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The Whippet #11: Coins, surnames, the shoreline, sleep, consciousness

McKinley Valentine — 15 min read

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Good morning tough street-pigeons,

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.

Mallory Ortberg advice podcast

I don't need to tell you who Mallory Ortberg is, do I? She was the best writer on the internet, had a website called The Toast, now ended, everybody misses her.

She took over the advice column Dear Prudence, but I don't read it much because she's toned down some of her language to be more normal. But the Dear Prudence podcast is done live, and so retains a lot of her character. Especially her getting creatively angry. In this episode, with guest Saladin Ahmed (fantasy writer, unrelatedly great on twitter), a woman writes in to say that her boyfriend keeps waking her up in the middle of the night just to ask how her day was, etc. I transcribed the last couple minutes for you because I love you:

"If you take one piece of advice away from this episode, I hope it will be this: Don’t wake your partner up when they’re sleeping. When somebody is sleeping, leave them alone. The following exceptions apply:

  1. They are on fire

End of list. Leave them alone.

If it is a child sleeping, leave the child alone. If it is an adult sleeping, leave the adult alone.

If you have a really important question you need to ask, wait until it’s daytime. If you want to know how their day was, guess. Just sit quietly and think about what they might have done. You’re smart, you can probably think of a few possibilities. And if they’re only a little bit on fire, frankly, try to put it out yourself.

The only people that I’m gonna give a pass to on this are babies. You wake people up, but you don’t mean to, it’s just because you don’t know how to tell us what you need, so you have to scream until we can guess. Which frankly, I don’t think is a great system, I would love it if babies could get together and reassess their technique, but I respect their process.

I have a lot of respect for babies, I think they’re doing the absolute best they can, they don’t have fine motor skills and they usually don’t have shoes on, so they’re working with a lot of disadvantages. You can’t even keep your neck up, babies! You’re really out there, living the struggle, trying to learn how to keep your neck up, because you have no neck muscles yet. So you guys can keep waking people up -- everybody else, knock it OFF, let people go to BED, let them SLEEP."

Dear Prudence Podcast (ignore the banner, you can absolutely listen for free: scroll down)


The Prophet, who is aware of the hands which move the pieces.
The Crows, placed on the board after the final turn.

(Follow @ThePatanoiac for Lovecraft-style microfiction)

Consciousness is relational, pt. I: A biologist talks about trees

"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

Why 40% of Vietnamese people have the same surname (Nguyen)

"Surnames are a surprisingly recent creation in most of the world, and there remain many places where they just aren’t very important. Vietnam is one of those."

"Prior to the 18th century, much of the world did not use family names. More common would be what’s called a “patronymic” name, meaning your full name would literally translate as something like “Steve son of Bob.” Patronymic names refer only to the generation immediately before and remain common in much of the world, especially in Scandinavia and the Middle East. (Keep an eye out for “surnames” ending in “-sson” or including “Ben” or “Ibn.” Those are patronymic names.)

"The existence of last names in Vietnam dates to 111 BC, the beginning of a lengthy thousand-year occupation of the country by the Han Dynasty in China.

"Well before the time of China’s occupation of Vietnam, the Chinese had a sophisticated system of family names for a pretty basic reason: taxes.

"Basically, the Chinese (and later the Romans and Normans) conquered all these places with all these people, and they needed some way to keep track of them so they could be taxed. But most of these places didn’t have family names, which made them a real pain to monitor. How can you be sure that you’re taxing the right Dũng, when there are a dozen of them in the same village and they’re referred to as “Uncle Dũng” and “Brother Dũng”?

So the Chinese just started handing out last names to people. They assigned these surnames pretty much randomly, but the original pool of last names largely came from Chinese last names, or Vietnamese derivations of them. Nguyen, for example, came from the Chinese Ruan. “My guess is, senior Chinese administrators used their own personal names to designate people under their own aegis,” says O’Harrow. This kind of thing happened a lot; the tendency of the imperialist to just bestow his name on the people he conquered can be seen everywhere.

