Dispatches from the Empire


The kidnapping I can’t escape

…I was about to start writing my second novel. It was about a wealthy family on Long Island who lose their money, the leakage of my frustrations at watching the middle class disappear and at the moneylessness of my own youth. (Let’s all agree, for the sake of this story, that relative moneylessness isn’t a dollar amount but a state of mind and stomach born of your own particular circumstance.) I was grappling with a question I had, which was this: Who was better off, people who were born with money and never had to worry about their survival, or people (like me) who didn’t feel they had the financial stability and who had to learn to be survivors on their own? Did having money doom you in a way?

I wanted to see the Teiches because I was embarrassed to report that, though the fictional family in my unfinished novel bore only rudimentary biographical resemblance to them, a kidnapping kept finding its way into the plot. There was something I couldn’t resist thematically about it, because it elucidated one of the many paradoxes of money: that money can put you in a kind of danger even as it brings you safety, too.

People (especially non-readers) so often assume that a writer is in control of a story, when it’s always the other way around.

I’ve long struggled with talking about my own writing, about the craft of it. I rarely-if-ever talk about it with non-writers, as they simply can’t understand. But I try at times to elucidate the process both here and elsewhere on the internet in hopes of discovering, well, what exactly?

As the adage goes, writers write what we know, and thus writing is extraordinarily revealing. We cannot hide who we are, not convincingly. And while something inside compels me to write “my truth” (groan), I’ve read enough Greek and Roman mythology to know a relentless pursuit of truth tends to become a lonely endeavor. Honesty tends not to win you friends or lovers.

So then how do I balance vulnerability and honesty? Where do I find the courage to reveal the ugly, anxious, embarrassing parts of my self in my work? How do I trust that I’ll be met with some measure of grace when I struggle mightily to give it to others?

As of late, understanding that a story writes itself is table stakes for any meaningful connection. Ideas come to us, they are not of us, and this is the foundation of every relationship, every personal interaction, every bit of writing in my life.

Perhaps because of this, I often feel alone and a bit adrift, looking out on the world with earnest curiosity.

Welcome to the Political Era of the Paranoid Delusion

If I had to choose between these two tendencies I would obviously have to choose the blue MAGA over the red. Doing so would protect abortion and environmental regulations and the NLRB, among many other things. It’s not a contest, for me. But of course I’d prefer to choose neither. Blue MAGA is very, very real; the paranoid style has spread like a coronavirus from Republicans to Democrats. Put “The New York Times” into the Twitter search bar on any given day and you’ll find relentless, enraged invective coming from Democratic loyalists who insist that the paper of record is on a mission to reelect Donald Trump. They used to laugh at Republicans when they groused about “skewed polls,” but now they do the exact same thing - any poll that emerges that suggests Biden is losing is a conservative op, run by a firm with a well-known Republican bias.

This, it seems, is where we are: two warring political tribes who share the foundational principle that anything that goes wrong for them is the product of a rigged system. Two angry players, too busy working the refs to concentrate on the game, looking for some higher authority to declare that the other side broke the rules. This isn’t fair. They’re breaking the rules. I’m telling the teacher. They’re denying us what we’re owed. Today the parties are united only in their belief that, on a neutral field and playing a clean game, they cannot lose. If a single voter endorses the opposition, their opponents must be cheating. How could it be otherwise? Surely only conspiracy could defeat us. Surely only The Man could pull the wool over the eyes of millions. This was much more of a Republican thing, and I know that people hate any argument that sounds like “both sides.” But both sides, in fact, are now operating this way. The notion that Democrats cannot fail in a clean election, cannot stumble but through illegitimate outside force, is now fully enculturated into the party. They hate Trump so much they’ve adopted his signature contribution to American politics. And I don’t know how you get out of this without violence, at this point. I really don’t.

The speed with which the paranoid insanity — the same that took hold on the Right a generation or two ago — has consumed the Left is alarming. I can’t quite make sense of how many people refuse to acknowledge Biden’s disaster of a debate performance simply because they’re terrified of Trump.

