Did the world become more dangerous last year? The Doomsday Clock says yes.

The Bulletin of [the] Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock forward by 30 seconds, to two and a half minutes to midnight.
—from The Economist Espresso world-in-brief report, Friday morning

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists used to be concerned mainly with the nuclear threat. In its many articles and its Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin addressed such issues as the chilly standoff between the world’s two major nuclear-armed superpowers as each developed new defensive and (more often) offensive systems, the dangers of proliferation as other countries developed nuclear weapons, and so forth. Broadly speaking, it has been worried all along about the fate of the earth, but it tended to view that fate in nuclear terms, as did Jonathan Schell’s book of that name. And the Bulletin’s Clock was adjusted annually on that basis—with regard to whether events of the past 12 months had moved the world closer to or farther from atomic death and destruction.

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In McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane, the Irish situation looks familiar

Mag and Maureen in The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Marie Mullen as Mag and Aisling O’Sullivan as Maureen, in the Druid production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane at BAM. (Photo by Richard Termine)

People are looking around and saying, the jobs are gone, the opportunities are gone, I’m stuck, and I don’t like it. That’s Donald Trump’s America, but also Martin McDonagh’s Ireland as seen in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, his first play, being performed at BAM through February 5. Continue reading

Beyond bad news: There’s more to the story of Yahoo, Twitter, and Volkswagen

It’s the mid-90s, and I’m visiting a colleague’s house after work. He has an account with an Internet service provider; I don’t, and he has offered to show me what’s out there. So he fires up his computer, and we chat over the hiss, squawk, and chime of two modems flirting by phone. Once they’ve mated, they fall silent, and we turn our attention to the Netscape Navigator web browser. My pal has already discovered and bookmarked a number of sites on the World Wide Web that interest him. He shows me a few, and then I, impatient for a broader view, ask him if there’s a directory of some kind, like the ever-growing lists of computerized bulletin-board systems. How do you find a new place to go on the web, if you don’t know about it ahead of time? Simple, he says, taking us to a page with the excitable name “Yahoo!” at the top. The whole thing is simply a handcrafted list of other websites, organized into categories—just what we want.

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Skyfaring: A pilot’s lyrical view of the flying life

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Mark Vanhoenacker is a pilot, and his office is the cockpit of a 747. In this entrancing book, published in 2015, he evokes cloudscapes and sunsets and night skies, the complexities of navigation, the sophistication of the machine he operates (a veritable collaborator that even speaks at critical moments), the knowledge of other cities that accumulates from repeated brief visits, the challenge of “place lag,” and his deepened sense of home as “the place that, wherever I am flying, I know I will return to and be still.” The structure—an unbroken collection of short sections (a paragraph or two, a few pages) grouped by chapter into broad subjects such as “Lift,” “Wayfinding,” “Water,” and “Night”—conveys his experience in an episodic but fluid way, as a succession of observations and meditations and reminiscences in which present and past interweave: I am here; I am thinking about such-and-such; once I did this; often this happens to me. He is always in the middle of things, even when describing departures or arrivals; alert equally to the outer world and the inner, he keeps encountering marvels.

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Going places: on location, VR sickness, and travel

Where are you? The question is both easy to answer and not; it depends on what you think I mean. Maybe, dear reader, you would tell me you’re in Scottsdale, Arizona, or maybe you’d say you’re at home, or maybe you feel yourself to be inside your body, inside your head in fact, somewhere behind your eyes and between your ears. All these things and more—such as “I’m in my 62nd year” or “I’m in a good place right now”—are ways of saying where we are. You might even think to yourself, I’m in the first paragraph of your essay, waiting to see where you’re going with this. (I’m with you on that.)

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Fixing the future: Laurie Penny tackles life extension in her recent novella

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We enter Everything Belongs to the Future, Laurie Penny’s new science-fiction novella (published in October), by way of a letter from prison. From the first page, then, Penny’s book may put us in mind of other reports from confinement such as Oscar Wilde’s, or Antonio Gramsci’s, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, and those writers’ concerns with how we treat the thing we love, what we rebel against, what we believe in—with trust, and justice, and a form of faith—will prove to be Penny’s concerns as well. This particular letter speaks in a woman’s voice, though we don’t know that at first—this one, like the others that punctuate the book, is unsigned, and we only gradually suspect which of the story’s characters is writing—and it speaks retrospectively, hinting darkly at “the awful, terrible thing we did” and other past events. Within the chronology of the story, then, this is a letter from the future, prompting the question of what came before, and the book itself also speaks from a point in time ahead of us; that letter is dated December 5, 2098. Continue reading

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