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James Mattis, a Warrior in Washington

The New Yorker

On January 22nd, two days after President Trump was inaugurated, he received a memo from his new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, recommending that the United States launch a military strike in Yemen. In a forty-year career, Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, had cultivated a reputation for being both deeply thoughtful and extremely aggressive. By law and by custom, the position of Defense Secretary is reserved for civilians, but Mattis was still a marine at heart. He had been out of the military for only three years (the rule is seven), and his appointment required Congress to pass a waiver. For the first time in his professional life, he was going to the Pentagon in a suit and tie. Mattis urged Trump to launch the raid swiftly: the operation, which was aimed at one of the leaders of Al Qaeda in Yemen, required a moonless night, and the window for action was approaching. Under previous Administrations, such attacks entailed ...


Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia

The New Yorker

The ritualized procreation in the novel--effectively, state-sanctioned rape--is extrapolated from the Bible. " 'Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her,' " Atwood recited. "Obviously, they stuck the two together and out came the baby, and it was given to Rachel.


Silicon Valley's Quest to Live Forever

The New Yorker

On a velvety March evening in Mandeville Canyon, high above the rest of Los Angeles, Norman Lear's living room was jammed with powerful people eager to learn the secrets of longevity. When the symposium's first speaker asked how many people there wanted to live to two hundred, if they could remain healthy, almost every hand went up. The venture capitalists were keeping slim to maintain their imposing vitality, the scientists were keeping slim because they'd read--and in some cases done--the research on caloric restriction, and the Hollywood stars were keeping slim because of course. When Liz Blackburn, who won a Nobel Prize for her work in genetics, took questions, Goldie Hawn, regal on a comfy sofa, purred, "I have a question about the mitochondria. I've been told about a molecule called glutathione that helps the health of the cell?" Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells and their mitochondria, which provide energy; some in Hollywood call it "the God molecule." But taken in excess it can muffle a number of bodily repair mechanisms, leading to liver and kidney problems or even the rapid and potentially fatal sloughing of your skin. Blackburn gently suggested that a varied, healthy diet was best, and that no single molecule was the answer to the puzzle of aging. Yet the premise of the evening was that answers, and maybe even an encompassing solution, were just around the corner. The party was the kickoff event for the National Academy of Medicine's Grand Challenge in Healthy Longevity, which will award at least twenty-five million dollars for breakthroughs in the field. Victor Dzau, the academy's president, stood to acknowledge several of the scientists in the room. He praised their work with enzymes that help regulate aging; with teasing out genes that control life span in various dog breeds; and with a technique by which an old mouse is surgically connected to a young mouse, shares its blood, and within weeks becomes younger. Joon Yun, a doctor who runs a health-care hedge fund, announced that he and his wife had given the first two million dollars toward funding the challenge. "I have the idea that aging is plastic, that it's encoded," he said. "If something is encoded, you can crack the code." To growing applause, he went on, "If you can crack the code, you can hack the code!" It's a big ask: more than a hundred and fifty thousand people die every day, the majority of aging-related diseases. Yet Yun believes, he told me, that if we hack the code correctly, "thermodynamically, there should be no reason we can't defer entropy indefinitely. We can end aging forever." Nicole Shanahan, the founder of a patent-management business, announced that her company would oversee longevity-related patents that Yun had pledged to the cause.


Alternate Endings

The New Yorker

Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, young directors who go by the joint film credit Daniels, are known for reality-warped miniatures--short films, music videos, commercials--that are eerie yet playful in mood. In their work, people jump into other people's bodies, Teddy bears dance to hard-core dubstep, rednecks shoot clothes from rifles onto fleeing nudists. Last year, their first feature-length project, "Swiss Army Man"--starring Daniel Radcliffe, who plays a flatulent talking corpse that befriends a castaway--premièred at Sundance, and left some viewers wondering if it was the strangest thing ever to be screened at the festival. The Times, deciding that the film was impossible to categorize, called it "weird and wonderful, disgusting and demented." Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that when the Daniels were notified by their production company, several years ago, that an Israeli indie pop star living in New York wanted to hire them to experiment with technology that could alter fundamental assumptions of moviemaking, they took the call. The musician was Yoni Bloch, arguably the first Internet sensation on Israel's music scene--a wispy, bespectacled songwriter from the Negev whose wry, angst-laden music went viral in the early aughts, leading to sold-out venues and a record deal. After breaking up with his girlfriend, in 2007, Bloch had hoped to win her back by thinking big. He made a melancholy concept album about their relationship, along with a companion film in the mode of "The Wall"--only to fall in love with the actress who played his ex. He had also thought up a more ambitious idea: an interactive song that listeners could shape as it played. But by the time he got around to writing it his hurt feelings had given way to more indeterminate sentiments, and the idea grew to become an interactive music video. The result, "I Can't Be Sad Anymore," which he and his band released online in 2010, opens with Bloch at a party in a Tel Aviv apartment. Standing on a balcony, he puts on headphones, then wanders among his friends, singing about his readiness to escape melancholy. He passes the headphones to others; whoever wears them sings, too. Viewers decide, by clicking on onscreen prompts, how the headphones are passed--altering, in real time, the song's vocals, orchestration, and emotional tone, while also following different micro-dramas. If you choose the drunk, the camera follows her as she races into the bathroom, to Bloch's words "I want to drink less / but be more drunk." Choose her friend instead, and the video leads to sports fans downing shots, with the lyrics "I want to work less / but for a greater cause."


