Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Was the 401(k) a Mistake?

Jen Forbus turned 50 this year. She is in good health and says her life has only gotten better as she has grown older. Forbus resides in Lorain, Ohio, not far from Cleveland; she is single and has no children, but her parents and sisters are nearby. She works, remotely, as an editorial supervisor for an educational publishing company, a job that she loves. She is on track to pay off her mortgage in the next 10 years, and having recently made her last car payment, she is otherwise debt-free. By almost any measure, Forbus is middle class.

Still, she worries about her future. Forbus would like to stop working when she is 65. She has no big retirement dreams — she is not planning to move to Florida or to take extravagant vacations. She hopes to spend her later years enjoying family and friends and pursuing different hobbies. But she knows that she hasn’t set aside enough money to ensure that she can realize even this modest ambition.

A former high school teacher, Forbus says she has around $200,000 in total savings. She earns a high five-figure salary and contributes 9 percent of it to the 401(k) plan that she has through her employer. The company also makes a matching contribution that is equivalent to 5 percent of her salary. A widely accepted rule of thumb among personal-finance experts is that your retirement income needs to be close to 80 percent of what you earned before retiring if you hope to maintain your lifestyle. Forbus figures that she can retire comfortably on around $1 million, although if her house is paid off, she might be able to get by with a bit less. She is not factoring Social Security benefits into her calculations. “I feel like it’s too uncertain and not something I can depend on,” she says.

But even if the stock market delivers blockbuster returns over the next 15 years, her goal is going to be difficult to reach — and this assumes that she doesn’t have a catastrophic setback, like losing her job or suffering a debilitating illness.

She also knows that markets don’t always go up. During the 2008 global financial crisis, her 401(k) lost a third of its value, which was a scarring experience. From the extensive research that she has done, Forbus has become a fairly savvy investor; she’s familiar with all of the major funds and has 60 percent of her money in stocks and the rest in fixed income, which is generally the recommended ratio for people who are some years away from retiring. Still, Forbus would prefer that her retirement prospects weren’t so dependent on her own investing acumen. “It makes me very nervous,” she concedes. She and her friends speak with envy of the pensions that their parents and grandparents had. “I wish that were an option for us,” she says.

The sentiment is understandable. With pensions, otherwise known as defined-benefit plans, your employer invests on your behalf, and you are promised a fixed monthly income upon retirement. With 401(k)s, which are named after a section of the tax code, you choose from investment options that your company gives you, and there is no guarantee of what you will get back, only limits on what you can put in. This is why they are known as defined-contribution plans. Pensions still exist but mainly for unionized jobs. In the private sector, they have largely been replaced by 401(k)s, which came along in the early 1980s. Generally, contributions to 401(k)s are pretax dollars — you pay income tax when you withdraw the money — and these savings vehicles have been a bonanza for a lot of Americans.

Not all companies offer 401(k)s, however, and millions of private-sector employees lack access to workplace retirement plans. Availability is just one problem; contributing is another. Many people who have 401(k)s put little if any money into their accounts. With Americans now aging out of the work force in record numbers — according to the Alliance for Lifetime Income, a nonprofit founded by a group of financial-services companies, 4.1 million people will turn 65 this year, part of what the AARP and others have called the “silver tsunami” — the holes in the retirement system are becoming starkly apparent. U.S. Census Bureau data indicates that in 2017 49 percent of Americans ages 55 to 66 had “no personal retirement savings.”

The savings shortfall is no surprise to Teresa Ghilarducci, an economist at the New School in New York. She has long predicted that the shift to 401(k)s would leave vast numbers of Americans without enough money to retire on, reducing many of them to poverty or forcing them to continue working into their late 60s and beyond. That so many people still do not have 401(k)s or find themselves, like Jen Forbus, in such tenuous circumstances when they do, is proof that what she refers to as this “40-year experiment with do-it-yourself pensions” has been “an utter failure.”

It certainly appears to be failing a large segment of the working population, and while Ghilarducci has been making that case for years, more and more people are now coming around to her view. Her latest book, “Work, Retire, Repeat: The Uncertainty of Retirement in the New Economy,” which was published in March, is drawing a lot of attention: She has been interviewed on NPR and C-SPAN and has testified on Capitol Hill.

It is no longer just fellow progressives who are receptive to her message. Ghilarducci used to be an object of scorn on the right, once drawing the megaphonic wrath of Rush Limbaugh. Today, though, even some conservatives admit that her assessment of the retirement system is basically correct. Indeed, Kevin Hassett, who was a senior economic adviser to President Trump, teamed up with Ghilarducci not long ago to devise a plan that would help low- and middle-income Americans save more for retirement. Their proposal is the basis for legislation currently before Congress.

And Ghilarducci recently found her critique being echoed by one of the most powerful figures on Wall Street. In his annual letter to investors, Larry Fink, the chairman and chief executive of BlackRock, one of the world’s largest asset-management companies, wrote that the United States was facing a retirement crisis due in no small part to self-directed retirement financing. Fink said that for most Americans, replacing defined-benefit plans with defined-contribution plans had been “a shift from financial certainty to financial uncertainty” and suggested that it was time to abandon the “you’re on your own” approach.

While that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, it seems fair to ask whether the country as a whole has been well served by the 401(k) revolution. The main beneficiaries have been higher-income workers; instead of making an economically secure retirement possible for more people, 401(k)s have arguably become another driver of the inequality that is a defining feature of American life.
When it comes to generating wealth, 401(k)s have been an extraordinary success. The Investment Company Institute, a financial-industry trade group, calculates that the roughly 700,000 401(k) plans now in existence hold more than $7 trillion in assets. But the gains have gone primarily to those who were already at or near the top. According to the Federal Reserve, the value of the median retirement-saving account for households in the 90th to 100th income percentile has more than quintupled during the last 30 years and is currently more than $500,000. In one sense, it is not surprising that the affluent have profited to this degree from 401(k)s: The more money you can invest, the more money you stand to make.

In 2024, annual pretax contributions for employees are capped at $23,000, but with an employer match and possibly also an after-tax contribution (which is permitted under some plans), the maximum can reach $69,000. Workers 50 and over are also allowed to kick in an additional $7,500, potentially pushing the total to $76,500. Needless to say, only a sliver of the U.S. work force can contribute anything like that to their 401(k)s. 

The withdrawal rules have evolved in a way that also favors high earners. You are generally not supposed to begin taking money from a 401(k) before you are 59½; doing so could incur a 10 percent penalty (on top of the income-tax hit). What’s more, you can now put off withdrawing money until age 73; previously, you had to begin drawing down 401(k)s by 70½. Those extra years are an added tax benefit for retirees who are in no rush to tap their 401(k)s.

People in lower-income brackets may have also made money from 401(k)s but hardly enough to retire on with Social Security. In 2022, the median retirement account for households in the 20th through 39th percentile held just $20,000. For this segment of the working population, 401(k)s sometimes end up serving a very different purpose. They become a source of emergency funds, not retirement income. But then, for many of these people, retirement seems like an impossibility.

Laura Gendreau directs a program called Stand by Me, a joint venture between the United Way of Delaware and the state government that provides free financial counseling. She says that when she asks clients if they are putting aside any money for retirement, they often look at her in disbelief: “They say, ‘How do you expect me to save for retirement when I’m living paycheck to paycheck?’” She and her colleagues try to identify expenditures that can be eliminated or reduced so that people can start saving at least a small portion of what they earn. But she says that some clients are having such a hard time just getting by that they can’t fathom being able to retire. Sometimes it does not even occur to them to look into whether their employers offer 401(k)s. “They have no idea,” Gendreau says.

Ghilarducci has been hearing this sort of thing for years. Her career in academia began around the time that 401(k)s first emerged, and from the start, she regarded these savings plans with skepticism. For one thing, she feared that a lot of people would never have access to them. But she also felt that 401(k)s were unsuitable for lower-income Americans, who often struggled to save money or who might not have either the time or the knowledge to manage their own investments. In her judgment, the offloading of retirement risk onto workers was worse than just an economic misstep — it represented a betrayal of the social contract. (...)

In 2008, Ghilarducci proposed replacing 401(k)s with “guaranteed retirement accounts,” a program that would combine mandatory individual and employer contributions with tax credits and that would guarantee at least a 3 percent annual return, adjusted for inflation. Her plan drew the wrath of voices on the right — the conservative pundit James Pethokoukis called her “the most dangerous woman in America.”

