In the spring of 2011, a small group of engineers working on a secretive project at Google received an e-mail from a colleague. Anthony is going to get fired. Several of the recipients gathered in one of the self-serve espresso bars that dot the company's headquarters, and traded rumors suggesting that Anthony Levandowski--one of the company's most talented and best-known employees--had finally gone too far. Levandowski was a gifted engineer who frequently spoke to newspapers and magazines, including this one, about the future of robotics. On the Google campus, he was easy to pick out: he was six feet seven and wore the same drab clothes every day--jeans and a gray T-shirt--which, in Silicon Valley, signalled that he preferred to conserve his cognitive energies for loftier pursuits.
Yes, I've read the "Comma Sutra," but I only bend one way, so please don't ask. Quotation Mark My last girlfriend "dumped" me because she said I didn't "know" myself well enough to "get" what to do with myself, let "alone" a "girlfriend." Plus, she said it was "annoying" how I kept "coming up" with "sayings" that I thought were "deep." Other things to know about me: I don't "believe" in love. Also, "Love is a sentence.
On the occasion of my sixtieth birthday, my friend Lenny visited me from Toronto. He is seven years older than me, and he gave me some sound advice: respect the limitations of your body. Lenny said that he no longer climbs ladders, even though he is a yoga instructor and his balance is good--climbing ladders just seems like a risky thing for a sixtysomething to do. The advice came just after I had binge-watched the first season of "Westworld," a TV series about machines gaining human consciousness (something that I, like many cognitive neuroscience professors, have been teaching for over ten years). In the world of the show, the bodies of the robots, unlike your body and mine, are easily repaired. A vast robot-repair shop remanufactures and reattaches severed limbs, and efficiently closes gaping wounds. For the past few years, I've been on a kick that I call the "pre-mortem": thinking ahead to what could go wrong and putting systems in place to minimize the damage if they do go wrong. For instance, I got a landline, in case the cell networks go down in a natural disaster such as an earthquake. I've taken cell-phone photos of my passport and credit cards, in case they get lost. I taped an emergency-phone-number list to the inside of the kitchen cabinet that is nearest the phone, and I put a combination-lock box in the back of my house to hold a front-door key, in case I lock myself out. I must have struck a chord with this idea, because my TED talk about it went viral. My wife, Heather, and I have our bedroom upstairs, and there is only one way out in case of a fire--down the stairs and out the front door.
In space, no one can hear you laugh. Ridley Scott's extraterrestrial adventure "Alien: Covenant" is deadly serious about matters that he takes deadly seriously, and the only things that he derides with any irony--muffled and sardonic though it may be--are the movie's snippets of art greater than his own, by artists greater than himself--starting with Richard Wagner, whose "Entry of the Gods into Valhalla" is heard in the first and last scene. The movie's lack of irony is all the more ironic since its subject is the recklessness of mankind in daring to synthesize humans androidally in order to extend our own control over the universe. The pleasure of classic low-budget science-fiction films--the threadbare apocalypses of the nineteen-fifties--is the fusion of authentic fear with the earnestness inherent in comic-book-like creatures and effects. They were movies that, in their exuberant exaggerations, wore their own absurdity with a fiercely straight face, even as they touched on underlying terrors--largely also focussed on the hubris of recklessly manipulating nature.
Funny, I don't think anyone's ever asked me that before. I don't really have a "process," per se, just a simple routine that I meticulously follow every day like a disciplined genius robot. I usually wake up around 5 or 5:05 A.M., and get out of bed immediately. I do not press snooze. I do not start scrolling through Twitter so that the brightness of my phone's L.E.D. screen will force my eyes into awakeness, but then continue reading tweets for so long that my eyes adjust to the brightness and I get sleepy again.
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 ...
