Category Archives: Books and Arts

An Uncensored Look into the Pentagon’s Brain

Annie Jacobsen ’89

Annie Jacobsen ’89

For nearly 60 years, the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has been a hub of innovations generated by some of the country’s top scientific minds. The agency’s best-known inventions include the Internet, GPS, and drones. In The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency, Annie Jacobsen ’89 examines questions about the implications of DARPA’s work.

Housed in the Pentagon until 1972, what is known as the “Pentagon’s Brain” now has its headquarters in a nondescript glass and steel building in Arlington, Va. Within the walls of that unmarked building, work is being done that is “10 to 20 years ahead of the technology in the public domain,” all of it in secret, Jacobsen writes. One example is the development, beginning in the 1960s, of the technology that in 2001 brought drones to the battlefield for the first time. By 2014, more than 80 countries had military-grade drones, underscoring the need for DARPA’s secrecy, she writes. Jacobsen, who conducted 71 interviews with insiders and relied on private documents and declassified memos to write the book, asks if DARPA’s activities help safeguard democracy or encourage America’s willingness to plunge into war. Continue reading

Agus ’87’s Pens Guide to Harnessing the Advances of the ‘Lucky Years’

David Agus ’87

David Agus ’87

Health care isn’t a right; it’s a responsibility. That’s one of the premises of The Lucky Years by oncologist David Agus ’87. What Agus calls “the lucky years” is the era we live in now, the first time “we have at our disposal all the information we need to design our own health.” Thanks to a wealth of technology and data available, those living in developed countries have the potential to live longer than ever. But with those advances comes the potential for confusion and misinformation.

Drawing on his experience as a physician and a biomedical researcher, Agus writes about everything from genetic testing to mobile apps, helping readers navigate the sometimes contradictory information about new technologies and debunking misconceptions, such as the necessity of surgery to cure appendicitis. (In 2015, he writes, studies showed that 70 percent of appendicitis patients who took antibiotics did not need surgery.) He also addresses advances in cancer treatment, such as the benefits and perils of sequencing tumors to reveal gene variants that can be targeted with drugs. Continue reading

A Debut Novel by Professor Idra Novey Tackles Translation

Professor Idra Novey

Professor Idra Novey

The protagonist of Idra Novey’s debut novel Ways to Disappear is a translator of Brazilian literature named Emma, who lives in Pittsburgh with her rather boring boyfriend. When Beatriz Yagoda, the author Emma has spent her career translating, disappears, Emma takes the next flight to Brazil to contend with loan sharks, washed-up literary agents, and the unfinished draft of Beatriz’ latest book to search for the missing novelist.

Novey, a lecturer in creative writing, is the author of two books of poetry, including Exit, Civilian, which was a National Poetry Series winner, and a translator of Spanish and Portuguese authors. She teaches translation at Princeton. Novey spoke with PAW about the art of translation, loan sharks, and surviving a monsoon.

The novel deals with the art of translating and Emma’s complicated relationship to her author. How much do these relationships draw on your own experience?

I translated a novel by a Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, who died long before I translated her, which meant I couldn’t ask her any of the questions I had about her work. As a result, she became a kind of phantom voice in my head. Continue reading

Seabrook ’81 Explains How Deeply Infectious Hit Songs Are Made

John Seabrook ’81

John Seabrook ’81

By Marc Fisher ’80

There’s a bedrock belief in the world of popular music: people’s taste is established in their late teens and early 20s, and doesn’t change thereafter. There’s even some good social-science data to back this up. So John Seabrook ’81 is very much the exception when he reacts to his son’s interest in rhythmic pop — from Flo Rida’s “Right Round” to Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” — by diving headlong into new sounds.

The spawn of that exploration is The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, a portrait of the largely unknown producers who manufacture today’s digitally manipulated, multi-layered hit songs. Seabrook is a New Yorker writer who also plays guitar in The Sequoias, a Stones- and Neil Young-heavy cover band of journalists that includes Seabrook’s boss, David Remnick ’81.

In the Internet age, when we’re empowered to wander into the infinite niches of the digital culture, hugely popular hit songs by Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Britney Spears play an enhanced role in building community, Seabrook says: “When I hear one of these songs on the radio of a passing car, it creates a feeling, a bond. It connects you to other people in a way that other art forms don’t.” Continue reading

Laqueur *73 Unearths the History of Mortal Remains

Thomas Laqueur *73

Thomas Laqueur *73

From the monumental pyramids of Egypt to the modern cemeteries of Arlington, humans always have cared deeply about the dead and the work of attending to their remains. When Diogenes told his students to treat his corpse as an empty husk and toss it to the wild animals, he violated one of humankind’s only universal taboos. In The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur *73 argues that human society is profoundly shaped by the activity of caring for the dead. The process promises meaning and remembrance, and helps us to live with the knowledge of our own mortality, Laqueur points out, writing, “The living need the dead far more than the dead need the living.” Continue reading

Fast ’70 Explores the Links Between Shame and Violence

Jonathan Fast ’70

In Beyond Bullying: Breaking the Cycle of Shame, Bullying, and Violence, Jonathan Fast ’70 explains that some researchers trace the roots of all criminal violence back to shame. Many agree that shame is an inborn emotion — one that once served an evolutionary purpose and continues to be a teaching tool, but that nowadays often has complex, even violent consequences.

Fast explores the idea that “the lion’s share of human misery is the result of shame that is misdirected, unidentified, or unacknowledged.” He adds, “We avoid naming shame and retreat from discussing it, as Harry Potter’s friends avoid mentioning Voldemort.” He argues that beyond its usual associations with childhood, shame remains a large part of adult life, even if it is no longer recognized explicitly as such. Continue reading