Mon, Apr 30, 2012
This is a story of murder and tourism and ghosts. Of civic failure and the illusion of certainty.
It's not every day that someone writes down an equation that ends up changing the world. But it does happen sometimes, and the world doesn't always change for the better. It has been argued that one formula known as Black-Scholes, along with its descendants, helped to blow up the financial world.
London is a city of ghosts; you feel them here. Not just of people, but eras. The ghost of empire, or the blitz, the plague, the smoky ghost of the Great Fire that gave us Christopher Wren’s churches and ushered in the Georgian city. London can see the dead, and hugs them close. If New York is a wise guy, Paris a coquette, Rome a gigolo and Berlin a wicked uncle, then London is an old lady who mutters and has the second sight. She is slightly deaf, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Sun, Apr 29, 2012
If one is at first glance tempted to dismiss Alison Bechdel’s “Are You My Mother?” as a glorified comic strip, one would be wildly and woefully misguided: it is as complicated, brainy, inventive and satisfying as the finest prose memoirs.
The point of all this is that humankind has engaged in a sophisticated discussion over many centuries as to whether, in some sense, our choices and actions, and the predictable consequences of our actions, are up to us, or whether, at some point in the order of events, we are bypassed, leaving our efforts essentially futile. The great cultural conversation certainly did not end with the Stoics, and it has continued to the present day. Throughout the medieval period, the issue became entangled with theological considerations, and to some extent this remains so.
Not surprisingly, recent analyses by professional philosophers have become increasingly fine-grained and technical, particularly, though not solely, where arguments about the role of causal determinism are involved.
Sat, Apr 28, 2012
But change in Los Angeles is often easier to track by looking at its restaurants rather than its boardrooms, and from the business end of a pair of chopsticks, extreme diversity didn't look so bad. Sometimes equality, democracy and tolerance are virtues you fight for on distant battlefields, and sometimes they are as close as the frozen-food aisle at Vons. The neighborhood wasn't tidy, but until those few hours in late April, it worked.
And then it didn't.
Ever since travel had become a realizable goal for the middle classes, people have sought their personal communion with a site, and, in this process, have wanted to distinguish themselves from the hoards around them. The boundary between the journey and the tour is part of the modern self-understanding of travel.
Fri, Apr 27, 2012
Publishers need to reinvent their own future. They could offer packages. They could partner more with communities of interest, from environmentalists to religious conservatives. And, most important, they could start believing in tomorrow, instead of being afraid of it.
Rebecca Lindenberg, The Poetry Foundation
There is a French expression, cracher son venin, that translates to “spit one’s venom.” It conveys exactly what I feel like doing to America around 1 p.m. every work day. As much as it pains me to admit that foreigners do things better than us, I have to hand it to them on this issue: The French know how to take a lunch break.
Thu, Apr 26, 2012
But the question is far better turned on its head: If an entire industry must rely on aloof prize boards to gin up sustained interest, then the trouble would seem to be the industry itself, rather than the prize boards or the consumers.
Wed, Apr 25, 2012
Müller is part of a small but growing number of heterosexual writers publishing novels that not only include gay characters as central parts of their narrative, but are largely about gayness itself. It’s a trend that suggests that homosexuality may no longer be the taboo it once was, for writers — and for readers.
The first time I confronted my stationery addiction was 10 years ago, after a trip abroad. I had been away for six weeks and on my return I noticed the small shop at the top of my road had closed. Standing on the pavement, staring in dismay at the whitewashed window, I could have wept. I put both hands up against the glass and peered in.
"They went last week," the waiter watching in the doorway of the cafe said.
"But I've run out of notebooks," I told him, stricken.
Tue, Apr 24, 2012
Billy Collins, Slate
The latest word on the street about English in America – always bad, it seems – is that the shaggy construction of texting and e-mail spells the death of formal writing. Yet the truth about English in America – always sunnier, in fact – is that the looseness and creativity of these new ways of writing are a sign of a new sophistication in our society. This becomes clear when we understand that in the proper sense, e-mail and texting are not writing at all.
Mon, Apr 23, 2012
Without the bar to jump over set high, we'll all end up simply playing in the sandpit.
There are no walls between Stanford and Silicon Valley. Should there be?
