A traffic jam, by definition, is caused by all of us. The root cause may be an accident, or construction, or the crush of mid-sized SUVs leaving a Billy Joel concert, but if you’re part of the traffic flow, you’re part of the problem.
But for some kinds of traffic jams — those that appear for no obvious reason — there’s a not-obvious solution. A single driver, armed with a rudimentary knowledge of fluid dynamics, can dissipate or prevent a miles-long jam. With the same methods, drivers working cooperatively (and aided by some here-and-now technology) could significantly and continuously reduce traffic backups on highways. And we don’t have to wait for self-driving cars to do it.
Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions.
These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. And according to a new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation, they’re much more likely than we might think.
What drives the partners of men who have died to try and have their babies?
There are a million reasons food appears in video games, which is to say, there is only one reason: Everybody eats. Consider Pac-Man, a game only about eating. Pac-Man eats dots, just by moving through a maze. He cannot avoid eating. At first, the only other thing in the maze besides Pac-Man and his dots are the ghosts, which kill him (until he can eat them, too, by first ingesting a "power pellet").
To encourage the player to truly engage with the game—to take chances rather than merely avoid the ghosts—Pac-Man dangles special bonus-point items in the maze. But, in a crudely rendered game, it's crucial to communicate that these items are not only harmless but highly desirable, and worth risking Pac-Man's life to acquire. The game's designers were faced with a challenge: how to make these bonus items automatically enticing to a human player? The answer was simple. You design them as food.
It is commonplace to observe that the history of war is written by its winners. This adage surely held true in Spain itself, where the Nationalists remade the educational system to fit their needs. But in the English-speaking world, the history of Spain’s Civil War has been told most prominently not just by the losers, but by sympathizers of the POUM: the losers of the losers.
Now, Betsy Lerner in The Bridge Ladies ups the ante, to mix my card metaphors. She writes not only of re-entry into the life of her then-83-year-old mother, Roz, but also of becoming a kind of auxiliary member of Roz's Bridge Club, which has been meeting in a suburb of New Haven, Conn. every Monday for over 50 years.
Because Lerner's focus is wider and because her mother, Roz, is still very much alive and "with it," this memoir is messier, more open-ended than its predecessors. The relationship between Lerner and her mother is still in process — just like those bridge games.
In fact, travelling as a vegetarian has offered a unique window into the places I have been to. I used to cringe every time I remembered the low opinion that Anthony Bourdain had of people like me: “Vegetarians … are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food,” he declared in Kitchen Confidential. But a few years ago in Cambodia, after a series of increasingly befuddled questions and answers, the waiter gave up and invited me into the kitchen. Maybe he was being sarcastic? But I accepted with alacrity.
“Your Top 5 favorite sandwiches, in order, please. Go.” This is a game I play in the car with my children, as if we were characters in a Nick Hornby novel. It’s a diversion to make long travel more bearable. We play it all the time. The children rush to judgment, and as is true for most of us, their answers change along with their tastes. But of late: grilled cheese on white, with tomato soup; the B.L.T. from a store in Maine near their uncle’s house, on thick country bread; ham and Brie with mustard on baguette; a meatball sub from a local deli; and — does a hamburger count? (It does not.)
Dad’s turn. I count in reverse order: that B.L.T., yes, perhaps with avocado; turkey with Swiss, coleslaw and Russian dressing on a kaiser roll; peanut butter and gochujang (the Korean hot-pepper paste) on sesame toast; a Reuben, on rye of course, with pastrami, Swiss, sauerkraut, more of that Russian. I know a guy who makes those as if he were building violins for Pinchas Zukerman. I pause before the No. 1 slot, as if reflecting; I enjoy giving this answer. My most favorite sandwich is fried eggplant, mozzarella and roast beef on an Italian hero, with hot peppers and a slash of mayonnaise.
There have long been predictions that religion would fade from relevancy as the world modernizes, but all the recent surveys are finding that it’s happening startlingly fast. France will have a majority secular population soon. So will the Netherlands and New Zealand. The United Kingdom and Australia will soon lose Christian majorities. Religion is rapidly becoming less important than it’s ever been, even to people who live in countries where faith has affected everything from rulers to borders to architecture.
Found photographs have long been important to artists like Lee. Photos taken by amateurs can sometimes acquire new value on account of their uniqueness, their age or simply the knowledge that they were once meaningful to a stranger. As part of a group, they can evoke a collector’s sensibility or tell us something about a historical period in a way professional photographs might not. For Lee, collecting found photographs of African-Americans — a project he called “Fade Resistance” — had an additional and deeply personal meaning.
I think it can be safely said that for the majority of Russians, over the greater part of recorded history, to have been born in that country has not been to draw one of the winning tickets in the lottery of life. A true history of its people need be no more than the howls of despair of millions of voices, punctuated by moments of incredible tenderness, courage and grim humour.
Attributing human-like behaviors to animals is often thought of as unscientific, but in a new book on animal behavior, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,” the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal argues that it is not, in fact, anthropomorphizing but its opposite—an unwillingness to recognize the human-like traits of animals, or what he terms “anthropodenial”—that has too often characterized our attitudes toward other species.
For the whole of his distinguished career in philosophy Taylor has argued in favour of the idea that language doesn’t simply map our world but creates it. This is the definitive statement of the case.
When Somerset Maugham staggered from the Bangkok train station one steaming day in 1923, he knew exactly where to head: the Chao Phraya — the River of Kings — whose fresh breezes and open skies were even then a relief from the intensity of the Thai capital. Feeling the onset of malaria, Maugham checked into the Oriental Hotel, where verandas overlooked the busy waterfront. As his temperature climbed to 105 degrees, the writer, soaked in sweat and addled by hallucinations, overheard the Oriental’s owner telling his doctor that it would be bad for business if the author should die on the premises.
For thirteen years now I have taught at the same small women’s college. Its dining hall is an old building with high ceilings, long windows. I love the dining hall. My students hate it. But hating it is their job—I was like them once. I was a freshman grabbing food as if I were still playing high school soccer seven afternoons a week: the hamburgers, the pizza, the Coke machine and fried everything. Fueling the young body at full burn. The sandwiches. The glutinous cookies, perfectly round.
But I spent those freshman afternoons in the library, reading for Intro to Political Science: that fiery body was already gone. And quickly, I had had enough. One November day, I observed a classmate, Jenny, slender and freckled, sitting across the dining table eating a salad. Her plate bloomed with things that had recently lived. Broccoli and snap peas and sprouts and little tomatoes. A green apparition.
The Maggi meltdown would prove costly. Nestlé lost at least $277 million in missed sales. Another $70 million was spent to execute one of the largest food recalls in history. Add the damage to its brand value—which one consultancy pegged at $200 million—and the total price tag for the debacle could easily be more than half a billion dollars. And the fallout continues.
Nearly a year after the ban, Maggi noodles are back on shelves in India, but somewhat precariously so. The product’s future depends on two legal cases that are working their way through the Indian court system. Both pit Nestlé against the Indian government.
Nestlé, meanwhile, is still struggling to make sense of what exactly transpired. To counter the accusations of Indian health officials, Nestlé has produced voluminous tests—on more than 3,500 samples—that it says show its instant noodles are perfectly safe, with lead counts well below the legal limit. For a 150-year-old Swiss business that brands itself as the “world’s leading nutrition, health, and wellness company,” the idea that it fell short on quality control—especially regarding a substance with such dire health effects—is anathema. But where, then, did things go so terribly wrong?
Since then the Zone has spawned a literary genre of its own. Indeed, it seemed instantly to pass into myth, even possessing its own poetic language. The soldiers and firefighters who cleaned up the site—many of whom died from exposure—are referred to as the liquidators. Reactor Four remains encased in a concrete-and-steel shell known as the sarcophagus. In the Zone, there is a Red Forest; there was black rain. Yet unlike myth, as a professor says in Voices From Chernobyl, a 1997 oral history by Svetlana Alexievich, “We don't know how to capture any meaning from it.” Through three decades of literary response, Chernobyl has undermined the sort of authoritative depiction that might bring closure. But something closed can be forgotten. The finest works express profound doubts about the power of language to absorb a disaster of this magnitude, and so continually reopen it to new ways of being remembered.
