there and back again

August 8, 2008, 9:51 am
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Oh my god will I ever do anything quite this awesome?  Doubtful.  Everyone?  The Mario Scarf.  Natalia love, this one’s clearly for you.


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.

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.