some fascinating bookmarks

I’ve saved multiple links to quotes and articles, and I need to put them somewhere because it seems such a pity to just delete them, so here goes:

1. This is a very, very long (around 20k words, I believe) interactive (in that there are accompanying illustrations and maps) essay about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which is evocatively written and incredibly, incredibly interesting about an entirely new leisure experience. I’ve never felt much of Alaska’s allure but this brought it to life for me.

2. A sombre (but again, well-written) article about the increasing rates of suicide. Very America-centric but mentions a theory about the three (mental) conditions for a suicidal person to attempt it; the conditions seemed a little obvious but I suppose it’s the clear articulation that makes it a theory.

3. How Learning a Foreign Language Reignited My Imagination: this resonated with my Easter farm-stay experience. Not a very substantial article, but several bits were outstanding.

Hearing a foreign language is like seeing a postcard from some other land, even when you are actually in that other land. I experienced my ignorance of words and grammar as a physical distance, as a longing for something that was mere inches away.

I stayed with a host family and took my dinners with them. These were awesome affairs—wine, cheese, meat, chocolate. They took no pity on me. They bombarded me with French, and from snatches of body language, from a smile or a frown, I deduced what I could. I went through entire dinners—and even engaged in conversations—during which I understood only snatches.

… I could tell how two people with no shared language could fall easily and deeply in love; how the way a man expresses longing, or a woman expresses possibility, could be like discovery; how an entire person could be, to another, a long, dark country.

But the older I get, the more I treasure the sprawling periods of incomprehension, the not knowing, the lands beyond Google, the places in which you must be immersed to comprehend.

4. The Luckiest Village in the World (quite long): the story of a tiny Spanish village winning the largest lottery in the history of Spain. Absolutely riveting, and so engagingly written. Sometime when I was 14, I started eschewing fiction for narrative non-fiction, with informative content written in a graceful, literary style; it’s the burden of fiction, with me, at least, to have to instantly justify its use of artistic license and its demand to suspend the imagination. In describing something unreal, words used are often too self-conscious, too artificial. I returned to fiction (but with a heavy, perhaps snobby, bias for ‘canonical Western works’ rather than anything published by a still living author) a few years after at 17 but these days, the predominant part of my leisure reading diet is non-fiction. Much of it is online, particularly essays from, and then anything global/development/economics/geopolitics; the rest of it is those ‘pop’ discipline-transcending books like Freakonomics, Black Swan and Nudge, and I also have a soft spot for pop science books. Anyway, this was a great story/piece of reporting.

5. Fairly short article about techniques to stop rhino poaching (to obtain the valuable horn). One was an injectable liquid dye inert in the rhino horn but mildly toxic to humans: heavy nausea, stomach-ache and diarrhea. Again, interesting information, but what mostly surprised me was how much I thought conservationists should use the poisoned dye, because it would be very effective and the poisonous effects are temporary. Of course, there should be an informational campaign so potential consumers (mostly Asian) know of the potential for harm. The strength of my support made me a little uneasy. But hey, you shouldn’t be consuming illegally poached products either.

6. When to Do Surgery on a Child with ‘Both’ Genitalia: again, interesting debate related to non-binary notions of sex and gender and associated rights. Some clarifications regarding ‘intersex’ genitalia (e.g. one cannot have two sets of genitalia on one’s lower torso). Anyway, I find conversation on sexuality and gender identity issues very fascinating and revealing, and here, of course, you have related issues on state-individual relations and bodily rights/integrity.

7. The Museum of Heartbreak: very sentimental, but in a very concrete way: the title of the article should be understood literally.

Almost everything in the museum—room after white-painted room of illuminated display tables, stuffed animals, china dogs, silk dresses, coats and hats and books, ornaments of plastic or glass or ceramics, photograph albums, timepieces and domestic appliances—repeats the same message: that love ends in loss. Love ends in loss, always.

