Monday, February 16, 2015

Going Postal in The Friendly Skies - The Coming Drone Wars

One aspect of the increasing sophistication of micro-technology has been the emergence of unmanned, or automated airborne devices, called drones

For decades, really since the invention of flying machines, self-propelled model airplanes have been a common toy or hobbyists' pastime. If you've ever been to one of these model meets, with their whining gas-powered props controlled with hand-held radar sets, you know they aren't new gadgets. 

But with the ramping up of micro-chip capacity, automated mechanical devices are quickly becoming practical. There are unmanned aircraft, unmanned boats, and unmanned small helicopters which are on the threshold of application, or already in use, for surveillance and reconnoitre, and also for possible parcel delivery. Anywhere an aerial view of something is needed, drones can be adapted to serve the purpose. There's a  whole new industry starting up right now, conceived around the possible applications of the drone technology. Even farmers and ranchers are using them now. Amazon, the big online-retail company, thinks it's going to use drones to deliver parcels, leap-frogging over the whole commercial delivery industry.  

Anything man-made that flies in the sky creates a possible hazard. Nations regulate the space over their territory, in the same way they do their borderlands, their ocean margins, and their broadcast and computer networks. 

Conventional propeller driven and jet-propelled aircraft have to follow corridors and flight paths, to recognize and respect "no-fly zones" in order to prevent collisions or interruptions of established routes. Different classes of craft are confined to certain areas in the sky, different altitudes. You have to have a license to fly an aircraft; flying isn't something you can just engage in at will. 

We know that drones are now an important new sphere in weaponry. The U.S. is currently running drone bombing missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in the Middle East. The idea of using unmanned aircraft in warfare is a controversial development. Technologically advanced states, such as the U.S. have a distinct advantage over "conventional" military forces. 

Back home, intelligence agencies such as the  CIA and the FBI are looking to apply drones for all kinds of surveillance, while state and local police are considering their use in law enforcement and around-the-clock snooping. Drones occupy a front-and-center position now in the debates about legal searches, the right of privacy, and admissible evidence in criminal cases. 

But apparently, we haven't seen anything yet. There are reports that the security community is now dreaming up nightmare applications, of tiny, insect-scale devices, which could not only surveil without being noticed, but could even be used as weapons, to make lethal injections on a human target. A confirmed sighting of these "dragon-fly" drones was first made at an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. in 2007, so these things are well along. 

If Amazon's planned automated parcel delivery system seems clunky, ask yourself what will happen when every nation, every gang of criminals or terrorists has access to these gadgets. 

We could have "star wars" over communities, in which police drones are fighting criminals' drones, or competing nations could be fighting "automated wars" with robot planes, robot tanks, or robot boats and submarines. 

A guy is walking down the street when he suddenly gets a poison dart in the back, fired from above by a tiny drone no bigger than a sparrow, which then rockets away before any sighting is possible. 

When Huxley and Orwell dreamed up their dystopian visions half a century ago, they didn't foresee the computer revolution. We don't know where our technologies may lead us. 

But all the signs now point to an increasingly eerie landscape dominated by "devices" controlled remotely to perform all kinds of tasks, as well as leaving us all exposed and vulnerable to the prying, invasive and spooky motivations of human artifice and deviousness.  

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

World Oil Production

Recently, we've heard reports that the rapid decline in the price of gasoline, which is a reflection of the drop in crude oil prices, has brought about a sudden crisis in the petroleum production industry. 

For decades, we've heard that world oil reserves of easily extracted petroleum would "peak" sometime in the current century, then begin to decline, while demand, which has been steadily increasing, continued to climb--leading to catastrophic increases in price. 

At the same time, experts in oil reserve data have noted that as prices rose, the viability of less easily obtained petroleum sources, i.e., shale oil, would likely increase. As we've seen, these predictions have proven true. 

The burgeoning shale oil extraction industry has increased American petroleum production, to the extent that we now produce annual totals which rival Saudi Arabia and the former Soviet Union. 

The attractions of an increase in production are sold on the market competition which results in remarkable declines in prices at the pump. Any decrease in oil prices has a positive effect on the economy as a whole, which depends to such a large degree on the transportation network that runs off of petroleum use. 

