Reporting Trump’s First Year: The Forth Estate, BBC 9pm, BBC iPlayer, director and producer Liz Garbus.

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https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0b8lfjh/reporting-trumps-first-year-the-fourth-estate-series-1-1-the-first-100-days

The twin problems of Donald J Trump are entwined. Firstly, he is Donald J Trump. Secondly, he is in office as President of the United States.  This four-part documentary follows reporters in the New York Times as they cover the newly inaugurated President. Much of news in online before it reaches print, as is shown here.

Too late. Trump moves faster than any documentary crew and we already feel we know everything we need to know about him. What should be must-see viewing is in reality a yawn fest.

The Fourth Estate and New York Times, in particular, also have a bit of catching up to do. Dewey defeats Trauman, for example, was a banner on the Chicago Tribune, 3rd November 1948. But Harry S Trauman was elected President. A victory none of the print media that helped set trends then saw coming and for many of the same reasons they assumed Hillary Clinton would follow Barack Obama as the forty-fifth President. They didn’t look closely enough at what was happening on the ground.

The comparisons end there. Harry Trauman was a humble working-class man of the people, who took his nation through the years of the Korean War. Let’s hope there’s not another war, and that’s not a given with such a narcissistic psychopath in charge of the most powerful nation on earth’s armoury, or God help us, Armageddon is a possibility.

The Observer front page on the same as day Garbus’s documentary is shown on BBC 2 leads with the headline UK rabbi in genocide warning to Trump. A sidebar announces ‘Dehumanisation has ended in atrocities. May urged to attack child separation policy.’ We all know what happened on the United States and Mexican border. As we all know about Cambridge Analytica stealing data, Russian interference in the election, gaming Facebook and allegations of Trump being human.  Children at the border were separated from their parents. Some of them filmed crying in child-proof cages. One version of this and I can’t be sure of this because I originally heard it on the radio, while driving, was these were child actors. I’d guess that came from Kirsten Nielsen, one of Trump’s mouthpieces. It was even by Trump standards an incredibly stupid thing to say. The picture of a naked nine-year-old girl, Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt, burning from Napalm during the Vietnam War led to a similar world-wide backlash. Trump’s eventual step back is partial and grudged, awaiting applause for his humanity.

Trump builds walls and hides behind them, but he loves the camera to be on him. Ronald Reagan, that old B-movie actor from before the Cold War era, knew when to stop acting. He stepped back from his anti-Soviet rhetoric and didn’t go ahead with planned Nato manoeuvres in 1983, when the Russian’s believed they would come under attack. It was on par with the Cuban Missile Crisis.   Trump cannot stop being Trump.

I had plans to write a longer piece around William Empson’s seven types of ambiguity. I’d sketched some ideas working on Trump’s seven types of idiocy. But really, that’s an underestimate. Trump always surprises us. Not in a good way. A human magnet for misery and for all that’s wrong in the world. Watch this programme if you want to learn about the New York Times. As for Trump…I’m weary, weary of him, but it’s impossible to look away.  That’s the whole point of Trumpism.

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Imagine: Marlon Brando, BBC 2 – On the Waterfront, director Ella Kazan, 1954 and Steve Riley’s award-winning documentary, Listen to Me Marlon.

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08bfww6

I spent three and a half hours with Marlon Brando, which is quite a long time for an old buddie like me without falling asleep, especially on a Saturday night, when there’s football on, and I’ve not got a beer in my hand, but I don’t feel that it was time wasted.

I’ve watched On the Waterfront before. Don’t ask me when, or what it’s about, that’s a bit like asking me if I’ve read a book, and I say yeh, and then can perhaps pick out some detail that has sellotaped two neurons together with sufficient force to constitute working memory. In this case, it’s Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) telling his brother ‘I could have been a contender.’ There’s universality about that line that sticks, an everyman truth that if we did the right thing and stuck at it, we’d get our just rewards. It’s a morality play and the American Dream, writ large on Malloy’s face and nothing and no one is going to stop us.

