Sunday, August 29, 2004

New Yorker binge

So on my flight back to Berkeley, I tried to get through three August issues of the New Yorker (I hadn't gotten my mail forwarded for a while). As expected, I had missed a bunch of good stuff.
  • Nanook and Me: Louis Menand fills in some interesting background on the history of documentaries and how they came to have the reputation of being "a plotless, commentary-less, vérité-style record of life as it is," and places Fahrenheit 9/11 in this context.

  • The Gift: The story of a guy who earned millions in real estate, gave it all away, and then also gave away his kidney in a non-directed donation. I especially enjoyed the passages on giving relative values to human lives:
    Kravinsky considered the risks. Although Richard Herrick, who received the first kidney transplant, died eight years later, Ronald Herrick, his donor and twin brother, is still alive. As Herrick's example suggests, and medical research confirms, there are no health disadvantages to living with one kidney. One is enough-it grows a little bigger-and the notion that a spare should be packed for emergencies is misconceived: nearly all kidney disease affects both.
    The risks are in the operation. "I had a one-in-four-thousand chance of dying," Kravinsky told me. "But my recipient had a certain death facing her." To Kravinsky, this was straightforward: "I'd be valuing my life at four thousand times hers if I let consideration of mortality sway me."
    During one of our conversations, I asked Kravinsky to calculate a ratio between his love for his children and his love for unknown children. Many people would refuse to engage in this kind of thought experiment, but Kravinsky paused for only a moment. "I don't know where I'd set it, but I would not let many children die so my kids could live," he said. "I don't think that two kids should die so that one of my kids has comfort, and I don't know that two children should die so that one of my kids lives."
    Trying to think in this way, just as an experiment, is really worthwhile. I remember talking with my brother about the classic philosophical dilemma in which (roughly) you see a train speeding toward a group of five people, and you can save them by hitting a switch which will send the train crashing into a group of three people. We eventually started talking about things like how many near-death senior citizens would be needed to balance a healthy young adult. While I found this kind of thinking a bit uncomfortable (and I still do), I feel like it opened my mind a bit.

  • Speed (not online, August 23rd issue): A very cool article by a neurologist on how the brain perceives time, discussing things like how time seems to slow down for people in near-death experiences, the effects of drugs, and people with Parkinson's disease and Tourette's syndrome. One cool tidbit that I'll type up:
    Sometimes, as one is falling asleep, there may be a massive, involuntary jerk - a myoclonic jerk - of the body. Though such jerks are generated by primitive parts of the brain stem (they are, so to speak, brain-stem reflexes), and as such are without any intrinsic meaning or motive, they may be given meaning and context, turned into acts, by an instantly improvised dream. Thus the jerk may be associated witha dream of tripping, or stepping over a precipice, lunging forward to catch a ball, and so on. Such dreams may be extremeley vivid, and have several "scenes." Subjectively, they appear to start before the jerk, and yet presumably the entire dream mechanism is stimulated by the first, preconscious perception of the jerk. All of this elaborate restructuring of time occurs in a second or less.
    I've wondered for a long time how that worked. Also, I'm not a person that typically remembers dreams except when I'm awakened in the middle of one. I've always found it somewhat jarring that my experience of a dream is (presumably) unaffected by whether I'll remember it or not, which depends on the future event of the dream being interrupted.

  • The Unpolitical Animal: Another Louis Menand article, this one about the thinking of voters. Quotes on NewsDog.
One last thing: I was at a party last night celebrating the launch of a couple of web sites by my friend Dave, including Classical CD Guide. Check it out if you've been looking to get into classical music or if you're just looking for some new pieces to listen to.
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