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The Whippet #53: 'Keep a patch of sky above your life'

McKinley Valentine — 8 min read

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Hey pals! This intro is an important one to me, so I hope you'll read.

I want to talk about Quirky Facts. Brief, self-encapsulated bits of information that make you go "cool!" and hit share. Obviously this is kind of stock-in-trade for The Whippet, and the internet in general, as well as shows like QI. Here's a Quirky Fact that you might have seen around:

FB post from the British Museum: "Peter the Great of Russia introduced a beard tax in 1698 and this token was given as proof of payment!"

This is totally true, and it seems wacky and random, and the token is great. It reads “a beard is a superfluous burden”. Straight away, you probably want your friends with beards to know about this.

Now here’s why the tax was introduced, roughly:

In the mid-1600s, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Nikon, instituted a bunch of reforms, including re-translations of important church literature (including the wording of prayers and hymns, how to cross yourself, how churches should be constructed, etc). He said it was to bring things in line with the Greek Orthodox Church, and that was probably true, but the restructure also gave the Patriarch, i.e. him, way more personal power. The fact that the translations were made without scholarly consultation (and apparently contained a lot of errors) made his motives look suspect.

To enforce the reforms, old-style churches were demolished and soldiers raided homes to look for suddenly-heretical imagery. Understandably, a lot of people hated this. Some resisted for religious reasons and some because it was pretty clearly a political move.

The people who resisted, and kept to the old ways, were called Old Believers.

For Old Believers, shaving your beard off was blasphemous. Nikon’s reforms reversed this. So the tax was a combination of religious persecution – like a tax on headscarves would be today – and an attempt to quash resistance to a political power grab.

Not that quirky. I’m not even taking a stance on the reforms or the religious doctrines or Patriarch Nikon – I’m just saying, it’s a pretty rational attack on your political opponents, not a tax on beards, there’s nothing that funny or random about it.

Of course, I get why people share the cute beard tax token without explaining that context – you probably skimmed it yourself, right? It’s complicated and dry. It’s not WRONG to just share the one-sentence summary. But I’m uncomfortable with it because we end up in this position of going “lol random” at people from different countries or times, and then having no understanding of how power operates.

We also end up with a wrong impression of people from other cultures, including historical ones, as totally irrational. Just in case you don’t already know this, no one in the Middle Ages ever believed the earth was flat – it’s a myth from the late 1800s. It ties into contemporary people’s need to believe we’re much smarter and better off than olden times people. I’m not, like, worried that medieval people’s feelings will be hurt, the problem is what it does to us in the here and now. If we think history is full of irrational, you-so-crazy people instead of people just like us, we never really think that we can learn from it.

So here’s the thing I would love for you to remember: when you come across some quirky old or foreign thing that makes you think “lol so random”, catch yourself – especially if it has to do with laws, leaders or money. The people who did it had a motive, and that motive was almost certainly to do with protecting their access to power or resources.

I’ve used a historical example but for a contemporary, foreign-country one try "China makes it illegal to reincarnate without a permit", a seemingly absurd law that is 100% about not allowing the occupied Tibetan people to choose their own leader after the Dalai Lama dies.

If you can’t see how power and resources come into a particular Quirky Fact, you’re probably missing information, and it’s important to know that (whether you can be bothered finding out what the missing info is, I’m less fussed about. So long as you know there’s more to it).

Thanks for your time, on with the Quirky Facts!

(Also I made this into a Medium post if you want to share it.)

All butterflies, if given the opportunity, will drink your blood

Butterflies have no way of wounding you but if they find spilled blood, they'll drink it: it's got sodium and glucose, much like fruit, and they are good at sieving the nutrients they need out of liquids. [Wiki page on this behaviour]

They also drink tears, which are easier to get at.

Bletchley Park accidentally hired a cryptogamist (algae specialist) instead of a cryptogramist (codebreaker)

And he was helpful! Not at deciphering codes, which he was quite bad at, even though he tried his best. (He was in the Navy so it wasn't really 'hiring' so much as 'reassigning'.)