But her timing proved to be apt: That year, the global financial crisis imperiled the retirement plans of millions of Americans. Ghilarducci suggested that if the government was going to bail out the banks, it also had an obligation to help people whose 401(k)s had tanked. Her idea inflamed the right: Rush Limbaugh attacked her during his daily radio show, which brought her a wave of hate mail.

Her hostility to 401(k)s is partly anchored in a belief that when it comes to retirement, the country was on a better path in the past. In the 1950s and 1960s, many Americans could count on pensions and Social Security to provide them with a decent retirement. It was a different era, of course — back then, men (and it was almost always men) often spent their entire careers with the same companies. And even at their peak, pensions were not available to everyone; only around half of all employees ever had one. Still, in Ghilarducci’s view, it was a time when the United States put more emphasis on the interests of working-class Americans, including ensuring that they could retire with some degree of economic security.

She portrays the move to defined contribution retirement plans as part of the sharp rightward turn that the United States took under President Ronald Reagan, when the notion of individual responsibility became economic dogma — what the Yale University political scientist Jacob Hacker has called “the great risk shift.” The downside of this shift was laid bare by the great recession. Many older Americans lost their savings and were forced to scavenge for work.

This was the subject of the journalist Jessica Bruder’s book “Nomadland,” for which Ghilarducci was interviewed and that was the basis for the Oscar-winning film of the same title. To Ghilarducci, the portraits in “Nomadland” — of lives upended, of the indignity of being old and having to scramble for food and shelter — presaged the insecure future that awaited millions of other older Americans. And Ghilarducci believes that with record numbers of people now reaching retirement age, that grim future is arriving.

by Michael Steinberger, NY Times | Read more:
Image: Tim Enthoven
[ed. I don't have enough insight into other people's experiences to make broad generalizations, but having a defined benefit retirement plan (which pays out a defined monetary benefit each month, like Social Security) has been one of the luckiest of lucky situations I've ever stumbled into. When 401k's were first introduced I imagined them as a gift to Wall Street - suddently people were being forced into the market with nothing but individual investing accumen to guide them into security. Maybe you'd make out great, maybe not. If you were into investing, it might've looked like a great opportunity. But even then it was obvious that risk was being transfered from employers to employees, since many if not most employers had a contractual, and sometimes even constitutional, obligation to provide a guaranteed retirement income based on job class and years of service. It probably worked out well for some with enough income to invest, but it was clear (even to someone as oblivious as me back then, who didn't much care about financial matters or could even imagine retirement) that most people probably wouldn't have either the funds, insight, interest, or sophistication to manage all the various complexities involved in managing their own retirement accounts. And so it has come to pass. Read the comments for other perspectives.]

Monday, May 27, 2024

Nvidia’s CEO Could Be the World’s Richest Man Sooner Than You Think

Jensen Huang, the founder and CEO of Nvidia, has been rich for about three decades, but it’s only in the past few months that his wealth has grown to GDP–of–an–Eastern European–country levels. His company, founded in 1993 in a California Denny’s, manufactures a type of hypercomplex microprocessor that was once the domain of video-game systems but now makes artificial-intelligence technology, with its extreme demands on computer power, possible.

Nvidia is worth $2.6 trillion — larger than two Metas, three Berkshire Hathaways, or five ExxonMobils. Goldman Sachs called it “the most important stock on planet Earth” for its centrality in the booming AI industry, and his company will likely be worth more than Apple in a few months. As of Friday, Huang is the 17th-richest person in the world, with an estimated $91 billion to his name, according to Bloomberg. That’s more than double what he was worth on Christmas. At this rate, Huang — whose public image is far from the flamboyant edgelord tech bro who has become so common among the Silicon Valley’s C-suites — could become richer than Elon Musk by 2025 and his company more valuable than any other in the world. (Or, of course, the stock could stop going straight up, as it did a few weeks ago, since lots of people seem to think it’s gotten way overvalued.)

AI, as a technology, is still pretty uneven. OpenAI’s most advanced public version can pick stocks better than humans, while Google’s new AI-powered chatbot, Gemini, thinks you should eat rocks. (You should not eat rocks.) Huang, though, doesn’t really care very much about that, at least as far as his own personal fortune is concerned. AI software requires a huge amount of processing power, regardless of how right or wrong the actual program’s answers may be, and Huang’s company more or less has the market cornered on making the kinds of computer chips that can handle that. Even the stupidest AI is going to need a lot of Nvidia’s chips, called graphics-processing units.

Since there is such a fervent belief among the Silicon Valley set that AI will one day achieve superhuman intelligence, there’s a tremendous incentive for just about every tech company to make that technology a core part of its operations. Huang’s business, though, is today’s equivalent of selling shovels during a gold rush. Many, if not most, of the companies vying to be the next big thing in A.I. will go bust — and Nvidia will have long pocketed their money.

by Kevin T. Dugan, Intelligencer | Read more:
Image: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
[ed. See also: Jensen Huang’s Homes: Inside the Nvidia CEO’s Property Portfolio (Mansion Global).] (ed. Mansion Global?). Also, from one of the article's links: Financial Statement Analysis with Large Language Models (pdf):]

Abstract:  We investigate whether an LLM can successfully perform financial statement analysis in a way similar to a professional human analyst. We provide standardized and anonymous financial statements to GPT4 and instruct the model to analyze them to determine the direction of future earnings. Even without any narrative or industryspecific information, the LLM outperforms financial analysts in its ability to predict earnings changes. The LLM exhibits a relative advantage over human analysts in situations when the analysts tend to struggle. Furthermore, we find that the prediction accuracy of the LLM is on par with the performance of a narrowly trained state-ofthe-art ML model. LLM prediction does not stem from its training memory. Instead, we find that the LLM generates useful narrative insights about a company’s future performance. Lastly, our trading strategies based on GPT’s predictions yield a higher Sharpe ratio and alphas than strategies based on other models. Taken together, our results suggest that LLMs may take a central role in decision-making. (...)

Conclusions: Our results suggest that GPT’s analysis yields useful insights about the company, which enable the model to outperform professional human analysts in predicting the direction of future earnings. We also document that GPT and human analysts are complementary, rather than substitutes. Specifically, language models have a larger advantage over human analysts when analysts are expected to exhibit bias and disagreement, suggesting that AI models can assist humans better when they are under-performing. Humans, on the other hand add value when additional context, not available to the model is likely to be important.

Furthermore and surprisingly, GPT’s performance is on par (or even better in some cases) with that of the most sophisticated narrowly specialized machine learning models, namely, an ANN trained on earnings prediction tasks. We investigate potential sources of the LLM’s superior predictive power. We first rule out that the model’s performance stems from its memory. Instead, our analysis suggests that the model draws its inference by gleaning useful insights from its analysis of trends and financial ratios and by leveraging its theoretical Financial Statement Analysis with Large Language Models 30 understanding and economic reasoning. Notably, the narrative financial statement analysis generated by the language model has substantial informational value in its own right. Building on these findings, we also present a profitable trading strategy based on GPT’s predictions. The strategy yields higher Sharpe ratios and alphas than other trading strategies based on ML models. Overall, our analysis suggests that GPT shows a remarkable aptitude for financial statement analysis and achieves state-of-the-art performance without any specialized training. 

Although one must interpret our results with caution, we provide evidence consistent with large language models having human-like capabilities in the financial domain. Generalpurpose language models successfully perform a task that typically requires human expertise and judgment and do so based on data exclusively from the numeric domain. Therefore, our findings indicate the potential for LLMs to democratize financial information processing and should be of interest to investors and regulators. For example, our results suggest that generative AI is not merely a tool that can assist investors (e.g., in summarizing financial statements, Kim et al., 2023b), but can play a more active role in making informed decisions. This finding is significant, as unsophisticated investors might be prone to ignoring relevant signals (e.g., Blankespoor et al., 2019), even if they are generated by advanced AI tools. However, whether AI can substantially improve human decision-making in financial markets in practice is still to be seen. We leave this question for future research. Finally, even though we strive to understand the sources of model predictions, it is empirically difficult to pinpoint how and why the model performs well."
Authors: Kim, Alex G. and Muhn, Maximilian and Nikolaev, Valeri V., Financial Statement Analysis with Large Language Models (May 20, 2024). Chicago Booth Research Paper Forthcoming, Fama-Miller Working Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4835311 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4835311

The Last Thing My Mother Wanted

Healthy at age 74, she decided there was nothing on earth still keeping her here, not even us.

