This Week's Show •

Billie Holiday at 100

This show first aired July 30, 2015. The astonishment about Billie Holiday in her 100th birthday summer is how differently we hear her. Back in the day — in her music, in her autobiography — ...

This show first aired July 30, 2015.

The astonishment about Billie Holiday in her 100th birthday summer is how differently we hear her. Back in the day — in her music, in her autobiography — Lady Day was the full catalog of suffering in a 20th-century underground: abandonment and child prostitution on the way to drink, drug addiction, and death at 44. “The most hurt and hurting singer in jazz,” said the authoritative Nat Hentoff.

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But resurrection in art jumps out of the soundtrack here — starting with her breakthrough film with Duke Ellington in 1934, when she sings, at age 19, “Saddest tale on land or sea, was when my man walked out on me.” Then, when we hear Billie Holiday’s recording of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” from 1944, she has stopped at our table in a small club and started speaking directly to us. There’s no other singer who ever made us cheer and cry at the same time. So Billie Holiday stands less for all that pain than for Hemingway’s dictum that a blues hero “can be destroyed but not defeated.”

In Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, the meta-biographer John Szwed (also of Sun Ra, Miles Davis and Alan Lomax) traces the self-invention of an icon and finds the life and art of Billie Holiday running side-by-side with a truth-telling drive that did not quit. In our conversation, Szwed finds that to the end she was “smarter, tougher, funnier” than all but a few knew.

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The Lovers, by Jacob Lawrence (1946). 

Five fine singers — Dee Dee BridgewaterDominique Eade, Marissa Nadler, Janice Pendarvis, and Rebecca Sullivan — are guiding us through their favorite Holiday songs: her vocal tricks and the social, emotional resonances of her music. Re-listening with them, we begin to understand and experience not just the Billie Holiday story, but the atmosphere of Harlem streets, nightclubs, and living rooms. We hear an “unflinching” voice and a “sophisticated” new sound in music.

The greatest jazz singer? The perfect jazz singer? Perhaps the only jazz singer that ever lived.

A Very Brief History of the Microphone


Lady Day not only embraced the use of the microphone, she revolutionized it. By bringing the “Harlem cabaret style” into the studio, she helped introduce a more subtle and restrained style of singing to recorded music. Our guest John Szwed gives us the rundown on how Holiday—along with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles, and Johnnie Ray—helped to permanently change the way artists approached the mic. Read the complete story on Medium.

—Zach Goldhammer

Music From The Show

  • “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” (1937)
  • “Symphony in Black” (1935)
  • “Solitude” (1941)
  • “Fine and Mellow” (1939)
  • “Love For Sale” (1945)
  • “Them There Eyes” (1949)
  • “Strange Fruit” (1939)
  • “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” (1935)
  • “Me, Myself, and I” (1937)
  • “No Regrets” (1936)
  • “I’ll Get By” (1937)
  • “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1944)
  • “God Bless The Child” (1955)
  • “Gloomy Sunday” (1941)
  • “Lover Man” (1945)
  • “I’m a Fool To Want You” (1958)
  • “The End of a Love Affair” (1958)
  • “Fine and Mellow” (1957)

You can listen to an expanded playlist here.

This Week's Show •

The Many Faces of Ferrante

This is a rerun, prompted by the HBO series My Brilliant Friend, based on the  “Neapolitan Novels” of Elena Ferrante. Ferrante’s identity remains beguilingly unknown, but she has put so much of her life and ...

This is a rerun, prompted by the HBO series My Brilliant Friend, based on the  “Neapolitan Novels” of Elena Ferrante.

Ferrante’s identity remains beguilingly unknown, but she has put so much of her life and world in this masterwork that we’re not going to dwell on that part of the mystery.

Instead we’ll count the many faces of her novels. From the outside, the books look innocuous enough: their covers are airbrushed photo collages of mothers, daughters, and girls in Mediterranean scenes.

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But deep down they are roiling, and white-hot: with male violence, women’s resistance, pleasure, trespass, and loss. Think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” rewritten into a feminist epic.

Ferrante pushes the story over a long roller-coaster arc, and it can be as gripping as soap operas, HBO, or Harry Potter and—at moments—as deep and humane as Proust.

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A few of the things these books are doing:

The psychology of a friendship.