The Ploughman’s Lunch is a meal you might imagine a hungry farmer unwrapping from a sack for a midday respite during a hard day’s work in the fields. Well, not exactly.
Perhaps it is surprising, considering my inauspicious start, that my best skill—my only truly great talent, my art—is making sandwiches. For eight years, give or take the odd day, I packed the same lunch to bring to school: turkey cold cuts with French’s yellow mustard on Pepperidge Farm white bread. When I got to college, I often had turkey sandwiches for dinner as well as lunch. Newly sophisticated, I used Dijon mustard and added a leaf of wilted romaine.
What’s making this possible is cryptography. Cryptography is also central to one of the most interesting developments in the world of money, and that is bitcoin. I’m not sure whether bitcoin is likely to be the most consequential of all these developments: peer-to-peer lending, and non-bank payment systems of the M-Pesa type, seem to me at least as likely to change lives, especially the lives of the poor. But there’s no denying that bitcoin is the best story.
Bitcoin is a new form of electronic money, launched in a paper published on 31 October 2008 by a pseudonymous person or persons calling himself, herself or themselves Satoshi Nakamoto. Note the date: this was shortly after the collapse of Lehman Brothers on 15 September, and the near death of the global financial system. Just as the Civil War was the prompt for the United States to end private money, and the crisis of Kenyan democracy led to the explosive growth of M-Pesa, the global financial crisis seems to have been a crucial spur, if not to the development of bitcoin, then certainly to the timing of its launch.
In “Zero K,” two central characters seek to conquer death not by outrunning it but by submitting to it: They plan to be “chemically induced to expire” and frozen at a supersecret cryonics compound so that one day they might be resurrected — through a yet-to-be-perfected science involving cellular regeneration and nanotechnology. One day, humans (at least rich ones) will have the option of being reborn as new and improved beings implanted with memories of their choice — music, family photographs, philosophical writings, “Russian novels, the films of Bergman, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky.”
Now comes Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Eligible,” which moves the story to that roiling hotbed of societal intrigue, the Cincinnati suburbs. As in the police lineup scene in “The Usual Suspects,” in which the characters recite the same phrase in wildly different ways, the fun lies in the variations on the theme. How can the author take a classic script — basically, a silly woman plots to marry off her five unwed daughters, couples fall in and out of love, and situations are dissected by a narrator of uncommon wit and perspicacity — and make it her own?
As a critic, I’m used to championing greater options for artists. We’re lucky to live in a time when TV creators have freedom from arbitrary constraints. But more and more of my TV watching these days involves starting an episode, looking at the number of minutes on the playback bar and silently cursing.
Yet today’s physicists rarely debate what time is and why we experience it the way we do, remembering the past but never the future. Instead, researchers build ever-more accurate clocks. The current record-holder, at the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics in Colorado, measures the vibration of strontium atoms; it is accurate to 1 second in 15 billion years, roughly the entire age of the known universe. Impressive, but it does not answer ‘What is time?’
To declare that question outside the pale of physical theory doesn’t make it meaningless. The flow of time could still be real as part of our internal experience, just real in a different way from a proton or a galaxy. Is our experience of time’s flow akin to watching a live play, where things occur in the moment but not before or after, a flickering in and out of existence around the ‘now’? Or, is it like watching a movie, where all eternity is already in the can, and we are watching a discrete sequence of static images, fooled by our limited perceptual apparatus into thinking the action flows smoothly?
Both lovers and haters of basic income often miss an important point: We don’t have great data on how it would work or what would happen if it did.
Why is Arthur Miller one of the most lauded American playwrights—and one of the most vilified?
Travel across rural America and you’ll spot “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs posted on trees and fence posts everywhere. And even where there aren’t signs, Americans know they don’t have the implicit permission to visit their town’s neighboring woods, fields and coastlines. Long gone are the days when we could, like Henry David Thoreau on the outskirts of his native Concord, Mass., freely saunter “through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
As a child, Blanche Wolf wanted more than anything to live a life surrounded by books. Born in 1894, and raised in Manhattan by well-to-do parents, her love of reading and culture set her apart from her family and their upwardly-mobile, secular, and socially-constrained Jewish community. When she met Alfred Knopf in 1911, she was attracted most of all to his bookishness—which, one suspects, he might have played up in order to win over the pretty redhead, underestimating how serious she was about it. Her dream life was simple, heartbreakingly so: “We decided we would get married and make books and publish them.” How could she have known that the hardest part of that dream was the “we”?
In 2015, the Sonoma Stompers, the team with one of the lowest payrolls in the Pacific Association, a professional baseball league near San Francisco, did something desperate: It handed its baseball-operations department to a couple of stat-savvy writers with no baseball-management experience, Ben Lindbergh and me.
Every Icelandic town, no matter how small, has its own pool. There are ramshackle cement rectangles squatting under rain clouds in the sheep-strewn boonies. There are fancy aquatic complexes with multilevel hot tubs and awesomely dangerous water slides of the sort that litigious American culture would never allow. All told, there are more than 120 public pools — usually geothermally heated, mostly outdoors, open all year long — in Iceland, a country with a population just slightly larger than that of Lexington, Ky. “If you don’t have a swimming pool, it seems you may as well not even be a town,” the mayor of Reykjavik, Dagur Eggertsson, told me. I interviewed him, of course, as we relaxed together in a downtown hot tub.
These public pools, or sundlaugs, serve as the communal heart of Iceland, sacred places whose affordability and ubiquity are viewed as a kind of civil right. Families and teenagers and older people lounge and chat in sundlaugs every day, summer or winter. Despite Iceland’s cruel climate, its remoteness and its winters of 19 hours of darkness per day, the people there are among the most contented in the world. The more local swimming pools I visited, the more convinced I became that Icelanders’ remarkable satisfaction is tied inextricably to the experience of escaping the fierce, freezing air and sinking into warm water among their countrymen. The pools are more than a humble municipal investment, more than just a civic perquisite that emerged from an accident of Iceland’s volcanic geology. They seem to be, in fact, a key to Icelandic well-being.
To understand the origin of the universe, today’s cosmologists seek to identify the unknown driver of inflation, dubbed the “inflaton.” Often envisioned as a field of energy permeating space and driving it apart, the inflaton worked, experts say, like a clock. With each tick, it doubled the size of the universe, keeping nearly perfect time—until it stopped. Theorists like Kleban, then, are the clocksmiths, devising altogether hundreds of different models that might replicate the clockwork of the Big Bang.
Like many cosmological clocksmiths, Kleban is an expert in string theory—the dominant candidate for a “theory of everything” that attempts to describe nature across all distances, times and energies. The known equations of physics falter when applied to the tiny, fleeting and frenzied environment of the Big Bang, in which they struggle to cram an enormous amount of energy into infinitesimal space and time. But string theory flourishes in this milieu, positing extra spatial dimensions that diffuse the energy. Familiar point particles become, at this highest energy and zoom level, one-dimensional “strings” and higher-dimensional, membranous “branes,” all of which traverse a 10-dimensional landscape. These vibrating, undulating gears may have powered the Big Bang’s clock.
When boundaries are broken, they aren't always broken through high-brow means. Today, we all agree that some of the best writing can be found in mysteries and thrillers, but when the genre began, what sustained its development was pulp fiction — and L.S. Hilton's Maestra is pulp fiction for sure.
Geeks rule the world these days, but who built that world? If you look to the history of comic books and popular culture, one name is increasingly standing out: comic artist, writer, and editor Jack Kirby.
When Anda Poulsen was young, he felt lucky. He had been born in a town with great history. Kangeq, Greenland, was a place people told stories about. It was famous for its strong Inuit hunters and good location on a point at the mouth of a fjord. It was where the first Scandinavian missionaries had settled, the first Greenlandic artists had painted and some of the last traditional Inuit kayak hunters had braved the ocean.
Kangeq was a place that made great men. Anda was proud.
But Kangeq — which had survived a medieval drought and a post-medieval Little Ice Age, Vikings and missionaries — was about to meet a new and devastating foe. Anda was not going to be the hunter his grandfathers had been, and surviving into adulthood would be more difficult than he imagined.
