The Whippet #7: Rōnin spiders, a dandruff cure, Dickensian alarm clocks, a passive-aggressive art gallery
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My dear bare-faced go-away birds (it’s a real bird, and a real emotion),
I’ve been reading a bunch about the competing theories of consciousness and this is super exciting for me because I actually didn’t know there was any (scientific) competition on the issue.
The main theory you’ll hear talked about is that consciousness, or mind, is an emergent property of non-mind. A bunch of non-mind cells, when combined in the ridiculously complex way ours is, produces the effect of mind, despite no individual part having any quality of mind itself.
The so-far unsolved problem with this (acknowledged by advocates for it) is that there aren’t really any other examples of something coming from nothing. A thing can be more than the sum of its parts, but we haven’t seen anything be totally different from its constituent parts before. (Just because we haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it’s not possible, though; this is super-tricky stuff to study.)
The weight of evidence seems to me to be that all life has some form of consciousness, however impoverished. Plants and fungi experience stimulus and actively respond to it. Even amoebas do that. We used to say anything but an ensoulled human was just responding like a dropped rock does to gravity, but that doesn’t really fit with the fact that evolution typically re-uses all the same bits it can when it creates new organisms.
So now we have the problem of where to draw the line. Why does life have consciousness and non-life doesn’t? It sort of made sense when the origins of life were just as mysterious, just as something-from-nothing. But we now know that simple life (proteins, etc) can be made from non-life. And from a scientific point of view, there’s no single point at which death can be distinguished from life, either. It’s all surprisingly blurry.
And it turns out that quite a lot of (serious, legitimate) people think that this means all constituent parts of the universe must have a quality of mind. The theory is called ‘panspychism’ and it’s basically the only viable alternative to emergentism. Either mind can arise from non-mind, or it can’t, in which case it has to already be there in the parts that the mind is a sum of.
It doesn’t mean each atom has its own fully thinking consciousness, by the way (an amoeba is made of trillions of atoms, so it’s still crazy-complex in comparison). Just that it has some quality of mind. In some ways this is functionally indistinguishable from emergentism – if consciousness only starts to be recognisable to us at certain levels of complexity, then in effect it’s not really any different to an emergent consciousness. (Sorry to have wasted your time.) But somehow it still would matter to me, which turned out to be true.
Panpsychism has flaws, and you’re probably spluttering some of them right now. But so does emergentism – we don’t actually have a viable theory for consciousness. These are the two options we’ve narrowed it down to. Panpsychism solves some of the problems that irritated me about emergentism, but comes with its own problems.
It seems more elegant to me, but maybe it just depends what you’re more irritated by. More info.
When you die, not a bit of you is gone, you're just less orderly. — Aaron Freeman
Vegetarian spider that lives like a rōnin
Okay, so 1) this spider (called Bagheera kiplingi after the Jungle Book) is the single vegetarian species out of 40,000 species of spider. "The jumping arachnid, which is 5–6mm long, has developed a taste for the tips of the acacia plants – known as Beltian bodies – which are packed full of protein."
2) Beltian bodies are no good to the acacia plant, they're not like buds or shoots or anything. The acacia is a type of myrmecophyte – a plant that has a symbiotic relationship with ants. It grows Beltian bodies for the ants to eat, and oversized thorns for them to hollow out and live in, and the ants aggressively attack any grazing animals or creeping vines that threaten the acacia. Or any spiders that try to steal the Beltian bodies.
3) "The spiders live on the plants – but way out on the tips of the old leaves, where the ants don't spend a lot of time, because there isn't any food on those leaves."
But when they get hungry, the spiders head to the newer leaves, and get ready to run the ant gauntlet.
"They wait for an opening – they watch the ants move around, and they watch to see that there are not any ants in the local area that they are going after.
"And then they zip in and grab one of these Beltian bodies and then clip it off, hold it in their mouths and run away.
"And then they retreat to one of the undefended parts of the plant to eat it."
Did you never wonder how people got up on time without alarm clocks?
Like, just with the dawn or whatever, originally, but there was a fair gap between city-work (clerks and factory-workers) and cheap alarm clocks. This is Mary Smith, who worked as a knocker-up in London in the 1800s. She's using a pea-shooter to shoot dried peas at an upper-storey window, but it was more common to tap with a long pole (sometimes the snuffer used to snuff out the gas lamps in the morning).
Tongue-twister from the time:
We had a knocker-up, and our knocker-up had a knocker-up
And our knocker-up's knocker-up didn't knock our knocker up
So our knocker-up didn't knock us up
'Cos he's not up.
