Author Archives

Michelle Legro

Meditations in an Emergency

(AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

If America’s storytellers “lost the narrative they had been creating for decades” the morning after the 2016 elections, as Esquire explains in its oral history of the national trauma that began one year ago today, we’ve been writing our way out ever since. We’ve been knocking on doors, asking people why they did what they did, and asking ourselves how to fix it. We’ve been writing out our feelings, making fun where we can and commiserating where we can’t. Storytelling has been a way of getting through this, and we’re still getting through this.

Perhaps you won’t want to read this piece. I understand. I had to let one more election night pass before I could even begin a history that starts with Steve Bannon’s triumphant proclamation, “You have a hundred-percent chance of winning.”

We’re not the only ones reliving this day: it was also the day the nightmare began for Donald Trump. It was his last good day and he won’t let us forget it. Instead, think about how much has changed, and how far we still have to go.

David Remnickeditor of The New Yorker: I thought about, and actually wrote, an essay about “the first woman president,” and the historical background of it all. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the suffragettes, the relationship with Frederick Douglass…a historical essay, clearly written in a mood of “at long last” and, yes, celebration. The idea was to press “post” on that piece, along with many other pieces by my colleagues at The New Yorker, the instant Clinton’s victory was declared on TV…

We agreed that night, and we agree today, that the Trump presidency is an emergency. And in an emergency, you’ve got a purpose, a job to do, and ours is to put pressure on power. That’s always the highest calling of journalism, but never more so than when power is a constant threat to the country and in radical opposition to its values and its highest sense of itself.

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Chasing Down a Child Genius in Montana

(Courtesy of Promethea Pythaitha / The Atavist)

Promethea Olympia Kyrene Pythaitha renamed herself at age 13, the year she graduated from Montana State University, with the belief that “her life, and its work, would have meaning.” A prodigy who had begun to read at nine months, Promethea grew up in poverty with her mother in Montana. She took on several courses of study, determined to earn degree after degree, but never wanted to leave the state for something bigger. Promethea was satisfied just to educate herself — a “rage to learn” as one psychologist described it — to expand her knowledge any way she could. News of her talents spread throughout the Greek diaspora and a mysterious benefactor became obsessed with paying for her education and controlling her life, eventually stalking Promethea and her mother in Montana and changing their lives forever.

Journalist Mike Mariani has been following Promethea’s story for years, and he finally catches up with her at age 26 in this feature for The Atavist. When he first meets her, he isn’t sure what to make of the prodigy.

Initially, when we were one-on-one, Promethea’s disposition disarmed me. Her mood was cheerful but her affect was flat, as though something had been stripped from it. I struggled to find my footing in conversation because the usual notches and grooves weren’t there. At one point she quoted Star Trek’s Spock, and I wondered if she drew inspiration from a character who balanced near perfect intellect with extreme stoicism. I also thought about how socially isolated she’d been all her life: homeless and homeschooled as a young child, taking college classes by age seven, earning two bachelor’s degrees with her mother by her side every day.

[I was told] that Promethea “never knew how to end conversations or begin conversations or ratchet herself back.” I experienced this while ferrying her through the Montana landscape. After small talk, which came in fits and starts, Promethea would shift into a high gear I wasn’t ready for. She would talk about her family, then Greek austerity politics, then science, with nary a breath in between. There was no conversational ebb and flow. I didn’t so much participate as try to steer her thoughts now and then with questions.

But while it was clear that I was in the presence of the smartest person I’d ever met, Promethea’s intellect wasn’t the most striking thing about her. She didn’t have the sarcasm, cynicism, or irony many young people use to construct their personalities and establish repartee. She wasn’t quotable in the droll or pithy way that makes a journalist’s job easy; she was earnest and expansive. Our conversations were airless because Promethea had no airs — no hint of attitude, vanity, or ego. Perhaps in missing out on opportunities to develop her social self, she’d eluded artifice altogether.