In 1941, Britain sunk a German U-boat, and were able to recover code tables from the wreck, but they were soaked through seemingly beyond legibility. But Geoffrey Tandy was extremely trained in preserving wet specimens and managed to salvage the paper. And that info was a part of how the Enigma code was eventually broken. [Source]

'Mural crowns' for showing that you rule over the city

I've seen loads of these in museums but can't find great pictures online, sorry! They're crowns designed to look like the city walls and they are my favourite, modern leaders should be made to wear skyline hats.

HMS Opal (1915)

HMS Opal, torpedo boat destroyer, ready for launch at the shipyard of William Doxford & Sons Ltd, Sunderland.

What we get wrong about fame

Because we're humans, we think in stories and narratives, and Westerners in particular tend to think in terms of individuals rather than societies. So we think of fame-worthiness as being mainly about the special individual, not about the society they're in. The following is an analogy:

"When a matchbox full of lazily dreaming future grill-lighters was bought at a small-town store on a hot summer day in the California desert, little did it know that one of its passengers would become the most notorious, most sought after weapon of all time. Two weeks later one of its matches would be used to start a wildfire that would burn for months and destroy 50 million acres. Anyone armed with a match like this one would be able to take over the world."

"This is a patently ridiculous story—a single match is not the entire reason for a wildfire starting and spreading. But that’s exactly how we naturally think about social wildfires [fame]: that the match is the key. In fact, there are two requirements: a local requirement (a spark), and a global requirement (the ability of the fire to spread). And it’s the second component that is actually the bottleneck: If a forest is dangerously dry, any spark can start a fire. Sparks are easy to come by, and are not intrinsically special."

Quite a long article but that was the idea I liked best in it.

"Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life"

— Marcel Proust, sorry. I haven't read Swann's Way, the book it's from, but I find this such a soothing image.

Should beta blockers be allowed in the Olympics?

Beta blockers are meds for lowering your blood pressure, but they also block the physical (but not mental/emotional) effects of anxiety, so a lot of people take them off-label, especially performers (e.g. violinists to stop their hands shaking, people giving speeches).

So they're banned in professional sport, and particularly in shooting and archery, where steady hands are crucial.

They're not uppers, and they have no performance-enhancing effects - if you don't experience anxiety, they'll have no effect (except lowering your blood pressure I guess).

So the question this guy asks is, is overcoming 'stage fright' an inherent part of the sport, such that beta blockers are effectively enhancing your performance? Or are beta blockers just evening the field between anxious people and confident people, allowing the competition to be purely between their skill and ability? Is it more like how if someone's got a headache on competition, you wouldn't think it was cheating to take a paracetemol/acetaminophen?

Unsolicited Advice

Trying not to get your hopes up: Y/N?

A tiny parable! About 5 years ago, I submitted an article to Cracked, a website that at the time I loved and read every day. And it made through to "we're probably going to publish it but we haven't signed the contract yet, so it's not 100% locked in". And I was really, really happy, hugely chest-burstingly happy - but then I thought, well, they might still say No. I shouldn't get my hopes. I'll be so disappointed. And I successfully smooshed down the happy excitement.

And then like a month later or something, it got published... and I felt nothing. Because I had smooshed down my excitement. It should have been an amazing milestone for me - it got like 800,000 views or something, because Cracked, which is more people than will probably read anything I write again, so, legitimately amazing - and I totally wasted it by not being able to be excited about it. And would I really not have felt disappointed if it hadn't ended up happening? I'm not convinced.

So now I think: you should try to feel any good feeling you can. Maybe you'll be disappointed later, but happy feelings are not so easily come by that you should squander them for no reason, just in case.

My advice is, which you might disagree with, is: get your hopes up.

Happiness is hard, so spend what you have, don't wait till some later date because it might not be there to spend. You can't like, bank it so you don't have to feel disappointment in the future. Who knows how different you'll be in the future.

(To be clear, I'm not still regretting the Cracked thing, it was just the point at which I learned the lesson.)

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

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