We were also told that were America to become "less dependent" upon foreign oil sources, our standing in the world economy, and in the foreign policy sphere, would improve. Any decline in our dependence upon Middle Eastern oil, would improve our bargaining position in price competition, and make us less "vulnerable" to political pressures occurring in that part of the world. 

But as we have seen, protecting our interest in maintaining the flow of reasonably priced Mideast oil, was not the only priority. The flowering of Islamic terrorism has demonstrated that religious and political considerations may trump mere commercial interests. We may be able to get by for the time being, by coddling the Saudi royal family, but Islamic radicalism may eventually complicate our access to the oil fields throughout much of the Mideast.

Official estimates put America's shale oil reserves at a level which would make them viable for another two and a half decades--or roughly until the early '30's--at which point they would begin to decline. That's assuming, it should be noted, that exploitation proceeded at a smart clip, an assumption that might founder on regional resistance to fracking or other destructive extractive practices. 

However, the sudden price drop we're presently experiencing has had the ironic effect of truncating the whole shale equation. Many companies are suddenly in the red, as the price of crude drops below their break-even point. The viability of fracking was posited on the high price of crude on the world market, but with the sudden surge in supply, brought about by the new methods, the price has dropped. 

The delicate balance between supply and demand has meant that the transition from easy extraction to difficult will have contradictions that aren't easily overcome. 

In the context of global warming, we're obliged to consider not just the long-term advisability of rapid over-exploitation of the earth's resources, but the more immediate problem of excess burning. We'd be advised to save a little, going forward, instead of finding excuses to forge ahead into an unknown in which both supply and price precipitate us over yawning scarcity, bringing about a world-wide economic decline. 

In the overall picture of energy use and reserve, we need to see shale oil exploitation as a temporary phase, not as a long-term solution. It isn't going to measurably lengthen the time upon which mankind depends upon oil as a primary energy source. It might enable us, given current use levels, to keep using it generously for another century, at most. But then what?

As the market-patterns sail along, riding wave and trough in tandem, we may be seduced by each successive small condition, to think that a new paradigm is spreading out around us. But these "blips" are nothing more than minor variations. 

As readers of this blog know, my priority has always been to suggest moderation in population growth, rather than promoting economic growth--with its attendant profligate confiscation of resource--as a way to slow the birth rate. Population is always used by apologists for exploitation, as the bottom line--more mouths to feed, more jobs to create, more cars to sell, more water, more food, more sewage, more pollution, more crowding, more conflict--for justifying expansion. But each iteration of supply leads inevitably to more demand, so that promoting one, without moderating the other, only makes the problem worse. We've been using that model for at least a hundred years, and look where it's brought us. The simplest way to slow demand is to reduce it. Period.  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Mystery of the Water - Fishing at Night

Every sport has its attractions, which may or may not be easily conveyed to those unfamiliar with it firsthand. Fly-fishing, which developed over centuries of practice, originally as a hunting and gathering skill, has become a highly sophisticated form of sport. Whereas it once was principally about the securing of sustenance, it has morphed into a refined procedure, with a tradition, and a set of formal methods and conventions, that have become almost ritualistic. With its paraphernalia--the rods and reels, lines and leaders, artificial flies, creels, vests, boots and so on--and its prime watering holes, with their shrine-like folklore-fame--it has acquired all the trappings of a faith, a devotion which may border on fanaticism at times. 

It's important to remember that the reason people pursue any sport is the nurturing pleasure and excitement it affords, whether or not the rules are slavishly followed. A recreation may be considered a pastime, or something more. Whatever you love you do with a kind of rote allegiance--what may described as passion, even sanctity.  

Flyfishing occurs in nature, along waterways, in streams or rivers, or on lakes. Water, and the life that inhabits it, and the country through which it flows, is the setting, and the interaction between the pursuer (the fisherman), and the pursued (the fish), may only be a pretext for an appreciation of the qualities and complexities of the natural world, which are experienced first-hand by fishermen. The rhythms of the seasons, the accompanying flora and aquatic ecology, the richness of streamside life, the sights and sounds and sensations associated with being near, or in, a flowing stream, all contribute to the experience of fishing. We may become so preoccupied with the motions and rituals of performance, that we forget the fun part.

