August 4, 2018 in 2,999 words

The Lasting Trauma of Alex Jones’ Lies

The systems that have for so long helped to enforce the notion of collective truth in America are no longer sufficient: Deception is everywhere. And it is dangerous.

This week, The New York Times reported that Alex Jones, InfoWars founder and professional peddler of lies, is seeking more than $100,000 in court costs from the family of Noah Pozner, one of the 20 children who were murdered in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Jones is seeking that amount to recover the court costs involved with his legal defense: Veronique De La Rosa and Leonard Pozner, Noah’s mother and father, sued Jones for defamation because of the conspiracy theories he spread about the Sandy Hook murders. Jones insisted that the kids’ deaths were a great hoax, a performance staged by gun-control activists backed by the American government. As a result of that, Noah Pozner’s family says, they have been stalked and subjected to death threats by Jones’s legions of epistemically gullible yet digitally savvy followers—a fact that has, doxxing by doxxing, forced them to move seven times over the past five years, ever farther away from the body of their slain son.

To reiterate: Alex Jones is seeking money from the parents of a murdered child because of a series of lies that have cruelly compounded the family’s suffering since the initial tragedy—lies that Jones, himself, has spread.

There was once a time when the people who think about such things lamented the rise of information silos and filter bubbles and echo chambers: the newfound ability for people to choose their own adventures when it comes to the types of information they consume. Those concerns remain; they also, these days, seem decidedly quaint. Competing truths—“alternative facts”—are no longer the primary threat to American culture; competing lies are. Everything was possible and nothing was true: Conspiracies now smirk and smog in the air, issued from the giant smokestacks at InfoWars and The Gateway Pundit and the White House itself. Hannah Arendt warned of the mass cynicism that can befall cultures when propaganda is allowed to proliferate among them; that cynicism is here, now. And it is accompanied by something just as destructive: a sense of pervasive despair. Americans live in a world of information pollution—and the subsequent tragedy of this new environmental reality is that no one has been able to figure out a reliable method of clearing the air.

Bill Maher: Race Explains Shift From Party Of Reagan To Party Of Putin

The “dirty little secret” that explains how the Party of Reagan morphed into the Party of Putin is a four-letter word, Bill Maher said tonight: Race.

THANKS to HBO and Real Time with Bill Maher for making this program available on YouTube.

“Russia,” Maher said during his New Rules segment on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, “is one of the last places on earth to say, ‘F*ck diversity. We’re here. We’re white. Get used to it.’ “

Attempting to explain how 87% of Republicans (according to a recent poll) are fine with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin visiting the White House, Maher chalked it up to racism, and even quoted a tweet from his old pal Ann Coulter.

“Last year Ann Coulter tweeted that ‘In 20 years, Russia will be the only country that is recognizably European.’ As far back as 2013 Matt Drudge called Putin the leader of the free world. David Duke called Russia the key to white survival.

“Today’s Republicans, what’s left of them, do not like the melting pot,” he said. “And Russia? That pot don’t melt.”

Making jokes about White Russians (“Let’s see, I want to get drunk but I also want a glass of milk”) and Russian basketball players (“the team that played against the Globetrotters”), Maher compared racial diversity (or lack thereof) in Russia to that of Western Europe.

Alt-Right Troll To Father Killer: The Unraveling Of Lane Davis

Lane Davis was a far-right, pro-Trump media figure looking for his big break. Then he stabbed his father to death.

Nearly everyone on Samish Island knew Chuck Davis, a bighearted retiree who lived in the handsome gray shingle house with the best view of Samish Bay. But almost no one on Samish Island had ever even seen Lane, Chuck’s 33-year-old son — until the sunny day last July when they heard a woman’s screams, and saw Lane come staggering out of the front door covered in blood.

As his neighbors rushed outside, the pale, bearded, thickset man took a few slow steps into the street. One neighbor ran toward the Davis house, flashing a pistol. He ordered Lane to stop moving.

A siren pealed, and Lane Davis went down on his knees at the edge of a grass driveway. The woman wailing was his mother, Catherine. Chuck Davis lay on the back deck with his eyes open, dead, blood from the stab wounds in his chest and neck seeping between the slats. As the sheriff’s deputy led Lane away, Catherine knelt over her husband’s body, a neighbor recalled. “I’m sorry,” she said as she looked into his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

At the sheriff’s office in Mount Vernon, Lane promptly confessed to killing his father. The state of Washington charged him with first-degree murder, meaning it would have been premeditated. Lane pleaded not guilty.

The slaying shocked Samish, a remote, 2,000-person village of wealthy empty nesters, vacationing Seattleites, burrowed-in natives, and wind-chapped oyster farmers. Catherine and Chuck Davis, whom the local paper referred to as “Mr. Samish,” had almost never spoken publicly about their adult son, except to apologize to neighbors for the screaming arguments that sometimes came from inside the house, puncturing the island quiet. And Samish Island, nestled dazzlingly between two bays and enclosed by a ring of thick Douglas firs, is a place where people don’t pry.