"None of that explains why Nguyen is such a popular family name in Vietnam. After all, there were tons of those mid-level Chinese bureaucrats handing out family names. Why did this one become so popular?

"Though last names in Vietnam are, thanks to that early period under Chinese control, much older than they are in most parts of the world, the Vietnamese never seemed to much care about them. They just never became a fundamental way that Vietnamese people referred to each other or thought about themselves.

"The last name, in Vietnam, is there, but just isn’t that important. And when it’s not that important, you might as well change it if a new last name might help you in some way. This may or may not be a continuation of the way names were used before the Chinese came—we really don’t know—but ever since, Vietnamese people have tended to take on the last name of whoever was in power at the time. It was seen as a way to show loyalty, a notion which required the relatively frequent changing of names with the succession of rulers. After all, you wouldn’t want to be sporting the last name of the previous emperor.

“This tradition of showing loyalty to a leader by taking the family name is probably the origin of why there are so many Nguyens in Vietnam,” says O’Harrow. During the Tran Dynasty in the 11th to 13th centuries, many members of the Ly family of the prior dynasty changed their name to Nguyen to avoid persecution. In 1592, on the collapse of the Mạc Dynasty, their descendants changed their surname to Nguyen. And guess what the last ruling family in Vietnam was? Yep, the Nguyễn Dynasty, which ruled from 1802 to 1945."

Full article, including some interesting personal stuff about what it's like to be a Nguyen in America.

Nguyen is also the 8th most common family name in Australia, and the 2nd most common in Melbourne (after Smith).

Bonus fact: Vietnamese people in the Czech Republic

"Vietnamese people form the largest immigrant community in the Czech Republic, and are the 3rd largest ethnic minority overall, after Slovaks and Ukrainians.

"It is the third largest Vietnamese diaspora in Europe, after France and Germany, and one of the most populous Vietnamese diasporas of the world."

On an anecdotal note, almost all of the convenience stores are run by Vietnamese people, and there's a massive Vietnamese open-air market in Prague. People never expect this! But it's because of Communism. Vietnamese people were invited to then-Czechoslovakia as guest workers, and many stayed after the Soviets left in 1989.

Branson Reese teaching how to draw turtles

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Unsolicited Advice

This week reader questions have been replaced by unsolicited advice

Today's unsolicited advice is that no one likes unsolicited advice, and most people are very bad at giving it usefully. I probably have less tolerance than average, but no one likes it.

Sometimes you have to ask yourself, "is it more important to tell them this thing I know, or more important to not make people feel really annoyed that I exist right now?" (For example: If they are describing the symptoms of ovarian cancer and don't seem aware of it, then it's more important to tell them the thing. Or their job application has spelling mistakes in it. But it's probably not something as important as that, right?)

On social media, most of the time when someone shares a problem or mishap, they're actually sharing a story - It might be a low-key joke of the "look what over-the-top awful thing happened to me" variety. People do a lot of self-deprecating "I'm so broke" or "I'm so vague and untogether" posts, but they actually usually are on top of their situation, and they're sharing it because sharing stories is what people do. Responding with your own story creates connection and engagement. Responding with advice separates and distances. It's not just that they don't want advice, but they actually don't need it - they're handling their shit but they don't describe that part because it doesn't add to the narrative. If there's ANYTHING humorous in the telling, this goes triple. It's a joke. Don't respond to jokes with serious advice.

Unless someone says "Does anyone know...?" "Can you recommend...? "Help me!" they are probably sharing a story. Don't give them advice. Reciprocate with your own related story if you want to.

The other reason people are bad at this is because the advice people usually give can be found on the front page of google. If someone has a problem, you can trust that they have googled it, and they know all the 101 advice. It's really condescending to give people that advice.

You know that it's obnoxious to, say, tell one of the scriptwriters of Star Wars who Lando Calrissian is? Because they're an expert? Everyone is an expert on the first-page of google / wikipedia entry of their personal problems. So it's just as obnoxious to give a problem-haver first-page-google advice as it is to give an expert obvious advice.