The film is black and white, but that’s not what makes it dated. Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb) is mobster that runs the docks and what he says goes and without him no ship gets unloaded. He’s corrupt because unions are corrupt and, with kickbacks, stop people from working for a fair’s day pay. Yankee Doodle I say to that, because I remember mobsters, I even remember unions, but this notion of a fair day’s pay that really was an 1950’s invention. Offshore tax free havens for money laundering such as the British Virgin Isles, Jersey or London hadn’t even been invented. All right then, London had been invented.  Shoreman lining up for a job, if their face fitted, they got a job, if it didn’t they never. No change there, as far as I can see. I ask myself who the villains would be now? Ask yourself that question too.

Then there’s the question of loyalty and ratting on your friends. Johnny Friendly tells Terry to go and spy on those that want to do things differently, the disgruntled masses that don’t want to pay kickbacks to workshy loafers in their chapel that give nothing back but take everything. Strangely familiar too. That’s not ratting, or grassing, because you’re really for us or against us, and these people are different. That was a theme Ella Kazan was all too familiar with. In Arthur Miller’s marvellous autobiography Timebends he tells how Kazan was asked to appear before the Hoover inspired witchhunt House of UnAmerican Activities to talk about his friends, associates and work colleagues. Someone like B-part player, Ronnie Reagan was delighted to do so. As did Kazan. Miller, his former friend and associate, didn’t. Kazan’s knowledge about ratting and stool pigeons came first hand.  (http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/navasky-chap7.html)

I get it, I really do, and Marlon Brando, the youngest actor to receive an Oscar for best actor got it too. Hollywood was open for business and Marlon Brando was the new star and the bright young thing that offered something different from traditional male leads. He was lucky. ‘I arrived in New York with the clothes on my back,’ Brando tells the listener. ‘Luck Be A Lady Tonight,’ Guys and Dolls. Brando was hot as Sarah Palin in snow boots. Watch him being interviewed by two young and attractive presenters. It makes your toes curl with embarrassment. But a magazine cover asked ‘Could there have been an Elvis without Brando?’ Another way of putting this is could there have been a John F Kennedy without Brando? JFK didn’t even like wearing hats, that’s how hip the first Catholic president was.

Brando sought a new self, away from the razzmatazz of Hollywood in Haiti. There wasn’t just a Mutiny on the Bounty. He found that the old self didn’t go home. The old self was home. ‘Give me the boy and I’ll give you the man,’ is the Jesuit epigram in Apsted’s 7-UP series.  Luck isn’t always a Lady. A son that kills his half-sister’s boyfriend and is convicted of manslaughter and his daughter that commits suicide.

Brando’s life becomes what he says he most hates – a soap opera. If he didn’t become an actor he claims he would have made a good conman. The world’s greatest actor. Imagine how he felt having to audition for roles such as that in The Godfather. That’s like Muhammad Ali, being called Cassius Clay, and  having to audition for the boxing ring. Then I realized that Ali did have to, when he came out of prison. Brando supported King and the black right’s movement. He was an activist for social justice. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine what he thought of Donald J Trump.

Actors come and go. Brando’s tapes include him boasting about being paid $14 million for twelve days work on Superman. Then, there’s Macbeth’s soliloquy, all actors seem to have it in their portfolio, even the best actor in the world but if you want to hear the real thing then listen to Anthony Hopkins sending up his Shakespearean friends on Parkinson, most notably that other best actor in the world Laurence Olivier. Even the mad Conrad’s Kurtz, in Apocalypse Now would recognise the sentiments.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

S.E Hinton (2000 [1967]) The Outsiders

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It’s almost fifty years since The Outsiders was published. ‘The Original Teenage Rebel Story’ proclaims the tag on the cover. I’m sure William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had the same banner headline, but in yeh olde worlde English. Hinton was only seventeen when she wrote it. And like fourteen-year old  Ponyboy, the first-person narrator, you can imagine her trying to impress her English teacher and scrape a better grade by turning a suggested five page exercise into a 218 pages of prose and a coming-of-age story that shows how American society is prejudiced against the poor and it’s rules and regulations favour the rich. A* for effort Ms Hilton.

