Sunday, January 7, 2018

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Saturday, January 6, 2018

Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story by Alexandra Wolfe

Valley Of The God

There is no greater subject of fascination in Silicon Valley right now than Peter Thiel, seminal Facebook investor, PayPal Mafia don, Palantir founder, billionaire venture capitalist, oceanic city-state enthusiast, sworn enemy of political correctness, scourge of Gawker Media, recent New Zealander, prospective vampiric consumer of young people’s blood, and President Trump’s chief envoy to the CEOs of the tech industry. Or you might describe him as Alexandra Wolfe does in Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story: He is the tech sector’s “first philosopher,” who possesses “the big ideas, contrarian outlook and a willingness to back crazy concepts,” and who is, as Wolfe acknowledges in her author’s note, a friend. That chumminess might have been the germ of a revealing, insider-y unpacking of Silicon Valley and the utopians, dystopians, geniuses, and strivers who populate it—a This Town of the Left Coast geek elite. Instead it largely provides her access to Thiel’s first formal class of acolytes, a group of young men and women who in 2011 Thiel paid to skip college and attempt to incubate ambitious, world-shaking ideas, like asteroid mining. Whether Thiel’s radical libertarian outlook and declinist view of American innovation mark him as emblematic of Silicon Valley or as an eccentric, these ideas have never been worthier of interrogation. And yet, though Thiel hovers above Wolfe’s narrative like an Oz-like godhead, he is barely a presence in it, except when he’s the recipient of its adulation.

The author is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the daughter of Tom Wolfe, the New Journalism pioneer and author—a lineage that might not be fair to note except that Wolfe fille invites the comparison with at least two references to Ken Kesey (the subject of her father’s beloved The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and a chapter titled “Asperger’s Chic,” a plain nod to her father’s liberal-ribbing essay “Radical Chic.” Her prologue certainly kicks off the book with a bit of Wolfean verve, hop-scotching through the haunts of Silicon Valley’s casually attired oligarchs and the investors and engineers riding their vapors. There’s the deck lounge overlooking the “Olympic-size pool skirted in fuchsias” at the Rosewood Sand Hill hotel in Menlo Park, and Prius-driving, Blue Bottle–guzzling entrepreneurs in Palo Alto, and the “Left Coast Ladies Who Lunch,” who “do so over Clif Bars while walking the Dish, the popular hiking trail on Stanford property.”

Eventually Valley of the Gods reveals itself in part as a tour through Silicon Valley’s cultural mores, from its group houses and startup accelerators and dating scene (insofar as it has one) to its highest-flying obsessions, like human immortality and advanced A.I. Wolfe describes the region, evocatively, as a place founded by “visionary puppies who realized that the Internet would become the world’s first great new industry in a half century—created, developed, operated, and more important, owned by children.” But the energy begins to lag quickly, as when Wolfe, visiting the shared home of several Thiel Fellows, pauses to offer a deadening description of the contents of their fridge: “It was fully stocked with sausages, vegetables, pasta, fruit, and loaves of bread from Whole Foods.” Pasta! Wolfe never hesitates to conjure up a sense of place to heighten the absurdities of her book’s setting, but the occasional polyamory compound aside, those places, at least in her telling, turn out to be kind of boring. The rest of the country has CrossFit gyms and jerks on Segways, too.

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Less boring are Wolfe’s main subjects, the Thiel Fellows, most of them the kind of young, brilliant oddballs that the culture founded by those original visionary puppies continues to cherish. John Burnham, the one with the asteroid-mining idea, is awkward in the classroom but an autodidact who thrills at the notion of taking Thiel’s $100,000 to forgo traditional schooling; he ends up “pivoting” repeatedly as each of his Next Big Thing ideas fails to take off, and he eventually does go to college. In taking the fellowship, Burnham and his peers attempted to realize a particular utopian dream of Silicon Valley heavyweights: that they could “stop out” of the old, orthodox system; that they might embody the new tech industry’s meritocratic ideals; and that, in the industry’s parlance, they might change the world. (Mark Zuckerberg did it, after all.) But as Burnham realizes, to the people standing between a visionary and investment capital, changing the world actually means being profitable. “It’s just a really interesting phenomenon that if you’re running the company that does nothing, you can feel like king of the world,” he tells Wolfe.