Physics, properly understood, is not a subject taught at schools and university departments; it is a certain way of understanding how processes happen in the world. When Aristotle wrote his Physics in the fourth century B.C., he wasn’t describing an academic discipline, but a mode of philosophy: a way of thinking about nature. You might imagine that’s just an archaic usage, but it’s not. When physicists speak today (as they often do) about the “physics” of the problem, they mean something close to what Aristotle meant: neither a bare mathematical formalism nor a mere narrative, but a way of deriving process from fundamental principles.
The system by which we move our goods and ourselves is badly broken. It does not need fixing. It needs rethinking. Like “Silent Spring” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “Door to Door” is a rallying point for culturewide change. The mind-set has already begun to shift. Humes’s tireless curation of figure and fact, his well-reasoned arguments and his uncluttered, well-ordered prose may turn the ship that’s just begun to budge.
“Hystopia” is presented as a novel within a novel, written by a Vietnam veteran named Eugene Allen shortly before he committed suicide. The manuscript — which seems on the face of it to be a speculative thriller of alternative history — is discovered not long after his death and is eventually published with notes and commentary from the author’s friends and relatives as well as his editor. Curiously, these peripheral accounts seem not especially divergent from the world of Allen’s novel, confirming that the alternative history here belongs not to Allen but to Means himself.
On April 6, 1922, Einstein met a man he would never forget. He was one of the most celebrated philosophers of the century, widely known for espousing a theory of time that explained what clocks did not: memories, premonitions, expectations, and anticipations. Thanks to him, we now know that to act on the future one needs to start by changing the past. Why does one thing not always lead to the next? The meeting had been planned as a cordial and scholarly event. It was anything but that. The physicist and the philosopher clashed, each defending opposing, even irreconcilable, ways of understanding time. At the Société française de philosophie—one of the most venerable institutions in France—they confronted each other under the eyes of a select group of intellectuals. The “dialogue between the greatest philosopher and the greatest physicist of the 20th century” was dutifully written down.1 It was a script fit for the theater. The meeting, and the words they uttered, would be discussed for the rest of the century.
Ever since Adam and Eve bit into that juicy apple, earning themselves serious body-image issues in the process, human beings have preferred to keep their privates private. First came fig leaves, then loincloths, followed by ancient Roman proto-bikinis, various knickers and briefs, petticoats and corsets, long johns and camisoles, boxers and bras.
But why do people wear underwear at all? I’ve dutifully done so every day since graduating from diapers, yet I never considered why until a recent amble through West London to the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear,” which tells of Western undergarments from the eighteenth century to today. The motives for covering up, it turns out, include avoiding chafing, keeping outerwear unsoiled (vital in the days when a person’s outfits were handmade and few), restricting the jiggles of less well-moored body parts, and advertising the sexual organs to better advantage.
Because of the plainness of my own style, I am a sucker for sentences with any sort of zingy rhetorical flourish. “Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor ” collects hundreds of short passages from English prose to demonstrate how figurative analogies bring excitement, richness and increased clarity to a writer’s thought.
Meanwhile, a small community of experimentalists were attempting the reverse in a rigorous scientific endeavor with poetic undertones. They were trying to build an apparatus that would detect the sonic message of the cosmos as it made contact with us via gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of space-time, first envisioned by Einstein in his pioneering 1915 paper on general relativity.
In “Black Hole Blues: And Other Songs From Outer Space,” the astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin chronicles the decades-long development of this magnificent machine — a quest marked by the highest degree of human intelligence, zest and perseverance. Taking on the simultaneous roles of expert scientist, journalist, historian and storyteller of uncommon enchantment, Levin delivers pure signal from cover to cover.
Although it’s useful for journalists, policymakers, and just about anybody to have an accurate sense of the average experience of somebody their age in America, “average” is easy. It’s a memorizable number, or a factoid. More important is to appreciate the diversity of experience, to see that groups like “college-educated at 29,” “living in a city at 29,” or “married at 29” all leave out more than 60 percent of the age group. Nothing is “normal,” really, least of all a college-educated young person living in a coastal-metro apartment.
“What is a steak frites?” He pondered that. He cocked his head. His gaze drifted off. He looked a little like Dustin Hoffmanplaying Lenny Bruce trying to tease out a joke in his head.
“A little bit of that fresh bloody thing,” he finally said. “I like that.” He mused on crispness — “the water in the lettuce” as a necessary element in a good salad, and frites whose perfection arises from “nothing but potatoes, oil and salt.”
“That’s the genius of the French tradition,” he said.
It takes time to get going, but this story of a rediscovered old master leads us into a high-society world of Russian billionaires, collectors and sheikhs with whimsy and humour.
When we dismiss confessional writing, we are really asking to be unburdened by another’s request for empathy. Not engaging with a writer’s autobiographical identity might make readers more comfortable, but it doesn’t make for more worthwhile critical discourse.
Why not write in a foreign language? If people feel free to choose their profession, their religion, and even, these days, their sex, why not just decide which language you want to write in and go for it? Ever since Jhumpa Lahiri published In Other Words, her small memoir in Italian, people have been asking me, Why don’t you write in Italian, Tim? You’ve been in the country thirty-five years, after all. What keeps you tied to English? Is it just a question of economic convenience? That the market for books in English is bigger? That the world in general gives more attention to books written in English?
The journalist Michael Kinsley was 43 when he learned he had Parkinson’s disease, and about 50 when he announced that fact to the world. Parkinson’s is a slow sickness. (“You still have to floss,” his neurologist told him.) Mr. Kinsley is now 65, with body more or less intact, and wits entirely so, if his superb new book is any indication.
“Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide” isn’t really about Parkinson’s. It’s about aging in general. More specifically, it’s about how the baby boomer generation, which is now rounding third base like a herd of buffalo and stampeding for home plate (which is a hole in the ground, as the novelist Jim Harrison liked to say), will choose to think and act in the face of it.
How do you make a friend now? Dr. Levine says the first step is to get over the stigma that something is wrong with you if you don’t have enough friends or are looking to make more. “As an adult, we think that everyone has their friends and we are the only ones seeking them,” she says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.” Women especially feel judged if they don’t have friends, she says, since they’re supposed to be good at friendship.
It may be harder for men to make friends. Women feel more comfortable reaching out to others, says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work and author of “Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships.” He says that men often worry that reaching out to another man might be misconstrued as a sexual advance. And, in general, “they are less willing to be vulnerable,” he says.
Our daughter knows the word lawn, of course she does, and the word still sounds green, it still sounds like leisure. And there are still people, rich people, like the Stanhopes on the other side of the wall, who have private lawns.
But when we take Lulu for a very special fifth-birthday outing to the Botanical Garden across the city (bus, subway, bus, grass for the masses) and promenade on the lawn where the cherry trees are blossoming, she asks, “What’s all this grass for?,” and then I feel bad, like why the heck didn’t we bring her here when she turned 2, 3, 4?
And then I’m remembering that time last summer when we rode the subway out to the shore and I said, “Don’t you love the sound of the sea?,” and she said, “Yeah, just like WaveMaker!,” which is the machine we’ve used ever since she was born to try to drown out the sound of sirens and other bad things. And then I’m remembering when we took her to the urban stables, five-minute pony rides on the sidewalk for $16 a pop every Sunday morning, the dirty white pony (Marshmallow) stepping carefully among blowing candy wrappers, and though Lulu was so stiff with terror that I had to pull her off after 45 seconds, she insisted I feed Marshmallow a few of the baby carrots we’d brought along.
Sometimes when people find themselves in a closed container among supportive people—that is, in ritual—the process of emotional process and release is both eased and intensified. In a ritual for the Dark Goddess, which touches on death and the surrender into that, that's always part of the spell. No one that I saw at the "Sacrament to Hekate Triodia" was weeping uncontrollably, but more than a few people were wiping back tears as they gazed at the altars and considered how they wanted to change their lives. And at the end of the ritual, as the priestesses released the spirits they'd called in, the crowd erupted in a collective shout of joy. There's more than one way for a priestess to gauge a successful ritual, but the crowd's reaction at the end is a good start.
Have you heard the joke about the elderly rabbi who tries to settle a bitter dispute between two men? The rabbi listens to one man’s case and pronounces him right. Then he hears the second man’s case, and concludes the second man is right. At this point his eavesdropping wife steps in and points out that both men can’t possibly be right. To which the rabbi replies, “And you are right as well!”
