Virginia Heffernan’s Twitter bio once described her as “something like a critic.” Her reluctance to fully embrace the title is understandable, given that most of what passes as technology criticism today tends either towards gadget reviews or curmudgeons bemoaning the loss of what makes us human.
Somewhere along the line, critical writing about technology became equated with a reactionary disapproval of progress. How can one argue against this wonderful thing that is meant to make us fitter, happier, more productive? Yet, as Heffernan writes, “Every year another book with a title like The Shallows or The Dumbest Generation…condemns the Internet with no less righteous indignation than our Tory pamphleteer.” Our most widely recognized tech critics—Evgeny Morozov, Sherry Turkle, Nicholas Carr, and Jaron Lanier—declare the folly of thinking that technology is capable of solving all our problems, while their literary counterparts—Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith—worry that 140-character writing will erode their craft and moralize about the deterioration of culture.
It seems inconceivable to most of us that “our” leaders should stoop to the tactics of the world’s worst pseudo-democratic dictators who would go to almost any lengths, the less ingenious the better, to claim a popular mandate (and, for what it is worth, in my view it is inconceivable). Yet, at the same time, it is hard entirely to banish the suspicion that our own complacency could actually be blinding us to what those in power might be doing to get their way. There is also a very long pedigree to these anxieties about how far you can trust what the voters are supposed to have written on their ballot papers. Electoral fraud of that kind is as old as democracy itself, and was an issue even in the famous ancient Athenian institution of “ostracism” – usually taken to be a canny system of keeping the elite in check, and a far more radical deployment of popular power than any modern referendum.
Watching Game of Thrones this season, you may have asked yourself: Is something wrong with my television? Surely there is some other setting that would brighten up the inside of Bran Stark’s cave, or heighten the contrast between Cersei Lannister’s robes and the shadowy chambers of her prison cell. But no, that’s just the way the show is supposed to look. And Game of Thrones is not alone.
In reexamining a terrible tangle of a situation, one can sometimes pinpoint that single moment when everything went wrong. During my decade-long research, I had always feared that this would happen in North Korea, where I would have no control over my fate. As it turned out, the moment took place in New York City, after I had finally finished my draft. Six months before publication, my editor sent over the design for the book cover. Something caught my eye: Below the title—Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite—were the words, “A Memoir.”
We live in an age of data visualization. Go to any news website and you’ll see graphics charting support for the presidential candidates; open your iPhone and the Health app will generate personalized graphs showing how active you’ve been this week, month or year. Sites publish charts showing how the climate is changing, how schools are segregating, how much housework mothers do versus fathers. And newspapers are increasingly finding that readers love “dataviz”: In 2013, the New York Times’ most-read story for the entire year was avisualization of regional accents across the United States. It makes sense. We live in an age of Big Data. If we’re going to understand our complex world, one powerful way is to graph it.
But this isn’t the first time we’ve discovered the pleasures of making information into pictures. Over a hundred years ago, scientists and thinkers found themselves drowning in their own flood of data—and to help understand it, they invented the very idea of infographics.
The book’s dedication “to all my enemies” who made the oeuvre possible confirms the impression that the blizzard of score-settling that follows is less than balanced. The aphorisms are sometimes lazy, the facts can be sloppy, and the studied cool – all the while insisting that “I am the uncoolest person you will ever meet” – can be grating. I also could definitely have done without learning about Mr. García’s weakness for “strenuous fornication” and drunken romps in the Facebook broom closet.
And yet, somehow, “Chaos Monkeys” manages to be an irresistible and indispensable 360-degree guide to the new technology establishment.
Many second-career writers have it much worse than I do, and I assume many are much better off. But we all arrived here — if the endless peaks and valleys can even be called a destination — against the noise of a ticking clock. I’d like to say that maturity brought me resolve at last, but I think it was desperation. I try to remember that time is on my side because I can no longer waste it. I’m in my 50s, and there is a lot of life still to be sorted out. I have aging parents, children, a marriage, and friends. Immense cares that eat up vast swaths of my days and, soon, an empty nest. I compete against the minutes and hours, and at midlife, they begin to pass with unnerving speed. No sense wallowing; there’s work to be done.
My name is Ian Alexander Mackenzie Real’ness New Paradigm Raven Way and I have short scruffy hair and a fuzzy Riker beard and I wear a button shirt. People tell me I look like Ryan Gosling, and if you don’t know who that is, get the fuck out.
At this moment I am 30 years old, newly married and financially stable, and attempting to have a baby. It’s not been clear to me at any point that I want this, but it’s what one does, right?
When we buy the new, satiny, pinchy bra & pants set, we might picture ourselves wearing nothing else as we crawl across the floor towards a dazzle-toothed Brazilian paramour – but we might just as easily imagine it completely hidden under a pencil skirt and tweed jacket as we sip cappuccino in a town square while reading an improving novel on a Kindle. The question of whether the things fit… well, that doesn’t come into play until you’re back home, hence the 30% who “frequently” discard a bra immediately on purchase.
Many ideas have been brilliantly upgraded or repurposed for the modern age, and their revival seems newly compelling. Some ideas from the past, on the other hand, are just dead wrong and really should have been left to rot. When they reappear, what is rediscovered is a shambling corpse. These are zombie ideas. You can try to kill them, but they just won’t die. And their existence is a big problem for our normal assumptions about how the marketplace of ideas operates.
The phrase “marketplace of ideas” was originally used as a way of defending free speech. Just as traders and customers are free to buy and sell wares in the market, so freedom of speech ensures that people are free to exchange ideas, test them out, and see which ones rise to the top. Just as good consumer products succeed and bad ones fail, so in the marketplace of ideas the truth will win out, and error and dishonesty will disappear.
There is certainly some truth in the thought that competition between ideas is necessary for the advancement of our understanding. But the belief that the best ideas will always succeed is rather like the faith that unregulated financial markets will always produce the best economic outcomes. As the IMF chief Christine Lagarde put this standard wisdom laconically in Davos: “The market sorts things out, eventually.” Maybe so. But while we wait, very bad things might happen.
Snowden’s body might be confined to Moscow, but the former NSA computer specialist has hacked a work-around: a robot. If he wants to make his physical presence felt in the United States, he can connect to a wheeled contraption called a BeamPro, a flat-screen monitor that stands atop a pair of legs, five-foot-two in all, with a camera that acts as a swiveling Cyclops eye. Inevitably, people call it the “Snowbot.” The avatar resides at the Manhattan offices of the ACLU, where it takes meetings and occasionally travels to speaking engagements. (You can Google pictures of the Snowbot posing with Sergey Brin at TED.) Undeniably, it’s a gimmick: a tool in the campaign to advance Snowden’s cause — and his case for clemency — by building his cultural and intellectual celebrity. But the technology is of real symbolic and practical use to Snowden, who hopes to prove that the internet can overcome the power of governments, the strictures of exile, and isolation. It all amounts to an unprecedented act of defiance, a genuine enemy of the state carousing in plain view.
When Michael Young, a British sociologist, coined the term meritocracy in 1958, it was in a dystopian satire. At the time, the world he imagined, in which intelligence fully determined who thrived and who languished, was understood to be predatory, pathological, far-fetched. Today, however, we’ve almost finished installing such a system, and we have embraced the idea of a meritocracy with few reservations, even treating it as virtuous. That can’t be right. Smart people should feel entitled to make the most of their gift. But they should not be permitted to reshape society so as to instate giftedness as a universal yardstick of human worth.
People who have read my work feel as if they know me. And while certainly there is a powerful intimacy inherent in the experience of reading memoir, readers who meet me seem a bit embarrassed by this intimacy, as if, rather than having read my books, they have seen me naked without my consent. They seem to think of memoirs as more personal than any other literary form, as if the word “memoir” necessarily signals confession, testimony, diary and strip tease all in one.
While it now seems this decades-old decision doomed Harambe, at the time of construction, the barless design was likely praised as a more “humane” way to house captive animals. It’s an odd adjective under the circumstances: Animals don’t care about bars—they care about boundaries, and even barless enclosures limit their range.