The Proustian gene shows itself from the very beginning of the novels: when Elena Greco—an aging, successful writer from Naples—hears that her best friend Raffaella Cerullo, whom she calls “Lila,” has disappeared from her home.

Greco decides to set down their entire friendship on the page: every meaningful moment, from school competition through teenage cruelties, weddings, vacations, and shared pregnancies.

All the while Elena and Lila become closer than close—almost interdependent in a sometimes tense and jealous pairing. The joy of the book comes from standings inside the two friends’ field of influence: where does one friend end and the other begin? Who would they be without one another?

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20th-century feminism, a life story.

Our guest Dayna Tortorici, co-editor of n+1, reads Ferrante’s whole body of work—she wrote shorter novels before the “Neapolitan” series—as a sensitive portrayal of women’s power in practice and across history.

Not as high-falutin theory, but almost as gossip:

Ferrante’s novels animate these ideas with a generous clarity. In her work, you can see how the mother-daughter paradigm operates in all relationships between women without reducing them to cardboard… Ferrante has given intellectual and literary women an invaluable gift: books that speak to them in a language their mothers can understand.

By the end, Ferrante’s two brilliant heroines have clearly come a long way from the fates of their mothers, eaten up by abusive husbands and the fatigue of motherhood. But also not as far as we might have hoped.

A dark theory of history.

That leads to the most shocking thing the novels do: they become political and philosophical; right when you think Ferrante will spill all her gossip or tie up her threads, she stops short.

It begins in postwar Naples, a world of poverty and danger:

Our world was like full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.

It ends in a Naples that has been “developed,” put through the wringer of fifty years: Communist-Fascist street wars, organized crime, heroin, disaster,  and financial crash.

The narrator Elena Greco sounds like a radical philosopher when she holds forth on the lessons of her hometown in the final volume:

Naples was the great European metropolis where faith in technology, in science, in economic development, in the kindness of nature, in history that leads of necessity to improvement, in democracy, was revealed, most clearly and far in advance, to be completely without foundation.

To be born in that city— I went so far as to write once, thinking not of myself but of Lila’s pessimism— is useful for only one thing: to have always known, almost instinctively, what today, with endless fine distinctions, everyone is beginning to claim: that the dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare of savagery and death.

The radical politics failed; the violence rattled on. What remained constant was the interpersonal enchantment of two women, two wills, in a hostile place.

Sabine Weiss, A Street in Naples

Sabine Weiss, “A Street in Naples”

By the way, Michael Reynolds, the (English) publisher of Ferrante’s novels, spoke to us about the Ferrante phenomenon this week in prep for our show. You can listen to an excerpt of our conversation here:

Have you read Elena Ferrante? Leave a comment below, and please tune into the show.

Podcast • September 15, 2016

What Would Keynes Do?

This election has been about everything but the economy, stupid (according to John Harwood of The New York Times). Americans are split right down the middle—48 to 48—on which candidate will handle money matters better; ...

This election has been about everything but the economy, stupid (according to John Harwood of The New York Times). Americans are split right down the middle—48 to 48—on which candidate will handle money matters better; instead the wedge issues are tolerance, territory, immigration, constitutional rights, political (and factual) correctness. Why is that?

There are a lot of theories bouncing around this week, and we imagine them all overlooked by John Maynard Keynes, the economic wizard behind the Bretton Woods world order and the boom years between 1930 and 1970. He may have been the last genius of economics who also understood human life, in all its excesses and “animal spirits.” What would his keen mind have brought to a moment with so much ambiguity? 

1. We’re on the comeback.

Harwood argued last Thursday that the lukewarm economy gives neither side an advantage: the Obama recovery was neither strong enough to gloat over nor weak enough to attack.  

But early this week, a Census survey of economic indicators revealed that in fact, 2015 looked like a historic uptick: median household income rose 5.2%, the biggest jump since 1967. 3.5 million Americans climbed out of poverty; unemployment dropped to 4.9%, half its post-crash high. All three stock indexes have hit record highs, and more than half of Americans say the economy seems “good”—there’s genuine relief in the air.

2. But we’re still a long way from “morning in America.”

Yet 60% of Americans still think the country’s headed in the wrong direction. The median wage may be up this year, but it’s still below its balmy 1999 high. The body is recovering, but the collective psychology is still anxious and depressed. When people look in their wallets—or toward their futures—they feel shortchanged and blame Washington. 

