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The Whippet #54: Always finish your obelisks

McKinley Valentine — 11 min read

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Good morning seedlings!

Since I got back from Europe, I've been struggling to get back into proper cooking habits. (New subscribers: you can skim the personal ramble and scroll straight down to the tree facts).

I don't enjoy cooking, so I don't get excited about recipes, or... dicing celery or whatever people who enjoy cooking enjoy about it. So my habits are more about finding lazy, easy meals that I won't get sick of, with groceries that won't go bad immediately if I forget to use them.

Most of my meals I would not inflict on anyone else, and they're not so much "meals" as assemblages of vegetables and protein that I give names like "Breakfast Solution", "New Lunch" and "Fried Everything".

But my systems collapsed, and I've been ordering UberEats, like, most days, which is superexpensive, supporting a trash company, and really unhealthy (I mean literally making me sick because I'm intolerant to unavoidable ingredients). There's no justification for it.

But I'm great at justifying things that there's no justification for, so here I go:

It's historically really really new for every individual to be cooking for themselves. Most cultures, most of the time, would have had extended families living in one compound, and a division of labour such that some people would spend the whole day cooking, while other people would do other kinds of work. Working all day and then cooking all your own meals is basically doing a double shift. Any other time/place, you'd have been cooking for a *bunch* of people, or not cooking at all.

Even post-industrial revolution, people who worked in cities like London would have lived in boarding houses where food was provided by the owner. If you rented rooms, they probably wouldn't have a kitchen - you'd get streetfood, which was cheap and everywhere. In Australia, streetfood isn't a quick cheap breakfast on the way to work, it's prestige food that's just as expensive as eating in a restaurant.

And speaking of eating in restaurants, we don't really have anything like a food hall, with cheap basic meals, which heaps of countries have. In theory, this should be easy: it's much cheaper and more efficient to shop and cook for 1000 people in a commercial kitchen with bulk ingredients than it is to cook in 1000 separate kitchens and buy individual servings of ingredients. (This isn't an attack on restaurant prices - most restaurants are losing money. It's an attack on the whole set-up of everything.)

Anyway, cooking should go back to being like carpentry: a fun hobby for some people, but no one expects everybody to build all their own bookcases from scratch.

Making a sandwich from scratch

…takes 6 months and $1500, according to this guy, who did it (there's a 3-minute video). He grew the wheat and tomatoes himself, made his own pickles, not only made his own mayonnaise but made his own oil for the mayo by pressing sunflower seeds. He milked a cow (to make cheese) but didn't own/raise/look after the cow so arguably he could have gone deeper.

So clearly... no one needs to making their own sunflower oil or milling their own flour. So it feels like the line we draw at "but you should cook for yourself" feels a bit arbitrary. The absurdity of spending so much money and time on a meal is obvious, but that absurdity continues pretty logically into everyone cooking small meals in private kitchens (again, unless that's fun for you. I know people who make their own cheese and I would never stand in their way).

Synchronous mass-seeding events

Every now and again, a whole group of plants (such as oak trees) will have what's called a "mast year", where they all massively overproduce seeds simultaneously.

By producing way more seeds than the seed-eaters (squirrels, rodents, birds) can eat, they stand a pretty good chance of some of their seeds actually growing to maturity.

If the trees "over" produced every year, then the eater population would just grow alongside it, and they'd be in the same position. If just one tree did it, it wouldn't be enough to over-satiate the seed-eaters. It's only doing it irregularly, and in sync with all the other trees, that it works.

(It's only very recently that we've learned a major way trees are able to communicate with each other, including interspecies communication: through underground fungal networks. The other way is through chemicals in the air - possibly other trees can sense whatever equivalent to hormones a tree gives off when it starts overproducing.)

Witness trees & sentinel flowers

Witness trees are trees that stand at a border or crossroads. It can also mean trees that have seen important events, battles in the American Civil War and so on. There's no official registry of witness trees or anything, so I'm pretty sure you can call any tree that was there for an important moment in your own life a witness tree.

Sentinel plants react to the presence of certain chemicals or microbes in the soil - actually that's all plants, which is why they make such good sentinels. But they can be engineered to detect things we care about - anthrax, or landmine leakage - and react in a way we can see - changing colour or phosphorescing.

Other sentinal plants: The UK has groves of disease-susceptible crops growing close to cargo ports, as an early warning system for quarantine failures. If they're struck with blight, farmers have a lot more time to respond. (As far as my understanding goes, the main way they respond is bringing out a slightly different strain of the species, which is likely to be immune to that strain of disease. I recently found out one of Australia's biggest science labs is run by Arnotts, a biscuit manufacturer, because they are constantly developing new strains of wheat to dodge diseases.

The Unfinished Obelisk

This is a controversial entry into the Wikipedia list of rock-cut monuments. Rock-cut monuments are 'carved out of the living rock' as opposed to quarried elsewhere and dragged over. Mount Rushmore as opposed to Stonehenge.

The Unfinished Obelisk is the biggest obelisk in the ancient world, but it was never intended to be a rock-cut monument - the work was abandoned before they finished removing it from the bedrock (almost certainly just because it developed cracks, but if you want to believe it's cursed, I think you'd be entitled to that view).