You know it’s really important to set personal boundaries, but it’s hard! The moment for saying No seems to slip past and now you’re planning a hen’s night for a woman from work that you don’t even like. People will tell you to practise by starting small – “I would like a table near the window, thanks.” “I don’t want mayo on my sandwich, please.”
– but sometimes a good way to improve is to throw yourself in the deep end. This week, try saying one of the following things when someone suggests something you’re not interested in:
- You’re dead to me.
- I have no son (co-worker, waitress, etc.).
- If I ever see you here again, I’m calling the cops.
Okay good luck!
Plant herbs and harvest metal
Gosh this is cool. So there's land that's useless for agriculture because it's contaminated with metal, such as nickel. And there are plants that suck up huge amounts of nickel and store it in their leaves ('hyperaccumulators'). You plant the plants, wait, harvest them, burn them, and collect huge amounts of metal from the ashes, which you can sell. And now your land is arable again as well. It's called phyto-mining, and everybody wins. It's especially good in former warzones (lotta metal has leached into the ground). Salt-accumulating plants can be used to remediate land that's been flooded with seawater.
The only reason this hasn't been done extensively is that the company that funded the research on phyto-mining patented it, and then just sat on the patents. We still don't know why. The researchers (one of whom is now a botanist at Melbourne Uni) were not allowed to continue their work.
But the patents have recently expired, and everything is getting pretty exciting. Full article.
Passive-Aggressive Art Gallery
"Based out of my home in Hollywood, CA, my passive-aggressive art gallery, which spotlights ignorance of basic responsibility and courtesy for others in shared spaces, has been thriving, although some critics don't care for my emphasis on found pieces."
Artist: Justin Cousson
Top: "CHEESE KNIFE" - mixed-media, 2017 - $500 - SOLD
L: "Sour Cream-Covered Spoon Left In Sink Before Leaving Town For Four Days" - mixed-media (metal, porcelain, sour cream, filth), 2017 - $3400
R: "Shoes on Shoe Rack (Nearly)" - mixed-media, 2017 - $650 - SOLD
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Reader question time!
"I used a whole bottle of Head and Shoulders and I still have dandruff, should I buy a second bottle or just accept my fate?"
The correct answer is probably “go see a dermatologist” but we all know experts are just a scam perpetuated by Big University, and anyway, I got this one:
You probably don’t have dandruff.
A lot of people think “dandruff” means “flakes in my hair and also I don’t wear black shirts anymore”. But dandruff is a fungal infection, and there are other things that can cause a flaky scalp, like eczema, dermatitis or just dryness. (If you generally have dry skin, you’ll likely have a dry scalp as well).
You know what’s really drying? Dandruff shampoo! (Because it’s a fungicide – it’s not meant to be soothing or moisturising.)
Actually most shampoos are pretty drying because we have a cultural obsession with suds, but foaming agents (usually sodium lauryl sulphate / SLS) are quite harsh. They’re alkaline, and your skin is acidic, so it really doesn’t like this. Hence cleansers that use the phrase “pH balanced” or “pH 5.5”.
(If you have irritated/dry/acneic skin on your body, it can be helped by using a low-pH shampoo or by leaning forward so the run-off doesn’t go over your body.)
CO wash (Conditioner Only). Conditioners are emulsifiers (they allow oil and water to mix), which is the only requirement for something to clean you. But conditioner is a lot more gentle than shampoo. This works well for some people. (Similarly, you can use moisturiser as a gentle soap).
Good-for-scalp shampoo: I’ve tried about a billion shampoos with words like “nourishing” and “hydrating” in the names, and the only one I’ve ever found that stopped my flaky scalp is Hope’s Relief Scalp Care Shampoo. Every time I run out I buy some other brand because I'm lazy and I always regret it. They talk up the anti-inflammatory herbs and stuff in it but it’s honestly probably 90% that it’s ph-balanced and has no foaming agents. You do have to be cool about the non-standard texture (it's super runny) and the low-suds, but it’s probably good to break down your social conditioning anyway. It’s hard to find in chemists but easy online. You don't need the matching conditioner because all conditioners are moisturising pretty much.
Also, if you get recurrent mouth ulcers, or rashes or acne just around your mouth, try an SLS-free toothpaste because it might be the problem. (This is an established Thing, not vague anti-chemical nonsense btw).
Ask me a question on literally any topic except contemporary politics. You can ask by replying to this email: email@example.com – let me know if you want to be named and/or linked.
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