For me, flyfishing has never been purely about the successful seduction of the fish, of hooking and landing it and glorying in the triumph, of winning a contest with other competitors or against the odds. It's never been about how skillful my cast is, or whether I use the "correct" fly, or any of the dogmatic prescriptions that govern the hierarchy of appreciation and duty of the sport. When I fish, I enter a special place, where civilization and its discontents are left behind, and I become in some degree a part of the forces of the natural world, in a way I never am, when getting and spending and being the responsible citizen in a busy world. 

Time, like water, flows relentlessly forward. Nature is about change, and flowing water reminds us that our lives are slipping by, that as we step into a river, as the current pushes against our legs, we are being pushed forward, towards our end. We know this as surely as anything, though it may be pleasing to be caught up in the excitement of the hunt. 

On a fishing day, we may enter the water in late afternoon, preparing for the evening hatch. Insect hatches are rhythmic, but not entirely predictable. Everything that lives in water has a time-table, but empirical observation can't tell you exactly when a hatch is going to occur, or how the fish are likely to respond. The tantalizing possibility awaits you on the water. 

With dry-fly fishing, which is my preference, the lure floats on the surface of the current, meandering over the intersecting flows. The fish, always watchful, are "fishing" (or hunting) too, and hoping for a safe pursuit of the bugs. Usually, with their natural shyness and caution, they will also have some comprehension of what the fishermen are trying to do. It's a contest between their reluctance and shrewdness, and the fisherman's guile and ability. The tension of this interaction is what makes fishing fascinating. There are a dozen factors that influence how the fish will behave, and at least twice that many that fishermen must observe and employ in their pursuit. 

The surface of the water is like a membrane between the two worlds--one wet, the other dry--a plane of division, which is sometimes referred to as the "surface film." This is where the game is played. Most of the time, you don't actually see the fish, so the moment of crisis (the rise or "strike" of the fish to the lure) can't be followed. Suddenly there is, from the mysterious under-side of this membrane, an attack, subtly gentle, or vicious. Fish are predators, and their actions are designed to succeed. But you can never really know if or when the fish will respond. You hope, and guess, and try to learn from failure. Why do certain approaches work, while others fail? 

Towards evening, the fishing may be good, or it may be slow. As dusk turns to night, what you can see  begins to fade. The water is turning black under you, and you can't see your feet. Perceiving your line as the sky darkens becomes more difficult. Your fly may become invisible on the water surface, though you have a good idea where it must be as it floats sideways across from you. You may have had a good day, or you might not have caught anything that day, but whatever the "luck" you don't want to reel in and go back. A little evening hatch may have started, and there are quiet dimples all around you, as the fish rise from the obscurity of their holding places below. 

The moon rises, spreading an ethereal glow over the water. It's late, you should be knocking off, but you just keeping making one more cast, then another, and another. You're being stubborn.

This refusal to give up is something all fishermen feel. It may keep you out well past dinner time; your buddies or your friends may be standing on the bank, reminding you that it might be a good idea to let go. Finally, reluctantly, you reel in your line, turn carefully around in the current, and wade gingerly back to the bank. 

This time, when the water is pitch black, and the silhouettes of the trees on the opposite bank are vivid against a darkening sky, seems magical to me. Almost dreamy. There have been times when I have hooked a good trout, just as the sky was turning dark, and the fish and I are locked in battle. At these times, you feel at a distinct disadvantage with the fish. You can feel where the fish is going, from the pull and throbbing action of the line through the rod, but it's mysterious, like anything that happens in the dark. Your attention intensifies, mind focused. I have often lost fish in these circumstances, but it doesn't feel like failure--since landing and releasing a fish in the dark is difficult. 

