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The Whippet #67: The Lotus Effect

McKinley Valentine — 10 min read

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Good morning!

So a reader told me they like The Whippet itself, but they never like anything I link to (I'm paraphrasing; it was polite). That surprised me because obviously my taste in articles is linked to how I write.

But then I realised it's because I mix together links to enjoyable articles, and links that are just the source for the info being shared - not necessarily fun reads but a) it's common decency to credit sources b) so you can read in more detail if you're keen / don't trust my interpretation.

So yeah: if I don't say "read the whole thing!" or "I loved this!" or similar, it's more of a citation / read more only if interested.

Anyway, huge news:

Birds don't have lungs

If you're not shocked about that, just move on to the next item, there's literally no twist to this section other than I didn't know and a quick poll of my group chats suggests it's not common knowledge. Two people in those chats have PhDs! In like, videogames, but still.

How do they breathe then?

They have between 7 and 12 air sacs (usually 9). Mammal lungs process air 'both ways' - that is, you breathe air into the lungs, extract oxygen, then breathe it back out - whereas bird air sacs are one-way. The air is processed as it travels in a circuit through the 9 sacs and then back out (a bit more like our circulatory system).

Sometimes the air sacs are partially inside of their hollow bones, helping to maintain their structure.

They also don't have a diaphragm - they use their chest muscles to expand/contract the breastbone and create pressure changes that move the air along. So if you hold a bird too tight around the chest, it can't breathe! Don't do that!

It's one of the reasons they can fly (esp. at high-altitudes), their breathing is way more efficient and oxygen-rich. Dinosaurs also had this type of respiratory system and maybe that's part of how they thrived in earth's previously lower-oxygen atmosphere.

Also look I lied a bit, birds do have lungs, but they're small and rigid and not as important as the air sacs, it's not their main deal.

Here's a gif showing mammal vs bird vs insect respiration!

Honestly even after reading a fair bit, I still found it confusing - but even the fact that they have a different, weird alien set-up blew my mind.

The Lotus Effect

Lotus leaves are ultrahydrophobic (hydro=water, phobic=fear, but here just meaning "moves away from") and because of that, they're self-cleaning.

If you've seen something form balls of water on a surface and then run down it, rather than soaking in, that's hydrophobic.

So if you imagine a flattish blob of water, touching the surface it's on maybe 25% of its total area, that's a bit hydrophobic. A water drop on a lotus leaf touches the leaf with only 0.6% of the water drop's total area.

As the balls of water roll along, they pick up any little bits of stuff. Random grit but also algae and fungi - things that would infect the plant. Dragonflies are also hydrophobic, and again it's for self-cleaning reasons.

As you can imagine, that's potentially really promising for human engineers to imitate. Self-cleaning surfaces!

[The Lotus Effect on Wikipedia]

[Biomimetics on Wikipedia, the field of copying stuff from nature, from velcro to structural colouration to how frog's toes are so grippy on wet surfaces.]

“Be yourself” is terrible advice

I love this piece - the story of someone who thought of themselves as a provocateur who was just being their authentic self, and then realised they were just being an asshole and should stop it.

I especially like this:

"Trying to be authentic did not reveal an immutable self so much as produce one".

Argument 1 is that if your authentic self is shitty then you should change. But Argument 2 is a thing I have super strong feelings about - this misguided idea that your first reaction is somehow a more authentic one than your slow, post-processing decision about how to act.

If someone annoys me and my first reaction is to snap at them, but instead I take a breath and respond calmly, that's not "being fake". My more deliberate, second-or-third reaction (generally kinder) self is just as authentic as my instant reaction self.

And you can be influenced by others while still being totally authentic: the self that has enormous respect for my partner's brain, and so seeks his input on decisions - that's me! That's a choice I made and keep making!

The self that cares what other people think because you're not a sociopath and you don't want to hurt people is authentic too.

(Your first reaction is you too - they're all you - but you get to decide which of the yous gets to actually interact with the world)

Eating disorders are hugely neurobiological

Again, skip if this old news to you, but I had no idea.

People with disordered eating have different motivation and reward systems around eating. I mean, structurally and chemically, related to dopamine etc - the level of urge to seek food and enjoyment of eating it is different.

Of course there's an enormous cultural overlay around it as well - but that's true of, say, anxiety disorders as well. It can be biological and still play out in ways affected by culture.

I found this out because I have ADHD, and people with ADHD also have messed up motivation and reward systems (and listen, you have no idea how much you rely on that to get shit done unless you've operated without it. But it's not like you can consciously feel the effects of a functional set-up. If you think you don't need rewards to do important stuff because you're an adult, you're just not aware that your brain is quietly passing you lil chemical rewards all the time that you take for granted).

So: ADHD meds are also prescribed for people with Binge-Eating Disorder and bulimia. And eating disorders, like ADHD, are hereditary. They're not the same thing but the messed-up part seems to be messed up in similar ways. (This is very reductive, but any explanation of the brain is going to be reductive because there's just so much we still don't know.)

From the article:

"Imaging research in eating disorders shows dysfunction in the neural valuation of reward and punishment, meaning that when making choices about financial decisions, those with past or current eating disorders, are unable to differentiate between wins and losses. This research could suggest that individuals with eating disorders may have difficulty evaluating rewards within their environment."

This is what I mean by, you don't realise how much you rely on it.