Sun, Apr 22, 2012
They’re pampered, privileged, indulged – part of the “cultural elite.” They spend all their time smoking pot and sipping absinthe. To use a term that’s acquired currency lately, they’re entitled. And they’re not – after all – real Americans.
This what we hear about artists, architects, musicians, writers and others like them. And it’s part of the reason the struggles of the creative class in the 21st century – a period in which an economic crash, social shifts and technological change have put everyone from graphic artists to jazz musicians to book publishers out of work – has gone largely untold. Or been shrugged off.
It’s spring when i realize that I may never have children, and around that time the thirteen-year cicadas return, burrowing out of neat, round holes in the ground to shed their larval shells, sprout wings, and fly to the treetops, filling the air with the sound of their singular purpose: reproduction. In the woods where I live, an area mostly protected from habitat destruction, the males’ mating song, a vibrating, whooshing, endless hum, a sound at once faraway and up-close, makes me feel like I am living inside a seashell.
Only a very brave – or very foolish – aspiring novelist would first publish a memoir about trying, and failing, to write a novel, as Greg Baxter did in his acclaimed A Preparation for Death (2010). But on the evidence of this, his first published novel, all those fictional cul-de-sacs prepared him rather well.
Sat, Apr 21, 2012
To me this dinner, with its tasting notes and the rest, seemed like the dernier cri in shark-jumping foodie bullshit. Yet there could be the germ of a good idea here.
So many people come to Los Angeles with an idea of the city, some apotheosis of the American Dream with palm trees plus a really nice car. Then they settle down into ordinary jobs and don't even understand the part of town they live in, let alone how it fits into the city as a whole or how the city started and grew.
Schonwald, a Chicago journalist, focuses on three broad areas of interest: the salad revolution, which has brought new ingredients to the table — think radicchio, and weeds, and greens in sealed bags — and altered mass tastes as well as those of elite foodies; efforts to grow meat in vitro, i.e., in the laboratory rather than in the cow; and the rise of land-based fish farming. Every once in a while his prose turns a little flippant, and he does use the first-person singular to excess, but he has come up with a great deal of interesting information, much of which will surprise people who eat food without giving much thought to where it comes from.
It's the threat of violence that has always made fiction about Los Angeles so fundamentally different than the raft of books about Manhattan: There always seems to be an undertone of menace. Perhaps it's a genetic marker left over from the great crime fiction that first rose out of Los Angeles, or perhaps it's that the citizens of Los Angeles have always understood that if reality can be manipulated, well, identity is nothing.
Fri, Apr 20, 2012
To the shock of most sentient beings, Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet. Though few expected Facts to pull out of its years-long downward spiral, the official cause of death was from injuries suffered last week when Florida Republican Rep. Allen West steadfastly declared that as many as 81 of his fellow members of theU.S. House of Representatives are communists.
The sun above Paris was a mid-July clementine. I bought copies of Le Monde and the Herald Tribune at a kiosk and climbed the stairs to my new office on the Champs-Elysées. For three hours, I mugged at a laptop, trying to figure out how the e-mail system worked. My fingers were chattering. I spent long, spacey minutes trying to find the @ key. They'd given me a keyboard mapped for French speakers, with the letters switched around.
I grew up watching Superman. As a child, when I first learned to dive into a swimming pool, I wasn't diving, I was flying, like Superman. I used to dream of rescuing a girl I had a crush on (my Lois Lane) from a playground bully (General Zod). Reeve, to my mind, was the first real superhero.
Thu, Apr 19, 2012
The year was 1980, and I was sitting at my typewriter in New York, plying my writer’s trade. When the phone rang I had no great expectations; freelance writers answering the phone tend to be braced for negative news.
“Bill, honey?” said a young woman’s voice. “This is Sandra from Woody Allen’s office. Woody wondered if you’d like to be in his new movie.”
Maxine Kumin, The Writer's Almanac
If, as Jones asserts, bad taste is nothing but good taste after a few years of aging, declaring support for someone with a bruised reputation can be just a clever way of getting a jump on next season’s fashion.
But the larger question is whether bad taste is even a consideration anymore. And if so, what might it mean?
Well over half of the books were written during food rationing. Perhaps Blyton is consciously enticing her readers with elaborate descriptions of foods way beyond the ration book allowance.
Wed, Apr 18, 2012
Cooking, like any worthy trip, is about the journey: Detours, wrong turns and unexpected discoveries are what make us understand and appreciate where we wind up.