Inside the lobby of MAD magazine was an orange naugahyde couch, an old standing ashtray next to it, like the kind in train stations when people dressed up to travel, and a larger-than-life statue of Alfred E. Neuman, patron saint of adolescent parody, in a pith helmet and safari fatigues. Dad approached the nonplussed receptionist and, with all the insincere aplomb of the 1960s campus subversive he is and always will be, said directly, "We're here for the tour," and waited for the answer.
We got it.
The intersection of music and violence has inspired a spate of academic studies. On my desk is a bleak stack of books examining torture and harassment, the playlists of Iraq War soldiers and interrogators, musical tactics in American crime-prevention efforts, sonic cruelties inflicted in the Holocaust and other genocides, the musical preferences of Al Qaeda militants and neo-Nazi skinheads. There is also a new translation, by Matthew Amos and Fredrick Rönnbäck, of Pascal Quignard’s 1996 book, “The Hatred of Music” (Yale), which explores age-old associations between music and barbarity.
Jean Edward Smith’s biography of George W. Bush goes on sale a day before the former President’s seventieth birthday, and it’s safe to say that no one will be bringing it as a present to the ranch outside Crawford. Smith, a well-regarded practitioner of military history and Presidential-life writing, comes straight to the point in the first sentence of his preface: “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush.” By the book’s last sentence, Smith is predicting a long debate over whether Bush “was the worst president in American history,” and while the biographer doesn’t vote on the question himself, the unhappy shade of James Buchanan will feel strongly encouraged by his more than six hundred pages.
And yet, for all the overheated denunciations—a rhetorical comparison gets made between Bush and Hitler—“Bush” (Simon & Schuster) doesn’t feel like a hatchet job. Like Bush himself, it is susceptible to sudden changes of heart and tone, and it never quite gets over a sense of loss for aspects of the pre-9/11 figure that Smith seems to enjoy imagining, however sketchily, in the book’s early stages.
Tom Michell is a self-described callow youth when he arrives inArgentina in the 1970s to teach in a boys’ boarding school, “a country boy from the gentle Downs of rural Sussex” who is unprepared for life under Isabel Perón’s government, and the threat of a military coup. But The Penguin Lessons isn’t a history book, or a travelogue, either, although it does touch on politics and on Michell’s explorations: it’s the story of how, on one of his journeys, he found an oil-drenched penguin on the beach in Punta del Este in Uruguay, and smuggled it back to his school.
Forget love, forget war, forget decency and kindness or cruelty and apathy—it’s sausages that all of us, all over the world, have in common. Virtually every culture, tribe, nation, ethnic group has a sausage; most of them have many.
“Ballet,” as the choreographer George Balanchine once said, “is Woman.”
But if women are still the symbols of ballet in the popular imagination, chances are it is as ballerinas performing dazzling, demanding steps that were devised for them by men. When it comes to choreography, at least at most major companies, ballet remains overwhelmingly a man’s world.
Around the year 1290, a set of mysterious writings began to circulate in the Jewish community of Castile, an area in what is now modern-day Spain. Written in a lyrical, abstruse Aramaic, they were disseminated by a man named Moses ben Shem-Tov de León, a member of the region’s circle of Jewish mystics. De León claimed that the work was not his own — that he had copied an ancient manuscript in his possession, which had been composed in Palestine in the second century by the legendary sage Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai. These writings had remained secret for centuries, de León claimed, and were only now being revealed to the world at large.
In the following centuries, the writings distributed by de León and his peers would be published as Sefer HaZohar, “The Book of Radiance,” a wide-ranging work that became the central text of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. Based on traditions going back to the Bible, Kabbalah crystallized in southern France and northern Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries. Unlike other Jewish traditions, which depict God in relatively simple terms, Kabbalah describes an intricate divine structure and heavenly realm, and elaborates on the relationship between God and creation. The Zohar, as the writings were called, while drawing on earlier works, used these ideas to re-interpret the Bible, thus transforming Judaism’s most foundational text.
Ninefox is a book with math in its heart, but also one which understands that even numbers can lie. That it's what you see in the numbers that matters most. And that something — maybe all things — begun with the best, truest of intentions can go terribly wrong once the gears of reality begin to churn.
For those familiar with the comic brilliance of Monty Python, founding member John Cleese’s recent book “So, Anyway…” will be sure to revive some fond memories of good entertainment and belly-aching laughs, thanks to the incomparable wit of the legendary British funny man.
Unsurprisingly, Cleese’s memoir of his earliest days of comedy provokes much more than a chuckle or two, and for fans of any of his work — whether it be his groundbreaking repertoire as a founding member of Monty Python or his beloved role as the adorably cantankerous hotel owner on “Fawlty Towers” — “So, Anyway…” is nothing short of a joyous romp down his memory lane. His whip-smart humor is present from the very start. One can almost hear Basil Fawlty holding court about health inspectors.
There is a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon, and some nights, coming back late to the city, I'll lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. The map is a marvel, especially absorbing because it is not real. For one thing, it is very old. It was left here years ago by a previous tenant, probably a Frenchman since the map was made in Paris. The paper has buckled, and much of the color has gone out of it, laying a kind of veil over the countries it depicts. Vietnam is divided into its older territories of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China, and to the west, past Laos and Cambodge, sits Siam, a kingdom. That's old, I told the General. That's a really old map.
The General is drawn to it too, and whenever he stops by for a drink he'll regard it silently, undoubtedly noting inaccuracies which the maps available to him have corrected. The waters that wash around my Indochine are a placid, Disney blue, unlike the intense, metallic blues of the General's maps. But all of that aside, we both agree to the obsolescence of my map, to the final unreality of it. We know that for years now, there has been no country here but the war. The landscape has been converted to terrain, the geography broken down into its more useful components; corps and zones, tactical areas of responsibility, vicinities of operation, outposts, positions, objectives, fields of fire. The weather of Vietnam has been translated into conditions, and it's gone very much the same way with the people, the population, many of whom can't realize that there is an alternative to war because war is all they have ever known. Bad luck for them, the General says. As well as he knows them (and he knows them well), he seldom talks about them except to praise "their complexity, their sophistication, their survivability." Endearing traits.
Trillin, the author of 29 other books, is known for his humor writing and satire, but aside from a few passages in a reported essay on Mardi Gras, he steps away from humor in order to cover the serious matters at hand. This book reveals how his early days as a journalist in the South kindled his interest in race, propelling him across America to report on race relations in the decades that followed. (Earlier this year, Trillin came under fire for a satirical poem, published in The New Yorker, written in the voice of a foodie obsessed with Chinese cuisine; those who were quick to assail him might want to read this book.)
President John F. Kennedy acknowledged that he stood in the glamour-shadow of his wife when he famously remarked that he was “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” But it was JFK rather than Jackie who gave the White House its most elegant landscape feature.
I can’t recall the last time I didn’t know a writer’s face. See me pasting bylines into Facebook to find an essayist’s profile picture. Watch as I dive through tagged photographs to find out which school a reporter attended, what his partner looks like. Is his Twitter account verified? Is he famous enough to justify being verified? Usually I’m less interested in the plain fact of, say, a writer’s ethnicity or what kind of pet she owns than I am in her presentation of those facts. Of course sometimes I’m just nosy, but more often, I’m looking for reasons to trust or distrust a writer’s work. I don’t really believe in objective narrators anymore, but I still care to look for reliable ones.
Never before has it been so easy to try to judge that reliability. Writers once had the luxury of contemplating how much distance they wanted between their identities and their work. (For a while, William Gaddisrefused to give interviews, in part to avoid answering that question.) These days, though, the space between a writer’s work and who she appears to be has all but collapsed. Bylines aren’t just bylines anymore; they’re gateways to an author’s Twitter timeline or Instagram account. Sometimes it seems that everything a person publishes on the Internet—blog posts, images, errant thoughts—is just another argument offered in proof of her identity. And that identity, in turn, becomes an index from which we draw conclusions about how much we’re able to rely on a writer’s published opinions and observations. But what is it, exactly, in this web of status updates that evokes trustworthiness?
