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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

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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.

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“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.

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‘When you die, not a bit of you is gone, you’re just less orderly’

(quote by Aaron Freeman)

I’ve been reading a bunch about the competing theories of consciousness and this is super exciting for me because I actually didn’t know there was any (scientific) competition on the issue.

The main theory you’ll hear talked about is that consciousness, or mind, is an emergent property of non-mind. A bunch of non-mind cells, when combined in the ridiculously complex way ours is, produces the effect of mind, despite no individual part having any quality of mind itself.

The so-far unsolved problem with this (acknowledged by advocates for it) is that there aren’t really any other examples of something coming from nothing. A thing can be more than the sum of its parts, but we haven’t seen anything be totally different from its constituent parts before. (Just because we haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it’s not possible, though; this is super-tricky stuff to study.)

The weight of evidence seems to me to be that all life has some form of consciousness, however impoverished. Plants and fungi experience stimulus and actively respond to it. Even amoebas do that. We used to say anything but an ensoulled human was just responding like a dropped rock does to gravity, but that doesn’t really fit with the fact that evolution typically re-uses all the same bits it can when it creates new organisms.

So now we have the problem of where to draw the line. Why does life have consciousness and non-life doesn’t? It sort of made sense when the origins of life were just as mysterious, just as something-from-nothing. But we now know that simple life (proteins, etc) can be made from non-life. And from a scientific point of view, there’s no single point at which death can be distinguished from life, either. It’s all surprisingly blurry.

And it turns out that quite a lot of (serious, legitimate) people think that this means all constituent parts of the universe must have a quality of mind. The theory is called ‘panspychism’ and it’s basically the only viable alternative to emergentism. Either mind can arise from non-mind, or it can’t, in which case it has to already be there in the parts that the mind is a sum of.

It doesn’t mean each atom has its own fully thinking consciousness, by the way (an amoeba is made of trillions of atoms, so it’s still crazy-complex in comparison). Just that it has some quality of mind. In some ways this is functionally indistinguishable from emergentism – if consciousness only starts to be recognisable to us at certain levels of complexity, then in effect it’s not really any different to an emergent consciousness. (Sorry to have wasted your time.) But somehow it still would matter to me, which turned out to be true.

Panpsychism has flaws, and you’re probably spluttering some of them right now. But so does emergentism – we don’t actually have a viable theory for consciousness. These are the two options we’ve narrowed it down to. Panpsychism solves some of the problems that irritated me about emergentism, but comes with its own problems.

It seems more elegant to me, but maybe it just depends what you’re more irritated by. More info.

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The sea endures no makeshifts

This week’s reader question is: “Something about the sea”

which I’m going to be obnoxiously meta about. The reader was after bizarre sailor stories because I once wrote an article for Cracked (<– brag) about Crowhurst and his absolutely bonkers attempt to sail around the world.

But instead I’m going to answer “something about the sea”. The something that is about the sea is hubris.

All sea stories of any grandeur and drama are about hubris. The unsinkable Titanic, obviously. The above-mentioned Crowhurst chose a catamaran that was never meant to sail on the open ocean, a problem he planned to solve by designing his own experimental safety devices, which he figured he’d have time to install once his trip was underway (also, he left all his tools and equipment on the dock).

America was drawn into World War I when Germans sunk the (debatably) civilian ship the Lusitania. But it knowingly went through German-occupied waters after Germany had said they didn’t intend to leave it alone.

“The truth is that the Lusitania is the safest boat on the sea,” its makers said. “She is too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her.”

The Wreck of the Hesperus is an incredibly popular poem about a guy who ignores the warnings of his crew:

The skipper he blew a whiff from his pipe,
And a scornful laugh laughed he
.

and lashes his daughter to the mast. Things do not go well for the Hesperus:

She struck where the white and fleecy waves
Looked soft as carded wool;
But the cruel rocks, they gored her side
Like the horns of an angry bull.

or the daughter:

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
On the billows fall and rise.

and the captain freezes to death.

James Buchan said “The sea endures no makeshifts. If a thing is not exactly right it will be vastly wrong.” but every shipwreck story you hear will involve some makeshift, either literal or an “oh I know I shouldn’t but just this once, it’ll be okay.”