I've come to see these times, with night drawing on, as very moving, with the murmur of the water, the beautiful shifting, undulating surface, and the certainty that there are only so many such moments accorded us in this life. Their fragility, transitoriness, and beauty. They are an end in themselves, not a means to another end. We are living in this life, the only one we'll ever have, and that fact makes everything that happens unique, and precious. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

David Gitin's Woke Up This Morning

I've written about David Gitin's work before, here, and here. As with his previous book, The Journey Home [Berkeley: Blue Wind Press, 2010], this is a selection of poems, subtitled "Selected Poems 1962-2014." I have then the feeling that Gitin is engaging his previous range of work as a fertile ground, revising and selecting and sifting from among its varied fruit, instances which speak to his changing sense of who he now is, and what it all meant, in retrospect. In that sense, it's a summing up, or a summary of the meaning of his whole writing life. 

The emphasis, here, now, seems to be the ecstatic or hieratic--celebrating the infinite, the universal, the visionary--




of oak


The simplicity of this kind of notation belies its hidden, though firmly grounded, sense of the underlying forces which govern nature, the universe at large. There's a joyous surrender to the larger dynamism of the world, particularly its lyric manifestations, in microcosm. 

The fact that the poems here are undated, and are apparently neither chronological nor thematic in arrangement, contributes to the apprehension of their numinous indeterminacy, which I see as integral to the overall intent. This isn't a personal history, not a journey, but a kind of continuous present that asks to be seen through a single, general lens. 

None of this explains the exquisite charm of Gitin's verse, which is like an alembic of a wistfully nostalgic counter-culture reminiscence, of a time when our generation believed in the power of individual conscience, community cooperation, grass-roots initiative, and the delight of simple gifts. 

Horse Ankles

horse ankles
deer thighs

they say I have my mother's 

Though the initial effect of such deft little snapshots like this is joy and delight, it isn't easy to convey the accretive impression they leave, when read in quantity. Though their brevity and flitting elusiveness suggest haiku or minimalism, they clearly come from a more embracing and universal vision. 

East West North South

East West North South
burning down the house

until water from the well
seasoned my lips

to words that mend
I see the face

of my ancestor
once again

Despite the fleeting, transitory quality of these poems, there runs underneath all of them a deeper account, evanescent but confirming, of the poet's awareness of cosmic forces--

Muir Beach Rockfest

    in sand


all form


Such quick graphs of observation and notation, when gathered together in sequence, create a wave of intention which tends to overwhelm the initial event, drawing our attention up into a higher state of consciousness, of--for want of a better term--the sublime. The antecedents to this approach would certainly include Oppen, and Eigner, the ancient Chinese. Gitin appears to have moved beyond the packed particulars of his earlier work, to a more consuming ecstatic, but his work is always just saved from vagueness by its specificity and clear clinical eye. And there's a crucial restraint in his method.


moon frozen like some giant
watery cell of speech

The desire to see universals or deeper significances in ordinary phenomena is characteristic of a certain kind of romantic visionary writing. Usually, I tend to be suspicious of this tendency, but in Gitin's work, I'm never offended by it, perhaps because his assertions seldom rise to the level of direct conviction, are always hovering on the lip of belief--provisional, balanced. 

Though this book feels conclusive, I prefer to see it as conditional, since there seems no end to its program. May he find in Florida--"veneral soil" (Wallace Stevens)--a rich context for his continued musings.  

Saturday, January 3, 2015

New Year 2015

We begin this year on a couple of sour notes.

First, our beloved 49ers lost no time in parting company with their head coach Jim Harbaugh, following the last game of the current regular season.

To review Harbaugh's career, in brief, his tenure with the team lasted from 2011 to 2014. During that four year span, his combined record (the team's) was 44-19. For rookie coaches in the NFL, this is almost without precedent. Only one other head coach I can think of--x-49ers head coach George Seifert, who went 98-31, taking over Bill Walsh's team at the end of the 1980's, bears comparison, but with a very large caveat--particularly when you remember that Seifert took over a powerhouse, while Harbaugh came to a team mired in a decade of mediocrity.  

