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The Whippet #159: The gem in the robe

McKinley Valentine — 11 min read

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Hello! Everyone's sense of time has been so badly mangled by the pandemic that I bet most people didn't notice, but just in case: this issue is indeed a week late, and I'm sorry about that! I just sort of needed to sleep for several days for some reason ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Miscellaneous wildlife news:

  • My local park has flooded and been occupied by pobblebonks, the actual real name of a species of frog. They're also called banjo frogs, because their call sounds like a banjo being plucked. You look out on a reed bed and it's a bunch of banjo plucks calling and response-ing to each other, pobblebonk pobblebonk pobblebonk. Short audio recording (not mine).
  • A bird has moved into some tree near my apartment, and its call sounds exactly like the slidewhistle at the start of Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, and as a result, the line "God said to Abraham, kill me a son" appears in my brain many many times per day. If anyone can tell me what that bird is (east coast Australia) I'd be very grateful.

    The elevator in my husband's apartment building announces itself with the exact opening notes of a Boards of Canada song.

    Please tell me if you are similarly hounded by the opening notes of songs. (It occurred to me typing that that Dylan and Boards of Canada are possibly our favourite artists respectively, so it's not a coincidence that's what we're hearing. I'll be interested to know if that pattern holds for other people.)

Lastly, in... very... technically wildlife news, this very charming and funny sketch: basically, what if your old northern Irish great uncle was Ash Ketchum and told slightly rambling stories about his days as a pokemon trainer. The comedian had a guest appearance on Derry Girls – if that means anything to you, you'll like the clip. Watch here.

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'Brocken spectres': Honestly, no wonder people believe in the supernatural

A Brocken spectre or mountain spectre is when your shadow is projected onto fog/mist, making it look like a shadowy spectre walking alongside you.

This makes me think of Ged's shadow in A Wizard of Earthsea

(The Brocken is a mountain peak in Germany where it's common to see Brocken spectres. They're typically seen when you walk on mountains above the cloudline.)

It can be much larger than a person (as shadows often are) and is often surrounded by 'glory rings' – the rainbow caused by light hitting the waterdrops. There's a faint one in the video above.

That video is eerie because you can watch the spectre moving, but there's some even more spectacular still images:

Photo taken by Iain Weir in the Cuillin Hills mountain range in Scotland

I just reckon if you saw that, and you didn't have access to modern knowledge of optics, it'd be weirder not to believe in apparitions/angels/etc? Very reasonable conclusion to draw?

PS sorry if Brocken spectres are well known; Australia's tallest mountain is only ~2000 metres / 7000 feet so it's not my fault I'm ignorant. Look, this is how far down Wikipedia's "List of mountains by elevation" page our tallest mountain is:

poor tiny Kosciusko

and while you might think, "well, it's pretty far down, but there's a lot of mountains below it, too!", bad news, the mountain at the bottom of the list is only 3.6 metres / 12 feet high.

I have no idea what's going on with the bottom of this list, how these qualify as mountains, or why the one marked 'smallest mountain' is the fourth smallest mountain. But we can at least agree that "Mount Witchproof" is an amazing name, if perhaps tempting fate.

You wouldn't localise a book just by doing a find + replace to turn all US words into British words, would you?

You know how in British English, "pants" means "underwear"? You have to say "trousers" if you don't want to accidentally leave your characters undressed?

Author Aprilynne Pike:

My British publisher replaced pants with trousers and the book WENT TO PRINT with the word occutrousers.

Lyrebird imitating a fire drill: "evacuate now"

If you've never heard a lyrebird before, they are almost impossible to believe. They don't sound like a parrot using human words. They sound like a recording. In fact, this sounds exactly like the voice I hear in my apartment building when they test the fire alarm system, it's the same dude.

PS if you've really never heard a lyrebird before, go watch this famous David Attenborough clip.

You may have seen this shared in relation to the lions that broke out of their enclosure recently – in fact the lyrebird has been imitating the fire alarm test for a while. A clue is that it says "evacuate now" – during the lion escape, they locked the zoo down and had everyone stay indoors.