Our guest, the protest journalist Sarah Jaffe, calls attention to the people who are really still feeling the squeeze—of anti-Keynesian austerity and casino capitalism, for example—in her new book, Necessary Trouble. It’s a chronicle of people on the march against punitive student debt, foreclosures, and slashed public budgets—and for moving the conversation forward.

3. Growth may be ending.

Heavy-hitting economists like Larry Summers have started to worry aloud about “secular stagnation”: a period in which growth itself may slow—or stop—in our Energizer-bunny economy. What would that mean for the American dream, which depends on rising wages buying more and better goods at cheaper prices?

4. But our minds are changing, too.

A radical shift that the new bipartisan consensus emerging in the candidates: that signing onto NAFTA, letting infrastructure languish, and cutting spending was a mistake—in short, that the government still has a stimulating role to play in the American economy. 

To make the case, our good friend Mark Blyth—the Brown University political economist whose magisterial book Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea lowered the hammer on the false promise of cut budgets. Mike Konczal, one of the big-thinking financial reformers and fellows at the Roosevelt Institute, will make the case that this fraught election might be concealing a new and healthy economic consensus.

Finally, Lord Robert Skidelsky paints us a portrait of Keynes himself, as a cosmopolitan elite who nonetheless empathized with those out of work and on the dole. Keynes is the kind of economist we wish we still had around, offering not only timely economic prescriptions (extend global financial regulation, double down on government infrastructure spending, experiment with basic income plans), but also a model—of a holistic, cross-disciplinary, concerned mind:

The master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts …. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular, in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood, as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician.

 

 

Podcast • September 8, 2016

Election 2016: Unreality T.V.

Barack Obama has kept his distance from this campaign, but he did intervene last month to remind Americans that they’re not voting to give someone a recording contract: “This is a really serious job. This ...

Barack Obama has kept his distance from this campaign, but he did intervene last month to remind Americans that they’re not voting to give someone a recording contract: “This is a really serious job. This is not entertainment. This is not a reality show.”

Hillary Clinton likes that line, too, and has used it more pointedly against the former host of The Apprentice: “You can’t say to the head of another nation’s government… if you disagree with them, ’you’re fired!’ That is not the way it works in the real world!”

It’s true, of course—but the rise of Trump reminds us that American politics lost their humble, aldermanic relationship with a simple “real world” a long way back.

Obama’s own victory was telegraphed and televised—the dignified, better-than-human First Black President got screen-tested more than once in Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert. And a Brooklyn-ready media rollout teased an age of “hope” and “change” that the candidate was unable fully to bring about.

The gap between the real and the imagined isn’t a new phenomenon—it’s old as politics itself, and only accelerated by TV. As early as 1960, Norman Mailer read John F. Kennedy aright—not as a job applicant but as an avatar for two Americas, old and new:

this candidate for all his record; his good, sound, conventional liberal record has a patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz.

The author and journalist Ron Suskind is in our studio—he was the one who transcribed a gem of ideology from a secret source in the Bush White House:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Trump may be imperial in that same sense, if Matt Lauer’s botched tackle of the two presidential candidates is anything to go by.

For more on the realm of unreality we’re in, we turn to Veep‘s Frank Rich, and The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum (above), if the age of mass-media politics that began with the glow of Kennedy is ending with the groan of Trump—himself made-for-TV. His unpredictability, his familiar pout, his Lorax coloring and proportions are keeping him in a race and a conversation he might have lost, on the merits, long ago.

To millions of Americans, Trump has some real effects; he represents hope—maybe for boardroom efficiency or a frank simplification of political questions—or a change in atmosphere, away from managed expectations and polite coastal contempt. His may be a dark fantasy, but he sees that politicians, like TV personae real and semi-real, are in the business of fantasy, and that the “show horse” part of the job can’t be so easily shrugged off.

How do we talk about political reality from so deep inside the world of the reality show?

August 25, 2016

DFW, FTW: Life In the Internet Age

This week sees the opening of The End of the Tour, an updated My Dinner with Andre about David Foster Wallace’s book tour in 1996 for his immeasurable novel, Infinite Jest. On that tour Wallace stopped ...

