January 14, 2011

And the future will be what the future will be.

Love love love the What I've Learned section in Esquire. So I loved the "Meaning of Life" issue because it was filled with them. I almost blogged excerpts from each one but that would take too long, take up too much space.

Robert De Niro: "Now is now. Then is then. And the future will be what the future will be. So enjoy the moment while you're in it. Now is a great time."

The other people interviewed for this issue included Yoko Ono, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Duvall, Robert Redford, Aaron Sorkin ('Cuse alum!), Mary-Louise Parker, George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, Ruth Westheimer, Ted Danson, Danny DeVito, Ricky Gervais, Ferran Adria, James L. Brooks, Fred Willard, Albert Brooks, Jodie Foster, Jesus H. Christ (ha), and in memoriam (people who died this year and did interviews in the past), John Wooden, Jimmy Dean, Tony Curtis, David Brown, George Steinbrenner. Read 'em. And then read some more. They're all great.

January 13, 2011

It was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

"Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself--Vietnam, the place, the soil--a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity. They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march. They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the rivers and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility." (p. 14)


January 10, 2011

Certain subatomic particles add 1 percent more matter than antimatter, creating everything we know

Esquire, December 2010

Excerpts from their list of the best of 2010:

"Twelve hours after the first call for help was sent out from Haiti, Chief Master Sergeant Antonio Travis touched down at Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, set up a makeshift control tower on a folding card table, and, for the next twelve days, guided the largest single-runway operation in history--four thousand take-offs and landings that brought four million pounds of food, water, and medical supplies to Haitians in need."

"And no copayments for preventive care (such as immunizations, mammograms, and screenings)."

"A recently discovered crate from Ernest Shackleton's 1907 expedition to the South Pole was opened by archaeologists. Inside, they found eleven untouched bottles of whisky. Samples will be sent to Whyte & Mackay in Glasgow, where master blenders will try to reconstruct the original recipe for the rare Old Highland malt, which had been lost."

"When a 911 call to report a house fire in rural Alaska yielded no response, the caller told his German shepherd, Buddy, to find help. Buddy obeyed, ran away, and found a disoriented state trooper whose GPS had frozen up. Buddy led the trooper back to the fire."

"Se lo perdio Raifi...y ahora de contragolpe Donovan...se le va larga a Donovan...la quiere por derecha Altidore...al area viene...en cita por el arquero...DONOVAN!!! GOOOOOOOOOAL!!!!!!"

"Addressing one of the largest mysteries in cosmology--why the Big Bang did not produce equal amounts of matter and antimatter, resulting in nothing, instead of a universe--physicists at the Fermi accelerator laboratory discovered that certain subatomic particles add 1 percent more matter than antimatter, creating everything we know."

"Stranded Sean Murtagh and Natalie Mead in Dubai while en route to their wedding in England, which led them to perform the ceremony locally and broadcast it to their guests back in London via Skype."

"The 107 students of the class of 2010 at Urban Prep Charter Academy in Chicago--all black, all male, all accepted to four-year colleges despite only 4 percent of them reading at grade level as freshmen."

And the brightest. My note to self. Keep these people in mind for future reference:

- Theodore Zoli, engineer
"Picturing the life of one person, imagining his gain, his peril, crossing the bridge that you built? Small, private, empathetic. It's the way a poet works."

"I've always said that bridge building is technology, not art. Or if it is art, it's not like Western art--by the few, for the few. It's more like folk art--by the many, for the many." - Zoli

"Up on its columns now, just before the bolts are set in place, the span is nudged. Zoli watches without comment as the men work. With one small lift from the crane, just enough to push tension on the lifting straps, the whole event is umphed a few inches to the north, and the platform finds its seat. Just like that, it is an event no longer. Just like that, it assumes the seat of the invisible. This is Zoli's moment, when function takes over, and everyone else looks away."

- Danny Hillis, cochairman of Applied, Minds, Inc.
Just check out the spread for this one.
Found both men to be really interesting.

And the last graf of David Granger's editor's note:

"My wife Melanie, and my friend Cornelia Suskind got to know a doctor named Jim Morgan this past year. He runs Lamp for Haiti (lampforhaiti.org). He does what he can out of a clinic in Cite Soleil to ameliorate an impossible situation by dispensing medical care and fixing basic problems. He has a very small budget. I don't know if the larger effort to save Haiti will work, but I know that Lamp for Haiti helps in small and meaningful ways.
That's all any of us can hope to do."

January 04, 2011

It's just a small emptiness, a tiny lacuna.

Dr. William Beecher Scoville, the writer's grandfather

The Brain That Changed Everything by Luke Dittrich, cont'd
Esquire, November 2010

"And what's true of individual brains is true of brain collections as well. With his Brain Observatory, Annese is setting out to create not the world's largest but the world's most useful collection of brains. Each specimen will, through a proprietary process developed by Annese, be preserved in both histological and digital form, at an unprecedented, neuronal level of resolution. Unlike Brodmann's hand-drawn sketches, Annese's maps will be three-dimensional and fully scalable, allowing future neuroscientists to zoom in from an over-head view of the hundred-billion-neuron forest all the way down to whatever intriguing thicket they like. And though each individual brain is by definition unique, as more and more brains come online, both the commonalities and differences between them should become increasingly apparent, allowing, Annese hopes, for the eventual synthesis of the holy grail of any neuroanatomist: a modern multidimensional atlas of the human mind, one that conclusively maps form to function. For the first time, we'll be able to meaningfully and easily compare large numbers of brains, perhaps finally understanding why one brain might be less empathetic or better at calculus or likelier to develop Alzheimer's than another. The Brain Observatory promises to revolutionize our understanding of how these three-pound hunks of tissue inside our skulls do what they do, which means, of course, that it promises to revolutionize our understanding of ourselves."