That conundrum lies at the heart of two new books: Christophe Galfard’s “The Universe in Your Hand,” and Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.” Rovelli uses the case of the indecisive rabbi to illustrate the dilemma faced by theoretical physicists in the 21st century, except in this case what is under dispute are two competing “rule books” for reality: Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics. Each functions perfectly well within its specific realm: Quantum mechanics governs the subatomic world of the very small, while general relativity describes how the world works at very large scales. But neither offers a complete description of how the world works.
The trade-off for submitting voluntarily to the pain of a marathon—which really can be otherworldly—is the opportunity to transcend your anger, to step outside normal life and build a unique narrative out of a sanctioned act of rebellion. For several hours, the long-distance runner becomes a sober and well-hydrated flaneur carousing through city streets, absorbing floods of impressions and assembling the images and thoughts that will animate her post-run account. All the while she can be assured that her story will not be scooped: marathoners can’t plagiarize.
In other words, they said, don’t let your culture decide the nature of happiness for you. Philosophize instead.
The disastrous mortal disease known as the Black Death spread across Europe in the years 1346-53. The frightening name, however, only came several centuries after its visitation (and was probably a mistranslation of the Latin word ‘atra’ meaning both ‘terrible’ and ‘black)’. Chronicles and letters from the time describe the terror wrought by the illness. In Florence, the great Renaissance poet Petrarch was sure that they would not be believed: ‘O happy posterity, who will not experience such abysmal woe and will look upon our testimony as a fable.’
“It’s a slow melodic line that climbs up with a swell in dynamics and then it comes back down again with a diminuendo.” Stephen McAdams had been leaning back in his chair in a casual end-of-workday position, but he sat up a little bit as he described a musical phrase at the beginningof Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. “He starts in with the violins but it’s thickened by some bassoons and cellos and violas.”
McAdams is making a point about the role of timbre in the waxing and waning of tension in Western music. Originally from California, he spent twenty-three years in Paris, at the Institute for the Research and Coordination of Acoustics and Music and the French National Centre for Scientific Research. But in 2004, McAdams returned to McGill University in Montreal, where he’d done an undergraduate degree in experimental psychology—and where his first experiment was on the perception of timbre. He is perhaps the world’s leading expert on the subject.
Fifty years earlier, J. M. Coetzee had journeyed to Austin from faraway South Africa, by way of England, where he was working temporarily as a computer programmer after having written an MA thesis on Ford Madox Ford, which he submitted to the University of Cape Town in 1963. Coetzee arrived at the University of Texas in the fall of 1965 to pursue a PhD in linguistics and literature. What would eventually become the Ransom Center was less than a decade old then, but it was already gobbling up manuscripts and artifacts of immense cultural value at an astounding pace. The works of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett were early prizes, and at one point Martin Heidegger’s original draft of Sein und Zeit was about to join them, in a deal almost brokered by Hannah Arendt. At the Ransom Center today you can peruse collections stretching from Jorge Luis Borges to Gloria Swanson, or from Doris Lessing to Don DeLillo. There’s older stuff, too: Chaucer, Shakespeare, a Gutenberg Bible. Coetzee’s archive, needless to say, is in very good company.
As I familiarized myself with Coetzee’s cleara and careful penmanship, poring over draft after handwritten draft, I couldn’t help but imagine him doing something similar decades earlier, as he deciphered Beckett’s scrawl. His dissertation was on Beckett, and he utilized the collection of his manuscripts obtained by the Ransom Center. But, having read J. C. Kannemeyer’s exhaustive biography J. M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, I knew that the author I was chasing did more in Austin than sit around and read Beckett. I knew, for instance, that he was also collecting materials — both in the library and well beyond it — that would eventually find their way into his first work of fiction, Dusklands, which appeared in 1974, some three years after Coetzee’s involuntary return to South Africa.
Birkhead takes the reader on a journey into the egg, from the sophisticated porous shell and membrane to the albumen and yolk, weaving this close, scientific study with far-flung narratives of daring egg collectors and oologists (those in the egg-related branch of ornithology).
People talk about “late style” in classical music, but what might “late style” in contemporary fiction look like? In late work by Muriel Spark, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, William Golding, and now Edna O’Brien, you can detect a certain impatience with formal or generic proprieties; a wild, dark humor; a fearlessness in assertion and argument; a tonic haste in storytelling, so that the usual ground-clearing and pacing and evidentiary process gets accelerated or discarded altogether, as if it were (as it so often can be) mere narrative palaver that is stopping us from talking about what really matters. In much of that late work, there is a slightly thinned atmosphere, the prose a little less rich and hospitable than previously, the characters less full or persuasive, a general sense of dimmed surplus—but not in Edna O’Brien’s astonishing new novel, “The Little Red Chairs”, her seventeenth. O’Brien is eighty-five years old, and praising this novel for its ambition, its daring vitality, its curiosity about the present age and about the lives of those displaced by its turbulence shouldn’t be mistaken for the backhanded compliment that all this is remarkable given the author’s advanced age. It’s simply a remarkable novel.
It was Lilly’s research that inspired the group’s name: If humans couldn’t even communicate with animals that shared most of our evolutionary history, he believed, they were a bit daft to think they could recognize signals from a distant planet. With that in mind, the Order of the Dolphin set out to determine what our ocean-going compatriots here on Earth might be able to teach us about talking to extraterrestrials.
In an alternate—and completely plausible—universe, it would have given Coke and Pepsi a run for their money. At one point, it did. Believe it or not, Royal Crown Cola used to be one of the most innovative companies in the beverage industry. It came out with the first canned soda, the first caffeine-free soda, and the first 16-ounce soda. It was the first to take diet cola mainstream, and the first to stage nationwide taste tests.
Given its long and pioneering history, RC deserved to be more than the middling soda brand it is today. In an industry that lives and dies by marketing, RC didn’t do nearly enough. But its failure wasn’t just due to lack of initiative. It was also a case of supremely bad luck, bad judgment, and a fateful ingredient known as cyclamate.
We currently know little more than one percent of the way animals live in the wild. That is to say, little more than nothing at all. We don’t know how little sea turtles behave just after they have slipped out of their eggs on the beach. We don’t know how a young cuckoo finds out where to go when autumn breaks. This is why it is also so hard to protect animals. Fundamental connections between the life of animals and their surroundings remain unknown. We know far too little about the lives of many endangered animals to help them effectively. We don’t even know if some species still exist. New species appear, or reappear, every year. Take, for instance, the Spotted-tail Quoll (Dasyurus maculatus), a carnivorous marsupial that was recently caught on remote digital camera in Australia’s Grampians National Park, after being presumed extinct for 141 years. The last of these animals was supposedly killed in 1872. They were considered a real pest then. The presence of this species, however, provides a wealth of information. It is a sign of a stable ecosystem, because, as a nocturnal carnivore, the Spotted-tail Quoll occupies a spot at the upper end of the food chain, therefore inviting comparison to the Tasmanian devil. If this animal has survived this long, then the same must be true of the species on which it preys. Generally speaking, however, humans’ prior knowledge of most animals is so minimal that it is impossible to deduce any further understanding from it. It does not provide any reliable empirical foundation upon which actionable strategies could be built. Every year, billions of birds and bats fly thousands of miles from their breeding grounds to their winter homes. What actually happens during these migrations, however, remains a mystery. What we know is that mortality rates are very high during migration. But what we don’t know is when and where highly mobile animals die. In many instances of endangered species, we cannot answer the question of what exactly we need to protect in order to save them: Is it food options? Water quality? Botanical diversity? What prevents us from creating a telling picture of nature and formulating effective rules for humans’ behavior toward it, is the lack of hard, empirical data and concrete information: What animals currently exist? How do they move around the planet? What do they do underground or at night? Whom do they eat, and who eats them?
How to be a better consumer? Know what you’re tasting. To do this, Sethi includes tasting notes along with each of her five foods, and flavor and aroma wheels that help us label what we taste and smell, like in wine, whether it be nail polish remover, cut green grass, or burnt toast. Lessons learned, tastes described, origins elucidated — the payoff of reading this book, and gleaning a more comprehensive understanding of what we put in our mouths, is boundless.
It would be tough to size up Chester Brown's new graphic novel, Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus, even if it weren't about prostitution. This book of lay Biblical scholarship is simultaneously idiosyncratic, meticulous, imaginative and heretical. It's also deeply emotional.