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The Intimacy of an Android: An Interview With Alex Mar

(Cait Opperman / Wired)

Alex Mar’s cover story for Wired‘s November issue, “Love in the Time of Robots” is an epic look at the life and work of Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, who has spent his life and career in pursuit of a more perfect android. He has made copies of his friends, family, and himself with his “Geminoid” project, and he delights in the moment when a human confronts its twin. What could have been a simple profile of Ishiguro goes much, much deeper — at nearly 12,000 words, it is one of the longest features that Wired has run in print — as Mar explores the origins of human nature and intimacy, and the desire to turn to a robot for comfort or companionship. “Most of us already allow technology to mediate what was once simple, direct human interaction,” Mar writes, “what really is the difference?” I spoke with Mar via email about her experience with Ishiguro and the freedom of writing at a length far beyond the typical magazine feature.

***

How many times did you meet with Hiroshi Ishiguro? How did your understanding of him and his work change with each meeting?

I’ve been in touch with Hiroshi for over two years and we spent about three weeks in each other’s constant company in Japan, between Osaka and Tokyo. He was immediately forthcoming with me, very open and direct. We had a great, natural rapport from our first Skype chat, and that was a big part of why I decided to pursue the story. Almost immediately he announced himself as less of a roboticist and more of an artist, which I could relate to more than an engineer’s perspective — he was turned on by big concepts and risk-taking.

Over time he did become more open about his family, a subject that’s pretty verboten for him, as he’s always been a firm believer in keeping his family life separate from his public, professional life. (Ironic, considering his first major experiment was an android copy of his then 5-year-old daughter.) He’s a charismatic figure, and he and his work have gotten plenty of press coverage internationally over the years. It took a moment for him to realize I was also interested in very minute details about his life — his childhood, his personal habits — things that he at first dismissed as too boring to discuss. It’s funny how often people assume that the kind of minutia that really makes a story, the intimate stuff, isn’t worth mentioning.

Ishiguro closely studies the small physical cues involved in human interaction in order to build a better android. (He notices, for example, that people never sit completely still.) But you seem to think his understanding of humanity is lacking. How did your understanding of his work change over time?

I don’t know if Hiroshi’s understanding of humanity is lacking any more than yours or mine. It’s more that his project is immense and requires a lot of hubris. He’s studying, measuring, and trying to replicate something that remains pretty intangible: the human presence, which the Japanese call sonzai-kan. The ineffable thing that signals to us that we’re sitting across from a living, breathing, thinking, feeling person. Plenty of people would call that a soul — something that, by definition, is impossible to replicate. So I think the bigger question here is: Do you think that human-ness is something that we can measure and weigh and build from scratch? Hiroshi’s answer to that, at least in public, is a resounding yes. But in private, I think that Hiroshi is conflicted. Personally, he seems to be struggling with his own deep desire for human connection — he spoke to me repeatedly of his feelings of loneliness — and I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to reconcile that with his work.

When did you suspect you would have to be a part of this story? How did you decide how much of yourself to put in?

I consider myself a “literary” non-fiction writer, but not a particularly confessional one. I believe in using the first person sparingly in journalism; in my longform stories I’ve tended to use it more as a light-handed framing device. But with my first book, Witches of America, about the present-day witchcraft movement around the country, I was surprised and a little bit horrified when I realized I needed to go all-in and insert myself as a character. I needed to be honest with myself and the reader about my curiosity about witchcraft, and to be frank about how subjective my experience of these Pagan rituals was — there’s no “objective” way to take part in a religious ceremony. My approach to the book became very personal and immersive, and any other approach would have felt dishonest.

When I returned from my first reporting trip to Japan, I had that feeling again: The subject of the story required a writer who was also a stand-in for the audience. I had to be able to describe in a very immediate way the experience of being around those androids, of being immersed in Hiroshi’s world and his way of thinking about humanity. When events in my personal life began to get all tangled up with the ideas I was absorbing in Hiroshi’s labs, I felt the only honest way to write this story was to weave that in.

Do you think that inventors who work at the edge of what is technically possible — with artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and so on — lose sight of what humans actually want, what we actually need? It seems like much of what Silicon Valley provides serves the interests of a narrow subset of people in the name of helping humanity.

