there and back again

The things you learn and can’t forget.
July 30, 2008, 7:20 pm
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From Wikipedia:

Numbers stations are shortwave radio stations of uncertain origin. They generally broadcast mechanically generated voices reading streams of numbers, words, letters (sometimes using a spelling alphabet), tunes or Morse code. They are in a wide variety of languages and the voices are usually women’s, though sometimes men’s or children’s voices are used.

Evidence supports popular assumptions that the broadcasts are channels of communication used to send messages to spies.  Numbers stations appear and disappear over time (although some follow regular schedules), and their overall activity has increased slightly since the early 1990s. This increase suggests that, as spy-related phenomena, they were not unique to the Cold War.

So yeah, numbers stations were explained to me as I walked back from a football match this evening.  Something things are too fantastic to be anything but true.  Wilco used clips from numbers stations on the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (That title makes a bit more sense now too, doesn’t it?).  With a particular kind of shortwave radio, you could tune into these broadcasts right now.


“Turn into the whole wide world I made up”
July 11, 2008, 8:10 am
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I’m not much of a photographer, but I can’t stop looking at the sky in Cambridge.  I’ve never seen clouds and light behave so oddly, and what’s more, it’s strangely not time specific.  This is how the sky looks at eight in the morning, or six in the afternoon, or at nine just as it’s getting dark.  I’ve started to walk around here with my head constantly tilted up.

More stuff I’m doing with my first day free from classes: reading To The Lighthouse, catching up on my email, not getting dressed, maybe going shopping later.  I discovered this awesome song by Karen O (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) in a commercial.  Okay, it’s a pretty good commercial—it’s Spike Jones for Adidas—but still!  I’ve upset the natural order of things; aren’t I supposed to love the song, see the commercial, and then bitch to my friends about selling out?  I can’t really, the song is too pretty and I’m so glad I found it. 

Adidas Commercial by Spike Jones.  Music by Karen O.

And now for something completely different.
July 10, 2008, 8:44 am
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So I’m obsessed.  Specifically, with Bloomsbury.  I knew this was going to happen, but after every lecture I go back to my room and spend my time tracking down more information about the group.  It’s a good thing I’m being disenchanted and fascinated simultaneously; all these people seemed to do was sit around talking and eating, sleep with each other, and write brilliantly.  Lest you get too intrigued however, remember that even these very English bohemians couldn’t get the sexual aspects all lined up; at least half of them seemed to be constantly depressed about their own affairs or the affairs that their partners were having.  And of course, one didn’t get mad at one’s spouse for having an affair; instead, one became life-long friends with the lover and suffered great inner melancholy.  Which perhaps aided with the writing of brilliant novels.  Clearly I have not yet decided what lesson I shall draw from this course vis-à-vis complicated interpersonal relationships.

On a much more explicitly unhappy note, I recently read this fascinating article about suicide in the New York Times Magazine, “The Urge to End It All.”  It’s obviously a rather upsetting topic, but author Scott Anderson approaches it in a very unusual way.  He speaks with a movement of mental health professionals who, in their attempts at suicide-prevention, focus not on the “why” of suicide but the “how”.  In a nutshell, they believe that one of the best ways to prevent suicide is simply to make the act more difficult—put up barriers on bridges, or limit the sale of handguns.  Common belief in the medical community is that things like barriers on bridges don’t work because potential suicides will simply find another method to commit the act.   In fact, Anderson notes, suicide is such an impulsive act that out of those who have attempted to kill themselves and failed, only 10 percent will ever try again.  For most people, it’s not a persistent state of mind, it’s a sudden physical response to a particular and often fleeting spiritual crisis.  It may be that most people who attempt suicide only do so because the means of killing oneself is, at that moment of crisis, fairly convenient.  Anderson illustrates this rather well with the “British coal-gas story.”

For generations, the people of Britain heated their homes and fueled their stoves with coal gas. While plentiful and cheap, coal-derived gas could also be deadly; in its unburned form, it released very high levels of carbon monoxide, and an open valve or a leak in a closed space could induce asphyxiation in a matter of minutes. This extreme toxicity also made it a preferred method of suicide. “Sticking one’s head in the oven” became so common in Britain that by the late 1950s it accounted for some 2,500 suicides a year, almost half the nation’s total.

Those numbers began dropping over the next decade as the British government embarked on a program to phase out coal gas in favor of the much cleaner natural gas. By the early 1970s, the amount of carbon monoxide running through domestic gas lines had been reduced to nearly zero. During those same years, Britain’s national suicide rate dropped by nearly a third, and it has remained close to that reduced level ever since.

