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The Whippet #96: The Cat's Judgement & the Iron-Eating Mice

McKinley Valentine — 8 min read

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Scroll down for the superb fairy-wren facts! Stay right here for the amateur moral philosophy!

Okay: People tend to view others’ morality as spectrums from black and white* with grey in the middle (most people being somewhere in the grey middle obviously). As adults, we know that no one is all good or all bad, and we consider it a sign of maturity to be able to see the shades of grey.

* black and white are not great as a metaphor for evil and good but they are visually clear and this is complex as it is so I'll stick with it

In this model, if someone does something good, it shifts them to one side of the spectrum, and if they do something bad, it shifts them to the other. This spectrum view creates no end of trouble, in my opinion.

It means that if, say, a serial killer (very far at one end) donates $100 to charity, then that shifts him one titchy tiny notch back towards good. And people are so so so uncomfortable with the idea of shifting someone that evil even a little towards the 'good' end, that they end up having to say that good acts don't matter. Well, they don't matter in terms of, "is that serial killer a good guy" or "should he still be in prison". But it's still good that that charity has an extra $100. It really is. But that idea upsets people, because they're thinking of the spectrum.

And when someone genuinely great & genuinely awful - someone who invented a vaccine but abused his kids, say - then people get in knots because it’s like, how do you place someone on the black to white sliding scale when they’ve done both very great and very horrible things? I guess in the middle? They don’t know how to balance those.

Maybe you can do some trolley-problem math about how many lives Fritz Haber saved from starvation by inventing super-effective fertiliser, and then how many lives Fritz Haber ended by also inventing chemical warfare. But most people's good and bad deeds aren't quantifiable in that way.

So I don't see the world/people as spectrums. I see actions as basically entirely black or white, little balls of different sizes. And if someone invents a vaccine, that’s a big white pingpong ball in their bucket. And if they abuse their kids, that’s a big black ball. I don’t try and find the shade of grey that’s halfway between a vaccine and abusing kids. It's apples and oranges, it's nonsensical to try and find a single middle point between them. Instead I just hold the good thing and the bad thing together in the same person. The vaccine can’t lesson the badness of child abuse, and the child abuse can’t lesson the goodness of the vaccine. They just live side by side - no middle ground.

You can't "make up" for the bad things you've done in the past by doing good deeds. That would be an insult to the people you've hurt - like they only matter in terms of your cosmic debt ledger, not as people in their own right. But similarly, nothing you do in the future, no screw-up no matter how monumental, can undo the good you've done and the ways you've helped people. There's no karmic debt or credit, there's just what you did in the past and what you'll do next.

Anyway, that's how I see it.

The Cat's Judgement & the Iron-Eating Mice

From Das Buch der Beispiele [The Book of Examples], a 15th century German translation of an Indian book of animal fables from around 200 AD, called the Panchatantra. Das Buch der Beispiele was one of the earliest books to be printed on the Gutenberg press, after the Bible.

It's called "The Book of Examples" because they're all stories teaching you good moral behaviour, or other lessons. I had a look through an English translation of the Panchatantra, trying to find which one this picture might be from. It looks to me like the mouse stole the pear, and the cat is eating the mouse, and that's the lesson: don't steal pears.

I found one called The Iron-Eating Mice, which I thought was promising because that mouse does look all stiff like it's been eating iron. But no. The Iron-Eating Mice is a story in which a man lends his friend a set of iron scales (scales as in for weighing things), and when he asks for them back, the man says "Sorry, mice ate them". The protagonist doesn't believe this, so he kidnaps the friend's son. When the friend asks where his son is, the kidnapper says "a bird grabbed him and flew away with him!" The friend says "that's ridiculous, a bird can't carry away a human child!" and the first guy goes "yeah well, a mouse can't eat a set of iron scales!"

So the first guy gives the scales back and the second guy gives the son back.