The Hatred of Poetry is a beefed-up version of Lerner’s 2015 London Review of Books essay, which he expanded to include a chatty tour of the Western tradition, from original poetry-hater Plato, to John Keats, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman, and concluding with contemporary poets Amiri Baraka and Claudia Rankine. What’s nice about Lerner’s book is how it provides an occasion to discuss issues at the heart of mainstream poetry. He assesses the gains and the costs of poetry’s metaphysics and asks how lyric poetry can negotiate with the politics of real life, rather than Truth and Beauty.
I read The Hatred of Poetry as a referendum on the lyric, at whose altar Lerner worships, and which I find, to use the language of post-structural hermeneutics, kind of gross. While I may happen to disagree with Lerner’s often-conservative account, he is unique among contemporary poets for holding out a poetics and a position, which he discusses with remarkable amiability.
“I no longer want what I used to want,” Marina Benjamin declares somewhere towards the end of her lucid and sophisticated exploration of what it means for a woman to turn 50 in a culture that glorifies youth and encourages us at every turn to “disguise … deny … disown” the process of ageing. Single-word chapter headings – Skin, Muscle, Guts, Spine – speak to her promise to bring “the body back into the frame at every turn”, although what she discusses roams far beyond and beneath the merely physical.
Every morning my alarm goes off at 6:30 am. Before I lug my sluggish body from under the security of my warm sheets, I reach for my phone, pull it up inches away from my face, and start scrolling through whatever I missed overnight. This is not only the beginning of my morning routine, but also a routine behavior throughout the rest of my day — obsessively checking, collecting, and consuming content until I close my eyes and try to disconnect my brain for the night. This behavior is called Infomania, which is defined as “the compulsive desire to check or accumulate news and information, typically via cell phone or computer.”
Infomanics like myself are likely to feel the effects of information overload, a phenomenon caused by overdosing on information, which reportedly developed as early as the 3rd century BC, when writing allowed us to record and preserve information longer than memory. Information overload is a mentally, and physically, taxing condition. Symptoms include sluggish thinking, a flitting mind, and stifled creativity.
In Fluke, Joseph Mazur uses probability to strip chance events of some of their mystery. First, he explains the difference between a coincidence (a meaningful conjunction of things without any apparent cause) and a fluke (an improbable outcome the cause of which is clear – such as a lottery jackpot, where buying the ticket is what makes the win possible).
Second, we discover that not all of these incidents are created equal. Some, such as Parrish’s extraordinary find, or the businesswoman who got into a taxi in Miami to find that her driver had picked her up in Chicago three years earlier, are not quite as incredible as we imagine. They are the result of shared networks of travel, class and communication.
It’s possible that there are lazier travel writers than Steve Hely, whose new book describes going from Los Angeles all the way down the Americas’ western coast to Patagonia, without eliminating the suspicion that he never actually left home. But if you can let Mr. Hely’s joking offset his featherweight work ethic, there aren’t many who make better company.
Megan Bradbury’s debut novel also develops from blocks of text surrounded by white space. Her chapters are short, her paragraphs all of similar length and her sentence structures as repetitive as a course of bricks; sometimes three or four in a row start with the same word. The effect is enervating at first – it feels like an early reader for intellectuals. Yet gradually these blocks of text build to something more complex.
This is the story of a place at the edge of the world, where a black bear ventured into a Russian hamlet and attacked a human. One bear became two, two became dozens, and before long no one would leave their home, and no one had any idea what to do.
In the summer of 1997, when I was eleven, I had an abnormal appetite for books. I wasn’t particularly picky about what I read. Every week, I went to the local library and scanned the middle-grade and young-adult shelves, zeroing in on spines that caught my attention. I then examined the covers and jacket copy of those books with the solemnity of a scholar. If a book passed muster—and it usually did—I put it in my special red library tote bag, which my parents bought for me with the explicit purpose of limiting the number of books I brought home.
That was the summer when—tan, smelling of chlorine, stippled in mosquito bites and goose bumps from the air-conditioning, just on the verge of puberty—I discovered Lois Duncan. Her books’ dramatic titles, such as “Summer of Fear,” “Killing Mr. Griffin,” “Gallows Hill,” drew me in, and their taglines sealed the deal. I wedged as many as could fit into my bag. Horror novels had been banned in my family since I was seven, when an older kid on the bus let me borrow his copy of “Night of the Living Dummy,” and it gave me such terrible nightmares that I insisted on sleeping with the lights on for a week. So, when my mother picked me up from the library, I pleaded my case. Most of them had been written in the nineteen-seventies, I told her. (I had checked.) How scary could they be?
With conservatives decrying what they see as creeping secularism, and liberals warning of attacks on the separation of church and state, one gets the impression that many Americans believe that secularism is something quite new, a product of declining morals or aftershocks from the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Yet the roots of secularism in the West run far deeper, deeper even than Jefferson and the Age of Reason. Most historians agree that secularisation took hold in the period known as the ‘early modern’ – the era between about 1500 and 1750, when science, capitalism, religious crisis and the growth of centralised states coalesced to reshape Western consciousness.
The religious implications of secularism are often misconstrued, too. Secularisation did not mean godlessness; for the most part, early modern Europeans were profoundly Christian. It was rather that the boundary between the religious and the secular became more distinct than before. As the 17th-century English philosopher Sir Thomas Browne put it, humans live ‘in divided and distinguished worlds’. The sphere of religion was diminished, so that many of the hopes and fears formerly expressed in religious terms became expressed in worldly terms. For better or worse, secularisation rested on the realisation that eternal truths are inaccessible to the intellect; only the limited insights afforded by experience in this world are relevant to the earthly career of the human race.
By 11:00, I am sitting at booth L1 at Nita Nita, the bar and restaurant that was my workplace and second home before I left town. Before I can dig into my bowl of smashed sweet potatoes—made with cayenne and chorizo and a perfectly unspeakable amount of butter—Sam comes up and hugs me.
"I can't believe you're here!" she says, smiling.
My old boss looks wrung out despite her wide, Jersey-girl smile. But I don't tell her this; I want to keep things light. Nita Nita is closing tomorrow, after nearly 10 years serving beer, comfort food, and hospitality on Williamsburg's north side.
Notes on the end of my marriage.
What would you do right now if you wanted to read something stored on a floppy disk? On a Zip drive? In the same way, the web browsers of the future might not be able to open today’s webpages and images–if future historians are lucky enough to have copies of today’s websites at all. Says Cerf, “I’m concerned about a coming digital dark ages.”
That’s why he and some of his fellow inventors of the Internet are joining with a new generation of hackers, archivists, and activists to radically reinvent core technologies that underpin the web. Yes, they want to make the web more secure. They want to make it less vulnerable to censorship. But they also want to make it more resilient to the sands of time.
How can I judge a translation if I don’t know the original language? Time and again fellow reviewers have raised this question with me. We can tell if a book is fluent or not, elegant or not, lucid or not, but how do we know if the original is like this?
Conversely, if we can’t judge the translation, how can we arrive at an opinion about the book itself? It seems poorly written, but perhaps that is just the translator. Or vice versa of course. Are we reduced simply to saying that we like or don’t like the package, without any notion of who we should praise or blame?
For anyone whose actual childhood has been marked by Steven Spielberg films about childhood—who has watched it emerge and re-emerge as one of his inescapable obsessions—these will always feel like the most Spielbergian species of Spielberg film, no matter how many Munichs and Amistads the man makes. Now, this July, Spielberg will release his adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl children’s book The BFG, or the Big Friendly Giant. After a five-year run of stoic historical dramas—War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies—he’s again made an unapologetically magical, family-oriented film: a story about childhood, experienced largely through a child’s wide-open eyes.
Visiting a farmers market involves discovering new vegetables, swapping recipes and feeling good about consuming healthful foods while supporting small, local farms. But that feel-good experience comes at a price.
The day cars drove themselves into walls and the hospitals froze. A scenario that could happen based on what already has.
The debut novel by Natasha Stagg, a fashion writer and essayist based in Brooklyn, joins the discussion by way of a cautionary tale of love and internet celebrity.
