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Hearing voices is, it turns out, surprisingly common. In 1894, a team led by Henry Sidgwick, a philosopher at the University of Cambridge, published the Census of Hallucinations, which surveyed 17,000 people in the United Kingdom and found that around 10 percent of them reported having seen, heard, or felt something “which impression, so far as you can discover, was not due to any external physical cause.” Many more recent studies have supported that observation. In 1983, two psychologists, Thomas Posey and Mary Losch, modified Sidgwick’s basic question and found that the rate skyrocketed to 70 percent when participants were given the opportunity to say that they had heard a voice but decided that it wasn’t real. And as many as 80 percent of people who have lost a loved one report hearing, seeing, or feeling them in the months after their death.
For years, I have spoken with such people. I study the odd and the uncanny—voices, visions, the supernatural. I seek out people who have experienced otherworldly events, and as I have published my research they have sought me out in turn. People have told me that while they were driving, God spoke up from the back seat and said that he would always love them, or that as they stood looking at the ocean, the waves became light and language. Others have shrugged and said that they were speeding and God’s voice came over the radio to tell them to slow down.
Imagine a year where what we’ve long taken for granted, that technology destroys jobs but also creates new and better jobs, is discovered to no longer be true. Instead, machines permanently displace human labor, and what new jobs are created, are mostly worse jobs.
An ever decreasing percentage of the population is employed, and for a majority of those left in the labor market, incomes decrease, hours worked increase, monthly income variance grows more extreme, time between jobs grows, jobs themselves become more akin to tasks, employer-provided benefits become more rare, and the bonds that hold society together begin to fray as inequality grows ever more extreme.
What year do you predict such a future comes to pass? 2030? 2040? 2050 and beyond if even then?
The answer will vary nation by nation, but in the US, the answer is right around 1990. Yes, it already happened. It’s not in the future. It’s in the past.
William Trevor was the literary heir of Chekhov, Maupassant and the James Joyce of the short-story collection Dubliners. He was one of the great contemporary chroniclers of the human condition, in all its pathos, comedy and strangeness. As a writer he looked at the world with an always surprised but never scandalised eye, and his writer’s heart was with those awkward and obscurely damaged souls who cannot quite manage the business of everyday life – all of us, that is.
The philosopher John Dewey beautifully designated Ralph Waldo Emerson “the poet of ordinary days”. The same can be said of Trevor. As every maker of fiction knows – and, indeed, as every poet knows, too – the most difficult thing to write about is the so-called ordinary. Emerson himself declared that “a man is a god in ruins”, and although Trevor’s epiphanies are small-scale and even mundane, nevertheless the god is radiantly manifest in all his work. What this wonderful writer shows us is that in fact there is nothing ordinary about the ordinary.
Fifty years ago today, the first installment of Charles Portis’s True Grit was published in the Saturday Evening Post. It was reprinted in book form by Simon & Schuster later that year, adapted into a movie (with John Wayne!) the year after, and became a bestseller. It had entered into the murky realm of cult literary classic when it was adapted to film for a second time (with Jeff Bridges!) in 2010, and now I’d rate it as Pretty Famous. If you haven’t read the novel, I will tell you that—even for someone who doesn’t typically go in for Westerns—it is wonderful, due in large part to its narrator, Mattie Ross. There may be action and adventure between these pages, but Mattie Ross’s voice is what makes this novel unforgettable. As Ed Park once put it, Mattie’s “steadfast, unsentimental voice—Portis’s sublime ventriloquism—maintains such purity of purpose that the prose seems engraved rather than merely writ.”
With the death of Stephen Hawking and the discussion it produced on black holes it was a little surprising that there was little or no mention of the man who created the subject, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who died in 1967 at the age of 62. He often said that the J stood for nothing but I have a copy of his birth certificate on which his first name is given as ‘Julius’. In his day Oppenheimer was the most celebrated physicist in the United States. His portrait had been on the cover of Time magazine and he was on first-name terms with much of the Washington establishment, until he lost his security clearance in 1954.
It was said by people who had known him before that the experience changed him profoundly and he appeared diminished. He did not appear diminished to me when when I arrived at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1957 and was ushered into his office. The first thing he asked me was what was ‘new and firm’ in physics.
Upper-middle-class professionals love data. We tend to think that the smug, smart people who run companies like Google and Uber have some secret knowledge; we even give them our personal information, uneasily, but ultimately with a bit of a shrug. We’re seduced by similar smug, smart, supposed innovators hawking data’s potential to revolutionize health care and education. We assume technology and the information it yields is making everyone’s life easier, freer and more comfortable.
Virginia Eubanks begs to differ, with the authority to do so. For the poor, she argues, government data and its abuses have imposed a new regime of surveillance, profiling, punishment, containment and exclusion, which she evocatively calls the “digital poorhouse.” While technology is often touted by researchers and policymakers as a way to deliver services to the poor more efficiently, Eubanks shows that more often, it worsens inequality. Data can’t provide what poor people need, which is more resources. Indeed, as with the 19th-century poorhouse, she argues, the shiny new digital one allows us to “manage the individual poor in order to escape our shared responsibility for eradicating poverty.”
Although Eubanks is an activist and a political-science professor (at the University of Albany, SUNY), “Automating Inequality” is a work of investigative journalism. She travels to Indiana, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, conducting illuminating interviews with administrators, social services staff and, most powerfully, people unlucky enough to reside in the digital poorhouse.