This week sees the opening of The End of the Tour, an updated My Dinner with Andre about David Foster Wallace’s book tour in 1996 for his immeasurable novel, Infinite Jest.

On that tour Wallace stopped by our old show, The Connection, and put forward a pitch: his America — better protected, educated, and entertained than ever — was entering a sad spiritual drift. And as a recovering addict, he hoped to help himself (and others) to grope toward inward peace amid the buzz of the coming 21st-century culture.

It’s now almost 20 years later. Is there a chance Wallace, who died in 2008, was right?

His masterpiece novel, Infinite Jest, what we took to be manic imagination now looks like prophesy: it was hung up on lethally good amusement long before screen addiction became a national anxiety and people dropped dead at their keyboards in Asian arcades. Wallace foresaw about the paralyzing strangeness of watching yourself in HD; now we have the selfie stick. He thought virtual-reality porn could destroy civilization as we know it — and now that’s available in prototype (the link is news, but still not safe for work!).

The president Wallace imagined in Infinite Jest’s near future? Johnny Gentle, a dried-up celebrity-turned-wall-building-germaphobe intent on shooting American waste into space. Gentle wins on “a surreal union of both Rush L.- and Hillary R.C.-disillusioned fringes… an angry reactionary voter-spasm.” In other words, he’s Donald Trump.

So, as Trump steps in and Jon Stewart steps out of a long career of laughing ruefully at all the bad news — maybe much of what we’re going through is somewhere inside Wallace’s long body of work, a one-man epic of irony, sincerity, mania, depression, addiction and forbearance.

A.O. Scott, chief film critic at the New York Times, told us Wallace captured the new voices inside American heads better than anybody else:

He was writing in fairly early days of the Internet and in advance of a lot of the digital culture that we now tend to blame for our alienation and loneliness and melancholy… I think that that sadness, that melancholy, that sense of a disconnection, of a perpetual un-fulfillment is a condition of modern life that renews itself in every generation and in every new technological dispensation… He was a very precise mimic in a way of a certain style of consciousness that is still very much with us and has if anything, intensified as the artifice and the addictive power of television has been supplanted and trumped by the addictive power of all these other screens that we now have.

We were joined by novelist and critic Renata Adler, who mapped that melancholy onto the meta American story, not the media. Postwar triumphalism and “public happiness”  gave way to something more paranoid, desperate, and defeated.

Maria Bustillos,who writes about culture for The Awl and The New Yorker, ventured that the latest phase of web living has us almost “lethally selfish,” comfortable with markets and politics that ignore real-world strife.  But, Bustillos says the heady, town-hall spirit of early blogger time isn’t lost forever; she still sees “a humanity rising up” in the Internet and its young users.

And Paul Ford — writer, programmer, and public intellectual of the web — agreed with his pal Maria. Ford points to their own web friendship (and even to Tinder!) to say that there is life on and off the web:

It’s remarkable that you put Maria and me both on this program. We have been chatting ambiently for years. When she comes to New York City, we go out and get coffee, and she gives big, strong tremendous hugs! There is an emerging physicality and sense of literal human touch that I think actually the Internet enabled… I live in this building far out in Brooklyn and we’ve all moved in there with our kids, and half the people in there met online. There is more physicality. There are more people meeting up, more people finding spaces for each other as a result, at the ground level.

August 18, 2016

Apocalypse Now?, Part 3: So Far, So Good?

You can hear the first part of our summer series, “Apocalypse Now?” here, and Part 2 here. We’ve come to the end of the end: our third and final apocalyptic investigation (for now!). In the ...

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You can hear the first part of our summer series, “Apocalypse Now?” here, and Part 2 here.

We’ve come to the end of the end: our third and final apocalyptic investigation (for now!).

In the first two episodes we faced a future of superintelligent machines and a nearer-term genetic revolution—all (still) a little sci-fi. But we’re closing with the apocalyptic anxieties of Right Now, and the beginnings of a reorientation.

That story begins with the 20th century, which our leadoff guest, Amb. Chas Freeman, learned his trade as a diplomat and advisor. It was a period of enormous development, in spite of the twin Armageddons of the world wars, with America rising to the top of the heap. And it set our species moving at a turbocharged clip—after 250,000 years of relative tranquility. We live pretty high up the hockey-stick inflection in every kind of graph measuring human growth and progress: consumption, carbon emissions, productivity, population growth, economic expansion, and computer processing power.

