Subscribe to my newsletter, The Whippet

Hey, if you like my writing, why not subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet! It’s a combination of my own writing and links to interesting stuff I’ve been reading about, with absolutely zero mention of Trump or any other contemporary politics (I was initially thinking of calling it ‘The Reprieve’).

Click here for an example issue
Click here for the archives
Click here to subscribe


Thoughts don’t create actions. Thoughts create emotions, emotions create actions.

The point here is that sometimes you beat yourself like “ugghh I wasn’t gonna have sugar and I bought and ate a whole tub salted caramel icecream, whyyyyy do I suck so much at this”.

And then you say “I should be kinder to myself.”

And then you say “well, no, I literally did eat a whole tub of icecream, that happened, I have to be honest about that.”

You think that if you don’t be a bit harsh with yourself when you genuinely fuck up then you’ll let yourself get away with it in future, etc, etc.

Which makes sense, if thoughts create actions. “It’s okay / I’m okay” would lead to no guilt and doing whatever you like. But they don’t (or that’s the theory I’m putting forward here).

The thought creates the emotion, “I’m shit”, and that emotion makes you do whatever coping mechanism you do when you feel shitty – probably hide in bed or eat comfort food, probably not re-vamp your resume and get out there, whoo!

The thought, “I’m okay” creates a positive feeling, and feeling positive makes you way more likely to exercise, set healthy boundaries, and generally be sweet to yourself.

(This isn’t made up, lots of evidence says that a distinguishing aspect of depression is the feeling that your actions do not particularly have any ability to influence results. If you feel like nothing you do has any effect, why bother trying to do something good? Why bother getting out of bed at all?)

So, don’t fall for the trap of “I have to let myself be mean to myself or I’ll never improve”. Don’t think that letting yourself talk that way is being a serious, responsible adult. It’s not. It’s unhelpful. The most serious, responsible thing is to do whatever lifts your mood enough to take positive steps.

Talking about general lack of discipline here, not grave ethical missteps obviously. Probably beat yourself up a little about those.

(also emotions create thoughts, no space to get into that here)

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

Things to do instead of checking your phone when you have a couple of minutes to kill

Like your date’s gone to the bathroom, or your lunch is in the microwave. You probably don’t want to be so compulsive about your phone, but else are you gonna do while you wait?

Things to do instead of checking your phone when you have 5 minutes to kill:

  1. This is my favourite thing. The Poetry Foundation app has two settings, one for topic (family, death, etc) and one for mood (melancholy, nostalgic, etc). You choose and then spin and it gives you a random (curated) poem. This is so perfect for having a minute to spare. And suddenly you’re a person who’s read heaps of poems. I often don’t get them, but I only read them in my downtime, and the ones that I’ve loved easily make it worthwhile. Android // ios
  2. Write a To Do List. Either minor errands or bigger things you want to get to if you can find a free evening. Both kinds of list can be soothing.
  3. Send that one email reply you’ve been avoiding.
  4. Do a 30-second stretch, 20 calf raises, or some countertop push-ups
  5. Pay attention to your breath for 60 seconds, or do a mental bodyscan (i.e. meditate)
  6. Come up with three things you’re grateful about right now.
  7. Do a little sketch or scribble (I bet there’s an app for that, but a notebook’s probably better)
  8. Write a haiku about your surroundings, your date, or your lunch.
  9. Make a bullet-point plan for a story, blog post or letter you’ll write later.
  10. List habits you’d like to try and develop. List habits you’d like leave behind at some point. List habits you’d like to try for 30 days to see what effect they have.
  11. List 10 ideas. (‘How to become an idea machine‘)

These are pretty much off the top of my head, I’m sure you can think of others. What could you do with 5 minutes that would be better for you than social media? (List 10 things the first time you wait, do one of them next time.)

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

Should you rob a bank?

I was heartbroken the first time I realised that a life of crime involved just as much hard work as a life of hard work (age 15, several months into my first real job as a check-out chick).

Some economists in the UK recently backed that up with proper data, saying “the return on an average bank robbery is, frankly, rubbish.”

“The typical haul for a UK bank robbery during 2005-08, the years their data covered, was a mere $31,700, with a third of the robberies yielding nothing at all. Bank robbers are more likely than not to work with a partner or two, bringing the typical haul per robber down to $19,800.” On average, you’ll end up in prison after four robberies.

Having a gun increases your haul, but drastically increases your sentence. (The most effective defence is those fly-up screens, but only 1 in 10 banks have them because they end up costing more than most banks lose in robberies.)