In the following days, people coming to pay their respects to Catherine saw hints of the reclusive life Lane had been living: dozens of empty beer bottles and piles of refuse hauled out of his wing of the house. Local news stories gestured at a dark conflict over Lane’s beliefs; Chuck Davis had apparently called his son a racist and a Nazi just before he died.

The Inventor Of The Phone Was Obsessed With Sheep Nipples

Alexander Graham Bell is best known for (kinda) (sorta) inventing the telephone, which was a pretty immense technological achievement. Less celebrated but equally impressive is his trailblazing in the field of “giving sheep more nipples.”

Bell had a fixation with sheep — specifically, the fact that they only had two nipples. After he’d gotten a pet ewe for his kids, he decided that two nipples were not nearly enough compared to, say, the number of nipples on a dog (between six and ten). More nipples, after all, would mean that the sheep could nurse more lambs, which would lead to more sheep, and more sheep nipples.

“My eyes are up here, buddy.”

Most men would just accept the scarcity of nipples on sheep as a tragic fact of life, but not Bell. No, he decided to be the change he wanted to see in the world. So he spent roughly 30 years of research on finding sheep that just so happened to have more than two nipples, then breeding them together. After blowing an obscene amount of money on his nipple quest, he more or less accomplished what he set out to do. His flock went from averaging a little more than two nipples (weak, pathetic) to averaging five to six nipples (glorious). As an added bonus, the super-nippled sheep began to produce twins and triplets almost twice as often as the normie-nippled sheep. So the next time you come across a sheep, dive-tackle it, wrestle it onto its back, and start counting nipples (as it is your legal right to do), remember that you might have the father of the telephone to thank for at least a few of those.

An unsolved murder at Italy’s most notorious tower block

Earlier this year, the remains of a teenage girl were found near Hotel House, a crumbling building largely occupied by recent immigrants, which many Italians regard as a den of drugs and violence. Did prejudice hamper the search for justice?

Hotel House in Porto Recanati, Italy.

It was raining heavily on 28 March 2018, as Alessandro Albini’s officers were raking over rough ground on the outskirts of an abandoned building. The police were looking for stashes of drugs or money, because they knew the shack was being used by dealers.

At first glance, this might have seemed an unlikely location for a drugs bust. Porto Recanati is a small seaside town on Italy’s Adriatic coast. It has perpendicular streets with low, pastel-coloured palazzi between palms and maritime pines. It’s all very neat: there are often mini-diggers on the sand, raking the beach flat as if it were a Japanese garden.

One of Albini’s men called him over. “There’s something strange here,” he said. The rain had washed away the loose soil and what looked like a golf ball was sticking out of the ground. Albini’s colleague took a cloth and wiped away the mud so that he could see the thick bone of what appeared to be a femur.

Forensic experts were called in, and for two weeks Albini, the town’s vice questore (the deputy chief constable), oversaw the sifting of 15 cubic metres of ground, which contained a lot of buried garbage and animal bones, but also other remains that seemed human.

The abandoned building was five minutes inland from the sea, close to the town’s tiny stadium with its single west stand. But it was only a field away from what is possibly the most fascinating and perplexing building in Italy: Hotel House, a semi-derelict tower block that has become synonymous, in the Italian imagination, with drug dealing, prostitution and clandestine migrants.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Prepare to spend a while; it’s The Long Read.

New study finds it’s harder to turn off a robot when it’s begging for its life

The robot told test subjects it was scared of the dark and pleaded ‘No! Please do not switch me off!’

A Nao robot; the same model used by the researchers in their experiment.

Robots designed to interact socially with humans are slowly becoming more and more common. They’re appearing as receptionists, tour guides, security guards, and porters. But how good are we at treating these robots as robots? A growing body of evidence suggests not good at all. Studies have repeatedly shown we’re extremely susceptible to social cues coming from machines, and a recent experiment by German researchers demonstrates that people will even refuse to turn a robot off — if it begs for its life.

In the study, published in the open access journal PLOS One, 89 volunteers were recruited to complete a pair of tasks with the help of Nao, a small humanoid robot. The participants were told that the tasks (which involved answering a series of either / or questions, like “Do you prefer pasta or pizza?”; and organizing a weekly schedule) were to improve Nao’s learning algorithms. But this was just a cover story, and the real test came after these tasks were completed, and scientists asked participants to turn off the robot.

A photo of the experiment’s setup. Participants had to complete a series of tasks with the Nao robot before being asked to turn the machine off.

In roughly half of experiments, the robot protested, telling participants it was afraid of the dark and even begging: “No! Please do not switch me off!” When this happened, the human volunteers were likely to refuse to turn the bot off. Of the 43 volunteers who heard Nao’s pleas, 13 refused. And the remaining 30 took, on average, twice as long to comply compared to those who did not not hear the desperate cries at all. (Just imagine that scene from The Good Place for reference.)

When quizzed about their actions, participants who refused to turn the robot off gave a number of reasons for doing so. Some said they were surprised by the pleas; others, that they were scared they were doing something wrong. But the most common response was simply that the robot said it didn’t want to be switched off, so who were they to disagree?

Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

If you don’t follow Q-Anon, the internet conspiracy theory​ gaining traction among supporters of President Trump, you probably don’t know who Jen and Jamie Buteau are.

But if you do, you know they’re the couple who (along with their 17 year-old son) were seen by Q fans as getting a point and wave from Trump at the rally in Tampa where Q went from the dark corners of the internet to wall-to-wall cable news saturation.

The Buteaus are from Ocala. Jen is a waitress and Jamie is currently unemployed. They cancelled cable recently to boost the size of their broadband pipe — they follow Q-Anon closely and they believe the whole thing centers around a person or group of people high up in the government who are dropping clues about what’s really going on in Washington. They no longer follow the mainstream media because they think it is, for the most part, lies.

After they (maybe) got a shout-out from Trump, they got some fame among the Q set online. VICE News sat down with them in Tampa to find out what Q is all about and what draws them to it.

THANKS to HBO and VICE News for making this program available on YouTube.

Last August, a gathering of the far right turned deadly in the Virginia town. The Guardian reporter Lois Beckett returns to the scene of the violence to speak with local residents, who say resurgent white supremacism came as little surprise. They vow to continue the fight against it: ‘We won’t back down’

They can interfere with our elections all they want, but there are consequences for hacking Chili’s.

Following Pope Francis’ declaration that the death penalty is impressible, Stephen asks God if he feels the same way about capital punishment.

THANKS to CBS and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for making this program available on YouTube.

Bill recaps the top stories of the week, including Trumps attacks on journialism, Paul Manafort’s trial, and the emergence of #QAnon.

THANKS to HBO and Real Time with Bill Maher for making this program available on YouTube.



Schlitterbahn’s Tragic Slide

Jeff Henry often said that his goal in life was to make customers of his family’s legendary water parks happy—“to put a smile on their faces, to give them a thrill or two.” It was a beautiful vision. Until it went horribly wrong.

The 168-foot-tall Verrückt slide.

It was a Sunday afternoon, August 7, 2016, the temperature a pleasant 78 degrees, as ten-year-old Caleb Schwab began the 264-step climb to the top of Verrückt, the world’s tallest waterslide, which loomed like a colossus over the forty-acre Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City. Caleb was a brown-eyed boy, his nose dotted with freckles. He had come to the park with his father, Scott, a state legislator; his mother, Michele; and his three brothers. That day, Schlitterbahn was offering free admission to Kansas elected officials and their families, along with a buffet lunch, and the Schwabs, who lived in the town of Olathe, southwest of Kansas City, were thrilled. A free day at Schlitterbahn. What could be better?

The Kansas City Schlitterbahn is one of five Schlitterbahn parks in the country. The others are in Texas: in New Braunfels, South Padre Island, Galveston, and Corpus Christi. Every year, an estimated two million visitors go to the parks to plunge down slides, zoom through twisting tube chutes, and float and swim in man-made rivers and enormous pools. For the most devoted fans, Schlitterbahn is an aquatic version of Disney World, with something for everyone, from huge playgrounds for children to swim-up bars for adults that serve beer and margaritas. Some “Bahnophiles” spend every summer weekend, or even entire vacations, at a Schlitterbahn.

And in Kansas City, even those who cared little for water or who couldn’t afford Schlitterbahn’s $45 admission ($35 for children) would drive by the park just to get a look at Verrückt. At 168 feet 7 inches tall, Verrückt, which means “insane” in German, was taller than Niagara Falls. Three riders inside a rubber raft would plummet down a nearly vertical seventeen-story drop at speeds reaching up to 68 miles per hour. The moment they reached the bottom, they would shoot up a 55-foot-tall incline—the equivalent of a five-story building—before racing down one last steep slope, finally coming to a stop in a long, water-filled runout.

The idea for Verrückt came from 63-year-old Jeff Henry, who co-owned the Schlitterbahn parks with his older brother, Gary, and younger sister, Jana, and acted as the company’s chief visionary, a conjurer of splashy joyrides. In the water park business, Jeff was considered a genius of sorts—“an out of the box visionary of waterpark designs,” wrote Tim O’Brien in his 2006 book Legends: Pioneers of the Amusement Park Industry. Jeff often said that his goal in life was to make Schlitterbahn customers happy—“to put a smile on their faces, to give them a thrill or two,” he told me during one of our conversations this summer. “I’m a water showman. That’s what I do.”

And Verrückt, a ride that lasted only eighteen seconds, was considered to be his crowning achievement. When the slide opened to the public, in July 2014, riders’ reviews were a publicist’s dream. (“Most amazing ride I’ve ever ridden.” “Like dropping out of the sky.” “Terrifying and horrible and terrific.”) By the time young Caleb climbed Verrückt’s stairs, some 100,000 adrenaline junkies, a few of whom had flown in from across the world, had ridden Verrückt, and Jeff was planning to build a second version of the slide at the Schlitterbahn in Galveston.

Ed. More tomorrow? Probably. Possibly. Maybe. Not?