Jed York

A little history tells a pertinent story. When Eddie DeBartolo lost control of the 49ers, in 2000, the reigns were passed to his sister Marie Denise York. She and her husband, John York, a research pathologist, knew nothing about running a professional football team, and proceeded to mismanage the franchise into a 12-year slide, without a winning season. In 2008, the Yorks appointed their son, Jed, President of the team. Jed York, a finance and history major graduate of Notre Dame, had had no experience in sports, as a player, or a coach, or a sports teams manager. Nevertheless, he made a lucky choice in his new head coach in 2011, hiring Harbaugh away from the Stanford University Cardinal--and thus began the current four year run of winning. 

However, not long after beginning of the 2014 season, there were "leaked" reports from 49ers management, that there were severe disagreements between the team's management (York, and his assistant General Manager Trent Baalke), and Harbaugh. These began when the team's early season record was still very positive. The year before, Jed had "tweeted" a public apology for the team's failure to advance beyond the NFC championship game to the Super Bowl, "This performance wasn't acceptable." 

By mid-year 2014, a series of crippling injuries to some major stars on the team, as well as some poor offensive coaching schemes (an apparent wrong-headed attempt to turn scrambling quarterback Colin Kaepernick into a "pocket passer"), led to a series of losses, which in retrospect seem to have been, at least in part, a response to the very obvious mid-season attempts by York and Baalke to undermine Harbaugh's authority and reputation. The reported issue was Harbaugh's "abrasive" interpersonal style, a quality which would seem to have nothing whatever to do with the team's potential, or with the head coach's abilities as a field commander. In retrospect, it almost seems as if Harbaugh, and the team in general, had been deliberately "cut loose"--so that management would have a public "pretext" for replacing him, and turning over personnel at season's end. 

The Yorks have shown themselves to be rank amateurs in their management of the 49ers organization. Abandoning San Francisco, for a new stadium in San Jose, 30 miles south of their namesake city center, they've showed contempt and selfishness in all their dealings with the city, the media, and their own players. Ignoring the success their new head coach had brought to the team, they summarily dismissed him, in effect in mid-season, just to strut their power and hide their own incompetence--as far as anyone can surmise, simply because Harbaugh wouldn't kiss up. 

At this point, no one knows what the Yorks have in store. With Harbaugh now gone (to Michigan), it's expected that several high-profile veteran players will either be let go, or will themselves simply retire. After three trips to the penultimate play-off contest, and one unfortunate season, the 49ers are right back where they started under Jed York. It's a sad denouement to a relationship which had brought glory and gratitude to a team longing for respectability after a decade of shame. Jed York has proven, once and for all, that he's just a spoiled rich kid playing with lead soldiers in the converted nursery room. 


Second, yesterday marked the effective beginning of the year for California State legislative measures. 

Right at the top of the list was a new law allowing "Undocumented [i.e., illegal] Immigrants" to acquire valid California Drivers' Licenses. As far as I know, there have been no legal challenges to this law, which is causing unprecedented backlogs and slowdowns in DMV offices around the state, clogged with Mexicans filing the new applications. But it is clear that this new provision conflicts directly with Federal immigration laws, which forbid illegals from maintaining legal presence in the U.S., without going through the legal process of obtaining visas, or applying for citizenship. 

How can a person residing illegally in the U.S., acquire a legal identification and driving permission, without triggering a pursuit by the U.S. Federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, or Homeland Security? It's as if the State of California is setting itself up as a competing jurisdiction to our Federal Government, offering a kind of quasi-ersatz-American citizenship status, in direct violation of our nation's laws governing residence, citizenship and all the privileges pertaining thereto. 

As an American citizen, I would regard it as my right and duty to inform about any illegal whom I encounter in my work or daily life. If citizenship is to mean anything, it must be at the grass roots level, where ordinary law-abiding citizens stand with authorized law enforcement to prevent crime and violation. Granting foreign nationals a "free pass" to claim the rights and privileges which rightfully belong only to American citizens, is neither fair, nor acceptable. If you are here in the U.S. without papers, don't show up on my doorstep, or try to conduct business with me, because I'll report you. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Thoughts on Mixology

I think I've probably recorded mixes which are very similar to this one on this blog in the past.

Lately, I've begun thinking about using aperitifs as the "goods" for drink combinations, instead of relying on the traditional spirits--i.e., the "white goods" of gin, white rum, vodka, teqiula, or "brown goods" of whisky (scotch and bourbon), dark rum, brandy, and so forth. 

