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Sunday, May 18, 2008

I'm still flipping through the last six months of magazines after a long and trying semester. A few highlights from New Yorkers past:

* "Numbers Guy": Exploring the way our brains process math.

One morning in September, 1989, a former sales representative in his mid-forties entered an examination room with Stanislas Dehaene, a young neuroscientist based in Paris. Three years earlier, the man, whom researchers came to refer to as Mr. N, had sustained a brain hemorrhage that left him with an enormous lesion in the rear half of his left hemisphere...

Dehaene also noticed that although Mr. N could no longer read, he sometimes had an approximate sense of words that were flashed in front of him; when he was shown the word “ham,” he said, “It’s some kind of meat.” Dehaene decided to see if Mr. N still had a similar sense of number. He showed him the numerals 7 and 8. Mr. N was able to answer quickly that 8 was the larger number—far more quickly than if he had had to identify them by counting up to the right quantities. He could also judge whether various numbers were bigger or smaller than 55, slipping up only when they were very close to 55. Dehaene dubbed Mr. N “the Approximate Man.” The Approximate Man lived in a world where a year comprised “about 350 days” and an hour “about fifty minutes,” where there were five seasons, and where a dozen eggs amounted to “six or ten.” Dehaene asked him to add 2 and 2 several times and received answers ranging from three to five. But, he noted, “he never offers a result as absurd as 9.”
* "Friend Game": Life in the wake of the famous Megan Meier MySpace suicide.
Shortly after Steve Pokin’s story broke in the Suburban Journals, Tina Meier ran into Lori Drew at a shopping center. Tina followed Lori to a pizzeria. When Lori walked out, Tina entered the store and spoke to the owner.

“Do you advertise with The Drew Advantage?” Tina asked. “If so, I advise you to take a look at the Journals. The girl involved was my daughter.” She did the same thing when Lori went to Divine Nails, several doors down.

“Tina, just please stop this,” Lori said, in the parking lot.

“Stop this? Lori, I will never stop this.”
* They're horrid and useless. Why do pennies exist?

* Understanding the Coen Brothers.

* Fixing the planet ain't easy.
n 1977, Jimmy Carter told the American people that they would have to balance the nation’s demand for energy with its “rapidly shrinking resources” or the result “may be a national catastrophe.” It was a problem, the President said, “that we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren.” Carter referred to the difficult effort as the “moral equivalent of war,” a phrase that was widely ridiculed (along with Carter himself, who wore a cardigan while delivering his speech, to underscore the need to turn down the thermostat).

Carter was prescient. We are going to have to reduce our carbon footprint rapidly, and we can do that only by limiting the amount of fossil fuels released into the atmosphere. But what is the most effective—and least painful—way to achieve that goal? Each time we drive a car, use electricity generated by a coal-fired plant, or heat our homes with gas or oil, carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases escape into the air. We can use longer-lasting light bulbs, lower the thermostat (and the air-conditioning), drive less, and buy more fuel-efficient cars. That will help, and so will switching to cleaner sources of energy. Flying has also emerged as a major carbon don’t—with some reason, since airplanes at high altitudes release at least ten times as many greenhouse gases per mile as trains do. Yet neither transportation—which accounts for fifteen per cent of greenhouse gases—nor industrial activity (another fifteen per cent) presents the most efficient way to shrink the carbon footprint of the globe.