Recent Reading: 11 May: The Torture Habit, Alphabet of Morbidity, Surviving Dog, Conflict, Death & Dying, Credit Psychology

(c) Ross Horsley
(c) Ross Horsley

** Too funny. Librarian Ross Horsly’s My First Dictionary.


** The Leonberger dog. I’d not heard of it until I read that the Norwegian police inspector has one in Karin Fossum’s crime novel Don’t Look Back, which I’m currently enjoying. According to Wikipedia,

“during World War I most Leonbergers were left to fend for themselves as breeders fled or were killed. Only five Leonbergers survived World War I and were bred until World War II when, again, almost all Leonbergers were lost. All Leonbergers today trace their ancestry back to eight dogs that survived World War II.”


** On ‘Getting Used to the Gruesome’ at Notes of an Anesthesioboist incorporates surgeon Pauline Chen’s recent New York Times essay entitled ‘The Surgeon and the Torture Memos’ in a reflection on the way we can habituate ourselves to inflict pain on others when we believe it’s justified.

I like her questions:

“If someone who’s as much of a ‘softie’ as I am can torture people, including children — even if the kind of ‘torture’ I have to inflict only lasts a few seconds — then how universal is that capacity to inflict pain on another and be immune to the sufferer’s cries?  Doesn’t it mean that we are no different from the perpetrators we so relish condemning?  Does the compassion with which I try to live my life really make me any better?”


** A thoughtful and far-reaching reflection at Roger Ebert’s Journal about dying and death. The van Gogh paintings accompanying it really lend the writing even more depth, beauty, eternity. A few bits:

“But certainly, some readers have informed me, it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith. I don’t feel that way. ‘Faith’ is neutral. All depends on what is believed in.”

“What I expect will most probably happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function, and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. … I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés, that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and happily torturing people with my jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all eventually die as well, but so it goes.”

“‘Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts.”


** Choosing Not to Choose is another meditation on death and dying, written by a daughter about her mother’s denial of death and her persistence in magical thinking. Her mother comments that “if I do die, I don’t want it to be because of something I decided, something I did,” like surgery, which always comes with a risk of death.  Yet, as the writer responds to her mother, not to decide is a decision. It may be a good decision, it may not, but it’s not a way of avoiding responsibility. As the writer doesn’t mention, her mother has already made so many choices in her life that have very likely influenced when and how she dies — though not, of course, that she will die.


**Humanity’s ideal: war. Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias writes:

“I tried to argue for compromise …. But, most commenters did not want compromise; they instead wanted to take sides and seek better ways for their side to win the war.  … It seems that one of humanity’s strongest ideals is actually war, i.e., uncompromising conflict. In our culture we are supposed to oppose ordinary bloody war, preferring peace when possible there. But we do not generalize this lesson much to other sorts of  conflicts.  We celebrate those who take sides and win far more than we do peacemakers and compromisers. But the principle is the same; every side can expect to get more of what it wants from compromise deals than from all out conflict.”

Hanson mentions that compelling fiction requires conflict. When I took creative writing courses, my stories weren’t conflictual enough. I prefer slice-of-life writing and film-making. Sure, life has conflicts, and ‘slices’ will include them, but why not obliquely, quietly, off-focus? Or another way to look at it: Why not bring the deepest conflict to the fore — the conflict within the self?


** Finally, a Time magazine article, “The Real Problem with Credit Cards: The Cardholders, looks at the psychology of credit spending. Basically, “people are bad decision makers when it comes to how they use credit cards. Even when presented with full and fair information, they often make decisions that are not in their own economic best interest.”

To wit: We’re “really bad at understanding costs that come later on. Instead, we assign a disproportionate amount of importance to what’s immediate and tangible.”

This explains a lot, from choosing cards with low teaser rates that end up costing us more, to paying twice as much for something with a credit card as we would if we were paying cash.

It explains a lot that’s not related to credit cards or finance, too.

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