“It’s enough to make the aspiring bank robber wonder if he or she should get into drug dealing instead. Don’t even think about it: Research by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who ingratiated himself into a position where he could observe the financial workings of a Chicago gang as a grad student in the early 90s, found that only those on the top of the gang hierarchy actually made anything approaching a decent income from selling drugs. The typical street corner drug dealer made an average of $3.30 an hour.

“Over the course of 4 years, Venkatesh discovered, low-level drug dealers were arrested roughly 6 times on average and had a one in four chance of being killed. Most of them worked minimum-wage “straight” jobs to supplement their drug-dealing income.” Source (Time mag)

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

Maybe we don’t like our friends to be richer because it’s harder to have dinner with them, not because we’re jealous

A lot of studies have shown that people aren’t made happier by any particular income, but only by having the same or a little higher income than their peers. This is used as evidence that humans care more about status than they do about wealth itself (and that’s why communism will never work blablabla).

I’ve never heard anyone consider the possibility that being poorer than your friends makes it hard to socialise, which has an effect on happiness. If all your friends are poor, you hang around at each others’ houses drinking Aldi beers. If most of them start going to bars, and you can’t afford to, suddenly it’s harder to drink with them, or every time it involves feeling a bit guilty about having to rely on them shouting you.

Your friends start going to $30 restaurants instead of $11 restaurants, and you can’t get dinner with them much anymore. Or go to festivals with them, or concerts, or whatever.

Presumably if your friends are ultra rich and you’re only super rich, they’re all helicoptering to the Bahamas while you can only afford to helicopter to the Adirondacks.

This seems like such a blindingly obvious thing to miss that I wonder if it actually has been addressed and factored in, but also it’s exactly the type of human element that economists *do* tend to miss, so I wouldn’t be surprised.

tl;dr humans aren’t as shitty as economists think we are

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

This spider’s retinas burn out every morning and regrow every night


Gah! The Rufous Net-casting Spider (rufous just means reddish) has six regular spider-eyes and two massively enlarged ones that point forward, like searchlights. This gives it very good aiming ability with its net.

“At night they build a rectangular, postage-stamp-sized web, made with wool-like, entangling silk threads. These little nets are made among low vegetation, usually above a surface across which prey animals are likely to walk (e.g. a broad leaf , a tree trunk or even a house wall). After spinning its web the spider deposits some spots of white faeces on this surface to act as aiming points. The spider hangs head down from a trapeze of silk, holding the net in its front pairs of legs;and there it waits, its enormous eyes watching for prey movement across the white aiming spots. When an insect passes over the white target spots, the spider opens the stretchy web to two or three times its resting size and lunges it downward over the unsuspecting prey.”

“The Net-casting spiders’ large eyes provide outstanding low-light night vision. Their compound lenses have an F number of 0.58 which means they can concentrate available light more efficiently than a cat (F 0.9) or an owl (F 1.1). The image is focused onto a large, light-receptive retinal membrane (which is destroyed at dawn and renewed again each night).” Source

This incredible night vision, by the way, means they can see stars and galaxies in the night sky that we can’t.

Side note: this would be an awesome feature to give a vampire if you happen to be writing a vampire story. Fits with the mythos, based on a ‘scary’ animal, the star thing is appropriately poignant, and it’s a weakness (important for good stories) but also somehow it’s more upsetting than their strengths.


For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.


How to be arrogant without annoying people too much

This advice is for people who are already pretty arrogant, and also for people who would like to be more arrogant, but worry that it will make them obnoxious and unlikeable.

I have quite a few friends who I think would be described as arrogant, and I was trying to think about what these people have in common, other than arrogance – what separates them from the arrogant people who are not my friends, because they’re unpleasant to be around. And it’s this:

They are all instantly, effusively supportive of other people’s endeavours. If you need a volunteer from the audience, and the audience has gone dead quiet, they’ll step up. If it’s your first gig and no one’s dancing, they’ll get up and dance in front of the stage, alone, until other people start to join in. If you say you’re thinking about taking a public-speaking class, they’ll tell you that’s awesome and you should definitely give it a go.

Basically, they have tickets on themselves, but they have tickets on everyone else, too. There’s almost no limit to how highly you can think of yourself, if you think of other people just as highly.

It’s pretty easy to imagine this: you’re at a dinner party with two people who are pretty good cooks, but who think they’re excellent cooks. Potentially annoying situation. One of these people whispers to you “ehhh this food is okay I guess. I wouldn’t have used so much ginger.” The other is all “it is so nice to be here with you and eating this food. Seconds, please?”

You can see which one is pleasant to be around, right? It doesn’t mean you can’t ever be critical of anything, but you can generally not dampen your friends’ attempts to try new things. You will notice the second person didn’t actually compliment the food. You can always find something to be pleased with, and if you can’t, why are you there?