In the city, it really does feel impossible to sit down. I know so many people who spend a year at a time in their apartments. It feels impossible to make a home in a neighborhood that will stay the same from ten years to the next. New York of the 80s wasn’t like it was in the 90s. And the city of that time period is long gone.
These days, in the thick of the American presidential primaries, it’s easy to see how the 50 states continue to drive the political system. But increasingly, that’s all they drive — socially and economically, America is reorganizing itself around regional infrastructure lines and metropolitan clusters that ignore state and even national borders. The problem is, the political system hasn’t caught up.
For those of us who’ve spent all or much of our writing lives in the era of personal computers, it’s sometimes hard to fathom the drudgery (and delegation) that went into the production of pre-digital books. In his new study, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is especially concerned with how word processing has changed the embodied labor of writing — its actual tasks, tools, and physical demands — and with how literary writers have embraced, resisted, and interpreted that transformation.
“The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu,” by Joshua Hammer, vividly captures the history and strangeness of this place in a fast-paced narrative that gets us behind today’s headlines of war and terror. This is part reportage and travelogue (there is a great deal of “setting off” in Land Cruisers, camels and small boats along the Niger River), part intellectual history, part geopolitical tract and part out-and-out thriller.
When we think of a haunted house, we imagine its ghosts to be the restless souls of previous occupants, kept by some unresolved horror from complete departure. But perhaps it’s possible that the deep grief of someone in the present can actually penetrate the past — can, in effect, haunt those who dwelled here long ago.
The full story of Braun’s misadventures in China’s Communist revolution is packed with enough twists and turns for a Hollywood thriller. But in the domain of culinary history, one anecdote from Braun’s autobiography stands out. Braun recalls his first impressions of Mao Zedong, the man who would go on to become China’s paramount leader.
The shrewd peasant organizer had a mean, even “spiteful” streak. “For example, for a long time I could not accustom myself to the strongly spiced food, such as hot fried peppers, which is traditional to southern China, especially in Hunan, Mao’s birthplace.” The Soviet agent’s tender taste buds invited Mao’s mockery. “The food of the true revolutionary is the red pepper,” declared Mao. “And he who cannot endure red peppers is also unable to fight.’ ”
Most people will concede that I’m fortunate to have survived and that Edwards was unfortunate to have perished. But in other arenas, randomness can play out in subtler ways, causing us to resist explanations that involve luck. In particular, many of us seem uncomfortable with the possibility that personal success might depend to any significant extent on chance. As E. B. White once wrote, “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.”
Contemporary criticism is positively crowded with first-person pronouns, micro-doses of memoir, brief hits of biography. Critics don’t simply wrestle with their assigned cultural object; they wrestle with themselves, as well. Recent examples suggest a spectrum, from reviews that harmlessly kick off with a personal anecdote, to hybrid pieces that blend literary criticism and longform memoir.
Some of these pieces are certainly excellent, and, as an editor, I’ve certainly commissioned my share of what might be called “confessional criticism.” I’ve even written some, too. But—confession!—I’ve never felt especially good about it. Relating works of art to one’s life, after all, is easy. (No reference library required.) Moreover, the confessional voice is dangerously attractive; as Virginia Woolf put it, “under the decent veil of print one can indulge one’s egoism to the full.” Such a voice doesn’t necessarily guarantee more honest criticism, and, in some ways, its subtle designs on the reader make it even more deserving of our wariness.
When I was writing my first book, my editor advised me to put everything I wanted the review-reading public to know in the first and last chapters, because those are the only chapters that most reviewers read. In the years since then, I have discovered that indeed most of the quotes pulled by reviewers from my books have come from the first and last sections. In nonfiction books at least, reviewers tend to skim the middle section and read only the summaries of the argument at beginning and end.
But this is only one of many crimes against authors committed with impunity by many of their reviewers. Most elements of the art of the book review serve the purpose of making the reviewer look more intelligent or erudite than the author whose work is under review. There is The Omitted Subject: “For all its merits, this book about the South Pole suffers from the lack of any discussion of the North Pole.” And there is The Book the Author Should Have Written: “By focusing on the South Pole, the author misses the opportunity to discuss a far more important subject: the Equator.”
It is irresistible to juxtapose Watson’s bold optimism with an older and more tragic dictum: You cannot force the ones you love to change. Even, and especially, when they are both behaviorists.
The novel mostly comprises reviews of “hotels hilarious, anonymous, modest, opulent, strange”, collected into a volume to be left on bedside tables for the perusal of fellow travellers, “right alongside the scripture”. The pace is breathless as Morse jumps around in time and space, roaming cities and continents to recall holidays with “the woman who became my ex‑wife”, work trips, liaisons with lovers and lonely nights staring into the abyss. What emerges from the chaos is a vivid impression of modern life: Morse has plenty of emotional baggage, and by way of sprightly anecdote and frank confession, these reviews become essays in self-revelation.
Almost a decade later, the video and the child in it still haunt her. "In the back of my head, of all the images, I still see that one," she said when we spoke recently. "I really didn’t have a job description to review or a full understanding of what I’d be doing. I was a young 25-year-old and just excited to be getting paid more money. I got to bring a computer home!" Mora-Blanco’s voice caught as she paused to collect herself. "I haven’t talked about this in a long time."
Mora-Blanco is one of more than a dozen current and former employees and contractors of major internet platforms from YouTube to Facebook who spoke to us candidly about the dawn of content moderation. Many of these individuals are going public with their experiences for the first time. Their stories reveal how the boundaries of free speech were drawn during a period of explosive growth for a high-stakes public domain, one that did not exist for most of human history. As law professor Jeffrey Rosen first said many years ago of Facebook, these platforms have "more power in determining who can speak and who can be heard around the globe than any Supreme Court justice, any king or any president."
From BBC Three’s Thirteen and the Oscar-winning Room, perhaps this year’s most prominent lost and found stories, to the The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and 10 Cloverfield Lane, as well as the upcoming second series of The Missing and novel (soon-to-be-major-movie) Berlin Syndrome, British and American pop culture has been gripped by the kidnap narrative. Young women stare desperately out of skylights or at heavy metal doors, before wrenching themselves through. Their kidnapper has methodically planned their captivity for years, making escape particularly difficult. They often exploit the mental weaknesses in their abusers in order to do so. They struggle to find a psychological liberty that matches their newfound physical freedom, and to detach themselves from the events of their captivity. The same events that contemporary audiences seemingly cannot look away from.
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is essentially a story about what courage is, and how it reveals itself under pressure. While it lacks the hallucinatory brilliance of Bowen’s The Demon Lover or the emotional power and complexity of Waters’ The Night Watch, it is an absorbing, sharply paced novel.
Which is why, at least once a week, I take myself out for a well-lit meal for one. I am, at this very moment, sitting in a cafe beside a woman with hair like a well-crafted plum duff, eating a cheese sandwich. At my other elbow a woman in pale blue headscarf and tweed jacket is pecking at a bowl of granola like a sparrow. In the corner, a man in gently darkening photochromic lenses is chewing through a plastic tub of what looks, from here, like gravel. We are all eating alone. And so, of course, none of us is eating alone.
The stars have shaped our thinking – from the earliest religions to the latest bestselling sci-fi novel. Stephen Hawking’s plan to laser propel tiny spacecraft towards Alpha Centauri doesn’t only sound like sci-fi, it is an idea straight from the pages of David Brin’s Existence, among others.
“Europeans fought for shorter workdays, more vacation time, family leave, and all these kinds of things,” he said. “Those haven’t been priorities in America, it’s been about money. You see in the countries that fought for time, they cook more often, they have less obesity. There are real benefits to having time. There’s often a trade-off between time and money.”
Of course, the lavender is always purpler in Provence. And while Pollan isn’t advocating a wholesale adoption of the European work model, our conversation came as Europe projects a feeble economic outlook and eurozone countries battle double-digit unemployment.
That I had a talent for poetry was supposedly affirmed when, as an undergraduate, a poem I had written won first prize in the University of California at San Diego’s Warren College literary contest. Twice. Each time I was handed a check for one hundred dollars, little aware that this was the most, by a large margin, that I was ever to be paid for a single poem. Good gracious! If I could make one hundred dollars per poem, my seven-dollar-an-hour bookstore job was soon to be a thing of the past! But in truth I did not think this way.
