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I want to share a quote with you that I think about a lot.
It’s from a book called Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino, towards the end when it starts getting philosophical.
A person, for example, reads in adulthood a book that is important for him, and it makes him say, “How could I have lived without reading it!” and also, “What a pity I did not read it in my youth!” Well, these statements do not have much meaning, especially the second, because after he has read that book, his life becomes the life of a person who has read that book, and it is of little importance whether he read it early or late, because now his life before that reading also assumes a form shaped by that reading.
What it means is something that is both completely obvious and completely impossible: the present changes the past.
Impossible because that is not the direction time flows in (don’t @ me quantum physicists), but obvious because of course new information changes how you see the past. Like: being diagnosed with ADHD made me look back at previous events and understand them very differently, I can see the pattern in what used to be a bunch of disparate challenges and modes of thinking.
Or: you learn what a healthy relationship looks like, and you suddenly realise your past relationships were very much not healthy.
Also, we know that human memories aren’t static, like files that are stored and retrieved, they’re recreated every time and change all the time, without even having the decency to let you know they’ve changed.
There was an article in the Atlantic the other week — What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind — which is about how the different members of a family react to losing someone in 9/11, over the course of 20 years. It’s really interesting because they all have very different memories of what they were told, what they did afterwards, etc. No one is lying, why would they. But they can’t all be right.
The journalist tracks down old diaries and notes and so on, so she can compare what they remember in 2021 vs what they said in 2021, and I think you can kind of tell how messed up each person is by how easily they accept that they’ve misremembered. Some people are like “well, of course, I was a huge grieving mess then” and others rigidly hold onto their current version of the facts, even when presented with contradictory notes in their own handwriting. It’s completely fascinating.
That Mr Palomar quote makes it easier for me to feel like one’s past isn’t dead, it’s still a living resource, which makes it easier not to feel too desperate about the passing of time.
In Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (which I finally got around to reading like a week ago, but then it is of little importance whether a person reads a book early or late), he says that we shouldn’t think of the past as spent, and only the future as having value. Instead, your past is a locked treasury, in which you can store away years and achievements, safe and untouchable. And that you shouldn’t view aging as running out of time, but with satisfaction at having stacked away more and more things into your treasury.
Which kind of suggests the opposite of the Mr Palomar quote, that your past can’t be changed by your present, but idk, you’re allowed to rummage around in your storehouse and rearrange things, I don’t think that makes the ideas incompatible.
How to Hold Animals
A book by Toshimitsu Matsuhashi
Honestly, I don’t really have any commentary, I’m just delighted by the existence of this book, and its ‘does what it says on the tin’ title.
like a baby
Incidentally, I had a look at the reviews on Good Reads, and it’s pretty funny, there’s a lot of two-star reviews from people who do not think children should be encouraged to hold animals, and like, how did you not know what you were getting into when you bought this book. They could not have telegraphed the contents more clearly.
(The reviewers are also kind of confused about how books for kids work. Kids can’t do practically anything, 95% of kids books are aspirational for things they might do in the future.)
Speaking of holding animals: this poisonous bird
For people who worry about this kind of thing: the bird is fine, it’s clinging to him at one point (rather than him holding it) and it flies away freely after a few seconds. He caught it as part of an ecological survey where they catch birds in mist nets, measure them, and release them.
From the twitter thread
Does the poison have any other effects?
on humans, no, but probably has strong effects on predators that might attack the birds (or parasites that might attack the birds) the poison is in the skin, feathers and even several organs
Have you personally licked your fingers after handling one?
yes, had to try!
Do they make the poison themself, or is it from something they eat?
yup, they eat a type of beetle that has the neurotoxin, then put the toxin into their own body (“sequester” it). they can’t produce the toxin themselves... this particular neurotoxin is the same one that some poison dart frogs have; the frogs also get it from their diet
Follow Ben Freeman for bird/science type tweets.
There’s a pretty fun-to-read study from 1947 titled The Edibility of Birds: Illustrated by Five Years’ Experiments and Observations (1941–1946) on the Food Preferences of the Hornet, Cat and Man; and considered with Special Reference to the Theories of Adaptive Coloration.
