You are currently browsing the archive for the Books category.

Via the always amusing Delancey Place blog comes this excerpt from Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome about laws governing prostitutes’ clothing in Renaissance Italy:

“Held … in Florence’s communal prison the Stinche … were more serious criminals-heretics, sorcerers, witches and murderers — for whom unpleasant fates awaited: decapitation, amputation or burning at the stake. Executions took place outside the walls, in the Prato della Giustizia, ‘Field of Justice.’ These were popular public spectacles — so popular, in fact, that criminals often had to be imported from other cities to satisfy the public’s demand for macabre drama. This vice squad worked in tandem with the Orwellian-sounding Ufficiali dell’Onesta ‘Office of Decency,’ which was charged with licensing and administering the municipal brothels that had been created in the area around the Mercato Vecchio. The specific aim of these public brothels was to wean Florentine men from the ‘greater evil’ of sodomy. Prostitutes became a common sight in Florence, not least because the law required them to wear distinctive garb: gloves, high-heeled shoes, and a bell on the head.”


A real rarity: Writer Mary McCarthy interviewed by Jack Paar on the Tonight Show in 1963. Fast forward to the nine-minute mark.

An interesting (if audio-only) 1977 Tonight Show clip of Gore Vidal, who may have been Sandusky, trashing Jimmy Carter during the opening weeks of his Presidency, discussing income inequality and demonstrating a waterless toilet. As with all episodes of the program, Johnny Carson performed the monologue with a loaded gun and a bag of cocaine stashed in his underpants.

Tags: ,

President Abraham Lincoln, refined man that he was, always turned down requests to appear on faux talk shows on the Internet. But here are some other things he agreed to do (courtesy of Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years):

Judge cockfights:

“The Clary’s Grove boys called on [Lincoln] sometimes to judge their horse races and cockfights, umpire their matches and settle disputes. One story ran that Lincoln was on hand one day when an old man had agreed, for a gallon jug of whisky, to be rolled down a hill in a barrel. And Lincoln talked and laughed them out of doing it. He wasn’t there on the day, as D.W Burner told it, when the gang took an old man with a wooden leg, built a fire around the wooden leg, and held the man down until the wooden leg was burned off.”

Wrestle for the entertainment of knife-wielding gamblers:

“Offut talked big about Lincoln as a wrestler, and Bill Clary, who ran a saloon thirty steps north of the Offut store, bet Offut that Lincoln couldn’t throw Jack Armstrong, the Clary’s Grove champion. Sports from miles around came to a level square next to Offut’s store to see the match; bets of money, knives, trinkets, tobacco, drinks were put up, Armstrong, short and powerful, aimed from the first to get in close to his man and use his thick muscular strength. Lincoln held him off with long arms, wore down his strength, got him out of breath, surprised and ‘rattled.’ They pawed and clutched in many holds and twists till Lincoln threw Armstrong and had both shoulders to the grass.”

Drink whiskey from bungholes:

“When a small gambler tricked Bill Greene, Lincoln’s helper at the store, Lincoln told Bill to bet him the best fur hat in the store that he [Lincoln] could lift a barrel of whisky from the floor and hold it while he took a drink from the bunghole. Bill hunted up the gambler and made the bet. Lincoln sat squatting on the floor, lifted the barrel, rolled it on his knees till the bunghole reached his mouth, took a mouthful, let the barrel down–and stood up and spat out the whisky.”

Press barefoot boys’ muddy soles to the ceiling:

“He put barefoot boys to wading in a mud puddle near the home trough, pulled them up one by one, carried them to the house upside down, and walked their muddy feet across the ceiling. The stepmother came in, laughed at their foot tracks, told Abe he ought to be spanked–and he cleaned the ceiling so that it looked new.”

The Pill first drove free love and then the free market. Being able to delay pregnancy made it possible for women to pursue previously unavailable educational and professional opportunities. But ever since birth control became readily accessible in 1960, one unfair question has persisted: Can they have it all? Fact is, no one can have it all. A male CEO with children probably isn’t spending as much time with them as is necessary. Everyone who wants a work life and a family life juggles and balances, not just women.

In a New York Review of Books piece about Alison Wolf’s The XX Factor, Marcia Angell writes about an unintended consequence of women moving primarily from the community into the workforce:

“But there is something more serious these couples are giving up—civic engagement—and Wolf has a chapter on that, called ‘Something to Regret?’ ‘Earlier generations of educated women,’ she writes, ‘worked largely in schools, or volunteered in the community, because little else was on offer.’ They were the social and political activists. Now paid employment has largely displaced volunteering in the community. Moreover, many ambitious women no longer become teachers, except at the college level, because the pay and prestige are greater in other professions. Wolf quotes from an interview with sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol: ‘Women were the ones who stood up for welfare, and made the case for the public good, for everyone. Now it’s all so narrow.’

Obviously, we can’t and shouldn’t return to a time when women were expected to tend to the needs and welfare of the community gratis because they had no other options and no one else would do it. But we do need to modify the cult of overwork, in child rearing as well as in careers, to make room for highly educated women and their husbands to be more active citizens. In particular, I wish upper-middle-class women were stronger advocates for the rights of less privileged women, both in their own country and abroad.”