Do you know how many grams of Nembutal it takes to put an elephant to sleep?” asks the anesthesiologist from Pegasos, a voluntary-assisted-death organization in Switzerland, after an evaluative look at my mother.

We — my 74-year-old mother, my younger sister, and I — are sitting on a couch in the suite of a charming hotel near the center of Basel. Thin, contained, elegant, with a neat bob of white hair, Mom is at attention. The doctor seems at ease. As he tucks his hat under a red-and-gold Louis XV–style chair, he tells us that many people who avail themselves of Pegasos’s service, which costs more than $10,000, will sell their car or antique books to spend their last few nights at this hotel.

It is September 28, 2022, the day before my mother is scheduled to inject herself with 15 grams of Nembutal — enough to sedate three and a half elephants, the doctor says. She would not need to worry about waking up or being cremated alive. This was a relief to her, Mom says with a smile.

In June, my sister and I had learned, almost by accident, that she was seeking an assisted suicide. I was on the phone with Mom, listening to her complain about an annoying bureaucrat at the New York County Clerk’s Office, when she mentioned it. “I am putting in an application to Pegasos,” she said impassively, “so I was getting some documents for them.” I texted my sister while we were on the phone: “What the fuck? Why didn’t you tell me about Mom applying to die?” Three little dots. “Wait,” My sister wrote back. “What. What is she doing?”

Mom didn’t have cancer or Lou Gehrig’s disease or any of the illnesses that typically qualify you for assisted death. A cataract in her left eye had deteriorated, and though she had some foot pain and had gotten a pacemaker, all of which weighed on her, she was quite healthy for her age. She had completed a marathon just a few years before at 68.

But her long-term partner had been diagnosed with an incurable glioblastoma in February 2020 and had taken advantage of California’s “death with dignity” laws to die that May. Soon after, Mom left San Francisco, a city she hated for the 20 years she lived there, and moved back to her beloved New York. She bought an apartment near her childhood home on Fifth Avenue; reconnected with old friends; saw plays, art exhibits, and movies; ate good food; and traveled — and did not care about any of it. “Oh, I have nothing interesting to say,” she would say when I called, her voice animated only when she was describing a plan to smite anyone responsible for a grievance by writing a furious email or leaving an angry Yelp review. My mother had always been a flashlight of a person — shining a small but intense beam on things she wanted to explore — but now the radius had shrunk, the light weakened. She used to be curious about my husband’s hobbies, our children, my sister’s career, but those topics, like everything else, were now of only vague interest. She would come down to Virginia to see my family and go up to Connecticut to see my sister’s, but she wouldn’t play with the kids and didn’t seem to enjoy the trips, just expressed relief when they were over. In the last months of her life, the only thing that appeared to give her real joy was the hope that she would be ending it.

In the U.S., ten states allow physician-assisted death, which is available only to residents who are terminally ill with no more than six months to live. In Canada, the laws are more expansive, but citizens still need a diagnosis — if not a terminal condition, then an incurable one with intolerable suffering and an advanced state of decline. In Switzerland, where a foreigner can go to receive aid in dying, there are fewer restrictions on who is eligible. Pegasos is one of the only organizations that will help elderly people who have not been diagnosed with a terminal illness but who are tired of life. Its website notes that “old age is rarely kind” and that “for a person to be in the headspace of considering ending their lives, their quality of life must be qualitatively poor.”

My mother had pinned her hopes on this “tired of life” catchall. She had a three-pronged rationale, she told us over the phone: The world was going to hell, and she did not want to see more; she did not get joy out of the everyday pleasures of life or her relationships; and she did not want to face the degradations of aging. (...)

The night before she is scheduled to kill herself, we have a sumptuous dinner at the Brasserie au Violon, the site of a former prison; my mother chose the venue as a joke.

The procedure, or the appointment — none of us seem to want to say the word death — has been moved from Thursday morning to the early afternoon. Another lifetime of waiting. By 9 a.m., the clouds have broken, and my mother is already dressed, her hair in curlers. She is sitting on the bed, looking at her computer. My sister and I suggest a walk. My mother declines: “I’m doing emails. Just unsubscribing from Politico.” “Mom!” We splutter. “We can do that! It’s your last day on earth!” Which it is, and so we desist. Around noon, we go down to the hotel bar. My mother orders a whiskey-soda, ice cream, and a glass of Barolo. She enjoys the wine so much that I suggest she could just not go through with it and stay in this exact hotel and drink herself into oblivion for the rest of her life. Like Bartleby, she’d prefer not to.

by Evelyn Jouvenet, The Cut | Read more:
Image: Evelyn Jouvenet

Katharina Hvalur
[ed. Reminds me of someone - similar encounter, similar setting.]

‘Tis the (Oscar) Season

In 2015, The Hollywood Reporter began running their column “Brutally Honest Ballot,” which highlights the opinions of several Academy voters leading up to that ceremony. What is striking is not necessarily their choices, but the rationale, which consists mostly of instances that rubbed them the wrong way, likability, or confusion. When evaluating the Best Actress category in 2014, one voter declared
I didn’t vote for Jennifer Lawrence, even though I thought she was very entertaining in the movie, because (a) she just won last year, and (b) we can’t give everything to Jennifer Lawrence when she’s 22 years old because Jennifer Lawrence will be institutionalized. She will have gotten too much, too soon, too early, and she’ll lose her mind. I also didn’t think she gave the better performance.
Another anonymous voter in 2017 talking about the Best Director race:
Damien [Chazelle] is such a sweetheart; I loved what he did with Whiplash and this one, and he’s probably going to win. But I voted for [Kenneth] Lonergan, because it was harder to make everything click on that movie, and he really succeeded.
Like any other type of campaign, the personal becomes intertwined with techniques and ability, and the overall politics of the industry at the time of voting. Everything becomes possible when we rid ourselves of this idea that what is being evaluated for quality. Instead, we have a world of potential and aspiration. We have studios, producers, and above the liners jockeying for position. There will be dinners, a surge of well-poised interviews, and avoidance dances regarding scandals that could be detrimental to a film’s chances.

It would seem as if the machinations should deter from a movie lover’s adoration of the ceremony. So often, we hear the cynicism of those who discount the awards for not recognizing their favorites or giving the films the wrong awards or for pandering. All kind of true. But instead of assuming that the Awards will somehow magically conform to my taste, I’ve just begun to let go and enjoy the process of the entire thing. (...)

My favorite example of a beautiful campaign was DiCaprio’s run for Best Actor in 2016. Nominated five times previously for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Blood Diamond, The Wolf of Wall Street, he had done pretty much all the things an actor needs to do for an Oscar. He paired with the best filmmakers. Played villains and heroes. Donned accents. Gained and lost weight. But he was the victim of poor timing. Then came The Revenant. The film already had a firm foundation – Alejandro G. Iñárritu was already an Oscar powerhouse, winning Best Director for his film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The majority of the film left DiCaprio alone most of the time, allowing him to really chew on all the scenery and have nobody come close to outshining his performance (somebody like the formidable Tom Hardy). While DiCaprio does media to support his films, this award season he seemed to be all in, in comparison to previous years – much more was said about the vegetarian eating raw meat, the hardship he faced in the cold, and the lack of glamor to the role. He wasn’t just talking about the movie and his performance, he was really unpacking the labor of his performance. He was demonstrating that this wasn’t just a role, but a lived experience, one in which (threatening or not) he deserved to be recognized for. And everybody else on the project affirmed this, as in their own interviews, they would speak to DiCaprio’s incredible performance, willingness to go above and beyond in his performance. In other words, he worked his ass off, give him the award already.

And that was the year he won. The media constantly reminded us that he had yet to win, despite being one of the biggest superstars in Hollywood and the world. We were reminded of his more than 20 years in the industry, his other great works that demonstrated he was more than just a heartthrob but a bonafide actor, and that it was his time. Regardless of whether it should have been for The Revenant or Gilbert Grape, the audience in the auditorium gave him a standing ovation, an actor finally getting his after all these years (another narrative Hollywood loves to perpetuate). He performed a phenomenal monologue as his speech, clearly rehearsed, incredibly cogent, and forgetting nobody we need to hear in an acceptance speech: colleagues (by name), team, parents, friends, and the environment. He skipped up the stairs with a strong suspicion he’d win, because he had done everything Hollywood asked. His love and labor prevailed. (...)