Replace whatever you were going to say with "Have you tried googling it?" That's how you sound when you give obvious advice.

I want to make clear that I get how tempting this is. I know a lot about skincare (more than the first page of google) and when I see women in pharmacies about to buy garbage products full of irritants, I have to clench my jaw to avoid warning them off it. Or teenagers being ignorant on public transport. They do not want a 30-year-old stepping in and saying "If you like Wolfmother, you should really give Led Zeppelin a try" NO. It's really unacceptable, right? I shouldn't do that! GOD I want to though.

So I get how much you want to. I promise that I understand so hard. But you mustn't. It ruins people's hours by making them jumpy and irritable, and it makes them like you less. If you do it all the time, when people get a notification from you, their shoulders will automatically start to go up around their ears. You don't want people to think of you that way! I don't want people to think of me that way!

I tell you what's good about Facebook? You can go to your own wall and post a general PSA about skincare, Led Zeppelin, or whatever, and it is 100% okay and non-obnoxious. If you gotta say something, post it on your own wall. This is the way to get out your advice-giving urges without making people's skin twitch.

The other way is to ask. This is 100% allowed and cool and respect-worthy. "I've had a lot of success developing a regular exercise habit, can I tell you what's worked for me or are you not wanting suggestions right now?"

I really believe it's 98% of the time out of a belief that you can improve their lives, not out of wanting to show off your superior knowledge or anything like that. (Okay, maybe 94%, with 4% 'needing to feel needed'.) Many dearly beloved friends fall for the giving-advice vice. But look, it doesn't work. You won't be improving their lives, you'll be making them slightly worse. Sorry. That's just how it is. Is that what you want to do? Really think about if you want to make someone's life slightly but measurably worse for half an hour, and have them like you slightly but measurably less. Cause that's what you're doing. (Please note this isn't directed at anyone specific, but if you've been feeling like it's directed at you, well - that probably means you know you do this and you should stop/)

Last note, travel recommendations. If someone says they are travelling to a place, they are not asking for recommendations. If you want to give them recommendations, you gotta ask first. And if your recommendation is the major tourist attraction in the area they're visiting, just no. You don't get to say it. People visiting Cambodia have heard of Angkor Wat. They are not going to miss out if you don't suggest it. Similarly, they know not to drink the water, how to avoid simple scams, and all the other advice that's on the first page of every Lonely Planet. Unless you have some real, genuine insiders' knowledge, just post it on your own wall.

Last advice on travel advice giving: you gotta give some evidence of why they should do what you say. "Go to x because they have a seven-storey library with sliding ladders on rails" is good. "You gotta check out x!" without further details is just pushing people to have the same travel experience you did with no justification, just because you did it. Maybe if you happen to know you are extremely similar people this is okay. Otherwise it's just you wanting to re-live and talk about when you travelled. Which is okay! But just... tell the story of that, as a worthy story in itself, don't turn it to advice and push it on people.

I have a lot of pent-up feelings about this okay,

But yeah:

1. Ask first
2. Post it to your own wall.

God I hope this works.

You know what, point 3, I'm giving a free pass to every reader to say 'okay stop giving advice please' in person and to delete all instances of unsolicited advice from their social media without apology or explanation. You'll be improving the environment for all of us -- including those of us who feel strong urges to give unsolicited advice and need reminders that we shouldn't. Help us keep our urges in check!

Answers to the readers who asked me questions this week:
1. A snow leopard or a least weasel.
2. English is primarily Germanic, even though it has words from many other languages. The majority of Latin-based words don't actually come directly from Latin but via Norman French (the Normans having conquered England in 1066). I know at least two linguists read The Whippet so I'm afraid to say more.

You can and should still ask me questions, just the likelihood of me answering them has gone down from 'I definitely will' to 'if I think I have something interesting to say about it'. Send questions to me by replying to this email: let me know if you want to be named and/or linked.


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