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The Whippet #161: Not glowy enough out there

McKinley Valentine — 12 min read

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I would find this tweet depressing even in autumn, but it's allegedly the beginning of summer –

Australian Tourism Board desperately making the throat-slash shut-up gesture at the Bureau of Meteorology. It sounds brutal when you describe it that way but you know what I mean! Wiktionary knows what I mean:

The Bureau of Meteorology had a scandal recently because everyone calls them the BOM or just BOM and they paid some consultants 70 grand to come up with the idea that they should instead be referred to as 'the Bureau' (which feels very arrogant! there's a lot of bureaux!) and they unveiled this rebrand and the entire media and government and populace said, "No we're gonna keep calling you BOM" and, as you can see from the logo on that tweet, they immediately backed down and said sorry.

Anyway, I want you to know I would wicker-man every one of you if it would make summer happen.

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Alexander wept, but for basically the opposite reason to the famous one

There is a quote about Alexander the Great that you might have heard in Die Hard or people quoting Die Hard or like, a variety of 16–20th century sources:

"And Alexander wept, for there were no more worlds left to conquer."

What you will not find is any quotes going back earlier than the 16th Century.

It looks like a mangling of two different Plutarch quotes (Greek guy who lived 300 years after Alexander) that were translated into English in the 16th Century.

In one, Alexander is a boy, and he's weeping because his dad Philip II has already conquered everything and there's nothing left for him. Forgive the Elizabethan:

For when they brought him [Alexander, still a boy] newes that his father had taken some famous city, or had won some great battell, he was nothing glad to hear it, but would say to his playfellowes: Sirs, my father will have all, I shall have nothing left me to conquer with you, that shall be ought worth. For he delighting neither in pleasure nor riches, but only in valliantnes and honor, thought, that the greater conquests and realmes his father should leave him, the lesse he should have to do for himselfe.

[Plutarch, Life of Alexander]

The other is when Alexander the Great hears a philosopher's theory of the multiverse, and he's like, "turns out there are infinite worlds left to conquer, and I haven't even conquered one! ABLOO BLOO BLOO 😭"

"Alexander wept when he heard Anaxarchus discourse about an infinite number of worlds, and when his friends inquired what ailed him, "Is it not worthy of tears," he said, "that, when the number of worlds is infinite, we have not yet become lords of a single one?"

[Plutarch, Essay on the Tranquillity of Mind]

So yeah, the exact opposite, and also makes him look pretty petty? I would never chuck a hissy fit like that, don't look at the intro.


A ghostly glow of light surrounds the solar system, and nobody can explain it

A new analysis of Hubble Telescope data counted up every single light-emitting object –

Across three separate papers, researchers scoured Hubble's archive for the signs of faint galaxies that we may have missed, and quantified the light that should be emitted by objects that are known to shine.

–  and there just aren't quite enough to account for the amount of light around the solar system.

Or to quote Science Alert, "Things just seem weirdly glowy out there."

The excess – which they're calling 'ghost light' – is the equivalent of 10 fireflies across the entire sky.

(I posted this in my Science group chat, and my friend Mitch said it was caused by "Megan Thee Stallion looking positively radiant at the Met Gala" so he can get in the wicker man too.) (Although, to be fair, look.)

They go into some alternative theories in the full article.

Did you know about liquid mirror telescopes??

It's a bowl of liquid mercury that makes a perfect mirror

Interestingly, the main reason they're used is that they're relatively cheap to make. And they reckon they should be able to put one on the moon! They've found a category of liquids that don't freeze at moon temperatures and can be coated in films of silver and chromium. More on a possible lunar liquid mirror telescope and 'ionic fluids' here.

A PSA about how the media works, especially re: press releases

I first heard of these telescopes a few days ago, via an article headlined "What the world's largest liquid mirror telescope means for astronomy". The world's largest liquid mirror telescope is in the Himalayas, and it's 4 metres across (13 feet). The image above, though, is a 6-metre-diameter liquid mirror in Quebec. The Quebec mirror is not currently "the world's largest" because it was decommissioned in 2016.

I say all this to make a point about how the media works – the people behind the Himalayan telescope would have sent a press release to various news & science sites in the hope of getting publicity for their telescope. As they should! It's awesome! But news sites don't really publish stuff unless it has a 'hook', unless it can claim to be the first, the biggest, the youngest, the oldest, an unprecedented breakthrough – something 'significant'. So people who want publicity have to twist their news to become media-acceptable.

