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The New Yorker


Learning from the Failure of Reconstruction

The New Yorker

Last Wednesday, January 6th, a day after Georgia elected its first Black senator, a mob encouraged by Donald Trump and his false claims of election fraud stormed Capitol Hill, resulting in at least five deaths. Despite widespread condemnation of these events, the F.B.I. revealed on Monday that it expects protests at all fifty state capitals in the days leading up to next Wednesday, when Joe Biden will be inaugurated as President. These events have drawn comparisons to coup attempts around the world, but also to the Reconstruction era, when white mobs inflicted violence on citizens and legislators throughout the South. To better understand the lessons of Reconstruction for our times, I recently spoke by phone with Eric Foner, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia, and one of the country's leading experts on Reconstruction. During the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed the use of Confederate imagery by those who stormed the Capitol, balancing unity and punishment in the wake of terror, and the historical significance of the two Georgia Senate runoffs.


Is It Really Too Late to Learn New Skills?

The New Yorker

Among the things I have not missed since entering middle age is the sensation of being an absolute beginner. It has been decades since I've sat in a classroom in a gathering cloud of incomprehension (Algebra 2, tenth grade) or sincerely tried, lesson after lesson, to acquire a skill that was clearly not destined to play a large role in my life (modern dance, twelfth grade). Learning to ride a bicycle in my early thirties was an exception--a little mortifying when my husband had to run alongside the bike, as you would with a child--but ultimately rewarding. Less so was the time when a group of Japanese schoolchildren tried to teach me origami at a public event where I was the guest of honor--I'll never forget their sombre puzzlement as my clumsy fingers mutilated yet another paper crane. Like Tom Vanderbilt, a journalist and the author of "Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning" (Knopf), I learn new facts all the time but new skills seldom.


Science's Demons, from Descartes to Darwin and Beyond

The New Yorker

It is difficult to count demons. In the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus meets a man on the far side of the Sea of Galilee who is possessed, he asks the demon to identify itself. It replies: "My name is Legion, for we are many." The thirteenth-century German abbot Richalmus suspected the number of demons was incalculable, as numerous as grains of sand in the sea. Three centuries later, when the Dutch physician Johann Weyer composed his demonology, he identified some sixty-nine demons by name, who commanded millions of others: at least eleven hundred and eleven distinct legions, each with six thousand six hundred and sixty-six demons.


Kafka Narrates My Online Teaching Experience

The New Yorker

You are speaking to a grid of black squares. One of the black squares gets a text notification. One of the black squares is today replaced by an image of a naked mole rat. None of the black squares will tell you what they found interesting in the reading. The time has come to adopt the newest learning tool, Floobaroom.


Shigeru Miyamoto Wants to Create a Kinder World

The New Yorker

In 1977, Shigeru Miyamoto joined Nintendo, a company then known for selling toys, playing cards, and trivial novelties. Miyamoto was twenty-four, fresh out of art school. His employer, inspired by the success of a California company named Atari, was hoping to expand into video games. Miyamoto began tinkering with a story about a carpenter, a damsel in distress, and a giant ape. Four years later, Miyamoto had turned the carpenter into a plumber; Mario, and the Super Mario Bros. franchise, had arrived.


The Best Video Games of 2020

The New Yorker

In the Before Times, on transatlantic flights, I would often assume the role of a deadly virus that threatened the human race. The key to success in the game Plague Inc., from 2012, is to mutate in ways that both hasten the virus's spread and impede a vaccine's development. It was perversely enjoyable to pass an hour, forehead smushed against a window, swiping toward extinction. Much like transatlantic travel itself, role-playing a pandemic can appear, at the moment, to be rather unseemly. The medium is ideally suited to coronavirus lockdown, when the boundaries of the physical world contract and the imagination strains for freedom.


Fighting COVID-19 in the Amazon, with Herbs and the Internet

The New Yorker

Indigenous groups in Ecuador have been finding ways to trace and treat COVID-19. When the coronavirus struck an indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Amazon, in April, the initial victims of the disease died without ever being tested. The government's response to this outbreak in the Secoya nation was sluggish--the first test results appeared two weeks after the first death. The Secoya tribal president, Justino Piaguaje, accused the government of abandoning them to their fate in remote communities, surrounded by oil fields and palm plantations. The tribe had just seven hundred members in Ecuador, so the death of an elder meant, in addition to the personal loss of a loved one, the disappearance of language, history, and cultural knowledge.


How Joe Biden Could Help Internet Companies Moderate Harmful Content

The New Yorker

After the buyer used the weapon to kill his estranged wife and two others, the site successfully invoked Section 230 to avoid liability. More recently, Grindr, a dating app, took cover behind Section 230 when Matthew Herrick, an actor in New York, sued the site as a result of false profiles that were created by an ex-boyfriend. The profiles, which included Herrick's home and work addresses, suggested that Herrick had rape fantasies, and that any resistance he put up was part of the fantasy. As a consequence, hundreds of men showed up at his apartment door or at his workplace, at all hours, month after month, forcibly demanding sex. "You look at that law, and it seems very narrow," Herrick's lawyer, Carrie Goldberg, told me.


What if You Could Outsource Your To-Do List?

The New Yorker

Back when the world seemed bright and ambitious--another century, it might have been--I managed to convince myself, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, that what I really needed in my life was an assistant. This was December, the month when traditionally I can no longer outrun the clerical tasks that have stalked me since the middle of the year. I had weeks of crinkled receipts to expense: the year-end tax on negligence. I was halfway through the process of contesting the charge on a vaccine shot that my insurance company had refused to cover, and I had to transcribe hours of interviews before I could begin to write--the only use of my time which generates an income. As a moonless night wore on, filled with snacking and monsters, I futzed with the formulas in my sad expense spreadsheets and knew that these were hours of life I'd never get back.


A Quest to Discover America's First Science-Fiction Writer

The New Yorker

WILEY & HALSTED, No. 3 Wall street, have just received SYMZONIA, or a voyage to the internal world, by capt. As literary landmarks go, it's not quite Emerson greeting Whitman at the start of a great career. But this humble advert may herald the first American science-fiction novel. Although one might point to the crushingly dull "A Flight to the Moon," from 1813, that text is more of a philosophical dialogue than a story, and what little story it has proves to be just a dream. "Symzonia; Voyage of Discovery" is boldly and unambiguously sci-fi.