Vampires are typically envisioned as static creatures, holding sway over mortals for centuries from the comfort of a grand manor castle. Christopher Buehlman’s latest novel, The Suicide Motor Club, takes the undead out of the realm of gothic horror stories and turns them into the stuff of urban legend, monsters that crisscross America’s highways, drinking blood and ruining lives.
We shouldn’t be worrying about whether pornography has negative repercussions on society. We should be worrying about the kind of society that would lead to the types of pornography we find distasteful in the first place – and work on fixing that society rather than blaming its inevitable result.
Belief that alien life exists on other planets is persuasive, sensible; nearly 80 percent of Americans do believe it, according to a 2015 poll. But belief that the aliens are already here feels like something else, largely because it requires a leap of faith longer than agreeing that the universe is a vast, unknowable place. Abduction and contact stories aren’t quite the fodder for daytime talk show and New York Times bestsellers they were a few decades ago. The Weekly World News is no longer peddling stories about Hillary Clinton’s alien baby at the supermarket checkout line. Today, credulous stories of alien visitation rarely crack the mainstream media, however much they thrive on niche TV channels and Internet forums. But we also still want to believe in accounts that scientists, skeptics, and psychologists say there is no credible evidence to support.
These are the facts. I am in my 40s. I have a job. I am married. We have children and a flat with no garden, and a mortgage and a fridge-freezer and a navy blue estate car. None of this is a surprise. Is it?
Except… a mood can gradually take over, change the way you feel about the facts. You know how it is to fall out of love with someone? How the way their teeth clink on a mug as they drink their tea can make you hate everything about them, even though they are the very same person you once found so bewitching? I did not feel this about my husband. I felt it about myself. About my life, and who I had become.
“Living With a Dead Language” is a delightful mix of grammar and growth, words and wonder. Patty and her book are both full of life, epitomizing the Latin phrase ad astra per aspera — to the stars through difficulties. Those readers who never encountered Latin may overlook this book, but, to use the Roman poet Horace’s phrase, consider letting carpe diem be your catchphrase, or even carpe noctem: seize the day or seize the night and read this book.
In the park, there are 9,485 of them. You sit on them. To rest. Read a book. Sip coffee. Polish off a pulled-pork sandwich. Feed the pigeons. Wait for a friend, maybe a spy. Or it’s a sluggish day when you have nothing to do, and this is a delicious place to accomplish absolutely nothing.
Or you can drift off and muse on the plaque affixed there, representing a story behind the bench. The Central Park bench. You aren’t just sitting on wood. You are sitting on memories.
Public radio is facing an existential crisis. Some of the biggest radio stars of a generation are exiting the scene while public-radio executives attempt to stem the loss of younger listeners on traditional radio. At the same time, the business model of NPR—the institution at the center of the public-radio universe—is under threat: It relies primarily on funding from hundreds of local radio stations, but it faces rising competition from small and nimble podcasting companies using aggressive commercial strategies to create Netflix-style on-demand content.
The first thing you notice, rereading Valley of the Dolls is how badly it functions as fiction. First published in 1966, it has a status in the Virago canon that means many of us will have read it young, as a necessary classic, in that interim phase as a reader where you consume books like air, not stopping to interrogate their quality. I didn’t realise how bad it was. It covers the fortunes and friendship, but mainly the drug addiction, of three women: the prim but outrageously beautiful Anne Welles; the Judy Garland-inspired vaudeville star Neely O’Hara; and the busty airhead Jennifer North.
The Australian novelist Gerald Murnane has become known for works of difficult genius, and his latest will only burnish that reputation. An exploration of the mind and of literary creation, it is a book of intricate construction and vast intellectual scope.
This is a fascinating, informative, revelatory book about that most commonplace and mundane feature of our cities – parks. Everybody in Britain will be familiar with a park or several parks. As Travis Elborough suggests, it is a connection that most usually begins in early childhood. Even I, as a child brought up in West Africa where there were no parks of any description, can vividly recall the first one I came to know well – Duffus Park in Cupar, Fife. I was regularly sent there to play when we returned from Africa to stay with my grandmother in Scotland. I can revisit Duffus Park and its many acres in my head, almost as if a virtual video of the place is playing behind my eyes, even though I haven’t set foot in it for decades. Such is the folkloric power of the park in our forming minds.
One of the great ironies of the coast around Silicon Valley is that the region hosts a number of wireless dead zones. So, faced with the prospect of being technologically marooned, we decided not just to TripTik our route, but to forgo satellite navigation entirely—no gps, no Google Maps, no smartphones. Maybe freeing ourselves from virtual mediation would foster a more engaged travel experience; maybe it would be inconvenient and irritating. But for the sake of nostalgia, both real (hers) and invented (mine), we thought we’d give it a shot.
The past is like a foreign country: They have weird McDonald’s specials there. Here, it's a burger with olives and larks' tongues; it's called the McTrojan Deluxe, which makes it sound like there's something sneaky hiding inside it, which if you hate olives is true. I hate olives. But they also serve wine, so I'm drinking lots of wine. It’s unpleasantly packed in the restaurant, but then, it’s packed everywhere.
Thousands swarmed the high desert like locusts, clad in Birkenstocks and bandanas, cut-offs and tank tops. Their skin burnt cherry red, they poured out of trucks and Toyotas, sweating under the oppressive hundred and six-degree heat, scuttling through sand and rock, not in search of a shady refuge or a sip of water — but to find salvation.
Aging boomers, bearded Mad Max types, hippies, burners, little old ladies and medical doctors, ravers — they all shared a common vision. They’ve had an experience that would cause you or I to laugh, maybe label them crazy. But no one’s crazy at Contact In The Desert, the Woodstock of UFO conferences. If anything, people like you and me, the non-believers, we’re the weirdos.
I must have been nineteen when I was first handed a copy of Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s Black Power, a book which was already 25 years old at that point. As a white kid from small town New England, the politics were striking, and challenging. As someone with an eye towards aesthetics, the cover was simple yet profound: a white field, the center crowded—almost to exploding—with the giant words “Black Power” in a thick, slab-serifed type. The authors’ names and book subtitle stack above and below, in a more elegant, thin sans-serif. That’s it. No images, no frills. The ten big black letters of the title completely dominate the white background, as if to say “That’s all, folks!”
Emma Cline's thoroughly seductive debut novel, The Girls, re-imagines the world of Charles Manson's female followers, and does so with a particularly effective literary device. The concept of the male gaze is well established, but Cline employs what can only be termed the female gaze as an entry into the helter-skelter life of her protagonist.
Some scientists think oysters are going to be the first ocean species to be driven extinct by climate change—they’re a very delicate crop, and thrive at very particular temperatures. The acidification of the oceans weakens their shells. Disease spreads as the water temperatures rise. And when a hurricane storm surges and loosens up all the silt and dirt that’s in our waterways now, the oysters drown in mud. Irene was the biggest storm surge since 1938. It was a big deal, and three feet of mud came in, which was bad. But the real bad news was that it loosened up the bottom here, so now smaller storms are bringing in more mud and having an outsized impact.
Oysters are used to filtering 30 to 50 gallons of water a day. If they’re coated in mud, they just die. A clam can squish up and move, same thing with scallops. Oysters are stuck wherever they are. That’s why, with the BP spill in the Gulf, they do most of their testing on oysters—they can’t flee, regardless of how they feel about the water conditions.
Three weeks before my wife, Ingrid, and I were to move to Mexico, where a coveted job awaited me, my doctor phoned with results from my latest CT scan. My thyroid cancer had spread to my lungs. He suggested I see an oncologist right away.
Two hundred years ago, Mary Shelley spent a night telling ghost stories at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland.
Consider an author, alone in the snow. Vladimir Nabokov has frozen still, caught out between the past and present as he drifts back into the memory of a childhood winter, its distant sleigh bells ringing in his ears. “What am I doing in this stereoscopic dreamland?” he asks. “How did I get here?” Suddenly no longer the small child with the puppyish gaze who spent “snow-muffled rides” hallucinating a role in “all the famous duels a Russian boy knew so well” but the impish old man of writerly legend, he rediscovers himself aged in his New England exile. (He and Vera have not yet left America to live at the foot of the snow-capped Alps in Montreux.) The memories are immaterial; “the snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers.” So much is condensed in this handful of snow, now solid, now melting: a whole collection of memories and wonders. But what is the material supposed to mean? Perhaps you have to develop what Wallace Stevens calls, at the start of his poem “The Snow Man” (1921), “a mind of winter” to know. Snow, like so many other materials, keeps its own special area in our thinking, and has its own blizzard of effects on our minds.