Ponyboy is a ‘greaser’, his hair is ‘longer than a lot of boys. Most greasers ‘rarely bother to get a haircut’ and the grease their hair. East side is where the greasers live and hang out. ‘Greasers are almost like hoods, we steal things and drive old souped up cars’.  The Socs go to the same school but live on the West side and drive ‘tuff’ cars and wear ‘tuff’ clothes such as blue madrass shirts, but don’t have a tough life. Ponyboy is philosophical about the class differences, ‘I’m not saying that either Socs or greasers are better; that’s just the way things are’. Greasers pride themselves on how tuff and tough they are and stick together. And Socs do the same. When they meet in a rumble it’s the greasers that cop the blame, but they won’t back down, not for anybody.

Plotting is a big hitter. Bob the bully Soc, for example who busted up Johnny, the greaser, early in the narrative later pays a high price. Johnny knives and accidentally kills him trying to protect Ponyboy who’s being beaten up and half drowned,  but Johnny finds redemption by breaking his back, being badly burned and setting the world to rights, before melodramatically dying  saving some wee boys that are trapped in a derelict church that is burning down around their heads. In turn that drives a fellow greaser, super tuff Dally who looked out for little Johnny, over the edge.  Death by cop, which has a familiar ring to it.

Ponyboy explains it to himself and to the reader in a simple way. ‘Dally Watson wanted to be dead and he always got what he wanted.’

There are no blacks in the novel and it’s a male world with girls adding little more than decoration. It’s family that counts most. And with his mum and dad killed in an autowreck, Ponyboy acknowledges how hard it is for Darry, his twenty-year old brother, who works two jobs, to keep the family together. Happy-go-lucky Soda, who is sixteen, has dropped out of school, but is happy working in a garage. He  adds to a choir of voices that demand something different from Ponyboy. Twobit, one of their friends, for example, acknowledges that to be a greaser demands that ‘you get tough and you don’t get hurt’. But  for Ponyboy this translates differently. He demands that he get on and get out, give them something to be proud of. ‘Get smart and nothing can touch you.’

Hinton’s veiled coda is education is the route out of the greaser ghetto. That truth did hold true at that time, but like the idea that Bob the bully’s parents loved him too much and let him away with too much and if they’d loved him less and thrashed him more he wouldn’t have turned out the way he was and wouldn’t have died—well, these are ideas of a certain epoch. The American dream of working hard and playing hard and the world playing fair with you, died right there and then, at the cusp end of the sixties. Since then the tuffs are The Socs of society who have pretty much wiped the floor with the greasers in society. A sad but simple truth a rule for the rich and a rule for the poor, but as Ponyboy knows who rules and we don’t want sympathy, we just want to get even.

As Randy explains. ‘You can’t win, even if you whip up. You’ll still be where you were before – at the bottom’.

Yep, that sounds about right. Roll on super-tuff Reagan and Soc it to the rest of us greaser chumps.

Martin Ford (2015) Rise of the Robots

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Robots are pattern-recognition machines who have grown arms, legs and visual awareness. Each time we take a step, for example, we are continually falling. Robots face the same problem, but they have not had tens of millions of years of evolution to solve it. Moore’s Law comes into effect here. Computing power which provides the software for computer hardware; robot’s arms and legs and eyes (these are anthropomorphic attributes) doubles every eighteen to twenty-four months. Software engineers are coming up fast against the physical limitation of the materials used to encode machines. With the development of quantum computing that problem seems –temporarily- to have been solved, but few people can explain the mechanics. Martin Ford’s analogy of driving speeds highlights where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Imagine you’re in a car he says, driving at five-miles-per hour (mph). Drive for a minute. 10mph. fifth minute, 80mph. Imagine you’re on the twenty-seventh minute. We’re approaching the speed of sound. Then the speed of light. That’s Moore’s law. That’s where we are.

