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For the Love of Bug Bounty

Jacob Silverman   May 27, 2015
Chris Roberts, a self-described "ethical hacker," was yanked off a Boeing in Syracuse, after he tweeted about hacking it. / Twitter

Chris Roberts, suddenly the nation’s most notorious computer security researcher, has had an exciting couple of months, ping-ponging between industry martyr and villain.

In April, FBI agents yanked him off a Boeing 737 as soon as it landed in Syracuse; apparently they weren’t thrilled when Roberts tweeted mid-air, with a smiley face, that he might hack into the plane’s control systems and unleash all the oxygen masks. After hours of questioning, the Feds let him go—but kept his fleet of fancy electronics, including two laptops.

Some in the security community scolded Roberts for joking so cavalierly about his ability to hack planes. Others, though, were troubled by the FBI’s show of power. Roberts, after all, is a self-described “ethical hacker”—i.e., a hacker who sniffs out security holes not to exploit them nefariously, but to recommend they be fixed. He’s been on the information security circuit for years now, promoting his consulting company, One World Labs, and sounding the alarm about the vulnerabilities of commercial aircraft.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   May 27, 2015
A dementor hulks over the London 2012 Olympics. / CarlosVanVegas

• Tom Hayes, who took the lead in rigging Libor rates (a.k.a. “the most important numbers in the world”) is facing trial in London. The press is celebrating with pirate jokes: Man the rigging! Walk the plank! Back in 2012’s Baffler No. 21, Christian Lorentzen documented the Libor scandal as it broke blotchily through the sun-kissed skin of the “pinch-yourself-fun” London Olympics . . .

• Over on the LRB blog, a note on Joseph Brodsky, who was forced to leave the USSR in 1972, and would have turned 75 last Sunday. “Visiting Russia in 2003, Proffer Teasley was taken aback by a ‘new party line’ aimed at portraying Brodsky as a national hero and a martyr.” The Baffler is cosponsoring a Brodsky event this week, more details here.

• Taco Bell, whose latest advertising gimmick was thoroughly contextualized by A.S. Hamrah on the Baffler blog yesterday, has announced its aim to cut out artificial flavours. As CEO Greg Creed put it: “We have to clean up our menu labels. What people want are things on labels that they can pronounce.” So supportive!

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Freedom of Choice Degree Zero

A. S. Hamrah   May 26, 2015
Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 16.12.04

Soon there will only be two kinds of ads on broadcast TV: commercials for things that make you sick and commercials for things that cure the illnesses caused by the things that make you sick. That’s why fast-food ads are stocked with images of youth living it up, while Big Pharma ads feature old people enjoying themselves despite their afflictions. These two types of ads follow each other with an inexorable logic, alternating the vibrant primary colors of childhood with the washed-out pastels of old age. TV tries to create life in time slots. Drama and comedy are interrupted on schedule for servings of Chicken McNuggets and pills. On broadcast TV, those are the Ages of Man.    

This restless flickering between life and death makes sense for a time in which the broadcast networks’ mission of offering entertainment for the whole family generates diminishing returns. Now their shows can really only be tolerated by people who don’t have driver’s licenses: the very old and the very young. Network television has redefined the family to mean shut-ins and people with curfews. “Linear” TV presupposes a captive audience; the youngest and oldest members of the family are more captive than the ones in-between. And “linear” implies a narrative that starts at one point and ends at another. TV commercials remind us what those points are.  

Fast food and thirty-second TV commercials, primary sites of consumerism and its discourse for the last six decades, are being swept into the dustbin of historyor hosed out of its parking lot, as the case may be. And as they wane, one fast food brand has turned to the twentieth-century’s great ideological struggle to fight for territory on a new ideological battlefront: breakfast. The conflict between capitalism and communism, pitched in TV commercials as a battle between freedom and authoritarianism at least since Apple’s “1984” spot, now returns, courtesy of Taco Bell, with all its co-opted revolutionary imagery intact, this time with the added benefit of being able to refer to the Hunger Games movies. From computers to the Cola Wars and now on to the breakfast sandwich, the long march into kitschified Cold War triviality makes a great leap forward with Taco Bell’s “Routine Republic” short film, which implores viewers to break the chains of the McMuffin and become “breakfast defectors,” and was probably made in response to Chipotle’s beloved “The Scarecrow” ad-film of two years ago.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   May 26, 2015
Copy of a Lamassu statue, like the one destroyed by ISIS in Nineveh. / stannate

• George Clooney’s latest blockbuster Tomorrowland disappoints at the box office, and the Times diagnoses the flaws in its ambition: “Mr. Bird wanted to offer a more optimistic portrait of the future. But there is a reason studios continue to churn out dystopian fare.” That is, as Jeff Jarvis comments, on Medium, that “the people of today slurp up pessimism like éclairs.”

• Semifinalists in a tournament of Bafflements: 3D printing vs. ISIS, and Elon Musk vs. Larry Page. In the former contest, over at Vice, an artist is printing replicas of artifacts destroyed by ISIS: “3D printing itself relies on plastics derived from oil, Allahyari reminds us. As they respond to the barbarity of ISIS, her historical replicas are also a reflection of the sort of progress that has little use for history: the latest in technocapitalism’s obsession with the new, an obsession that never quite breaks from the destructive systems and practices of the old.”