There's also a great "don't trust people just because they can quote scripture" story called The Cat's Judgement. In it, two birds are arguing over who has the right to nest in a tree, when a cat wanders past saying super-wise things and quoting from the Sutras and stuff. So they ask him to judge their case. He's like, "I'd love to help but I'm old and I need to hear you both clearly so I can judge fairly." I think you can see where this is going. The birds fly down to him and he eats them both.

Anyway you can just google the title of any story in this list to find a translation of it. It's interesting how relateable many of them are, even across cultures and millennia.

Vespertine: someone who's most alert in the evening

More technically, a flower that blooms in the evening, or an animal that's most alert and active at dusk.

Vespertine animals are a subset of the much more common 'crepuscular' animals - animals like cats, who are most alert at dawn and dusk. Most desert animals are like this, avoiding moving during the hottest part of the day, but still taking advantage of what light they can.

I'm sharing it mainly because 'vespertine' is a cool-sounding word and you might want to add it to your twitter bio. Plus it's more accurate for most human night owls than 'nocturnal'. (Owls and bats are in fact mostly vespertine.) 'Vesper' is Latin for 'evening' and 'vespers' is an evening religious service in Christianity.

The word for an animal that's most active at dawn is, I'm sorry to say, matutinal, after Matuta, a Roman goddess of the dawn. ('Matinee' for 'an early performance' is from the same root.) The blue shark is matutinal, and the Superb Fairy Wren is a 'socially monogamous and sexually promiscuous' tiny adorable bird that forms lifelong pair-bonds and only cheats on its partner around dawn: it has a matutinally open relationship.

Superb Fairy-Wren

They are frequently described as "the least faithful birds in the world". Male birds try to impress females by plucking yellow flower petals and showing them off - if she likes it, she'll sneak off at dawn and go find him.

Super Fairy-Wrens make their nest out of loosely woven grasses and spiderwebs. A few families will build nests near each other so they can guard them together. One method is what's called a 'rodent-run' - a bird fluffs its feathers out to look like a rodent, then scurries away from the nest at ground level, so predators think it's a mouse and chase it. (This is probably more successful outside of mating season when their feathers are brown.)

Lonesome Desert: Cowboy Games for Solo Players

This is a set of seven very sweet games that involve only the PDF and a coin to flip.

Most of the other six games are a little more story-telling-like than this one, but they're all more about putting the nice concepts and mood and feeling into your head than anything you would traditionally call a game.

Which is fine! Like film or books, games are a medium that can be fun and social or mentally challenging or just beautiful and not really having what you'd call a point. You can see the rest in low-res for free here, but do chuck her a couple of bucks if you get something out of it.

Unsolicited Advice

Advice 1: Try a slice of capsicum in a gin & tonic

If you like gin & tonics, I mean. It's an alternative to lemon or cucumber and is fresh and excellent. First heard of this via the Australian gin company West Winds, but it's good with any gin. Oh capsicum = bell pepper, and you can use red or green but I think green is nicer, it has that more herbacious taste.

Advice 2: Quarantine game

If you’re sheltering with others, take a walk without saying a word. Only when you get home are you allowed to discuss what you noticed and why. Best noticer gets a prize.

This comes from Rob Walker's The Art of Noticing newsletter.

As you might have noticed, when I see or learn something cool, my instinct is "I NEED TO TELL SOMEONE ABOUT THIS IMMEDIATELY". It was the biggest obstacle to quitting facebook - where would I tell people about the cool things I learned?? I actually started The Whippet partly as a place to share the cool stuff I find so that I could quit Facebook. And I've never really got that into Instagram because it doesn't have re-sharing. "What's the point in seeing a good post if I can't immediately share it with others?" says my brain.

So a silent walk in which I can't point out what I'm noticing sounds challenging in a good way. I actually went to a silent party/art event thing back in The Before Times, which I talk about here, and it was both profound and frustrating. In the end, I disagree with the idea that silence brings us closer to our true selves. I think communication (through whatever medium, including eyeblinks) is core to being fully human. So a silent walk is more like a speech fast than an ideal state you'd want to be in all the time. Interesting, though - worth doing.

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