. Here, nice and fully functional things are built without fear of misuse. For Americans, who have both a high-regulation and low-trust society, this is all rather depressing; it’s the combination that means we can’t have nice things.

Drug and chemical warfare was sort of a parallel arms race

Friday, January 26th, 2024

Tripping on Utopia by Benjamin BreenUC Santa Cruz historian Benjamin Breen’s Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science tracks the souring of the idealism once associated with the study of psychedelic drugs in the 20th century:

More concretely, it focuses on the intertwined lives of two cultural anthropologists — Mead and Gregory Bateson, who were married for 14 years — and the extraordinary circle of social scientists, psychoanalysts, artists and spies who gathered around them from the 1930s through the ’70s.

[…]

People in the ’20s and ’30s genuinely thought science could, for instance, lead to the formation of a world government.

Mead and Bateson thought that scientists would lead the vanguard of a revolution in bringing the wisdom and the experiences of other cultures into the modern world, the creation of a sort of global culture that would allow for some form of transcendence. World War II really changed their view.

So there was a strong belief that in the aftermath of the atomic bomb that the way to win a war was to never end up in actual combat. Psychological warfare was the way to go — you know, basically the idea of game theory. For instance, the American side imagined, “What if the Soviets have a mind-altering drug and they give it to the president of the United States or slip it into the ambassador to Moscow’s drink?” That concern actually prompted parallel work by the CIA and the U.S. military. Drug and chemical warfare was sort of a parallel arms race alongside the nuclear arms race.

And that is what we mostly associate today with MKUltra. But it was much bigger than that. There were many other programs. and I barely scratched the surface. For instance, the idea of dropping aerosolized LSD over cities was something people thought about, but also [to use it] as a tool of diplomacy, a way of interrogating suspected double agents, even as a way of inuring Americans in the State Department. There were many layers of paranoia.

European immigrants returned to their home countries in huge numbers between 1908 and 1925

Thursday, January 18th, 2024

The Jews were not like the Poles, Italians or Germans who arrived with them in New York harbor:

Polish or German families sent their young men ahead of the family to establish themselves and make the family’s arrival more comfortable. Italians who found the immigrant life too difficult returned to their home country in large numbers.

But Jews behaved differently. Once they decided to leave, they sold everything, boarded ships and arrived on America’s shores as whole families. They knew they would not be returning.

During the Panic of 1907, 300,000 Italian immigrants returned home to Italy.

[..]

European immigrants returned to their home countries in huge numbers between 1908 and 1925: 57% of Italians, 40% of Poles, 64% of Hungarians, 67% of Romanians and 55% of Russians.

Among Jews, the figure was just 5%.

[…]

In 1910, when the US had already absorbed some two million East European Jews, New York Immigration Commissioner William Williams ended his annual report with a warning: “The time has come when it is necessary to put aside false sentimentality in dealing with a question of immigration, and to give more consideration to its racial and economic aspects and in deciding what additional immigrants we shall receive, to remember that our first duty is to our country.”

[…]

In 1921, the US Congress decided to act. It passed the Emergency Quota Act and then the 1924 Quota Act, severely reducing Jewish immigration from over 120,000 per year to under 3,000 a decade later.

These places don’t want you

Wednesday, January 17th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonRob Henderson was more than a little surprised to discover that none of the major bookstores in New York City or San Francisco would host an event for his new book, Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class:

Zero.

All inquiries either outright declined or ignored altogether.

I scanned the websites of some of these bookstores. They are hosting events for authors with 2,000 Twitter/X followers and, in several cases, little to no online or cultural footprint beyond a perch at one of the many dying legacy media outlets.

[…]

I have 136,000 followers on Twitter/X. I have nearly 50,000 subscribers on this Substack. My writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, Psychology Today, and many other mainstream outlets. I broke myself in half to enlist in the military and then study at Yale and Cambridge.

[…]

If you grow up poor and aren’t willing to pledge fealty to the right causes, these places don’t want you. If you grew up poor, remake your fortunes, and then speak truthfully about the factors that fuel success (hard work, determination, sacrifice) rather than the factors elites speak about (luck, systemic forces, privilege), then these places don’t want you.

[…]

The kinds of people who work in these spaces claim to be open-minded. They claim they want to elevate and center voices from marginalized communities.

That’s what they claim.

Let me repeat a stat that doesn’t get shared enough:

Three percent of kids in the foster system graduate from college.