Diski, as she makes vitally clear in her new memoir, “In Gratitude,” spent her every moment on earth beating the projections of authority figures. She overcame abusive and neglectful parents, foster homes, suicide attempts, repeated hospitalizations and the persistently gloomy conviction of relatives, caregivers, teachers, doctors and occasionally herself that she would fail at whatever she attempted.
Diski did not fail. Over the past 30 years, Diski published 17 books of fiction and nonfiction and became a writer who commanded descriptions from reviewers like “individual” and “wildly various”; her books — such as her 1997 “so-called travel book,” “Skating to Antarctica” (which she described as being about “Icebergs, mothers. That sort of thing”) — all proof, as Giles Harvey wrote in a 2015 New York Times Magazine profile, of her “spectacular originality.”
Why San Francisco’s mayor brought a blowtorch to open the city's new bridge.
Just because Netflix had essentially created this new world of internet TV was no guarantee that it could continue to dominate it. Hulu, a streaming service jointly owned by 21st Century Fox, Disney and NBC Universal, had become more assertive in licensing and developing shows, vying with Netflix for deals. And there was other competition as well: small companies like Vimeo and giants like Amazon, an aggressive buyer of original series. Even the networks, which long considered Netflix an ally, had begun to fight back by developing their own streaming apps. Last fall, Time Warner hinted that it was considering withholding its shows from Netflix and other streaming services for a longer period. John Landgraf, the chief executive of the FX networks — and one of the company’s fiercest critics — told a reporter a few months ago, “I look at Netflix as a company that’s trying to take over the world.”
Americans weren’t always so open-minded about opening their wallets for H20. Mere decades ago, they would have laughed at paying astronomical markups for a liquid that flows freely, and usually safely, from their taps at home.
That all began to change in the 1970s, with a crazy idea from a Frenchman who wanted Americans to buy fizzy water in green glass bottles shaped like bowling pins.
I love Brutalism, and am increasingly clear that it is not merely the equal of any other period’s architecture, it is better. There has never been a more remarkable period of architectural achievement.
Denny’s was my father’s favorite neighborhood famiresu. I remember my father talking about Denny’s when it opened in Shibuya in the mid-eighties. Back then, it was a fashionable place—the idea of being able to drive and park your car at the diner was like something out of a Hollywood movie. My father liked Denny’s because it brought back a taste of America, where we had lived on and off in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Denny’s was not only a good place to get coffee, he said, the food was decent, too. When I visited, he encouraged me to try it, but I never took his advice. I live in Los Angeles; I didn’t visit Japan to eat American food.
A junk shop is not an antique shop, where the focus is on merchandising and the display favors popular and expensive items. A junk shop, by contrast, will often give the impression that commerce is the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. Some junk shops are a roiling chaos, down to being underlit and perhaps smelly, while others are highly and even compulsively organized—but generally not in a way that makes any sort of mercantile sense. The items in a junk shop may seem like components of a conceptual artwork or a vast personal shrine or an extraterrestrial museum of human culture.
I like that it’s universal, nothing less than we’d expect from a realm of human endeavour that’s been such a symbol and a catalyst of this age of globalisation. I like that the language of the sky is so hidden, and yet it’s always being spoken. When I fly as a passenger, that language is what’s going on at the front – at the pointy end – of the same plane in which I’m doing the crossword or devouring reruns of 30 Rock. And when I’m sitting in the backyard with a cup of coffee and a book, it’s bouncing all around the cloudless blue above me, as it is at all hours in the skies above Honolulu and Cairo and Ulaanbaatar, above everywhere.
I like how different the language of the sky is from everyday English – indeed, we might give it its own name, Aeroese (though it’s also sometimes, and less aspirationally, called Aviation English). Above all, I love how Aeroese can somehow manage, in its technical, obscuring precision, to capture the high romance of flight – an aspect of my job, no matter how much I love it, that in the cockpit we rarely have reason to consider directly.
But as a recent trip to Hersheypark to reclaim some lost childhood joy confirmed, amusement parks, and theme parks in particular, can still be fulfilling, especially if you can shed the shame that often accompanies those of us who prefer both feet on the ground.
teinbeck admitted that he did not deserve it, but accepted anyway. Sartre assumed that he did deserve it, but refused on principle. Pinter plainly did not deserve it, but accepted, also on principle. Tolstoy was glad to miss out, because he would have had to dispose of the money. Joyce, who could have done with the money, was never nominated.
The follies attending the selection process of the Nobel Prize for Literature constitute one of the only two interesting things about the prize. The other interesting thing about the Nobel is not the acceptance speeches, though Pinter’s speech, a note-perfect send-up of anti-American paranoia, suggested that the old ham could still turn on the absurdist humor of his early plays. No, the other interesting thing is the subsequent trajectory of the winner’s reputation.
Art and taste in the age of the Internet.
If you have even a passing interest in movies, it won’t come as news to you that the MPAA’s rating system is broken.
Cowardly critics and bad art—a Canadian codependency.
When you head into the kitchen to cook, to smell and touch and taste, you are grounding yourself in life and the world through your senses. You focus your concentration and work wondrous alchemies, combining earthly ingredients with fire, air and water and transforming them into so much more than the sum of their parts.
Any pilgrims visiting Vatican City will spend some time in the Raphael Rooms. Decorated with iconic frescoes by Raphael and the artists of his workshop, these reception rooms in the Palace of the Vatican have left generations of tourists awestruck. They may also have inspired awe in the less high-minded.
According to legend, these Vatican showrooms, the apartments of the popes, once contained the now-lost artwork for the western world's first pornographic blockbuster.
“Finding moments to engage in contemplative thinking has always been a challenge, since we’re distractible,” said Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows.” “But now that we’re carrying these powerful media devices around with us all day long, those opportunities become even less frequent, for the simple reason that we have this ability to distract ourselves constantly.”
Do we need still another book about Sherlock Holmes or his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle? Yes — at least if it’s by that high-functioning bibliographer Mike Ashley. The dust jacket of “Adventures in the Strand” describes Ashley as “one of the foremost historians of popular fiction,” which verges on understatement: In fact, no one alive knows more about British magazines published between roughly 1880 and 1940, a period so rich in genre fiction that it is sometimes called “the age of the storytellers.”
Visiting Presteigne in 1867, George Borrow was told by one of the town’s inhabitants that he was neither in England nor Wales, but in Radnorshire. Tom Bullough, whose fourth novel is set in the south of that debatable county, clearly understands the point: he skirts abstract questions of national allegiance and identity, focusing instead on the land itself and on the interconnected lives of the families who wrest a living from it.
How does Obama do it? How can anyone combine such a brutally demanding job with being a good father? And what does each president’s fitness for parenthood reveal about his fitness to run our country?
Joshua Kendall tackles such questions in his anecdote-packed “First Dads: Parenting and Politics From George Washington to Barack Obama.” At his disposal are the fatherhood portfolios of every single president, as all 43 have been fathers — 38 of whom had children biologically, the other five by adoption.
The Times finds itself in a familiar pattern as it hurtles toward one strategic intersection after the next: Far-off investors debate a plan of action for Tribune’s disparate businesses; corporate suits hand out edicts for local satraps to execute; Times staffers wait on a knife-edge to learn what fate awaits the flagship property. It’s a bad dream that one of the country’s largest newsrooms cannot escape.
Outside of national players in New York and Washington, the Times remains perhaps the most vaunted news organization in the United States. Its large market and still-deep talent pool give it ingredients as good as any regional newspaper’s for a digital rebirth. The great unknown remains whether it can find the elusive combination of vision from on high and daily execution in the trenches.