I remember the moment when code began to interest me. It was the tail end of 2013 and a cult was forming around a mysterious “crypto-currency” called bitcoin in the excitable tech quarters of London, New York and San Francisco. None of the editors I spoke to had heard of it – very few people had back then – but eventually one of them commissioned me to write the first British magazine piece on the subject. The story is now well known. The system’s pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, had appeared out of nowhere, dropped his ingenious system of near-anonymous, decentralised money into the world, then vanished, leaving only a handful of writings and 100,000 lines of code as clues to his identity. Not much to go on. Yet while reporting the piece, I was astonished to find other programmers approaching Satoshi’s code like literary critics, drawing conclusions about his likely age, background, personality and motivation from his style and approach. Even his choice of programming language – C++ – generated intrigue. Though difficult to use, it is lean, fast and predictable. Programmers choose languages the way civilians choose where to live and some experts suspected Satoshi of not being “native” to C++. By the end of my investigation I felt that I knew this shadowy character and tingled with curiosity about the coder’s art. For the very first time I began to suspect that coding really was an art, and would reward examination.
Machines drove the first Industrial Revolution. The power of the one roiling our world now lies not in silicon and brushed steel but in a teeming cosmos of software: the code conjured by an invisible cadre of programmers. Unlike the achievements of previous revolutions, what code does is near impossible for most people to understand. Museums around the world memorialise the age of steam; picture books explain to children how engines work. It is hard to imagine how you might curate an exhibition on the age of code. Yet though most of us barely give it a thought, our relationship with code has become symbiotic, governing nearly every aspect of our lives. The accelerator in your new car no longer has any physical connection to the throttle – the motion of your foot will be converted into binary numbers by some of the 100m lines of code that tell the vehicle what to do. Turn on your TV or radio, use a credit card, check in a bag at the airport, change the temperature in your fridge, get an X-ray at the dentist, text a family member, listen to music on anything other than vinyl or read this article online and each of your desires will be fulfilled by code. You may think you’re wedded to your iPhone – what you really love is the bewitching code that lies within it.
It was noon in early 1942 as Johann Grüner approached the ‘German House’ in the Polish town of Nowy Targ for lunch. As a mid-level Nazi bureaucrat in occupied Poland, he enjoyed the privileges of power and the opportunity for career advancement that came with duty in the East. The German House, a mix of cultural centre, restaurant and pub, was one of the privileges enjoyed by the occupiers. As he entered the building, he could hear a boisterous celebration within. At the front door, a clearly inebriated Gestapo official passed by, a beer coaster with the number 1,000 written in red pinned to his blouse. Addressing Grüner, the policeman drunkenly bragged: ‘Man, today I am celebrating my 1,000th execution!’
At first glance, the incident at the German House might appear to be a grotesque aberration involving a single depraved Nazi killer. However, such ‘celebrations’ were widespread in the occupied Eastern territories as members of the notorious Schutzstaffel (SS) and the German police routinely engaged in celebratory rituals after mass killings. In fact, among the perpetrators of genocide, heavy drinking was common at the killing sites, in pubs and on bases throughout Poland and the Soviet Union. In another horrific example, a group of policemen charged with the cremation of some 800 Jewish corpses used the occasion to tap a keg. In this case, one of the men, named Müller, had the ‘honour’ of setting fire to ‘his Jews’ as he and his colleagues sat around the fire drinking beer. In a similar case, a Jewish woman recalled the aftermath of a killing operation at Przemyśl in Poland: ‘I smelled the odour of burning bodies and saw a group of Gestapo men who sat by the fire, singing and drinking.’ For these Gestapo men, ‘victory celebrations’ proved to be the order of the day, and followed every killing action or ‘liberation from the Jews’.
When civil war broke out in Lebanon in the mid-1970s, Lebanese art had just gone through an avant-garde flowering, much of it detached from the grit of daily life and driven by a search for its own text-centric truths. The war’s opening battle, in 1975, between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Kataeb Christian militia, brought writers, along with everyone else, to the ground. The initial conflict inspired alliances in accord with relatively clear political and religious affiliations. A young Elias Khoury, compelled by the injustices done to Palestinians—which he would later explore in Gate of the Sun—fought on the Palestinian side. But Khoury didn’t last long as a simultaneous novelist and soldier; his 1981 novel, White Masks, drove a wedge between him and the PLO.
“Flesh,” the title of a small, potent, and timely Chaim Soutine retrospective, elegantly curated by Stephen Brown, at the Jewish Museum, is genteel. “Meat” would better fit the show’s focus on the ferocious paintings of plucked fowl and bloody animal carcasses that the great and, I believe, underrated Russian-French artist made in the mid-nineteen-twenties, in Paris. Other uses of “meat,” for an argument’s main point or for any solid content, apply as well. The centerpiece of the show, “Carcass of Beef” (circa 1925), on loan from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in Buffalo, activates all those meanings. Painted in reds and blues as luminous as those of Gothic stained glass, it communes with Rembrandt’s seventeenth-century masterpiece “The Slaughtered Ox,” which Soutine contemplated often and intensely in the Louvre, and it crackles with formal improvisations (one swift white line rescues a large blue zone from incoherence) and wild emotion. It’s an event—an emergence, an emergency—that transpires ceaselessly while you look. Soutine has long been a marginal figure in modern-art history. Clement Greenberg, in 1951, adjudged his work “exotic” and “futile,” owing to its lack of “reassuring unity” and “decorative ordering.” But today Soutine feels of the moment, amid quite enough reassurance and decorativeness in recent art.
Cemeteries face a sort of life-or-death crisis. The increasing popularity of cremation has meant that cemeteries are no longer critical to storing remains, while mourning on social media has removed the necessity of cemeteries as a primary place to mourn. Public mourning also has re-emerged with the widespread acceptance of roadside shrines, ghost bikes (white bikes placed on the roadside where a cyclist died), memorial vinyl decals for the back windows of cars, and memorial tattoos. While zombies roam the big and small screen, real death has returned to our streets, building walls, vehicles, and even bodies.