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Cool Sh*t I’ve Read—and Seen—Lately

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This is the third installment in my monthly feature "Cool Sh*t I've Read Lately." (Here are number one and number two.) This month I'm calling it "Cool Sh*t I've Read--and Seen—Lately" so I can add a movie and art exhibit. As I said last month when I included fiction: It's my blog and I'll do what I want.

Photo of "Marvelous Sugar Baby" by Jason Wyche, courtesy http://creativetime.org.

"Marvelous Sugar Baby," an art exhibit by Kara Walker.

Last weekend my girlfriend said we have to take the subway to Brooklyn, and when she explained why, I tuned out a little, as is my wont, hearing only a few baffling words: "factory," "Sphinx," "sugar." But I dutifully tagged along with her--and was blown away. The exhibit inhabits an old Brooklyn landmark, the Domino Sugar Factory, which in the late 19th century was the biggest sugar refinery in the U.S. The old factory, which abuts the East River, is cavernous and encrusted top to bottom with black-brown molasses-ish residues. You stroll past life-size black boys--made of amber-colored sugar--lugging baskets and then you look up and see a gigantic, sparkling-white sculpture, more than 35 feet long. It is an archetypal black slave woman, crouched like a sphinx, wearing a kerchief, all made of refined sugar. Built by artist Kara Walker, "Marvelous Sugar Baby" is a biting commentary on the historical linkage of the sugar trade to slavery--and virtual slavery--but it is also stunningly beautiful. We have a fledgling program in science and technology studies (STS) at my school, Stevens Institute, which explores the cultural, economic, political, historical context of scitech. "Sugar Baby" says more than a bookcase of STS theses about how industrialization—even the production of what is literally the sweetest of all commodities—has long been intertwined with brutal racism, sexism and exploitation of labor. The full title of Walker's work is "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant." If you live anywhere near New York, you must see this show, which closes July 7.

Her, a film directed and written by Spike Jonze.

I've been hearing people chatter about Her since it was released last year, and I finally saw it on television. I can't remember being more moved, enchanted, provoked by a film. Her embodies more intuitive wisdom about the potential of artificial intelligence to alter our lives than the entire oeuvre of Singularity guru Ray Kurzweil. (See one of my critiques here.) It is also a wrenching, funny story about loneliness, love and heartbreak between any two beings in any era. I like Her even better than Jonze's freaky Being John Malkovich, one of my all-time favorite films.

"Have You Lost Your Mind?" by Michael Kinsley, The New Yorker, April 28, 2014.

Super-pundit Kinsley was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 20 years ago, when he was 43, and in this essay he updates us on his health—especially his mental health. Parkinson's, it turns out, is not just a movement disorder; it also has profound effects on memory, decision-making and other components of cognition. According to tests, Kinsley is showing signs of "cognitive weaknesses," but many readers of this smart, funny piece will probably think: "We should all have minds as weak as Kinsley's." Reading him, it occurred to me that humor is arguably our greatest cognitive gift. Can clinicians measure our ability to be witty and to recognize wit in others?

"How Memory Speaks," by Jerome Groopman, The New York Review of Books, May 22, 2014

Groopman is one of a stable of terrific writers—which also includes Oliver Sacks, Marcia Angell, Freeman Dyson, Steven Weinberg, H. Allen Orr, Richard Lewontin, Colin McGinn--covering science for TNYRB. In this essay, Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard, reviews five books on memory and its disorders, notably Alzheimer's. Groopman notes that in spite of countless scientific advances, memory remains profoundly mysterious. What I like most about this essay is how Groopman frames it. He begins and ends with reflections about the mundane and yet "marvelous" feats of memory that underpin our every waking moment.

The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm, Vintage Books, 1990.

"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." That is the (in)famous first line of Janet Malcolm's riff on a lawsuit by Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted of murdering his wife and two children, against his biographer Joe McGinnis, whom MacDonald accused of betraying him. I read Malcolm's book when it was serialized in The New Yorker back in 1990 and provoked amusing harrumphs in The New York Times and elsewhere. The book had a big impact on me, informing the way I profiled scientists in my 1996 book The End of Science. Someone recently gave me a copy, and I re-read it. The book holds up extremely well; in fact, I enjoyed it even more this time around. Like all of Malcolm's work, The Journalist and the Murderer explores the elusive, "constructed" nature of truth, and her insights apply not only to journalism but to all modes of knowledge, including science. Malcolm is one of those rare postmodernists who can really write. Every journalist—in fact, everyone in the knowledge-production business--should read Malcolm's book, even, or especially, if they are stupid and full of themselves.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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