“Punching up” and “punching down” are relatively new pop-political terms, often found not far from words like “mansplaining,” “problematic,” and “trolling.” So it should come as no surprise that they have become entangled with our current national panic over political correctness, which, apparently, not only has created a “humor crisis,” but also is why we can’t properly fight terrorism, control immigration, or make unruly college students read Alison Bechdel and eat faux bánh mì. Western democracy itself hangs in the balance, depending on who happens to be lecturing you at the moment.
While the idea of living in a computer simulation is fun to consider, the consequences of such a reality are quite frightening. If belief in a creator god lets humans off the hook for our destiny, or if belief in a mechanical universe drops us into nihilistic despair, what might believing that we are all sims in a video game do? The possibilities are both wondrous and horrifying.
Sci-fi writers have been imagining life inside computers for decades.
Why oh why didn’t she leave him while the going was good?” Eleanor has sometimes wondered. But when Conrad, her husband of 30 years, fails to return from a conference in Munich, Eleanor is confounded. In this powerful novel, her ninth, Jane Rogers, best known for Mr Wroe’s Virgins and her Arthur C Clarke-award winning The Testament of Jessie Lamb, anatomises the contradictions of her characters’ inner lives.
Computers and smartphones bring to daily life some of the qualities of another artifact of the digital era: the video game in which a player sustains an anxious state of vigilance against sudden unpredictable intrusions that must be dealt with instantly at the risk of virtual death. This too has its benefits: drivers who grew up playing video games are reportedly quicker than others to respond to sudden danger, more capable of staying alive.
Dante, always our contemporary, portrays the circle of the Neutrals, those who used their lives neither for good nor for evil, as a crowd following a banner around the upper circle of Hell, stung by wasps and hornets. Today the Neutrals each follow a screen they hold before them, stung by buzzing notifications. In popular culture, the zombie apocalypse is now the favored fantasy of disaster in horror movies set in the near future because it has already been prefigured in reality: the undead lurch through the streets, each staring blankly at a screen.
Seventy years after the end of the war, Utsumi met me in central Tokyo last August to tell her story. Remarkably, she had never discussed her terrible experiences with anyone. “When I was leaving the house this morning,” she said, “and told my son I’d be in an interview about the war, my son asked, ‘You were in the war?’ ”
This kind of stoic quietude may seem odd, even unhealthy, to Americans, accustomed to ventilating the most mundane experiences, with no incident too banal to be rehashed. But respect for such forbearance is at the heart of David Rieff’s insightful and humane new book.
Fiction is a make-believe world. But behind the voices of fictional characters is the voice of someone who exists in real life. The voice of an author comes from a self who has something to say about the world, an individual who wishes to engage with her society through language and imagination.
For writers who are bilingual or trilingual, the question of which language to write in can be itself a story with unexpected twists and turns. In my case, this is the story of how I learnt to feel and think in a language that is foreign to my ancestors.
But our new planetary knowledge has removed some of the uncertainty from this debate. Three of the seven terms in Drake’s equation are now known. We know the number of stars born each year. We know that the percentage of stars hosting planets is about 100. And we also know that about 20 to 25 percent of those planets are in the right place for life to form. This puts us in a position, for the first time, to say something definitive about extraterrestrial civilizations — if we ask the right question.
The period — the full-stop signal we all learn as children, whose use stretches back at least to the Middle Ages — is gradually being felled in the barrage of instant messaging that has become synonymous with the digital age
So says David Crystal, who has written more than 100 books on language and is a former master of original pronunciation at Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London — a man who understands the power of tradition in language
As the journalist Virginia Heffernan writes in “Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art,” we too often conflate the internet with the worlds of commerce or science rather than with creativity. “For years technology had seemed to be the masculine form of the word culture,” she writes. “If you wanted to sell men on a culture story, you did well to frame it as a tech story — a story about the plumbing or stock price of Netflix rather than a story about the pixels that constitute ‘Bloodline.’ Technology is built stuff that aims to be elegant and engaging. Apps are founded on science in the same sense that a watercolor is founded on science, where the chemistry of pigments and the physics of brush strokes are the science. But the resulting painting, if successful, hints at transcendence or at least luminous silence, something whereof we cannot speak.”
Weird signals raise a particular problem: what happens when you find data coming from the vastness of space which has no apparent explanation—or for which one possible explanation is an unbelievable one? Why is it so hard to count out aliens once they’ve been invoked?
Like so many behaviors passed from one generation to another, I absorbed my dad’s perfectionism unconsciously. It was easy: The late Larry Carman was a lifelong Midwesterner, a civil engineer who believed in family, hard work and the Nebraska Cornhuskers (not necessarily in that order). When dad took on a project — like, building a downstairs bathroom, bedroom and rec room out of nothing — the rest of us would sigh and prepare for a long, dusty campaign in the basement.
But when he was done? Well, let me tell you about the downstairs bedroom he built for me: It included a private alcove, with a built-in desk, where I could compose my Important Teenage Thoughts. Above my desk, he had installed a shelf, perfectly within arm’s reach, where I could press the power button on my Radio Shack receiver and listen to music. He had hung two small wooden speakers from the ceiling, so that they pointed straight toward my desk and bed.
This was how a father said “I love you” in Nebraska in the late 1970s: He built you the perfect bedroom.
My summers with Mapplethorpe were an unusual introduction to an arts career. But rather than putting me off, they revealed to me that museums are interesting, dynamic places that can alter people’s perceptions of the world. I suddenly understood how the arts and the humanities are living forces in our culture, tied up intimately with politics and policy.
But if one trait characterizes Americans with lots of disposable income, it’s their tireless compulsion to dispose of that income in brand new ways. The more pedestrian the product in question, the greater its seeming potential to evoke untold volumes of feeling and meaning. A few centuries into the future, inhabitants of a ravaged globe may look back on this time as the crucial moment at which delusional fervor around unremarkable, overpriced things reached its apex.
Kathy English did not let Aulakh down. A suicide note is not a contract. And colleagues and loved ones have no duty to abide by its terms. Even in death, the departed can offer up value to the living. And in Aulakh’s case, her life, her death, and her last cri de coeur may have much to say about the frustrations, indignities and heartbreak endured by staff at the country’s biggest newspaper.
What about ideas that are so accepted and internalized that we’re not even in a position to question their fallibility? These are ideas so ingrained in the collective consciousness that it seems foolhardy to even wonder if they’re potentially untrue. Sometimes these seem like questions only a child would ask, since children aren’t paralyzed by the pressures of consensus and common sense. It’s a dissonance that creates the most unavoidable of intellectual paradoxes: When you ask smart people if they believe there are major ideas currently accepted by the culture at large that will eventually be proven false, they will say, “Well, of course. There must be. That phenomenon has been experienced by every generation who’s ever lived, since the dawn of human history.” Yet offer those same people a laundry list of contemporary ideas that might fit that description, and they’ll be tempted to reject them all.
It is impossible to examine questions we refuse to ask. These are the big potatoes.
To be fair, I’ve had other ill-fated affairs with dead authors: those years of pining for the attentions of Truman Capote (you can see the complications there); the make-out sessions with W. Somerset Maugham (although his worlds always proved a tad too humid for me); the obsession with Edith Wharton (my first and only time playing for the other team). But the affair with Scott Fitzgerald was the gravest affair yet, the most exquisitely anguished—and the most embarrassing.
This is how it went down.
There is perfect symmetry to the way Stephen King aligns the opening of “End of Watch,” the smashing finale of his “Mr. Mercedes” trilogy, with that of its first installment. Mr. King isn’t flashy about it. Maybe he just can’t help writing like a stone-cold pro. The first book, “Mr. Mercedes,” began in 2009 with a rabid killer stealing the car of the title and plowing into a line of helpless people attending a job fair. The third book also starts on that day, but navigates its suspenseful way toward the present to a terrifyingly resonant end.
As in the best ensemble novels, much of the pleasure of Modern Lovers comes from observing its affecting, palpable characters interact. Straub has so intricately and cleverly connected them that when she moves one, the whole chessboard reconfigures.