"I remember following my grandfather up a hill. He was usually a sharp dresser--a New York Times reporter once described him as "almost unreal in his dashing appearance"-- but on that particular morning I believe he wore a simple gray scarf, a floppy blue hat, and a threadbare ski suit. He was hauling a wooden toboggan behind him. It was either Christmas or Thanksgiving, one of the two holidays when the whole family would get together at his artifact-stuffed house in Farmington, Connecticut. I don't remember the slide down the hill, just the walk up.
I remember midway through one Christmas dinner, maybe his last one, when he pushed himself up from his chair at the head of the table, wandered back to his study, and came back a few minutes later with a crumpled bullet in his hand. He placed the slug down beside his plate, told us the story behind it. Stamford, Connecticut, turn of the century, a burglar breaks into the home of a young bachelor. The bachelor keeps a pistol by his bedside table but his pistol jams. The burglar's doesn't. A bullet enters the bachelor's chest, where it encounters a deflecting rib, skids away from a lucky heart. The bachelor survives and keeps the bullet as a memento. He eventually passes it down to his son.
The bullet just sat there, for the rest of the dinner, beside my grandfather's plate, and like some of the other artifacts in his home, it was both fascinating and terrible to contemplate. Had it found its target, had its aim been true, then my grandfather, his children, his children's children, most of the people sitting around the table, myself included, would have never existed. It was a matter of centimeters, a fluke of aim, bone, ballistics, and it had made all the difference, its repercussions rippling down through generations."

"Annese puts the slide on a rack to dry, and I look at at again, at the blank spot near the middle, the hole you can see right through. It's just a small emptiness, a tiny lacuna. A matter of centimeters. A beginning and an end."

Luke Dittrich. What a great writer! And what a fascinating article that flowed well and ended with the perfect conclusion. The complexity of the human body, and especially the brain, is one thing I sometimes wish I had the intelligence to study and really understand. Dittrich did a great job of recounting the history of his grandfather's experiment and explaining the parts of the human brain relevant to the story and how they function.

The human mind must contain at least two separate and independent memory systems

The Brain That Changed Everything by Luke Dittrich, cont'd.
Esquire, November 2010

"She asks him to trace the star. It's a hard task for anyone, with any sort of brain, though after awhile, with practice, people with normal brains tend to improve their results, mastering the necessary counterintuitive muscle movements. The first time Henry tries it, he does it a little better. And the next time better still. With each new attempt, he never remembers ever having attempted it before, but soon he's completing the task as well as anyone. Even Henry recognizes the strangeness of this.
"I thought this would be difficult," he says to Milner after tracing the star almost perfectly, "but I seem to have done this well."
In 1962, Milner arrives at another simple but revolutionary conclusion: Since Henry is incapable of consciously remembering the events he's living through but seems to be able to unconsciously remember how to perform certain physical tasks, the human mind must contain at least two separate and independent memory systems. The world of memory science is upended again."

"For example, Henry's inability to recall postoperative episodes, an amnesia that was once thought to be complete, has revealed itself over the years to have some puzzling exceptions. Certain things have managed, somehow, to make their way through, to stick and become memories. Henry knows a president was assassinated in Dallas, though Kennedy's motorcade didn't leave Love Field until more than a decade after Henry left my grandfather's operating room. Henry can hear the incomplete name of an icon--"Bob Dy..."--and complete it, even though in 1953 Robert Zimmerman was just a twelve-year-old chafing against the dead-end monotony of small-town Minnesota."

"He's an old man now, overweight, wheelchair-bound, largely incommunicative. Lately Henry's creeping decrepitude has itself suggested some new experiments. During another meeting, Corkin quizzed Henry on how old he thought he was. He guessed that perhaps he was in his thirties. Then she handed him a mirror.
"What do you think about how you look?" she asked while he stared at himself.
"I'm not a boy," he said eventually."

Many of the items looked like they belonged in a cabinet of curiosities

Esquire, November 2010

"My grandfather's home was full of curious artifacts, each with its own story. He traveled a lot, all over the world, and always came home with something new and strange. It was a lifelong occupation: In the mid-1920s, he'd taken what was in those days a very unusual trip to China and ended up paying some of his college tuition by selling the exotic jewelry he brought back to the States. Many of the items in his home looked like they belonged in a cabinet of curiosities. There was a carved wooden totem hanging on one wall of his dining room, some sort of pagan king or god. It was maybe three feet tall, had a soulful, mournful expression. One Thanksgiving, when I asked where it came from, I was told he'd received it during a trip to South America, perhaps in gratitude for some operation he'd performed there. The carving had apparently once been an object of worship, owing mainly to the fact that it would, at times unpredictable, weep, drops of water streaming from its eyes. Did seasonal moisture variations and the way the wood responded to them cause the tears? Probably. That or magic. My grandfather had appreciated the totem's beauty but was unsentimental about its emotions. When he brought it home, he had someone polish it before he hung it on the wall. It never cried again."

"The operation was crude--the surgeon would drive a skinny ice pick up through the thin bone behind his patient's eyeballs, then quickly swish the pick back and forth, cutting a messy swath through the frontal lobes--but it was inarguably effective at transforming otherwise difficult and uncontrollable individuals into placid, carefree creatures."
This excerpt made me cringe. And all I could think was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

"In 1848, an explosion drives a steel tamping bar through the skull of a twenty-five-year old railroad foreman named Phineas Gage, obliterating a portion of his frontal lobes. He recovers, and seems to possess all his earlier faculties, with one exception: The formerly mild-mannered Gage is now something of a hellion, an impulsive-shit-starter. Ipso facto, the frontal lobes must play some function in regulating and restraining our more animalistic instincts."