Trump or no, Biden is unfit for the office.

As a friend put it, “how is it possible we have a choice between two emperors, both of whom insist they’re wearing clothes?”

Good evening.

This is a special night for me. Exactly three years ago, on July 15, 1976, I accepted the nomination of my party to run for President of the United States. I promised you a President who is not isolated from the people, who feels your pain, and who shared your dreams and who draws his strength and his wisdom from you.

Ten days ago I had planned to speak to you again about a very important subject-energy. For the fifth time I would have described the urgency of the problem and laid out a series of legislative recommendations to the Congress. But as I was preparing to speak, I began to ask myself the same question that I now know has been troubling many of you. Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?

It's clear that the true problems of our Nation are much deeper-deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession. And I realize more than ever that as President I need your help. So, I decided to reach out and listen to the voices of America.

I invited to Camp David people from almost every segment of our society-business and labor, teachers and preachers, Governors, mayors, and private citizens. And then I left Camp David to listen to other Americans, men and women like you. It has been an extraordinary ten days, and I want to share with you what I've heard.

These ten days confirmed my belief in the decency and the strength and the wisdom of the American people, but it also bore out some of my long-standing concerns about our Nation's underlying problems.

I know, of course, being president, that government actions and legislation can be very important. That's why I've worked hard to put my campaign promises into law-and I have to admit, with just mixed success. But after listening to the American people I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can't fix what's wrong with America. So, I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.

I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation.

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.

The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.

Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. You don't like it, and neither do I. What can we do?

First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this Nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problems.

 

Jimmy Carter

July 15, 1979

RFK Wants Democratic Nomination

For fuck’s sake, just give the man a chance and watch the interview.

Currently reading: War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges 📚

Sometimes I think my lifetime was front-loaded with goodness; that so much of life until now has been good, and at some point, this can’t possibly hold. The excess and craven want of my culture will finally crest and begin to devour itself. In doing so, we find a truth we’ve worked for so long to avoid.

We’re out of balance, and imbalance doesn’t last.

Honestly, what makes me more depressed: that a course correction sure feels as though it’s on the horizon? Or that it might not be?

What SCOTUS just did to broadband, the right to repair, the environment, and more

This, not the debate, should be the focus of our day. The ramifications of these decisions will reach every corner of our society.

Andrew Sullivan on last night's debate performance:

…watching him barely capable of finishing a sentence, staring vacantly into the middle distance, unable to deliver a single coherent message even when handed an ideal question, incapable of any serious rebuttals to Trump’s increasingly deranged lies … well, the first thing I felt was intense sadness. This was elder abuse — inflicted, in part, by his wife. 

The second thing I felt was rage. His own people chose to do this. That alone reveals a campaign so divorced from reality, so devoid of a rationale or a message, so strategically incompetent, it too has no chance of winning. It is an insult to all of us that a mature political party would offer someone in this physical and mental state as president for the next four years. And it has always been an insult. That the Democrats would offer him as the only alternative to what they regard as the end of liberal democracy under Trump is proof that they are either lying about what they claim are the stakes or are utterly delusional. If Trump is that dangerous, why on earth are you putting forward a man clearly in the early stages of dementia against him? Have you decided to let Trump win by default because you’re too scared to tell an elderly man the truth?

Shopping App Temu Is ‘Dangerous Malware,’ Spying On Your Texts, Lawsuit Claims

I don’t know this is true, but I feel that it’s true.

Good enough for me.

I think it's time I say publicly what I've been thinking privately for months: unless something drastic changes in the next few months, I'm voting for RFK.

I've told a few select people, each time as something of a 'coming out.' Predictably, this inspires the derision and mockery you'd expect, and far more from liberals than conservatives.

My followup question is always this: have you actually heard RFK speak for a full interview, unedited? Or have you made up your mind simply based on what you've heard other people say about him?