Fifty years ago, in 1966, Chairman Mao declared the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, setting into motion China’s Dark Ages. Mao shut down the nation’s schools and called for the youth to purge the country of bourgeois values and “counter-revolutionary” behaviour. In the months that followed, the repressive political climate quashed freedom of thought, turned family members and friends against each other, and created a legacy of fear that still endures. The Communist Party’s continued authority in China means that the recent anniversary, on May 16, was marked by country-wide silence.
This makes Madeleine Thien’s new novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, all the more significant. Realist and yet deliberately poetic, it addresses the events of the past half-century head-on. Set across three generations, Thien’s characters suffer the shame, fear, and humiliation of Maoist propaganda, with much of that suffering borne out of “struggle sessions”—public spectacles in which citizens are forced to denounce themselves and each other in the name of Communism.
Four years later, as I planned my return to Japan, I knew I had to travel beyond the populated heart of the country if I wanted to really replicate the world I had seen in those prints, going farther afield than Hiroshige himself.
And so I chose the Kumano Kodo, a series of trails through deep forest and small towns on the Kii Peninsula several hours south of Osaka. It’s a religious pilgrimage that I came across in my obsessive reading. Pilgrims go to visit the numerous shrines along the way, worshiping the mountains themselves. They’ve done so since the sixth century. It’s said one can achieve spiritual powers by enduring the route’s physical challenge.
And it’s the proud home of the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum. What I knew when I went: there were 13,000 square feet filled with dioramas of historic Hangzhou food scenes and plastic replicas of classic Hangzhou dishes. What I didn’t know: Why?
The theory suggests that consciousness arises as a solution to one of the most fundamental problems facing any nervous system: Too much information constantly flows in to be fully processed. The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence. If the theory is right—and that has yet to be determined—then consciousness evolved gradually over the past half billion years and is present in a range of vertebrate species.
Yet less than a decade after Mencken’s bold gesture, Yankee English was well on its way to conquering the world. In a peculiar role reversal, writers and artists in other countries would now feel compelled to learn from American role models.
For more than a decade, Mats Alvesson and I have been studying smart organisations employing smarter people. We were constantly surprised by the ways that these intelligent people ended up doing the most unintelligent things. We found mature adults enthusiastically participating in leadership development workshops that wouldn’t be out of place in a pre-school class; executives who paid more attention to overhead slides than to careful analysis; senior officers in the armed forces who preferred to run rebranding exercises than military exercises; headteachers who were more interested in creating strategies than educating students; engineers who focused more on telling good news stories than solving problems; and healthcare workers who spent more time ticking boxes than caring for patients. No wonder so many of these intelligent people described their jobs as being dumb.
“They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought,” Dr. Hawking said in his famous robot voice, now processed through a synthesizer. “If you feel you are trapped in a black hole, don’t give up. There is a way out.”
Six months ago I made a pledge to jump out of the consumer rat race and embark on a no spend year, and I can honestly say the past 183 days have changed my life for the better. Deciding to stop spending money was a shock to the system but one that I, and my spendthrift ways, sorely needed.
Getting what we want, or think we want—in those brief moments when we actually do—always seems to be more complicated and fraught than what we pictured.
But maybe getting what we want isn’t really what we want in life.
In the world of self-publishing, where anyone can put a document on Amazon and call it a book, many writers are seeing their work being appropriated without their permission. Some books are copied word-for-word while others are tinkered with just enough to make it tough for an automated plagiarism-checker to flag them. (Though the practice is legally considered copyright infringement, the term “plagiarism” is more widely used.) The offending books often stay up for weeks or even months at a time before they’re detected, usually by an astute reader. For the authors, this intrusion goes beyond threatening their livelihood. Writing a novel is a form of creative expression, and having it stolen by someone else, many say, can feel like a personal violation.
Often, the perpetrator’s identity is shrouded in mystery. When Nunes tried to find out more about Mullens, things started to get weird. The anonymous person on the other side of the computer seemed to multiply into an array of fake online identities. Strangers posted Facebook messages attacking Nunes’s character, and hostile one-star reviews began appearing on her Amazon author page. “I felt like I was being attacked,” Nunes said. “When I went on social media, I didn’t know what would be waiting for me.”
The subtitle of this book gives pause. The greatest force on Earth? Typhoons, volcanos and earthquakes humbled by a few metres’ change in the level of seawater? There is little in the early chapters to enforce the claim. Hugh Aldersey-Williams begins with a trip to the shore near his Norfolk home, preparing the reader for “Nature’s greatest marine performance”. The action begins an hour or so after high water. The tide ebbs. Twelve hours and 30 minutes later it has returned and started to fall again. The author notes froth, gulls and vegetation. Subsequent journeys to Venice to observe work on the lagoon’s tidal barrage, and the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia to watch a tidal bore roll up the Shubenacadie river are not thrilling.
Why is it that seemingly smart organisations encourage what could be viewed as stupidity in their workplaces? That’s the profound question addressed in this interesting and engaging book.
The trouble is, these therapies do not work as well as we might hope. Even in these targeted therapies, resistance often appears over time. "It occurs because there will be one or more cells in the tumour branches that has a resistance mutation that allows it to outwit the therapy," Swanton says.
The science of bacteria in the atmosphere is getting its moment in the sun.
In her latest novel, She Poured Out Her Heart, Thompson is at her prescient, brilliant best. She has crafted a tale about a highly recognizable Now that also functions as a scarily plausible vision of Later—of what’s coming down the road for her characters, and perhaps for the culture, too. Only a few novelists can pull off this dual mission. Margaret Atwood comes to mind. Don DeLillo, too. What distinguishes Thompson’s work, however, is that in the midst of her finely tuned interrogation of the zeitgeist, she also weaves a damned good yarn. The test for this attribute is simple: Do you want to know what happens next?
Emma Straub was raised in a house of horror — horror fiction, that is. Her father is Peter Straub, a writer who specialized in the genre. But there's no hint of horror in Emma Straub's work; her fiction tends more toward genial explorations of marriage and family and friendship. Her last book, The Vacationers, was a best-seller. Her new one is Modern Lovers, and it's set in Brooklyn's Ditmas Park neighborhood, where we met up for a stroll.
People die, reporting the news. Because reporting the news is more important to them than their lives.
Those people deserve better than “tronc.” They deserve better than 20 years of corporate flailing at every online trend, from the paywall to the hyperlocal to the longform back to the paywall again. They deserve better than hearing, over and over and over, that what they are is not what they think they are but “content curators” and “monetization engines” and they deserve better than hearing that it’s nobody’s fault when they know whose fault it is.
What is language? What is beauty? Who gets to decide?
Philosophers have grappled with these questions for centuries, and they've generated a pile of long (and often tortured) books in their efforts to answer them.
But for Tom Wartenberg, some of the best books about philosophy are much shorter and a lot more colorful: Frog and Toad Are Friends. Horton Hears a Who! The Paper Bag Princess.
In his latest book, Bowles argues that it is not sufficient to rely on rule of law, property rights and private contracts — the holy trinity of free-market fundamentalism — to ensure pro-social behavior. Those incentives must be reinforced by widely accepted moral codes and norms of social behavior. Drawing on game theory, behavioral and experimental economics, and even neurobiology, he shows that over-relying on the market’s financial incentives will undermine moral values and social norms and cause them to atrophy, like unused muscles.
In 1860, during the Second Opium War, the British and French armies sacked the Chinese Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan), looting it of what the Chinese government today estimates to have been 150 million objects. The British effort was led by James Bruce, the eighth Earl of Elgin, and with his blessing the Chinese empress’s Pekingese dog was cruelly abducted and given as spoils to Queen Victoria. The dog's portrait—which Tiffany Jenkins includes here—was painted by Friedrich Wilhelm Keyl in 1861. As the painting's title reflects, the poor dog had been renamed: Looty.
Keeping Their Marbles is a full-throated argument against the repatriation of arguably stolen art and artifacts. To say that it is controversial is a severe understatement. Yet, as the anecdote of Looty the Pekingese suggests, Jenkins makes no attempt to sugarcoat the past. Despite her insistence that we not judge the past by present-day ethics and customs, she reveals the fact that, for instance, Victor Hugo was fiercely critical of the "[t]wo robbers" (meaning England and France) "breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures." Nor does Jenkins fail to mention that James Bruce was the son of Thomas Bruce, the Lord Elgin whose name is synonymous, fairly or not, with plunder.