But Patience, set both in the future and the recent past, has a desperation and a bleakness that is all its own. A tale of murder, wrongful conviction, obsessive love, poverty and domestic violence, Patience’s bright colours have an in-built irony even before we get to its protagonists’ raging, meaty faces.
I first noticed it at work. On Monday mornings a deathless ritual unfolds in offices across the land: the posing of the question, “How was your weekend?” A few years ago, my coworkers and I exchanged happy highlight reels of ambitious urban activities before cracking open our laptops and pouring ourselves a tall, refreshing glass of work. One of us went to an off-Broadway play. One of us went to a Beyoncé concert. One of us went on a date. We had fun!
These days, we respond to the question with a look of puzzled amnesia. Did we do anything? “Not really,” we say. “It was pretty uneventful.” We furrow our brows trying to remember key events, but nothing comes to mind. It’s as though the last two days have elapsed in a narcotized, undifferentiated blur. A leisure-time blackout. We still have fun — probably? — we just have no clue how it happened.
In the fall of 1921, journalists were clamoring to know if Charlie Chaplin intended to play Hamlet. They asked him in Chicago at the Blackstone Hotel. They cornered him at the Ritz. His response each time was coy and evasive: “Why, I don’t know.”
Of all the unlikely questions they tended to ask him at this point in his career—“Are you a Bolshevik?” “What do you do with your old moustaches?”—the Hamlet question seems most out of place. Why would an actor known for his comedy and silence take on a famously verbose and tragic role? Hamlet, with his hemming and hawing, didn’t seem a natural fit for an actor in Chaplin’s position. But then, no actor had ever been in Chaplin’s position before.
The experience described by Steinborn and Taylor, and many others, is what’s come to be known as “the Hum,” a mysterious auditory phenomenon that, by some estimates, 2 percent of the population can hear. It’s not clear when the Hum first began, or when people started noticing it, but it started drawing media attention in the 1970s, in Bristol, England. After receiving several isolated reports, the British tabloid the Sunday Mirror asked, in 1977, “Have You Heard the Hum?” Hundreds of letters came flooding in. For the most part, the reports were consistent: a low, distant rumbling, like an idling diesel engine, mostly audible at night, mostly noticeable indoors. No obvious source.
The story of the Hum begins in such places, far from the hustle and bustle of cities, where stillness blankets everything. That’s where you hear it, and that’s where it becomes intolerable. After it was first reported in Bristol, it emerged in Taos, New Mexico; Kokomo, Indiana;Largs, Scotland. A small city newspaper would publish a report of a local person suffering from an unidentified noise, followed by a torrent of letters to the editor with similar complaints.
In “The Regional Office Is Under Attack!,” he uses the familiar conventions of the superhero story to explore our expectations of our heroes and of ourselves. The Regional Office of the title is an assemblage of supernaturally talented young women recruited and trained to fight villains with names like Mud Slug and, more generally, “the amassing forces of darkness that threaten, at nearly every turn, the fate of the planet.” One of the Regional Office’s founders is the enigmatic Oyemi, gifted — or cursed — with equally enigmatic powers as a result of an accident that’s never fully explained, or even described; the other is Oyemi’s childhood friend Mr. Niles.
Of course, if you asked a cat, he’d say he was the main attraction, but that’s what you get from a species that once reached god-like status.
The manuscripts’ importance stems from their particular antiquity. Carbon dating places their burial at about 300 BCE. This was the height of the Warring States Period, an era of turmoil that ran from the fifth to the third centuries BCE. During this time, the Hundred Schools of Thought arose, including Confucianism, which concerns hierarchical relationships and obligations in society; Daoism (or Taoism), and its search to unify with the primordial force called Dao (or Tao); Legalism, which advocated strict adherence to laws; and Mohism, and its egalitarian ideas of impartiality. These ideas underpinned Chinese society and politics for two thousand years, and even now are touted by the government of Xi Jinping as pillars of the one-party state.2
The newly discovered texts challenge long-held certainties about this era. Chinese political thought as exemplified by Confucius allowed for meritocracy among officials, eventually leading to the famous examination system on which China’s imperial bureaucracy was founded. But the texts show that some philosophers believed that rulers should also be chosen on merit, not birth—radically different from the hereditary dynasties that came to dominate Chinese history. The texts also show a world in which magic and divination, even in the supposedly secular world of Confucius, played a much larger part than has been realized. And instead of an age in which sages neatly espoused discrete schools of philosophy, we now see a more fluid, dynamic world of vigorously competing views—the sort of robust exchange of ideas rarely prominent in subsequent eras.
If you flip on a waterfall to fall asleep, if you keep rainymood.com in your bookmarks, if you associate well-being with the sound of streams and crickets or wonder why the beach never quite sounds as tranquil as you imagine, it's because of Teibel. New York's least likely media mogul was the mastermind behind Environments, a series of records he swore were "The Future of Music." From 1969 to 1979, he took the best parts of nature, turned them up to 11, engraved them on 12-inch records, and sold them back to us by the millions. He had a musician's ear, an artist's heart, and a salesman's tongue, and his work lives on in yoga studios, Skymall catalogs, and the sea-blue eyes of Brian Eno. If you haven't heard of him, it's only because he designed his own legacy to be invisible.
This is the story of a man who tried to capture the world, and really wanted us to listen.
Consider this: for almost 2,000 years and counting the entirety of Western culture has been brainwashed. The fields of biology, economics, religion, and psychology are built on a lie. Even those who self-consciously reject this falsehood are subconsciously shaped by it. It’s unavoidable and all pervasive. It’s made us who we are. Indeed, it’s turning us into monsters. What is this lie exactly? It’s the assumption that humans are born bad.
“I’ve never been good at concealing anything, the whole bent of my nature is toward confession,” he tells us. Yet a certain amount of concealment adds to the novel’s rhetorical power.
How can such an icon of human-induced extinction be so misunderstood? The answer lies in the shameful way the dodo has been treated since the last bird died about 350 years ago. Arguably, we have lost the dodo at least twice more since then.
"We have this continuous series of tragedies, forgetting the dodo over and over again," says Leon Claessens at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.
People are often surprised to learn that Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and other classical Chinese philosophers weren’t rigid traditionalists who taught that our highest good comes from confining ourselves to social roles. Nor were they placid wise men preaching harmonious coexistence with the natural world. Rather, they were exciting and radical thinkers who exploded the conventions of their society. They sought to make the world a better place by expanding the scope of human possibility. The mid-first millennium BC was a similarly turbulent age to our own, giving rise to debates about how to live, how to be ethical and how to build a good society. Unlike the philosophers we are more familiar with in the west, these Chinese thinkers didn’t ask big questions. Theirs was an eminently pragmatic philosophy, based on deceptively small questions such as: “How are you living your daily life?” These thinkers emphasised that great change only happens when we begin with the mundane and doable. Their teachings reveal that many of our most fundamental assumptions about how we ought to live have actually led us astray. So what are the ideas we hold dear, and what alternatives do Chinese philosophers offer in their place?
Patients thrive from emotional connection with nurses, social workers, and therapists, but helpers who provide this connection can wilt under its force. The stress of caring can lead to astonishing levels of job turnover. According to one review, 30 to 60 percent of social workers in high-impact sectors, such as child abuse, leave their jobs each year. When caregivers flame out at such rates, it opens cracks in the continuity of care, through which patients frequently fall. Even helpers who do stay often harden themselves to their patients’ emotions. Medical students report lower levels of empathy as their training progresses. Health-care professionals underestimate patients’ suffering and even display blunted physiological signs of empathy for pain. Many helpers feel that they face a double bind. They can preserve themselves by growing emotional callouses and blunting their responses to those in need. Or they can throw themselves into building connections with their patients and risk being crushed by the weight of caring.
New research suggests a third way. Caregivers need to be empathetic, but empathy is not one thing. Both neuroscience and psychology have uncovered an important distinction between two aspects of empathy: Emotion contagion, which is vicariously sharing another person’s feeling, and empathic concern, which entails forming a goal to alleviate that person’s suffering. Whereas contagion involves blurring the boundary between self and other, concern requires retaining or even strengthening such boundaries. Learning to practice one but not the other could be the best example of how caregivers can simultaneously look out for patients and for themselves.