Tags: ,

“He gravely announced himself as the ‘Spirit of Truth,’ being the Matthias mentioned in the Scriptures who had risen from the dead.”

“He gravely announced himself as the ‘Spirit of Truth,’ being the Matthias mentioned in the Scriptures who had risen from the dead.”

Gilbert Seldes’ magnum opus, The Stammering Century, first published in 1928, is the true story of the stranger-than-fiction twists and turns that religion took in 19th-century America, as it splintered into cults and manias, driven by charismatic mountebanks who passed themselves off as messiahs. (In that sense, it’s much like our age.) One section focuses on New York-based Robert Matthews (a.k.a. Robert Matthias, Jesus Matthias, etc. ), a struggling carpenter who in the 1830s managed to convince a band of wealthy Baptist apostates to make him the head of their crazy, cult-like sect, “The Kingdom.” From “The Impostor Matthias” in the December 25, 1892 New York Times:

“The delusions of the period, thus far harmless, had assumed a progressive character that was destined to develop rapidly to a tragical conclusion. Among the leading spirits of the ‘Holy Club’ was a Mrs. Sarah Pierson, whose husband, Elijah Pierson, was a successful and highly respected merchant. She was a woman of wide culture and engaging manners, and the couple were among the most esteemed members of the Baptist society of that day. They resided on Bowery Hill, an agreeable suburb of New York, sixty years ago, somewhere in the vicinity of the present Madison Square. In this rural locality were situated, on a breezy, shaded eminence, a number of handsome houses, the summer residences of the well-to-do merchants of that period. 

In the year 1828 Mr. Pierson came to regard himself as being in constant direct communication with the Almighty, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, and his wife being equally impressed with his divine associations, the operations of the Christian world were too slow for their heated imaginations, and in 1829 they withdrew from their affiliation with the Baptist Church and organized an independent religious society, with a nucleus of twelve members, which they called ‘The Kingdom.’ Meetings were held daily and often twice a day in the Pierson residence on Bowery Hill, brief intervals only being allowed for sleep and light refreshment. The labors and vigils of the new faith, together with the protracted seasons of entire fasting, broke down the health of Mrs. Pierson, and in June, 1830, her husband having, while riding one day down Wall Street in an omnibus, received the Divine command in these words: ‘Thou art Elijah, the Tishbite. Gather unto me all the members of Israel at the foot of Mount Carmel,’ anointed her with oil from head to feet in the presence of the assembled elders of ‘the Kingdom.’ A few days later the unfortunate woman died.

“The delusion that his beloved wife was still to be raised from the dead possessed the unhappy husband’s mind for many months afterward.”

“The delusion that his beloved wife was still to be raised from the dead possessed the unhappy husband’s mind for many months afterward.”

On the day of the funeral, about 200 persons being in attendance, Mr. Pierson endeavored to effect the miracle of her resurrection, attributing his failure to the lack of faith of the bystanders. The scene was harrowing in the extreme, and the delusion that his beloved wife was still to be raised from the dead possessed the unhappy husband’s mind for many months afterward. In 1831 Mr. Pierson removed to a spacious house in Third Street, where he held forth daily to the elect of ‘The Kingdom,’ which now numbered quite a large congregation of converts, some, indeed, being attracted from points outside the city. Among the latter were a Mr. Benjamin Folger and his wife, persons of wealth and standing, who had recently removed their residence from New-York to a handsome country place, near Sing Sing, or Mount Pleasant, as the place was then designated. Another conspicuous member of the strange association was a Mr. Sylvester H. Mills, a well-to-do Pearl Street merchant–a man whose naturally gloomy temperament had been intensified by the death of a beloved wife, a few months previous to the decease of Mrs. Pierson. These people, with many others of all social grades, gathered about Mr. Pierson, to listen to his denunciations of the churches, and his exhortations to place their faith in the Lord in order that, like the Apostles, they might be enabled to ‘heal the sick, cast out the devils, and raise the dead.’

While those extravagances were in progress and the inflamed imaginations of the fanatical leaders were worked up to a high pitch of expectancy, there appeared among them on May 5, 1832, a stranger, whose pretensions, while according with the tenor of their diseased minds, were so far in advance of their own most enthusiastic flights that he was at once accepted as their leader, and worshipped as a divine being. He gravely announced himself as the ‘Spirit of Truth,’ being the Matthias mentioned in the Scriptures who had risen from the dead and possessed the spirit of Jesus Christ. He further declared that he was God the Father, and claimed power to do all things, to forgive sins, and to communicate the Holy Ghost to such as believed in him.

