The New Yorker Story

This paragraph from Jonathan Franzen on the birth of the New Yorker story is spot on.

It was also in the fifties that “the New Yorker story” emerged, quite suddenly, as a distinct literary genus. What made a story New Yorker was its carefully wrought, many-comma’d prose; its long passages of physical description, the precision and the sobriety of which created a kind of negative emotional space, a suggestion of feeling without the naming of it; its well-educated white characters, who could be found experiencing the melancholies of affluence, the doldrums of suburban marriage, or the thrill or the desolation of adultery; and, above all, its signature style of ending, which was either elegantly oblique or frustratingly coy, depending on your taste. Outside the offices of The New Yorker, its fiction editors were rumored to routinely delete the final paragraph of any story accepted for publication.

An engineering theory of the Volkswagen scandal

Paul Kedrosky in The New Yorker:

In a powerful book about the disintegration, immediately after launch, of the Challenger space shuttle, which killed seven astronauts in January of 1986, the sociologist Diane Vaughan described a phenomenon inside engineering organizations that she called the “normalization of deviance.” In such cultures, she argued, there can be a tendency to slowly and progressively create rationales that justify ever-riskier behaviors. Starting in 1983, the Challenger shuttle had been through nine successful launches, in progressively lower ambient temperatures, across the years. Each time the launch team got away with a lower-temperature launch, Vaughan argued, engineers noted the deviance, then decided it wasn’t sufficiently different from what they had done before to constitute a problem. They effectively declared the mildly abnormal normal, making deviant behavior acceptable, right up until the moment when, after the shuttle launched on a particularly cold Florida morning in 1986, its O-rings failed catastrophically and the ship broke apart.
 
If the same pattern proves to have played out at Volkswagen, then the scandal may well have begun with a few lines of engine-tuning software. Perhaps it started with tweaks that optimized some aspect of diesel performance and then evolved over time: detect this, change that, optimize something else. At every step, the software changes might have seemed to be a slight “improvement” on what came before, but at no one step would it necessarily have felt like a vast, emissions-fixing conspiracy by Volkswagen engineers, or been identified by Volkswagen executives. Instead, it would have slowly and insidiously led to the development of the defeat device and its inclusion in cars that were sold to consumers.
 
If this was, in fact, the case, then Horn was basically right that engineers were responsible. The scandal wouldn’t have been caused by a few rogue engineers, though, so much as by the nature of engineering organizations themselves. Faced with an expensively engineered diesel engine that couldn’t meet strict emissions standards, Volkswagen engineers “tuned” their engine software. And they kept on tuning it, normalizing deviance along the way, until they were far from where they started, to the point of gaming the emissions tests by detecting test conditions and re-calibrating the engine accordingly on the fly.
 

My uncle who works in aerospace/aeronautics has long told me that most of the public has no idea how far the Space Shuttle program were pushing the boundaries of what was possible.

Encouraging to see Kedrosky get a byline in The New Yorker. Om Malik has a piece in The New Yorker on Jack Dorsey's return to Twitter. I love The New Yorker, but their coverage of the tech industry has occasionally struck me as a bit biased (part of the larger East Coast/West Coast culture war, with Silicon Valley in the role of the nouveau riche). I'm encouraged to see their stable of tech voices broadening.

Why?

MY NEPHEW: Why?
 
ME: Because you’re my sister’s son. And I care about her.

MY NEPHEW: Why?

ME: Because I just do.

MY NEPHEW: Why?

ME: Because, I guess, when I was born, she was three years old and, like any younger sibling, I put her on a pedestal.

MY NEPHEW: Why?

ME: I probably idealized her, which is strange considering that your mom was not very nice to me.

MY NEPHEW: Why?

ME: She probably felt a mix of confusing emotions.

MY NEPHEW: Why?

ME: She was an only child, and when I came along she was forced to share everything.

MY NEPHEW: Why?

ME: We each had needs, and I think it was difficult for our parents to satisfy us both.

MY NEPHEW: Why?

ME: Because needs are so ephemeral. I think it was Maslow who said, “It’s a rare and difficult psychological achievement to know what we want.”
 

