What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, November 29, 2013

November 25, 2013 Issue

Two of the most interesting sentences in this week’s New Yorker feature the hawkish verb “weaponize,” used in a relatively unhawkish way. Goings On About Town deploys it in an “Art” note on Benjamin Degen: “Degen weaponizes poetic fancy with a secondary palette and lavishly patterned impasto.” And Burkhard Bilger uses it in his brilliant “Auto Correct” to describe Anthony Levandowski’s self-driving Lexus: “It looks like an ice-cream truck, lightly weaponized for inner-city work.” 

Bilger’s piece brims with wonderful description: Levandowski’s excitable talk is likened to “the bright, electrifying chatter of a processor in overdrive”; the roboticist, Sebastian Thrun, “has a gift for seeing things through a machine’s eyes”: the office of Google’s driverless-car project is “a mixture of the whimsical and the workaholic – candy-colored sheet metal over a sprung-steel chassis”; Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s “scruffy beard and flat, piercing gaze gave him a Rasputinish quality, dulled somewhat by his Google Glass eyewear”; the Google driverless car’s steering wheel has On and Off buttons “lit a soft, fibre-optic green and red”; Levandowski’s laptop screen shows “a Tron-like world of neon objects drifting and darting on a wire-frame nightscape.”

What I relish most about Bilger’s writing is the way he renders facts as personal experience. He doesn’t just describe events; he participates in them. For example, in “Auto Correct,” he visits the headquarters of the Google Car project (“When you walk in, the first things you notice are the wacky tchotchkes on the desks: Smurfs, ‘Star Wars’ toys, Rube Goldberg devices. The next thing you notice are the desks: row after row after row, each with someone staring hard at a screen”); he attends Google Car tech meetings (“The main topic for much of that morning was the user interface. How aggressive should the warning sounds be? How many pedestrians should the screen show? In one version, a jaywalker appeared as a red dot outlined in white. ‘I really don’t like that,’ Urmson said. ‘It looks like a real estate sign.’ The Dutch designer nodded and promised an alternative for the next round”); he test-drives a Volvo equipped with an autonomous safety system (“I contented myself with steering, while the car took care of braking and acceleration”); and, most memorably, he rides in a Google self-driving car:

At first, it was a little alarming to see the steering wheel turn by itself, but that soon passed. The car clearly knew what it was doing. When the driver beside us drifted into our lane, the Lexus drifted the other way, keeping its distance. When the driver ahead hit his brakes, the Lexus was already slowing down. Its sensors could see so far in every direction that it saw traffic patterns long before we did. The effect was almost courtly: drawing back to let others pass, gliding into gaps, keeping pace without strain, like a dancer in a quadrille.

That drawing back to let others pass, gliding into gaps, keeping pace without strain, like a dancer in a quadrille is beautiful; it enacts the stunning automated choreography it describes. “Auto Correct” is one of Bilger’s best pieces. I enjoyed it immensely.

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