(Note: You don’t have to be as one-note excitable as my hypothetical arrogant person obviously, you can be supportive in a tone that’s more low-key and natural for you, send an email of private encouragement, flyer for their comedy show, endorse them on LinkedIn, support their Patreon, go to their launch party, commission an artwork, ask for their advice, gossip about how great they are to your mutual friends.)

I mean this is just an excellent trait to have in general, and I’d like to get better at it. But according to my chemical analysis, it’s also specifically the one that neutralises the toxic parts of arrogance.

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

Case moths build themselves blanket forts and then never leave


Case moths are a native Australian moth that stays in their cocoon way past what any other moth would consider normal. So, #relateable.

They “spin their cases out of silk and most species attach leaves, twigs, sand or soil to the outside for protection and camouflage. There are a number of different species and each species builds a distinctive-looking case, using whatever materials are available to them.”

“Case moths spend most of their lives in the caterpillar phase; this part of their life cycle can last 1-2 years. As caterpillars, they never leave their cases. However, they can be very mobile, dragging their large cocoons along as they move around. They poke the front end of their bodies out the top of their case to feed, collect case decorations, and cling to surfaces as they move about.”

“As they grow, case moths expand their cases from the top (head) end, adding additional twigs as they go. They do this by cutting off appropriately-sized twigs, attaching them temporarily to the top of the case and then disappearing inside to cut a slit where they plan to attach the new stick. This is no mean feat. Case moth cocoons are incredibly tough; cutting a slit for a new stick can take over an hour!”

““If they feel threatened they can seal off the end of the cocoon, cutting a new opening once the threat has passed.”

“The females continue to live in their cases after they’ve pupated into adult moths, but the males leave their cases after pupation to fly off in search of females.”

Let us all forgive ourselves for our case moth ways.

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

Artist feud over the right to use the world’s blackest black

d3b85deb-72aa-4e67-adb4-9996396b172cPlease enjoy this story of cartoonish villainy

So firstly: Vantablack. It’s the world’s blackest pigment, absorbing 99.96% of visible light, and turning any surface it’s painted on into a flat black hole. It’s pretty toxic and has to be grown in a special sealed chamber. It was created for military and aerospace uses, but obviously artists were pretty excited about its possibilities too.

But when they approached the manufacturers of Vantablack, they found they had already made an exclusivity deal with Anish Kapoor, the world’s 7th richest living artist (Damien Hirst is the richest).

PEOPLE WERE EXTREMELY UPSET. “He’s signed an exclusive agreement with the creators of Vantablack which blocks any other artist from using it. Nobody forced him or them to enter into an agreement like that. It’s a heinous ego-driven pact which stops every other artist after him from working with Vantablack on art projects.”

Kapoor refused to engage or explain. He says this wouldn’t happen with any other colour, people just get irrational and emotional about black.

Next: Artist and paintmaker Stuart Semple had a pink that was “particularly special. It just is like nothing else, it’s so vibrant. You can’t photograph it. It’s nuts. Like, the pinkest pink thing ever.”

“When everybody started complaining that Anish Kapoor wouldn’t share Vantablack, I thought it was a really bad thing for him to be doing, and I was upset by it as well.”

“And I thought, ‘Wait, hang on, if you’re upset about it, you’ve got all this awesome stuff that you’ve been making, all these colors, you should be sharing them. It’s wrong to be criticizing him and not sharing them.’”

So Semple released The World’s Pinkest Pink. But if you want to buy it, you have to agree that “by adding this product to your cart you confirm that you are not Anish Kapoor, you are in no way affiliated with Anish Kapoor, you are not purchasing this item on behalf of Anish Kapoor or an associate of Anish Kapoor.”

A few weeks later, Anish Kapoor posts a photo to instagram: his middle finger dipped in The World’s Pinkest Pink. Then Semple gets told through a third party that Kapoor is suing him. “I wrote to them and said, ‘Look, it’d be really nice if we could just be friends, and he could say sorry for taking the pink, and give me the £3.99 back that it costs. And then we can just call it quits and it’ll all be fine.’ But they just ignored it and said they were suing me.”

Realising they would probably never get access to Vantablack, Semple and friends developed the second blackest black in the world: an open source, cherry-scented pigment called Black 2.0 that’s thousands of times cheaper than the official stuff and much easier to work with. But will that dastardly Kapoor get his hands on Black 2.0 as well?

“I don’t want him to have it. I think the way he’s been acting is really dodgy. And all the time and effort that’s gone into Black 2.0, and how much everyone cares about it, it would just be a real downer if he got it. What I really like is the fact that loads of us can make really cool black things, and he’s stuck in his science lab, paying gazillions of pounds to get quite a similar thing. I think that’s so cool! Yeah, I don’t want him to have it. It would upset me if he got it.”