Another way of looking at it is to think of the brain power at Los Alamos around 1944 when plans were being developed to develop the first atomic bomb. Most of the great Western minds of maths and physics were working on the probability of different scenarios and outcomes. Unless you were a future Nobel winner, you were probably working in the canteen. Now that kind of mathematical grunt work could be done by a ten-year old boy or girl with an iPad. What direction are we going in? Think in terms of a continuum.

Where we are now, I’d guess is similar to the place where the Crow Indians were in Jonathan Lear (2006) Radical Hope: Ethics in The Face of Cultural Devastation; a place and time before the white man came, before around sixty million migrating buffalo were indiscriminately killed,  and with the mass cull went their food source and way of life. Lear writes of the Crows, but he might as well be writing of the Greek, the Roman, the Holy Roman, our own sense of the possible and the impossible: ‘The inability to conceive of its own devastation will tend to be the blind spot of any culture’.  Martin Ford suggests we are at endgame and the chess analogy is appropriate.

Graphic evidence comes from games. It was no great surprise when IBM’s software Deep Blue beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov over a six-game match. While the possibilities in chess are quantitatively enormous, we tend to think of it being on rails. Daniel Kahnerman (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow uses the example of a chess master looking at a chess board, and intuition will suggest the best move for him or her to make. That’s thinking fast, but it takes years of training. Software such as Deep Blue travels all the lines of the board at speeds faster than human thought. Speeds that we think of as simultaneous.  And if it makes a mistake it learns from it. Software does not forget. Given such enormous computing power it seemed inevitable that the machine would beat the man.

IBM’s success on Jeopardy! was a different level of success. Deep Blue had been taken off the rails. The brute force of computing power was competing in a general knowledge quiz with idiosyncratic questions and an idiosyncratic format. Computers don’t do spontaneity or intuitive thought over a wide range of subjects. Yet Watson, IBM’s software, triumphed in two televised matches over Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in February 2011.

At one end of the continuum humans become grey gloop. Nothing is wasted. Eric Drexler one of the leading proponents of this theory suggests the combined effect of nanotechnology and increasing computer power to develop their own heuristic, and innate ability to shape the world in their own image, human will be little more than feedstock. If this sounds a bit corny (pun intended) then the co-founder of SunMicrosystems, Bill Joy, article in 2000, ‘Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us’ runs through the existential dangers of cross fertilisation in the fields of genetics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. Nobel winner Stephen Hawkins has also signalled his belief that this is a real danger. And Nick Bostrom (2014) in his New York Times Bestseller, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, argues the future is already here. We’re nurturing artificial intelligence and like a cuckoo’s egg it will outgrow the nest, feed on the hominoid family, and colonise space in its search for perfection.  These Jeremiah voices seem more science fiction than science fact. But look around you. Self-driving cars, drones and rocket back packs. Not in the pages of comic books, but on our roads and buzzing in the air.

Ford identifies other trends that any moderately sophisticated pattern-recognition software would immediately identify. One of them is climate change. He talks about the declining price of solar panels, technological innovation and government innovation. Or what the British Prime Minister called ‘all that green crap’ while withdrawing funding in the areas we really need to invest in.

Money flows unevenly from the rich to the poor. The only place it sticks is with those with money or capital. That’s another trend or pattern. Ford suggests the evidence points to a longer-term trend in which  the five percent who claim ownership of the world’s wealth, and in particular the moneyed-class in the richer nation, those who have cannibalised the wealth of the other ninety-five percent, then the one percent will cannibalise the wealth of the other four percent. Winners take all. Losers take the fall.