The sea endures no makeshifts! Tattoo it on your arm.

Ask me a question on any topic except contemporary politics. You can ask by writing to thewhippet@mckinleyvalentine.com  make sure to include how/if you want to be named/linked.

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The last mammoths died out because their DNA became ‘riddled with errors’

Woolly mammoth

“The last woolly mammoths to walk the Earth were so wracked with genetic disease that they lost their sense of smell, shunned company, and had a strange shiny coat.”

Researchers found “many deletions, big chunks of the genome that are missing, some of which even affected functional genes”.

Dr Rebekah Rogers of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the research, said the mammoths’ genomes “were falling apart right before they went extinct”.

“Knowledge of the last days of the mammoth could help modern species on the brink of extinction, such as the panda, mountain gorilla and Indian elephant.” Full article

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The deaf body in public space

Image result for sig languag eperson

“It’s rude to point,” my friend told me from across the elementary-school cafeteria table. I grasped her words as I read them off her lips. She stared at my index finger, which I held raised in midair, gesturing toward a mutual classmate. “My mom said so.”

I was 6 or 7 years old, but I remember stopping with a jolt. Something inside me froze, too, went suddenly cold.

“I’m signing,” I said out loud. “That’s not rude.” Pointing was a truly fundamental act for me; it was how I expressed what my grown-up scholarly self would call relationality — the idea of being in the world in relation to others.”

When hearing people learn to use sign language, “they must overcome the cultural taboos about excessive movement, pointing and gesture.” As well as gestures, sign language involves what hearing people would see as exaggerated facial expressions. Meanwhile the “listener” maintains a continual gaze (in order to follow the signing) which hearing people can find uncomfortably intense.

“Hearing culture presents us with ideals of speaking with good elocution, restraint and self-control. Now, I admit, I see these ideals as visually impoverished, inaccessible and uninteresting: They produce spaces full of immobile talking heads, disembodied sound and visual inattentiveness.”

There is so much here I’d never thought about before.

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The curse of the Bahia Emerald, a giant green rock that ruins lives

“Right now, in a vault controlled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, there sits a 752-pound emerald with no rightful owner. This gem is the size of a mini­fridge. It weighs as much as two sumo wrestlers. Estimates of its worth range from a hundred bucks to $925 million.

“Over the past 10 years, four lawsuits have been filed over the Bahia emerald. Fourteen individuals or entities, plus the nation of Brazil, have claimed the rock is theirs. A house burned down. Three people filed for bankruptcy. One man alleges having been kidnapped and held hostage. Many of the men involved say that the emerald is hellspawn but they also can’t let it go. As Brian Brazeal, an anthropologist at California State University Chico, wrote in a paper entitled The Fetish and the Stone: A Moral Economy of Charlatans and Thieves, “Emeralds can take over the lives of well-meaning devotees and lead them down the road to perdition.”

This is a long read but I can only beg you to please still read it. The story is like a Coen Brothers movie, and the writer had had the decency to tell it like one. Bookmark or something for when you have time.

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Your ability to focus declines after 30 (it’s not just because smartphones)

This uncharacteristically warm weather feels more like LA than NY, and this trendy trekker is definitely bringing the heat. A simple black t-shirt and jeans hasn’t looked this good since Hank Moody. Forget the beautiful weather outside, all I care...

There are two totally separate systems that govern attention:

  • your ability to maintain focus on the thing (‘enhancement’)
  • your ability to tune out other things (‘suppression’).

“These processes are so separate, in fact, there are different networks of brain structures that carry out their respective functions, each of which is critical for attention.”

Although it may seem counterintuitive, we now appreciate that focusing and ignoring are not two sides of the same coin […] it is not necessarily true that when you focus more on something, you automatically ignore everything else better.

By understanding these as separate systems, rather than seeing an inability to suppress distractions as just a side-effect of not having focused well enough, you’ll be better equipped to try and improve the situation.

