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The Whippet #170: The best thing I know about bones

McKinley Valentine — 7 min read

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Good morning! I'm feeling mostly Covid-recovered, thanks to everyone who sent well-wishes.

FYI, if you ever want to link people to a specific section of The Whippet, the browser/web version has a hyperlinked table of contents. (Open web version by clicking the header title.)

A metaphor I've been thinking about: content whalefall. So 'whalefall' is when a whale dies and its body falls to the ocean floor: it's this one-off, unpredictable, ridiculous amount of food suddenly appearing in the ecosystem. Everything in the remotely nearby area comes to feast, and other creatures come to feast on them. Everything from sharks to tiny crabs to acid worms gets a little something.

That's what it feels like when the right event happens in the media ecosystem, something attention-grabby with a lot of different angles to it, like when the Theranos scandal broke or Liver King* revealed he took steroids. All the content creators have this sudden unexpected feast, and the resulting youtube videos and substacks and NYT thinkpieces become another round of content to react to. No matter what their niche topic is, whether their tone is highbrow or lowbrow, everyone can give an opinion about it.

No real larger lesson, except now whenever some perfect, discourse-ready event happens, I get an involuntary image of  a whale carcass falling through the black and thousands of sharks and crabs and rays turning towards it.

[* Liver King explainer: he was very obviously on steroids, and claimed that he did not take steroids, and that he got his physique by eating organ meats and pulling himself up by his bootstraps. As with cosmetic surgery, people who think they can "always tell" are deluding themselves, but there are some people who've done so much that anyone can tell. Liver King was like that. So when some of his emails were leaked detailing his steroid regime (followed by a hilariously self-serving apology), it allowed for a lot of discourse across every spectrum, from serious analysis of muscle dysmorphia in teen boys, to the degree of authenticity we expect of influencers, to the carnivore diet, to just making fun of an obvious liar who got caught.]

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The Pumpkin Toadlet is terrible at jumping

oh my gosh

Side-view and top-view. More bad jumping gifs here.

But why?

They're very, very small. Adults are 1-2cm long, or less than an inch. They could fit on your thumbnail. They have small bones and a small ear canal: the smallest vestibular system of any vertebrate on record. The fluid doesn't move through the tubes in their inner-ear properly, so they have no sense of where their bodies are in space or which they up they are.

It's like when gymnast Simone Biles got the 'twisties' and had to drop out of the Olympics.

“They’re not great jumpers, and they’re not particularly good walkers either. They sort of stomp around in a stilted, peg-like version of walking,” says toad-studier Edward Stanley. They are the only known vertebrate to have no sense of balance.

Pumpkin toadlets have bony plates on their back and head, which might protect them when they inevitably land on their skulls. The bones also fluoresce, and can be seen glowing through their thin skin.

Another thing about their tiny, tiny ears, which lack a middle-ear bone: they can't hear each other's mating calls. "Instead their communication appears to rely on certain movements like the vocal sac that inflates when calling, mouth gaping and waving of their arms." [Wikipedia]

Normally it would be evolutionary terrible to make noises – which tell predators where you are – but that don't come with an advantage (like potential mates knowing where you are). But pumpkin toadlets are so toxic that nothing eats them anyway so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Pumpkin Toadlet. Photo by researcher Luiz F. Ribeiro
Photo by researcher Luiz F. Ribeiro

I suspect the smallness is also why they don't really have developed feet; think how tiny a phalanx bone would have to be for a frog the size of a skittle. You might as well not bother.

Last pumpkin toadlet fact: They don't have a tadpole phase. They lay eggs, and tiny half-centimetre toadlets hatch out of them.

Weird little guys!


The best thing I know about bones

It's not a single fact, it's completely changed how I conceptualise bones.

I had thought of them as more or less inert scaffolding, basically rocks. I knew they were filled with spongy bone marrow that makes white blood cells, but I thought they were hollow, basically inanimate structures that housed the marrow facility. That wear away and thin as you age, leaving some people with osteoporosis.

This is completely wrong. They are living, active organs that are constantly breaking down and remodelling themselves. In osteoporosis, your bone doesn't "wear away"; it's too much in flux for that. Rather, your body keeps creating new bone, but at a slower rate than it breaks down and re-absorbs old bone. Just the same as muscle growth – always simultaneously broken down and built, and your job is to encourage it to build more than it deconstructs.

Strength/resistance/weight training prevents osteoporosis the same way it causes muscle growth: the tension on the bones send a signal that your body needs to develop denser bones to handle this new stress you're putting on it, like how lifting increasingly heavier objects sends a signal to your body that it needs to make more muscle.

Bones are directly involved in your metabolism

Bone cells release a hormone called osteocalcin, which contributes to the regulation of blood sugar (glucose) and fat deposition. Osteocalcin increases both insulin secretion and sensitivity, in addition to boosting the number of insulin-producing cells and reducing stores of fat. [Source]

Bones protect the blood from excessive pH (acidity/alkalinity) changes by absorbing or releasing alkaline salts. They can serve a detoxification function (to a point) by taking heavy metals out of the bloodstream and storing them. [Source]


For 20 years, the US nuclear launch codes were 00000000

Today I found out that during the height of the Cold War, the US military put such an emphasis on a rapid response to an attack on American soil, that to minimize any foreseeable delay in launching a nuclear missile, for nearly two decades they intentionally set the launch codes at every silo in the US to 8 zeroes.

Oh, and in case you actually did forget the code, it was handily written down on a checklist handed out to the soldiers.

Source, with a bunch more context.

The basic version is that 'mutually assured destruction' doesn't work unless soldiers can launch nukes even if the command structure has been destroyed.

(The complicated version is that, the more you learn about the Cold War, the more you discover what a surreally fast-and-loose attitude the US leadership had to nuclear annihilation. Presumably the Soviets too, but I can't read Russian.)

Unsolicited Advice

18 Ways to Organise Your Bookshelf

Just delighted by this. Love a good list.

higher res

It reminds me of this long article, and you'll know by the title if it's of interest to you:

Zen and the Art of File and Folder Organization
Is your desktop a paragon of neatness, or is it overflowing with so many icons that you’re scared to look at it? If you’ve been putting off getting organized because the task is too huge or daunting, or you don’t know where to start, we’ve got 40 tips to get you on the path to zen mastery of your di…

It's from 2017, and some people don't really use folder-style organisation anymore, but I do on my actual computer, which has awful search functionality. Besides, I think in tree diagrams.

The tip I've used the most is –

Create a lot of shortcuts to files/folders

In the same vein as "if you find yourself hunting for an item, once you've found it, don't put it back where it was – put it back in the place you thought to look for it".

But with shortcuts, you can store the same file in multiple intuitive places, according to multiple different breadcrumb trails, without using up memory and without version-control issues.

If you're not quite sure where a folder should go, where you'd think to look for it, use a shortcut to put it in both places.


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