Hunting down that obscure Vietnamese place that serves up bánh bao exactly like you'd find in Hanoi, or an Indian joint with dal just like the one you had on that trip to New Delhi, is a not uncommon pursuit in these food-obsessed days. But our culinary hunt for "authentic ethnic" food can be a double-edged sword, says Krishnendu Ray.
In this sense, Idol foreshadowed today’s social media-driven society, where fans have the power to mobilize and impact the pop-culture landscape—take the country vet Chris Stapleton’s bump to fame after a single televised duet with Justin Timberlake, or the resurrection of TV shows like the cult favorite Gilmore Girls and the misguided Fuller House. The show also offers a striking case study for how then-nascent Internet culture narrowed the distance between fans and critics. This shift, combined with critics’ increasing willingness to take popular entertainment seriously, has led to an age of criticism that’s far more democratic than it was even a decade ago.
Two new memoirs, Alex Abramovich’s Bullies: A Friendship and Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl accept this challenge, and both memoirists face a particularly daunting task because in each case the friend in question is not only alive but the sort of person who’s reluctant to express vulnerability or any tender emotion at all. One way to handle this is to nudge the reader to fill in the blanks; that path is full of pitfalls. Another is to furnish the empty spaces yourself, also risky but potentially so much more revelatory.
After years studying the odder side of architecture as a writer, university lecturer and founder of the popular BLDGBLOG website, Manaugh has found a way to explore urban planning in a way that is unique and slightly wicked.
Early on in Catherine Newman’s new memoir, “Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years,” she writes about her attempt to instill some order into her family’s bedtime routine through the creation of a chart. It works, so well in fact that other daily activities start to feel especially chaotic without it. Eventually, Newman decides that it would be ridiculous to create a chart for everything and reverts back to her old ways of allowing her children to figure things out in the moment.
Newman’s unsuccessful foray into chart-making is an apt metaphor for the book itself. Her memoir reveals a desire to order parenthood and give structure to the unwieldy emotional odyssey that is raising children. Nevertheless, the messiness of the experience, its patent resistance to organization and tidy through-lines, manages to seep out. This isn’t a bad thing.
Restoration of various kinds figures heavily in the lives of all three principals — Sara, Ellie, and Marty — in Dominic Smith’s glorious new novel, “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos,” which hops from New York to the Netherlands to Sydney as it glides among three very different eras, each richly evoked: the 1600s; the late 1950s, when the painting is copied and stolen; and 2000, when a reckoning finally arrives.
In the spring of 1983, a young man named Steve Case was traveling around the United States and searching for the best pizzerias in every city. Case was not really a foodie; he was a recent graduate of Williams College who at the time worked for Pizza Hut and held the unlikely title of “director of new pizza development.” Essentially, his travels involved looking for new marketing ideas that could help his employer. “There are worse ways to live,” he recalls of the job in “The Third Wave,” a book that combines Case’s insights into his career with insights into the future of technology.
Do you remember how it used to be? The ’10s and ’20s brought cigar-chomping robber barons and muckrakers—so much testosterone and reckless hedonism that the Crash was inevitable. The ’30s were all about men and their failure, a decade that spawned so many listless legions of unemployed that world war in the ’40s was partially seen as a job opportunity (it was a war, by the way, started by one man that made other men look just a little better). The ’60s saw long-haired men organize a three-day rock concert where everyone had hippie sex and did LSD and had hippie sex, all supposedly in the name of world peace. The ’70s: Nixon. And the ’80s and ’90s? Sexually ambiguous big-hair bands and the blithe, material culmination of Me-Firstism, delicately captured for everybody—men and women alike—in the famous Divinyls’ line of the time, “I touch myself.”
In the opinion of many scholars, we’ve been touching ourselves ever since.
I ponder this. Who is Man? Am I Man? One would think not, as I stand here in the kitchen, scrubbing. Was there ever a time when someone such as me—father, husband, worker bee—was ever unironically celebrated for his strength and vision, ever really deserved a cold martini and warm pot roast delivered by some dewy wife-creature at the end of the day?
Yes, there was such a time: the 1950s.
In September, the publishing company Alfred A. Knopf celebrated its hundredth anniversary—a remarkable milestone in an industry that continues to experience upheavals, from the rise and fall of chain bookstores to the online invasion of Amazon, which wants to dictate the price of e-books and deliver the old-fashioned kind—physical books—to our homes by drone. Many of the firms that were around when Knopf got started no longer exist, or else have been swallowed up by one of the publishing conglomerates that now joust over the book business like the competing clans in “Game of Thrones.” Knopf itself has been bought and sold several times, and now belongs, along with hundreds of other publishing imprints, to a mega-company created by the merger of Penguin and Random House. Yet somehow Knopf has held on to its identity as a publisher that prides itself on being singular—on publishing books that are not just good but good-looking and, without neglecting the bottom line, also caring about literary excellence. At last count, the company had published twenty-five Nobel laureates, sixty Pulitzer Prize winners, and more than thirty winners of the National Book Award. As much as it’s a business, it’s now practically a cultural institution.
Beneath Ms. Schiff’s crispness is a sense of strong spirits under duress, of heartbreak over the many things that can and will let you down. Those include our bodies. About a tumor, Ms. Schiff says, in words that reverberate over everything she writes, “In fiction, it’s never benign.”
My mother raised me to believe that mayonnaise was for idiots. I’d been eating it at restaurants my whole life, of course, mixed into coleslaw or chicken salad, on hamburger buns, in BLTs. But actually having mayonnaise in the fridge at home was unheard of. Mayonnaise, to my mother, was like peanut butter to the French: disgusting, uncivilized, and impossible to find. On a scale of respectability, a jar of mayonnaise came in somewhere between a vat of pig fat and one of those plastic pails of Marshmallow Fluff. When I was twenty-one, I explained all of this to my boyfriend, who was from North Carolina and loved mayonnaise. He said he felt sorry for me for having had such a deprived childhood, without any mayonnaise. I loved that I could revel in his pity. “My mother only ever bought us mustard,” I said. It was so sad to say this out loud. I cried.
In Tokyo, you can rent a cuddle. Loneliness is a health issue in Manchester. And perhaps nobody is as isolated as a migrant worker in Shenzhen. But can we really know what makes a city lonely?
Low clouds covered the sky the next day. Morton took out his camera to survey the destruction: downed buildings, a family sitting atop a tarp in a soft drizzle. An aftershock triggered an avalanche on a nearby pass. Word began to circulate that something similar had happened some 15 miles to the northeast: the earthquake had caused a hanging serac to fall above Everest Base Camp, unleashing a slide that killed 22. As Morton was helping a friend clear personal effects out of a ruined house, a 6.6-magnitude aftershock hit and again Thame shook. Two girls standing next to him began to scream. In that moment, he experienced two visceral reactions.
The first was the desire to be near his wife and son.
The second was a deep relief that he wasn’t on Everest.
I sat transfixed and horrified through the shower sequence, felt my pulse hammer when Detective Arbogast reached the top of the stairs, and when I saw Mrs. Bates in the fruit cellar, the image was etched into my pre-pubescent brain forever, keeping me awake for many nights afterward.
And then I read the book.
Library cards have always had the same purpose—to keep track of borrowers’ loans—but originally they were invented for a different type of library. The first cards, Nix told me, were probably issued at membership libraries, 18th-century organizations where members contributed fees (and sometimes books from their own collections) in exchange for the right to check out materials. The Library Company of Philadelphia, which Benjamin Franklin co-founded in 1731, was the first membership library in the U.S., though many existed before that in England. Because they were formed by people with common interests, these libraries often coalesced around themes. Once members were allowed to walk off the premises with books, library cards—also known as tickets—made it more likely that those books would come back.
Much of suburban and rural America long ago said farewell to the corner store or local watering hole. People gather instead to buy their dry goods at Wal-mart and meet for drinks at Applebee’s. But a few of the nation’s more densely populated cities have continued to provide a healthy environment for small independent retail stores, restaurants, cafés and bars, establishments that function as essential and beloved links in the community.