While for the most part, there are a few surprises on the day, enjoying the process of putting together a win, is akin to the plays used in the Super Bowl. It has become suspiciously like the political trails, where it is less about policy and more about who we’d rather have a beer with. It’s the spectacle and machinations over the substance of each film – the power of schmoozery, PACS, and campaign strategy itself over the actual quality of the content campaigned.

by Melinda Lewis, The Smart Set |  Read more:
Image: Isabella Akhtarshenas
[ed. See also: All the Films in Competition at Cannes, Ranked from Best to Worst (New Yorker); and, The Creator Almost Broke Me (TSS):]

"It was a very tense time in Hollywood when The Creator was released; the actors’ and the writers’ unions were deep in negotiation with the studios during a work stoppage, and one of the biggest issues addressed by their negotiations was how AI would be used in their industry going forward. So, I was not surprised that the first few reviews I read about the film were all about AI, but then I kept looking, hoping that at least one major publication would address how timely the message of dehumanizing the opponent during times of war was. However, there was none. Every single review I read — positive or negative — decried the portrayal of AI in The Creator as not being evil enough to justify the fears creatives have about losing their jobs to AI.

In the third act of The Creator Taylor becomes fully immersed in the AI child’s sentience, whom he’s now named Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). Taylor realizes that above all else, Alphie is just a child. At every opportune moment, the movie pauses to remind the audience of the sentience of the AI robots. They have a sense of humor, they can lose their temper, and most importantly, they can love. Taylor also realizes this, and he just can’t bring himself to harm a child — so ultimately, given Alphie’s importance as the only one with the capability to completely end the war, Taylor and Alphie are on the run from both the U.S. Army and the AI Army. Fortunately, they are discovered by a high-ranking soldier named Harun (Ken Watanabe) from the AI Army. Despite Harun’s initial suspicion and anger towards Taylor, he explains that the AI never desired war with humans. He reveals that the “terror attack” in L.A. was actually a man-made explosion caused by a coding error. Much like the themes explored in The Creator, it has become evident that threats to the creative community’s livelihood stem from tangible, man-made issues rather than from AI. Major publications’ lack of in-depth analysis regarding the film’s commentary on the military-industrial complex isn’t due to censorship but rather reflects the pressure for writers to conform to online trends. (...)

It wasn’t always like this; when I first entered the field, you could write whatever you wanted about a movie, and things remained the same for me until April 2023. The publication I worked for fired a long-term editor, and all the writers were informed that revenue streams from the articles we wrote were unsatisfactory. The higher-ups informed writers that they had figured out a way to use perfect SEO practices to ensure our articles would be viewed by more readers. SEO, short for Search Engine Optimization, is a strategy used by publications to make their content show up as the top result on search engines like Google. It involves understanding how search engine algorithms work and tailoring articles to match those criteria. While SEO brings in revenue for publications, this “Google journalism” transforms keywords and movies into clickbait material.

At first, I welcomed SEO to my writing because I was most proud of two things in my professional life: my internet searching skills and my writing skills. With enough time, I thought I could provide a clean, well-sourced copy on just about any topic. But the story choices just kept getting worse and the enforced style of writing became formulaic. One time, a Larry David interview went viral when he revealed that he filmed a death scene for his show Curb Your Enthusiasm just in case the show ended abruptly. In quick response, my editor suggested an article where 10 other actors recorded their characters’ demise. Such a list obviously could not be compiled; that was just Larry David’s eclectic humor.

During the silver age of criticism, publications could track not only how many people clicked on their articles but also how long they spent on them. So, it wasn’t enough to write an article with a sensational headline anymore; it also had to hold the readers’ attention for as long as possible. These practices led writers to produce low-quality articles and consumer fatigue. Then, Google also started generating its own AI answers to queries, so the number of readers clicking on the stories just kept shrinking with every passing day. Suddenly, all the SEO wizardry became unable to solve these particular issues, and revenues dropped. But since consumers were now more attached to a brand than any critic in particular, the next inevitable step followed: Just lay the writers off.

It would be simpler to blame media executives for fixating on unsustainable revenue models that appease algorithms rather than actual readers, but that would ignore our collective complicity as media, in general. We writers knew when stories prioritized visibility over informational value. All of us understood how robotic and inorganic our work had become. We invited the wolf into our pen because the wolf promised to play by the sheep’s rules. And that ended up eroding the general consumers’ trust in our work. So, much like the AI robots in The Creator, I’m aware that journalists of all disciplines do not qualify as perfect victims to most readers."
  ~ The Creator Almost Broke Me (Fred Onyango/TSS)


Saturday, May 25, 2024

Traveling Wilbury's


Tweeter and the Monkey Man, were hard up for cash. They stayed up all night, selling cocaine and hash. To an undercover cop, who had a sister named Jan. For reasons unexplained, she loved the Monkey Man. Tweeter was a Boy Scout, before she went to Vietnam, and found out the hard way, nobody gives a damn. They knew that they'd find freedom, just across the Jersey Line, so they hopped into a stolen car, took Highway 99.

[Chorus]: And the walls came down, All the way to hell, Never saw them when they're standing, Never saw them when they fell.

The undercover cop, never liked the Monkey Man. Even back in childhood, he wanted to see him in the can. Jan got married at 14, to a racketeer named Bill. She made secret calls to the Monkey Man, from a mansion on the hill. It was out on Thunder Road, Tweeter at the wheel. They crashed into paradise, they could hear them tires squeal. The undercover cop pulled up and said, "Every one of you is a liar. If you don't surrender now, it's gonna go down to the wire".


An ambulance rolled up, a state trooper close behind, Tweeter took his gun away, and messed up his mind. The undercover cop was left, tied up to a tree, near the souvenir stand by the old abandoned factory. Next day, the undercover cop, was hot in pursuit, he was taking the whole thing personal, he didn't care about the loot. Jan had told him many times, "It was you to me who taught, in Jersey, anything's legal as long as you don't get caught".


Some place by Rahway Prison, they ran out of gas, the undercover cop had cornered them, said,"Boy, you didn't think that this could last"? Jan jumped out of bed, said "There's someplace I gotta go", she took a gun out of the drawer, said "It's best that you don't know". The undercover cop was found, face down in a field, the Monkey Man was on the river bridge, using Tweeter as a shield. Jan said to the Monkey Man, "I'm not fooled by Tweeter's curl, I knew him long before, he ever became a Jersey girl."


Now the town of Jersey City, is quieting down again, I'm sitting in a gambling club, called The Lion's Den. The TV set was blown up, every bit of it is gone, ever since the nightly news showed, that the Monkey Man was on. I guess I'll go to Florida, and get myself some sun, there ain't no more opportunity here, everything's been done. Sometimes, I think of Tweeter, sometimes, I think of Jan, sometimes, I don't think, about nothing but the Monkey Man.

Lyrics via


[ed. I've lost the sources for several of these. Attributions included whenever possible.]

"Power is insidious when it masks itself as generosity,” she writes, “and generosity is insidious when it’s a camouflage for control. And both power and generosity are confusing when they gaslight you into believing they could be love.”  [ed. Word.]


"Well that’s not very in love with me of you"

To paraphrase, re: Orwell vs. Huxley. Orwell feared the banning of books, Huxley feared no one would want to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information, Huxley feared those who would give us so much we would be reduced to passivity and egoism, Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us, Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

The guy looking intently on the pavement for his wallet at night:
'Where do you think you lost it?'
'I lost it down that alley'.
'Why are you looking out here?'
- 'The light's better'

"What did the astronaut see on the stove? An unidentified frying object.”

"Cockroach idea”: “a bad idea that you sometimes do manage to get rid of – for a while. But it just keeps coming back” - Paul Krugman

"I'll never be as good as I used to be, but I can get better than I am today tommorow" - Arnold Palmer

"At equilibrium, the evolutionary race is not only to the big and aggressive, but also to a certain number of the small and sneaky" - Psychologist David P. Barash


"It's a fool who plays it cool by making the world a little colder." - Paul McCartney

"It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." - John Wooden

"Everything not saved will be lost." -Nintendo video game warning when the system shuts down

"Disciple: ‘Why is there evil in the universe?’  - Ramakrishna: ‘To thicken the plot.’”

“I have no enemies. But my friends don’t like me.” - Philip Larkin

“Not my circus, not my monkeys.” - Polish proverb...

“I’m not superstitious, but I am a little stitious.” - Michael Scott

"Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” ― Leo Tolstoy

Image: via

Daniel Arnold

There is a whole world that doesn’t exist anymore — that’s just what time does. It takes things away from you. Life is a series of losses, so you’re always in a state of mourning to some extent. That’s what nostalgia is, it’s a kind of mourning. ~ Sigrid Nunez - Living and Creating Through Grief
Image: Daniel Arnold

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Shall We Dance?

