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I'll be writing to you from Sydney for the next few months, which is not a terribly glamorous re-location, but it is a warm one, like "mistake to pack a jacket" warm💛☀️
I'm doing research for a new ABC* show called WTFAQ? (what the faq, you get it), where we answer viewer questions with fact-based investigative segments presented by comedians. It's fun! I'm partly researching questions directly and partly emailing strangers to say "can we interview you about the thing you're a professor of?" and "can we use your MRI machine?"
* Australia's BBC
If you have any questions for TV, feel free to send them to me and I'll pass them on. We might do them! Also feel free to tell me if you know about any neat things to do in Sydney, or any poorly secured MRI facilities.*
* statement does not represent the views of my employer
Oldest known sentence written in first alphabet discovered
This is a double-sided ivory lice comb, ie this:
It was made ~1700 BCE by a Bronze Age Canaanite. The writing is a wish: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”
(Tusk because it's made of ivory)
Microscopic study turned up the "tough outer membranes of half millimetre-long nymph stages of head lice" between the comb's teeth, so I guess the inscription worked. [Source: The Guardian]
(Note this is not the oldest known written sentence ever, it is the oldest known sentence written in the first alphabet.)
"The world’s first writing systems originated in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3200 BCE, but these were not alphabetic. They relied on hundreds of different signs to represent words or syllables and as such required years to master."
Jason Limon: Otherworldly paintings trap skeletons in perpetually bizarre and eerie situations
In his ongoing Fragments series, San Antonio-based artist Jason Limon uses muted jewel and earth tones to paint uncanny scenarios for his recurring skeleton figure. The bony subject finds itself in a variety of bizarre situations, whether bursting from a tube of paint, orchestrating a puppet show with a pair of ornate paper hands, or nervously awaiting an encroaching fire. Often set against backdrops filled with multi-colored dabs of paint, his small pieces are imbued with a sense of creative problem-solving as he traps figures in scenes with boxes of pencils, scuffed erasers, and other craft supplies. [Colossal]
You really feel for the little guy imo!
He has prints (and tshirts etc.) for sale here.
Vulture bees prefer rotting flesh to flowers
These tropical stingless bees have evolved an extra tooth for cutting meat and in one experiment "reduced two frogs to skeletons in six hours".
Most bees have saddle bag–like structures on their legs for carrying pollen, but vulture bees have much smaller leg baskets, which they use for carrying meat back to their hives. ("They had little chicken baskets,” said Quinn McFrederick, a UCR entomologist.") To gather their hauls, vulture bees have a unique set of teeth they use to slice bits of meat. Once in the hive, the vulture bees store the meat chunks in small wax pots, leave them there for two weeks to cure, and then feed it to their larvae.
The entomologists are excited because the vulture bees have a unique-to-bees gut biome that lets them eat rotting meat without getting sick, with the same bacteria that hyenas have.
I know what you're thinking: do they make meat honey? The answer is: uh, conflicting sources? Wikipedia reckons No: the meat pots are just stored near the honey and occasional contact makes people think the honey is made of meat. "The actual honey is of unknown, controversial, or poorly documented origin. " What?? The bees have honey but Wikipedia reckons people don't know where they get it from ????
Wait I think I see what's going on. They're saying the meat slurry pots are not the same thing as the honey – they don't literally convert the meat into honey, in the same way that I don't make hair by cutting chicken breast into ribbons and putting it on my head. But I still sort of "make meat hair" by eating chicken, disassembling the proteins, reassembling them into hair proteins and extruding them from my head.
It's not called honey because they make it from the same gland in their head that normal bees use to make royal jelly (I didn't know bees made royal jelly from a different gland to their honey-making gland). And it's not sweet, because it's made out of meat proteins, not pollen sugars. Its flavour is "intense, smokey, and salty". I'm sorry, but I'm calling that meat honey.
You shouldn't eat the meat honey because the bees don't make extra the way honeybees do. They need it for themselves.
"Although it felt more like bereavement for a person than the loss of a thing, the death of a pet isn’t exactly like either."
This piece on our relationship to animals (brought up by the death of the author's cat) is fascinating and moving.
It finds the points of tension between "pets as children" and "pets as possessions" and shows that neither really covers it. It's very heavy on reason and logic, but it doesn't shut emotion out of it, because emotion is part of the story too.
It winds into a lot of areas, and is well worth reading in full, but here are two of the ideas I was most interested in: a) 'stewardship' as the right term for the relationship, and b) pets' lives being distinct from humans because they live in the moment – they don't have past wrongs they dwell on, or ambitions for the future, or plans carried out over multiple days ("Pixel never had a single project in his life").
(The following quotes make up about 10% of the whole essay. If you find yourself disagreeing, please read the whole thing before being mad at the author, because I've had to remove heaps of context.)
We are not ‘pet parents’, companions or owners, but we are their keepers. A cat or a dog is not a piece of property that we can use as we wish. But nor is it another member of the family, or a being that has chosen to be our friend. It is an animal that we have taken stewardship of, enjoying what it offers us, and treating it with respect and care in return.
Importantly, this relationship is entirely asymmetric. We loved our cat but it would be stretching it to say he loved us. Pixel sought out our company when it suited him and didn’t seem to miss it when we went away. He was very happy to take advantage of a warm lap but never as a favour to us who liked to stroke him. He had no responsibility at all for our wellbeing while we had total responsibility for his.
Every living creature is different and occupies its own place in the web of interdependence. To think of them all as friends and family would be naive and romantic. To recognise the value of nonhuman life for what it is requires acknowledging its real difference.
