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The Whippet #155: Do spiders dream of electric flies?

McKinley Valentine — 8 min read

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I realised the other day that the invention of sliced bread is actually the invention of (a specific type of) preservatives. That is: pre-slicing bread is simple, but preservative-free bread goes stale really fast once you slice it. No one wants to buy a loaf of bread with a 1-day expiration date. Only once we could keep bread going stale was it worth pre-slicing. (I guess that's probably when they invented soft crusts, as well, when the crusts no longer had to keep the bread fresh? [citation needed])

The invention of the wheel is the same – wheels are easy to think of, it's the axle that was the game-changer.

Is there anything else like that? Where there's a significant invention, but it's not the thing itself that's innovative, it's some other enabling factor?

Please tell me if you can think of something!

(You can make a button say anything you like! They can't stop you! The real advantage of Ghost over Substack.)

P.S. Here is a recipe for stale-bread soup that is incredibly delicious and pretty easy to make (of course, you have to buy the fancy kind of bread that goes stale instead of mouldy). It sounds insane but stale bread is basically just a carb that soaks up the delicious soup flavour and thickens it.

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Nepotism for your nep-hews

Nepotism originally comes from the word nephew – specifically, from popes elevating their nephews to the position of Cardinal. They did it so much that Cardinal-Nephew has a separate Wikipedia page. (It was banned in 1662 by a pope who presumably had no nephews and was jealous.)

They were nephews so much because popes aren't supposed to have sons, although according to etymonline, "nephew" was often a euphemism for "son I have to pretend isn't my son".

Pietro Ottoboni, the last holder of the post of Cardinal Nephew (1689), painted by Francesco Trevisani
Pietro Ottoboni, the last holder of the post of Cardinal Nephew (1689), painted by Francesco Trevisani. His intense Large Adult Son vibes are evidence enough for me.

The practice was criticised at the time in a publication with the charmingly thorough title "Papal Nepotism, or the True Relation of the Reasons Which Impel the Popes to make their Nephews Powerful" by Gregorio Leti – Leti had the distinction of having every single one of his publications in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Church's list of heretical and immoral books.

I read Leti's bio and he spent a fair chunk of his youth trying to avoid being pushed into a law career by his uncle, so I can't help wondering if he had personal reasons for being so anti uncles-getting-their-nephews-jobs.

Speaking of thorough titles, historians later found a document about Cardinal-Nephews in the Church's archives called "Instructions to the Chief Cardinal on how to Create a Faction of Cardinals with all the Requisites for the Establishment of his Grandeur". Must have been easier to be a detective in those days, everyone writing leaflets titled "Plans I Have to Rob Banks and Steal all of their Gold, and Where I Will Hide the Stolen Gold Once I Have It".


Spiders (probably) experience dreams while asleep

Jumping spider asleep and dreaming (probably)
jumping spider (E arcuata) exhibits leg curling during an REM sleep-like state. Photograph: Daniela C Roessler/AP

A team of researchers from the US, Germany and Italy used infrared cameras to watch jumping spiders at night and saw “periodic bouts of retinal movements coupled with limb twitching and stereotyped leg curling” – in other words, they behaved like any other dreaming animal. “They were just uncontrollably twitching in a way that really looked a lot like when dogs or cats dream and have their little REM phases,” biologist and lead researcher Daniela Rößler said.

There is abundant evidence for REM sleep or an analogous state in many mammals and birds. Scientists have also found something similar in two reptile species and hints of a state like it in zebra fish. Both octopuses and cuttlefish appear to have an REM phase, complete with eye movements, arm twitches, and rapid skin color and texture changes that resemble displays they perform when awake. (Scientific American)

Lisa Taylor, an entomologist from Florida:

“[Jumping spiders] are very active in the day, they’re constantly moving, constantly getting information from their eyes, they also have tiny hairs around their bodies, and pick up vibrations and can hear.