I think I may have spotted a positive trend. Now that’s not a sentence you would expect to read in Slouching Towards Bethlehem is it!

Positive trend? Yes....recently (in a certain kind of feminist journalism) I keep coming across warm-hearted acknowledgements that Masculinity and Femininity are complementary polarities in any sane conception of The Good Life. An acknowledgement that the relationship between a man and a woman has the potential to be the finest fruit that life has to offer. And that when things go wrong, they are often better understood as resulting from a kind of Faustian tango between the sexes than as a simple case of one sex always doing wrong by the other. All just timeless truths and plain common sense you might say - and Yes perhaps these timeless truths have ever obtained in the kitchens and bedrooms of our Western society. But they are ones that have been conspicuous by their absence in the groves of academe and in the fourth estate in recent decades.

As an armchair philosopher it has always seemed to me that the question of steering a fair course through the choppy waters of discourses about relations between men and women is the trickiest of all. But it’s fair to say that masculinity has not had a good press in recent decades. As journalist Kathleen Stock (* see bio note below) remarked recently “Men are pretty much banned from making any generalisations about women good or bad” so it has perhaps been inevitable in our time that any defence of the male of the species has had to come from women. And that is what most of the rest of this essay will be about. (...)

So what about this new more postive feminist journalism? My first instinct was to do my usual thing and try to distil the essence of it into my own overview. But then it occurred to me that it might give a better – more vividly female voice - to just let these women speak for themselves. So the body of this essay will take the form of excerpts from these journalists’ own words - with just a little light annotation from me where necessary, to clarify what is being discussed. It is important to note that - because these are just snippets lifted from quite lengthy articles - wherever you see a string of dots (as in ........) the writer’s subject matter may have moved on quite considerably. So don’t expect a seamless thread of argument. The result will be a kind of dissident feminist kaleidoscope. I include a link at the end of each excerpt so that (barring paywalls) you can see the full text (and all of them are well written pieces). I also give a bit of background info on some of these journalists at the end of this section. So here goes:

What Does Caitlin Moran Know about Men? – Kathleen Stock’s review of Caitlin Moran’s new book What About Men
Moran apparently thinks, not just that masculinity is wholly cultural, but that there’s only one version of it, entirely based on her husband, his mates, and some sons of her friends.... Equally, she seems to think that all women are exactly like she is — dorky, warm, garrulous and funny.....

......She is right that false whispers about sexual misdemeanours can ruin a young man’s life. She tries hard to be sympathetic about this as well as to the idea that young men are beset by images of “toxic masculinity” in a way that is messing them up. And there’s even the odd hint that prevalent feminist approaches might be part of the problem..... Post #MeToo, one legacy of mainstream feminism seems to be the policy of shouting at all men about how terrible they are, in the hope that some of the generalised opprobrium sticks to the right candidates. At the same time, men’s ordinary sexual impulses — sometimes irritating, sometimes welcome — are denigrated and treated as inevitably threatening and sinister....... (...)

.....And it would also be good if we could talk more about what is wonderful about masculinity, and toxic about femininity, without caveats or excuses. When, in the final chapter, Moran eventually gets round to the former......most of the things she thinks we value in men are also things we value in dogs. In fact, I would go further — they are things we value in elderly Labradors. The characteristics she celebrates — being loyal, hard-working, protective, and so on — are all very pro-social and unthreatening to women and children, and unlikely to set the imagination alight of any young man looking for his own hero’s journey.

.......Perhaps tellingly, though, there’s little suggestion in the book that women could learn from men about being more loyal or crying less...... To treat ‘feminine traits’ as a study programme that any man could get up to speed on if he tried seems to be setting men up for failure — and they don’t need more of that..... In any case, perhaps I am female-atypical, but — inviting as it sounds — I couldn’t live in Moran’s smoke-filled, gin-soaked world of warm hugs, tear-stained confidences and frank conversations about bodily fluids for more than 10 minutes at a time. Sometimes, talking about your feelings makes them worse and sometimes responding empathically to other people’s feelings only makes them more histrionic and attention-seeking. It can be very good to talk, but it can also be very good to shut the hell up and stamp off to dig the garden. https://unherd.com/2023/07/what-does-caitlin-moran-know-about-men/
This from Jennie Cummings-Knight at The Centre for Male Psychology in relation to the above-mentioned poster campaign:
Speaking as a woman, I am always fascinated by the double standards exhibited by women with respect to male behaviour. We are only interested in being looked at by men if we find the said man or men to be attractive to us...... in spite of our assertions that we don’t need male attention (see the Toy Story 4 Bo Beep character, developed by feminist writers) and that we want to be taken seriously as we pursue our careers, we still take a lot of trouble to look attractive to men. ...Teenage girls growing up in the 2000s are still hitching up their skirt waistbands as they come out of school on an afternoon. https://www.centreformalepsychology.com/male-psychology-magazine-listings/the-toxic-male-gaze-should-men-staring-at-women-be-illegal?
Interview with Louise Perry (* see below) about her best-selling book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution Prospect Magazine
I start from feminist priors,” she explains—like an interest in protecting women and girls—“and I end up at some socially conservative conclusions.” She is ardent in her defence of marriage. Her belief in the importance of chivalry stands out too....... At the end of her book, she suggests that young women—in the name of protecting themselves in a hostile sexual climate—should not get drunk in the presence of men; that they should withhold sex for the first few months of a relationship ;and that they should avoid dating apps. Some of the advice would not be out of place in the 1950s. Louise Perry Prospect interview
Feminism Was Never About Equality - Bettina Arndt at Spectator Australia:
I started calling myself a ‘feminist’ as a young woman in the 1970s after reading Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, ironically whilst working a university vacation job as a Hertz Rent-a-car girl, dressed in my bright yellow perked cap and mini skirt, flirting with American tourists

I convinced myself that feminism was all about equality, about creating a level playing field where women could take their rightful place in the world, embracing opportunities once denied to them. But then I watched with increasing alarm as the current misandrist culture took hold, with the male of the species as the punching bag, and women shamelessly promoted and protected, infantilised, and idealised. Feminism had gone off the rails, I concluded. But it turned out that was wrong. Now I know the truth about feminist history – thanks to the formidable Janice Fiamengo professor of English from the University of Ottawa: “Feminism was never sane.....never expressed any appreciation for men nor recognition that men had made any contribution to society or that men had ever acted out of love and concern and compassion for women........ Men and women in earlier centuries lived interdependent lives in which the fragility of life and the presence of disease, the high infant mortality rate, the lack of a social safety net, and the complexities of housekeeping and childrearing meant that most women and men divided their prodigious labours into separate spheres of domestic and public. https://www.spectator.com.au/2023/01/feminism-was-never-about-equality/
by Graham Cunningham, Slouching Toward Bethlehem | Read more:
Image: Tristan and Iseult: Gaston Bussiere 1911/Wikimedia Commons

Books That Literally All White Men Own: The Definitive List

If you are a white man and you think you do not own one of these books, try looking under your bed, it’s probably there.

1. Shogun, James Clavell

2. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

3. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

4. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

5. A collection of John Lennon’s drawings.

6. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway

7. The first two volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin

8. God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens

9. Catch-22, Joseph Heller

10. I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, Tucker Max

11. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

12. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, Oliver Sacks

13. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

14. The Godfather, Mario Puzo

15. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

16. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

17. Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk

18. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov

19. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown

20. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

21. The Stand, Stephen King

22. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

23. The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer

24. Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Albom

25. It’s Not About the Bike, Lance Armstrong (definitely under the bed)

26. Who Moved My Cheese?, Spencer Johnson

27. Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth

28. Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand

29. John Adams, David McCullough

30. Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow

31. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

32. America: The Book, Jon Stewart

33. The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman

34. The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell

35. The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time, Mark Haddon

36. Exodus, Leon Uris (if Jewish)

37. Trinity, Leon Uris (if Irish-American)

38. The Road, Cormac McCarthy

39. Marley & Me, John Grogan

40. Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt

41. The Rainmaker, John Grisham

42. Patriot Games, Tom Clancy

43. Dragon, Clive Cussler

44. Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond

45. The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone

46. The 9/11 Commission Report

47. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, John le Carre

48. Rising Sun, Michael Crichton

49. A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

50. Airport, Arthur Hailey

51. Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Robert Kiyosaki

52. Burr, Gore Vidal

53. Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt

54. The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan

55. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

56. Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

57. Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

58. Godel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter

59. The World According to Garp, John Irving

60. A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking

61. The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass

62. On the Road, Jack Kerouac

63. Lord of the Flies, William Golding

64. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien

65. The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe

66. Beowulf, the Seamus Heaney translation

67. Rabbit, Run, John Updike

68. The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie

69. The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

70. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

71. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey

72. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

73. House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski

74. The Call of the Wild, Jack London

75. Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

76. I, Claudius, Robert Graves

77. The Civil War: A Narrative, Shelby Foote

78. American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis (a glaring omission from the original, pointed out by Naomi Fry)

79. Life, Keith Richards

by Nicole Cliffe, The Toast |  Read more:
Image: Fred Marcellino, Wikipedia
[ed. Excellent books, all. Not sure what the intent of this essay was... to show the superiority of female taste and perspective, compared to white men? White men? Or that women are the ones reading these books, carefully hidden, and men are essentially clueless? No idea. No wonder this site eventually went out of business.]