A short account of the previous history of this singular character is necessary at this point, in order to explain how he came to fasten himself thus on ‘The Kingdom,’ with his monstrous claims of divine powers. His name was Robert Matthews, and he was born in Washington County, New York, about the year 1790. He followed the trade of carpentering, and in 1827 he lived in Albany, where he was known as a zealous member of the Dutch Reformed congregation, over which Dr. Ludlow presided. Happening to attend a service conducted by a young clergyman named Kirk, who was visiting Albany from New-York City, he returned home in a state of great excitement, and sat up all that night discussing the sermon he had heard. His enthusiasm was so great that his wife remarked during the night to her daughter: ‘If your father goes to hear that man preach any more he will become crazy.’ He did go to hear him a number of times, and the reader may gather from the sequel of this story whether the wife’s prediction was fulfilled.”

After I’m done reading the two books staring at me now (Wallace Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors and Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body), I’m going to crack open Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, which, I have a feeling, doesn’t end happily. We’re probably drawn to the steady stream of post-apocalyptic cultural works for numerous psychological reasons, but we might also realize on a subconscious level that humans are evolving straight into an endgame. From a smart interview with Kolbert conducted by Andrew Anthony of the Guardian:

The Guardian:

The irony of the previous catastrophes is that we wouldn’t be here without them…

Elizabeth Kolbert:

Yes, there’s a consensus that the dinosaurs were doing just fine 66m years ago and presumably could have done fine for another 66m years, had their way of life not been up-ended by an asteroid impact. Life on this planet is contingent. There’s no grand plan for it. We are also contingent. Yet although we are absolutely part of this long history, we turn out to be extremely unusual. And what we’re doing is quite possibly unprecedented.

The Guardian:

Reading your book, one wonders if it might not be good for the rest of the planet if we died out?

Elizabeth Kolbert:

A few species would be worse off if we weren’t here but probably most would be better off. That’s sounds like a radical or misanthropic thing to say but I think it’s evidently true.

The Guardian:

It seems that from the moment we arrived we’ve been busy wiping out species.

Elizabeth Kolbert:

There is incontrovertible evidence that when people reached Australia, 50,000 years ago, they precipitated the extinction of many species. Giant marsupials, giant tortoises, a huge bird – all were gone within a couple of thousand years of people arriving.”

Tags: ,

I’m more sanguine about the future of the serious American novel than Philip Roth, even though I understand that literacy is changing in the Digital Age, that the term no longer refers to just reading words, that perhaps a world dominated by written matter was more exception than rule.

It’s been eight years since Sam Tanenhaus and A.O. Scott of the New York Times did their excellent survey of the best American novel from 1980-2005. Would they be able to do a good one 25 years from today? The first two paragraphs of Scott’s introductory essay, “In Search of the Best,” and the top selections from the list:

More than a century ago, Frank Norris wrote that ‘the Great American Novel is not extinct like the dodo, but mythical like the hippogriff,’ an observation that Philip Roth later used as the epigraph for a spoofy 1973 baseball fantasia called, naturally, The Great American Novel. It pointedly isn’t – no one counts it among Roth’s best novels, though what books people do place in that category will turn out to be relevant to our purpose here, which has to do with the eternal hunt for Norris’s legendary beast. The hippogriff, a monstrous hybrid of griffin and horse, is often taken as the very symbol of fantastical impossibility, a unicorn’s unicorn. But the Great American Novel, while also a hybrid (crossbred of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism), may be more like the yeti or the Loch Ness monster – or sasquatch, if we want to keep things homegrown. It is, in other words, a creature that quite a few people – not all of them certifiably crazy, some of them bearing impressive documentation – claim to have seen. The Times Book Review, ever wary of hoaxes but always eager to test the boundary between empirical science and folk superstition, has commissioned a survey of recent sightings.

Or something like that. Early this year, the Book Review’s editor, Sam Tanenhaus, sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify ‘the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.’ The results – in some respects quite surprising, in others not at all – provide a rich, if partial and unscientific, picture of the state of American literature, a kind of composite self-portrait as interesting perhaps for its blind spots and distortions as for its details.”




Toni Morrison (1987)



Don DeLillo (1997)

Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels

John Updike (1995)

American Pastoral

Philip Roth (1997)

Tags: , ,

Growing up in New York City, you would hear periodically about Kitty Genovese, a Queens resident brutally murdered as she screamed for help in earshot and view of her neighbors who did nothing to aid her. None of the dozens called the police. It was a horrifying story, repeated again and again, about a desensitized city full of unfeeling citizens, except that many of these “facts” were erroneous and the larger hypothesis was likely wrong.

There weren’t nearly that many witnesses to the visible portion of the crime, likely a half-dozen at most who understood what was happening. One neighbor briefly frightened away the attacker (who later returned), a couple called the police and another went to the victim and cradled her until the ambulance arrived. And as I was reminded recently when I read Adam Alter’s very worthwhile book, Drunk Tank Pink, subsequent psychological studies of strange non-reactions or limited reactions by numerous bystanders to distress isn’t necessarily a matter of apathy. The presence of so many eyewitnesses makes it less likely that any individual one will act. Everyone assumes somebody else will take care of things. Reaction is slowed and sometimes paralyzed by sheer numbers. It’s the “bystander effect.”