This article says that it’s the suppression aspect, our ability to tune out distracting stimuli, that declines with age. That’s a huge relief, because as a kid I used to read in the playground and not notice stuff like a basketball hitting the wall next to my head (generally thrown by a kid who was annoyed that I spent all my lunchtimes reading.) But I can’t do that anymore, and I assumed it was just smartphones and stuff, the Age of Distraction, and I’d let that skill deteriorate through my own fault. But it probably isn’t, not totally.

So, just like if you needed reading glasses you’d just buy them and wear them, maybe now you need to remove external distractions to read a book properly, and you should go ahead and do that instead of just CONCENTRATING… HARDER…

It also probably means older people are genuinely more sensitive to a cluttered room or desk than young people (rather than young people just being too lazy to tidy or whatever the prevailing theory is).

Also you already know this, but meditating will help you improve since it’s literally practising focusing, go on, take your damn medicine.

Image taken from hotdudesreading.tumblr.com

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Keys, umbrellas, fingerprints

This morning I rode past a hand-written sign saying “Lost your keys? Message me which Disney character is on the keyring and I’ll get em back to you.” They wanted to make sure the keys went back to their rightful owner, not just any sneak who called up and claimed them.

Which makes sense with wallets and jewellery and handsome tartan umbrellas, but if you don’t know what Disney character’s on the keys, how do you know which lock they fit?

I realised that you could stumble across the keys to the national mint, the Louvre, to every door in Berrimah jail, and they would be utterly worthless if you didn’t know what they were for. Keys are a treasure that depend on a very specific piece of information.

It was known in the early 1800s that people had unique fingerprints, and that these could be lifted from crime scenes, but it was only really useful if you already had a suspect. Otherwise, what – are you gonna compare the one from the crime scene to every single fingerprint you have on file, one by one, by hand and eye?  It wasn’t until a system of categorisation was developed (by length, width, type and direction of whorl, etc) that fingerprints became look-uppable, and about a billion times more useful.

You see what I’m getting at. Context and connections are what makes something valuable.

Assuming that somehow having the keys to the mint also gave you the legal and moral right to take everything you found there, money only has value because people agree that it does (if it was from the mint, it would have sequential serial numbers, and it could be declared worthless. Then you’d have to see how many people you could convince it was still money before you got caught). Art is a bit more objectively valuable, because you have an emotional reaction to it that has intrinsic worth, but financially it’s bizarre. The Mona Lisa is valued at US$790 million but it’s also worth US$0 because you couldn’t sell it.

In conclusion, go for the handsome tartan umbrella every time.

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“What’s your favourite historical crime?”

Reader question from someone who doesn’t realise I’ve already got a fair bit of crime in this issue. (Oh my god, CRIME starts with C.)

Look there’s so many good ones, but: Jenny Diver was probably the most skilled pickpocket (‘diver’) of the 18th Century. Among a million other tricks, she would put pillows under her dress so she looked pregnant, and she had a pair of waxwork arms made that rested on the faux-pregnant belly. She had relatively upper-class looks so she could go to church services in rich areas of London and pick the pockets of anyone sitting next to her without being suspected.

She lived extremely well, had a gang of about eight others, and when she was finally convicted she was so famous, she was allowed to travel to her execution in a mourning carriage, wearing a black dress and a veil.

“If any Woman hath more Art than another, to be sure, ’tis Jenny Diver. Though her Fellow be never so agreeable, she can pick his Pocket as coolly, as if money were her only Pleasure. Now that is a Command of the Passions in a Woman!” — John Gay, 1738

Ask me a question on literally any topic (doesn’t have to be about criming) by commenting or emailing thewhippet(at)mckinleyvalentine.com  make sure to include how/if you want to be named/linked.

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Archaeology dig in Spain yields prehistoric ‘crystal weapons’

“Archaeologists have uncovered crystal arrowheads, an exquisite dagger blade, and cores used for creating the artifacts, that date to the 3rd millennium BCE.” They seem to be grave goods. Honestly the full article is pretty dry, “structure 10.042-10.049 is another large two-chambered megalithic construction made from slate slabs” etc, just be happy there’s ancient crystal weapons and don’t ask for more.

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The stupidest successful prison escape

In 1995, two murderers (sorry) escaped a Darwin, Australia, prison by making a copy of the prison master key, which could open every lock in Berrimah jail. In 2013, a former prison officer revealed how:

“The prisoners’ information handbook had a pair of crossed keys on the front of it. Those keys were a dead-set copy of the keys that we had.”