Exactly the Right Person

A Running Mate’s History: $1 Billion, Cocaine, a Fling With Elon Musk

When Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was considering potential running mates for his presidential run, his shortlist was initially topped by two well-known men with unusual résumés: Aaron Rodgers, the N.F.L. quarterback and frequent purveyor of conspiracy theories, and Jesse Ventura, the former governor of Minnesota and professional wrestler known as “The Body.”

Instead, Mr. Kennedy made a surprise pick — a woman and a little-known figure with an unusual background: Nicole Shanahan.

Ms. Shanahan, 38, a onetime Silicon Valley lawyer, has never held public office and has scant name recognition. But she was selected after Mr. Rodgers and Mr. Ventura fell through as vice-presidential candidates and Mr. Kennedy’s campaign needed money to fund its efforts to get onto state ballots, three people familiar with the events said. And money was something that Ms. Shanahan could provide in abundance.

Ms. Shanahan has a fortune of more than $1 billion that stems largely from her divorce settlement last year with Sergey Brin, a founder of Google, whose net worth exceeds $145 billion, three people with knowledge of her finances said. During their five-year marriage, Ms. Shanahan partied with Silicon Valley’s elite and used recreational drugs including cocaine, ketamine and psychedelic mushrooms, according to eight people and documents reviewed by The New York Times. Ms. Shanahan and Mr. Brin separated after she had a sexual encounter with Elon Musk in 2021, three of the people said.

The incidents were part of a rarefied — and sometimes turbulent — life that Ms. Shanahan led in the nation’s tech capital before her turn to politics, according to interviews with more than 20 people who know her or were briefed on her actions, as well as property records, court documents, tax records, emails and other messages reviewed by The Times. Many of the details of her life, including those of her divorce settlement, have not been reported.

“Status is very important to Nicole, and the amount of money you have,” said Daniel Morris, a photographer based in Puerto Rico who was friends with Ms. Shanahan and her first husband, Jeremy Kranz, a technology investor.

On the campaign trail, Ms. Shanahan has depicted herself as a hardworking former entrepreneur and lawyer, a success story who once needed food stamps and a unifier who can heal a divided America. But she has omitted and embellished parts of her history, including aspects of her relationship with Mr. Brin, to make herself appear more relatable, according to the people who know her and documents reviewed by The Times.

In a February interview with The Times, Ms. Shanahan described herself as a onetime “Silicon Valley princess.” In response to questions for this article, she texted: “I’m shocked the NYT is letting you run something like this.” The Kennedy campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment. Ms. Shanahan has publicly denied having an affair with Mr. Musk.

Mr. Musk, his lawyer and a spokeswoman for Mr. Brin did not return requests for comment.

Mr. Kennedy, who is running as an independent, picked Ms. Shanahan without his advisers having looked fully into her history or where her money was coming from, two people familiar with the campaign said. By then, she had already become a crucial financier of his run.

Ms. Shanahan, who has said she is a vaccine skeptic like Mr. Kennedy, funded a Super Bowl ad for Mr. Kennedy this year through a $4 million donation to a super PAC, American Values 2024. In March, she infused Mr. Kennedy’s campaign with an additional $2 million. Last week, she said she had given an additional $8 million.

Their ticket has secured a place on the presidential ballot in Michigan, a swing state, as well as in five other states. Mr. Kennedy has enough signatures to reach the ballot in seven additional states, his campaign has said, potentially putting him and Ms. Shanahan in a position to tip the November election.

Ms. Shanahan is “exactly the right person,” Mr. Kennedy said when he announced her as his running mate in March. He called her a “fierce warrior mom” who “overcame every daunting obstacle and went on to achieve the highest levels of the American dream.”

A Yoga Festival

... Ms. Shanahan graduated from the University of Puget Sound in 2007, working at a Seattle law firm around the same time. She later worked at RPX, a patent firm, and in 2013, she founded ClearAccess IP, a patent tech company, according to her LinkedIn profile. She completed a law degree at the Santa Clara University School of Law in 2014.

Adam Philipp, the founder and managing partner of Aeon Law, the Seattle law firm where Ms. Shanahan worked, said he was impressed when she applied to be a paralegal in 2006. “She had a willingness to learn and an abundance of common sense,” he said.

In 2011, Ms. Shanahan began dating Mr. Kranz, a tech investor in San Francisco. She told people that she had converted to Judaism during that time for the relationship. Mr. Kranz bought a $2.7 million penthouse with views of San Francisco about a month before their wedding in August 2014, according to property records.

That July, Ms. Shanahan met Mr. Brin at a yoga festival in Lake Tahoe, Calif., four people with knowledge of the events said. He had recently separated from Anne Wojcicki, his wife at the time. Mr. Brin and Ms. Shanahan embarked on an affair weeks before her wedding to Mr. Kranz, the people said.

Mr. Kranz discovered the relationship several days after he married Ms. Shanahan when he saw texts between her and Mr. Brin on her phone, they said. He filed to annul the marriage 27 days after the wedding, court records show.

Mr. Kranz planned to list fraud as a reason for the annulment, the people said. But Ms. Shanahan was concerned that a fraud claim would jeopardize her ability to practice law. While negotiating with Mr. Kranz about their split, she threatened to harm herself, three people said.

Instead of an annulment, Mr. Kranz agreed to a divorce without making a fraud claim. As part of their settlement, Ms. Shanahan was required to remove any evidence of Mr. Kranz from her social media accounts and pay him $20,000 in partial wedding costs and legal fees, court records show. Mr. Kranz did not respond to a request for comment.

In an interview with People magazine last year, Ms. Shanahan said she started dating Mr. Brin in 2015. She recounted wandering Stanford University’s campus with the billionaire and discussing quantum physics.

“I was living in a fairy tale,” she said. “It was magical.”

Becoming a Philanthropist

Mr. Brin became Ms. Shanahan’s entryway to the tech industry’s upper echelons. The couple traveled the world, took trips on Mr. Brin’s yachts and stayed in the most elite camps at Burning Man, the countercultural annual festival in the Nevada desert.

They married in 2018 and had a daughter, Echo, that same year. They owned properties in Lake Tahoe; Los Altos, Calif.; Montana; and Malibu, Calif., where Ms. Shanahan now spends much of her time. (...)

In 2021, she paid more than $200,000 for a lifestyle photographer to take her photos for a San Francisco Magazine article called “Nicole Shanahan Is Fighting the Good Fight,” according to documents viewed by The Times. Ms. Shanahan was photographed in the country with horses, talking about her goals of creating a healthy and livable planet. (...)

A Marriage Crumbles

Mr. Brin and Ms. Shanahan found the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns challenging, three people close to the couple said. Among other things, they struggled with their daughter’s autism diagnosis, the people said.

Ms. Shanahan began going out more without Mr. Brin, according to five people and documents viewed by The Times. At a party in early 2021 in Miami, Ms. Shanahan was so intoxicated by drugs and alcohol that she required an IV infusion, the documents show.

That fall, Ms. Shanahan threw a Studio 54-themed birthday party for herself at a New York club. Mr. Musk, a longtime friend of Mr. Brin’s, attended. In December 2021, Ms. Shanahan saw Mr. Musk again at a private party in Miami that his brother, Kimbal Musk, was hosting in connection with the Art Basel festival.

At that party, Elon Musk and Ms. Shanahan took ketamine, a popular party drug that is legal with a prescription, and disappeared together for several hours, according to four people briefed on the event and documents related to it. Ms. Shanahan later told Mr. Brin that she had had sex with Mr. Musk, three of the people said. She also relayed the details to friends, family and advisers.