A few numbers for context. In 1900, there were 1.4 billion humans. Today, there are 7.3 billion. The “gross world product”—a roundup of all human-produced value—grew from about one trillion dollars to more than 77 trillion dollars over that same period.

When you dwell long enough on all the turbulence of the last century, it becomes kind of a miracle that we made it to this one. And yet, when it comes to carbon pollution, we seem to be stepping over our first threshold. Finally, planetary consequences. It’s a caution: can we count on the spaceship Earth to keep cruising at its incredible clip?

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Our guest, the great investor Jeremy Grantham, reminds us if the population of ancient Egypt had grown at even 1 percent a year across 3,000 years, it would have increased by a factor of 9 trillion. (Instead it doubled.)

And yet our population is still growing at that rate, year after year. Economists tell us to expect even greater growth in GDP: 2 or 3 percent, year over year. Grantham warns us that what goes up must come down:

The people who [dismiss the possible end of growth] are really like the people falling out a very tall, burning building: “so far, so good, so far, so good.” Of course, the “so far, so good” argument can always be used, but anyone with a slight math tendency can see that compound growth is unsustainable.

Grantham calls this period “the race of our lives”—the last-ditch, hundred-year effort to step up technological development in order to convert our civilization into something sustainable, harmonious, equal and fair. He gives us a 50-50 shot of making it!

The activist-turned-novelist Paul Kingsnorth would put it a slightly different way. After a career of advocacy, he’s restarted life with his family, farming and writing in the Irish countryside. Where Grantham preaches collective effort on technological fixes, Kingsnorth preaches repair, if not quite retreat: working land, baking bread, unlearning dependencies and relearning skills.

The solution to the problem of apocalyptic risk in our society lives somewhere in the middle—between the technological crusade and the moral revolution.

A final production note!

We heard that the doomy tone of the past few shows was getting to some of our younger listeners—born at the end of the last century but determined to do some good in this one. So Christopher Lydon concluded the series with a reminder from the eternal optimist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that “the World Spirit is a good swimmer.” From his first book, Nature:

All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world.

In other words: onward—ever onward!

 

Podcast • August 11, 2016

Apocalypse Now?, Part 2: A Remade Man

Our apocalypse series began one week ago with one grim vision of the future. What if our machines managed to take control of their own code? If they began to self-regulate, even self-replicate? It’s an imaginable scenario—but ...

Our apocalypse series began one week ago with one grim vision of the future. What if our machines managed to take control of their own code? If they began to self-regulate, even self-replicate? It’s an imaginable scenario—but one that’s still far off in the future.

But it sounds familiar in the biotech capital of Boston/Cambridge. Messing with our own code: that’s exactly what we human machines are up to, right now and more and more, in labs across this city and around the world. Thanks to a number of scientific breakthroughs—in particular, the editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9—have made possible the manipulation of multiple genetic “sites,” in the service of eliminating genes that harm or hinder—or even to introduce genes that remake, strengthen, and speed up the species, or big parts of it.

The science-minded animators at Kurzgesagt have taken on CRISPR, and why it is being treated as a kind of genetic Holy Grail—or point of no return:

This show is prompted by the incredible pace of progress, and also by some fretting about what the unlocking of the genome might do. We’re inspired to live alongside George Church, the super-confident Harvard scientist behind some of CRISPR’s wildest possibilities: including reprogramming or ridding the world of malarial mosquitoes, reversing aging, and rescuing the woolly mammoth from extinction.

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Church—bearded, striking—knows he’s presiding over a revolution, and speaks, to be fair, in terms of numerous safeguards against the apocalyptic possibilities.

But our guests, writer/physician Siddhartha Mukherjee and the philosopher Michael Sandel, remind us that tomorrow’s biotechnology will have an almost unimaginable capacity to surprise, that there may be Robert Oppenheimers among the genetic Edisons.

Mukherjee refers us to the 1905 prophesy of the Mendelian biologist William Bateson, who said:

“The science of heredity will soon provide power on a stupendous scale; and in some country… that power will be applied to control the composition of a nation.”

That may mean the revival of eugenics on a 21st-century, pay-to-play model. Does that make it OK?

