Friday, August 17, 2018

Stephen Colbert Interview

TimesTalks: Stephen Colbert

TimesTalks  Streamed live on Aug 13, 2018  1 Hr. 6 min. 31 sec.

spend an intimate evening with Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning comedian, writer, producer and television host Stephen Colbert in conversation with The New York Times. For the second year in a row, “The Late Show” has earned Emmy nominations for outstanding variety talk series, outstanding writing for a variety series and outstanding directing for a variety series. More than just an entertainer, Colbert has used his comedic talents, acerbic wit and political parodies to impact culture in extraordinary ways over the past decade. Please join Colbert — dubbed the most inventive comedian of his generation — for an exciting night of spirited and substantive conversation.

The Return of the Red Oak Victory

The ROV is back in Richmond Harbor.  Word has it they are going to start doing Sunset Cruises around the Bay.  Sounds fun. Here she is being nudged into her slip by a trio of tugs.  Photos mine unless otherwise noted.

 photo: Alisa Golden
 photo: Alisa Golden

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Of Course They Don't REALLY Care  via: 3 Quarks Daily  Grafton Tanner  Aug 9, 2018

IN MAY 2017, ex-Google employee and design ethicist James Williams outlined his vision for a world in which technology companies are held responsible for what they do to and for society. At his talk entitled “Why (and How) to End the Attention Economy,” delivered at The Next Web (TNW) Conference, Williams addressed the cultural effects of ubiquitous digital technology and social media. He affirmed that, after nearly 10 years, the results are in: social media is highly addictive, and with so many billions logging in to get their next hit, the world could be on the verge of disaster.

Nothing that Williams said was particularly novel or earth-shattering. Talk of the mental health effects of social media had been circulating in lay discourse, and research had been published on the link between Facebook and general well-being. What Williams chose to focus on were the sociopolitical consequences of social media — mainly in response to the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. Ultimately, he declared that an addictive technology facilitated the proliferation of “fake news” that divided our country.

Williams’s claims are being echoed by his fellow Silicon Valley technocrats. In November 2017, venture capitalist and former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya gave a talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He had been invited to discuss how business can be conducted more ethically and for the common good; however, like Williams, he turned his attention to the problems caused by social media. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he said. The result is “no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.” Asked how he felt about what social media has wrought, he responded, “I feel tremendous guilt.”

Facebook co-founder Sean Parker repeated many of these claims at an Axios event held that same month. Calling the dopaminergic reliance on social media a “social-validation feedback loop,” Parker argued that he and other tech architects had been “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” — i.e., the need for social validation. Such an addictive design feature is, according to Parker, “exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with.”

Finally, in a bombshell feature article by Bianca Bosker in the 2016 “Tech Issue” of The Atlantic, former Silicon Valley product philosopher Tristan Harris delivered a blistering critique of social media’s negative influence. Before joining Google, Harris was a graduate student at Stanford, where he studied the art of psychological manipulation in B. J. Fogg’s Persuasive Technology Lab. After perceiving that he too was complicit in addicting most of the world, Harris attended “digital detox” camps for ex-Valley employees. With James Williams, he co-founded Time Well Spent, an advocacy group that supports moral incentives for tech companies to refrain from addicting us all. But he concedes that the effort may prove futile since, as he quips, tech development is a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.”

For his part, Williams has called for labor unions to represent workers of the attention economy — i.e., those of us who “work” as social media users, crafting finely groomed profiles and posting content. Such a union will ensure that all voices are heard and will keep corporations, like the one Williams worked for, in check. Ultimately, unions will afford the public the freedom to “give attention to things that matter.”

Along the same lines, Harris has propounded a Time Well Spent certification that would be the tech equivalent of an organic label on produce. TWS-certified software would be the “premium” level, available for a set cost, a healthier option for the mind and society. While Harris admits this tier-based plan would create a new inequality, he seems unaware that his vision of a healthier world is still one in which technology continues to control users’ attention. What he and Williams both see as decentralization and democratization is actually just top-down capitalism by another name.

Moreover, Williams’s notion that Valley companies can invent ethical technologies via the same outsourcing process they use to make current ones is shortsighted. Who would the digital labor unions represent? Harris and Williams do not include the factory workers who assemble iPhones at Foxconn Technology in China or the children in the Congo mining the minerals that power Apple batteries. Surely they also should have a right to rally for more ethical standards in the industry.

Unsurprisingly, given their privileged status, technocrats like Harris, Williams, Palihapitiya, and Parker continue to believe in the redemptive power of digital technology. They assume that we all want to live mediated lives through technology and that the perils of the medium can be ameliorated by simple common-sense precautions. But we should perhaps be skeptical of accepting an antidote from those who offered us the poison in the first place. Harris and Williams, in particular, warn us of digital dangers only after laboring on behalf of the largest tech companies in the world.

It is indeed odd that the most outspoken voices proclaiming social media’s debilitating effects are the very men who learned how to hook users with just one click. According to Bianca Bosker, this technical elite is now realizing the “unwelcome side effects” of their creations, an “epiphany [that] has come with […] the peace of mind of having several million in the bank.” They seek to deflect public anger away from themselves, a brilliant cohort charged (in Williams’s words) with the task of “carrying the flame of innovation and creativity.” They also ignore the plight of people who cannot just unplug and leave work behind for several weeks while they attend detox camps to clear the mind. Their solutions — designing ethical technologies and creating labor unions for the digital age — completely ignore the fact that technology has never succeeded in achieving utopia and probably never will.

In a time when free-market capitalism is the only game in town, massively centralized tech companies have virtually unfettered reign. Yet the technocrats never mention capitalism. They rarely talk about the surveillance state or the problems with data privacy. They fail to attack the attention economy at its roots or challenge the basic building blocks of late capitalism: market fundamentalism, deregulation, and privatization. They reinforce neoliberal ideals, privileging the on-the-move individual whose time needs to be well spent — a neatly consumerist metaphor. 

Competition is the name of the game, and when our technology has us by the brain stem, according to Harris, “[w]e have to change what it means to win.”

Solving tech problems with tech solutions only continues to position Big Tech as the savior of us all. Unfortunately, what the public learns from this worn-out myth is that, even when technology is used for the common good, the larger structures of power must remain in place, unquestioned. Global capitalism, the system within which these technologies proliferate, is bolstered in no small part by the panaceas offered by technocrats like Harris and Williams.

Grafton Tanner’s writing has appeared in The Hong Kong Review of Books, Mesmer, and We Are The Mutants. He is working on a book about Big Tech and neoliberalism.

Giant Rock

A regular looking rock with an unbelievable history.

Atlas Obscura  Photos by Erin Johnson

This seven-story giant boulder is the site of UFO conferences, Hopi spiritualists, and a “rejuvenation machine.” 

Geologically speaking, the Giant Rock—located in California’s Mojave Desert—is roughly seven stories high and covers almost 6,000 square feet. Some say it is the largest freestanding boulder in the world.

While the rock has been a Native American spiritual site for thousands of years, the modern backstory of the boulder begins in the 1930s when a German immigrant and miner named Frank Critzer met a pilot named George Van Tassel. The pair became fast friends and Van Tassel loaned Critzer 30 dollars to buy mining equipment. Critzer then dug out a 400 square foot home for himself directly beneath the giant rock. This made the locals think he was crazy but since he was known to point a shotgun at those who approached his underground home, no one inquired further. In addition to being a notoriously gruff customer, Critzer was also a radio enthusiast and is said to have set up a radio antenna on top of the rock for better reception.

Unfortunately, Critzer’s German origin and radio antenna led to suspicions of his being a spy during World War II, and a police raid was made on his cavern. While the exact cause of Critzer’sdeath is still unknown, legend holds that when authorities attempted to extricate him by shooting tear gas canisters into his cave, one accidentally ignited a small store of explosives (for mining) and blew the peculiar loner to smithereens. As it turns out, Critzer was not a spy after all, but just what he seemed: an eccentric who wanted to be left alone to live, quite literally, under a rock.

Upon hearing of his friend’s death, Van Tassel—a high school dropout who had become a pilot—went to the boulder and reopened an old airfield at the Giant Rock in the 1950s, naming it Giant Rock Airport. Van Tassel’s war friend Howard Hughes, for whom Van Tassel was a test pilot, is said to have flown there just for a slice of Van Tassel’s wife’s pie.

In addition to being an aviator, Van Tassel was also a firm believer in alien life. In 1952, Tassel began holding meditation sessions in Critzer’s old home under the Giant Rock. Here, Van Tassel believed he was receiving vital information from alien sources for the construction of a fantastic machine. The body, Van Tassel learned from his alien sources, was an electrical device, and aging was caused by a loss of power. Van Tassel claimed to have even been transported to an alien spaceship, where he met a wise group of aliens known as the “Council of Seven Lights.” Tassel said this extraterrestrial meeting, along with ideas from scientists such as Nikola Tesla, inspired the construction of a building/device which was to be a “rejuvenation machine.” It was dubbed “The Integratron.”

Van Tassel held popular UFO conventions known as the “Giant Rock Spacecraft Conventions” on his property for over 20 years to help raise money for the Integron’s construction. The domed structure, built without nails over a period of 34 years, was said to be capable of collecting up to 50,000 volts of static electricity from the air in order to charge the human body. Unfortunately, Tassel suffered a heart attack before its “final” completion, giving rise to a host of conspiracy theories. There were plans to turn the Integron into a Disco, but instead it has been reincarnated as a sound bath meditation retreat tourists.

Long before Van Tassel or Frank Critzer were around, the Giant Rock was a spiritual site for thousands of years, used by Native American tribes in ceremonies and prophecy. Hopi shamans have suspected since the 1920s, that the future of the 21st century would be foretold at the Giant Rock, based on how the rock cracked. In February 2000, a giant chunk of the rock did indeed break off. Spiritual leader Shri Naath Devi interpreted the break in a positive light, saying “the Mother had opened her arms to us, cracking open her heart for the whole world to see.” It is speculated the break was the result of fires burned under the giant rock in what was once Frank Critzer’s underground home.

We explored the Giant Rock on Obscura Day - March 20th, 2010. Photos, stories and more here

Know Before You Go
Giant Rock can be reached by car by traveling south from Lucerne Valley on Hwy 247 to Reche Road in Landers, or traveling north from Yucca Valley on Hwy 247. Take Reche Road to Belfield Blvd, left on Belfield until the pavement ends. To your right will be the Integratron. Go past the property, turn right and then immediately bear left on the well-graded dirt road.
The dirt road will follow the edge of the jumbo rock pile about two miles. Follow around the end of the rock pile until Giant Rock comes into view. Be cautious of broken glass and snakes in the area. Always bring extra drinking water. Cellular service is available at the site.


Nuking Mississippi

In the 1960s, the U.S. Government Set Off a Pair of Nukes Under Mississippi

It’s a nearly forgotten chapter of Cold War history that seems hard to fathom today—even for those who were there.  

Japanese Surnames

Making your mark: Personal seals in a shop window bear a variety of Japanese surnames. | GETTY IMAGES 

Among the usual suspects, you’re bound to find some curveballs

by Peter Backhaus  Contributing Writer 
When reading longer lists of Japanese names — for example, in closing credits or attendance registers — I always have two rather contradictory impressions. On the one hand, there are a handful of very common surnames that seem to be around just everywhere. But on the other hand, you are always sure to find a name or two you feel you’ve never seen — let alone pronounced — before.
Incongruous as this may seem, both impressions have a pinch of truth to them. But, to start with, how many Japanese surnames are there anyway? This is a rather tricky question, because the total number of names crucially depends on how we decide to count them.

A first problem in this respect are surnames that sound the same but use different kanji characters. Take names with kawa (river), for instance, which can be written either 川 or 河. Accordingly, there is 川原 and 河原 for Kawahara, 川村 and 河村 for Kawamura and so forth.

Things get more complex when we include characters that technically count as the same but come in different versions. Well-known is shima (island), for which we have both 島 and the slightly busier 嶋. Another notorious candidate for uncertainty is sawa (swamp), where the traditional 澤 coexists with the simplified 沢. Does family 澤田 (Sawada) have the same surname as family 沢田 (Sawada), or will they be upset to be lumped together in this way?

Most particular in this respect are the Saitōs, whose first character, for sai, comes in no less than four different versions: 斉, 齊, 斎, and 齋. Incidentally, the former two are common in western Japan, whereas the latter are frequently found in the eastern and northeastern parts of the country.

Even if a name has identical kanji, there is still room for variation. That is because in quite a number of cases there are different readings for names that in writing look exactly the same. Thus, 高田 goes for either Takada or Takata, 河野 reads both Kawano and Kōno, and 東, for whatever reason, coexists as Higashi and Azuma. The most variegated name though is 丹生, which boasts a total of 26 different readings, including everything from Nioi to Mibu.

These are the main factors that make the counting of Japanese surnames exceedingly difficult. 

According to estimations by the site なまえさあち (Namae Sāchi, “Name search”;, the total number thus varies between around 50,000 and 300,000, depending on how we count.

Counting problems notwithstanding, most surveys agree on the most common surnames. Here are the top 10, as given by the site 名字由来 net (Myōji Yurai net, “Surname origin net”; 1) 佐藤 (Satō), 2) 鈴木 (Suzuki), 3) 高橋 (Takahashi), 4) 田中 (Tanaka), 5) 伊藤 (Itō), 6) 渡辺 (Watanabe), 7) 山本 (Yamamoto), 8) 中村 (Nakamura), 9) 小林 (Kobayashi), and 10) 加藤 (Katō).

Taken together, an approximate total of 12 million people have one of these surnames. This amounts to roughly 10 percent of the Japanese population, and thus goes some way to explain why we always find the usual suspects on these name lists.

Note that all of the top 10 names consist of two characters, and this is in fact a very clear tendency. Even among the top 100, there are only three one-character names — 林 (Hayashi), 森 (Mori), and 原 (Hara) — and only two names with three characters: 佐々木 (Sasaki) and 長谷川 (Hasegawa).

Surnames with more than three characters are extremely rare. So rare, in fact, that only one of them makes it into the top 5,000. Congratulations to the approximately 3,400 people called 勅使河原 (Teshigawara), who come in at rank 3,676 of the list. But that’s still nothing compared to the two five-character surnames known to be currently in use: 勘解由小路 (Kadenokōji) and 左衛門三郎 (Saemonsaburō). The former holds rank 92,602, while for the latter no ranking is available at all.
A list of extremely rare surnames, irrespective of length, can be found at It includes curiosities such as 辺銀 (Pengin), 鬼 (Oni, “Ogre”), and — can you believe it? — 砂糖 (Satō, “Sugar”).

Between the two houses of Satō, those with the rare, sugary surname (砂糖) and their ubiquitous peers (佐藤), there is a lot of ground to cover. This makes any list of Japanese names a most exciting read.

The top 10 Japanese surnames

  1. 佐藤 Satō
  2.  鈴木 Suzuki
  3. 高橋 Takahashi
  4.  田中 Tanaka
  5.  伊藤 Itō
  6.  渡辺 Watanabe
  7.  山本 Yamamoto
  8.  中村 Nakamura
  9.  小林 Kobayashi
  10.  加藤 Katō

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


The case for puns as the most elevated display of wit

Quartz by Ephrat Livni August 1, 2018

Humor me please, and consider the pun. Though some may quibble over the claim, the oft-maligned wordplay is clever and creative, writer James Geary tells Quartz. His upcoming book Wit’s End robustly defends puns and tells the distinguished history of these disrespected witticisms. 

“Despite its bad reputation, punning is, in fact, among the highest displays of wit. Indeed, puns point to the essence of all true wit—the ability to hold in the mind two different ideas about the same thing at the same time,” Geary writes. “And the pun’s primacy is demonstrated by its strategic use in the oldest sacred stories, texts, and myths.”

The bible, the Indian epic the Ramayana, and the classic Chinese philosophical text the Tao Te Ching all avail themselves of puns, he notes, though we may not recognize these ancient jokes. The Tao Te Ching begins with a pun, for example. The first line of the text states, “The way (tao) that can be spoken of is not the constant way (Tao).”

Geary explains, “The tao is a physical path, or way, but the Tao is also a spiritual path; the pun brings not only the two sounds and words together but the two ideas, prompting consideration of how to align your physical path (career, life, etc.) with your spiritual path.” It’s thus both a play on ideas and words.

Geary also points out that William Shakespeare, the greatest English language playwright of all time and an acknowledged master of rhetorical jousting, loved puns. The Bard couldn’t resist a quibble—the word for puns in his day. So much so that Shakespeare annoyed contemporaries with his affection for wordplay. “A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career or stomp from his elevation,” writer Samuel Johnson complained.

Geary counts 200 puns in Love’s Labour’s Lost, 150 in each of the Henry IV plays, more than 100 in Much Ado About Nothing and All’s Well That Ends Well, and an overall average of 78 puns per drama by The Bard. “In stooping to employ the lowly quibble, Shakespeare elevates buried or forgotten senses of words, showing how the names for things intertwine with the things themselves…he makes surprising correlations and uncanny couplings that keep the reader toggling back and forth between meanings,” Geary writes.

Indeed, many a great mind has been inclined to pun. The 18th-century English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought it was practically a prerequisite to intelligence, declaring, “All men who possess at once active dance, imagination, and philosophical spirit, are prone to punning.”

US president Abraham Lincoln, despite his somber countenance and grave duties, was famously punny. Once, he received a letter from a Catholic priest asking him to suspend the sentence of a man to be hanged the next day. Lincoln quipped, “If I don’t suspend it tonight, the man will surely be suspended tomorrow.”

By using the same word—suspend—in two ways, Lincoln illuminates the relationship between the literal and metaphorical, legal and physical senses of a single term. It’s a link that in conventional thinking remains invisible, Geary explains.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the groundbreaking psychiatrist and writer Sigmund Freud appreciated puns precisely for this reason. They reveal the accidental connections that our minds make, just as the Freudian slip reveals insights into a person’s unconscious thinking.

Rhyming ideas

Geary admits that he often makes pun in his head—but he mostly keeps them to himself. He can’t explain why the wordplay’s not appreciated. “In poetry, words rhyme; in puns, ideas rhyme,” he writes. “This is the ultimate test of wittiness, keeping your balance even when you’re of two minds.”

To Geary, puns represent wisdom. He admits some wordplay is just funny, not deep, and even that excessive punning can be tiresome. But he believes the ability to play with and relate disparate ideas, as demonstrated by the pun, underpins all human creativity—in the arts and sciences and beyond. 

“When you make a pun, you bring together two distinct ideas—a coincidence of sound, significance, or meaning—and a realization results,” Geary says. “Puns are a way of introducing knowledge.”

Although we can quip to ourselves, as Geary sometimes does, a successful pun is best pulled off with an accomplice. The witty utterance matters little if there’s no clever listener to connect the dots with us. The utterer and listener are partners and both must be capable of creativity for the pun to work. 

Speaker and recipient take one path to connect distinct notions.

“Puns are all about exchange and they create an intimacy,” Geary insists. “You’re in it together, sharing a secret. You both figure it out and that play is the archetypal creative aspect of the mind and being in a relationship.”