Reports of the novel’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
That’s one of the many important lessons to be gleaned from “The Storytelling Animal,” by Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor at Washington and Jefferson College. In his first book for nonacademics, the author transitions easily to a mainstream audience with this insightful yet breezily accessible exploration of the power of storytelling and its ability to shape our lives.
Of the many and conflicting stories about how The Huffington Post came to be—how it boasts 68 sections, three international editions (with more to come), 1.2 billion monthly page views and 54 million comments in the past year alone, how it came to surpass the traffic of virtually all the nation’s established news organizations and amass content so voluminous that a visit to the website feels like a trip to a mall where the exits are impossible to locate—the earliest and arguably most telling begins with a lunch in March 2003 at which the idea of an online newspaper filled with celebrity bloggers and virally disseminated aggregated content did not come up.
Tue, Apr 17, 2012
Those of us who work from home and strive to live the life of the mind but find our precious days gnawed away by tedious, yet somehow urgent, displacement activities can easily fantasise that life in an institution might deprive one of Facebook, dog-walking and alphabetising the spice rack but might do so in return for blissful, uncluttered clarity of thought.
Mon, Apr 16, 2012
When the new season of “Mad Men” began, just a few weeks ago, it carried with it an argument about whether the spell it casts is largely a product of its beautifully detailed early-sixties setting or whether, as Matthew Weiner, its creator, insisted, it’s not backward-looking at all but a product of character, story line, and theme. So it seems time to pronounce a rule about American popular culture: the Golden Forty-Year Rule. The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past. (And the particular force of nostalgia, one should bear in mind, is not simply that it is a good setting for a story but that it is a good setting for you.)
It’s Vienna, 1914, and everyone is preoccupied with the secret side of life. Lysander Rief, a young British actor visiting the city, learns that the parlormaid in his respectable boarding house has been turning tricks with a fellow guest, a man suspected of embezzling from the army, who explains to the bemused foreigner that in respectable-looking Vienna, “below the surface, the river is flowing, dark and strong.” What river? “The river of sex.” Not long after that, Lysander himself begins a passionate affair with a sculptor behind the back of her common-law husband. The rest of his time he devotes to a form of psychotherapy that entails papering over a shameful incident in his past with tamer, happier “memories” induced by hypnosis.
Junot Díaz, New Yorker
Sun, Apr 15, 2012
At the first editorial meeting of twenty-four magazine, I turned to the staff of 10 and asked: "Do any of you know what this magazine is going to be about?" All of them shook their heads. "How many of you have worked in magazines before?" Four hands went up, including my own, and there was a round of nervous laughter. One day later, we published our first issue.
It's a pity the book is so bull-headed, because Harris's topic is an interesting one, and he himself is an interesting figure who brings together the disciplines of science, moral philosophy and contemplative religion. Unfortunately, he seems to see this as a zero-sum game, in which the competition must be killed. In fact, as Harris must know, the great religious traditions have interesting things to tell us about wellbeing, if we stop trying to punch their lights out.
It's minus 17 degrees in Gorky Park, Moscow, and I quicken my pace along the snow-crusted paths. Since I started to run, there has been a knife attack and murder in a hotel room and the killer is preparing to make a suicidal leap from a bridge.
Sat, Apr 14, 2012
One of the first things to strike you about Michael McGriff’s work is that it’s populated: his poems have people in them. What strikes you next is that the citizens of McGriffville are mired in various stages of desperation.
With no small amount of trepidation, I lay open here the first page of my diary — high-schoolish stabs at intellectualism, fleeting girlish obsessions, deliberately obscure annotations and all. After many failed adolescent attempts at keeping a journal, the summer after my junior year in high school, I finally found a format I could adhere to: Never mind describing the back-and-lack-of-forths of unrequited crushes and falling-outs with friends. I decided to list the books I read instead.
Fri, Apr 13, 2012
What no one realized was that de Wohl’s lecture was pure propaganda from the British government, which was attempting to drag the Roosevelt administration into WWII by any means necessary. De Wohl, who was employed by SOE (Special Operations Executive, the wartime sabotage unit), had been dispatched with instructions to present himself as a renowned astrologer with no connections to Britain, and to undermine America’s belief in the invincibility of Hitler. As the spy novelist William Boyd put it in a 2008 radio interview: “At the time, there was a perception of American people, in the minds of the British Security Services, that they were more gullible than us Brits.”