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We close with Pardis Sabeti, the biologist at the center of the Ebola fight of 2014. That wasn’t an apocalypse, but it was a serious cataclysm: a horrifying, hemorrhagic virus attacking a third-world healthcare system and against, for too long, global sluggishness and indifference. Sabeti says she works by day and worries at night on the prospect of a manmade superbug—Ebola set loose in the air.

Sabeti’s lab at the Broad Institute, like George Church’s, is full of brilliant postdocs pipetting solvents, running centrifuges, all in the service of reading and writing genomes. But in some ways, she’s playing a prudent, even heroic kind of defense to the bioengineers’ offense: trying to make the virus extinct, but without any concept of transhumanism.

Sabeti paid tribute to Dr. Sheikh Humarr Khan, who finally died of Ebola after months of tireless work with more than 80 infected patients at Kenema Government Hospital. If there’s to be hope of global readiness for a biopocalypse—a dreadful attack on human bodies, exploiting weaknesses in our genes or in our governments—it’s going to hang on ordinary human hands and hearts, like Dr. Khan’s.

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Watch our guest Siddhartha Mukherjeeauthor of The Gene, discuss the genetic theater of the Rio Olympics:

August 4, 2016

Apocalypse Now?, Part 1: The Rise of the Machines

This August, that summer-cinema experience of cataclysm and crash has escaped the theaters and invaded our everyday lives. The panic is real: about politics and economics, terrorism and temperature. So we’re taking a cue from Hollywood for a summer blockbuster ...

This August, that summer-cinema experience of cataclysm and crash has escaped the theaters and invaded our everyday lives. The panic is real: about politics and economics, terrorism and temperature.

So we’re taking a cue from Hollywood for a summer blockbuster of our own. What if we looked beyond those superhero-movie scenarios—New York decimated by robots, clones, aliens, or terrorists—into the world-changing, and life-threatening, real developments of 2016? In 200 years, will humans (if they still exist!) speak with regret about Trump, the rising tide, or about trends and inventions we’ve barely even heard of yet?

With scientists, writers, humanists and technologists, we’ve got our eyes looking for the big risks and asking the life-or-death question for our entire civilization: Apocalypse Now?

Our series begins on St. Ebbes Street in Oxford, England, in the curious office of The Future of Humanity Institute. Inside, founder Nick Bostrom, researcher Anders Sandberg, and a number of other highly intelligent young philosophers, engineers, and scientists have set about imagining a way to keep what Bostrom calls “the human story” going safely along.

From Bostrom’s perspective, wicked problems like climate change or income inequality seem like a planetary heart condition, or back pain: serious, but not fatal. He and the staff of the F.H.I. want us to develop a vigilance against existential threats—the truly disastrous, world-ending outcomes that might arise, probably from our own fumbling.

Bostrom has been able to persuade very smart, tech-savvy people like Bill GatesElon Musk, and Stephen Hawking that one such risk might come from the world of machine intelligence, advancing everyday in labs around the world.

Before you protest that Siri can’t even understand what you’re saying yet, you have to remember that the apocalyptically-minded, like Royal Astronomer Martin Rees, think on the longest of timelines.

Here’s how they see the story so far: Earth has been turning for around 4.5 billion years. Homo sapiens has only witnessed a couple of hundred thousand of those. And only since 1945 have we human beings had the ability to wipe ourselves out.

On the astronomical timeline, 70 years of nuclear peace seems a lot less impressive. And the fact that advanced computers—equipped with new methods for autonomous learning—are mastering the devilishly complicated game of Go and analyzing radiology readouts well ahead of schedule is cause for concern as well as celebration.

not-terminator

And our apocalypse watchers want us to be perfectly clear: they’re not talking about Terminator. Bostrom more often describes AI “superintelligence” as a sort of species unto itself, one that won’t necessarily recognize the importance we humans have typically ascribed to our own survival:

The principal concern would be that the machines would be indifferent to human values, would run roughshod over human values… Much as when we want to build a parking lot outside a supermarket and there happens to be an ant colony living there, but we just pave it over. And it’s not because we hate the ants—it’s just because they don’t factor into our utility function. So it’s similar. If you have an AI whose utility function that just doesn’t value human goals, you might have violence as a kind of side effect.

The Columbia roboticist Hod Lipson tells us how his “creative machines” learn. It isn’t by being given new rules, but by being set free to observe new behaviors and draw their own conclusions. It’s a bit like raising a child.

