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The Whippet #52: A painting in the right loungeroom

McKinley Valentine — 8 min read

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Good morning lucky sparrows!

So there is a famous Taoist story about not making judgements about whether something’s good or bad, because you don’t know how it will turn out:

There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbours came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically.
"Maybe, maybe not," the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbours exclaimed.
"Maybe, maybe not" replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbours again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
"Maybe, maybe not" answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbours congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. "Maybe, maybe not" said the farmer.

I think about this because I’m in Europe and some of these towns are old, old, old, and some are very well preserved, and some have been rebuilt very recently. The big factors are: was it a military or economic target? Was it cloudy on the day of the planned bombing (meaning they couldn’t see the target)? Did they surrender quickly, so it didn’t ‘have’ to be bombed? Rothenburg ob der Tauber, where I am now, is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe – most of its buildings are from the 14th through 17th centuries, and it’s only because of the most arbitrary pieces of luck that they are still intact. It's shockingly pretty at every turn, especially if you like pretending you're a medieval thief or similar.

During the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), they were Protestant/Lutheran. A huge Catholic army came very close, but since Rothenburg was not an important place, they were just going to pass on by to more important targets.

Except that it started raining, heavily, and din't stop for a week. The mud made the roads impassable for wagons. So the soldiers decided, since they couldn't move forward they would occupy Rothenburg for the winter until the weather was better. Fortunately, Rothenburg has huge walls with a steep drop down into the valley, so it was very hard to attack, so they had a good chance of being okay. Unfortunately, someone went to check how much gunpowder they had stored in the Powder Tower (which was part of the city walls), and lit a torch to check, exploding a huge hole in the walls that they were unable to defend.

So, they were massively impoverished and reduced to insignificance for centuries. How unlucky! Maybe, maybe not. They couldn’t afford to rebuild or modernise until the 19th century – by which time the preserved architecture had tourism value, so it’s now a very wealthy town again. Their current wealth is founded on their previous poverty, which was caused by the invasion, lost by unusual individual stupidity, and caused by a week of rain.

Then, WW2: a few weeks before the end of the war in Europe, nearby Nuremburg had been bombed, and the Allies had orders to raze Rothenburg to the ground. But the American in charge, his mother had visited Rothenburg as a tourist in 1915. She’d brought back a painting of it, and he had grown up looking at this painting. So, against orders, he offered them a chance to surrender rather than destroy the city with artillery.

But this was not very likely because Hitler had given orders that no Nazi generals were to negotiate with the Allies or surrender (which a lot of them were doing because it was obvious the war was lost). People who did had been executed. But! The hardline Nazi general in Rothenburg was away for a few days, and the acting-in-charge guy committed treason by surrendering to the Allies. The American (John McCloy) is not a hero, and neither, obviously, is the 2IC Nazi. But it’s just so strange to me – every sentence in that lil history is a stroke of arbitrary chance that shifted things one way or the other. There’s probably others: fires that were noticed before they could do too much damage because someone just happened to be out late at night, things that would never make it into recorded history.

These chances, a painting in the right loungeroom, a week of rain, determine the fortunes of a whole town, centuries later. It’s too big for my brain.

Speaking of lucky

Opportune is from Latin opportūnus 'convenient, timely', originally a nautical term describing a wind that blows towards a harbour - after Portūnus, the god who protected harbours. (See obviously: port) via Simon Horobin on twitter.

Scientists have measured the speed of death

It's 2 millimetres an hour.

Specifically, that's the speed at which death spreads across a single cell, a frog's egg, when it dies deliberately as part of general cell turnover to keep the frog healthy.

In more death measurement news, a micromort is a unit of risk that signifies a one-in-a-million chance of death. Adorable! Imagine them as tiny buzzing skeletons that hover around taking inefficient swipes at you with their scythes.

Gibbon skeleton

That's it, that's the whole fact.

Etymology of currency (dollars, shekels, etc.)