It's archaeologically significant because it's unfinished, so it's a snapshot of the workers' processes. It's also huge and sinister, which I think archaeologists do care about even if they're not supposed to. [Wikipedia]

The Iffland-Ring: finally some proper treasure

The Iffland-Ring is owned by the Republic of Austria, but held for life by the person considered to be "most significant and most worthy actor of the German-speaking theatre". Who decides that? The previous holder of the Iffland-Ring.

(The image on it is August Wilhelm, Iffland, "a prominent German actor, dramatist and theatre director of the late 18th and early 19th century" - the circumference is diamonds.)

You have to choose your successor within 3 months of receiving the ring. The exception was an actor called Albert Basserman - his chosen successor died before he did, so he chose another... who died, as did the third. At that point he decided the ring was cursed and refused to choose a fourth successor (it was decided by committee after his death).

The current holder of the Iffland-Ring is Bruno Ganz (above - he played Hitler in Downfall). [Wikipedia]

Goodbye catburglar dreams

I used to love the idea of being a catburglar but then you realise diamonds just get converted into money, it's all fungible*, and people will give you money in exchange for way less risky work.

The Iffland-Ring is a treasure worth stealing but you would be a bad person if you stole it, which would also take away the fun. Whereas diamond heists, to quote John Oliver, "feel like a victimless crime. They're not, but they feel like one."

* fungible (FUN-juh-bul) is an incredibly useful word meaning "interchangeable". If you're sad that your dog has died, and someone says "just get another one!" they're treating dogs as fungible, like it doesn't matter which specific one you have, so long as you have one. A $50 note is totally fungible. A wedding ring isn't, for most people, even if it's mass-produced in a factory.

What different cultures and individuals consider fungible is really interesting and definitional. Books can be a point of contention: if it's just the words that matter, then what does it matter if you dog-ear the pages of your copy and drop it in the bath? but a lot of people would find that really upsetting.

Just because something ends doesn't means it failed: a poem

Failing and Flying
Jack Gilbert, 1925 - 2012

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.


‘Spoolhenge’ at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

The pedestals are old spools left over from the construction of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory (an array of optical sensors dsitributed throughout a cubic kilometre of Antarctic ice), now used to hold miscellaneous storage off the snow during winter (that’s a cargo-net christmas tree visible at right). Photo by Johannes Werthebach via The Antarctic Report twitter account, possibly the least-stressful news account you can follow.

Unsolicited Advice: When someone asks you for a rough estimate and you don't have one

…for the love of god give them a number range, even if it's "it will take between an hour and two years" or "definitely no bigger than this room, that's the most I can narrow it down".

The scenario here is when someone says "just give me a ballpark figure" and you say "no honestly it could be anything". It's super frustrating when you have *literally* no clue and the better-informed person refuses to even hint at what the range might be. It's basically a failure of empathy. (This is part of my ongoing pet theory that most people's theory of mind* is badly underdeveloped.)

For example: if I ask how much a house costs in Brunswick, you would say, "it varies". You think everyone knows geeeeeenerally how much houses cost, because you know that. But I have no idea! I genuinely don't know (I do now, I asked) whether they're $100,000 or $5 million. My family never owned a house, I have never thought of owning a house, I have no framework for even guessing because I haven't had these conversations. I just know it's so much money there's no point thinking about it.

It's like an alien coming to earth and saying, "how big is a spider?"
"They can be lots of different sizes"
- yeah but those sizes are between almost invisible and about 30cm across. No spider is 6-foot tall. The alien doesn't know this! You cannot believe an alien doesn't know horses can't be 6-foot tall because everyone you interact with knows that.

Most people have a huge amount of assumed knowledge, based on their work, their schooling, the conversations they overheard as kids, etc etc. If someone asks for a ballpark figure, think of them as an alien who has never seen a spider before. Give them a range, even if that range is so wide that it seems (to you), to be providing no information whatsoever.

If you're trying to get a ballpark figure out of someone and they're refusing, what generally works is to suggest a range yourself - basically showing them exactly how unbelievably little you know about the topic.
"How long will this take?"
"It depends on a lot of things"
"But like, a week? a month?"
"Oh, no, like a few hours"

It's generally easier for people to correct something that's wrong than to answer into the blank void. (It's easier to edit than write from scratch.)

An understandable exception to this is when someone is giving you a $ estimate. Tradies can't safely give you a range because if they say "$500-$800", some customers will latch onto the lowest figure and get mad when it turns out to be $750. But you're often asking because you don't know if it's going to be a hundred dollars or $8000 and you don't want to waste everyone's time by making them come to your house when it's not even conceivably within your budget.

I don't think there's a solution here if you're the tradie (you don't want to give a high estimate either, because it might scare them off when the actual figure turns out to be much lower). But if you're the customer, you can suggest just the upper limit ("I couldn't afford if it was more than a thousand bucks") and they will usually say "oh lord no, we're talking a few hundred" or "ahhh honestly it could be around a thousand? hard to say, let me come and take a look" or "it wouldn't be less than $3000". And then you know.

* the stage of childhood development where you realise that other people are seeing out of a different set of eyeballs to you, and have access to different knowledge to you. E.g. all the toxic ideas that flow from "everyone secretly feels the same way I do, some of them are just lying about it" - virtue-signalling, white knighting, etc [Wikipedia article on ToM]

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