Basically they left a bunch of dead birds out in pairs, to see which one hornets and cats preferred to eat (I assume this isn’t the method they used with men, but it doesn’t say).
Two main conclusions:
- Hornets, cats and men have pretty much the same taste in birds
- The more inconspicuous and drab-coloured a bird is, the better it tastes (sorry, I mean there’s “an inverse correlation between visibility status and edibility status”).
Do with that information what you will.
Almond milk is older than cow’s milk
Okay, milk from cows is obviously not new, but people didn’t drink it at scale because unpasteurised milk goes bad in a matter of hours. Drinking milk is a post-refrigeration phenomenon. Before that, you fermented the milk so it could be stored for a decent amount of time. Cheese is old, milk is new. (It’s an interesting way to think about food: so much of it is just ways of making food not go bad when you don’t have refrigeration. The point of jam is less “delicious treat” and more “keep the fruit from rotting” — preserve it, even.)
Almond milk, meanwhile, dates back to at least to the Middle Ages, in Europe and the Islamic world. Almonds can be stored for a long time, and then the milk can be made fresh on the day, in the small quantity you need. Also, you were allowed to eat it during Lent and Ramadan and other fasting days and ‘fish’ days.
Guillaume Tirel, the 14th century cook to the Court of France, made almond milk soups, while the Normans used it to make tarts and pottage. 14th century Venetians used the nut milk to make sugar-dusted doughnuts for Carnival and medieval Catalans used it to make broete de madama, a luxurious combination of almond milk, chicken broth, pine nuts, eggs, vinegar, ginger, pepper, galangal and saffron.
I didn’t mention soymilk because I feel like that’s obviously quite old, what with tofu and tempeh being traditional foods, but pretty much every culture has some form of plant milk dating back forever.
Not oat milk though. Oat milk was invented in the 90s.
“Uninvited” by Lucy Heffernan (2016)
This short story is pretty broad satire (i.e., not subtle) but does satire need to be subtle to be good? Sometimes broad is fun. And the rhythm of the language is a delight.
by Italo Calvino
Came a war and a guy called Luigi asked if he could go, as a volunteer.
Everyone was full of praise. Luigi went to the place where they were handing out the rifles, took one and said: “Now I’m going to go and kill a guy called Alberto.”
They asked him who Alberto was.
“An enemy,” he answered, “an enemy of mine.”
They explained to him that he was supposed to be killing enemies of a certain type, not whoever he felt like.
“So?” said Luigi. “You think I’m dumb? This Alberto is precisely that type, one of them. When I heard you were going to war against that lot, I thought: I’ll go too, that way I can kill Alberto. That’s why I came. I know that Alberto: he’s a crook. He betrayed me, for next to nothing he made me make a fool of myself with a woman. It’s an old story. If you don’t believe me, I’ll tell you the whole thing.”
They said fine, it was okay.
“Right then,” said Luigi, “tell me where Alberto is and I’ll go there and I’ll fight.”
They said they didn’t know.
“Doesn’t matter,” Luigi said. “I’ll find someone to tell me. Sooner or later I’ll catch up with him.”
They said he couldn’t do that, he had to go and fight where they sent him, and kill whoever happened to be there. They didn’t know anything about this Alberto.
“You see,” Luigi insisted, “I really will have to tell you the story. Because that guy is a real crook and you’re doing the right thing going to fight against him.”
But the others didn’t want to know.
Luigi couldn’t see reason: “Sorry, it may be all the same to you if I kill one enemy or another, but I’d be upset if I killed someone who had nothing to do with Alberto.”
The others lost their patience. One of them gave him a good talking to and explained what war was all about and how you couldn’t go and kill the particular enemy you wanted to.
Luigi shrugged. “If that’s how it is,” he said, “you can count me out.”
“You’re in and you’re staying in,” they shouted.
“Forward march, one-two, one-two!” And they sent him off to war.
Luigi wasn’t happy. He’d kill people, offhand, just to see if he might get Alberto, or one of his family. They gave him a medal for every enemy he killed, but he wasn’t happy. “If I don’t kill Alberto,” he thought, “I’ll have killed a load of people for nothing.” And he felt bad.
