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Longreads Member Exclusive: Sempre Susan (Excerpt)

For this week's Longreads Member pick, we're excited to share an excerpt from Sigrid Nunez's memoir Sempre Susan, which comes recommended by Emily Gould, the proprietor of Emily Books, who writes:

"This memorable passage from Sigrid Nunez's gemlike memoir of the year she spent under the influence of Susan Sontag begins with a description of a trip to New Orleans with Sontag, who was then at the height of her literary powers and intellectual fame. Nunez goes on to detail some of the explicit lessons Sontag taught her—about treating writing as a vocation rather than a career, about giving yourself permission to devote yourself to reading and writing even when that devotion is difficult to justify. With great subtlety, Nunez uses her intimate experience of the particulars of Sontag's work habits and lifestyle to illuminate some of the tensions that all writers experience—tensions between the need to write without fetters and the need to make money, and between the confidence that's necessary to accomplish anything and the insecurity that can act as a goad, or a filter.

"If you're lucky, you might have had a great boss, teacher, leader, guru, parent or friend who encountered you at a receptive moment and shaped the direction your life would take from that moment on. If you're unlucky, you might have had a boss, teacher, leader, guru, parent or friend who encountered you at a vulnerable moment and warped the direction your life would take from that moment on.  There's a fine line between these two varieties of experience—or maybe there is no line. Maybe to shape is always to deform.  Here, Nunez treats readers to a succinct cost-benefit analysis of the pleasures and perils of acquiring a charismatic mentor.  The unlucky—or is it lucky?—among us will relate."

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PUBLISHED: Feb. 6, 2013
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3513 words)

Inside Paul Allen's Quest To Reverse Engineer The Brain

A look at the 59-year-old Microsoft cofounder who has invested $500 million into the Allen Institute for Brain Science with the goal of decoding how the human brain works:

"Four years later six brains have been donated and four analyzed to some degree. The project is due to be finished this year, but the first brain images, put online in 2010, are already yielding scientific results. So far, the gene expression from the first two human brains in the new atlas varies only a little, yielding hope that scientists will be able to understand some of what it all means.

"How might this work? A young University of California, San Francisco neuroscientist named Bradley Voytek used software to match words that frequently appeared together in the scientific literature with matches of where genes are expressed in the Allen atlas. For instance, he found that scientists studying serotonin, the neurotransmitter hit by Prozac and Zoloft, were ignoring two brain areas where the chemical was expressed in their research. It might even play a role in migraines. This data-driven approach led to 800 new ideas about how the brain may work that scientists can now test, leading to hope that computational methods can help decipher the computer in our heads."
PUBLISHED: Sept. 18, 2012
LENGTH: 12 minutes (3174 words)

How Google Builds Its Maps

Inside Google's secretive Ground Truth program—and why it suddenly makes sense that they are working on a self-driving car:

"Let's step back a tiny bit to recall with wonderment the idea that a single company decided to drive cars with custom cameras over every road they could access. Google is up to five million miles driven now. Each drive generates two kinds of really useful data for mapping. One is the actual tracks the cars have taken; these are proof-positive that certain routes can be taken. The other are all the photos. And what's significant about the photographs in Street View is that Google can run algorithms that extract the traffic signs and can even paste them onto the deep map within their Atlas tool."
PUBLISHED: Sept. 6, 2012
LENGTH: 9 minutes (2414 words)

Beyond the Matrix

The "two bodies, one brain" of Lana and Andy Wachowski, creators of The Matrix and co-directors, with Tom Tykwer, of the new film Cloud Atlas:

"Since Costa Rica, the Wachowskis and Tykwer had viewed the dramatic trajectory of the script as an evolution from the sinister avarice of Dr. Goose to the essential decency of Zachry, with both characters embodying something of the Everyman. Tom Hanks, they agreed, was the 'ultimate Everyman of our age.' 'Our Jimmy Stewart,' Lana called him. They sent their script to Hanks, and he agreed to meet with them. On the way to his office in Santa Monica, the siblings received a phone call from their agent, who told them that Warner Bros. had decided to hold off on a distribution deal. 'Cloud Atlas' had been subjected to an economic-modelling process and the numbers had come back too low. The template that had been used, according to the Wachowskis, was Darren Aronofsky’s 'The Fountain' (2006), because it had three autonomous story lines set in different eras; 'The Fountain,' which had a mixed critical response, had lost almost twenty million dollars.

"'The problem with market-driven art-making is that movies are green-lit based on past movies,' Lana told me. 'So, as nature abhors a vacuum, the system abhors originality. Originality cannot be economically modelled.' The template for 'The Matrix,' the Wachowskis recalled, had been 'Johnny Mnemonic,' a 1995 Keanu Reeves flop."
PUBLISHED: Sept. 3, 2012
LENGTH: 29 minutes (7251 words)