So there’s a lot of cool stuff going on in their brains, then they climb into their little silk nests at night. They have to process all this information, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they might be doing something like that at night.” (The Guardian)

Most spiders have fixed retinas, but jumping spiders have telescope tube eyes that they can move about to look at different things – relevant because you can't do Rapid Eye Movements if you can't move your eyes. Rößler said other spiders might experience dreams as vibrations (because sensing insects walking on their web is so important to them).

I'm 100% on board the "spiders have dreams" train, but obviously this is only preliminary work. Hilarious caveat: "The researchers stress that before they can address whether spiders have dreams, they first must prove they are actually sleeping."


Okay, but I'm mad about it


A journalist asks some zoologists "Would it really work to punch a lion in the face?"

(Apparently Idris Elba punches a lion in the face in The Beast.)

One of my favourite things is when people ask scientists a ridiculous question, but the scientists give it a serious and considered answer, and you learn a bunch of interesting stuff along the way.

In this Slate piece, the relevant scientists said you could not punch a lion without getting killed, but they gave the journo a list of cats ranked according to punchability:

After conferring with her colleagues, Borrego responded with a detailed list: housecats, sand cats, and black-footed cats are in the category of “adorable and punchable with minimal risk.” (Unfortunately, sand cats and black-footed cats really are adorable, so I don’t even have the emotional strength to punch them.) Bobcats, servals, and caracals are the largest punchable cats, but they’re “feisty” and so you would “walk away with some serious injuries.”

The cheetah was where the line got blurry. While Borrego’s team was divided between death and seriously-injured-but-alive, Maruping-Mzileni thought a cheetah fell into the punchable category, thanks to its skittish nature.

Anything larger than that? Cougar, leopard, jaguar, tiger?

“Death. 0/10 do not recommend punching these cats. If you live, it is because the cat was too astounded at your audacity.”

The full article has a bunch more stuff on lion behaviour and is a delight:

Would It Really Work to Punch a Lion in the Face? What If You’re Idris Elba?
We asked some appalled zoologists.

Iron fence being cast

It's just very pretty and arcane.

Unsolicited Advice

Page-load distraction! Aha!

A tiny thing, but it helped me. Someone mentioned that one of the many distraction traps – risky moments, I guess, for when you're trying to focus – is when a webpage (that you're supposed to be looking at) is loading. Because if takes basically any time at all, I alt-tab automatically out of boredom and look at something else. I didn't even really realise I was doing this until I read about it. And of course once you're on the new tab, there's all kinds of reasons you might not instantly go back to your intended tab once it's loaded.

Fix 1: Honestly just knowing you do it helps a lot. Because you CAN tolerate 2 seconds of boredom, you don't really need strategies to make that 2 seconds fascinating, you just need to go "page loading I will stare at the boring page and not alt-tab away / look at my phone, great it's done".

Fix 2: Keep a fidget toy near your computer. (Or hair band or clicky-pen or whatever.)

Not advice

In Zoom meetings, as a form of fidget toy, I will sometimes just like, re-size the Zoom window in and out a bunch, with the mouse arrow on one corner of the window, you know, tall rectangle - wide rectangle - square. Or any other windows open on my desktop. It's just something to do with my hands while I'm listening.

So a few months back in a quiet serious, professional-vibes workplace, I was screensharing to be like, "here is my strategy for what you should publish next and my good reasons for it" and that was all fine but then people asked follow-up questions and I started doing the window-resizing thing while I was still screen-sharing and didn't realise till the end of the meeting.

They didn't say anything; I have no idea what they thought.* There's worse faux pas to make, but I would like to have not made this one please 🙏

* For anyone completely terrified of making work faux pas: if I'm honest and clear-eyed, I got positive feedback on the project and no one said I was a window-resizing maniac. That makes it a less compelling story than if I framed it as the most important meeting of my career, said I had embarrassing tabs open in my browser, that everyone reacted badly – exaggerated the highs and lows, etc. But I think it's worth passing on the fact that most faux pas are forgettable (by the witnesses) and have no consequences beyond personal embarrassment.


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