A few weeks ago, I listened to an episode of the New Yorker Radio Hour titled 
'Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Could Swing the Election. Who should Be More Worried—Biden or Trump?' I challenge you to listen to the first ten minutes. Listen to the tone of the hosts, the condescension with which they talk about him. He was once a drug addict! He owns up to cheating on his wives! He'll steal votes from Biden! 

Once you listen, do you still trust his coverage in the media? Can you hear the fear in their voices? Fear that he will somehow pull enough votes away from Biden to guarantee Trump a win? 

As far as I'm concerned, my vote comes down to this issue: corporate rule. RFK is the only candidate consistently speaking out about the role of corporations in our politics. It is the issue that undergirds all others in our politics. Corporations do not give a shit about democracy, they are designed only to maximize profit for their shareholders. (I am one of those shareholders, so I know how this game works. I have money invested in the market, and I make more money simply by having money invested — it's that simple. Do I labor for that money? Nope.) 

Whether its Biden or Trump, corporations are donating millions to each campaign, hoping for favorable laws and regulations, tax breaks, etc. All in service of making more money…and making people like me, their shareholders, wealthier. This is the engine of inequality.

Again: corporations do not care about democracy. They only care about electing the candidate most likely to increase their profits.

This cycle must be broken.

I don't care about RFK's thoughts on vaccines, just as I don't think it's wise to vote based soley on a small-scope issue like abortion. Does it seems strange to me that we give infants ever-increasing numbers of vaccines shortly after birth, even for diseases that are sexually-transmitted (and thus presumably won't need for at least 15 years)? Yes. Do I think the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, passed in 1986 and which eliminates financial liability of vaccine manufacturers, is suspiciously in favor of large pharmeceutical corporations? Yes.  Not that I don't understand why the law was passed — to incentivize said corporations and companies to research life-saving vaccines, many of which have been a tremendous net-positive for our culture! But both things can be true. Good intentions can also increase corporate profit.

Am I onboard with everything RFK thinks or says? No. But I've listened to hours of his interviews and I think he's mostly cogent, clear-headed, and equanimious. 

I encourage you to listen, in full, to some RFK interviews:

 

'Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Isn't Going Away' on The New Yorker Radio Hour

Robert Kennedy, Jr. on The Sage Steele Show

Robert Kennedy, Jr. on The Joe Rogan Experience

Robert Kennedy, Jr. on MSNBC

 

After Biden's performance at the debate last night, I cannot fathom how anyone can in good conscience vote for him. And let's be honest: they can't. They're merely voting against Trump.

We live in a time when your political opinions cost us relationships. I won't pretend I'm not angry or bitter about having lost several myself, but I will not let the fear of losing even more due to my political opinions keep me from speaking my mind.

Do I agree with everything RFK says? One more time: no, I do not.

But at this point, do I think he's the best candidate in the race? I do.

Biden’s Shaky Debate Performance Has Democrats Panicking

If there's one impulse I find irresistible, it's the impulse to say "I told you so."

But maybe today's the day I kick the habit.

 

Yeah, today's the day.

Mapping Inequality

The history of redlining in American cities is both horrifying and fascinating, the legacy of which is still prevalent today.

Introducing Apple’s On-Device and Server Foundation Models

Sam Altman Was Bending the World to His Will Long Before OpenAI

A followup to my recent post about Mr. Altman.

Star Wars Mos Eisley Cantina

Awesome.

Why Your Wi-Fi Router Doubles as an Apple AirTag

Researchers from the University of Maryland say they relied on publicly available data from Apple to track the location of billions of devices globally — including non-Apple devices like Starlink systems — and found they could use this data to monitor the destruction of Gaza, as well as the movements and in many cases identities of Russian and Ukrainian troops.

At issue is the way that Apple collects and publicly shares information about the precise location of all Wi-Fi access points seen by its devices. Apple collects this location data to give Apple devices a crowdsourced, low-power alternative to constantly requesting global positioning system (GPS) coordinates.