“The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.”
― Karl Marx

Marx was wrong of course. Let us look at the data.  Losers are not sold the rope, only leased it and have to pay economic rent for their funeral. The triumph of capitalism is it is the only game in town. Communist China and Russia, for example, mirror the inequalities of the West. Martin Ford offers sobering statistics. An Oxford University report published in 2013 suggests 50% of US jobs will be automated. And a parliamentary report in the House of Lords in 2015 estimate 35% job losses in the UK. The flight to higher education with the promissory note of a well-paid job at the end of it is the same sort of myth building as, from a different era, Tony Benn’s ‘white hot heat of technology’ changing and modernising society. Thirty percent of employees are currently overqualified for the job they are in and while wages have declined in the last thirty years, the cost of education has more than doubled from £22 billion 2007/8 to £46 billion 2012/13 and that trend looks to continue.  This is one form of credit poorer members of society have access to and they are signing up in record numbers, both in the UK and the US. But not only is their grade deflation, but those printing presses we call universities, some of which  are more equal than others, can demand a premium for their gilt-edged qualification, in a race which our leading universities largely exclude the poor from entering. It would be interesting, for example, to look at what Oxford University defines as those in need of such a leg up. But this is hardly surprising when social housing is defined as costing up to £450 000. And our public-school educated Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, boasts of conducting ‘the most sustained squeeze on public spending for one-hundred years’. Back in 1918 the upper classes contact with the working class was likely to be a master and servant relationship, and as an employer. Those that owned the land owned the people on the land.  But in a contemporary global market as Ford notes, if cognitive ability follows the usual bell-shaped distribution curve, and India and China’s top five percent of intelligentsias adds up to around 130 million, almost double the population of the UK. Technology, based on deep neural learning models makes the universal translator inevitable. See, for example, Megaphoneyaku digital megaphone developed by Panasonic in 2014, which translates whatever language is bellowed into it according to the setting required.   If the offshoring of university graduates and teaching programmes move online, as they are likely to do, then the current crop of graduates will find it even more difficult to find paid work commensurate with their education. Software such as Geekie, launched in Brazil in 2011 because of a shortage of teachers, delivers the whole high-school syllabus, monitors pupils and designs courses based on individual responses and aggregate scores. A movement into higher education and universities with their expensive living costs seems inevitable.  It also seems to me likely that health care assistants will be the add on element of general health care practices with all the heavy lifting done by machines designed like Geekie to have the knowledge element built in and modified and upgraded with each interaction.

A trumpet it a wind instrument. It has the highest register in the brass family, which brings us nicely to Donald Trump and Trumpetism. We’ve had the bit player and actor whom Betty Davis called little Ronnie Reagan getting to play the role of US President. Then we had George Bush senior and then junior getting on the same horse. Anything is possible in the good old US of A. It’s dressed up in frontier ideology and the analogy of a rising tide of wealth lifting all boats. But as Chrystia Freeland says in Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich, ‘the super-rich don’t like to talk about rising income inequality’. The rising tide lifting super yachts that leave the rest stranded in their wake. They like to talk about the Kuznet’s inverted U-curve, how as societies become more complex and productive, high inequality peaks at the top of the U and falls. Wealth generated by a nation’s better-educated workforce is able to get a bigger slice of the national pie in terms of wages is proven to be a short-lived myth. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, using historical data going back to the eighteen century from twenty countries showed that the thirty years following the Second World War was a golden age in which wealth re-distribution did take place, but it took two catastrophic world wars for that to happen. Piketty and Ford both suggest the fallout from the golden age is toxic for all but the gilded few, and aligned with climate change and the rise of the robots it’s a good time to be rich. For the rest of us…man the lifeboats.

Quote

Kurt Vonnegut: President of the United States.

lkurt vonnegut “From the Collection of the Artist.”