There is the consideration of alcohol content, since aperitifs invariably have a lower alcohol content than spirits. They're lighter, carry less punch, and appeal more to the delicate sensibilities of the ladies.

In addition, by using spirits as additives to mixes, you can increase the number of distinctive, different kinds of flavors. After all, each different kind of alcoholic beverage relies on a specific flavor, which is the result of aboriginal ingredients of each kind of source product in nature, as well as the processes, and finally the flavorings that are added to make its distinct character. Variety, as always, is the spice of life. Even different traditional spirits, such as gin, differ from brand to brand, based on the subtly separate augmentations of spice. In scotch, the kinds of influence upon flavor include literally everything, including the distillery's proximity to sea air!

So here is a drink "built" upon a white, or dry vermouth (which Dubonnet is) aperitif. Chartreuse is of course a high alcohol fortified liqueur spirit. Most aperitifs or fortified spirits have more vivid flavors than straight spirits do, though most scotches and bourbons have plenty of flavor, some overpoweringly so. Which is why, come to think of it, more "generic" spirits are better for mixing, since their generic taste is a more reliable mixer than an unusually distinctive one. And, of course, one wouldn't "waste" a very fine or expensive scotch in a cocktail, since it's intended to be (and is best) appreciated on its own.

The following combination could be done by beginning with gin or vodka, as I have done in the past. The flavor wouldn't be much different, though its strength would be. The degree of alcohol content isn't, per se, something I think much about when mixing spirits. In appreciating wines or single malts, on the contrary, it's a crucial element. "Big reds" and "big scotches" tend to be stronger in alcohol--I'm not sure why, but it may have something to do with the intensity of the flavor, though potency in itself isn't a quality I would identify. Tea drinkers will claim that really intense flavors occur at the stronger end of the spectrum, and I don't disagree with them. 

Cocktails aren't meant as a stimulant, but many people may regard them merely as a means to an end--becoming mildly inebriated. The effect alcohol has on the brain isn't something everyone enjoys, and I wouldn't pretend that everyone can enjoy it in the same measure. Unless you're a rich man, or are born into the wine-making or spirit-making business, you don't have any chance of being creative with wine or whisky. At least with cocktails, you can, with a little investment, create your own drinks, experimenting with different combinations that no one else has ever tried before--which is why I do it, partly as a pastime. So, herewith, another nameless masterpiece from the stainless steel counter.               

4 parts Dubonnet Blanc
1 part yellow Chartreuse
3/4 part Genepi des Alpes
1/2 part lime juice

Shaken vigorously and served up in a frosted cocktail glass. A kinder and gentler concoction, perhaps, once again maybe for the ladies. New Year's approaches. What better time to indulge?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

About Town - The New Yorker and the World it Made for Me

My Fall-Winter reading list this year has included Ben Yagoda's About Town, The New Yorker and The World It Made [Charles Scribner's Sons, 2000].   

Ben Yagoda

I should preface my remarks about the book by relating some of my personal history. I first saw The New Yorker magazine at about age 13, in a drug-store on a magazine-rack, that would have been about 1960. I don't recall any of the articles it contained, but what struck me immediately was the understated modesty of the layout, and the density of its content. The first part of the text consisted of a very detailed series of announcements and reviews of events and places and opportunities, in very small typeface. It was clearly designed to be of use to residents of, or visitors to New York, though the magazine was distributed nation-wide (even around the world). 

My mom, who had been a reader of The New Yorker since her youth, before World War II, gave me a subscription as a Christmas present in 1961, and I remained a regular subscriber through my early adult life, until the year in which Tina Brown took over as Editor in Chief in 1992. 