Before OpenAI, Sam Altman was fired from Y Combinator by his mentor

Though a revered tactician and chooser of promising start-ups, Altman had developed a reputation for favoring personal priorities over official duties and for an absenteeism that rankled his peers and some of the start-ups he was supposed to nurture, said two of the people, as well as an additional person, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe private deliberations. The largest of those priorities was his intense focus on growing OpenAI, which he saw as his life’s mission, one person said.

A separate concern, unrelated to his initial firing, was that Altman personally invested in start-ups he discovered through the incubator using a fund he created with his brother Jack — a kind of double-dipping for personal enrichment that was practiced by other founders and later limited by the organization.

“It was the school of loose management that is all about prioritizing what’s in it for me,” said one of the people.

I only now learned about this from Helen Toner's newly-released interview about Altman's firing from OpenAI in November. From The Verge

Toner says that one reason the board stopped trusting Altman was his failure to tell the board that he owned the OpenAI Startup Fund; another was how he gave inaccurate info about the company’s safety processes “on multiple occasions.” Additionally, Toner says she was personally targeted by the CEO after she published a research paper that angered him. “Sam started lying to other board members in order to try and push me off the board,” she says.

After two executives spoke directly to the board about their own experiences with Altman, describing a toxic atmosphere at OpenAI, accusing him of “psychological abuse,” and providing evidence of Altman “lying and being manipulative in different situations,” the board finally made its move.

Perhaps not the guy we want in charge of safety at one of the largest AI companies, given that the employees in charge of safety have been leaving in droves. From Vox

If you’ve been following the saga on social media, you might think OpenAI secretly made a huge technological breakthrough. The meme “What did Ilya see?” speculates that Sutskever, the former chief scientist, left because he saw something horrifying, like an AI system that could destroy humanity. 

But the real answer may have less to do with pessimism about technology and more to do with pessimism about humans — and one human in particular: Altman. According to sources familiar with the company, safety-minded employees have lost faith in him. 

“It’s a process of trust collapsing bit by bit, like dominoes falling one by one,” a person with inside knowledge of the company told me, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

Not many employees are willing to speak about this publicly. That’s partly because OpenAI is known for getting its workers to sign offboarding agreements with non-disparagement provisions upon leaving. If you refuse to sign one, you give up your equity in the company, which means you potentially lose out on millions of dollars.

Just what we want: an artificial intelligence company motivated by profit that creates something truly dangerous and disruptive, run by a guy like Altman.

Here are two fun excerpts from his Wikipedia page

He is an apocalypse preparer. Altman said in 2016: "I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israel Defense Forces, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to."

and 

In 2021, Altman's sister Annie wrote on Twitter accusing Sam of "sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, and financial abuse".

 

To wake up early—earlier the dogs and cats—and sip my morning coffee. To sit quietly with friends, unafraid of the silence. Plenty of warm showers and hot springs. A few old Star Wars toys laying around—cheap pieces of plastic that bring me joy. Spirited conversation, sometimes political.

A home in a quiet town, away from the noise of the culture. A place to retreat to retreat to when everything else becomes too much — the din of relations, the screeches of polity, the frantic need to make money.

A table, preferably in the garage, upon which to make models. Trains, ships, planes... little things to glue and paint while deep in thought. A garden with wild sprinklers.

Books, but not too many. Too many can erode my focus.

A home near the mountains, visible from my window. The promise of an adventure, of a journey into the great interior. Capable hiking boots — the kind that can take me anywhere. A mechanic or two as kind and thoughtful and thorough as those I now have.

Companionship, but not too much of it. Too much can erode my focus.

Neighbors that talk politics. Neighbors that bring over vegetables. Neighbors that play with my dogs.

Dogs. Many, many dogs.

A tent at the edge of things, from which I can look down and observe. Too close and my sanity frays, but from a tent on the edge of things, I can have space to make sense of it all.

The grace to forgive those I do not understand.

The grace to forgive myself.