When Oprah Winfrey served on a Chicago jury in 2004, she couldn’t go to the bathroom attached to the jury room unless her fellow jurors sang to drown out the noise. One of the songs they sang was Kumbaya.
When Alexis Sanchez used the bathroom in her college dorm, she brought her iPod with her.
“I would blast it,” she says. “I would play ‘D. A. N. C. E.’ by Justice, and some Maroon 5 song. That was my poop playlist. It had to be a ritual or else I would focus too much on if there were other girls there who could hear or smell what was happening.”
Sanchez, now a 22-year-old front-end web developer for the Tampa Bay Times, has since abandoned her poop playlist, but is still incredibly anxious about using public bathrooms—for both numbers one and two. “It’s definitely a problem,” she says. “It affects my life.”
Each year, the average American spends nearly 2,000 hours working. For many, that time passes inside the three little walls of a modern cubicle.
Writer Nikil Saval explores these odd spaces—how they came to be, how they make us feel—in his new book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. I spoke to Saval about the modern office, and a lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Your book is, as I see it, about twin themes: the spaces we work in, and the quality or character of the work itself. Can you talk, just briefly, about the relationship between those two ideas?
I’ve found that space in an office often reflects the way power operates in a workplace: design expresses (though not in a simple way) relationships of hierarchy, control, and authority.
It was the greatest art theft in history: 650,000 works looted from Europe by the Nazis, many of which were never recovered. But last November the world learned that German authorities had found a trove of 1,280 paintings, drawings, and prints worth more than a billion dollars in the Munich apartment of a haunted white-haired recluse. Amid an international uproar, Alex Shoumatoff follows a century-old trail to reveal the crimes—and obsessions—involved.
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Last fall, while on a family bike ride around Central Park, I took a photo of my 9-year-old son. His cheeks were flushed, his big brown eyes were lit with happiness and the golden sun made his light-olive skin appear to glow. It was a great picture and one I wanted to share with my friends online.
My son, however, was opposed to the idea. “You’re not going to put that on Facebook, are you?” he demanded, flashing me the look my husband and I had long ago named his “dark and stormy.”
Yes, I told him: “You are my child, and I’m proud of you.”
“But it’s my picture,” he said. “And I don’t want it on your Facebook page.”
Do you have free will? In all likelihood, your late night college bull sessions failed to resolve the matter. Even today, there is not really any definitive evidence as to whether human free will does or doesn’t exist, although there are certainly plenty of reasons to doubt it: For instance, the very powerful evidence suggesting that our conscious thoughts are preceded by automatic emotional reactions, of which we are simply unaware.
But it’s one thing to gab about whether free will exists, and quite another to question why humans overwhelmingly tend to believe that it does. If you’ve read your Friedrich Nietzsche, you know that the consummate anti-philosopher had a pretty cynical take on this question. Nietzsche didn’t simply call free will itself “the foulest of all theological fictions.” In his workTwilight of the Idols he went further, psychoanalyzing the ubiquitous belief in free will and concluding that deep down, we want to believe that people have control over their own choices so that we can justify and feel good about punishing them. “Whenever responsibility is assigned,” wrote Nietzsche, “it is usually so that judgment and punishment may follow.”
Sam Parnia practices resuscitation medicine. In other words, he helps bring people back from the dead — and some return with stories. Their tales could help save lives, and even challenge traditional scientific ideas about the nature of consciousness.
“The evidence we have so far is that human consciousness does not become annihilated,” said Parnia, a doctor at Stony Brook University Hospital and director of the school’s resuscitation research program. “It continues for a few hours after death, albeit in a hibernated state we cannot see from the outside.”
Resuscitation medicine grew out of the mid-twentieth century discovery of CPR, the medical procedure by which hearts that have stopped beating are revived. Originally effective for a few minutes after cardiac arrest, advances in CPR have pushed that time to a half-hour or more.
Nearly 25 years ago, Jeff Morris, a high school senior in Jeffersonville, Ind., placed a phone call to his new idol. A skinny music nerd with an easy laugh, Morris was a devotee of the Dr. Demento Show, a long-running collection of brilliant musical oddities, from Frank Zappa to “Weird Al” Yankovic. That’s where he first encountered Tom Lehrer, whose music was a staple and who was, in the reckoning of the show’s eponymous host, the greatest musical satirist ever recorded. Morris had been assigned a first-person interview on the subject of censorship, and Lehrer seemed obvious.
Cats and dogs occupy a unique place in the animal kingdom’s vast menagerie. Unlike other domesticated animals, like chickens or pigs or lab rats, they’re not treated as identity-less means to a human end; and unlike wild creatures, they’re not counted as populations or viewed as units of biodiversity.
Instead, dogs and cats are individuals. They’re our friends. Some of us even consider them family. They’ve come out of the wild and into our living rooms, an extraordinary evolutionary and sociological journey that now raises profound questions about what it means to be a person.
“Part of our growth and evolution as a society is our changing relationship to the beings around us,” said David Grimm, author of the newly published Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs. “The changing status of cats and dogs forces us to confront some very complicated questions of how inclusive we want to be.”