Kurt Vonnegut turns up in the most unlikely of places. I’m not familiar with his writing, but I’m reading a book by Michael Lewis Liar’s Poker in which the author quotes Vonnegut below to describe how the bond market works to distort reality, and  to make it seem normal, a theme the everyman Billy Pilgrim’s character stumbles into in his Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5.

 There is a magic moment, during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who has to receive it has not done so. An alert lawyer [read bond trader] will make that moment his own, possessing that treasure for a magic microsecond, taking a little of it and passing it on.

This bring to mind the way coinage used to be debased when it was precious metals made out of a substance equal to value of the currency, for example, either gold or silver, and it was an offence against the king or ruler to shave a coin. Now New York and London Stock exchanges are one of the greatest industries, in monetary terms, devised by man, and when it fails thousands of billions of pounds of public money needs to be spent to keep the foul-smelling water of commerce drinkable for the rest of us.

In Slaughterhouse 5, Billy Pilgrim finds himself in a shop that sells porn, but he’s more interested in a badly written sci-fi book used as a front to make it seem like a respectable book store. The book is written by an author he knows and admires Kilgore Trout. The narrative in Kilgore’s book matches Pilgrim’s own experience of being abducted by the Tranfalmadorians and is about a man and woman kidnapped by extra-terrestrials and taken to another planet, Zircon-212, and put on display in a zoo. He has another of his epiphanies that underpin the wisdom of the book.

These fictitious people in the zoo had a big board supposedly showing stock market quotations and commodity prices along the wall of their habitat, and a news ticker, and a telephone that was supposedly connected to a brokerage on Earth. The creatures on Zircon-212 told their captives that they had invested a million dollars for them back on Earth and it was up to them to manage it so that they would be fabulously wealthy when they were returned to Earth.

The telephone and the big board were all fakes of course. They were simply stimulants to make the Earthlings perform vividly for the crowds at the zoo…

The Earthlings did very well on paper. That was part of the rigging, of course…The news ticker reminded them that the President of the United States had declared National Prayer Week and that everybody should pray. The Earthlings had had a bad week on the market before that. They had lost a small fortune in olive oil futures. So they gave praying a whirl.

It worked. Olive oil went up.

Billy Pilgrim’s ability to transcend time and travel backwards and forwards showed him the fickle fiction of such fortunes. He followed the traditional path to wealth by marrying the obese boss’s daughter nobody else wants to marry, including Billy.

But there is a prophetic touch in the car stickers Billy Pilgrim passes sporting the message Reagan for President. Vonnegut’s novel was published in 1969. He had no way of knowing that the friend of Bonzo—and I don’t mean George W—would actually become President. Not even Vonnegut could have imagined that.

To take a further jump in time and imagine a woman President in Hillary Clinton –perhaps? Vonnegut imagined a world in which the fire-bombing of Dresden with conventional weapons with a power more lethal than the atomic age of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime and unjustifiable. Hillary Clinton’s big message and big sell to the American people that the American future depend on equality of opportunity and is certainly far more left wing than the big two political parties in Britain offer:

To ensure a child born in the hills of Appalachia or the Rio Grande valley grows up with the same shot of success as Charlotte [Clinton] will.

Vonnegut’s character, Howard W Campbell, an American playwright that aligned himself with the Nazi Party strips the hubris of such messages to the bone.  Campbell writes a monograph that Billy Pilgrim gets to read. The reader looking over his character’s shoulder gets to read it too and assess its validity.

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor and urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humourist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor, but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone one with power or gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters…asking this cruel question, ‘if you’re so smart how come you’re not rich?’

Their most destructive untruth is it is very easy to make money. They will in fact not acknowledge how hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those without money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have to do less for the poor publicly and privately.

I’m beginning to believe that Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim were time-travellers and they’ve jumped in their spaceship and landed here in April 2015. If Vonnegut can pluck Billy Pilgrim from the ether, the Tranfalmadorians and their zoo, then perhaps we can pluck Vonnegut from death and elect him President of the United States, or even Britain. I’d vote for him.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole