Thursday, August 13, 2015

Obama's Supposed Summer Reading List

President Obama is off for another vacation in Martha's Vineyard, and his "summer reading list" has just been announced. My immediate reaction is:

  • Who picked out these books for Obama?
  • What kind of books did Obama indicate he wanted?
  • What's the real point of releasing this list to the public?
  • Will Obama actually read these books?
  • Does Obama have a secret reading list hidden from the public?
  • What books should be on Obama's list?

Here is the list:
  • All That Is by James Salter
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

I'm skeptical Obama knew of any of these titles before his staffer decided on them. To me, this list smacks of legacy building, of the I-read-Pulitzer-Prize-books variety.

Obama said, I need a book on global warming. And the find was The Sixth Extinction.

Obama said, I need a book supporting Black Lives Matter. And the find was Between the World and Me.

Obama said, I need a book that portrays me as a reader of great books. And the find was All the Light That We Cannot See.

Obama said, I need a book on George Washington, because I want to be seen as the black George Washington. And the find was Washington: A Life.

How much of these will he actually read on his vacation? My guess: very little. He doesn't seem to be the sort of person who learns anything new from either books or personal experience.

What books would be on Obama's secret reading list that he wants hidden from the public? I believe he does have such a collection of books, and has reasons for not wanting them made public because they would reflect poorly on him and his legacy.

Here are the books Obama should read as soon as possible:

1984 by George Orwell
Plunder and Deceit by Mark Levin
Code of Conduct: A Thriller by Brad Thor
Adios, America by Ann Coulter
The Planetary Emergency by Stephen Leary
Where Is the President? by Stephen Leary


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Actors, Mannequins, and Spies in Starbucks

Every person I see in cafes like Starbucks plays the same role day in and day out.

The barista wears her Starbucks uniform and stands behind the counter taking orders and providing drinks. A barista has a limited set of repeated physical movements: taking orders at the cash register, filling cups with coffee behind her, moving around behind the counter.


A customer uses a different set of movements. He stands at the front of the counter until he orders his drink, then he moves over to the side table and adds milk and/or sugar and either leaves the cafe or sits at a table. These are the movements of a customer, not a barista. Rarely if ever do you see one behaving like the other. Everyone in the cafe plays his role and knows his role without needing a script.

If you see a barista acting like a customer, the effect on you is something like "role shock," because the actor isn't playing his expected role and that causes you some amount of surprise.

Whenever we go to a public gathering place, like a cafe, we are tempted into thinking that everyone else we see is what they appear to be based on these expectations. A barista stands behind the counter. A customer sits at a table. When we see what we expect to see, we make assumptions about that person. But you never know who those people around you really are. They could be multi-millionaires. Famous is some field that you know little about. Maybe they just got out of jail after serving a 20-year sentence for murdering someone?


But sometimes assumptions are wrong. For example, real people sometimes work as living mannequins. They sit or stand inside store windows and don't move a muscle. You stand outside the window and think they are just non-living mannequins and you don't realize they are real people pretending to be fake people. Street artists can be living mannequins at times as well, pretending to be statues in public places in large cities. You expect a statue or a mannequin, but you're wrong. It's a real person playing that role and defeating your assumptions.

Stores have mannequins in their windows, but cafes like Starbucks don't use such things. I've never seen a mannequin inside a Starbucks window. Real people in Starbucks are baristas or customers and that's it. You would never see something like a mannequin sitting at a table with the idea that the customers would think it's a real person. You would never see that in Starbucks because why would they? They're more into shaping behavior and so forth with messages on coffee cups. It's the sort of thing an eccentric local cafe owner might do for fun. One could ask, why do those fashion stores employ living mannequins?

Would you expect to see that in your favorite cafe? A person seated at a table, but you notice something peculiar about her. If you could inspect her at close range, you would discover she's just a mannequin. I suppose a group of customers could bring a mannequin into Starbucks and try to persuade the others around them that it is a real person, for their own amusement.

In the future, robots will look very much like humans and will at times be programmed to pretend to be one of us and we won't even suspect the truth.

The regulars in a cafe play their roles. The homeless guy. The computer nerd. The girl typing her emails. The game player. The old people reading the print newspapers. It's as if they are playing a part in a movie with an unstated script. They perform all the expected physical movements and social behaviors you would expect from someone in that role.


But suppose they really are playing a role? Suppose they want you to think they are one kind of person when they are another? Suppose they are spies pretending to be a typical person sitting in a cafe? Suppose they are collecting information on you? What would they be after that you want to remain hidden?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Robots As Bestselling Authors of the Future?

Dartmouth University has announced a "Turing Test in Creativity" wherein a panel of judges will attempt to determine if a short story or poem was written by a robot or a human.

Computers are already better than humans at many things, such as chess. But in the realm of creativity, humans still reign supreme. The typical human reaction of robot supremacy over humans in any field is one of fear rather than happiness or relief.

Apparently robots are already writing newspaper copy. A company called Narrative Science uses a computer algorithm to generate short (nonfiction) news stories for the Associated Press. This I find is a welcome development. The problem with journalism today is the unreasonable bias of the typical reporter who writes for newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post.

In many news stories, you don't get the facts so much as you get the reporter's opinion on the story of which he writes. And for newspapers such as those, and most others around the country, that means you are receiving the same liberal spin on current events. A robot, I should hope, can be taught to write straight news without that downpour of bias I'm accustomed to seeing on all the news websites.

Newspapers of the future chock full of unbiased news stories? Can it be? That's a far shore from where the media stands today. Will those newspapers demand bias in their robotic copy anyway? Humans demand bias, so yes.

Fiction demands far more creativity than news copy. What do the bestselling authors offer to the reader that a robot could never hope to match? I think a robot could be taught to write:

  • Thriller stories with nonstop action
  • Romance novels with a standard formula of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl
  • A murder mystery with the standard formula of a murder, a short list of suspects, a detective who interviews them all and then reveals the solution

Any type of fiction based on a tried-and-true formula I think can be written well by robots of the future, because they require the least amount of pure creativity.

It's those types of narratives demanding the personal touch of an imaginative writer that can't be distilled into a formula that would remain beyond the reach of robots.

But could it be possible we will be thinking of the "personal touch" of a future robotic author and his next book with more anticipation than today's bestsellers such as James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, and John Grisham? Will those names be replaced by robots in about the year 2030?

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Ghost Town: Washington DC

Thousands of people travel through the Washington DC Metro system every day, so it's an odd feeling to go down the escalator to the platform and no one is around. The next train arrives, the doors open, you walk in and no one is there.

It's not often three things converge that result in a ghost train:

  • The empty train with no one in it
  • The station where no one else gets on
  • The time of day where no one else is around yet

It reminds me of my own story I'm working on, called "The Ghost Subway Train" in which the narrator goes on a ride on a ghost subway train around the world.

I also had the feeling that "everyone is somewhere else," something like that scene from Woody Allen's movie Stardust Memories when he sees a party on a passing train.

The Ghost Town theme was in the air all morning. For long stretches on the Mt. Vernon Trail, I saw no one else around, even though hundreds if not thousands of people use it every day.

Afterward, I went to a Starbucks that used to be bursting with customers at every table. This time, just a few seats were taken.

Everybody is somewhere else and wherever I go is a "ghost town."

I could chalk it up to a coincidence, and no doubt the long odds against all this will come up every once in a great while, like hitting the lottery. That would be the rational, scientific way of looking at it. All variations will arise over a long period of time.

It makes no sense to say that "unseen forces" are at work and the "ghost town" aspect is the result of someone's deliberate plan.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Secret Report: Climate Change Poses Serious Threat to Democrats

WASHINGTON, DC (Leary News) - Climate change poses a serious threat to Democratic candidates for public office in the coming decades, according to a secret political report circulated within the Obama Administration and Democrats in Congress.

Psychologists warn that the effects of climate change will benefit Republicans in future elections, as a percentage of those identifying as liberals are projected to gradually adopt more conservative political opinions.

"The consensus of opinion is that individuals will be much more flexible in terms of political affiliation and willing to shift from long-term beliefs about social and political issues as a direct result of the effects of global warming, such as rising temperatures and scarcity of resources," said a political insider familiar with the report who wished not to be named.

President Obama recently listed climate change as a top priority of his administration and an "immediate risk to our national security." In February, a report on Obama's national security strategy called global warming "an urgent and growing threat."

However, the urgency behind Obama's war on global warming has more to do with politics rather than national security, according to the insider. "Consider that Obama's policy of allowing more and more illegal immigrants into the country is based on the calculation that most of them will become Democrats," he said. "Now, a report suggests that unchecked global warming will result in more Republicans. Obama needed to protect his goal of a permanent Democrat majority. But he can't talk about these issues in terms of politics because that wouldn't fly with the public."

A recent poll discovered that minorities are strongly in favor of President Obama prioritizing job growth rather than climate change, as many fear new environmental regulations will raise utility rates. "But that poll doesn't take into account that the emphasis on global warming is about politics," the insider said. "And those ramifications are far more important to Obama and the congressional Democrats than rising electricity bills."

Pope Francis raised eyebrows by taking a strong stand against global warming, with some accusing him of playing politics rather than religion. "Francis was lobbied hard behind closed doors by Obama's diplomats to say something about climate change, and he obliged," he said.

According to the secret report, the implications of global warming are staggering from a political and electoral viewpoint. "Democratic Party leaders are scared out of their minds," he said. "Some are skeptical of the report's findings, but many are worried and felt the effects of global warming might nullify all their efforts to bring more illegal immigrants as future reliable Democratic Party voters into the country."

Congressional Republicans contacted for this story said they were unfamiliar with the report and could not comment.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Hemingway On Killing Cecil The Lion

Much ink has been spilled lately over the blood of Cecil the Lion, killed by an American safari hunter/dentist in Zimbabwe.

In 1935, Ernest Hemingway wrote The Green Hills of Africa, a nonfiction novel published 30 years before Truman Capote kindled a literary genre with In Cold Blood.

Hemingway recounted a safari trip to Africa and his killing of a lion. It wasn't named Cecil, but what's in a name anyway. A lion by any other name is just as dangerous. What's it like to shoot a lion? Hemingway's narrative gives us some idea.

From Green Hills of Africa:
I remember seeing the lion looking yellow and heavy-headed and enormous against a scrubby looking tree in a patch of orchard bush....Then there was the short-barrelled explosion of the Mannlicher and the lion was going to the left on a run, a strange, heavy-shouldered, foots-swinging, cat run. I hit him with the Springfield and he went down and spun over and I shot again, too quickly, and threw a cloud of dirt over him. But there he was, stretched out, on his belly, and, with the sun just over the top of the trees, and the grass very green, we walked up on him like a posse...guns ready and cocked, not knowing whether he was stunned or dead.... 
I was so surprised by the way he had rolled over dead from the shot after we had been prepared for a charge, for heroics, and for drama, that I felt more let down than pleased. It was our first lion and were were very ignorant and this was not what we had paid to see.
This novel is often ignored and not even mentioned as an early example of the "nonfiction novel" genre which became integrated into literature several decades later. Hemingway's most famous story of a lion hunt is his short story "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," considered one of his best.

I think people sympathize with lion deaths because they are seen as an animal that has been encroached upon by humans and are becoming endangered as a species. We don;t hear much about lions mauling people, but instead about safari hunters arriving from the West and shooting them for fun. Contrast that with the way we view sharks. The only time we hear about them is when they are biting off the arms and legs of swimmers. They seem to have the "upper hand" in a way lions don't. You don't hear much in the way of remorse for the killing of a shark.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Long Lost F Scott Fitzgerald Story Found

A "long lost" short story written by F. Scott Fitzerald has been found. The story is called "Temperature" and was written in 1939, long after Fitzgerald's star had faded.

He had mailed it himself to the Saturday Evening Post, but it was rejected. Is it any good? Readers of The Strand can read it now; it will appear online in 3 months. The Strand specializes in mystery stories, but apparently this isn't one.

How was this lost story found? The managing editor of The Strand had been rummaging around in Princeton University's rare book and manuscript archive. It seems odd that someone would walk in the door, look through their boxes, and Eureka! discover lost or unknown items by one of the most famous authors the US has ever known, but there it is. Anything else lurking in that archive that hasn't been cataloged or noticed missing to the world--Bach's lost compositions perhaps?

Lost stories or writings by famous authors are always turning up. Just recently a new Sherlock Holmes story by Conan Doyle was found. And a short piece by Ernest Hemingway. So missing things are sometimes found--including musical pieces by Bach.

What's needed by humanity is a SciFi "Wayback Machine" to go back and discover all these things that have gone missing over the ages.