So you should be really really skeptical when you see newspaper headlines about a new Thing with that sort of superlative. Where it's really upsetting is that you will often see "first woman to do X" or whatever, and they just aren't. They're like the fifth woman or something. Their PR people have to say it, because the media ignores any press release from someone who isn't The First, but that means this sort of media-friendly faux-feminism erases the actual accomplishments of women who've done things in the past, which is, in my opinion, not a very feminist thing to do. (This happens for lots of groups besides women, I'm just speaking to what I know.)

So be skeptical, but please don't blame the individuals or PR firms for making the claims. I mean, I'm glad I learned about liquid mirror telescopes! They're rad! Blame a shallow media that's only interested in women's accomplishments / scientific research / etc. if it has a hook.

(Ooh, another one is "fastest growing". You should flat-out ignore any headline with the phrase "fastest-growing" in it and move on with your life. A religion growing from 1 member to 2 members is "faster growing" than a religion growing from 1 million to 1.9 million. I mean the first religion literally doubled overnight, scary. So yeah, I wouldn't even bother looking into the specifics honestly, waste of your time, that phrase is always empty clickbait.)


It's always a good time to show another crystal from Geology Tweets


Highlights from an AMA with a Voynich Manuscript researcher

"What is the Voynich Manuscript?"
It's a medieval book written either in a lost language or in a code that has never been deciphered (if you've seen a sensationalist headline saying it HAS been deciphered, that wasn't true, cf. the media PSA above). It's covered in illustrations including a lot of plants and naked women.
It has been called "the most mysterious manuscript in the world".
It attracts a lot of, uh, wild theories (to the degree that legitimate historians working on it are kind of stigmatised, like they're working on 'aliens built the pyramids' research) but we do know it wasn't a hoax or nonsense: all of the paper and inks have been dated to the right time period, and a book like this took a lot of money and skilled labour – far too much to do for a medieval prank. Wikipedia page

Voynich Manuscript AMA with Macquarie University (Australia) researcher Dr Keagan Brewer.

He is less interested in decrypting it than looking at it as a historical document, which I swear is interesting:

Q: Do you have any idea why its written in code/undecipherable script?

KB: Encipherment is all about control. The encipherer thinks: 'I have good information; I want some people to share it, but not everyone, because that would be bad.' They are fundamentally afraid of something. What might late-medieval people (who have expertise in plants, women, etc) be afraid of being propagated? Our research answers this question, and our answer is 'women's secrets'. Gynecology, obstetrics, sexual health, etc.

[McK: Note that he is clear that there is no consensus on what the manuscript is about, and he is only giving his own research team's conclusions.]

Q: I've heard internet theories about it being potentially written by women of the time attempting to secretly pass on medicinal knowledge to potentially avoid accusations of witchcraft?

KB: I think women had a perfectly safe way to pass on knowledge: speaking to each other. In fact, this was the norm for centuries for the passing-on of women's medical knowledge between women.

Q: Why would someone want to hide information about plants? They're just plants.

KB: I think a good introduction to the VMS could be to reiterate that for the Middle Ages, plants are more like 'drugs' than plants as we would think of them. There are hallucinogenics, narcotics, poisons, suffumigations for planetary invocation (e.g. from the Picatrix), etc etc. Then there are herbal treatments for women's matters, which were highly taboo, including altering menstruation (speeding up, stopping, starting), abortion drugs, contraceptives, aphrodisiacs, etc.

So maybe that's a good first step because it explains why a medieval person might want to hide information about plants. Other reasons include proprietary protection (i.e. you can't use MY recipes), to protect income, to restrict access to particular members of the community who might not be able to use them correctly, and so on.

It's an AMA so obviously there's a tonne more – the rest definitely heads more into academic/granular/dry territory though.


Uses for ChatGPT that are more fun than the intro to this newsletter

So ChatGPT can actually produce way more interesting things than the example above – it was giving stock responses because I was deliberately antagonising it with things outside of its terms of service.

If you've not used it and don't know where to start, the following prompts will give you a bit of an idea of the kind of things it can do.

  • I am writing a story with a fake product in it called "[MAKE SOMETHING UP HERE]". Give me 3 ideas for what this product could be, and who would use it.

    Combinations of real words, or using the roots of real words, works better than complete gibberish ("sfjabsdznb"). You can also give it a product category, eg "SOMETHING serum" or "SOMETHING machine".