I tried to look into why and how they're such good mimics, but there isn't a clear reason. Their songs are complicated and made up of their own tunes combined with parts of other birds' songs, possum calls, etc. Physically, they have a slightly simpler vocal chord structure than other birds. I mean, they sing for the same reason other birds do, courtship, territory-claiming, and so on, but why so talented? How so talented? It's just not known.

PS don't worry about the lions, no one got hurt, the lions were returned without being harmed.

The zoo later on Wednesday said an “integrity issue” led to the lions escaping.

They gave their word they wouldn't escape.


Cybernetics has the same root word as 'gubernatorial'

meaning "related to governors" and only used in the US as far as I know. Other places just use "governor" as an adjectival noun. Like how you can say "tomato soup" or "coffee table" – the nouns 'tomato' and 'coffee' are functioning as adjectives, we don't need to say "tomatovial soup" or "cofferian table".


It helps to understand that ancient Greek doesn't really have the letter C, so if you see a C in a greek-based word, it's really a K. And then "Y" or ypsilon in early Greek is also pronounced "oopsilon". So cybernetics = kubernetics, which is a lot closer to gubernatorial.

The Greek kybernan meant "to steer a ship" which is a metaphor for governing, and from there you get [bad, incorrect definition, but you get the gist:] robots that steer themselves.

The technical meaning of cybernetics is quite specific and can just be a little system, not a whole robot (roughly, it's something with a feedback loop, that adjusts itself based on input it receives, like how someone steering a ship adjusts their course, looks at the result that has, and makes more adjustments) but people use it incredibly broadly to mean anything sort of computery-robotsy and you honestly don't need to understand the technical meaning. If you want to see how broad its usage has gotten, look at just the table of contents for its wikipedia page.

cybernetic governors by DALL-E

Test your facial recognition abilities! Maybe you have secret superpowers!

The University of New South Wales developed a test to try and find super-recognisers (for a TV show that I haven't watched), but you can also use it to confirm your suspicions that you're terrible with faces!

via UNSW, non-scribbled on image here. Graph is from when only the first 400 people have taken it; many more have now.

The test is very hard – even the top performer, a real outlier, only got 78% right. You're comparing different photos of the same people, and people can look shockingly different even when shot passport-style.

The same woman shot on the same day in the same studio (via UNSW). 

Anyway here's the test! You'll need to be on laptop/desktop, as they remind you approximately 4000 times.

UNSW Face Test
Are you a super-recogniser? Take our challenging test to find out if you are one of a small proportion of people with exceptional abilities in identifying faces.

and a blog post with more info on both this study and the researchers' previous work on facial recognition – e.g. they tested passport officers specifically, in conditions that mimic passport control, and found that their experience didn't make them any better at it (link to study).

Unsolicited Advice

Talk to your co-workers if you're struggling, or, the time I made my life a lot harder than it had to be for no reason

So I've been on a short-term writing contract the past few months, and I was really struggling – I felt like I was going way slower than I should be, way slower than everyone else, and that I was probably never going to be re-hired for future contracts. I was secretly working on the weekends to keep up with the other writers – I didn't want them to know I was falling so far behind.

The contract finished, and at goodbye drinks, I spoke to some of the other contractors. It turns out we were all panicking about working too slow, all secretly doing extra work on weekends, all convinced we were seconds from getting fired.

I want to make really clear that this wasn't management's fault – they can't fix a workload problem if their staff hides it from them. But no one told them because we each independently thought it was something wrong with us, and we didn't want anyone to find out. Please interpret this post as one giant facepalm emoji.

In my case, we could have told our boss, and something would very likely have been done to ease our workload, or at the very least they would have reassured us we weren't going to get fired. Maybe in your case, your bosses are bad and you really should not tell them if you're having difficulties.

But at least talk to your co-workers. Can you imagine how much better I would have felt if I'd known it wasn't just me, that others found it just as challenging?