[…]

One of us somehow manages to join that minuscule group. And build a large enough platform to communicate about his experiences. And write a book about the obstacles so many young people face. A book that has been warmly endorsed by people across the political spectrum. A book that has received positive early reviews from professional reviewers. One of us manages to miraculously reach a position to communicate the difficulties of sidelined and struggling kids across the country.

But the people who run bookstores aren’t interested in hosting a conversation about it. Apparently, the people who run bookstores are more afraid of confronting my past than I am.

It was like walking into a mob scene

Sunday, January 14th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonIn the early days of PayPal, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), Musk and Michael Moritz went to New York to see if they could recruit Rudy Giuliani to be a “political fixer” for becoming a bank:

But as soon as they walked into his office, they knew it would not work. “It was like walking into a mob scene,” Moritz says. “He was surrounded by goonish confidantes. He didn’t have any idea whatsoever about Silicon Valley, but he and his henchmen were eager to line their pockets.” They asked for 10 percent of the company, and that was the end of the meeting. “This guy occupies a different planet,” Musk told Moritz.

White recruiting has fallen

Thursday, January 11th, 2024

The Army missed its target of 65,000 new recruits in 2023 by about 10,000 soldiers, due to a sharp decline in White recruits:

A total of 44,042 new Army recruits were categorized by the service as white in 2018, but that number has fallen consistently each year to a low of 25,070 in 2023, with a 6% dip from 2022 to 2023 being the most significant drop. No other demographic group has seen such a precipitous decline, though there have been ups and downs from year to year.

In 2018, 56.4% of new recruits were categorized as white. In 2023, that number had fallen to 44%. During that same five-year period, Black recruits have gone from 20% to 24% of the pool, and Hispanic recruits have risen from 17% to 24%, with both groups seeing largely flat recruiting totals but increasing as a percentage of incoming soldiers as white recruiting has fallen.

Carl Bernstein spent six months looking at the CIA and the Media

Thursday, December 28th, 2023

After leaving The Washington Post in 1977, Carl Bernstein spent six months looking at the CIA and the Media:

The tasks they performed sometimes consisted of little more than serving as “eyes and ears” for the CIA; reporting on what they had seen or overheard in an Eastern European factory, at a diplomatic reception in Bonn, on the perimeter of a military base in Portugal. On other occasions, their assignments were more complex: planting subtly concocted pieces of misinformation; hosting parties or receptions designed to bring together American agents and foreign spies; serving up “black” propaganda to leading foreign journalists at lunch or dinner; providing their hotel rooms or bureau offices as “drops” for highly sensitive information moving to and from foreign agents; conveying instructions and dollars to CIA controlled members of foreign governments.

Often the CIA’s relationship with a journalist might begin informally with a lunch, a drink, a casual exchange of information. An Agency official might then offer a favor—for example, a trip to a country difficult to reach; in return, he would seek nothing more than the opportunity to debrief the reporter afterward. A few more lunches, a few more favors, and only then might there be a mention of a formal arrangement — “That came later,” said a CIA official, “after you had the journalist on a string.”

Another official described a typical example of the way accredited journalists (either paid or unpaid by the CIA) might be used by the Agency: “In return for our giving them information, we’d ask them to do things that fit their roles as journalists but that they wouldn’t have thought of unless we put it in their minds. For instance, a reporter in Vienna would say to our man, ‘I met an interesting second secretary at the Czech Embassy.’ We’d say, ‘Can you get to know him? And after you get to know him, can you assess him? And then, can you put him in touch with us—would you mind us using your apartment?”‘

The remains were put on display, but there was no media interest

Monday, December 18th, 2023

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingIf the Pentagon hates drones, David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers), the CIA seems to love them:

Drones have a unique capability to carry out deniable operations, which are important to the CIA. The Agency learned the hard way just how disastrous it can be when a spy plane mission goes wrong.

[…]

Four years after the U-2 incident, the Chinese shot down a number of Fire Fly drones in their airspace. The remains were put on display and, like the Russians before them, the Chinese denounced American imperialist aggression. But there was no media interest. The Chinese might well claim that the peculiar wreckage was from American unmanned spy planes, but where was the proof? There was none of the international outcry that had accompanied the Gary Powers incident and no embarrassment for the politicians or the CIA. Equally, there was no risk that the pilot would be interrogated and give away information. (The main long-term consequence was that the Chinese reverse-engineered the drones. They ended up with a clone called WuZhen, which kick-started their own unmanned aircraft effort).

When drones did eventually find a place in the US military, thanks to the success of the Predator, it was only with considerable assistance from the CIA.