Is it safe to talk about punctuation again?
Thu, Apr 12, 2012
That is what death means. We exist in the minds of other people, in thousands of memory clusters, and one by one those clusters fade and disappear. Some years from now, at a funeral with a slide show, only one person will be able to say who we were. Then no one will know.
So what exactly happened in that gap between obscurity and ubiquity? The afterlife of the artist is a tricky thing.
Wed, Apr 11, 2012
It’s time to give up on Microsoft’s word processor.
Some 160 years after her death, Fuller remains a haunting figure not so much for the one important book she committed to paper as for the exceptional life she lived, the significance it had in its own moment as well as the one it might have had, if it had not been cut severely short in 1850 when she was 40. Within that short span of time, however, Fuller underwent the kind of dramatic transformation that calls attention to one of moral philosophy’s great conundrums: Is it nobler to spend one’s time on earth devoted to the spiritual elevation of one’s own individuality, or to bond with the eternal struggle for equality in the belief that to serve the greater good is to elevate the spirit life of humanity?
With the title of this novel, her 16th, Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer once again shows her preternatural capacity to take a slangy catchphrase and make it right to the point. And one that is absolutely appropriate to her novel's milieu and, beyond that, to its subject matter in general.
Take a renowned economist to lunch, and you learn a few things. For instance, if you dine where children are among the patrons, you can count on bad food. Children are, in fact, one of the reasons American food got so bad. The other reason? Prohibition.
Tue, Apr 10, 2012
And yet the reputation of modern solitude is puzzling, because the traits enabling a solitary life—financial stability, spiritual autonomy, the wherewithal to buy more dishwashing detergent when the box runs out—are those our culture prizes.
Mon, Apr 9, 2012
Dostoevsky tackled free will, Tolstoy the meaning of life – but is it still possible to write philosophical novels?
The star of this meal is marijuana, but it's the aftermath of this secret dinner that might surprise you.
Keret writes short fiction — often, very short. It's astonishing what he can do in just two pages: go from funny to bizarre to touching to satiric to meta to surprising and surreal. There are 35 stories in this slender paperback, and sometimes they are just strange or sad or sweet enough to make you set the book down and walk away, to give them time to sink in.
Fish, without a doubt, gotta swim, but how do they do it? And how, over millenniums of evolution, did they get to be so good at it? These two questions have driven the career of John Long, a professor of biology and cognitive science at Vassar College. Long is so into fish that his primal scene of intellectual seduction involved a Ph.D. trying to get him to join her team by taking him out for coffee and asking, “Have you seen the vertebral column of a marlin?” Thus was Long launched into a course of study that would ultimately lead him to the improbable task of making robot fish.
Audiobooks are good. They're enjoyable. They're wonderfully efficient. But I wonder if the audiobook experience is quite as full and as nuanced as reading.
Sun, Apr 8, 2012
What much of the moviegoing world does not realize is that Astaire had a remarkable life before Hollywood, one in which his dancing partner was his sister Adele.
This is a small jewel of a book, its planes cut precisely to catch the light so that the sentences shimmer in your mind long after turning the final page. With The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka has developed a literary style that is half poetry, half narration – short phrases, sparse description, so that the current of emotion running through each chapter is made more resonant by her restraint.
It usually starts with a pretence of steeliness. Not the whole thing, I'll tell myself, reaching for the ruined paperback. One chapter, a favourite passage, then I'll wedge it back in with those books begun but not yet finished; the dozens more bought or inherited that I honestly mean to open, sooner to get to all of Dickens. I'm a chronic rereader, mostly of novels, and it is a habit as coiled with guilt as it is with pleasure, because every go-round with a favourite is also another time I haven't read Bleak House.
One by one, pillars of classical logic have fallen by the wayside as science progressed in the 20th century, from Einstein's realization that measurements of space and time were not absolute but observer-dependent, to quantum mechanics, which not only put fundamental limits on what we can empirically know but also demonstrated that elementary particles and the atoms they form are doing a million seemingly impossible things at once.
Sat, Apr 7, 2012
While OS/2 never truly caught on, it’s also never gone away. Even if you believe that you never saw it in action, there’s a decent chance that you unwittingly encounter it occasionally.