Full interview with Stuart Semple, including details on the suing aspect.

Update: Okay, someone’s written Semple/Kapoor slashfic now. (It’s SFW, but please don’t consider this mention to be an endorsement or recommendation.)

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

You cannot trust your own perceptions

Last week I asked if anyone had any burning facts they wish they could magically teleport into everyone’s brains. One reader suggested this, and they’re absolutely right about it.

“The really hard-to-internalize knowledge I wish people had is just you cannot trust your own perception. Study after study have shown that no, your memory isn’t reliable. Your anecdotal evidence doesn’t hold up. A quick google search found this, which basically summarizes the whole concept:

That Black Mirror episode where everything is recorded would, contrary to whatever point they were trying to make, vastly improve the world IMO. No longer would we have those “no I swear you had the keys last” arguments, and of course there are much broader contexts also.

The issue with this stance, of course, is that there’s a percentage of the population who don’t trust their own perspective enough, which opens up a path to abuse. Alas.”

I (McKinley) went to a super-interesting lecture on forensic psychology, which deals with some of this stuff – the unreliability of memory. At the beginning, they showed us some footage of a ‘suspect’, and at the end, we had to pick him up out of a line-up. I wasn’t totally sure, but I picked the guy I thought looked the most like my memory.

And that was exactly the problem. None of the men in the line-up were the one from the footage, but the one who looked most like him got accused. They don’t do line-ups like this anymore (or they shouldn’t). You see each candidate once, and once only, and you have to say Yes or No. You can’t say “hmmm, let me get another look at number 6”. Either you recognise the guy or you don’t. And you’re not told how many people will be in the line-up, so you don’t select the last guy out of desperation.

There’s other things like – no one in the room should know who the suspect is. Even if they’re not corrupt, they won’t be able to stop their body language very slightly indicating more anticipation or interest, and the witness won’t be able to help picking up on it. The worst bit is, neither party will realise there was any influence. The witness will just think “I had a sense about that one”.

(In some ways this is a tribute to how incredibly observant humans are – we can pick up on the tiniest cues and synthesise them into what we call intuition. That intuition is not magic, it comes from real, but very subtle observations. But yeah it’s a goddamn mess when it comes to forensics.)

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

Soldiers’ wounds glow blue and heal faster

This is real. I mean not all soldiers, but:

“As the sun went down after the 1862 Battle of Shiloh during the Civil War, some soldiers noticed that their wounds were glowing blue. Many men waited on the rainy, muddy Tennessee battlefield for two days that April, until medics could treat them. Once they were taken to field hospitals, the troops with glowing wounds were more likely to survive their injuries — and to get better faster. The mysterious blue light was dubbed “Angel’s Glow.”

Honestly, with the information available at the time, it would be weirder NOT to get religion after that. The cause of it was a bioluminescent bacteria called Photorhabdus luminescens. It has a symbiotic relationship with tiny nematode worms. The nematodes are parasites. So what happens is, the nematodes go into a host insect larva, and vomit up their P. luminescens – which are powerfully antibacterial and antimicrobial. So the nematode and the P. luminescens get to eat the larva with no competition from other organisms. When they’re done eating, the nematode swallows the P. luminescens again. The bacteria glows blue, attracting insects, making it easy for the nematodes to find a new host. P. luminescens lives in the soil when its not inside a nematode, and was presumably in the mud of the battlefield .

You probably know enough of the 1800s to understand what a drastic effect an antibacterial substance would have had on wounded soldiers’ mortality rate. So why wasn’t this happening constantly? P. luminescens can’t survive at human body temperature. It’s too hot for them. The soldiers at the Battle of Shiloh had been left in the rain for two days, and had hypothermia. Source.

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

Naked molerats are amazing but I hate them

  1. The only cold-blooded mammal
  2. Can’t feel pain. Literally do not have the receptors for it.
  3. They are extremely long-lived (30 years, but remember they’re small rodents) and they stay young right up until they die, they don’t sort of generally break down the way everyone else does.
  4. Almost wholly immune to cancer. “Their cells secrete a kind of sugar, which prevents cancerous cells from multiplying and overcrowding.”
  5. Immune to not having any oxygen. They live underground in mass bundles, where there’s no fresh air, so they’ve evolved a bunch of ways of doing this.
    a) “the haemoglobin in their blood is very sticky for oxygen, able to grab oxygen molecules out of atmospheres with very low oxygen levels.”
    b) “they reduce their need for oxygen by not generating body heat—they are the only cold-blooded mammal. Keeping warm takes a huge amount of energy which normally requires a huge amount of oxygen.”
    c) normally, your pain receptors go crazy if you breathe in too much CO2. Naked molerats lack of pain receptors allow them to comfortably hang in a high-CO2 environment
    d) they can release fructose into their bloodstream and use it for energy. Normally all mammals use glucose, which is much more efficient, but required oxygen to break down into ATP (energy that cells can use). You know who uses fructose? PLANTS. Whole article just on this oxygen thing.
  6. How is there a sixth thing! The sixth thing: they (along with one other mole rat species) are the only known mammals to have the queen/worker/drone social structure (called ‘eusociality’). Other animals that have this: ants, bees, wasps. Not mammals. Naked molerats have a single fertile queen, three or four fertile breeding males, and all the workers are sterile.