Here is a story to make you cry. After 13 years, when their love has mellowed into friendship, a husband leaves his wife. She takes their little dog with her, because the husband feels she needs the comfort more than he. For months he suffers from depression, perhaps he misses her, we are not told. Whatever he feels, he does not return to the marriage. She worries for him. One day he receives a package from her containing a few small things, each of which, he says, “broke my heart a little more and were mostly about her wanting to take care of me, even though she was the one suffering”. Among them was a dog collar with a red flashing light, which she had bought for the dog so that he should never get lost. In the year since they parted the husband had spoken to her of feeling “lost”. After they have been apart for a year, his wife checks into a hotel in a strange town. There she takes her own life. The flashing light, he says, reminds him of her heartbeat.

8. A brief interview with Clive James, who just released a new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. James is extremely sharp with words, and there were some illuminating and (I thought) definitive sentiments about literature and translation.

There are two competing threads of scepticism and idealism in me, so when I read sentiments like the one below, I’m a little torn:

Catching the shades and tones took me all the skill I had, which meant that it took a lifetime to get ready: a lifetime of writing verse, with the occasional very small check and a croak of approval from a literary critic. Dan Brown has spent his lifetime learning to write the kind of prose that has earned him nothing except millions of dollars. I pity him deeply.

That’s all well and good, and contains an element of truth that I agree with, but the depth of snobbery is a little uncalled for, isn’t it? A tad indicative of sour grapes.

The answer is simple: The Divine Comedy is a work of art so incandescently great that if you think you can convey some of its force and colored fire, you should. It was a duty. For 40 years, since my brilliant wife showed me what the lovers sounded like when they spoke Italian to each other in the fifth canto of hell, I knew it was my duty.

Again, mixed feelings. Firstly, the canonization of Western works of literature. Secondly, aww, his wife and Italian. Thirdly, the idea of ‘duty’ is very honorable. Fourthly, the idea of ‘my duty’ could either be very, very humble or very, very arrogant. But hey, I’ll be interested in reading his translation, though I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to tell its deviation from the original.

9. Quirky and very provocative article about using a dead child as a unit of currency.

This was also what lead me to discover the LessWrong internet community. Here’s the transitional article on efficient charity, which was something I was vaguely interested in and introduced to last year in Oxford. Didn’t act on that interest though; might this year!

10. 50 Incredible Tattoos Inspired by Books: this is just pretty. Legitimizes tattoos, I think.

11. Things I believe, sometimes because I think I need to:

There are wounds we won’t get over. There are things that happen to us that, no matter how hard we try to forget, no matter with what fortitude we face them, what mix of religion and therapy we swallow, what finished and durable forms of art we turn them into, are going to go on happening inside of us for as long as our brains are alive.

And yet I’ve come to believe, and in rare moments can almost feel, that like an illness some vestige of which the body keeps to protect itself, pain may be its own reprieve; that the violence that is latent within us may be, if never altogether dispelled or tamed, at least acknowledged, defined, and perhaps by dint of the love we feel for our lives, for the people in them and for our work, rendered into an energy that need not be inflicted on others or ourselves, an energy we may even be able to use; and that for those of us who have gone to war with our own minds there is yet hope for what Freud called ‘normal unhappiness,’ wherein we might remember the dead without being haunted by them, give to our lives a coherence that is not ‘closure’, and learn to live with our memories, our families, and ourselves amid a truce that is not peace.

– Christian Wiman, “The Limit”, from Ambition and Survival: On Becoming a Poet

The books we need are the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we were on the verge of suicide, or lost in a forest remote from all human habitation—a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us”
In other news, my dad is in the kitchen busy juicing an entire watermelon. Endearingly homely, being in Singapore is. Slowly I am being reminded of the little, little things that used to pepper my life in Singapore. Most of them are food-related; in a bad mood, I think that as a sign of the inveterate consumerism that pervades the Singaporean existence. On good days, they’re tiny blessings. But I had forgotten, of course, the sticky heat that clings to you.

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