But more important, “The Idea Factory” explores one of the most critical issues of our time: What causes innovation? Why does it happen, and how might we nurture it? The lesson of Bell Labs is that most feats of sustained innovation cannot and do not occur in an iconic garage or the workshop of an ingenious inventor. They occur when people of diverse talents and mind-sets and expertise are brought together, preferably in close physical proximity where they can have frequent meetings and serendipitous encounters.
Thomas Berger and I have never met. Yet I also count Thomas Berger, a veteran of World War II and the (insufficiently) celebrated author of 23 novels, among my best friends on this earth. Can this possibly be true? And if so, might it be pathetic, something better kept to myself? My question has some general currency, since lately some of us befriend, or “friend,” whole armies of discorporate beings. Yet long before virtuality made this gesture prosaic and compulsive, readers were in the habit of making disembodied friendships with authors. I mean, of course, in the sense that Holden Caulfield, after reading a book, expressed the wish to call its author on the telephone.
It is the Chomskyan take on language that Daniel L. Everett, a linguist best known for his work in the Amazon among the Pirahã, challenges in “Language: The Cultural Tool.”
Fri, Apr 6, 2012
Aside from The Inimitable (as Dickens called himself), three English classics – all of them in the cultural news at the moment – owe a lot to having been conceived, wholly or in part, through the medium of the spoken word.
Suffering is a key essential to great writing. But there’s probably enough suffering in your life already—or suffering will come on its own.
In the nearly 30 years since Tetris’s invention — and especially over the last five, with the rise of smartphones — Tetris and its offspring (Angry Birds, Bejeweled, Fruit Ninja, etc.) have colonized our pockets and our brains and shifted the entire economic model of the video-game industry. Today we are living, for better and worse, in a world of stupid games.
Thu, Apr 5, 2012
With spelling becoming more and more optional, it’s easy to draw a parallel to the changing nature of arithmetic.
Had I been able to rely on scientists themselves for rational and detached advice — what else are they for? — things would have been simpler, but my impressions of those I met convinced me of two things: their awesome intelligence and real achievements, but in some cases an equally awesome propensity to overweening ambition and incurable condescension towards the common man.
This is a story about what happens when the unarticulated, half-hidden nature of that colonial relationship is suddenly exposed. It’s an economics lesson in the form of a parable, a traveller’s tale about the strange connection between master and servant in this de facto tourist colony.
Wed, Apr 4, 2012
Does Greg Baxter's novel measure up to his memoir about failing to write a novel?
But the extended road trips so common in baseball gave me a rare opportunity to visit new places and sample the local flavors. My exploration, at bottom, was born of a desire to immerse myself in my surroundings, to blend in as a local. That meant eating as if I belonged.
No computer can yet pass the 'Turing test' and be taken as human. But the hunt for artificial intelligence is moving in a different, exciting direction that involves creativity, language – and even jazz.
Tue, Apr 3, 2012
A fantasy author and his impatient fans.
Mon, Apr 2, 2012
We humans need not wait, like dinosaurs, for the next big rock to drop. We have an advanced understanding of the heavens and a spacefaring technology that could soon enable us to alter the orbits of any celestial object on a collision path with us. That capability just might come in handy.
Sun, Apr 1, 2012
For the first time in human history, great numbers of people – at all ages, in all places, of every political persuasion – have begun settling down as singletons. Until the second half of the last century, most of us married young and parted only at death. If death came early, we remarried quickly; if late, we moved in with family, or they with us. Now we marry later. We divorce, and stay single for years or decades. We survive our spouses, and do everything we can to avoid moving in with others – including our children. We cycle in and out of different living arrangements: alone, together, together, alone.
When I think of the way my book shelves looked when I was 23, I realise they perhaps were no more about me than they were about a stranger I subconsciously imagined would one day visit my house. This stranger was an uncommon combination of extremely tasteful, hugely judgmental and ridiculously attractive.
The naturalist’s view on security doesn’t allow us to simply label something “irrational” and then dismiss it. Just as a biologist wants to get to the root of what makes a peacock grow such outlandish feathers or an immune system suddenly turn on its own host’s body, a natural-security approach tries to get inside these behaviors that compromise our security, tracing their roots back as deep in evolutionary time as possible and figuring out what they mean in today’s society.
Can parking lots be great?