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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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Molyneux’s Problem: thought experiment from 1688 solved in 2003

Q: If a man born blind can feel the differences between shapes such as spheres and cubes, could he, if his sight was restored, distinguish those objects by sight (without touching them)?

A: No. Huh. “Although after restoration of sight, the subjects could distinguish between objects visually almost as effectively as they would do by touch alone, they were unable to form the connection between an object perceived using the two different senses. The correlation was barely better than if the subjects had guessed. They had no innate ability to transfer their tactile shape knowledge to the visual domain.”

“Ostrovsky, et al studied a woman who gained sight at the age of 12 when she underwent surgery for dense bilateral congenital cataracts. They report that the subject could recognize family members by sight six months after surgery, but took up to a year to recognize most household objects purely by sight.” Wikipedia article

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“What should I do about my broken heart?”

“It’s been broken for a few weeks now and no sign of abating.” — reader question from Anonymous.

Aw geez. Oh man. That’s… that’s WELL outside my remit. But you know that right? So it’s probably okay to answer. Also literally no one has ever figured out how to be cool about having a broken heart so you can’t possible actually expect me to fix things. Okay. Phew.
I’m gonna start by giving the answer of Emily Nagoski, sex and relationships researcher:

There’s nothing to “do” exactly; like there’s nothing to “do” about having a stomach bug. You can drink ginger beer and eat saltines, but it’s just going to suck horribly for a while, until your body works through it. Go for the ride, let it suck. Your brain will flail around looking for something to DO about the injury, the way a soldier in battle looks for the next enemy to attack, but there is no enemy here, just rage and hurt and grief and fear. Lots of feelings, all revved up with nowhere to go. So you journal and cry and scream and wait for the cycle to complete itself.” Full blog post

Now my answer:

  1. Ugggghhhh that sucks
  2. A few weeks is not so long that I think you’re fucked. I think that’s a pretty normal amount to be devastated for. So I don’t think it’s evidence that you won’t get better.
  3. I have never known how to fix it, the only thing I know how to do is survive until it gets better on its own. It can be helpful to remind yourself of that.
  4. “I don’t have to feel okay, I just have to make it through.”
  5. Constant, I mean constant distraction. Just binge watch everything. Can’t feel if your brains filled up with images and sounds! Nice friends can come over for half an hour and watch Season 4, Episode 11 of Charmed with you. It’s really okay to ask them to do that and refuse to talk to them.
  6. When it’s really bad, like can’t breathe, maybe gonna die, panic attack bad, it helps to concentrate 100% on the present moment and what you are seeing, hearing, feeling. So not “she left me” or “I want them” but a litany of neutral observations of the present moment. “I am in my bedroom. My doona cover is yellow. There is a sharp pain in my lungs. I can hear a truck. My face is wet. My throat hurts. My cupboard door is open. The door handle is white and chipped.” And so on. Focusing on the sensations rather than what the sensations mean can get you through.
  7. Sometimes I think of myself as dead? Not permanently, not suicidally, it’s just like… setting your baseline expectation for your life to zero. So in this time period, you are not gonna do anything or achieve anything or feel anything good, if you just think of this period as not existing, it can help. Because you’re not beating yourself up for not feeling better, or trying, or something. (I do this when I have an astronomical amount of work to do as well, so I don’t get FOMO when I can’t go to things or be happy, I’m just like “I’m dead right now, that’s how it is.” I actually have a name for me when I’m dead, a totally unrelated girl’s name. I’m aware this is a bit creepy but everyone has their own creepy habits they don’t talk about. (IMPORTANT: the nature of ‘thinking of myself as dead’ that I’m talking about here is temporary, which makes it nothing like real death whatsoever. If you’re feeling tempted by the idea of suicide, tell a close friend and/or chat to Lifeline (link to their online chat) literally this actual second.
  8. Related to the above, sometimes doing shit stuff that will help alive-you, the you of the future, can help. Or rather, it doesn’t help but you’re miserable anyway so you might as well be miserable while getting some money or whatever. Push-ups so that alive, future-you is stronger, personal admin, selling stuff on ebay, etc. Being dead can be kind of an advantage here.
  9. Here’s Emily Nagoski’s talk on the science of relationships, attachment theory, break-ups etc. Understanding stuff helps me feel better, even if it doesn’t help help.

 Ask me a question on any topic except contemporary politics by commenting here or emailing thewhippet (at) mckinleyvalentine.com  make sure to include how/if you want to be named/linked.

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Let’s talk about house clothes

That is, the clothes you only ever wear at home. I just bought my fifth robe / dressing gown so I am extremely qualified to talk about this. People tend to wear pretty ugly house clothes – I don’t mean that I find them ugly, which, why would you care, I mean that people wear house clothes they themselves find ugly.

You go out of your way to buy nice outdoors clothes, but indoors you just sort of where whatever. This isn’t some Coco Chanel thing about keeping up standards, I just think you theorise that it doesn’t matter but you end up feeling frumpy and sleepy and ineffective, and unspecial, like, you dress pretty to see other people but not for yourself?

Esp if you’re mental health is not good, feeling like you look awesome when you’re bumming around at home really helps. And then when you get changed into them when you get home, it’s a reward to yourself for having bravely left the house.

Pretty much you have to take the nice fabrics route, I think, because you still want to be gloriously comfortable, and exactly the right warmth. And obviously don’t wear an underwire bra, obviously.

Also about house clothes: they can be costumes, they can be the clothes you kinda wish you would wear outside but won’t (the most recent robe is a rainbow space galaxy with sweeping sleeves and a watercolour unicorn on the back). I mean, you can buy Hogwarts house robes online. Pyjamas come in way cuter patterns than jeans. You can go from naked to amazingly dressed in two seconds. They are blankets you can walk around in!

Esp for men who are kind of expected to wear the most dour shit as their day to day wear, you can wear just any kind of colours and cuteness, or like, leggings printed with chainmail armour.

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