It seems to me that the goal of a lot of research and development is to anticipate a need, or perhaps to create a desire where previously there was none. Android development is less about a concrete need — a robot doesn’t have to have a human face to perform surgery, or rescue someone from a war zone — but it does seem like an extension of the parts of our lives technology has already colonized. So many of our relationships are already virtual or text-based: entire friendships with people we almost never see in person, interactions with avatars people have created to stand in for themselves online. I’m willing to bet that internet porn, for those who are more or less addicted to it, is rewiring their sexual instincts and, to a degree, eliminating the need for actual human contact. And what about the constant need for affirmation that Instagram or Facebook satisfies? Are we really interacting with humans when we’re interacting on social media, or would that shot of cortisol to the brain be just as satisfying coming from a bot? If you go down this rabbit hole, it becomes possible to imagine a market for android companions, whether platonic or sexual, that goes beyond a “narrow subset” of people.

But putting that longer-term apocalyptic talk aside, here’s something else to consider: AI, android science, VR, etc. — these are clearly male-dominated fields, whether we’re talking about Japan or the U.S. Therefore the needs and desires research and development is addressing are, for the most part, the needs and desires of men — the fantasies of men projected onto the not-so-distant future. When I learned that Hiroshi had produced some two dozen attractive female androids, I thought, of course they were female, young-looking, and pretty. He may be a radical, independent thinker, but he’s ultimately following the dictates of an industry built by men.

This is one of the longest features Wired has ever run in print, over 12,000 words. Was having that kind of length helpful for this subject, or was it unwieldy at times to tell a story of that length?

My very first draft of the story was close to this length, and it felt natural. I’m very grateful that Wired was willing to give it that space, about twice their typical feature length. I think there was a consensus that this story needed that kind of room because of how it continues to evolve all the way to the last page. Hiroshi’s work has a breadth of scope that requires that much space if you’re going to push beyond “man who creates good-looking androids” terrain to get to something deeper. My editor Mark Robinson was a real believer in the piece and wanted to avoid any cuts that might subtract from what he thought made it different and strange and intimate.

There’s also the fact that, for whatever reason, 12,000 words is a sweet spot for me with magazine features. I like to hurl myself into the subject and write my way out of it, and it seems to land at that length nearly every time. But I believe that every story has a length that it naturally wants to land at, once you’re plugged into the writing process. That’s why it’s so valuable to have magazines that are willing to take this kind of risk and go long. This kind of freedom is the greatest gift an editor can give you.

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The Dream of a Perfect Android

A robot produced by Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories on display at the Science Museum in London. (Ben Stansall /AFP/Getty Images)

Hiroshi Ishi­guro has spent a lifetime in pursuit of the perfect robot. He has modeled his creations on those closest to him — his wife, his child, himself — but he admits to feeling lonely while surrounded by his family, both human and inhuman. At Wired, Alex Mar unravels the depths of Ishi­guro’s passion for robots, and what he means when he tries to make them lifelike. However, Mar finds that after a lifetime of considering what it means to be human, Ishi­guro may not truly understand the basics of human interaction himself.

He has spent a lot of time talking to himself through his androids, testing them, imagining their effect on other ­people. Hiroshi (who by now has asked me to call him by his first name) tells me he’d like to record himself saying “I love you” and then program an android to repeat it back to him in a female voice. He is kidding when he says this—but maybe it’s another of his half-jokes. At the very least, he believes the need for such an exchange exists. It would be, he says, “a real conversation.” A conversation with himself.

“A conversation is a kind of illusion,” he says. “I don’t know what is going on in your brain. All I can know is what I’m thinking. Always I am asking questions to myself, but through conversations.” Over the years of operating his androids, communicating through them or with them, he has found that he isn’t really concerned about the other person’s thoughts. “Always I am thinking of myself. I need to understand your intention, but it is not a priority. Before that, I want to make clear something in my brain. Otherwise, what is the motivation to talk?”