The argument that other animals are sentient and intelligent and that therefore we have a moral duty to consider their interests is unanswerable [cannot be disagreed with]. However, that does not mean we should treat them exactly as we do other humans. Morality requires us to treat others according to their own natures and circumstances, not identically. So we should resist the temptation to replace an unwarranted anthropocentrism with a misguided anthropomorphism. Like us, animals have thoughts and feelings, but it does not follow that they have thoughts and feelings just like ours.
On how pets' experience of life is different from ours:
We have no reason at all to think that our pets have the core human capacity to see their lives as an unfolding narrative, with plans for the future and a story to tell of their pasts. Pixel never had a single project in his life, an activity that required more than one session working at it to complete. He had only tasks: catch a mouse, eat, open the door, sharpen his claws on our furniture, curl up in any empty cardboard box left open.
[Yes, dogs might keep digging a hole bigger every day, but that's not a multi-stage project, it's the same situation triggering in them the same idea that it would be good to dig, every day]
While the death of an animal can be a reasonable source of deep sadness, it should not be considered a terrible event for the animal itself. That prized and celebrated ability to be entirely in the moment means the animal has not been deprived of an anticipated future. It has no dreams unfulfilled, no scores unsettled, no wrongs left to right. It was granted a finite time on Earth, and that going well is the best an animal could hope for. Exactly how many good moments it has is of little or no importance. More days means more of the same. The total quantity of pleasure it would have experienced may have increased but the overall quality of the life as a whole would not alter.
With humans, it is different. An extra year, or even month or week, can be the difference between seeing your grandchild or not, finishing a book or not, seeing a new city or not. We might also do a cherished thing one more time, experiencing it in a different way, knowing we are doing it for the last time. A human can treasure the bittersweet feeling of a last look over a favourite view, a final cigar, a parting hug. Again, it is through a temporal lens that the differences between our lives and the lives of our pets is most apparent.
I think the writer does a good job of saying that treating an animal as different doesn't mean treating it as lesser, but people got mad at him anyway. How you can read this next paragraph and think the owner is dismissive of the value of a pet's life is beyond me.
Pixel may have had no plans or ambitions, and was mercifully oblivious to the fact he was going to die. Yet there is something remarkable about any even moderately complex sentient life, which makes its passing poignant. It is wondrous to be alive, and in our pets we see lives that are wonderful in ways we can only vaguely imagine. For such a life to be snuffed out is a real cause for sadness. Something beautiful and unique is removed from the world.
People also got mad at the idea that it's normal and healthy to value human lives more than animal lives, but very few of them would actually struggle to decide whether to save a hamster or a child from a burning building – they just aren't in that situation and so don't have to face their own true beliefs.
The only part where I disagree with the writer is the distinction they make between dogs and cats (that cats have less of an attachment to their keepers), but that doesn't need to be true for his arguments to stand – you just apply everything he says about dogs equally to cats.
"I don't like [genre] except for [one specific book]"
I want to get mildly topical and took about a tweet that's been doing the rounds:
I'm not gonna dunk on it because a) it speaks for itself and b) I have a specific point I'm getting to.
and this quote from crypto fraud (but I repeat myself) Sam Bankman-Fried:
“I would never read a book. I’m very skeptical of books. I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that. I think, if you wrote a book, you fucked up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.”
I'll just give you a minute to feel annoyed because again I have a specific point beyond "oh my god, this fucking guy".
Okay. Here's the thing about those quotes, and similar stuff from tech bros: these people never read fiction.
When they say "book", they mean productivity, business etc. books, Atomic Habits or Stoicism for Bros, because that's all the books constantly on the recommendation lists of all their peers (some of which have good ideas in them, to be clear, I'm not criticising any one book). Due to my interest in productivity, I sometimes see the reading lists of tech bros, and they're all slightly rearranged copies of each other.
That genre of books can be turned into RSA Animate videos without serious loss of meaning, and the prose style is bare bones and usually anecdotes about someone who did the method and changed their life, all of which could be cut. When you're talking solely about those books, "it should have been a six-paragraph blog post" is not wildly wrong. He is just not aware that 'books' means something else to a lot of other people.
The funny/sad thing about those productivity tech bro reading lists, they're always like "I don't see the point of fiction, except for [Catcher in the Rye] and [Fight Club], which are incredibly powerful and relevant" or Kurt Vonnegut or Stephen King or some such (again, not criticising the books themselves). And those two fiction books on the list are inevitably the only fiction books they've ever read – they're the two fiction books that someone convinced them to read or they perceived as Art of Manliness enough.
In other words, they've loved every fiction book they've ever read, but they still think they don't like fiction.
You see this a lot with fiction readers and specific genres: "I don't like science fiction, except for [the only science fiction book I've read]" or whatever.
They haven't tried other books in the genre and disliked them, they just haven't found the cover/blurb appealing and think they wouldn't like them.
And that's kind of a tragedy, right?
So my Unsolicited Advice is to think about if there's anything where you say "I don't like [genre] except for [one or two books]" and whether you've actually tried other books in that genre.
(Hopefully everyone already knows not it's silly to say "I don't like [genre I've never read at all]." Note: I'm not saying you have to try and read, say, a horror novel if you don't want to! You just can't say you don't like them if you haven't, only that you think you wouldn't like them and it's not a priority to test the hypothesis.)
You get this with other media too, but less so with music, because you usually have heard more than one song in music genres you don't like, via background radio or playing at someone else's house, and people tend to get dragged along to movies they're not super-interested in in a way they don't to books.
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