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The Whippet #126: iota, jot, scintilla, whit, shred, scrap, trace, crumb, smidgin, morsel, mote, dab

McKinley Valentine — 10 min read

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Something neat about the kids’ show Blues Clues:

So, when a mystery writer is writing a book / film / tv show — let’s say show — their target is for you, the audience, to figure out who did it just a few minutes before the detective does. If you figure it out too early, you’ll get bored. And if you figure it out after the show reveals it, you lose the joy of solving a puzzle and feeling clever.

(The writer is not aiming to outsmart you, because they’re not in competition with you. They’re trying to create something fun for you. If you figure it out just a bit before it’s revealed, I’m sorry, you have not outsmarted the writer, you have fallen exactly into their trap, the trap of “having an enjoyable experience”.)

In trying to figure out who the murderer is, we base our guesses as much on narrative tropes as realistic likelihood. If you’re watching a murder mystery, and in the first five minutes you meet a super suspicious character who’s clearly lying about their alibi, you’re like “well he definitely didn’t do it,” because you know the tropes of murder mysteries.

Preschoolers are a) not familiar with narrative tropes and b) not particularly good at deductive reasoning.

When Blues Clues first aired, it showed the same episode for 5 days in a row, and only introduced a new episode each Monday. Which is a super-strange format. But it meant that by Thursday or Friday, kids could guess the answer to a mystery and get it right, something they’ve never been able to do before. They get to have the same experience we do when we watch mysteries!

Apart from being a neat fact, it’s an example of how to do good writing. Rather than saying “mystery shows have such-and-such trope, so I’m going to put that trope in my show”, they’ve gone “mystery shows create such-and-such an effect in their audience, so I am going to think about who my audience is and what tools I can use to create that effect for them.”

There, now you are all basically copywriters, please enjoy your new career.

Sidenote, I’m sadly about at the speed of the Blues Clues viewers. I re-watch crime shows and think I’ve picked up on some subtle clue and am being very clever, only to have the lead detective point out the clue and how it relates the murder in the final confrontation. Turns out I just had the clue fully explained to me, forgot about it, and thought I was coming up with the insight myself.

“We performed magic tricks on birds to see how they perceive the world”

Speaking of intentionally using techniques to create an effect for the audience: magic tricks! But in this case they’re trying to understand their audience better by seeing which magic tricks work on them.

The first two tricks they tried, palming and the French Drop, rely on expectations of what hand movements mean. If I’m holding something in my right hand, and move it across and touch my left hand, you expect that I’ve passed the item across.

Little is known about corvids’ preconceptions of human hand motions or whether they have similar expectations as us when observing transfers of objects between hands. Birds don’t have hands, so we wanted to find out whether they understand what hand movements should mean.

They do not. They were not fooled by either of these tricks. (Note how similar this is to adults’ knowledge of narrative tropes, and how writers can use our expectations to surprise us).

Bird not being fooled by a French Drop

The third trick is called a Fast Pass and does not rely on expectations. Instead, the magician throws the item (in this case, birdseed) from hand to hand quicker than the eye can notice.

The birds were fooled by this one. There’s a gif in the full article, but I will cushion your disappointment by telling you the bird’s reaction is less “whattttt how’d he do that?!” and more “oh, no seed. guess I’ll just move on with my life.” Tough crowd.

Also neat: They chose Eurasian Jays for the experiment, because:

“Corvids hide food they can retrieve later, a behaviour known as caching. But if another corvid is watching them hide the food, they run the risk of their cache being stolen.”

To get around this, they use misdirection, such as “hiding food discreetly in one spot while pretending to hide it in many other places, making it difficult for the observer to spot the real cache.”

Why Switzerland is so famous for watch-making

So, okay, mostly because they have a bunch of skilled artisans and many decades of refining their craft, and once an area has a few skilled people, it attracts more, like Shenzhen.

But an interesting second reason is that during World War 2, pretty much all production of everything was diverted to the military, and watch-makers were diverted to making timing devices for military ordnance (e.g. making sure torpedoes explode when they are near an enemy ship and not when they are still near yours).

Switzerland, being neutral and a non-participant, did not do any of this, so they had basically a complete monopoly on the civilian watch market for seven years, which set them up to dominate it for decades and decades afterwards.

Everything you learn turns out to be connected to a hundred other things.


You might have noticed that ‘temple’ looks a lot like ‘template’ for words that mean nothing remotely similar.

Here’s how it goes: you’re Roman, and you want to build a temple, but you want to make sure it’s built in a direction and shape that pleases the god you’re building it for. So you consult an augur (like an oracle), and they divine the will of the gods, and say: “this is where you should put it and which way it should face”. The augur makes the template for it.

(the word ‘template’ is much more recent, but they both come from the same root. Temple as in the ones on your head is unrelated, it comes from the word ‘temp’, to stretch, as in stretched skin)


So iota — as in “it doesn’t make an iota of difference” or whatever — is the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet. (The Greek alphabet: another one of the weird niches of knowledge we’ve all become au fait with as a result of the pandemic.)

So it gets used to mean “a tiny thing, the smallest thing”. Jot, as in, “not a jot of difference”, same meaning, same word. Remembering that j can make a y sounds (like in German, ja), and then say a word like iota and you will see that it comes out like i-yota. so, j = y = i

I’ve never thought about it before, but maybe that’s also why y can replace an i as a vowel sound as well. Linguists, feel free to yell at me in the comments:

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Bonus letter face, W is the same. Double-u. If you go from an oo (uu) sound to another vowel, you automatically make a w when you transition, just like with the i-yota. oo-ell, oo-ater.