In other words, he can only imagine using conversation with others as a means to better understand himself—and nothing is more pressing than that. He turns to the conversation the two of us are having. “We don’t know how much information we are sharing,” he tells me. “I am always guessing, and you are always guessing, and through our conversation patterns, we can believe that we exchange information. But I cannot access your brain directly.

“What is ‘connection’?” he asks. “Other person is just a mirror.”

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He Seemed Like the Real Thing, Until He Wasn’t

(The Los Angeles Times)

Journalist Christopher Goffard of The Los Angeles Times may be the bard of crime in Orange County, California. Last year, his six-part series “Framed” told the story of fear and loathing in an Irvine PTA. His 2017 opus is “Dirty John,” a seven-part series — and podcast — that unravels the life of a con man as he takes on his final victim.

When Debra Newell met John Meehan for a first date, she thought he was handsome and kind, but shabbily dressed and a little strange. He said he was a doctor, an anesthesiologist; he always wore medical scrubs but he never seemed to go to work. When they married in Las Vegas less than two months later, she kept her family in the dark. It was only after she learned about his past that she began to fear for her life, and the lives of her children.

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The Examination of a Playboy Bunny

The photographer Weegee sets up his equipment to photograph a Playboy Bunny in the 1950s (International Center of Photography/Getty Images)

Her nom de bunny was Marie Catherine Ochs, an old family name that Gloria Steinem thought sounded “much too square to be phony.” Marie went to high school and college, but “wasn’t a slave to academics,” dropping out after her first year of college to fly to Europe and work as a waitress in London and a hostess-dancer in Paris. After returning to New York to work as a secretary, she saw an ad in the newspaper looking for women who were “pretty and personable, between 21 and 24, married or single” who wanted to make between $200 and $300 a week — about the same salary as a Madison Avenue ad executive. When Steinem handed over Marie’s detailed personal history to the Sheralee, the Bunny Mother at Playboy’s New York Club, the hostess handed it back without looking at it.

“We don’t like our girls to have any background,” she told Steinem, who was going undercover as a Playboy Bunny for Show magazine, “we just want you to fit the Bunny image.” Steinem kept meticulous notes as she completed each stage of the interview, as well as the job itself, and she collected these notes in a day-to-day account that was published in May 1963 as a two-part series “A Bunny’s Tale” which was later collected in her 1985 book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.

Part of Steinem’s training involved the fitting of a skin-tight uniform in two colors, the application of false eyelashes, and a physical examination with a doctor, which she recounted in detail.

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The Panic in Twin Falls, Idaho

(Otto Kitsinger/AP Photo)

Twin Falls, Idaho is perhaps one of the best well known small towns in America when it comes to the resettlement of refugees. The billionaire owner of Chobani, Hamid Ulukaya, made it a personal mission to use the low-skill jobs available at his yogurt factory in Twin Falls as a jobs program for refugees, and he currently employees 400 of the recently resettled. Idaho has been a destination for refugee resettlement since 1975, when California governor Jerry Brown refused a planeload of Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon. Idaho stepped in and established the Idaho Office for Refugees, and today resettles people primarily from Iraq, Congo, Burma, Bhutan, and Somalia.

The panic in Twin Falls began when the local newspaper reported that Syrian refugees would be resettled in the town. As Caitlin Dickerson reports for The New York Times Magazine, when a report surfaced of a sexual assault involving two boys, a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old (the boys were refugees from Iraq and Sudan) and a 5-year-old girl, a thread of misinformation began to tear the town apart. Since those involved in the assault were juveniles, the police couldn’t release the details, and the lack of information created a void into which people poured their rage about Muslims and refugees. Then Lee Stranahan, a reporter for Breitbart, came to town.

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Does Luxembourg Have Any Business Entering the Space Race?

Members of Luxembourg's royal family on National Day, 2015. (Mark Renders/Getty Images)

Once upon a time in the twentieth century, there was an era called the Space Race, a few glorious decades of scientific discovery in the name of national superiority. But once we got to space, what was there to do? Poke around? Send some cool tunes to the farthest reaches of the solar system? Launch a robot to go to Saturn and then burn it up twenty years later?