It’s easy to think of these machines as stuck in a permanent infancy when you watch the strangely poignant robot videos posted by our local robot lab, Boston Dynamics. They can’t open doors; they stumble through the woods. But the point is that we have plunged into the deep water of man-machine interdependency, almost without noticing it, and the current is already carrying us away in unknown directions.

With a panel of our favorite tech-concerned writers—Nicholson Baker, Maria Bustillos, and the critic Mark O’Connell—we’ll discuss the prospect of our first apocalyptic scenario: the rise of the machines.

This Week's Show •

Yanis Varoufakis’s Greek Tragedy

Before Brexit, of course, there was Grexit: the possibility, one year ago, that Greeks defying the will of E.U. bureaucrats bankers would fall right out of Europe. Yanis Varoufakis was the finance minister of Greece’s radical left government ...

Before Brexit, of course, there was Grexit: the possibility, one year ago, that Greeks defying the will of E.U. bureaucrats bankers would fall right out of Europe.

Yanis Varoufakis was the finance minister of Greece’s radical left government during that heady summer of 2015. He got famous first for his flair: open shirt, shaved head, and motorcycle jacket — but then really famous for playing chicken with his nations’ creditors in Brussels and Berlin.

His line was that Greece could not and should not be forced to take on huge new loans to pay off bad old ones as a price of staying in the European Union. “Fiscal waterboarding” he called it: periods of intense austerity that crippled the Greek economy in exchange for bailout money that went to big banks.

See Varoufakis and Tsipras in Paul Mason‘s film about the Greek crisis:

Greek voters loved him, but his prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, rolled over in the crunch. Varoufakis lost his battle and gave up his ministry, but the third phase of his fame had just begun — as the exceptional political figure who could articulate in principled defeat the brutal logic of finance for finance’s sake. He is more visible than ever in politics this summer as the leading figure of the pan-European democracy movement known as “DiEM 25.”

He’s at it in the US in book form, his title drawn from the inhuman code of Athens’ ancient warfare with Sparta: “the strong do what they want,” meaning today the banks and the rich; “and the weak suffer what they must.” On the cover of his book, he adds a question mark. In the book, Varoufakis argues that the fight for the glorious European project — England’s Brexit vote against union is part of it, he says — between the spirit of democracy and the power of wealth.

This Week's Show •

Greil Marcus: America in Three Songs

Our country turned 240 last week—and yet it seems as if we’ve got so much growing up to do. In the 1960s—maybe the last moment in our history that felt so fraught with tension, inequity, and racism—the people turned, ...

Our country turned 240 last week—and yet it seems as if we’ve got so much growing up to do.

In the 1960s—maybe the last moment in our history that felt so fraught with tension, inequity, and racism—the people turned, poignantly, to folk music. At Newport and in the march on Washington, aesthetics, politics, and national memory converged around Bob Dylan, Mavis Staples, Peter Seeger and Joan Baez’s old songs of fairness, equality, and the American way.

It seems hopelessly old-hat now. But what are the chances there’s still some fresh wisdom left in the real popular music of America?

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Our guide is Greil Marcus, the rock critic of Rolling Stone and (more lately) Pitchfork who’s become by now a musical archaeologist of American life in song.

What Bob Dylan did from the stage beginning in the Sixties’ folk revival, Marcus has done in writing: respectfully preserving and reinterpreting a musical canon that began before the age of recording in roots blues and hill-country banjo. He’s a close listener to what he calls “folk lyric,” the common stock of phrases, images, and rhymes that recur again and again in our national songs.

With his new book, Marcus locates a hidden history of America in just three strange songs, all of them worthy of obsession and homage: “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” by Bob Dylan (1965), “Last Kind Words Blues,” by Geeshie Wiley and L. V. Thomas (1930), and “I Wish I Was A Mole in The Ground,” recorded in 1928 by Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

The songs make for great listening on their own—Aesop’s fables or visionary poems set to music, repurposed again and again—but they’re also poignant reminders about how much we’ve forgotten about the way we used to live. Scarcity, sickness, and the nearness to death, rural piety, unschooled poetry and deep communities, the Mississippi River and the starlit sky—old music that’s all new.

With our producer Max Larkin, it’s a special, musical episode of Open Source.