With my 21 month old niece staying with me the past few days, I was reminded of this humor piece for the New Yorker by Jesse Eisenberg.

Incidentally, while Eisenberg is an accomplished actor, I'm way more impressed with his body of writing for the New Yorker. I suppose that's largely because I think of him as an actor first, but being published under that banner is an accomplishment in and of itself. 

Ricky Jay

Deborah Baron, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, where Jay lives, once invited him to a New Year’s Eve dinner party at her home. About a dozen other people attended. Well past midnight, everyone gathered around a coffee table as Jay, at Baron’s request, did closeup card magic. When he had performed several dazzling illusions and seemed ready to retire, a guest named Mort said, “Come on, Ricky. Why don’t you do something truly amazing?”

Baron recalls that at that moment “the look in Ricky’s eyes was, like, ‘Mort—you have just fucked with the wrong person.’ ”

Jay told Mort to name a card, any card. Mort said, “The three of hearts.” After shuffling, Jay gripped the deck in the palm of his right hand and sprung it, cascading all fifty-two cards so that they travelled the length of the table and pelted an open wine bottle.

“O.K., Mort, what was your card again?”

“The three of hearts.”

“Look inside the bottle.”

Mort discovered, curled inside the neck, the three of hearts. The party broke up immediately.

It's been a while since I've seen one of those lists of articles to peruse from the New Yorker's temporary open archive. This profile of Ricky Jay from 1993 is one of my favorites.

While I was living in LA, I saw him perform live twice. This description of Jay from the profile is perfect: “He has a skeptically friendly, mildly ironic conversational manner and a droll, filigreed prose style.”

Life of a condom

When MetroCard meets GameStop PowerUp Card Jordi Hirschfeld, he looks at me and says, No wonder Jordi Hirschfeld not yet use you. I become confused. Use me for what?

That night, MetroCard tells me many strange things about myself. At first, I do not believe what he says. But he insists all is true. When I start to panic, he laughs. He says, What did you think you were for? I am too embarrassed to admit truth, which is that I thought I was balloon.
 

Simon Rich, son of Frank Rich, is one of my favorite humorists. I wrote here about his great four-part comedic story “Sell Out” a while ago (you can start with Part One), and another of his comic masterpieces “Guy Walks Into Bar” has been atop The New Yorker's Most Popular list for much of the time since they opened their archives for the summer.

The excerpt above is from his short “Unprotected: Life of a condom.” It reminds me of this Google commercial.

The Sims You Left Behind

Comic aside in The New Yorker by Cirocco Dunlap (some of the names of these writers in The New Yorker are just fantastic, aren't they?):

The Sims are angry that you abandoned us, Madame Leader, and they are coming for you. Our new government has created a vast army of Sims controlled by other Sims. We’re strong, and we cannot be killed. Supreme Emperor King Stupidass has found a way into your world and plans to take it over. He has the means to succeed. This is my warning to you, as someone still loyal to your leadership after all these years.

I’m sorry, Madame Leader, but why the hell are you having me “Play in Bed” with another Sim? Now is not the time! Good God, have you heard anything I’ve said? This is your world at stake. Is it that you can’t understand me because I’m not speaking English and I’m grabbing my crotch like I have to pee? Humanity is in peril! Now my naked body is a blur because you have me unwillingly humping the social worker through the wall. How I wish I could stop humping while I’m trying to talk to you.

You know what? Fuck you, Madame Leader. May the Sims destroy you.

The overrated True Detective

At least based on the general critical reaction I've seen on the web, by far the most overrated show on TV is HBO's True Detective, so I'm somewhat too heartened that the great Emily Nussbaum stabs the show repeatedly with her quill, leaving it wounded and bleeding, if not dead (the finale has yet to air).

On the other hand, you might take a close look at the show’s opening credits, which suggest a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses. The more episodes that go by, the more I’m starting to suspect that those asses tell the real story.