“Heiss was in a cell where he could reach his arm through the window and reach the lock,” the prison officer said. “Baker [a jeweller who had jewellery-making equipment in his cell] was in a cell where he couldn’t reach the lock.He used to give the key to Heiss and he would put it in the lock, then give it back and say ‘I think it needs a bit more off here or there’.”

The officer said Heiss’s escape caused a huge amount of embarrassment for the authorities. “The handbooks were taken off the prisoners straightaway and the contractors were called in to change all the locks,” he said.

(Full article is a Murdoch paper so no link)

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Stilts and stumps

“Hunting for food, ants roam haphazardly. But when they find it, they use celestial cues, perhaps from the sun, to head back to their nests more or less in a straight line – rather than retracing the tortuous journeys they’d made on their outbound searches.

So how does an ant know when to stop running?

It must not be based on seeing the nest entrance, because a returning ant rarely runs straight down into its hole. Instead, when they think they’re in the right area, they stop running, make a U-turn, and pace back and forth until they find it.”

Scientists showed that they ‘count’ their steps by giving some ants stilts and amputating the last segment off the legs of other ants (ants’ legs can’t feel anything because they have to walk across boiling sand). The ants with stilts overshot their nest by 50% and the ants with stumps only got halfway home.

“Interestingly, the ants quickly adjusted to their new leg lengths. The next day the modified ants were allowed to engage in normal foraging, and they returned to the nest as well as the unmodified ants.”
Full article

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The 23 types of vagabond

Each one was a separate chapter in Thomas Harman’s A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, vulgarly called vagabonds(published 1566).

Adolf Hitler in 1899

This woodcut is of the vagabond Nicholas Jennings, and appeared in a pamphlet titled Gentleman and Beggar. Jennings was executed in 1566. He was caught with a bag of blood used to paint fake injuries on his head.

The several disorders and degrees amongst our idle vagabonds:

1. Rufflers (thieving beggars, former soldiers, apprentice uprightment)
2. Uprightmen (leaders of robber bands)
3. Hookers or anglers (thieves who steal through windows with hooks)
4. Rogues (rank-and-file vagabonds)
5. Wild rogues (those born of rogues)
6. Priggers of prancers (stealers of horses)
7. Palliards (male and female beggars, traveling in pairs)
8. Fraters (sham proctors, pretending to beg for hospitals, etc.)
9. Abraham-men (feigned lunatics)
10. Fresh-water mariners or whipjacks (beggars pretending to have been shipwrecked)
11. Dummerers (sham deaf-mutes)
12. Drunken tinkers (thieves using the trade as a cover)
13. Swadders or peddlers (thieves pretending to be peddlers)
14. Jarkmen (forgers of licenses) or patricoes (hedge priests)

Of Womenkind:

1. Demanders for glimmer or fire (female beggars pretending to have suffered loss by fire)
2. Bawdy baskets (female peddlars)
3. Morts (prostitutes and thieves)
4. Autem morts (married harlots)
5. Walking morts (unmarried harlots)
6. Doxies (prostitutes who begin with uprightmen)
7. Dells (young girls, incipient doxies)
8. Kinchin morts (female beggar children)
9. Kinchin coves (male beggar children)

More details on A Caveat and the types of vagabonds here.

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Japanese death poems

Death poems were traditionally written by ageing samurai, monks, clerks and other literate / upper class people. It seems to be a way to die with dignity, although I’m also 100% on board with the “rage, rage against the dying of the light” response.

They often had patriotic overtones. Narushima Chuhachiro:

For eighty years and more, by the grace of my sovereign
and my parents, I have lived
with a tranquil heart
between the flowers and the moon.

This next was written by suicide-torpedoist Kuroki Hiroshi in 1944:

This brave man
so filled with love for his country
that he finds it difficult to die
is calling out to his friends and about to die

but they could be irreverent too. Moriya Sen’an:

Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
With luck
the cask will leak.

(Painting is not really related: ‘Hanaogi of the Ogiya’ by Chobunsai Eishi, ca. 1794.)

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