But it took many years for truth and good research to really challenge the narrative of the story, which had seemingly been written in stone and sold as a harrowing trend. How did it become so? One editor working in a high perch, A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times, was largely responsible (or irresponsible). In a New Yorker review of just-published books about the murder, Nicholas Lemann reminds that a journalistic disregard for context and proportion can cause a random event to be mistaken for a sign of the times. An except:

In 1964, Rosenthal was forty-one years old and relatively new on the job as the newspaper’s metropolitan editor, an important step in his ascent to a seventeen-year reign over the Times’ newsroom. Ten days after Genovese was killed, he went downtown to have lunch with New York City’s police commissioner, Michael Murphy. Murphy spent most of the lunch talking about how worried he was that the civil-rights movement, which was at its peak, would set off racial violence in New York, but toward the end Rosenthal asked him about a curious case, then being covered in the tabloids, in which two men had confessed to the same murder. He learned that one of the competing confessors, Winston Moseley, had definitely murdered a woman in Kew Gardens, Kitty Genovese. That killing had been reported at the time, including in a four-paragraph squib buried deep within the Times, but Murphy said that what had struck him about it was not the crime itself but the behavior of thirty-eight eyewitnesses. Over a grisly half hour of stabbing and screaming, Murphy said, none of them had called the police. Rosenthal assigned a reporter named Martin Gansberg to pursue the story from that angle. On March 27th, the Times ran a front-page story under a four-column headline:

Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector

The following day, the Times ran a reaction story in which a procession of experts offered explanations of what had happened, or said that it was inexplicable. From then on, the story—as they wouldn’t have said in 1964—went viral.”

Tags: , , ,

The Fuller Brush Man, modest an individual though he was, disappeared for the same reason that grandiose World Fairs no longer resonated: The developed world became mobile, and it’s wasn’t necessary for anyone or anything to come to our doors anymore, even to our town. Nobody was home.

Now mobility itself isn’t even very necessary. We’re home, but it all reaches us through tubes and wires, and soon drones. So places we use to drive to, like this one and this one, keep disappearing. We don’t need here or there today because we’re everywhere and nowhere. A segment from Daniel H. Pink’s To Sell Is Human about the birth of the Fuller Brush company, posted on the very fun Delancey Place blog:

“It all began in 1903, when an eighteen-year-old Nova Scotia farm boy named Alfred Fuller arrived in Boston to begin his career. He was, by his own admission, ‘a country bumpkin, overgrown and awkward, unsophisticated and virtually unschooled’ — and he was promptly fired from his first three jobs. But one of his brothers landed him a sales position at the Somerville Brush and Mop Company — and days before he turned twenty, young Alfred found his calling. ‘I began without much preparation and I had no special qualifications, as far as I knew,’ he told a journalist years later, ‘but I discovered I could sell those brushes.’

‘After a year of trudging door-to-door peddling Somerville products, Fuller began, er, bristling at working for someone else. So he set up a small workshop to manufacture brushes of his own. At night, he oversaw the mini-factory. By day he walked the streets selling what he’d produced. To his amazement, the small enter­prise grew. When he needed a few more salespeople to expand to additional products and new territories, he placed an ad in a pub­lication called Everybody’s Magazine. Within a few weeks, the Nova Scotia bumpkin had 260 new salespeople, a nationwide business, and the makings of a cultural icon.”


Philip Roth, one of the top five American novelists ever, is done, done, done with the form and believes that all of civilization will soon be finished with it. One question from a Q&A he just did with the New York Times:


You belong to an exceptional generation of postwar writers, who defined American literature for almost half a century: Bellow, Styron, Updike, Doctorow, DeLillo. What made this golden age happen and what made it great? Did you feel, in your active years, that these writers were competition or did you feel kinship — or both? And why were there so few female writers with equal success in that same period? Finally: What is your opinion of the state of contemporary American fiction now?

Philip Roth:

I agree that it’s been a good time for the novel in America, but I can’t say I know what accounts for it. Maybe it is the absence of certain things that somewhat accounts for it. The American novelist’s indifference to, if not contempt for, ‘critical’ theory. Aesthetic freedom unhampered by all the high-and-mighty isms and their humorlessness. (Can you think of an ideology capable of corrective self-satire, let alone one that wouldn’t want to sink its teeth into an imagination on the loose?) Writing that is uncontaminated by political propaganda — or even political responsibility. The absence of any ‘school’ of writing. In a place so vast, no single geographic center from which the writing originates. Anything but a homogeneous population, no basic national unity, no single national character, social calm utterly unknown, even the general obtuseness about literature, the inability of many citizens to read any of it with even minimal comprehension, confers a certain freedom. And surely the fact that writers really don’t mean a goddamn thing to nine-tenths of the population doesn’t hurt. It’s inebriating.

Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps, the gloomy tabulation of unspeakable violent events, the unceasing despoliation of the biosphere for profit, surveillance overkill that will come back to haunt us, great concentrations of wealth financing the most undemocratic malevolents around, science illiterates still fighting the Scopes trial 89 years on, economic inequities the size of the Ritz, indebtedness on everyone’s tail, families not knowing how bad things can get, money being squeezed out of every last thing — that frenzy — and (by no means new) government hardly by the people through representative democracy but rather by the great financial interests, the old American plutocracy worse than ever.