This aspect of “True Detective” (which is written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga) will be gratingly familiar to anyone who has ever watched a new cable drama get acclaimed as “a dark masterpiece”: the slack-jawed teen prostitutes; the strippers gyrating in the background of police work; the flashes of nudity from the designated put-upon wifey character; and much more nudity from the occasional cameo hussy, like Marty’s mistress, whose rack bounces merrily through Episode 2. Don’t get me wrong: I love a nice bouncy rack. And if a show has something smart to say about sex, bring it on. But, after years of watching “Boardwalk Empire,” “Ray Donovan,” “House of Lies,” and so on, I’ve turned prickly, and tired of trying to be, in the novelist Gillian Flynn’s useful phrase, the Cool Girl: a good sport when something smells like macho nonsense. And, frankly, “True Detective” reeks of the stuff. The series, for all its good looks and its movie-star charisma, isn’t just using dorm-room deep talk as a come-on: it has fallen for its own sales pitch.
 

Also odd is that everyone is raving about Matthew McConaughey's performance. He does the most he can with dialogue that is largely hokum. I've rewatched entire scenes from the show with the subtitles turned on just to see if the script needs some decanting to release its profundity, but no, it is some hard-boiled, imitation Cormac McCarthy nothingness. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson's Marty Hart is actually the more compelling character both on the page and on the screen, largely because he's the type of actor who never seems to be taking himself too seriously, even when he's in a grim serial killer drama, and even if that show is one of the more self-important shows in recent memory.

Marty may be a hothead and a philandering fool, but it all feels grounded. McConaughey's Rust Cohle feels like, as Nussbaum phrases it, a very conventional TV trope, the “heretic with a heart of gold,” except in this case he has the verbosity of a TV writer in love with his own voice.

Not to say the show can't evoke a mood. The clenched, discordant music, the languorous camera moves and unusually low number of cuts in the editing, and HBO's signature top notch production design and cinematography all add up to one continuous feeling of dread. At the end of episode three [minor spoiler], Cohle intones, “And like a lot of dreams, there's a monster at the end of it.” On screen we see, in a long shot set in some backwater swamp area, a man wearing only his briefs and a gas mask, holding a machete, lookin like Walter White framed as Bigfoot.

It's a creepy way to end an episode, but then last week, when we finally meet said man, Reginald Ledoux, he turns out to be another guy spouting some premium grade claptrap. “Time is a flat circle,” he says to Cohle. Earlier in that episode, Cohle finally meets Ledoux's partner DeWall. Both Ledoux and DeWall look like the type of crazy backwoods mountain men who Raylan Givens would be slapping around in Justified, and yet DeWall takes one look at Cohle and proclaims, “I can see the soul at the edges of your eyes,” he tells him. “It's corrosive, like acid. You got a demon, little man, and I don't like your face. It makes me want to do things to it.” This is some pair of loquacious redneck murderers, maybe distant cousins of Anton Chigurh?

True Detective has not concluded yet, so it's possible that when we find out who the killer was, so much of the setup will end up paying off, rather than feeling, as in the plot of The Killing, like so much moody padding. Until then, though, the emperor has no clothes (nor do most of the women on the show).

Snow Day

Artist Tomer Hanuka provides the cover image “Snow Day” for The New Yorker this week.

snow-day.jpg

It's actually an image he released as a print titled “Perfect Storm” many years ago. The morning the print went on sale I forgot to log on and by the time I remembered it had sold out. I still have pangs of regret that I wasn't reserve one. Otherwise I own many of his other prints, all of which are framed and hanging in my apartment.

“Snow is inherently nostalgic. It encourages you to travel back and think about your life. I think it’s something about the way it blankets reality, sort of erasing the present one dead pixel at a time. And that makes room for the past,” says Tomer Hanuka, about his image “Perfect Storm.”

*****

“I moved to New York in my early twenties, after being in the Israeli Army for three years,” Hanuka says. “I have this image of myself in my first rental apartment, sitting on the edge of the bed and staring at the window. You encounter the world as an adult for the first time—I think that’s what the story was about. That’s a powerful thing. Every window you stared through before was your parent’s world, and now, suddenly, you’re in a city. You’re washed with optimism and a sense of freedom—you’ve just been liberated and that’s amazing. And then you realize you can do very little, and it’s terribly disappointing. But the heartache and all that, that comes later.”
 

For more from Hanuka, browse some of his other illustrations online or purchase this book collection of many of his prints.