A few notes on James Gleick’s time-travel book (in lieu of a review)

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James Gleick is the most elegant of companions. His tours take you places you probably wouldn’t have thought were related, much as James Burke did in his television series Connections. In Time Travel, his most recent book, Gleick comes to grips with time, our scientific understanding of it, our view of history, and our cultural fascination with ways of moving through time, whether in memory or through science fiction. Guests on the itinerary include H. G. Wells and Hugo Gernsback, Isaac Asimov and Kingsley Amis, Henri Bergson and Albert Einstein, Robert Heinlein and David Foster Wallace, E. M. Forster and Vladimir Nabokov and Italo Calvino, Kurt Gödel and Lee Smolin. The subjects include time travel itself and time capsules and time messaging, clocks and determinism and alternative histories. (Maria Popova, in her post on the book, calls it “a most exquisitely annotated compendium of the body of time literature.” Popova neglects to mention that she’s named in Gleick’s acknowledgments and presumably shaped the discussion, and as usual all of her links lead only to other entries on her own site, but her post is a thorough and enjoyable celebration of Gleick’s book.) It’s both informative and fun, yet it feels a little diffuse, as if all these ideas are more familiar and more clearly connected than in some of Gleick’s other books but yield less readily to new insights. Continue reading

The consolations of comedy: Goldoni at TFANA

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Steven Epp, as Truffaldino, at center, with other members of the cast of TFANA’s The Servant of Two Masters (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Many of us, if you set aside the large portion of the electorate that didn’t bother to vote, feel as if we recently went through something more like a military campaign than a political one, and whether you lost, won, or just watched, you may be ready for some R&R. At the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, Theatre for a New Audience is now offering a tonic for the troops, in the form of a piece of giddy delight called The Servant of Two Masters.

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Sunday miscellany: Spinoza, website ads, and a viral outbreak

A possible goal: non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere (not to laugh, to cry, or to condemn, but to understand). From Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.


From something that happened earlier today: It’s funny but kind of stupid when a timed pop-up ad gets in the way of a timed display ad on a web page. If I were one of those clever smarty-pants web writers who’s always talking about things that happen on the web, I might try to work up an essay about this. Continue reading

Ted Chiang’s arrival: the story of his life may be about to change

A long writing project has occupied me for much of this weekend. Hence no brilliant, probing, and thoughtful post today—nor any other kind either, except for a few quick notes.

On Friday night, a friend and I saw the new science-fiction film Arrival. Our capsule judgment is that it’s not bad, but it’s not very good either. It seems at times to want to be a Terence Malick film but misses, and it accomplishes too little in the time it occupies. However, I highly recommend the story on which it’s based, “Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang, first published in 1998 (and when you read it, pay attention to the verb tenses). Continue reading

Gleanings: from recent reading on music, social media, VR games, and feminist SF

In the ars gratia artis view, works of art are their own end and shouldn’t serve any external purpose, but most of us use art all the time. J. S. Bach composed a piece of music, now known as the Goldberg Variations, that was reportedly meant to occupy the restless mind of a patron while he tried to get to sleep. More recently, composer Max Richter (whom I wrote about here) crafted an eight-hour-long project called Sleep, which is meant to be heard while sleeping. Continue reading

Politics got you down? Try a little West Wing therapy

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Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda, from the live debate in Season Seven of The West Wing (photo courtesy of Mitchell Haddad/NBC)

“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” Gerald Ford declared in 1974, after being sworn in as the 38th president of the United States. The current presidential election campaign—which has been far from a clean, issues-oriented matter—strikes me as something of a nightmare, and I’m tempted to say that it’s almost over, but the thing about nightmares is that you never really know where you are. Admittedly, the campaign itself is nearing its end. But where the vote count is concerned, anyone who expected to learn the outcome on the night of November 7, 2000, was frustrated in the extreme, and something of the kind may happen again. And when the election finally is settled and a new president takes office, who knows what will follow? Continue reading

Zombie apocalypse yada yada yada: Looking at The Walking Dead

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Decisions, decisions: Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his little friend. (Photo by Gene Page/AMC)

The previous season of The Walking Dead ended with a cliffhanger. Many members of what I think of as Our Gang—the collection of characters at the center of the show’s long-running narrative—were captured by a group that calls itself the Saviors, and in retaliation for Our Gang’s having wiped out almost everyone at a Saviors outpost, their leader, the fearsome Negan, has lined up all the captives and intends, to put it flatly, to kill one of them. They’re on their knees, and he’s walking back and forth, hefting his barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat, which he has fondly nicknamed Lucille, wondering how to decide. “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,” he was reciting (if memory serves) when last we saw him. In attacking that outpost, Our Gang was trying to deal with a threat before it got worse, but I don’t think this development is meant to point out the risks of being pro-active. Tonight, when Season Seven of The Walking Dead begins (it’s on the AMC cable channel), the question raised by the cliffhanger will be answered, in a deliberate but deliberately random, and probably rather gruesome, act of violence. Apart from reducing the cast list by one, the setup and the payoff will likely serve mainly to assert yet again the show’s dark vision, in which zombies are a constant and potentially deadly nuisance but the real threat, like that hell spoken of in Sartre’s No Exit, is other people. Continue reading