You have 300 million people on a continent 3,000 miles wide doing the best they can with their inexhaustible troubles. We are witnessing a new and benign admixture of races on a scale unknown since the malignancy of slavery. I could go on and on. It’s hard not to feel close to existence here. This is not some quiet little corner of the world.”


Apple CEO Tim Cook is clearly a bright and talented guy, but until the company delivers a product post-Jobs that wows and not just new iterations of the same old things, he’ll be judged with suspicion. And even though he seems to be more progressive than his late boss in terms of charitable giving and environmentalism, he’s apparently just as scary when in business mode. From Haunted Empire: The Job After Steve Jobs, Yukari Iwatani Kane’s new book which has been excerpted in the Wall Street Journal:

“Meetings with Cook could be terrifying. He exuded a Zenlike calm and didn’t waste words. ‘Talk about your numbers. Put your spreadsheet up,’ he’d say as he nursed a Mountain Dew. (Some staffers wondered why he wasn’t bouncing off the walls from the caffeine.) When Cook turned the spotlight on someone, he hammered them with questions until he was satisfied. ‘Why is that?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I don’t understand. Why are you not making it clear?’ He was known to ask the same exact question 10 times in a row.

Cook also knew the power of silence. He could do more with a pause than Jobs ever could with an epithet. When someone was unable to answer a question, Cook would sit without a word while people stared at the table and shifted in their seats. The silence would be so intense and uncomfortable that everyone in the room wanted to back away. Unperturbed, Cook didn’t move a finger as he focused his eyes on his squirming target. Sometimes he would take an energy bar from his pocket while he waited for an answer, and the hush would be broken only by the crackling of the wrapper.

Even in Apple’s unrelenting culture, Cook’s meetings stood out as harsh. On one occasion, a manager from another group who was sitting in was shocked to hear Cook tell an underling, ‘That number is wrong. Get out of here.’

Cook’s quarterly reviews were especially torturous because Cook would grind through the minutiae as he categorized what worked and what didn’t, using yellow Post-its. His managers crossed their fingers in the hopes of emerging unscathed. ‘We’re safe as long as we’re not at the back of the pack,’ they would say to each other.

Cook demonstrated the same level of austerity and discipline in his life as he did in his work. He woke up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. and hit the gym several times a week. He ate protein bars throughout the day and had simple meals like chicken and rice for lunch.

His stamina was inhuman. He could fly to Asia, spend three days there, fly back, land at 7 a.m. at the airport and be in the office by 8:30, interrogating someone about some numbers.

Cook was also relentlessly frugal. For many years, he lived in a rental unit in a dingy ranch-style building with no air conditioning.”

Tags: ,

350 words per minute.

I’m pretty sure I don’t want to read 350 words per minute (as displayed above) let alone a 1000, but it’s possible to do with little effort if you use a mobile app like Spritz which presents books to your eyes not a page at a time but one rapid-fire word after another. From Williams Pelegrin at Digital Trends:

If you ever wanted to read A Game of Thrones, odds are you were put off by the sheer number of pages each book in the series contains. For example, it is 819 pages worth of reading. Especially if you’re a slow reader, that doesn’t sound like a very fun number of pages. What if I told you that you could read the massive book in less than five hours? Spritz allows you to do just that.

In ‘Stealth Mode’ for roughly three years, Spritz enables people to read words as they appear one at a time, in rapid succession. With Spritz, you can read anywhere from 250 to 1,000 words per minute.”


Steve Allen, in 1979, selling the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics course:

Tags: ,

As a species, we’re a disaster for other living things on Earth, and, perhaps, ultimately, for ourselves as well.

Even those of us who are vegan are bad news for our non-human neighbors because you don’t need a gun or a slaughterhouse to do plenty of damage. Like the body, the planet is resilient, and species have always disappeared by the multitude, but how much is too much? The opening of “Killing Machines” an Economist review of New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History:

“BLEAK headlines abound about species on the brink. Monarch butterflies in Mexico are struggling. So are starfish in America, vultures in South Asia and coral reefs everywhere.

This is depressing stuff. It’s also a glimpse of the future. As the climate warms, catastrophe looms. Yet it is oddly pleasurable to read Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, which offers a ramble through mass extinctions, present and past. Five such episodes in the past 450m years have wiped out plant and animal life on huge scales. A sixth appears to be upon us.

Ms Kolbert, who writes for the New Yorker, uses case studies to document the crisis. Setting out for Panama to investigate a vanishing species of frog, she learns that amphibians are the world’s most imperilled class of animal. Close to her home in New England, a fast-spreading fungus has left bat corpses strewn through caves. On a tiny island off Australia’s coast, she laments the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef by ocean acidification, sometimes known as global warming’s ‘evil twin.’

A new geological epoch may have arrived. Some scientists have dubbed it the ‘Anthropocene’ after its human perpetrators.”


