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I cannot leave Bell Labs without mentioning one more device which I saw
there, and which haunts me as it haunts everyone else who has ever seen it in
action. It is the Ultimate Machine–the End of the Line. Beyond it there is
Nothing. It sits on Claude Shannon’s desk driving’ people mad. (Or sat, as
Shannon is now at MIT.)
Nothing could look simpler. It is merely a small wooden casket the size and
shape of a cigar-box, with a single switch on one face.
When you throw the switch, there is an angry, purposeful buzzing. The lid
slowly rises, and from beneath it emerges a hand. The hand reaches down, turns
the switch off, and retreats into the box. With the finality of a closing coffin,
the lid snaps shut, the buzzing ceases, and peace reigns once more.
The psychological effect, if you do not know what to expect, is devastating.
There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing–absolutely
nothing–except switch itself off.
–Arthur C. Clarke, The Ultimate Machine, Harper’s, Aug. 1958.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm
Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
Amount New York City spends each year on air, bus, and train tickets to send homeless people out of town:
The Laboratory of Neurophenomics described a possible blood test for suicide.“Suicide,” said the laboratory’s director, “is a big problem in psychiatry.”
Beijing set its air-quality target for 2017 at twice the amount deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization.
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"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."