Any one of these things would be amazing on its own. I can’t believe molerats. How are they. Anyway here are photos but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet!

The bearded vulture’s diet is bones, just bones

ufxdytaYou’ll notice they don’t have bald heads, the way other vultures do. That’s because they’re not sticking their heads into messy carcasses; they wait till they’re picked clean. They can swallow whole or bite through bones up to the size of a lamb’s femur, where their hyperacidic stomach dissolves the bones and lets them digest the marrow. (Wikipedia page)

If the bone is too big, they fly around 100 metres up and drop it onto rocks, cracking it into manageable pieces. (Their other names are ‘lammergeier’, meaning lamb-vulture, or ‘ossifrage’, bone-breaker.)

They’re also HUGE, with a wingspan of nearly 3 metres. When they can’t get bones, they surprise ibex and goats on cliff-edges and batter them till they fall off. Then eat them AND their bones.

Incidentally, their necks aren’t actually orange. They’re white. But they find patches of iron oxide-rich dust to groom into their feathers. This doesn’t have any direct benefits, but it tells other bearded vultures you have the time and resources to spare to find a real good patch of iron-oxide dust to groom with, so people find it very impressive.

Lastly, please enjoy this commentary by Thomas Littleton Powys, the 4th Baron Lilford:

We have two fine bearded vultures, or lammergeiers, one of which (with a companion that has died very lately) enjoyed complete liberty since its arrival here as a nestling till a few days ago, when I was obliged to have it caught up and confined, on account of very conspicuous breaches of decency about the roof of the house and our flower garden.

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

Bring back the oldschool video game manuals

You are Mario! It’s up to you to save the Mushroom People from the black magic of the Koopa!

I used to be a huge gamer, and I’m not anymore, but I still read a lot of video game news and reviews for some reason. I don’t know if the games have got worse (probably not) or my ability to be enthralled has just waned. I used to get up at 5 am to try and beat my brother to the Nintendo > Super Nintendo > Playstation in order to get an hour or two of full, uninterrupted play. I can’t imagine being that excited, that compelled, now. Maybe twice a year, I come across a book that’s good enough to create that feeling, but not much else does. (The perpetual “Is that depression or is that just adulthood?” question, right?)

The best part was going into the city with my family, buying a game (well, my mum buying it), and reading the manual on the way home. Old-school manuals used to be really fat and have lists of all the towns you might visit, magical items you might acquire, stats you could level up in, character art, backstories… So much PROMISE. I think I felt genuinely high, like drug-high, reading those.

Manual for the NES game Faxanadu, pulled directly from my childhood and somehow on the internet:

faxanadu manual

And then they started dying off, and the manual, instead of being a whole booklet, became just a flimsy pamphlet with a warning about not sitting too close the screen. I’m not sure exactly why that happened – maybe the expense of printing, maybe the improvements in technology that meant designers could translate their vision into the game itself (compare the illustrations of items with the in-game versions in the image above).

When I play games now, I often lose interest and stop for no particular reason. But video game REVIEWS – especially of quirky, conceptual games – they still excite me. They give me back a little bit of that anticipation and sense of promise – this, THIS could be amazing. Even – probably because – I don’t actually play the games themselves.

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

Nantucket in the 1800s sounds like a town from a videogame or fantasy novel

“The good citizens of [Nantucket] do not seem to pride themselves upon the regularity of their streets [or] the neatness of their sidewalks,” observed a visiting Quaker. The streets were narrow and sandy, the houses were shingled and unpretentious and, as often as not, included items scavenged from ships. “H]atchways make very convenient bridges for gutters; a plank from the stern of a ship—having the name on it—answers the double purpose of making a fence—and informing the stranger if he can be at a loss—in what town he is.”
“Nantucket was a town of roof dwellers. Nearly every house, its shingles painted red or left to weather into gray, had a roof-mounted platform known as a walk. While its intended use was to facilitate putting out chimney fires with buckets of sand, the walk was also an excellent place to look out to sea with a spyglass, to search for the sails of returning ships.”
“Where a person lived in Nantucket depended on his station in the whaling trade. If he was a shipowner or merchant, he more than likely lived on Pleasant Street, set back on the hill, farthest from the clamour and stench of the wharves. Captains, in contrast, tended to choose the thoroughfare with the best view of the harbor: Orange Street. With a house on the east side of Orange, a captain could watch his ship being outfitted at the wharf and keep track of activity in the harbor.
There was rumored to exist a secret society of young women on the island whose members vowed to wed only men who had already killed a whale. To help these young women identify them as hunters, boatsteerers wore chockpins (small oak pins used to secure the harpoon line in the bow groove of a whaleboat) on their lapels.