“The sixth extinction is being caused by an invasive species”:

If you’ve never watched it, here’s the 1991 BBC program, Don DeLillo: The Word, The Image, and The Gun. If I had to pick my favorite of his novels, I would say that I probably got the most pleasure from White Noise. Although “pleasure” is an admittedly odd word choice given the book’s topic is an airborne toxic event. I think the majority of his readers would choose Underworld or Libra.

Mao II is such a strange thing: Published the same year as this show, that novel has wooden characters and plotting, but it’s so eerily correct about the coming escalation of terrorism, how guns would become bombs and airplanes would not just be redirected but repurposed. It’s like DeLillo tried to alert us to a targets drawn in chalk on all sides of the Twin Towers, but we never really fully noticed. 

This program is a great portrait of DeLillo and his “dangerous secrets” about technology, surveillance, film, news, the novel, art and the apocalypse.


In a New York Review of Books essay, Freeman Dyson writes with his typical grace about a new volume which argues that erroneous scientific theories are a natural and necessary thing. An excerpt:

Brilliant Blunders, by Mario Livio, is a lively account of five wrong theories proposed by five great scientists during the last two centuries. These examples give for nonexpert readers a good picture of the way science works. The inventor of a brilliant idea cannot tell whether it is right or wrong. Livio quotes the psychologist Daniel Kahneman describing how theories are born: ‘We can’t live in a state of perpetual doubt, so we make up the best story possible and we live as if the story were true.’ A theory that began as a wild guess ends as a firm belief. Humans need beliefs in order to live, and great scientists are no exception. Great scientists produce right theories and wrong theories, and believe in them with equal conviction.

The essential point of Livio’s book is to show the passionate pursuit of wrong theories as a part of the normal development of science. Science is not concerned only with things that we understand. The most exciting and creative parts of science are concerned with things that we are still struggling to understand. Wrong theories are not an impediment to the progress of science. They are a central part of the struggle.

The five chief characters in Livio’s drama are Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. Each of them made major contributions to the understanding of nature, and each believed firmly in a theory that turned out to be wrong.”

Tags: , ,

It kind of appalls me that as a kid I didn’t really recognize how mean David Letterman was at the time. Hilarious and brilliant, sure, but oh so cruel. It just didn’t register with me. Now I cringe. Here he is in 1992 having fun at the expense of novelist Tama Janowitz, who was having her last moment as a very public writer.

Tags: ,

The idiosyncratic geneticist Svante Pääbo, whose new book has just been published, has taught us much about our ancient roots, our ties to Neanderthals and Denisovans. From Robin McKie’s Guardian profile of Pääbo, a passage about the scientist’s research on the former:

“His results provided a shock for both researchers and the public. When he compared his newly created Neanderthal genome with those of modern humans, he found a small but significant overlap in many of them. About 2% of Neanderthal genes could be found in people of European, Asian and far eastern origin. People from Africa had no Neanderthal genes, however. ‘This was not a technical error of some sort,’ Pääbo insists. ‘Neanderthals had contributed DNA to people living today. It was amazingly cool. Neanderthals were not totally extinct.’

Most scientists, including Pääbo, now account for this result by arguing that modern humans – when they first emerged from Africa – encountered and mated with Neanderthals in the Middle East. Their offspring carried some Neanderthal genes and as modern humans swept through Asia and Europe they carried these genes with them.

neanderthalstampThe revelation that many humans possess Neanderthal genes fascinated the public. Dozens of individuals have since written to Pääbo claiming to be full Neanderthals. Intriguingly, nearly all of them have been men. The only women who wrote did so to say they thought their husbands were Neanderthals. ‘I think that says a lot about our image of Neanderthals,’ says Pääbo.

Just what that input of Neanderthal DNA has done for Homo sapiens’s evolution is less clear. Pääbo speculates that changes in sperm mobility and alterations in skin cell structure could be involved. In addition, US researchers have recently proposed that Neanderthals passed on gene variants that may have had a beneficial effects in the past but which have now left people prone to type 2 diabetes and Crohn’s disease. ‘This is work that is going to go on for years,’ he adds.”

Tags: ,

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who thinks the sky may be fake or falling, has a new title, Superintelligence, which is about the Singularlity, out later this year. An excerpt from Bookseller about it, and then a passage from a 2007 New York Times article in which I first encountered Bostrom’s version of our world as a computer simulation.


From Bookseller:

“’Everyone wonders when we’ll create a machine that’s as smart as us—or maybe just a little bit smarter than us. What people can fail to realise is that’s not the end of the process, rather [it’s] the beginning,’ [Oxford University Press science publisher Keith] Mansfield commented. ‘The smart machine will be capable of improving itself, becoming smarter still. Very quickly, we may see an intelligence explosion, with humanity left far behind.’

Just as the fate of gorillas now depends more on humans than on gorillas themselves, so the fate of our species would come to depend on the actions of machine superintelligence, Bostrom’s book will argue.”


From “Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch,” by John Tierney:

“Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or ‘posthumans,’ could run ‘ancestor simulations’ of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.