These establishments aren’t just window dressing. They’re a big part of the reason that living in the city feels different and exciting. They’re the amenities that make neighborhoods attractive and valuable, touted by real-estate agents looking to close the condo sale or make the high-end apartment rental. And they’re in danger.
“There’s this enormous sentiment across the city, a massive coalition of advocacy groups, who are really upset about what’s happening to our city,” says Kirsten Theodos, an organizer with the grassroots group Take Back NYC. “The overall theme is displacement. Displacement of our residents, displacement of our small businesses.”
I’ve always resisted the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’, because that misses the point. It’s not, after all, guilt that’s at stake, but rather shame. We do no wrong by consuming the storylines starring these would-be celebrities, for haven’t they themselves asked to become part of a ridiculous spectacle for our amusement? But the fact that we commit no moral offence by indulging in these franchises fails to explain the greater mystery, which is the pleasure this experience offers, a pleasure that stymies even as it delights. Over and over, I find myself asking, in the manner of an 18th-century professor of rhetoric and Belles Lettres, how could the suffering of others bring me so much joy?
You decide to leave HubSpot for another job. You exact your revenge the old-fashioned way, by writing this coolly observant book.
You get to add a splendidly weird coda to your book, too. Before “Disrupted” goes to press, one of its central characters, HubSpot’s longtime chief marketing officer, is fired for trying to procure an advance manuscript of your book, presumably by hacking.
How did we get here? Who is to blame? Why isn’t there a place in airports for not traveling? Not moving? Yawning a bit, slowing down? Catching some shut-eye maybe, or at least a little peace and quiet?
Why are airports built for everyone — the city, the airlines, the retailers — except for the very people who use them the most: the passengers?
There is a documentary called “Moving House” about an extended family in Singapore who exhumes the remains of their parents. These remains were cremated, then transplanted into a columbarium that housed over 65,000 funerary urns. In Singapore, this is unexceptional – land scarcity in one of the densest cities in the world has resulted in the government decree that all who are buried after death must be exhumed after 15 years and cremated. In order to save their children the trouble, my fathers’ parents were both cremated immediately after dying.
As with all cultures the world over, Chinese people have a particular way of communing with their dead. Adherents of Chinese folk religion practice ancestor worship, a term that is in a sense misleading. When my family and I light joss sticks, prepare food offerings, and burn paper gifts (mostly replicas of clothes, houses, and cars) for our ancestors in return for blessings such as wealth and good health, it has always seemed to me that what we do approaches worship not so much as it does a highly pragmatic, reciprocal relationship tempered by remembered bonds of love and affection.
It is as if he were refusing to insist upon his own identity and proprietary claim. It goes without saying that Shakespeare was a genius who left his mark on everything he touched. But there is also a strange sense that his characters and plots seized upon him as much as he seized upon them.
What a short novel asks is that you commit, in one sitting, the same amount of time to reading as you frequently commit to a film, or a football match. Make that commitment and, in many cases, the pay off outweighs the investment.
Two funeral directors, one American and the other Italian, get together in Rome and share undertaker stories. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but there's nothing funny about the situation in the title novella of Robert Hellenga's new book, which confronts death matter-of-factly.
Cubans sometimes joke that of all the lessons living under three generations of communism has taught them, by far the most important is learning how to wait.
So it’s a little surprising that as capitalism creeps in — the introduction of private ownership has created a thriving restaurant scene — people here are discovering, to their dismay, that they need to book reservations to get into their favorite places for dinner.
What is the basis of this collective faith, shared by universities, presidents and billionaires? Shouldn’t successful and powerful people be the first to spot the exaggerated worth of a discipline, and the least likely to pay for it?
In the hypothetical worlds of rational markets, where much of economic theory is set, perhaps. But real-world history tells a different story, of mathematical models masquerading as science and a public eager to buy them, mistaking elegant equations for empirical accuracy.
Preston writes with economical grace. He shows the start of love delicately and also its failure. He is witty about the true English vice, which is pointless, pompous snobbery. He never stresses; he allows his people to live. He lets nightingales sing sadly without training them to be metaphors. He has written a kind of universal chamber piece, small in detail, beautifully made and liable to linger on in the heart and the mind. It is something utterly unfamiliar, and quite wonderful.
Look closely at what many journalists write about artificial intelligence – from AlphaGo’s triumph at the ancient Chinese board game Go to Microsoft’s accidentally racist Twitter bot – and you might detect some smugness. Research by Oxford University has predicted that journalism is among the jobs least likely to be replaced by a machine in the near future. And yet, as Columbia University prepares to celebrate 100 years of the Pulitzer prize, intelligent robots will publish financial reports, sports commentaries, clickbait and myriad other articles formerly the preserve of trained journalists.
“A machine will win a Pulitzer one day,” predicts Kris Hammond from Narrative Science, a company that specialises in “natural language generation”. “We can tell the stories hidden in data.”
The rise of the internet and the widespread availability of digital technology has surrounded us with endless sources of distraction: texts, emails and Instagrams from friends, streaming music and videos, ever-changing stock quotes, news and more news. To get our work done, we could try to turn off the digital stream, but that’s difficult to do when we’re plagued by FOMO, the modern fear of missing out. Some people think that our willpower is so weak because our brains have been damaged by digital noise. But blaming technology for the rise in inattention is misplaced. History shows that the disquiet is fuelled not by the next new thing but by the threat this thing – whatever it might be – poses to the moral authority of the day.
Rather than a study of stardom, the novel turns a spotlight on the jobbing players, the ranks of professional musicians who gamely keep on swinging but who never get the big breaks. It’s all the more effective – and poignant – for that.
It is remarkable that O'Brien captures an extraordinary and almost holy innerness in each of her characters, however minor, and then plants those characters amidst the terrible velocity, the terrible pull of world events. O'Brien is truly at her best when she describes the private corners of minds, those quiet and wild corners, our meditative and our inspired selves, the self that Virginia Woolf called "a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others." It is that place, that private silence, that O'Brien catches, like catching a cloud.
He was a writer, he was GQ’s Style Guy. Yet he wondered: What was everyone talking about when they talked about mushrooms? Because he was 27 and had never actually tasted a mushroom. And so he set out to understand a world beyond chicken fingers, guided by a pretty good tutor: legendary chef Daniel Boulud.
There have been other Supermans since, and while none have, in my opinion, reached the heights of Christopher Reeve, all have imparted a similar sense of decency, humbleness and grace. From Brandon Routh to various animated incarnations, children growing up over the past 40 years have found new Supermans they could look to as inspirational models of how heroes act.
But what do the children of today have? Warner Bros, custodian of the Superman legacy, has handed the keys of the character over to Zack Snyder, a filmmaker who has shown he feels nothing but contempt for the character. In doing so they have opened the character to an ugly new interpretation, one that devalues the simple heroism of Superman and turns the decent, graceful character into a mean, nasty force of brutish strength.
Dimly Lit Meals for One, a new book based off a popular Tumblr, serves up quite the opposite scenario. Author Tom Kennedy pairs grainy photos of barely (if at all) plated culinary monstrosities with a fictional tale about the sad-sack person who is likely eating it.
“Comedy is music,” Sid Caesar wrote in his autobiography. The great comic follows that crisp sentence with another nearly as brief, seven additional words for those who need an explanation: “It has a rhythm and a melody.”
An expert like Roy Blount Jr., as the old borscht belt masters might say, knows from rhythm and melody. His prose can sing in deft comic riffs, as when he is celebrating, criticizing or just chanting lore about food, the ostensible subject of his new book, “Save Room for Pie.” For example, about a memorable bit of street food he consumed in New Orleans: “I had a kimchi pancake with pork-belly hash that made me want to shout.”
In one sense, there’s less mystery in mathematics than there is in any other human endeavour. In math, we can really understand things, in a deeper way than we ever understand anything else. (When I was younger, I used to reassure myself during suspense movies by silently reciting the proof of some theorem: here, at least, was a certainty that the movie couldn’t touch.) So how is it that many people, notably including mathematicians, feel that there’s something ‘mysterious’ about this least mysterious of subjects? What do they mean?
We are living in the Anthropocene age, in which human influence on the planet is so profound – and terrifying – it will leave its legacy for millennia. Politicians and scientists have had their say, but how are writers and artists responding to this crisis?
Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's much-hyped debut pokes fun at a privileged New York clan’s money troubles.