By 1960, of course, The New Yorker was already a much different periodical than it had been in its early years--beginning in 1925. Initially a "humorous" magazine, it underwent a transition after the War, becoming a more serious, socially and politically responsible organ. Despite its ostensible "light" content mandate, its editor, the redoubtable Harold Ross, held very strong opinions about editorial policies regarding accuracy, grammar, decency, and factual verification. In consequence, when the magazine began to publish more serious content, its integrity commanded more respect than is typical of popular journals, because they checked their facts carefully before going to press. On the other hand, The New Yorker's early reputation was built on the work of its humorists (Thurber, Perelman, Benchley, et al) and its talented cartoonists. It was a magazine of sophisticated comedy and manners, in an era when people read for recreation, instead of watching television (or interacting with "personal" devices). 

Yagoda's book is a carefully researched history, touching on the major changes, the editorial department's policies, the columnists and feature writers and cartoonists, and some of the larger issues and events in the magazine's progress, over time. In particular, Yagoda was given access to the magazine's internal memoranda and correspondence, from the archive at the New York Public Library, allowing him an insider's view of the relationship between the editors and its staff, and between its editors and their  contributors. The official story is thus enhanced by internal gossip and some of the private friction we usually aren't privy to in accounts of this type. 

The big names of the early years--James Thurber, E.B. White, Alexander Woollcott, Peter Arno, Otto Soglow--gave the magazine a feeling and an atmosphere that was lighthearted, but sharp-eyed. Though not initially designed as a "news" magazine, it prided itself on being as responsible about the facts ("news") it did print, as it was careful about not making spelling or grammar mistakes, which developed into an obsession, with a whole department (the "fact-checkers") devoted to questioning and  verifying every assertion--claim, quotation, assumption, etc.--its contributors might make. This bred confidence among its readers, while establishing a plateau of plausibility upon which writers of accounts could depend. Beginning in the 1930's, a handful of writers, which included notably A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, started composing accounts and reports which contained versions of events and second-hand bits of narrative which would have been impossible to verify. The inclusion of such unverified material tended to be swept along in the tide of editorial presumption at the magazine, to the degree that the whole concept of fiction versus non-fiction journalism became a little blurred. When New Yorker contributors later published collections of the "Talk of the Town" section or longer pieces, in books, they were often described as "stories." 

In the news business, a "story" is a factual account of something that purportedly did happen, whereas an editorial is an "opinion" piece in which open-ended, not wholly factual, assertions may be made. The New Yorker's style of presenting articles and contributions without any lead-in or queueing (just the byline at the end, the author), tended to make the distinction between fact and fiction vague. This may not have been deliberate, and the editorial determination to be accurate probably encouraged the assumption that this distinction was clear enough, given context, not to cause confusion. The magazine tended to shy away from highly controversial subject-matter, and shunned promotional, or publicity-driven material--at least in its earlier period (up through the beginning of the 1950's). By the 1960's, however, the concept of "story" had become perhaps a bit too equivocal. 

In September 1965, Truman Capote published a four part serial account in The New Yorker, In Cold Blood, A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. As Capote would eventually say, the book was a "new" kind of writing, what he called the "non-fiction novel" comprised of actual material, but handled in a way that emphasized its dramatic potentials, bringing the fiction writer's skill at presenting and arranging events and accounts, in such a way as to raise it to the level of art, instead of mere journalism. Recently, there have been published reports about the inaccuracies in the book, which have shed some new light on the relationship between The New Yorker's reputation for inviolable commitment to truth, and its willingness to capitulate whenever the urge was strongest. Capote had published this kind of material before in the magazine, The Muses Are Heard, an account of an American opera-company's trip to the U.S.S.R. in 1955 (staging a production of Porgy and Bess), and so had an understanding about what accuracy meant, in the context of its appearance there. His continued insistence--his bragging, really--in the years following In Cold Blood's very successful and profitable appearance, about his having "invented" a new literary form, was an ironic twist with respect to The New Yorker's long-standing reputation, and its own claims to fidelity and integrity. 

Later, Alastair Reid, a Scottish poet, translator and essayist, admitted in an interview, that much of the material he had written in an autobiographical account of his living in Spain, published in The New Yorker, was in fact "manipulated" and even "made-up." And in the pieces authored by Liebling and Mitchell, among others, it has been acknowledged that, over the years, much of the material which had passed, tacitly, as journalistic fact, had been concocted or slightly altered to suit artistic aims. Hence the peculiar ambiguity of the term "story." 