It’s true that Thiel’s interests include things much loftier than earning a mint, like life extension. But Wolfe doesn’t seem interested in mounting a critique of Silicon Valley writ large that is anywhere near as perceptive as Burnham’s, and she certainly doesn’t pursue the uglier directions that Thiel’s view of the universe has taken him. His bullying, surreptitious campaign against Gawker Media, which he swore to litigate out of existence by any suit necessary after one of its sites wrote that he was gay, rates a brief, just-the-facts treatment. The narrative ends before the 2016 campaign, during which Thiel was Silicon Valley’s only prominent backer of Trump. While the Thiel Fellowship continues, and being accepted to it is tougher than getting into Harvard, it is now more like a gap year, requiring just one year out of school. And though many of those initial Thiel Fellows remain strivers in Silicon Valley—1 in 10 went back to college, by the way—the ones that populate Wolfe’s book seem to spend much of it being, well, lost and miserable.

To Wolfe, that outcome is no indictment of the project itself. “In the end,” she writes, “the Thiel fellowship was a microcosm of the millennial generation. It said, ‘If you’re so good, let’s take the best and brightest among you and see if you can prove it’—and maybe the fact that they didn’t start billion-dollar companies didn’t matter.” Even if the fellows didn’t get out of the experiment what Thiel intended, she writes, the experience was still worth the doing as a growth experience for them and especially for its core tenet, “the idea of breaking away from what an institution enforced and had to be.” And yet even Peter Thiel, she concedes, “couldn’t necessarily create” success stories like his own, even as his own triumphs have convinced him that only he possesses the right vision for a better future. But figures like Thiel, both outliers and central cogs of Silicon Valley’s dream machine, aren’t ominous for the moonshots they take and the ambitions they describe. They’re ominous because they keep trying to inflict their harebrained ideas on the rest of us.


Prologue: Ailes And Bannon

Fire And Fury
The evening began at six-thirty, but Steve Bannon, suddenly among the world’s  most  powerful  men  and  now  less  and  less  mindful  of  time constraints, was late.

Bannon  had  promised  to  come  to  this  small  dinner  arranged  by  mutual friends in a Greenwich Village town house to see Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News and the most significant figure in right-wing media and Bannon’s sometime mentor. The next day, January 4, 2017—little  more than two weeks before the inauguration of his friend Donald Trump as the forty-fifth president— Ailes would be heading to Palm Beach, into a forced, but he hoped temporary, retirement.

Snow was threatening,  and for a while the dinner appeared  doubtful.  The seventy-six-year-old  Ailes,  with a long history  of leg and hip problems,  was barely  walking,  and,  coming  in to Manhattan  with  his  wife  Beth  from  their upstate home on the Hudson, was wary of slippery streets. But Ailes was eager to see Bannon. Bannon’s aide, Alexandra Preate, kept texting steady updates on Bannon’s progress extracting himself from Trump Tower.

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As the small group waited for Bannon, it was Ailes’s evening. Quite as dumbfounded by his old friend Donald Trump’s victory as most everyone else, Ailes provided the gathering with something of a mini-seminar on the randomness and absurdities of politics. Before launching Fox News in 1996, Ailes had been, for thirty years, among the leading political operatives in the Republican Party. As surprised as he was by this election, he could yet make a case for a straight line from Nixon to Trump. He just wasn’t sure, he said, that Trump  himself,  at  various  times  a  Republican,  Independent,  and  Democrat, could make the case. Still, he thought he knew Trump as well as anyone did and was eager to offer his help. He was also eager to get back into the right-wing media game, and he energetically described some of the possibilities for coming up with the billion  or so dollars  he thought  he would  need  for a new cable network.

Both  men,  Ailes  and  Bannon,  fancied  themselves  particular  students  of history, both autodidacts  partial to universal field theories. They saw this in a charismatic sense—they had a personal relationship with history, as well as with Donald Trump.