"Almost all of the world's most traded currencies go back to a small number of distinct words that referred either to (a) the location from which the precious metals on which the currency was based were mined, or (b) the weight, weighing or measurement of those precious metals, or (c) the authority under which the currency was issued, or (d) the word for the precious metal or money itself." Quora

Under a) we have the dollar, which comes from thaler, a short form of Joachimsthaler, '[silver produced from the mines in] St. Joachimsthal (St. Joachim's Valley)'. Florins and the Hungarian forint were minted in Florence, and the South African rand was made from gold mined on the ridge [rand in Aafrikans].

b) pound obviously, ' peso (Spanish 'weight': Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, and a few other countries); the ruble (Russian 'a chop, a section': Russia); the Israeli shekel (from Hebrew for 'weight'); dinar (Arabic from Greek denarion, which itself is from Latin denarius, which originally referred to units of ten'. The Thai baht is also originally a weight.

c) all currencies that derive from 'crown' (e.g. koruna, krona) and the Brazilian real (royal), Cambodian riel and Yemeni rial, and more recently the euro. Franc was short for franconum rex.

d) rupee means 'silver', as does the Bhutanese ngultrum. I feel like we can put yen, yuan and the Korean won here too? which all come from the word round, as in the shape of the coin. Guilder meant gold.

e) but real wealth is never having to spend time with assholes

(If you're at all interested in this, the study of currency, coinage etc is called Numismatics.)

Thousands of human teeth found under Melbourne's CBD

They're digging up the centre of my city to install a subway, which is AWESOME, and they've found thousands of teeth, which is ALSO AWESOME and not at all cursed. There was apparently a dentist on the corner in the 1800s and he just washed all the teeth he pulled down the drain, where they stayed.

More Australia news: someone at Vice unearthed an old law that says all Australian citizens are entitled to receive a free portrait of the Queen if they write to their local MP. As you can imagine, since the article was published, MPs have been absolutely flooded with requests and they are struggling to meet demand (and annoyed about having too, since they know 100% of people are trolling).

No other Commonwealth country has this right, by the way.

Things don't mean what you think they mean

I love this owl. I have a print of it on my wall. It's so Harry Potter, and so learnéd and wise.

Unless you understand Dutch. The caption reads something like, "What good are the glasses and the candle, when the owl refuses to look?"

The owl is not meant to look smart. It's meant to look like... a pig made to stand on its hind legs. It's wearing glasses and it has a candle to see by but it can't read, it can't even open the book! Stupid owl! How ridiculous it is! I love this because a) it's fun to make fun of owls, and b) it shows how much you can misread symbols, even when they seem really clear. (Also, the book is the Bible, so it's probably a fairly specific type of wisdom they're accusing owls of not having (and people who are a bit like the owl, I see you not reading the bible there).

Unsolicited Advice

Write your future self an email with FutureMe

I love FutureMe, I use this all the time. Firstly just for pep talks. Write yourself an email when you've just accomplished something so later you can remember and remember how proud you were then (it's so easy to normalise level ups in your life).

Also to check in on goals. If you decide you're going to start, I don't know, meditating twice a week, schedule an email for yourself in three months to see how the habit is going (both whether you've slipped and need to re-apply yourself, and also whether it's made an improvement to your life).

Or: if you're sad about something. Your work environment. Your house. Your friend. Write an email that says, "hey you were complaining about x a whole bunch, are you still complaining about it now? If yes, THREE MONTHS IS TOO LONG, YOU NEED TO LEAVE THAT JOB/HOUSE/FRIEND. It helps you discern between passing bad moods and things that are causing you systematic troubles that you really need to deal with.

Bonus advice: don't scorn tourist towns, man! They make their money from being pretty, which means they don't have, for example, outdoor advertising / billboards etc. Most cities sacrifice prettiness for the sake of literally any lobby group that will give them a kickback, but tourist towns can't because prettiness is where the money is.

I based the last two weeks of my trip on the Wikipedia page for car-free places and I do not regret it.

If you want solicited advice, send questions to or just reply to this email.

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