Some computer experts have projected, based on trends in processing power, that we will have such a computer by the middle of this century, but it doesn’t matter for Dr. Bostrom’s argument whether it takes 50 years or 5 million years. If civilization survived long enough to reach that stage, and if the posthumans were to run lots of simulations for research purposes or entertainment, then the number of virtual ancestors they created would be vastly greater than the number of real ancestors.

There would be no way for any of these ancestors to know for sure whether they were virtual or real, because the sights and feelings they’d experience would be indistinguishable. But since there would be so many more virtual ancestors, any individual could figure that the odds made it nearly certain that he or she was living in a virtual world.

The math and the logic are inexorable once you assume that lots of simulations are being run. But there are a couple of alternative hypotheses, as Dr. Bostrom points out. One is that civilization never attains the technology to run simulations (perhaps because it self-destructs before reaching that stage). The other hypothesis is that posthumans decide not to run the simulations.

‘This kind of posthuman might have other ways of having fun, like stimulating their pleasure centers directly,’ Dr. Bostrom says. ‘Maybe they wouldn’t need to do simulations for scientific reasons because they’d have better methodologies for understanding their past. It’s quite possible they would have moral prohibitions against simulating people, although the fact that something is immoral doesn’t mean it won’t happen.’

Dr. Bostrom doesn’t pretend to know which of these hypotheses is more likely, but he thinks none of them can be ruled out.”

Tags: ,

I agree with Douglas Hofstadter that today’s AI isn’t true AI because it can’t really think, but the machines we have (and are soon to have) possess an amazing utility. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age, believe as most do, that the near-term Computer Age will be rocky, but they’re more sanguine about long-term prospects. They see the Google Glass as half full. An excerpt from their new Atlantic piece:

“Today, people with connected smartphones or tablets anywhere in the world have access to many (if not most) of the same communication resources and information that we do while sitting in our offices at MIT. They can search the Web and browse Wikipedia. They can follow online courses, some of them taught by the best in the academic world. They can share their insights on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and many other services, most of which are free. They can even conduct sophisticated data analyses using cloud resources such as Amazon Web Services and R, an open source application for statistics.13 In short, they can be full contributors in the work of innovation and knowledge creation, taking advantage of what Autodesk CEO Carl Bass calls ‘infinite computing.’

Until quite recently rapid communication, information acquisition, and knowledge sharing, especially over long distances, were essentially limited to the planet’s elite. Now they’re much more democratic and egalitarian, and getting more so all the time. The journalist A. J. Liebling famously remarked that, ‘Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.’ It is no exaggeration to say that billions of people will soon have a printing press, reference library, school, and computer all at their fingertips.

We believe that this development will boost human progress. We can’t predict exactly what new insights, products, and solutions will arrive in the coming years, but we are fully confident that they’ll be impressive. The second machine age will be characterized by countless instances of machine intelligence and billions of interconnected brains working together to better understand and improve our world. It will make mockery out of all that came before.”

Tags: , ,

I think the culture is much fuller, not narrower, in this wired and connected time. The “barbarians” have finally stormed the gates, and the whole system has been decentralized. That’s a good thing. But I suppose it depends on how you define “culture.” In “Cheap Words,” George Packer’s latest New Yorker piece, he looks at the battle between Amazon and publishers over the value of books and the nature of their distribution. Toward the end, the writer makes this more macro point:

“This conversation, though important, takes place in the shallows and misses the deeper currents that, in the digital age, are pushing American culture under the control of ever fewer and more powerful corporations.”

I don’t agree with that because I’m defining “culture” differently than Packer, but the writer makes a lot of excellent points on the micro level about the great book battle, because being able to get books cheaply now is wonderful but could have future implications. An excerpt:

“Lately, digital titles have levelled off at about thirty per cent of book sales. Whatever the temporary fluctuations in publishers’ profits, the long-term outlook is discouraging. This is partly because Americans don’t read as many books as they used to—they are too busy doing other things with their devices—but also because of the relentless downward pressure on prices that Amazon enforces. The digital market is awash with millions of barely edited titles, most of it dreck, while readers are being conditioned to think that books are worth as little as a sandwich. ‘Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value,’ [Dennis] Johnson said. ‘It’s a widget.’

There are two ways to think about this. Amazon believes that its approach encourages ever more people to tell their stories to ever more people, and turns writers into entrepreneurs; the price per unit might be cheap, but the higher number of units sold, and the accompanying royalties, will make authors wealthier. Jane Friedman, of Open Road, is unfazed by the prospect that Amazon might destroy the old model of publishing. ‘They are practicing the American Dream—competition is good!’ she told me. Publishers, meanwhile, ‘have been banks for authors. Advances have been very high.’ In Friedman’s view, selling digital books at low prices will democratize reading: ‘What do you want as an author—to sell books to as few people as possible for as much as possible, or for as little as possible to as many readers as possible?’