A Buddhist parable that I think about a lot

So there's a very poor man who visits his rich friend, they get drunk and pass out. The rich man wakes up early and has to rush out on business, but he wants to help his friend out, so before he leaves, he sews an incredibly valuable jewel into the lining of his friend's robe where it won't get lost.

The poor man wakes up in the morning, has no idea the jewel is there, and goes about his life in poverty and hardship and struggle, until eventually he runs into the rich friend again, who's like "waaaa why are you living like this, I gave you that jewel, you've been very rich this whole time."

Buddhism-wise, the jewel is the teachings of Buddha, the poor man is a disciple who heard the teachings from Buddha but didn't really let them sink in, so is going around suffering needless hardship because he doesn't realise he has the tools to escape suffering the whole time. (If I'm misrepresenting this parable I'm sorry! Doin my best.)

Mainly I find it a compelling image, the priceless jewel in the lining of your robe that you're walking around ignorant of. It came to mind now because of the above situation re: pointless hardship and just talk to your goddamn co-workers. The real jewel was the co-workers we sewed into our robes along the way. You get it.


Below are a couple of inside-basebally notes on newsletter platforms, substack etc. If you think you don't care about that, you're probably right – I would stop reading here <3

The four of you turn face the giant Cybersaur T-  Rex. You battle bravely but there is little you can do  to damage if. One by one. you are crushed by its jaws  or shredded by the talons, only you are left. You  try to escape, but it pins your legs beneath one foot  and bites you in two. Your adventure ends here.
from YOU CHOSE WRONG, a collection of the bad endings from Choose Your Own Adventure books

Substack is fine, okay?
So a friend recently told me apologetically that she'd started a substack, expecting me to be disappointed in her, which ahhh I didn't love that I'd made people worry about my reaction like that! made me think "ah jeez I might have gone a bit harder than I meant to on that". Don't get me wrong, Substack are shitty people who've done some incredibly shitty things, but I use twitter! I've got no moral high ground here!

And while I did leave for ethical reasons, it was kind of... self-interestedly so? I mean, it was less "I am taking a stand against substack, that is the right thing to do", and more "It is way too stressful getting angry at them all the time and worrying about what garbage thing they're going to do next." I left so I wouldn't have to feel stressed and mad about it. Again, no moral high ground.

Ghost is a great platform, but it's not as immediately user-friendly as substack, and it took a lot of work for me to set up. If you just want to experiment with a newsletter, and especially if it's just a little add-on to your music/visual art/novel-writing, you'd want to choose a platform that's free and very easy to get started on. Substack-the-company are terrible, but substack-the-service is pretty good, and I'm not judging people for using it.

And if I was judging people – there's a huge difference in moral responsibility between small-potatoes writers and a big name columnist who's bringing along a massive new audience to the platform. It's not a purity test (have you been tainted by substack?), it's about impact.

Okay but I do get to be smug about this:
Sometimes people ask me for my thoughts on a newsletter platform they're interested in (sometimes, neither substack nor ghost is the best option). New platforms are popping up all the time, so I'm not necessarily across all of them. But here's one piece of advice I've always given:

Don't use Facebook or Twitter's newsletter platforms (Bulletin and Revue, respectively). Or the newsletter service that comes with your website, squarespace or whatever. I don't need to know a single thing about the platforms to know it's a bad idea, because it's a spin-off from their core service and social media companies are always trying to spin off copies of other companies' services, and they always view them as expendable and drop them when they're not rapidly profitable.

Anyway Bulletin and Revue have both been marked for death recently, proving me correct, so I can claw back some of my righteous vindication on that.

Okay bye for real now.

59  The Hag laughs as she watches you in the throes of your nightmare. Then from out of her clothing she  pulls a dagger with a long shimmering blade. You  are helpless and unable to stop her plunging the dagger into your chest. Tonight her stew-pot will contain more than rat meat. Your adventure ends  here.

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