We aren’t lucky because life is easy or smooth, or because it makes sense or because we are in control. We are lucky because life is fragile and entirely out of our control, but it is ours to live.
It was ironic that Suzanne Lenglen, a woman, should have become the first international tennis celebrity, given the controversy surrounding women’s very presence on the court. Suzanne was the daughter and only child of Charles Lenglen, a well off rentier. He noted her exceptional athletic ability from an early age and, aware of the social prestige of tennis on the French Riviera, joined the fashionable Nice Tennis Club. Children were not normally allowed to become members, but so unusual was Suzanne’s potential that she became a junior member, playing with adults. Charles trained Suzanne himself and dominated their close relationship—an early example of the tendency for women tennis stars to be coached by their fathers (in today’s game the more famous examples being Venus and Serena Williams). It brought immense success. Suzanne Lenglen’s fame soon spread beyond the Riviera and from 1919 to 1926 she reigned as supreme international tennis star and indeed supreme female athlete.
But perhaps there is room for more definition creep. More than a few highly regarded things have been called beach reads over the years, with authors such as Thomas Pynchon and Donna Tartt coming under the beach umbrella. Literary novelists who have a strong handle on plot are often characterized as good vacation reads, because they manage to transport you elsewhere, away from the petty facts of ordinary life.
I felt pretty sure something was wrong when the deer began running toward me. I knew something was wrong when a pine branch flew by my head. The air went dark and a noise like a train barreled through the forest, the actual wind coming after the sound of itself. The trees all swayed in the same direction, and then came the slap of thunder.
I felt more than saw the huge shelf cloud, a wall of black striped with electricity, surge forward over the ridge of the Allegheny Mountains overlooking Green Bank, West Virginia. A sharp line against the blue sky, it looked less like weather and more like a Rothko. I lived in this remote town, and I was on my usual afternoon run, picking my way across the trails that led from my house to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, where I worked. Adrenaline told me I needed to fly, faster.
By his own account, one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s most “horrifying and paralyzing” ideas involved a time machine. In the thought experiment known as the “eternal recurrence,” Nietzsche asked readers to consider how they would react if a demon were to tell them that “this life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more, and innumerable times more.” Would they curse the demon? Or had they experienced a moment so sublime that if consigned to repeat it, they would thank the demon for the opportunity? What interested Nietzsche was less the practical mechanics of his hypothetical than its existential implications. What paralyzed him was the possibility of not wanting to affirm one’s life through eternal repetition.
A city on an island, teeming with cash and ego, has nowhere to go but up. And up. And up. Imagine the Manhattan skyline in a time-lapse filmstrip, starting around 1890 — when the New York World Building crested above the 284-foot spire of Trinity Church — and culminating in the present day: it is a series of continual skyward propulsions, each new proud round overshadowing the last.
Perhaps much of this history has been driven by crude competition — the fierce battle between the Chrysler Building and the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building (40 Wall Street), for instance, to be the World’s Tallest Building, a fight the Chrysler won by a stunning coup de grâce: the last-minute addition of its secretly constructed spire, which nudged New York’s altitude record up to 1,046 feet for 11 precious months until the Empire State Building topped out. But the city’s architectural history cannot be reduced to gamesmanship. Something else is going on. Manhattan builds up because it cannot build out and because it cannot sit still. Those of its inhabitants who can afford to do so will seek to climb to higher ground.
When I was ten and in fifth grade, I read all of “Robinson Crusoe” in one weekend. Not one of the many abridged versions, mind you—there have been at least eight hundred editions since Daniel Defoe’s novel first appeared, in 1719—but the whole shebang, from the bloody shipwreck of that slaver to Crusoe’s fateful encounter with Friday, written “all alone on an un-inhabited Island.”
I wasn’t trying to show off. I had picked “Crusoe” for a book report much the way I had picked “Gulliver’s Travels” earlier in the year: they were both books I’d seen images or even cartoons of, and sought out in the library. The report was due on Monday, and I wish I could remember if I even had the book until the Friday before. Knowing my ten-year-old dedication to procrastination, or at least underestimation, I likely got my copies at the last minute, never imagining that they would be four-hundred-plus pages. Who knew Gulliver met more than just Lilliputians?
Ricky Jay’s learned prose sparkles with humor and passion. And it’s easy to see why Jay fell so hard for Matthias Buchinger. That little man was a dynamo, a mystery, a real-world superhero — though we’re not likely to see him in a Hollywood blockbuster. Comic book superheroes have sex appeal, but very little sex. In comparison, the portly, legless Buchinger was demonstrably a stud.
Sex is troubled terrain for young women in America. Despite decades of feminist progress, for many girls today, sex is still more about servicing others than claiming their own desire. In such a context, the lucid, sensual stories of Anna Noyes’s debut collection — which explore young women’s sexual awakening around coastal Maine — are likely to be received as tonic.
When I first arrived in Mumbai, I would order a masala dosa (I didn’t know any other kind) at a street stall on the main road by my apartment and watch as the cook used a flat-bottomed cup to scoop a dollop of fermented-rice-and-lentil batter onto a sizzling metal board, then use the same cup to spread the batter into a thin, broad oval before dropping a pad of butter into the center and sprinkling it with a mysterious red spice mix. Using a spatula, he would smear a thick layer of potato—precooked with mustard seed, turmeric, and curry leaf—across the middle of the dosa, then fold over the sides and cut it into four pieces, which he’d hand to me on a sectioned plate along with a ladleful of coconut chutney and another of sambar, a soupy lentil dish common in south India, where dosa comes from.
It’s been two years since Dean Baquet vaulted over Jill Abramson to claim the top editorial job, but the prospect of deeper change is still stirring at the 164-year-old Times. With longtime publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. seeking a successor, Baquet’s would-be replacements already jockeying for position, and drastic cuts looking all but inevitable,
The idea took hold a few months ago. It’s hard to say exactly what sparked it other than … well, have you ever been the parent of a 14-year-old girl? It is a daunting experience. Elizabeth is a good person. She’s a good student. She has a huge heart. She’s a loyal friend. She’s funny too. She likes Death Cab and Spinal Tap and comic books and reading. The other day, she told me that her favorite movie of all time is “The Godfather.” I mean, she is more me than I am.
But she is 14, and in some ways that explains everything. In some ways it doesn’t. There are times I feel closer to her than ever … and times I feel so much further away. Farther away? Further away? One gorgeous day in autumn, I was sitting on the porch, working, and she came outside and sat next to me, and it became clear after a few choice words about tattoos and nose rings and such that she had come out for the sole purpose of starting a fight. There was no specific reason for it other than she’s 14, and I’m her father, and this is the timeless story.
There have been other things, trying things, unforeseen things, a punishing year, and one day I came up with this idea. I would take Elizabeth to see “Hamilton.”
My earliest memory of books is not of reading but of being read to. I spent hours listening, watching the face of the person reading aloud to me. Sometimes I rested my head on the chest or the stomach of the reader and could feel the resonance of each vowel and consonant. I encountered many books this way: “One Thousand and One Nights”; the mischievous and brilliant writings of al-Jahiz; the poetry of Ahmed Shawqi and his peers from the period of al-Nahda, the Arabic literary renaissance that took place at the turn of the twentieth century; several books on the lives of the Sahabah; and the works of a long line of historians who tried to explain how and why a war or an epoch had started or ended. It never occurred to me then to question why there were hardly any books for children in the house; none that I can remember, anyway.
In retrospect, maybe I placed too much significance on that first trip alone after my son was born. For the first year of his life I had barely spent a single night away from him, so it was only natural that I saw this trip as a precious chance to be, however briefly, a sane adult again. The trip was only for one night to a not-very-glamorous city where I would stay in a not-very-glamorous hotel and deliver a talk in the evening. The place itself did not matter — it could have been anywhere. Instead, it was the promise of travel, of not being home and on duty that seduced me.