So perhaps writing about this is rather morbid, but I’m fascinated.  Anderson tells a story of a man who, having picked out the spot on the western side of Golden Gate Bridge from which to jump, was thwarted when he was grabbed by passersby who noticed him looking despondent.  He would have been successful in his attempt if he hadn’t spent so long hanging around the eastern side of the bridge, but he waited because he was concerned about being hit by a car while he tried to cross the road.  The man freely admits that when he recounted this concern to a therapist after the fact, they both laughed.  

The human brain is a ridiculous and wonderfully complicated thing.  How can we entertain such disparate thoughts in our minds simultaneously?  Another man in the article, who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge and survived, talks of the moment when he let go of the rail and thought to himself, how could you be so stupid?  How can our brains go so quickly from the lowest depression to such painfully obvious common sense?  Basically, this bizarre article made me want to take more cognitive psychology classes.   

More importantly, a huge number of petitions to erect suicide barriers at the Golden Gate Bridge have failed in the past for reasons having to do with cost, aesthetics, and “effectiveness.”  There are certainly people out there who declare that we have a right to commit suicide if we choose, that choosing how and when to end one’s life is a private decision.  That smacks of a particular kind of craziness to me, the same kind that leads people to court and idolize depression as the plight of the brilliant and creative.  For the most part, I cannot believe that the majority of those who attempt suicide are simply logically choosing the particular moment of their death.  It’s a desperate reaction to crisis, for most it’s a moment of total sadness, not a lifetime.  When 90 percent of people never attempt suicide again after a first attempt, when those who survive talk of the moment when they realized, mid-jump, that truly all their problems were small and fixable, how can people actually debate the need for a barrier?  After all, if potential suicides are always sure of the finality of their decision, their personal freedom won’t really have been threatened—they’ll just find another way.

Hi lovely, oh so fickle.
July 2, 2008, 6:17 am
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I don’t think I would have ever guessed how much I love one of the courses I’m taking here at King’s.  The class focuses on Bloomsbury and oddly enough I can feel myself becoming obsessed despite my own attempts to stay rather detached.  All the people I ever met who were obsessed with the group were just identifying to a creepy degree with Virginia Woolf and while I can feel some part of that, I think it’s more the unraveling of a society, the way in which I can trace connections and dead ends, lovers and ideas and hangers on.  Right now, it’s fascinating me.  King’s library has a Bloomsbury archive in which I plan on immersing myself.  

I also need to immediately read all of Woolf’s big novels, right now.  I read A Room of One’s Own back in high school and fell in love.  Her advice to women writers is becoming very antiquated, which is a good thing really, but there’s something about her theory that rings true.  Even now, the best way for me to be a writer really would be to have totally financial independence and a quiet space.  I think for this reason, I was very intrigued by the Writers Room; I always like to imagine that when I graduate I’ll submit an application, get accepted, write my novel, and suddenly find I’ve made a career for myself.  But in reality, I’m terrified of writing really (strange for someone who majors in the subject) because I often feel that I lack the discipline to ever make something out of what I write.  

There’s a certain degree of necessary egotism that’s required to be a writer; you have to truly believe that you are adding something to the billions of pages already in the world, that what you have to say is worth spending time and emotion upon.  I’ve never let anyone I care about read my work.  Instead, of course, I post it here, on a fairly anonymous blog in the vast steppe of the internet. 

Xkcd = Love.
June 5, 2008, 6:21 pm
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On days when the weather’s bad, when the only time I leave the house is to go to the gym, and when my hair does weird stuff all day, at least I have you.

I have nothing to apologize for.

What would I do without you?  I shudder to think such a thing. Even though I’ll never understand the computer humor. 

“This song is for the rats”
May 27, 2008, 10:57 pm
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I’ve developed a minor obsession with the Highline.  Everyone likes being part of a secret.  In the summer of 2006 I worked for a television production company and had tons of free time at work which I spent online doing basically nothing.  I read the paper and did minor amounts of research on random topics for potential television shows and eventually stumbled across a website devoted to hidden or abandoned places in New York.  Alleys that dated from the late 18th century too narrow to drive cars through, or subway stations that had been closed.  The Highline was an elevated railroad line that operated until 1980.  And soon there’s going to be a park in the sky downtown on the west side, but I want to get up there before the park opens, so I can see how it looked before it was manicured and public.


the Highline



Edited to add: The internet is a wonderful thing.  33d Street between 11th and 12th avenues.  Supposedly here the Highline comes down close to street level.  One more summer project for the list.