Now these activities are fun and good for countries that like to spend money, but what about countries that like to make money? Which will be the first nation to break the surly bonds of earth and touch the face of capitalism? The answer, as it turns out, could be Luxembourg,

Luxembourg is a small but savvy nation. With few natural resources — besides its valuable national sovereignty — the country has looked to the stars for its next big venture: asteroid mining. At The Guardian, Atossa Abrahamian lays out the galactic ambitions of a country that has fashioned itself as as tax haven to craft a thriving economy.  When it comes to legal loopholes, space may be the final frontier.

By crafting innovative rules, laws and regulations that only it could (or would) put on offer, Luxembourg has attracted banks, telecommunications companies and consulting firms before any of these industries came to dominate the global economy. Now, by courting asteroid miners before anyone else takes them seriously, it may very well end up doing the same thing for the commercialization of space…

The only catch was the ambiguity of space law: companies wanted assurances that the fruits of their extraterrestrial labour would be recognized here on Earth. This is not a given. Unlike on Earth, where a country can grant a company a mining concession, or a person can sell the right to exploit their land, no one has an obvious legal claim to what’s outside our atmosphere. In fact, the Outer Space Treaty, signed by 107 countries at the UN in 1967, explicitly prohibits countries from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies. The question now is: if nobody owns or governs the great unknown, who is to say who gets to own a little piece of it?

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On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Cartoonist Hustling for Money

(Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A successful media model is often a quiet one, gathering up money from the unglamorous corners of the market, cutting checks for its writers and artists in small but regular amounts. When Bob Mankoff retired from the New Yorker this year after twenty years as the Cartoon Editor, he left behind one of most successful new media models of the era: The Cartoon Bank. It was a database he founded in 1992 and ran from an apartment in Yonkers, and it helped cartoonists license their work for thousands of dollars a month. But when Condé Nast bought the Bank from Mankoff in 1997, the money began to dry up and the model began to fail.

Paste magazine recounts the rise and fall of the Cartoon Bank, which was begun by Mankoff with an $1,800 Apple computer and a $745 scanner, and built into a database with over 20,000 images from 50 cartoonists, categorized by subject: “The market was individual consumers as well as businesses; if you ran a dental association, for instance, you could easily find dental-themed cartoons for your monthly newsletter. Early customers included Bloomberg Financial Markets, which delivered a cartoon to 41,000 subscribers each morning,”

With fees ranging from $100 to $1000 for a single image, cartoonists could start to rely on checks coming in from the Bank, and some cartoonists were receiving residiuals of $30,000 to $40,000 a year. But when Condé Nast took over, things began to break and cartoonists saw a reliable income dwindle to nothing.

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Hilary Mantel’s Eulogy for the Unfinished Diana

(Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Hilary Mantel is an expert on the royal body; the mythology and reality of the nobility once anointed by God and now anointed by fame. In 2013, her controversial essay on Kate Middleton in the London Review of Books compared the future Princess of Wales to her predecessor: “Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture.”

At the Guardian, Mantel now takes on Diana herself, 20 years after her death. How could time have passed so quickly, she wonders? Royal time passes in centuries, in generations, and as Diana passes through our collective consciousness once more, Mantel considers the reality of Diana’s “fairytale” existence:

By her own account, Diana was not clever. Nor was she especially good, in the sense of having a dependable inclination to virtue; she was quixotically loving, not steadily charitable: mutable, not dependable: given to infatuation, prey to impulse. This is not a criticism. Myth does not reject any material. It only asks for a heart of wax. Then it works subtly to shape its subject, mould her to be fit for fate. When people described Diana as a “fairytale princess”, were they thinking of the cleaned-up versions? Fairytales are not about gauzy frocks and ego gratification. They are about child murder, cannibalism, starvation, deformity, desperate human creatures cast into the form of beasts, or chained by spells, or immured alive in thorns. The caged child is milk-fed, finger felt for plumpness by the witch, and if there is a happy-ever-after, it is usually written on someone’s skin.

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