The answer seems self-evident, but there is a more skeptical view. Several editors, agents, and authors told me that the money for serious fiction and nonfiction has eroded dramatically in recent years; advances on mid-list titles—books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring—have declined by a quarter. These are the kinds of book that particularly benefit from the attention of editors and marketers, and that attract gifted people to publishing, despite the pitiful salaries. Without sufficient advances, many writers will not be able to undertake long, difficult, risky projects. Those who do so anyway will have to expend a lot of effort mastering the art of blowing their own horn. ‘Writing is being outsourced, because the only people who can afford to write books make money elsewhere—academics, rich people, celebrities,’ Colin Robinson, a veteran publisher, said. ‘The real talent, the people who are writers because they happen to be really good at writing—they aren’t going to be able to afford to do it.’”

Tags: , ,

Economist editors discuss how Big Data is changing human modeling, how it can be used to predict–even direct–group behavior, with MIT’s Alex Pentland, author of the new book, Social Physics. Watch six-minute video here.


In reviewing a trio of new books for the Financial Times, philosopher Stephen Cave ponders what it is that sets humanity apart. I would say it’s the ability to create and use complex tools, because we certainly suck at swimming and flying and running when compared to other species. We need all the help we can get. The opening:

“You might think that we humans are special: no other species has, for example, landed on the moon, or invented the iPad. But then, I personally haven’t done those things either. So if such achievements are what makes us human then I must be relegated to the beasts, except in so far as I can catch a little reflected glory from true humans such as Neil Armstrong or Steve Jobs.

Fortunately, there are other, more inclusive, ideas around about what makes us human. Not long ago, most people (in the west) were happy with the account found in the Bible: we are made in the image of God – end of argument. But the theory of evolution tells a different story, one in which humans slowly emerged as a twig on the tree of life. The problem with this explanation is that it is much more difficult to say exactly what makes us so different from all the other twigs.

Indeed, in the light of new research into animal intelligence, some scientists have concluded that there simply is no profound difference between us and other species.”



In 1976, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest opened to tremendous critical acclaim, but author Ken Kesey, who adapted his own novel for the film version, felt ripped off financially and planned on suing the film’s producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz. Kesey was simultaneously having a feud with Whole Earth Catalog legend Stewart Brand. From John Riley’s People profile from that year about the litigious writer who was at the time running his own cattle farm in Oregon:

“At midnight almost everyone is asleep and, besides the family, that includes the bull and cows, the horses and sheep, three cats, three dogs, an ostentation of peacocks and a blue-and-yellow macaw named Roomiago.

But Ken Kesey is awake. He ambles out to a small shed where the farmer moonlights as a writer. He warms himself beside a wood-burning stove and reads from a collection of James Joyce’s letters. Then, finding encouragement in a toss of his I Ching coins, he moves over to the IBM Selectric and begins to tap out another installment of a seven-part novel being published under the byline of its heroine, ‘Grandma Whittier,’ in a magazine that Kesey publishes. He calls the magazine Spit in the Ocean. Its rotating editorship currently has befallen LSD prophet Timothy Leary in his San Diego prison cell.

With the exception of an anthology of his and his friends’ literary ‘leftovers’ called Kesey’s Garage Sale (Viking, 1973), the author has given nearly all his recent output to out-of-the-mainstream publications. Last November at a poetry conference in Santa Cruz, Calif., he read a section of an unpublished long novel called The Demon Box to great applause. It is about cattle raising. Stewart Brand, creator of the celebrated Whole Earth catalogs, was promised an excerpt for his CoEvolution Quarterly for $150. But the perpetually cashless Kesey became miffed at Brand’s refusal to lend an occasional $5 for a tank of gasoline. Furthermore, Kesey says he heard that Brand was passing the word that the author was just playing broke, that he could turn $50,000 in New York at any moment. Kesey decided to publish in the big time again, and for $2,500 he allowed Esquire to run the excerpt in its March issue. 

Tags: , , , ,

I’m starting to believe that Philip Roth is serious about his retirement from writing novels. Of course, he’s spoken recently about how he feels the novel itself is “retiring.” It’s kind of difficult to argue based on the evidence, based on how much storytelling has changed, how much more it will likely soon change. But I still hold out hope, still think words will be everywhere. The opening of Alison Flood’s new Guardian piece about the great novelist in (at least) repose:

A happily retired Philip Roth is spending his days swimming, watching baseball and nature-spotting, revelling in the fact that ‘there’s more to life than writing and publishing fiction,’ according to a new interview.

Reiterating his bleak view about the future of literature – that ‘two decades on the size of the audience for the literary novel will be about the size of the group who read Latin poetry’ – the 80-year-old Roth told Stanford scholar Cynthia Haven that his disengagement from the world of writing is still very much in evidence. Asked by Haven if he really believes his talent – which has won him the Man Booker International prize and made him a perennial contender for the Nobel – will ‘let [him] quit’ writing, Roth responded: ‘You better believe me, because I haven’t written a word of fiction since 2009.’

‘I have no desire to write fiction,’ said the Pulitzer prize-winning literary giant. ‘I did what I did and it’s done. There’s more to life than writing and publishing fiction. There is another way entirely, amazed as I am to discover it at this late date.’

Instead: ‘I swim, I follow baseball, look at the scenery, watch a few movies, listen to music, eat well and see friends. In the country I am keen on nature.’

He is also studying 19-century American history.”

Tags: , ,

« Older entries § Newer entries »