Mr. Brin and Ms. Shanahan separated about two weeks after the party, and he filed for divorce the next year, citing “irreconcilable differences,” according to court documents. (...)

Ms. Shanahan and Mr. Brin took nearly 18 months to reach a divorce settlement, according to court records. During that time, she threatened to harm herself, two people briefed on the matter said. Their divorce became final last year.

Into Politics

For years, Ms. Shanahan donated to Democrats, according to donor filings. In 2020, she gave $25,000 to a political action committee backing President Biden. Then last year, she gave $6,600 to Mr. Kennedy — the maximum allowed for an individual contributor — when he was running as a Democrat for the presidential nomination.

In her February interview with The Times, Ms. Shanahan said she had initially been disappointed when Mr. Kennedy announced that he would run as an independent. But she began to pour money into his campaign, including the Super Bowl ad, which showed images of Mr. Kennedy superimposed on those of the 1960 presidential campaign of his uncle John F. Kennedy. At the time, Ms. Shanahan had spoken to Mr. Kennedy once and had never met him, she said.

In March, Ms. Shanahan and her new partner, Jacob Strumwasser, met Mr. Kennedy and his wife, Cheryl Hines, for dinner. During the meal, Mr. Strumwasser, who has worked in the crypto industry, suggested Ms. Shanahan for the vice president’s job, she said in a podcast this month with Sage Steele, a former ESPN anchor. Mr. Kennedy liked Ms. Shanahan’s story, people familiar with the campaign said.

In recent weeks, Ms. Shanahan has largely scrubbed her social media feeds, two people familiar with her and the Kennedy campaign said. Her social accounts are now populated with shots of herself without makeup at a farmers’ market as well as wearing Western gear and posing with rifles in Texas with Mr. Strumwasser. In the past, her feeds showed her dressed up for high-end events and posing for selfies.

Ms. Shanahan began attending campaign events with Mr. Kennedy this month. At a fund-raiser in Nashville last week, she announced that she had given another $8 million to the campaign and said, “I think I know what they’re going to say — they’re going to say Bobby only picked me for my money.”

Her remark drew laughter from the crowd.

by Kirsten Grind, NY Times | Read more:
Images: Jim Wilson/The New York Times; Kate Munsch/Reuters
[ed. I don't usually post tabloid-like items here but this is a Vice-Presidential candidate (and the NY Times!). How could the campaign not have vetted her on all this (or did they just not care)? The confluence of Silicon Valley personalities, politics, drugs, celebrity, and what seems to be a pattern of overall treachery and debauchery, etc. - quite next level stuff. (And Cheryl Hines, from Curb Your Enthusiasm is RFK's wife? Learn something new everyday).]

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Book Review: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

For the longest time, I avoided reading The Pale King. It wasn’t the style—in places thick with the author’s characteristic footnotes,1 sentences that run for pages, and spasms of dense technical language. Nor was it the subject matter—the book is set at an IRS Center and tussles with postmodernism. Nor the themes, one of which concerns the existential importance of boredom, which the book, at times, takes pains to exemplify.

No—I couldn’t read The Pale King because it was the book that killed him.

Prelude: First Encounter

David Foster Wallace died in 2008, a year before I encountered his work; but I didn’t know it at the time. I was nineteen, with a broken wrist that forced me to drop all of my courses and left me homebound and bored. I decided to revenge myself on these irritating circumstances by spending four months lying in bed, stoned, reading fiction and eating snacks.2 And I happened to have a copy of Infinite Jest.

What to say about Infinite Jest? It remains Wallace’s masterpiece, widely considered the greatest novel of Generation X. It takes place in a near future where the US, Canada and Mexico have been merged into a single state. Each year is corporately branded, with most of the action taking place in “The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.” It’s set in three locales: a drug rehabilitation center, an elite tennis academy, and a Quebecois terrorist cell.3 The novel clocks in at over a thousand pages, two hundred of which are footnotes. It includes sentences of absurd length, with some descending into multi-page molecular descriptions of various drugs. The book pulls the kind of stunts that shouldn’t work, but in Infinite Jest they do, because the book is that good, the characters that deep, the subject matter that prescient. Infinite Jest is often considered the “first internet novel,” predicting in particular its addictive allure.

By all rights, I should have hated it. Long, ostentatious, packed with dozens of characters, 90% of whom happened to be straight white males. As I read, I tallied the number of named female characters (3), imagining the tirades I would go on with my similarly politically-inclined friends.

No such tirades materialized. Infinite Jest overcame my ideological fervor, a rare feat at the time. I cared too much about the characters, many of whom spoke to internal experiences I recognized but had never put into words. The themes gestured at a worldview beyond my radical leftist ideology, one I wouldn’t fully articulate for many more years. Reading David Foster Wallace felt itchy, somehow, like his message was sideways to everyone else’s, like he was missing some important point, or else I was.

The Project of David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest made Wallace a star. The book was both a literary sensation and cultural phenomenon, described by one commentator as “the central American novel of the past thirty years, a dense star for lesser work to orbit." Nonetheless, Wallace wasn’t totally satisfied. “I don’t think it’s very good,” he wrote, “some clipping called a published excerpt feverish and not entirely satisfying, which goes a long way toward describing the experience of writing the thing.” He grew determined to surpass Infinite Jest with something new.

Wallace aimed to write fiction that was “morally passionate, passionately moral.” He believed that “Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being.” His active period spanned the late 80s to the 00’s, cresting during the cynical 90s, the age of the neoliberal shrug, when on one hand,“Postmodern irony and cynicism's become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy,” and on the other, the average American parked himself in front of the television for six hours a day. (...)

He believed contemporary fiction was stuck in two modes: cheap entertainment, or grim jeremiad. “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?” He aimed to inspire a vision of another way of living, both with others and within our own minds. His third novel, the “Long Thing,” which eventually came to be titled The Pale King, was meant to be an articulation of that vision. (...)

Writing The Pale King

The novel that would eventually be titled The Pale King went through many stages, starting with an early draft focused on an IRS agent so obsessed with viewing himself from a third person perspective that he stars in his own porno. This plotline receded, with the book converging on its eventual focus: a group of IRS agents travel to an examination center in Peoria, Illinois, 1985, where a battle takes place over the philosophical and technological future of the agency.

As the years went by, Wallace got lost in the project. He described the writing process as “trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm,” and said, “The whole thing is a tornado that won’t hold still long enough for me to see what’s useful and what isn’t.” He worried he’d need to write “a 5,000 page manuscript and then winnow it by 90%, the very idea of which makes something in me wither and get really interested in my cuticle, or the angle of the light outside.”

By 2007, a decade in, he’d made progress, but the book was still far from any kind of final form, and he felt stuck. In the Spring of that year, he went to a Persian restaurant and was left with severe stomach pains. The culprit, of course, was Nardil.

His doctor advised him to switch to an SSRI. Nardil was, after all, a “dirty drug,” from another time. Wallace decided to go for it: after 22 years, he went off Nardil. According to Jonathan Franzen, the lack of progress on The Pale King wasn’t incidental to this decision: “That he was blocked with his work when he decided to quit Nardil—was bored with his old tricks and unable to muster enough excitement about his new novel to find a way forward with it—is not inconsequential.”

For the first couple weeks Wallace felt alright, but as Nardil receded from his system, so did his stability. He lost thirty pounds, stopped writing, and was hospitalized for major depressive disorder. He grew desperate: tried an array of antidepressants, underwent electroshock once again. He tried going back on Nardil, but the drug that had stabilized him for two decades no longer worked—it closed its doors, as often happens when a patient goes off a stable regimen and tries to come back.

It was 2008 and Wallace was down 70 pounds from the previous year. Franzen believed Wallace became obsessed with the idea of suicide, returning to compulsively, like an addict. Wrote Franzen: “[O]ne of his own favored tropes, articulated especially clearly in his story “Good Old Neon” and in his treatise on Georg Cantor, was the infinite divisibility of a single instant in time. However continually he was suffering in his last summer, there was still plenty of room, in the interstices between his identically painful thoughts, to entertain the idea of suicide, to flash forward through its logic, and to set in motion the practical plans (of which he eventually made at least four) for effectuating it.”

On September 12th, 2008, Wallace wrote a letter to his wife, arranged the unfinished manuscript of The Pale King on his desk, and hanged himself. He was 46 years old.

