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The Whippet #154: Refuge in audacity

McKinley Valentine — 10 min read

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I was thinking there should be a word like "landmarks" but for time. You know when you try to figure out when something happened, and you'll be like "well, it was definitely before 2012, because I went to Greece in 2012 and I know I was dating So-and-So when I went to Greece because we got into a huge argument about austerity." It's like navigating by landmarks instead of knowing which way east and west is.

I want to say "chronomarks" but that might be going too fancy, given that we say "landmarks" not "geomarks". But I'm allowed to be fancy. Chronomarks.

PS I have never been to Greece or got into an argument about austerity, because all my opinions about austerity are unassailably correct.

Maybe I should put the comments button in a consistent place each issue, huh? Is this the comments button's new home?

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Battle of Karánsebes: possibly history's dumbest battle

Wikipedia entry for the Battle of Karánsebes

The battle happened on the night of 21 September 1788, in what is now Romania. The Habsburg and Ottoman empires are Austria and Turkey (but bigger, because empires).

I'm just going to give you the bullet-point summary:

  • The vanguard (part that goes ahead of the regular army) of the Austrian army crosses Timiș River to scout for Ottomans. They are 'hussars', light cavalry. The hussars don't find any Ottomans, but they DO find some Romani people who sell them some barrels of schnapps.
  • Some Austrian infantrymen cross the river, see the other soldiers getting drunk, and ask them to share.
  • The (very drunk) hussars refuse, and set up makeshift fortifications around the schnapps barrels.
  • The argument escalates until eventually shots are fired.
  • Someone shouts "Turks! Turks!" Both groups think the Ottomans are attacking and try to run away – it's enormously chaotic.
  • An officer shouts "Halt! Halt!" to try and restore order, but the troops (who are from a bunch of different countries and don't understand German) think they hear "Allah! Allah!" and the Ottomans are definitely attacking.
  • The hussars flee on horseback back through the main army camp. The General of Artillery thinks it's an Ottoman cavalry charge and orders the cannons to fire on them.
  • Entire army camp wakes up and goes into a terrified panic.
  • Holy Roman Emperor (head of the Habsburgs) orders the whole army to withdraw and get itself together.
  • Ottomans turn up two days later, discover only some dead and wounded Austrians and no army, and easily capture the city of Karánsebes.

Now you might say the Great Emu War is dumber than this, but at least the emus showed up.

[Did this really happen? Some of it is a bit too neat, too story-like – esp the Halt/Allah thing – which ought to make you suspicious. But Wikipedia reckons there are a lot of contemporary accounts of it (I can't read them because they're in German, French and Italian), so at the very least it's a story that sprang up at the time, rather than being internet-era misinfo. And certainly Karánsebes is a real city that the Turks captured in 1788 (you'd be amazed how many internet-era historical myths fall at 1-inch hurdles like that). My guess is: in broad strokes, yes; the specifics probably added for colour.]


Black tree monitor: prehensile tails! intelligent and social! perky goths!

black tree monitor
photo credit: Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
  • Live up in the trees of tropical forests and mangrove swamps in the Aru Islands (part of Indonesia)
  • Blend in with the shadows cast by dense leaves and branches
  • Use their tail as an extra limb
  • "High energy and very athletic"
  • Have complex social behaviours, are curious explorers
  • Smarter than most lizards (...who are not smart)
Most monitor lizards hunt with just their mouths. They will bite and shove their mouths into crevices, if necessary. If their mouths don’t fit, a lot of reptiles will sit there waiting for hours or keep trying and trying using their heads and mouths. But black tree monitors can problem solve. They will use their limbs to pull food out of a hole or crevice that their head is too wide to fit into.

Source: Q & A with Matt Evans, assistant curator of Reptile Discovery Center at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

black tree monitor
Look at that TAIL

PS in the course of looking into this, I found out there are tree-climbing porcupines with prehensile tails.


Water actually is blue. It looks blue because it's blue.

blue ocean panorama
pictured: blue

I always thought it was some sort of optical illusion. Or I think I've heard "because it reflects the sky". But no, it's just very very faintly tinged blue – so faintly that you can't see it in a glass of water, but can in several trillion litres of water.

The sky is blue due to Raleigh scattering (link but it's not that interesting), and I guess that's why people think the sea is too.

Cliff Jerrison tweets:

I love this particular fact because when you're a kid you believe it instinctually and use a blue crayon to depict water, then you grow up and learn better and understand "water is blue" is just a cultural convention, then much later you find out it was blue all along.

also I've seen it sort of gently couched like "because it transmits or reflects blue frequencies and absorbs others, water appears blue" like... that's what color is. that's how it usually works. this is not a special case.

A “Chinese Borges” spent a decade writing millions of words of fake Russian history on Wikipedia

A Chinese woman known as Zhemao used four sockpuppet accounts to create an elaborate, sprawling, imagined history of Russia across 206 articles on Chinese Wikipedia. She also contributed to hundreds of existing articles. She wove in her own narratives with real historical figures, and wrote it all in Wikipedia voice, with nothing outlandish that would flag as obviously fake, and thoroughly cited.

The Kashin Silver Mine [entry summarised by Sixth Tone]
Originally opened by the principality of Tver, an independent state from the 13th to 15th centuries, it grew to be one of the world’s biggest, a city-sized early modern industry worked by some 30,000 slaves and 10,000 freedmen. Its fabulous wealth made it a vital resource to the princes of Tver, but also tempted the powerful dukes of Moscow, who attempted to seize the mine in a series of wars that sprawled across the land that is now Russia from 1305 to 1485.

