The New Yorker: September 9, 2013

11 Sep

Trying to grade the cover every week is getting frustrating. They’re sometimes so great. The should usually be great. But they’re not for some reason. This one’s OK I suppose. It would work better as a cartoon in the magazine. That’s a good indication that maybe it shouldn’t be the cover.

Fall preview in Goings On. I like these, it gives some needed, if artificial, structure to the section. It too frequently feels scattered. Skimming through every week raises another question: why devote two pages every week to movie blurbs that have already been published? Repeating blurbs for several weeks seems like a dumb waste of space.

Umami Burger featured in Tables for Two. That’s one feature I never read, but I read this since Umami Burger is a chain and not a local place. Let me tell you a story about Umami Burger. There’s one in Oakland that opened not too long ago. Their prices are ludicrous, but I was sort of curious, so I thought I’d check it out. I went the week it opened. I walked in alone at maybe 2:30. There were a few people at the bar and a couple people at tables. The restaurant was 15% or so full. The hostess greeted me, handed me a menu, and told me to sit anywhere. I sat at a table by the window. I glanced at the menu and decided what to order. I looked around for a waiter. Didn’t see one. Which surprised me, because there were at least a dozen Umami Burger employees on the premises. More employees than customers, easily. I looked around for a little while and then pulled out an issue of TNY to read. I wasn’t in a hurry. Eventually a waiter walked by me to bring the check to the woman sitting at the next table. The two of them got into an involved conversation about schools or something. The waiter left the table and quickly walked right past me while I tried to make eye contact with him. He disappeared into the back. That was sort of off-putting. But no big deal, like I said I wasn’t in a hurry. I read a little more, looked around a little more, and saw no more sign of that waiter or any other waiter. At this point I had been sitting at the table for at least ten minutes. No one had brought me water or said anything to me or looked at me or acknowledged me in any way. I’ll repeat here that there were more Umami Burger employees in the restaurant than customers. So I got up and walked out. The hostess didn’t notice me leaving; she was busy talking to another Umami Burger employee. FUCK Umami Burger. p.s. A cheeseburger, fries, and Coke there will cost you more than $20.

I enjoyed the Talk piece about the High Bridge. I’d like to read a longer feature about it. It’s a more interesting topic than the other things in the magazine this week.

David Finkel’s piece about PTSD in war veteran’s was fine in the abstract. I don’t get the point. This is a topic that has been covered in great detail in a great many places. This was a short essay that didn’t really add anything to my understanding of the issue. I doubt it added to anyone’s understanding of the issue. I don’t know. It was an interesting portrait of the featured veteran and his wife, but if that was the focus, there needed to be more about them and their relationship. It was torn between that and describing therapeutic interventions for PTSD. It’s not really possible to cover one of those things satisfactorily in five pages, let alone both.

Sharks in New England is an interesting topic. Alec Wilkinson’s piece about them had some good moments. Descriptions of shark fishing, what happens when a shark is caught, etc. Reading it I found myself more interested in the science questions that weren’t really addressed. I guess the point is maybe that those questions don’t have ready answers and that’s why scientists are trying to track the sharks. The ocean ecosystem in the North Atlantic, or in general, is an interesting topic. Especially as it relates to humans. Fishing etc. One of the most memorable passages in Moby-Dick for the modern reader is when Hawthorne earnestly asserts that he doesn’t think that any human intervention could meaningfully impact the enormous right whale population in the North Atlantic. This is a whale that is now essentially extinct in the North Atlantic. And yet the great white shark population there is apparently booming. (As much as an endangered species can boom). Lots of mysteries out there.

Profiling an actor is always risky. It’s hard for them to explain their jobs without sounding pretentious. That said, Claire Danes sounds like the world’s most pretentious person. Wow.

I was very interested in the issues raised by the NYU piece. Those issues are all fundamentally about what the mission of a university should be. My gut feeling is that colleges should be focused on the students on their campuses. There are a lot of universities out there; I don’t see the point of opening satellite campuses in Abu Dhabi. But it’s something worth exploring. It will be interesting to see what college looks like a generation from now. It might look a lot different. In the world of elite private colleges, at least, it’s hard to see how that would be bad.

A very short story in translation from Dorthe Nors. I think I whiffed on this one. I wish there were fewer translated stories in the magazine. There have been quite a lot lately and they always seem to be missing a little something.

Malcolm Gladwell shows up doing Malcolm Gladwell things. I agree with most of his points about doping in sports, but his style is getting really tiresome. His purposely misleading arguments, the intellectually dishonest way he sets up comparisons, his oversimplicity. Enough. And he didn’t say anything that I hadn’t seen written by sports bloggers years ago.

Woodrow Wilson is a president that should be more famous. I think in conservative circles he’s famous as the purported originator of everything that’s wrong about America, from women’s suffrage on down. He deserves actual notice and study. Not because he was necessarily great, but because he had an unusual path in politics, had a lot of new ideas, and because of his personal life. His first wife died while he was in office. He remarried and then had a major stroke. He was incapacitated. His second wife essentially did his job from the seclusion of the White House. No one knew about it. Can you imagine Barack Obama having a major stroke, not leaving the White House for several weeks, and not telling anyone what had happened?

Adam Gopnik’s book review about the value of neuroscience was a good illustration of how little we know about how the brain works. It seems almost foolish to take a side in the argument when there’s so little actual certainty about anything. It almost seems antithetical to what being a scientist is about.

Edward Steed on page 79 was the standout. He’s becoming my favorite of the regular cartoonists.

Caption contest entry
“Can you tell me how to get to the library?”

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