The Pale King: Central Concerns

After Wallace’s death, his editor Michael Pietsch assembled the manuscript, winnowing it down to a set of consistent characters and generally forward-moving narrative. Infinite Jest famously ends before the climax, major plot threads dangling, and so does The Pale King—but while the former is cruelly deliberate, The Pale King remains unfinished through tragic happenstance, major themes underdeveloped, story nascent.

The plot: a group of IRS hires converge on an examination center in Peoria, Illinois, circa 1985. There’s the sense that once they’re there, things will start happening, but nothing really does. The chapters alternate between the 1985 story, character background, debate/discussion of the deeper philosophical meaning of the IRS, metanarrative written in the voice of 2005 David Foster Wallace, scraps of trivia/world building/slices-of-life. (...)

The characters are monumentally well-developed. We follow IRS bureaucrats as they suffer childhood abuse in dusty trailer parks, struggle with “attacks” of copious sweating, watch a father die in a subway accident. And these lives—which feel so human and so real—are juxtaposed with the tedium of their work at the IRS.

We can’t help but be reminded that faceless bureaucrats are real people, as real as us. But there’s a feeling, while reading (I was feeling it, at least), that I wanted these characters to become more than IRS agents. To be artists or firemen or—something. Something more interesting.

But Wallace suggests this impulse is wrong. He’s not trying to depict these IRS examiners as being in any way exceptional, despite our identification with them—rather, he’s trying to show that every human being is that deep, and that interesting, if we take the time to know them. He enjoins us to avoid relating to others as “the great gray abstract mass,” even if they form part of some tedious and unappealing bureaucracy. To take on the burden of always, in every moment, relating to others as fully human.

This injunction is central to Wallace’s approach to transcending postmodernism. His great innovation was to use the tools of postmodern writing (meant to remind the reader that they’re reading words, not experiencing reality) to create work that loops back around and becomes as immersive and convincing as the finest of realist prose. His writing embodies the nerve-fraying and frenetic pace of modern life, with the technical jargon and long sentences and footnotes capturing something of the feel of the internet. And through it all, his characters shine through, heartbreakingly human, capable not only of cruelty9, but of goodness that surprises even themselves.

Wallace’s writing is maximalist in that he forces you to deal with all of it: the difficulty in escaping the web of discourse, the fact that you’re reading a novel, the fragmented nature of modern life, the fact that the IRS asshole auditing you has as rich and deeply felt a human experience as your own.

Pale King: Themes

The plot builds towards a war over the future of the IRS: with one side wanting the IRS to remain committed to civic virtue, its tax examinations carried out by humans; and the other wanting the IRS focused on maximizing profits, its examiners to be replaced by computers. The IRS here is standing in for all institutions where people operate both as individuals and as part of a larger collective: the conflict between the IRS as civic organization and the IRS as corporation reflects a general conflict taking place in the 80s,10 and arguably still today.

Wallace is, of course, on team human. His criticism of the profit motive parallels his rejection of minimalism, the aesthetic of postmodernism: when we reduce reality to a thin, abstract variable, whether that be profit or discourse, we mutilate it. And once we’re there , all that’s left is our role as solipsistic consumers.

One of the most moving sections of the book is a 100-page novella smack in the middle, written from the perspective of wastoid11-turned-accountant Chris Fogel. Chris’ 1970s youth was spent in partying and shallow rebellion, once again, papering over a deep emptiness: “I think the truth is that I was the worst kind of nihilist—the kind who isn’t even aware he’s a nihilist. I was like a piece of paper on the street in the wind, thinking, ‘Now I think I’ll blow this way, now I think I’ll blow that way.’ My essential response to everything was ‘Whatever.’”12

The emotional core of the story is Chris’ relationship with his father, who’s sardonic, dutiful, and old-fashioned: “His attitude towards life was that there are certain things that have to be done and you simply have to do them—such as, for instance, going to work every day.” Chris resents his father’s conformity, while blind to his own: “I was just as much a conformist as he was, plus a hypocrite, a ‘rebel’ who really just sponged off of society in the form of his parents.”

Chris’ story is located close in the book to a philosophical dialogue concerning the nature of the IRS and the moral crisis in society. As one character expounds:

“‘It’ll all be played out in the world of images. There’ll be this incredible political consensus that we need to escape the confinement and rigidity of conforming, of the dead fluorescent world of the office and the balance sheet, of having to wear a tie and listen to Muzak, but the corporations will be able to represent consumption-patterns as the way to break out—use this type of calculator, listen to this type of music, wear this type of shoe because everyone else is wearing conformist shoes. It’ll be this era of incredible prosperity and conformity and mass-demographics in which all the symbols and rhetoric will involve revolution and crisis and bold forward-looking individuals who dare to march to their own drummer by allying themselves with brands that invest heavily in the image of rebellion. This mass PR campaign extolling the individual will solidify enormous markets of people whose innate conviction that they are solitary, peerless, non-communal, will be massaged at every turn.’” (Emphasis mine)

This speech is set in the 80s, but was written in the 00s, when the internet was nascent and social media hadn’t yet taken off. Wallace’s diagnosis is prescient: between Quiet Quitting and Live to Work, young people are rejecting the tedium of office life and embracing the life of the influencer, which does indeed involve both the trappings of rebellion and conspicuous consumption.

It hasn’t gone down exactly as Wallace predicted. He was concerned about the withering effects of hedonism (which true to his predictions have persisted), but he underestimated the resurgence of doctrinaire political ideology.

The Pale King is in many ways revanchist, arguing for reclamation of territory lost to hedonism in the name of old-fashioned ideals like civic responsibility, neighborliness, and going to work every day. And revanchism has certainly made a comeback: today we face a proliferation of conservative/Trad movements, but very few seem interested in rehabilitating old fashioned civic virtue.13 Cynicism in societal institutions is endemic on both the right and the left, perhaps with good reason: while a bureaucrat in the 80s could expect to own a home and support a family, these days an ‘ordinary’ job doesn’t cut it. The IRS’s of the world have taken the path that Wallace warned against, embracing automation and the bottom line, and neglecting the real, human realities of the people they’re meant to serve.

The Millennial/Gen Z complaint is real: the economic conditions are harder than they were in the 50s/70s/90s; the world of our parents no longer exists; starting a family is exorbitant. So why should we subject ourselves to bureaucratic tedium and keep society running, when society doesn’t seem to care much about us? (...)

The Path Forward

Wallace suggests that boredom, far from being something to avoid, might point the way to deeper self-knowledge. “Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.” Boredom might even gesture towards enlightenment: “It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.”14

In Wallace’s conception, boredom isn’t only personally enlightening—it can also be a heroic sacrifice for the collective good. At one point Chris Fogel wanders into the wrong classroom and ends up in the exam review for Advanced Tax, taught by a capable and dignified Jesuit (possibly the eponymous “pale king”). The Jesuit makes a speech which sparks an epiphany in Chris, where he declares the profession of accounting a heroic one: “True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer.’”

There it is: the vision, the cure, the path forward. We accept the burden of adult responsibility, go to work every day and engage in the important but unglamorous work that keeps society running. We orient our institutions not towards money but principle. We refuse to treat people like numbers or cogs or some great undifferentiated mass—we treat them as fully human, always, even and especially when they’ve chosen to subsume some part of their individuality to a soul-killing institution, because we recognize this as a heroic sacrifice they’re making for the good of the collective. And we withstand our negative emotions, embrace them fully, travel through their every texture until we transform and open to a deeper and richer experience.

The problem with all this, of course, is that in the middle of writing the book, Wallace killed himself.

by Anonymous, Astral Codex Ten | Read more:
Image: Amazon
[ed. There are probably only a handful of people that have read The Pale King in its entirety and it's nice to discover a fellow traveler. I also subscribe to the view that boredom can be, or is, one of the greatest motivators in our lives. Btw, from the footnotes:]

"The IRS really did shift its focus from compliance to maximizing profit during the Reagan era, a significant ideological reordering that The Pale King explains as politically necessary: Reagan ran on a platform both of reducing taxes and increasing defense spending. The only way this was possible was if the IRS got more efficient at collecting. Reagan could even capitalize politically on the IRS’s new methods: “‘The Service’s more aggressive treatment of TPs, especially if it’s high-profile, would seem to keep in the electorate’s mind a fresh and eminently disposable image of Big Government that the Rebel Outsider President could continue to define himself against and decry as just the sort of government intrusion into the private lives and wallets of hardworking Americans he ran for office to fight against.’"