As an aside, here, we might ask what the distinctions are between fact and fiction in feature news writing. And even, to raise the level of discourse even further, what is truth?--or, at least, in the context of accounts of past events--how do establish the truth of history? How is a fact a fact, and how can it be verified? And even assuming that we can agree on what constitutes an actual fact, what allegiance do we owe to this kernel of truth, and how shall it be interpreted, or understood?  

In ancient times, the Greek historians Herodotus, and Thucydides, wrote accounts of wars and political intrigue, which are now regarded as the first examples of formal history. Over the last five hundred years, scholars have debated about the degree of verisimilitude and verifiable fact in their works, and how it should be interpreted. Herodotus was known to think that the purpose of history was to derive ethical lessons, and that it was permissible both to make up stories to illustrate a point, and to knowingly alter facts to suit this greater "truth." Thucydides developed evidence by investigating and comparing different accounts, though in the end his methods of sourcing and gauging were probably no more reliable than Herodotus's were. Disagreements about what actually happened in history are the very stuff of historical research, and opinions about the meaning of what happened, many times more so. Capote's very poetic narrative certainly conveys a sense of the tragedy, the search for justice, and the souls of the participants, in ways that quotidian journalistic approaches could never have done. And that seems, now, 50 years later, the greater point and value of what he wrote, even if it wasn't the truth, the whole truth, so help [us] God, that really happened.  

Truth is a much more elusive quantity than we like to think it is. When we read something, a report or an account, we can weigh degrees of probability against our own knowledge, our powers of deduction, or our sense of the trustworthiness of the speaker. We tend to think that a photograph, or an aural recording, or a chemical test, can impart a degree of irrefutability impossible to achieve through mere testimony, or memory. Science has offered us new tools in the process of determining actual fact. But dry facts, without the human narrative to turn them into a meaningful action, may not be enough in themselves. 

Science and aesthetics provide different kinds of priorities. The struggle, in the case of The New Yorker, to present interesting and convincing accounts, as entertainment, without damaging its credibility, can be easily appreciated. Running a long work, such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, for instance, which appeared in the NY'er in 1962, obviously required a foundation of accountability which could support the seriousness of the important claims and charges Carson would make.  

As an institution, The New Yorker magazine, which began as a high-brow, light-hearted social society sheet for upper-class New Yorkers, eventually found itself committed to socially and politically responsible journalism. As a magazine, during an era in which the traditional newspaper business, as well as the weekly or monthly magazine field, underwent drastic downsizings, it was able to stay afloat by maintaining its sophistication and reserved imperturbability. As Yagoda recounts, the magazine lost a good deal of money for its new owners the syndicate Advance Publications, after it was acquired in 1984. 

Tina Brown

In the years since Tina Brown [1992-1998] left, Editor David Remnick has accepted the challenge of keeping the magazine relevant, by taking clear stands on important national and international issues, while maintaining many of its traditionally "old-fashioned" content, such as the witty cartoons, the gags ("news-breaks"), light verse, and its hip or occasionally flippant, supercilious temperament. 

David Remnick

Though I stopped reading (or subscribing regularly) to The New Yorker years ago, I continue to read the books of its contributors, such as John McPhee, Calvin Trillin, John Cheever, and many, many others. Yagoda's book was in many senses a trip down memory lane for me, recalling my own fascination with it in early adolescence, and later disillusionment (in the Tina Brown era*). Unlike many readers, it wasn't the cartoons that lured me in; it was the sense of the world as an endlessly intriguing place, ripe for investigation and inquiry, where one might, modestly and with a minimum of fuss, follow one's perspicacious curiosity to the ends of the earth, without ever having left the comfort of your armchair.


*As Yagoda makes clear, Brown's tenure, though it soured many of the subscribers on the magazine, infused it with a spirit that had as much, or more, in common with its original roots (n the 1920's), than with the glitzy spirit of the New York fashion scene, from which Brown had come. Subscriptions jumped under her regime, but advertising revenue didn't. Though it was plain that the magazine would never look as traditional and "quietly" reserved as it had before she arrived, it reclaimed some of its authority under Remnick in the years since.