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The Whippet #168: An indulgent loss of focus

McKinley Valentine — 10 min read

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Good morning, coming in with a gazpacho-cold take on the Discourse of three weeks ago:

That Brandon Sanderson profile in Wired.

(New readers: scroll to the newspaper icon if you don't care)

Brandon Sanderson is an incredibly successful and wealthy fantasy writer. A journalist from Wired mag (Jason Kehe) wrote a 4000-word profile piece on him that was weirdly mean. Lines include "When I eventually meet him in person [...] I find Sanderson depressingly, story-killingly lame."

"Sanderson talks a lot, but almost none of it is usable, quotable."

"He sits across from me in an empty restaurant, kind of lordly and sure of his insights, in a graphic T-shirt and ill-fitting blazer, which he says he wears because it makes him look professorial. It doesn’t. He isn’t."

[Has this journalist never met a 30+ male nerd? Graphic tee + blazer is the standard uniform of nerds who suddenly realise they have to dress professionally and don't totally know how. And most people talk like they believe what they're saying ("sure of their insights"), that's just talking.]

So look, I don't really care if someone takes potshots at Sanderson – he's wealthy and beloved, he can handle it.

And I have zero time for the responses of, "How dare you say he's a bad writer when he has so many fans?!" Lots of bad stuff has fans! If you interpret criticism of your favourite artist as a personal insult, that's a "you and your therapist" problem.

But I'm professionally offended that Kehe could spend four days interviewing a person and not find anything interesting to say about that person. (He complains throughout that he's panicking about writing the article because there's nothing interesting about Sanderson's life or words.)

I write questions for a quiz show where each contestant chooses their own expert topic; my job could fairly be described as "research an assigned topic for four days and find 10-15 interesting things about it". No matter how boring a topic seems at first, I always, always end up fascinated by it at the end, or at least by parts of it. (Thanks to one contestant, I am now, against my will, sort of a fan of the movie Joe Dirt.)

If this was just a boring interview, I wouldn't blame Kehe. We've all turned in subpar work at times. But it's such a self-own to declare out loud "I couldn't find anything interesting to say about the topic." That's your failure, not Sanderson's! You're publicly announcing that you're bad at your job!

"Anything is interesting if you dig deep enough, observe it from the correct angle, or talk to the right enthusiast."
– Jason Kottke (from his AMA)

I think that "if you dig deep enough" point is important. For example, at one point Kehe says that Sanderson has a condition called graphomania – "the constant compulsion to get words out, down, as much and as quickly as possible." But he doesn't seem to have asked any follow-up questions.

I know graphomania is interesting, because I read a whole book about it (The Midnight Disease by Alice Flaherty – partly about her personal experience of having graphomania and partly about the neuroscience of writing. I recommend it).

There's a tonne of that throughout the piece – not digging into anything.

Okay, main point over, this is a bit in the weeds sorry –

So the structure of the Wired piece builds up to one line from Sanderson,

Because, you see, Sanderson actually did say one thing to me, one miraculous thing, that stuck, that I remember, these five months later, with perfect clarity. Just seven words, but true ones. You’re not ready for them just yet.

The seven words, which I think you are ready for, are “As I build books, God builds people.”

The trouble with all the build-up to this is, it's a very normal opinion for a Christian fantasy writer to hold.  

JRR Tolkien had a concept called "subcreation". Roughly, that god is a maker, and since god made man in his image, man is a maker too. That when a writer creates a 'second world' (like Middle Earth) they are acting as a subcreator, they are participating in god's work of making. ("We make still by the law in which we're made.")

Kehe's take-away was "Sanderson thinks he's a god".

Which like, okay? Pretty uncharitable? But also it's the end of the analysis. Sanderson almost certainly knows about Tolkien's theory (he writes epic fantasy, the subgenre most directly developed from Lord of the Rings). Surely there are more questions about how Sanderson's Mormonism interacts with his writing, and how he compares it to Tolkien and his Catholicism. Dig deeper!

(FYI I wouldn't expect anyone reading this* to be across Tolkien's idea of subcreation, I don't think this is common knowledge or anything – but a journalist who's read 17 of Sanderson's books, who specifically requested this interview subject, who had time to do research before, during and after the interview? Absolute I expect it)

* except Matt Mikalatos, sorry to call you out. Everyone go read his insightful and surprisingly emotional Narnia deep dive on Tor. This is the one that hooked me: On Grief, Joy, and Saying Goodbye: Reepicheep and Aslan’s Country.

'Articles' icon

What rhythm does throbbing pain follow?

We don't know, but it's not your heartbeat or pulse!

A 2012 study looked at the throbbing rate of 29 dental patients’ pain, as recorded by patients pushing a button every time they felt a painful throb, compared to their arterial pulse measured in their earlobes. The mean arterial pulse rate was 73 beats per minute (bpm), compared to a throbbing pain rate of just 44 bpm. Researchers further analyzed the simultaneous recordings and found that the two rhythms weren’t synchronous in any way. (McGill)
Is There a Relationship between Throbbing Pain and Arterial Pulsations?
Pain can have a throbbing quality, especially when it is severe and disabling. It is widely held that this throbbing quality is a primary sensation of one’s own arterial pulsations, arising directly from the activation of localized pain-sensory neurons…

I super thought it was synced to my pulse, despite having a 'normal' throbbing pain tempo and the heartrate of a neurotic sparrow.


I am being so restrained only putting three Asher Perlman cartoons in

See more on the media tab of Asher Perlman's twitter or I guess in the New Yorker?


Why isn't October the 8th month? Not for the reason you think!

