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The Whippet #95: Never trust the Praetorian Guard

McKinley Valentine — 7 min read

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At the third stroke, it will be three, fifty-seven, and twenty, seconds. Beep. Beep. Beep.

I used to call 1194, the Australian Talking Clock, all the time as a kid. Like, way more than was actually necessary to make sure my alarm clock was still set correctly. I couldn't really tell you why, but I found it reassuring. He has a calm voice, and I had what you might euphemistically call a stressful childhood – if you're walking on eggshells and you never know when one of them is about to explode (the eggshells are landmines now, keep up), then it's probably nice to be like: “Okay. This one thing I can pin down and be sure of. If the man says it's going to be 3:57 on the third beep, then it is unquestionably going to be 3:57.” He tells you what's going to happen and it happens. He is not going to get to third beep and then yell at you that it's actually 11:48 and you are in BIG trouble for acting like it's 3:57.

So, I was sad to learn that the 1194 hotline was permanently closed down in September of last year. I would have liked to call up one last time.

It turns out I wasn't the only one who had used it for comfort. I saw a tweet by one man who said he used to call it up in the 1970s: "In the turmoil of those years, the voice of that man was the only one who didn't care that I was gay."

Another person who cared a lot was Ryan Munro*, who, found out at 10pm on September 30th, two hours before it was going to be shut down. He frantically called up and recorded as much of it as he could, so that he could try and recreate it online.

In what was literally a race against time he set up recording equipment and repeatedly rang the Talking Clock.

With each call disconnecting after a minute, it took 66 attempts before he was able to capture the entire script.

"I was worried at 11:12pm, when I still didn't have the numbers 13 or 14 yet, and I kept getting the busy signal," Monro said.

So now the Talking Clock is online, and you can hear it for yourself any time at

(It's also a good example of the kind of non-Steve Irwin Australian accent that you never hear in US etc. media. I sound a lot closer to the Talking Clock guy than I do to Steve Irwin. Like the Talking Clock guy on his day off, after a few drinks maybe.)

"Talking Clock Guy" is Richard Peach, an ABC breakfast radio host who died in 2008. RIP Peach.

(* Ryan Munro is the bass player for Cat Empire, an Australian band who sung the inescapable feel-good hits of the summer in 2002/2003. This is not important but felt weird to leave out.)

Some lyrics from Bob Dylan's post-apocalyptic song, Talkin' World War III Blues:
I was feelin’ kinda lonesome and blue
I needed somebody to talk to
So I called up the operator of time
Just to hear a voice of some kind
“When you hear the beep it will be three o’clock”
She said that for over an hour and I hung up.

World's scariest warning label

It's one step down from "If you can read this, you're already dead."

This is a rod of Cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope. If you were within a metre of it for 5 minutes, you'd have a 50% chance of survival.

via @NuclearAnthro on twitter.

For more on radiation see pieces , scroll down to 'The thieves who steal sunken warships, right down to the bolts' and 'Speaking of radiation...'.

The universe is left-handed

That's not clickbait. Prior to 1956, it was assumed that the universe followed the principle of 'parity' -

"Physicists had long thought that, when it comes to the laws of physics, nature has no preference when it comes to right over left. That means our world should be pretty much identical to its mirror image. It's a form of symmetry. Mathematically, it's known as parity, and it should be conserved in all subatomic processes. And it is, at least for electromagnetism and the strong nuclear force. Any number of experiments had shown that this was so." [Gizmodo]

Physicist Chien-Shiung Wu experimented with Cobalt-60 and discovered that the weak nuclear force does not - it decays more on one-side than the other, even if you swap which side is which.

I don't understand this well enough to do a good job explaining it because it's nuclear physics. Here's the Wikipedia page but it is... dense. Her findings have been backed up CERN and the large hadron collider more recently.

But it does mean the universe has a left-ish bias, and that we should be able to detect it if we are transported to an evil mirror world, even if they don't have goatees. Also:

"Previously, if the scientists on Earth were to communicate with a newly discovered planet's scientist, and they had never met in person, it would not have been possible for each group to determine unambiguously the other group's left and right. With the Wu experiment, it is possible to communicate to the other group what the words left and right mean exactly and unambiguously."

SS City of Adelaide wrecked and abandoned near Magnetic Island

High tide and low tide. Magnetic Island is off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Image via Areas Abandoned on twitter.

  • 1863: Launched as a passenger steamship.
  • 1890: Converted to sailing ship: boilers and engines removed; sails added.
  • 1902: Rigging stripped off, converted to a hulk to store coal (a hulk is a ship that can't actually sail, but it can float, so it can be used as offshore storage).
  • 1912: Caught fire and burnt for days before it could be put out.
  • 1915: Attempts are made to tow the burnt hulk out to Picnic Bay where it can become a breakwater, but it accidentally runs aground on the way, near Magnetic Island.
  • 1942: Used as target practice by RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) bombers. Somehow the ship wins?? One of the bombers flies too low, hits the ship and crashes into the sea.
  • 1971: Hit by Cyclone Althea and finally finishes collapsing. Becomes artificial island hosting a variety of plant and bird life.

    (Source: Wikipedia)

Deaths of Roman Emperors (a curated selection)

Fallen London writer Harry Tuffs did a twitter thread of every Roman Emperor who died in a gruesome, ironic or otherwise entertaining way. Here's some of my favourites:

ZENO (474–491): Got blind drunk one night and passed out. His wife Ariadne, who despised him, declared him dead and held a funeral. When he awoke, he was inside a sarcophagus. He shouted to be released but Ariadne refused to allow the coffin to be opened; he was buried alive.

AURELIAN (270–275): Had a hatred for corruption. One of his secretaries, having told a minor lie, was so terrified of getting caught he forged a document showing that Aurelian planned to execute some high-ranking officials. The officials arranged for the Emperor's assassination.

TRAJAN (98–117): Died from a complication of an illness, causing horrible swelling and fluid build-up. After his death his wife hired someone to impersonate his voice and speak from behind a curtain to confidently say he wanted to pass the throne to Hadrian.

PUPIENUS (238–238): Co-ruler with Balbinus, both elected by the Senate, but they grew suspicious of each other. They got into an argument about who was trying to assassinate who, when the Praetorian Guard* burst in and slaughtered them both.

THEODOSIOS III (715–717): Was laughably incompetent, and a popular general named Leo rose up against him. Theodosios agreed that actually Leo would make a much better Emperor, and offered to abdicate and become a monk. Leo accepted and Theodosios died much later of natural causes

There are a TONNE more here (note some of them really are pretty gruesome).

* The Praetorian Guard were an elite unit of soldiers who served as bodyguards for the Roman Emperor and other high-ranking figures. Sort of like the Secret Service, if 'Presidents murdered by the Secret Service' had its own Wikipedia Category page.

Unsolicited Advice: "Words don’t have meanings, they have uses”

This quote is from a bible scholar and he's talking about people inappropriately literally translating words from Hebrew or Greek or whatever and then using them to make dogmatic religious rulings. But I'm absolutely thrilled by it as an editor. Not "what does it mean?" but "what can you use it for?"

This is fundamentally a much more true and useful way to think about words and definitions. It allows for different contexts and tones and stuff. When someone says "[Word] means [meaning]" they are almost always being reductive. Often that's fine - you just want to know what type of fruit is going to be served with your blini and you don't need to know all the other ways that we use those words (apples to oranges, going bananas, going pear-shaped). It would be annoying if your translator wasn't reductive. But be extremely leery of anyone who prescriptively says "[Word] means [single meaning]" in a broader context or in a way that shuts down the conversation. Words have uses, not meanings.

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