(Excerpts from In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, mentioned above.)

And because the whalemen were away for three years at a time and only home for a few months in between, women had an enormous amount of independence and power, being fully responsible for managing households, trade, politicking, etc.

Nantucket Girls Song (1855)

I have made up my mind now to be a Sailor’s wife,
To have a purse full of money and a very easy life,
For a clever sailor husband is so seldom at his home,
That his wife can spend the dollars with a will that’s all her own,
Then I’ll haste to wed a sailor, and send him off to sea,
For a life of independence is the pleasant life for me.

But every now and then I shall like to see his face,
For it always seems to me to beam with manly grace,
With his brow so nobly open, and his dark and kindly eye,
Oh my heart beats fondly towards him whenever he is nigh,
But when he says “Goodbye my love, I’m off across the sea”
First I cry for his departure, then laugh because I’m free.

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

Consciousness is relational: A biologist talks about trees & a psychologist talks about the mind

“Roots draw nutrients from symbiotic fungi and communicate with neighboring bacteria. Leaves sniff the air to detect the health of neighbors, while releasing alarm chemicals that summon caterpillar-destroying parasites. Seeds are dispersed by far-flying birds. Photosynthetic cells harness the power of sunlight using structures evolved from free-living microbes. And these kinds of relationships are ancient: A balsam fir that Haskell encounters in Ontario exemplifies this idea; it grows on rocks that contain the corpses of bacterial colonies that lived 1.9 to 2.3 billion years ago.

“The fundamental nature of life may be not atomistic but relational,” Haskell says. “Life is not just networked; it is network.” (David Haskell,a natural history writer and professor of biology)

“Haskell sees life, as exemplified by trees, as less about the stories of individuals and more as “temporary aggregations of relationships.” And death, then, is the de-centering of those relationships, as the “self degenerates into the network.”

“A forest’s networks also provide it with something that Haskell likens to intelligence—and he asserts that this isn’t anthropomorphism. Plants sense and respond to their surroundings. They store information—memories—about the threat of grazing mouths or past climatic conditions. They integrate information both within their tissues and beyond. When such processes happen in a nervous system, we talk of minds, thought, and behavior. So it is with plants, Haskell argues.

“I’m very comfortable using words like intelligence, but I need to emphasize that this is a very other kind of intelligence,” he says. It’s slow, diffuse, other. “We’re not putting elves in the forest or imagining one big super-organism that thinks in a human-like way. The forest’s intelligence is so decentralized compared to ours. To me, the closer analogy is of human culture. Ideas and human culture happens between points of consciousness in our brains. It’s very decentralized, but it has memory and contributes to our understanding and our ability to solve problems.”
Full article / book review

Consciousness is relational, pt. II: A psychiatrist talks about the mind

“Our mind is not simply our perception of experiences, but those experiences themselves. Siegel argues that it’s impossible to completely disentangle our subjective view of the world from our interactions.

I realized if someone asked me to define the shoreline but insisted, is it the water or the sand, I would have to say the shore is both sand and sea,” says Siegel. “You can’t limit our understanding of the coastline to insist it’s one or the other. I started thinking, maybe the mind is like the coastline—some inner and inter process. Mental life for an anthropologist or sociologist is profoundly social. Your thoughts, feelings, memories, attention, what you experience in this subjective world is part of mind.”

Full article: Scientists say your “mind” isn’t confined to your brain, or even your body

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

If you find a coin, do you always pick it up?

I have a question for you: What makes you feel more rich / abundant?

a) finding a coin on the ground and picking it up
b) finding a coin on the ground and leaving it there

Leaving the coin makes you feel like “I am so comfortable in my riches that I can just leave that 50c be for someone else”. But on the other hand, I worry that… finding a coin is like being granted a tiny blessing by the universe, and not picking it up is like refusing that blessing, and the universe will be like “oh you don’t want luck and wealth and blessings? Fine, no more for you”. I’m an atheist in theory, but I still think this way.

I used to be much more neurotic about correctly interpreting and responding to the messages of the universe. I would walk straight-backed and tall when I got caught in the rain, never hunching or holding a newspaper over my head, because I didn’t want to insult the universe by showing that I hated the rain it was giving me. If any poles or trees inadvertently formed an archway, I had to walk under it. Because if imagine if that was the gate to Narnia and you missed it? Worth going a metre out of your way on the off-chance.