As many people know, the back four months of our calendar are effectively numbered:
September - Seventh Month
October - Eight Month
November - Ninth Month
December - Tenth Month

Except none of them are in their right numerical position.  

Why? The Romans

I always heard this was because Julius Caesar added in two extra months, named after himself and Emperor Augustus (July and August).

But no! The real reason is relatively simple but there are a bunch of bizarre Roman Calendar Facts to go alongside it, and I think you'll enjoy them.

This is a write-up of a thread by historian Bret Devereaux, with a little more context and no weird abbreviations to fit twitter character count. All the knowledge is his or Wikipedia's.

The answer: there were 12 months in the calendar, but the year used to start in March. March was the first month, making December the 10th month, January the 11th month, and February the 12th.

Okay, so why did they move the start of the year back to January?

March is named for Mars, the god of war, and it was when the campaigning season started. (It's weird to think of this in contemporary times, but war had a 'season' because armies relied on taking food from the surrounding countryside, which doesn't provide enough in winter.) Good time to start a year.

But what if you want to plan for that war? You'd want the strategists and recruiters to all get to Rome early, before the season starts, so they can draft their armies and prepare expeditions. So they arrive in January.

Why does the year then have to start in January? Because Rome was very religious, and when the strategists arrive, they had to be inaugurated (that is, a religious ceremony in which you do auguring, trying to figure out what the gods want by looking at the flight of birds). The religious stuff has to be at the start of the year. You can't do fortune-tellings and blessings for the year when you're already two months in. This all happened before Julius Caesar.

(July and August were re-named after Julius and Augustus Caesar, but only after Julius' death. They were originally named Quintilis and Sextilis – the fifth and sixth month. Which were actually the seventh and eighth month because of the calendar shift.)

The most chaotic bit, that actually is Julius Caesar's fault

Okay but ALSO, the year was only 355 days at this time. Since the earth takes 365 days to go around the sun, the calendar would slowly get out of sync with the seasons (a big deal in an agricultural society). It was the job of the Pontifex Maximus (Chief High Priest) to set 'intercalary' extra little months to keep things aligned.

However, since the pontifices were often politicians, and because a Roman magistrate's term of office corresponded with a calendar year, this power was prone to abuse: a pontifex could lengthen a year in which he or one of his political allies was in office, or refuse to lengthen one in which his opponents were in power. [Wikipedia]

The Pontifex Maximus at this time was Julius Caesar. By the mid-40s BC, the calendar was 100 days behind. (Possibly due to politicking or possibly because he was away doing wars all the time and didn't get around to it.)

Caesar decided to fix the calendar once and for all, so he organised a bunch of Egyptian astronomers to calculate how long the months and year actually had to be to align with the solar year (creating the 365ish-day Julian calendar that we use today). But he's still 100 days behind.

Then, to reset the start of the year to the right spot, he extended 46 BC to 445 days.  Since we still use this calendar system (in many but not all countries), 46BC remains the longest year.  Wikipedia's note that this did not change planetary orbits is hilarious.

Bret Devereaux is great but has written a TONNE so it's hard to know where to start – I loved his series on the Siege of Gondor. It's not a snarky debunking, it's using the the book and movie as a touchpoint to talk about pre-modern societies.


Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in Brazil

dunes and lagoons
By Julius Dadalti - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Just a spectacular landscape.

During the rainy season, the valleys among the dunes fill with freshwater lagoons, prevented from draining due to the impermeable rock beneath.

The park is home to four species listed on the Brazilian List of Endangered Species, the scarlet ibis, the neotropical otter, the oncilla or little spotted cat, and the West Indian manatee.
DALLE-2: Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in Brazil, paper collage

Unsolicited Advice

The true expert does not perform in a state of effortless 'flow'

"It’s grit and self-analysis until the very last bar"

This Aeon piece details something I've often suspected – peak performance doesn't involve relaxing conscious control and moving intuitively.

In my dance career, I’ve never found [that analysis lets up]. Certainly, one cannot stop the music, ask the audience for their forgiveness and try again. But one does at times notice mistakes, making mental notes about what works and what doesn’t. ‘I don’t think I positioned my left shoulder correctly in the lift, but I can readjust; I think the music is calling for a grander flourish than I have been giving it; I could pause longer here or keep moving.’

That's not to say flow state isn't real – it's just that effortless performance isn't best performance.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research suggests that flow is conducive to optimal experience. But it doesn’t tell us anything about whether it is conducive to optimal performance. So look for flow when you want to feel better, but not necessarily when you want to do better.

We often say that we can tell when a performer is having fun with a role or on the stage, but that's just not true – they may be having fun, or they may be performing the role of someone having fun with a role. Actors can act! And you know ballet dancers put extreme effort into appearing weightless and floaty. She quotes comedian Steve Martin: ‘Enjoyment while performing … would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford.’

That's the basic argument – the article goes into much more detail, and I really recommend it if you're interested in the idea. (She also talks about why 'flow = high performance' is such a widespread myth, from cognitive biases to the fact that self-help books love to sell the idea of success-without-effort.)

The true expert does not perform in a state of effortless ‘flow’ | Aeon Essays
In the myth of flow, the performer soars when the music starts. But it’s grit and self-analysis until the very last bar

The personal lesson here is that, if you're not able to get into flow, that doesn't mean you're unskilled at your art. Focus on the work, not whether you can make yourself feel the right emotion while you work.


Thanks for reading! I always feel guilty when I write a really wordy issue, even though, I mean... it's a written newsletter. It's made of words. What else do I imagine people are expecting? "Announcement: The Whippet is pivoting to 60-second vertical video format."

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