Twenty-six years after Talking Heads broke up, David Byrne remains one of New York's most recognizable people. There he is, about town, slim and white-haired--on his bicycle, at a just-opened restaurant, at the Public Theatre (his second musical, "Joan of Arc: Into the Fire," had a run there last month), or at a concert by an artist on his boutique record label, Luaka Bop. Before I took a seat at Carnegie Hall last Friday, then, I periscoped the room, wondering whether he was there and, if he was, whether he would wind up onstage. Angélique Kidjo, born in Benin, long based in Brooklyn, was performing "Remain in Light," and it seemed inevitable that Byrne would show, if only to see what another great artist would do with his strongest, strangest work. The band members strode out and took their places beneath the Stern Auditorium's broad arch: a dozen musicians, female and male, black and white, singers and instrumentalists.
The climbers at Earth Treks gym, in Golden, Colorado, were warming up: stretching, strapping themselves into harnesses, and chalking their hands as they prepared to scale walls stippled with multicolored plastic holds. Seated off to one side, with a slim gray plastic band wrapped around his brow, Erik Weihenmayer was warming up, too--by reading flash cards. "I see an'E' at the end," he said, sweeping his head over the top card, from side to side and up and down. Weihenmayer moved triumphantly on to the next card. Erik Weihenmayer is the only blind person to have climbed Mt. He was born with juvenile retinoschisis, an inherited condition that caused his retinas to disintegrate completely by his freshman year of high school. Unable to play the ball games at which his father and his brothers excelled, he took to climbing after being introduced to it at a summer camp for the blind. He learned to pat the rock face with his hands or tap it with an ice axe to find his next hold, following the sound of a small bell worn by a guide, who also described the terrain ahead. With this technique, he has summited the tallest peaks on all seven continents.
Rod Dreher was forty-four when his little sister died. At the time, he was living in Philadelphia with his wife and children. His sister, Ruthie, lived in their Louisiana home town, outside St. Francisville (pop. Dreher's family had been there for generations, but he had never fit in. As a teen-ager, when his father and sister went hunting he stayed in his room and listened to the Talking Heads; he read "A Moveable Feast" and dreamed of Paris. He left as soon as he could, becoming a television critic for the Washington Times and then a film critic for the New York Post. He was living in Cobble Hill on 9/11, and watched the South Tower fall. He walked with his wife in Central Park. He wrote a book, "Crunchy Cons," about how conservatives like him--"Birkenstocked Burkeans" and "hip homeschooling mamas"--might change America. She was a middle-school teacher, and her husband was a firefighter. She could give a damn about Edmund Burke and the New York Post. She was not a crunchy con, and she found her brother annoying. In truth, annoying wasn't the half of it--there was a rift between Dreher and his family. His father, a health inspector, had never forgiven him for moving away; his nieces found his urbanity condescending. During one New Year's visit, Dreher made bouillabaisse for his parents and his sister; they watched him cook the stew and let him serve it, then declined to eat any: they preferred meals made by a "country cook." Later, Dreher learned that Ruthie and her husband were struggling financially and resented the fact that he made twice their combined salaries for reviewing movies. His father considered him a "user"--someone who succeeded by flouting the rules. Dreher loved his father and sister for their rootedness and their vibrancy. On Mardi Gras, 2010, Ruthie was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
This past week, the novelist Cormac McCarthy published the first nonfiction piece of his career, a three-thousand-word essay titled "The Kekulé Problem," in the popular science magazine Nautilus. It is studded with suggestive details about the anatomy of the human larynx, what happens to dolphins under anesthesia, and the origins of the click sounds in Khoisan languages, all marshalled to illuminate aspects of a profound pair of questions: Why did human language originate, and how is it related to the unconscious mind? Five years ago, I interviewed McCarthy for Newsweek at the Santa Fe Institute, a theoretical-research center where he is a trustee and has spent a considerable portion of the last two decades. The institute is devoted to understanding the fundamental principles of complex systems at a variety of scales, from cell biology to human societies. McCarthy's essay emerged from conversations with its current president, David Krakauer, a computational biologist, and from exchanges with many others colleagues and scientists there over the years.