Ted Chiang's Soulful Science Fiction

The New Yorker

In the early nineteen-nineties, a few occurrences sparked something in Ted Chiang's mind. He attended a one-man show in Seattle, where he lives, about a woman's death from cancer. A little later, a friend had a baby and told Chiang about recognizing her son from his movements in the womb. Chiang thought back to certain physical principles he had learned about in high school, in Port Jefferson, New York, having to do with the nature of time. The idea for a story emerged, about accepting the arrival of the inevitable.


The Bot Politic

The New Yorker

In February, I took a job designing the personality of a chatbot called Kai. assistants that she designs, Amy Ingram and Andrew Ingram, schedule meetings over e-mail. Psychologists define human personality according to traits known as the Big Five: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, and neuroticism. Designing Kai, I was able to anticipate off-topic questions with responses that lightly guide the user back to banking, but Alexa and Siri are generalists, set up to be asked anything, which makes defining inappropriate input challenging, I imagine.


Rewriting the Code of Life

The New Yorker

Esvelt, an assistant professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was on his way to present to local health officials a plan for ridding the island of one of its most persistent problems: Lyme disease. Esvelt has spoken about Lyme dozens of times in the past year, not just on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard but at forums around the world, from a synthetic-biology symposium in Chile to President Obama's White House Frontiers Conference, in Pittsburgh. Esvelt plans to release enough genetically modified mice, tens of thousands of them, to overwhelm the wild population. But I would submit that the single most important application of gene drive is not to eradicate malaria or schistosomiasis or Lyme or any other specific project.


Two Ways to Bring Shakespeare Into the Twenty-First Century

The New Yorker

For the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's death, Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, wanted to dazzle. He turned to "The Tempest," the late romance that includes flying spirits, a shipwreck, a vanishing banquet, and a masque-like pageant that the magician Prospero stages to celebrate his daughter's marriage. "The Tempest" was performed at the court of King James I, and it may have been intended in part to showcase the multimedia marvels of Jacobean court masques. "Shakespeare was touching on that new form of theatre," Doran told me recently, over the phone. "So we wanted to think about what the cutting-edge technology is today that Shakespeare, if he were alive now, would be saying, 'Let's use some of that.' " The politics behind Shakespeare and stage illusion are more fraught than usual these days.


The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin

The New Yorker

Politics has been obsessing a lot of people lately, and Ursula K. Le Guin is far from immune to bouts of political anger. In an e-mail to me last winter, she wrote that she felt "eaten up" with frustration at the ongoing occupation of an eastern Oregon wildlife refuge by an armed band of antigovernment agitators led by the brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy. She was distressed by the damage they had done to scientific programs and to historical artifacts belonging to the local Paiute tribe, and critical of the F.B.I. for being so slow to remove these "hairy gunslinging fake cowboys" from public property. She had been mildly cheered up, she added, by following a Twitter feed with the hashtag #BundyEroticFanFic. The high desert of eastern Oregon is one of Le Guin's places.


Sam Altman's Manifest Destiny

The New Yorker

One balmy May evening, thirty of Silicon Valley's top entrepreneurs gathered in a private room at the Berlinetta Lounge, in San Francisco. Paul Graham considered the founders of Instacart, DoorDash, Docker, and Stripe, in their hoodies and black jeans, and said, "This is Silicon Valley, right here." All the founders were graduates of Y Combinator, the startup "accelerator" that Graham co-founded: a three-month boot camp, run twice a year, in how to become a "unicorn"--Valleyspeak for a billion-dollar company. Thirteen thousand fledgling software companies applied to Y Combinator this year, and two hundred and forty were accepted, making it more than twice as hard to get into as Stanford University. After graduating thirteen hundred startups, YC now boasts the power--and the peculiarities--of an island nation.