Everything you learn turns out to be connected to a hundred other things

Thee iota/jot thing and the WW2/Swiss watches thing are both instances of the  intrinsic joy in finding out how two separate pieces of knowledge connect, and start to build a web.

There’s a couple of quotes from Damon Knight’s essay in Turning Points that relate to that joy:

It seems to me that the more you train your mind to perceive order, the more joy you are likely to get from the perception.

(Order in the sense of patterns and heuristics, not “proper behaviour and rules”.)

Once you learn one thing, whatever it is, however niche, it becomes easier to learn other things:

Any system that helps you understand the world around you is valuable. Natural history, biology, ethnology, physics, geology.... You must have knowledge to make the nets in which other knowledge is caught.

(The book is Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction. They’re essays on scifi and writing craft from a bunch of golden age scifi writers, Isaac Asimov, Joanna Russ, Robert Heinlein, etc. Some of the them feel pretty obsolete but the Damon Knight essays and “Journey With a Little Man” by Richard McKenna are worth the $4 ebook price alone.)

Owls of God

Waking from Sleep

Robert Bly
Inside the veins there are navies setting forth,
Tiny explosions at the waterlines,
And seagulls weaving in the wind of the salty blood.

It is the morning. The country has slept the whole winter.
Window seats were covered with fur skins, the yard was full
Of stiff dogs, and hands that clumsily held heavy books.

Now we wake, and rise from bed, and eat breakfast!
Shouts rise from the harbor of the blood,
Mist, and masts rising, the knock of wooden tackle in the sunlight.

Now we sing, and do tiny dances on the kitchen floor.
Our whole body is like a harbor at dawn;
We know that our master has left us for the day.

Sometimes getting up feels like an enormous undertaking, but at least we can imagine it as a triumphant one.

via Poetry Foundation

A neural network attempts to make an issue of The Whippet

As you can see, it’s gone extremely literal. That would be:

  • an upsetting whippet
  • terrifying elf version of assassinated former US president William McKinley
  • rose petals (aka Valentine)
  • general newsletterishness
  • and what I think is probably a whippet racing league logo or something

Instructions for using it yourself

(The “I do not understand anything remotely code-related and do not wish to” version)

  1. Go to this link
  2. Leave everything alone except the following.
  3. Don’t panic if you double-click and something changes, it’s fine.
  4. If you’re not in the ‘Parameters’ section, scroll down to it.
  5. Where it says ‘prompts’, type in the text that you want it to try and make an image of. Put a | in between prompts you want to keep separate.
  6. Go to Runtime (menu along the top) and select ‘Run All’.
  7. Wait for ages.
  8. If it’s maybe not doing anything, scroll to the top for the section “Google Drive Integration (optional)” — one time it made me click on something and log into google and then paste a text string back in. But not other times (???)
  9. When it has made enough images for you (under the ‘Execution’ section), go to Runtime then Interrupt Execution.
  10. More detailed instructions are <at this link>.
  11. If it does not work, do not ask me for help, I’m sorry, I know nothing. This is just how I’ve got it to work.

Note 1: A fun prompt to add is “in the style of [Artist’s Name]”, Warhol or Waterhouse or whatever

Note 2: Adding the following prompt phrases will often make it look more HD in a surreal way:

  • photorealistic
  • hyperrealistic
  • unreal engine

Note 3: it’s super slow. The first image it generates will just be a grey square, and it will make more and more, refining them closer to the target. So leave it alone for a while and come back.

Note 4: it will keep making infinite images so don’t leave it alone for hours.

Note 3: if you like an image, take a screenshot before trying to save it, because saving it might crash your browser.

I tried adding the word “hyperrealistic” onto the word prompt, and got this:

Unsolicited Advice: Don’t let an algorithm write your advice column

[Today’s UA was written by NovelAI: I fed it some previous Unsolicited Advice and it generated this.]

People who want to get more out of life often think they need to change the way they interact. And they’ll look at their current friends and family and see “that’s not working” and “they could do better”.

The problem with this thinking is: “That’s not working” and “They could do better” are both based on a false premise.

I am not a good friend.

I know this because I’ve spent years and years asking my friends to do stuff and then getting angry when they didn’t do it.

I’ve been in situations where a bunch of people were doing something together, and I’ve thought “why won’t anyone do xxx? It’s so much easier than yyyy!” And then I’ve realised the reason no one was doing xxx was because they weren’t invited.

[Oh my god AI McKinley is the worst! — Real McKinley]

Sometimes I try to invite people over and they don’t show up. Sometimes they arrive late and leave early.

This isn’t a failure on my part. This is a sign they’re not a good fit for me.

If I’m the only one that’s doing something, I’m going to be disappointed. If I’m the only person in a group of people doing something, I’m going to feel like I can’t trust any of them.

So if I do stuff with you, I’m not expecting you to do all the work.

You’re there as a witness, you’re there to make sure I’m not alone.


Wayyyy more user-friendly than the visual one, but costs $10 to access.

  1. Go to NovelAI and sign up.
  2. Click New Story.
  3. Paste a bunch of text into the blank document.
  4. Hit Send. It will generate a sentence.
  5. Keep hitting Send to generate more.
  6. If you don’t like a direction it’s taken, delete that part and hit Send again.

Thanks for reading! I hope linking to those algorithmic image/text generators does not throw you into a procrastination black hole!

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