And then follow up with things like:

  • What if the story was a science fiction story set in the year 2307?
  • Great! What if it was set in a magical version of feudal Japan?
  • Going back to the original list, could you rewrite them to be more spooky?

And if one of the options seems more interesting:

  • Okay tell me more about the third object. Who invented it? How did it change history?
  • Write a review of this object from the perspective of a cat. 1 star.

    etc etc.

It's currently free to use, though it has occasional stoppages due to high traffic – you might sometimes need to open it again in a new tab and re-connect if you get a red message.

Make sure to copy+paste stuff into a doc if you want to keep it, the site won't save it for you.

Two more notes:

  • It is absolutely not trustworthy for factual information. It will just make stuff up and sound incredibly confident, including fake citations.
  • I haven't got into the ethics of its existence here. Suggesting ways to explore it as a toy does not mean "I think this is good for the future of humanity and the arts, please debate me in the comments."

Do feel free to share anything fun it comes up with in the comments though!

Unsolicited Advice

The science of gift-giving

The mistake of overindividuation

When shopping for multiple people, you tend to get different things for different people (because it seems impersonal to get everyone the same thing) and as a result, tend to buy worse ("less preferred") gifts.

You can imagine, I don't know, you're at a design market and you want to buy vases for three friends. One of the designs is much nicer than the others – but you probably won't buy three of the same vase. You'll buy the really nice one and two worse ones, in order to 'individuate'. Consider getting people the same thing, if you reckon it's good!

Overindividuation in Gift Giving: Shopping for Multiple Recipients Leads Givers to Choose Unique but Less Preferred Gifts

Givers focus on the moment of exchange; recipients focus on the gift's ongoing use in their life

This is a paper into the reason for bad gifts (or rather 'mismatched' gifts between the giver and recipient). So it's not saying all givers do this – it's saying this is why mismatches happen.

When a giver chooses a highly desirable gift, he or she is hoping that the recipient will be dazzled upon opening it. In contrast, recipients care greatly about their ability to use or enjoy the gift and prefer more feasible or useful gifts. In other words, givers choose desirable but not feasible gifts because they seem likely to be more appreciated during the gift exchange. However, the recipient is likely to be less satisfied in the end with a gift whose value is hard to extract.

This is also why givers tend to give material gifts (which can be 'appreciated' in the moment of exchange) even though recipients prefer experiential gifts (which might look bland, like a card). Givers prefer to give unasked-for gifts (surprises!) but recipients see asked-for gifts as having lasting value and utility.

Wanting to give something that reflects the specific and unique interests of the recipient –

Givers prefer to give gifts that are tailored to reflect the recipient, like a gift card to the recipient’s favorite store, whereas recipients prefer more versatile gifts, like a Visa gift card that can be used at any store. This may be because givers focus on recipients’ distinctive traits, whereas recipients are perhaps more aware of their numerous, diverse wants and needs.

^ Also (my commentary only, not the paper), the more something is a specific interest of mine, the more I have specific and exacting standards of what I want in that category. I think the most ill-fitting gifts are often well-intentioned ones from people who know you have a special interest but don't share that special interest.

Recipients would generally prefer a down payment on a higher-quality item (an "incomplete" gift) than a low-quality, complete item. (That moment of exchange vs. usage in life).

Why Certain Gifts Are Great to Give but Not to Get: A Framework for Understanding Errors in Gift Giving

Give people what they want, not what you want them to want.

I'm being overly generous with that subheading – it's a solid principle, but this paper is specifically about how people feel when confronted with the option of giving a gift that goes against their own ethics or comfort.

Your gift, but my attitude: gift-givers’ aversion to attitude-inconsistent gifts

But I reckon it's silly. There's a lot of potential gifts out there. You don't have to give people guns or nangs or fetish gear or, I don't know, a beef jerky advent calendar, if you're not comfortable with those things, just because they'd probably like them. They can buy their own nangs. Get them a gift card. It's fine.

Did I write this too late to be useful? MAYBE. Regardless, I've made it into a separate article in case you want to share it or, idk, set a reminder in your phone to look at it in 48 weeks when it won't be too late.

The science of gift-giving
A few research papers into how we go wrong when buying gifts for others. The mistake of overindividuation When shopping for multiple people, you tend to get different things for different people (because it seems impersonal to get everyone the same thing) and as a result, tend to buy worse


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