I’m better now. I’m still superstitious in ways my brain makes up as I’m walking, but now I twist everything to be a good omen. Pretty much every ‘sign can be interpreted both ways – lucky or unlucky – so it’s not so hard to choose lucky. I recommend this! It’s the best of both worlds: the delight of being surrounded by tiny messages and omens, with none of the fear and worry of believing in bad luck and evil eyes. Look out for lucky omens on your walk into work tomorrow! At the very least you might see a coin on the ground.


Why do we throw coins in fountains?

I had always just thought ‘to make wishes’, but this article says, and it makes sense, that it’s more about sense of connection to other people. You know that each coin in the fountain represents another person who’s stood here, and you take your coin, and watch it transform from something that’s small and represents you, to a part of a larger pattern that represents the community of people who’ve been there.

I think it also ties you to the place – especially if it’s somewhere you wouldn’t ordinarily go. Leaving a coin in a fountain in Rome creates a connection between you and the city. The article mentions contagious magic – the coin has been close to you, in your wallet, or pocket, and so it carries a bit of your essence (see ‘Other People’s Clothes‘ from last week’s Whippet).

Contagious magic is a really common element of folk magic — using a bit of a person’s blood or hair to get control over them, for example. This also reminds me of training hunting money in Hoodoo traditions. You would write your name on a bill, then ‘train’ it by rubbing its corners with whiskey, leave it under a magnet, burn a green candle over it, read Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”), etc., prosperity stuff, and then you spend it on something relevant to success — a work blazer, a guitar pick, anything tax-deductible I guess. You train the money and then send it out into the world to hunt down more for you. So goes the theory.

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

How to enjoy haiku

One of the best things I’ve learned recently is how to enjoy haiku. I was always like, “okay, that’s nice I guess? But what was your point?” I was thinking of them in terms of words, because they’re made of words, and I’m a verbal thinker. But a haiku is not about words at all, it’s incredibly visual. I know that seems blindingly obvious! But listen! A haiku magically creates a very beautiful 2-second gif in your mind’s eye. Alan Watts says good zen poetry just gets the reader to pause briefly, to catch their attention on a very specific sensation or emotion – it’s mindfulness stuff.

Even that old horse
is something to see this
snow-covered morning

You can IMMEDIATELY picture that horse, right?

New Year’s first snow — ah —
just barely enough to tilt
the daffodil

and that flower, with a tiny heap of snow on it?

O bush warblers!
Now you’ve shit all over
my rice cake on the porch

Aw man. (These are all Matsuo Basho, sorry to be obvious but I’m new and basic.)

People get really hung up on the syllable thing, even though we know that only makes sense in syllable-based languages, and is nonsense in English. We know it, but we still make all this 5-7-5 nonsense. But it’s really about being able to fling an image into another person’s mind.

Once you know, it’s a tiny superpower. You can give anyone a free painting anytime, by texting them one. By Yosa Buson:

Before the white chrysanthemum
the scissors hesitate
a moment

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

Vegetarian spider that lives like a rōnin

Okay, so 1) this spider (called Bagheera kiplingi after the Jungle Book) is the single vegetarian species out of 40,000 species of spider. “The jumping arachnid, which is 5–6mm long, has developed a taste for the tips of the acacia plants – known as Beltian bodies – which are packed full of protein.”

2) Beltian bodies are no good to the acacia plant, they’re not like buds or shoots or anything. The acacia is a type of myrmecophyte – a plant that has a symbiotic relationship with ants. It grows Beltian bodies for the ants to eat, and oversized thorns for them to hollow out and live in, and the ants aggressively attack any grazing animals or creeping vines that threaten the acacia. Or any spiders that try to steal the Beltian bodies.

3) “The spiders live on the plants – but way out on the tips of the old leaves, where the ants don’t spend a lot of time, because there isn’t any food on those leaves.”

But when they get hungry, the spiders head to the newer leaves, and get ready to run the ant gauntlet.

“They wait for an opening – they watch the ants move around, and they watch to see that there are not any ants in the local area that they are going after.

“And then they zip in and grab one of these Beltian bodies and then clip it off, hold it in their mouths and run away.

“And then they retreat to one of the undefended parts of the plant to eat it.”
Full article

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

The ghost miners of South Africa

South Africa’s Mponeng mine produces about a billion dollars worth of gold a year. It’s one of the deepest mines in the world, basically an underground city, and the whole massive, byzantine structure exists to mine a seam of ore less than a metre thick. That’s how valuable gold is.