People with ADHD tend to either be dopamine-seekers - thrill-seekers, sugar-seekers, exercise or videogame addicts, etc - or the opposite, they struggle to bother seeking out anything because they don't see the point of it because they don't get the dopamine reward. This strikes me as parallel to the way the neurobiology of binge-eating vs anorexia plays out, depending on which direction the food-related reward system is messed up in. But I'm getting very speculative there.

In any case if you have eating disorder issues, I hope you will be super kind and forgiving to yourself because my god, of course you've been struggling, you've been trying to run uphill while other people are on the flat.

This feeds on from the previous paragraph, but the system that makes you feel an urge to get something - whether that's food, seeing friends, a cigarette, sleeping with a particular person, whatever - is separate from brain system of enjoying something. Often they align! But often not.

That means that there are things you want, but don't actually enjoy that much - sugar-cravings are like that for me, I have desperate urges for a donut but when I eat it, it's... fine? I guess? For a few bites? And then I eat the rest because I feel guilty for wasting money on it?

And similarly there's things you have no urge to do whatsoever, even though you actually have a lovely time whenever you do it (going out to see friends, for me, or going to yoga).

So, you gotta pay attention and keep a mental file of which things you enjoy that you don't desire (so you can make yourself do them) and which things you desire but don't enjoy (so you can avoid).

In general, I think a step to improving at life is learning to treat the feeling of wanting something, even craving it, as just another idea from someone who is pretty hit and miss with their ideas.

Not because there's some puritan virtue in abstaining from cravings! Just because the cravings are not particularly accurate indicators of what you like in the moment, without even getting into whether the long-term consequences are good for you.

This also fits with the idea of the authentic self, and a tendency to feel like wanting something is an expression of self, and not pursuing it would be denying our true selves, which is, see above, a bunch of nonsense.

Etiquette tip

If you run into someone you know in unexpected circumstances ("Sister-in-law! I didn't know you worked here too!") and they say "Small world", etiquette requires you to respond "Too small for the two of us!" and then sock them in the jaw.

I read this in a Miss Manners column.

Solicited Advice

"How does one find poetry one might like?"

You know this question is real, because I don't have any qualms about spouting advice without being asked. But it sounds like such a Dorothy Dixer! Anyway. Answer:

Method 1
Download the Poetry Foundation app! (Android | iOS)

And then at times when you might check twitter, spin the wheel and read the randomly selected poem. If you like it, note it down (or take a screenshot) so you have the poet's name and google to find more of their poems, or maybe a bio that says "a leading poet of the Romantic movement" or something like that (then you google "best romantic movement poems").

Once you have a few you like, then you could ask someone who knows a bunch about poetry - "I like Poet and Other Poet, what other poetry might I like?"

Read poems slower than you would read text - try to read each word rather than scan, and abide by the line breaks instead of reading as one long sentence. Poems are generally meant to be read at the speed of someone speaking aloud, not the much faster speed of a visual reader. (If you're already an aural reader, read at your usual pace.)

For me, there are very few poems that I love all of, so I consider a poem a win if it has just a pair of lines that speaks something strong or makes me feel something. A short poem might only take 30 seconds to read, so two lines that make you feel something in 30 seconds is worth it, even if you can't make much of the rest of it.

You could also, once you find a poem with a couple of lines you like, take a bit more time over that poem and really think about the other lines and what they could be going for (or google the poem and see what other people have to say about it). If you can connect with them over a couple of lines, then that's a good place to focus your energies - there's a good chance some more of the poem might connect with you if you put a little more work in. You could also google "[Poem] analysis" - but there's satisfaction in making the connection yourself (you can interpret pretty freely - if something becomes meaningful to you if you connect it to x, it doesn't matter if critics connect it to y).

Method 2
The same as Method 1, but instead of the Poetry Foundation app, you use Wondering Minstrels for your initial wide exploration of a variety of poetry styles.

It's a no-longer-being-updated blog with an archive of short, accessible (newbie-friendly) poems. The one on the front page is one of my favourite poems, but it doesn't need to be yours - the point is they have a variety. Each poem has a bit of accompanying text to give you context.

Method 3
As above but crowd-source a variety of poems via Facebook. You will probably get less variety this way - there's a lot of 'fan favourites' (Rumi, ee cummings and Mary Oliver will come up a lot), but that's not necessarily a bad thing - they're popular because they're great and you're not trying to become a poetry snob, just to enjoy some poems. But if you don't happen to like what's popular, you might be left thinking you don't like any poetry, which is probably not correct. So I wouldn't try this method on its own.

Method 4
The Guardian's Poem of the Week column. These are also short and a huge variety of styles, but the difference is the poem is followed by a whole explanation of what the poem means and why the columnist liked it. I would not have known what to make of this poem [scroll down] without the commentary, but I found the poem compelling, so I was glad for the commentary.

Concluding remarks
I think those are your best two approaches - seeking out a wide variety quickly, and also learning how to get more out of any poem you do read.

Remember that if you were trying to find music you like for the first time - in a world where music was not played publicly or on the radio or talked about much etc etc - and you loved, I don't know, ambient electronica, you would have to try a big random selection of stuff - death metal and indie folk and classical piano - before you randomly landed on that genre.

The analogy also applies to knowing when to seek recommendations from people who know about poetry:

Once you've realised you like sea shanties, I can recommend a great sea shanty, but if you haven't yet narrowed it down, then sea shanties might be a pretty unhelpful red herring in the quest for music you like.

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

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