“After the fall of the Principality of Tver, it continued to be mined by the Grand Duchy of Moscow and its successor regime until the mine was closed in the mid-18th century due to being exhausted,” the entry said.

There has never been a silver mine at Kashin.

Map created by Zhemao for use in a hoax article on the (non-existent) 17th century Tatar Uprisings

She said she began writing legit articles using translation software to piece together info from original Russian sources, but had to invent details to fill in the gaps in the translation. Then she had to write more articles to fill in gaps created by the invented details, and it just kept building.

As the saying goes, in order to tell a lie, you must tell more lies. I was reluctant to delete the hundreds of thousands of words I wrote, but as a result, I wound up losing millions of words, and a circle of academic friends collapsed.
(from Zhemao's apology).

The thing is, it's hard not to be impressed?

She got away with it for so long partly because she wrote convincingly and sourced comprehensively, because it was vast and self-referential: the hoax articles all had dozens of sub-articles, cross-linked to each other, with dozens of legitimate articles linking back to them, and several different longstanding Wikipedia editors (all Zhemao) had contributed it.

People get suspicious when you get a detail they know wrong – not when you make up a detail altogether. Someone wrote in to correct me on referring to a narwhal's horn as its horn (it's actually a tooth), but if I'd said it was, say, a kashin's horn, I'd probably have got away with it. (Probably not if I'd referred to the 17th-century narwhal uprisings though.)

But I think she mostly got away with it due to 'refuge in audacity'. You might question whether the Battle of Karánsebes actually happened, or if it happened the way they said it did, but would you question whether the entire war between the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire happened? Who would try to fabricate something like that?

Anyway, I genuinely and earnestly wish her luck in her future endeavours.

adjacent to refuge in audacity, this quote from A Series of Unfortunate Events

When somebody is a little bit wrong – say, when a waiter puts nonfat milk in your espresso macchiato, instead of lowfat milk – it is often quite easy to explain to them how and why they are wrong.  But if somebody is surpassingly wrong – say, when a waiter bites your nose instead of taking your order – you can often be so surprised that you are unable to say anything at all.

Sometimes a person is so off-base that you don't know how you would even begin to explain to them how they are wrong; you would have to go so far back to the foundations of learning that they seem to have missed.

Unsolicited Advice

"Pearl Habits": Turn other people's irritating behaviours into your good habits

This is a technique from BJ Fogg's Tiny Habits (not the same thing as James Clear's Atomic Habits, and there's more to it than just "a habit that is tiny". There's a free 5-day email mini-course if you want to learn the method without buying the book.)

So using the Trigger – Action – Reward theory of habit formation, a tiny habit recipe might be "After [I get a drink of water], I will [do three bodyweight squats], then [take a moment to say "hey nice work, you did it" to myself]."

The hardest part is linking the habit to the trigger – it's really easy to forget, because you probably do the trigger on autopilot. (And that example might not work if you ever get a drink of water in the middle of the night. You don't want to do squats because it'll get your blood up, so now it's not an every time habit, so the link is intermittent.)

External irritations are never on autopilot, they always throw you out of what you're doing, that's why they're so irritating. That makes them a very effective trigger. So "When my housemate sniffs, I will..." or "When the smoke alarm in the corridor beeps, I will..."

Then for the habit, you choose something that makes you feel less annoyed. (Take 3 deep breaths, think of something you like about my housemate, clench your fists as hard as you can then relax them, look at a photo of your cat – whatever calms you, personally, down a bit, or changes your mode. I find deep breathing to be sensorily unpleasant, so I wouldn't choose that.)

The first benefit is that it's a powerful trigger that's easier to link to habit.

(Hence "pearl habits" – created by irritation. It's twee, I know, I didn't coin it.)

The second benefit is that you're following up something that makes your adrenaline spike with something that calms you down. Eventually, hopefully, your brain starts to develop a Pavlovian reaction, so when you hear your neighbour's car door slam, it no longer causes that spike. You can imagine if you ate a piece of candy every time your neighbour slammed their car door, you'd start to look forward to the sound. But deep breaths and neutral feelings will have to do if you don't want to have a bowl of candy within arm's reach at all times.

How to treat misophonia (hating certain sounds to the point of feeling completely crazy)

As you might have noticed from my examples, I have a misophonia problem – certain sounds make me feel irritated out of all proportion – so I've looked a bit into how that's treated. And the treatment is regrettably simple and challenging: you have to stop giving the annoying sound so much attention. When you hear a phone ring, you jump out of your chair and go find the phone, right? So your brain learns that the phone ring is important, actionable information, and it brings it to the foreground every time. If every time you hear a dripping tap, you stand up and go stare at the tap and think "uggghh why won't they fix it!!" then you're teaching your brain the same thing. If you want your brain to start fading a sound into the background, you have to respond in as chill a way as possible and take no physical action.

I've had only middling success with that technique for engrained sound-hatreds, but when I've heard a new sound that I can tell is going to become a Thing, I've been able to head it off.

E.g. a medication* I started causes tinnitus (hearing a ringing-ish sound) and I thought, "oh no, this could be really bad. An annoying sound that's in my own head." But I remembered to stay calm and not fixate on it. I just put on an audiobook and relaxed, and now it's fully backgrounded – I don't notice the sound unless I make an effort to listen out for it. Really dodged a bullet there. So yeah, try it with new sounds. Stay cool.

(* the medication is to treat a lack of tinnitus)

There's a 30-minute webinar recording on Pearl Habits at this link. She uses a bit of jargon from the Tiny Habits book/course though.

Pearl Habits: Creating positivity during challenging times - Tiny Habits
30-minute session taught by Linda Fogg-Phillips, M.S.


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