The temperature inside the mine is a loathsome 60° Celsius, so to cool it there’s an ice-making plant on the surface that produces 6,000 tonnes of ice a day. “They mix it with salt and it becomes this kind of slushy slurry, and they pump it down into these pipes into a deep reservoir that sits there. Giant fans blow air over it, and the cold air descends down these registers into the deepest mining levels and reduces the temperature to a bearable 30°C.”

Along with the official miners are so-called “ghost” miners – illegal miners who have broken in and been down there so long they’ve developed an ashy pallour from lack of sunlight. SInce the entrances are the focus of security, once they’re in there’s no easy way out.

“They steal ore from there; they refine it inside the tunnel, usually using very, very toxic methods, like mercury, which no doubt poison them. Security isn’t very keen to go looking for these people because, in a mine, you can hear someone coming a long way off, and these people are armed and they wouldn’t hesitate to shoot security and get into gunfights.”

The legal miners have no incentive to get rid of them because they run a black market trade in basic overworld items that the ghost miners can’t access. “A loaf of bread that costs less than $1 on the surface costs $12 underground. Making a couple of extra sandwiches and putting them in your lunch bucket, you can make some serious extra money.”

There are so many ways that people are living in this world that you would not know about, would never occur to you (even if it’s obvious someone must be in retrospect).

Interview with the author of Gold: The Race for the World’s Most Seductive Metal on NPR.

Addendum from Wikipedia: “Tunnel walls are secured by flexible shotcrete reinforced with steel fibers, which is further held in place by diamond-mesh netting.” Diamond-mesh netting! I bet it doesn’t look like I’m imagining.

For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.

“The problem isn’t that we have desires, but that our desires are too small.”

This week I came across the exact same concept expressed by a Buddhist and a Christian thinker, which was startling enough to seem worth exploring.

Tara Brach: “The problem isn’t that we have desires, but that our desires are too small.” She says that we wish to connect with, say, our ex-boyfriend, when we should be wishing for the much deeper, more whole connection to Buddha-nature, the quiet, vast expanse that lies inside us.

C.S. Lewis: “If we consider the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

I think this is super insightful and you don’t need to be religious to apply it to your life. I’ve been thinking of examples all week.

‘I want a flat stomach’ vs. ‘I want to feel like I belong in my body and it’s okay to be here’.

‘I want my kids to get me Christmas presents’ vs ‘I want to know my family loves me and thinks of me’.

‘I want to move in together’ vs ‘I want to know that you’re serious about this relationship’.
(I don’t live with my partner and prefer it that way, but not having that milestone of seriousness meant I had to explicitly seek reassurance of it. Separating out what I wanted symbolically and what I wanted literally, physically, for my life to be like, has been really tricky at times.)

For the next week, when you really want something, try and see if you can want something bigger. You don’t have to tell anyone – I think there’s nothing more terrifying than saying what you want. “I’m poor” = no big deal. “I want to be rich” = terrifying, can you imagine really saying that to someone, and meaning it earnestly with your open heart? “I want to be famous.” “I want more friends.” I’m cringeing just typing these things and they’re not even my own personal deep wishes.

But at least if you know yourself, you can go more directly to the source, and be more strategic in pursuing the secondary things you hope will lead to it.

(I have another example: We don’t need more employment, we need certain tasks to be done, and we need food, shelter, etc. etc. Employment is one way of getting those tasks done and distributing those resources, but it’s not the only way, and if we look at it as a problem of unemployment instead of a problem of tasks and resources, then we’re a step abstracted and unnecessarily limiting ourselves. So that’s what I’m trying to avoid in my personal life.)

A lot of studies have shown that people aren’t made happier by any particular income, but only by having the same or a little higher income than their peers. This is used as evidence that humans care more about status than they do about wealth itself (and that’s why communism will never work blablabla).

I’ve never heard anyone consider the possibility that being poorer than your friends makes it hard to socialise, which has an effect on happiness. If all your friends are poor, you hang around at each others’ houses drinking Aldi beers. If most of them start going to bars, and you can’t afford to, suddenly it’s harder to drink with them, or every time it involves feeling a bit guilty about having to rely on them shouting you.

Your friends start going to $30 restaurants instead of $11 restaurants, and you can’t get dinner with them much anymore. Or go to festivals with them, or concerts, or whatever.

Presumably if your friends are ultra rich and you’re only super rich, they’re all helicoptering to the Bahamas while you can only afford to helicopter to the Adirondacks.

This seems like such a blindingly obvious thing to miss that I wonder if it actually has been addressed and factored in, but also it’s exactly the type of human element that economists *do* tend to miss, so I wouldn’t be surprised.

tl;dr humans aren’t as shitty as economists think we are.


For more like this, subscribe to my fortnightly newsletter, The Whippet.