Read more > Prologue: Ailes And Bannon

Fire And Fury

Fire And Fury

The reason to write this book could not be more obvious. With the inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20, 2017, the United States entered the eye of the most   extraordinary   political   storm   since   at  least   Watergate.   As  the  day approached,  I  set  out  to  tell  this  story  in  as  contemporaneous  a  fashion  as possible, and to try to see life in the Trump White House through the eyes of the people closest to it.

This was originally conceived as an account of the Trump administration’s first  hundred  days,  that  most  traditional  marker  of  a  presidency.  But  events barreled on without natural pause for more than two hundred days, the curtain coming down on the first act of Trump’s presidency only with the appointment of retired general John Kelly as the chief of staff in late July and the exit of chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon three weeks later.

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The events I’ve described in these pages are based on conversations that took place over a period of eighteen months with the president, with most members of his senior staff—some of whom talked to me dozens of times—and with many people  who they in turn spoke to. The first interview  occurred  well before  I could have imagined a Trump White House, much less a book about it, in late May 2016 at Trump’s home in Beverly Hills—the then candidate polishing off a pint of Häagen-Dazs vanilla as he happily and idly opined about a range of topics while his aides, Hope Hicks, Corey Lewandowski, and Jared Kushner, went in and out of the room. Conversations with members of the campaign’s team continued through the Republican Convention in Cleveland, when it was still hardly possible to conceive of Trump’s election. They moved on to Trump Tower with a voluble Steve Bannon—before the election, when he still seemed like an entertaining oddity, and later, after the election, when he seemed like a miracle worker.

Shortly after January 20, I took up something like a semipermanent seat on a couch in the West Wing. Since then I have conducted more than two hundred interviews.

While  the  Trump  administration  has  made  hostility  to the  press  a virtual policy, it has also been more open to the media than any White House in recent memory. In the beginning, I sought a level of formal access to this White House, something  of a fly-on-the-wall  status.  The  president  himself  encouraged  this idea. But, given the many fiefdoms in the Trump White House that came into open conflict  from the first days of the administration,  there  seemed  no one person able to make this happen. Equally, there was no one to say “Go away.” Hence I became more a constant interloper than an invited guest—something quite close to an actual fly on the wall—having  accepted no rules nor having made any promises about what I might or might not write.

Read more > Author's Note

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Michelle Obama, A Life

Michelle Obama, A Life

It’s the summer of 1860 on the Friendfield plantation in Georgetown, South Carolina - coastal low country whose snake- and mosquito-infested fields produce half of America’s rice crop. A young African slave by the name of Jim Robinson is working there. Owned by another man, Robinson has no freedom, no choices, no opportunities. It’s hard to imagine his dreams include a vision of his great- great-granddaughter as First Lady of the United States, living in the White House, hosting state dinners, an inspiration to her own country, and one of the most admired women in the world. But it happened. Her name is  Michelle Obama - and we can be sure that Jim Robinson would be as proud of his descendant as she is of him.

After the  Civil War, Robinson became a sharecropper on the plantation. He married and in 1884 had a son, Fraser, who lost an arm to an infection when he was 10. A local white man took a liking to the boy and got permission from his family to raise him. Although he didn’t send Fraser to school, his own children went, and education was stressed in the household. This made a lasting impression on Fraser  -  who grew  up to  be  a  successful  small-time  entrepreneur -  and education has  been a cornerstone of the Robinson family ever since.

Fraser married and had a son. Fraser Jr., Michelle’s grandfather, was a smart child, but opportunities were few - when it came to racial equality the south was regressing in the aftermath of Reconstruction. He moved to Chicago as part of the great black Diaspora in the early twentieth century,  when millions  of  blacks  from the  rural  South moved  to  northern cities  in  search of opportunity. He took a job at the post office, and met and married LaVaughn Johnson. Their son, Fraser Robinson III, was born on August 1, 1935. He was a handsome, intelligent man, and in 1960 he met and married the Marian Shields, then a secretary at Spiegel’s catalogue store. Marian’s family came  from Alabama and her  great-great-grandfather was the  child of a  white man. Fraser  and Marian’s first child, Craig, arrived in 1962. On January 17, 1964, Michelle came into the world - the fruit of a uniquely American family tree, one whose roots run deep and strong.

Source: Michelle Obama, A Life


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