Meantime they were giving him one medal after another, silver, gold, everything.
Luigi thought: “Kill some today, kill some tomorrow, there’ll be less of them, that crook’s turn is bound to come.”
But the enemy surrendered before Luigi could find Alberto. He felt bad he’d killed so many people for nothing, and since they were at peace now he put all his medals in a bag and went around enemy country giving them away to the wives and children of the dead.
Going around like this, he ran into Alberto.
“Good,” he said, “better late than never,” and he killed him.
That was when they arrested him, tried him for murder and hanged him. At the trial he said over and over that he had done it to settle his conscience, but nobody listened to him.
If you want to read something by Italo Calvino, I recommend, can you guess, Mr Palomar. It’s a short, funny book that is largely about a neurotic guy winding himself in circles. Recommended especially for overthinkers: you’ll recognise the thought patterns, but they’re taken to absurd extremity, and it’s a lot of fun. And then it gets surprisingly existential and moving.
Even though it is a very different book, parts of it remind me of Catch-22 — the parts when you’re in the head of one of the more paranoid narrators like Colonel Cathcart.
Unsolicited Advice: Free co-working sessions for people struggling to focus
Body-doubling is the ADHD strategy in which you basically work alongside someone who is also busy working (not talking). For some reason it makes a huge difference in our ability to focus.
The pandemic has shot everyone’s executive function to hell so you could probably benefit from body-doubling too! Especially if it’s a side project that you really want to so, but keep putting off. It’s also good for life admin that’s started piling up, or something you typically put off because it sucks (like processing emails).
The best way is to make it a little bit targeted, so plan a time, decide exactly what you want to work on, and put it in your calendar. And now that so much more is online, this is way easier to organise! You can organise a co-working session with a friend over Zoom, but ALSO:
FocusMate! FocusMate is a service that matches you up with a random stranger for a 50- or 25-minute co-working session. It’s free for 3 sessions a week, $5/month for unlimited sessions.
25 minutes is good if you are a freelancer and kind of a slug in the mornings — you can book it in for 9 and just use it to plan your day, so the morning doesn’t slip away from you.
Reasons you might choose FocusMate over sessions with friends:
- It’s a set appointment time that you book in advance and have to show up for. You can’t just send a text and say you won’t make it, and neither can they. (If you repeatedly show up late to sessions, you’ll eventually get banned.)
- Not tempted to socialise — it’s 30-60 seconds of ‘what is your goal for this session’ and then you get started.
- Not obligated to socialise — if you’re an introvert, you can end up avoiding a work session because you’re not up for the socialisation before it, especially if you’re scheduling a lot of these
- Timing is a lot more flexible — there’s always someone around at the hour you want to book, day or night
- It’s not either/or, you can do both
Link to FocusMate (I do not get any money from them, it’s just a super-handy service).
I strongly recommend deciding in advance what you want to do with the time — if you show up with the vague intention to do “stuff you’ve been meaning to do”, you’ll get less out of it.
One way around that is to spend the first 5 minutes of the session (set a timer), for deciding what you’re going to do in the remaining 45 minutes.
FocusMate anti-harassment protections
(no need to read this, but I know it’s going to be the #1 barrier for a lot of people)
I’ve always avoided FocusMate in the past because I just don’t feel safe enough to be put on a videocall with a random internet stranger (think about what happened to Omegle and ChatRoulette, within like… minutes of their launch).
But! It turns out the makers are aware that if you want to be a productivity site not an unsolicited dick pic site then you need to have strict, well-enforced community guidelines with quick moderator response times. (I say “strict” but their guidelines are really just “normal professional behaviour” — wear pants, don’t hit on people, don’t try to sell them Herbalife.) Also, if you’re a woman you can choose to only have focus sessions with women; if you’re trans/non-binary, you can choose to exclude cis people; if you’re a man, you can choose to only match with other men, etc. No one’s gender is made public and “prefer not to say” is an option or you can just not answer that question. (More details on their gender inclusion policy here.)
I suspect because of that policy, they attract fewer creeps in the first place, and don’t actually end up having to do a tonne of active moderation.
Thanks for reading! I might be a bit slow replying to comments/emails this week, but I always read them all.
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