• Today in Billionaires: The Sun is Setting on the Gilded age of Billionaires, long live the Second Gilded Age of Billionaires

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Victor Serge, The Unconquered

William Giraldi   May 25, 2015
Victor Serge's heroes would see no steel cable connecting Marx to Lenin and Lenin to Stalin.

Some writers are destined to have two deaths—the first in life, and the second in memory. The lucky ones can be resurrected from that second death by cultural circumstance and the aid of overseeing angels, irked by injustice, believing these Lazaruses should be helped from their tombs. In 2004, Susan Sontag opened her essay “Unextinguished” with this query, much to the present case: “How to explain the obscurity of one of the most compelling of twentieth-century ethical and literary heroes, Victor Serge?”

How indeed. A self-educated and unwavering Russian Marxist who fought in the Bolshevik Revolution, Serge was born in Belgium (in 1890), wrote in French, lived mostly in European exile, and died in Mexico (in 1947). Although a handful of his unpublished books appeared in France after his death—including the much-lauded Memoirs of a Revolutionary—and his best novels began sporadically to appear in English between the ‘60s and ‘80s, Serge was essentially undergoing his second death, ignored by the custodians of literary talent. Sontag suggests several possible reasons, none of them good enough: Serge was perceived as primarily a revolutionary rather than a literary artist; his writing did not belong clearly to either French or Russian literature, so neither claimed him; and his radical politics earned him potent enemies, both on the pro-Communist left and among the tastemakers of bourgeois culture.

In 2001, Verso published Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope, an inclusive biography by Susan Weissman. Soon after, New York Review Books began reprinting Serge’s work: Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Unforgiving Years, and Conquered City. Sontag’s essay appears as the introduction to Serge’s masterwork, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, a novel about the unstanchable hysteria of Stalin’s purges. Serge’s novel Midnight in the Century, just reissued in a translation by Richard Greeman, was published in Paris in 1939, that sinister year of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the hecatomb of Poland.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   May 25, 2015
Pie charts: the injection of sex appeal the humanities so desperately need. / Jimmie

• Over at The Nation, Moira Wegel imagines the effects of digital humanism, or those “digital tools [that] promise to give dusty humanities courses a fresh sheen of Silicon Valley sex appeal for the undergraduates who might not otherwise take them.” Also known as pie charts.

• This week in The Mansions of Secret Billionaires, and in Real Estate Agents Acting like Enraged, Honor-bound Butlers: “Stephen Lindsay, one of the real-estate agents who sold the house, spoke to me only after I agreed to leave my phone and bag in another room. He then put the family’s lawyer on speakerphone and announced that he would take the secret of Witanhurst’s ownership ‘to the grave.’”

• In Baffler no 21, Josh MacPhee asked:  “Who’s the Shop Steward on Your Kickstarter?” Well, the news in today is that “If Kickstarter is a store, then Indiegogo is that guy in the alley selling watches sewn into the lining of an open trench coat.”

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Hello, Twitter! It’s Barack.

Niela Orr   May 22, 2015
Something Old and Something New: this week, the nation's first black president joined Twitter, and racists swiftly followed. / Twitter

This Monday, President Obama joined Twitter. That, clearly, was his first mistake. In short order, a barrage of racist tweets greeted our first African American president.

The whole contretemps called to mind the premise of the popular “Obama’s Anger Translator” skits, which is that since the most visible and powerful black man in public life can never for a moment risk being perceived as an angry black man, well, then someone else has to take on all the unresolved rage percolating around the presidential id.  Obama himself masterfully exploited this conceit during his speech before this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. But while Obama’s flirtation with his own inner angry black man was an indulgent whim of the powerful, there was nothing fanciful or amusing about the torrent of Twitter abuse Obama endured simply on the basis of his skin color.

Still, one can’t help but imagine a moment of comic release. Fans of the Key and Peele show, which originated the sketch on Comedy Central, can readily picture how this variation on the theme would play out. The president would eagerly start getting interactive with the American public at the Oval Office, over a din of expectant studio-audience laughter: President: “Hello, Twitter! It’s Barack.” Trolls: “Get cancer nigger.” Cut to Obama stifling rage, and sending the following message: “I’m sorry you feel that way. Did you know that if I did have cancer, it wouldn’t be treated as a pre-existing condition under the Affordable Care Act?” A few more exchanges like this would coax out his anger translator Luther, played by Keegan-Michael Key, who’d let loose with a disbelieving and profane tirade.

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Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   May 22, 2015
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave, or get a tattoo, or keep a beer in the communal fridge. / Vaguely Artistic

• Last week, we scratched our heads over the strange requirements for would-be tenants of the Woodside, California, “Startup Castle”—including prohibitions against multiple tattoos, wearing makeup, and attending political protests. This week, Fusion follows up with some former castle-mates on the pros and cons of the unique housing situation. As one house member reportedly said, “This place is a prison. It’s like living in the Hotel California, except we can’t even drink wine here.”

• NewCo New York is offering the chance to tour 120 NYC startups as part of a two-day open house organized by tech mogul John Battelle. Now you can be the thirty-year-old kid at BuzzFeed’s Take Your Children to Work Day, for a fee, of course.

• Today in billionaires: a billionaire hedge fund manager, Ken Fisher, explains what most investors get wrong: “You start with the presumption that if everybody is worrying about something, you don’t have to worry about it—because they’re doing it for you. You should worry about something else.” Happy Friday everyone, the man with his hands on $64 billion of investment capital says you should just chill out.

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