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The Whippet #132: My books are getting ruined and birds wake me before dawn

McKinley Valentine — 8 min read

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Hi, good morning! Less rambling up top, more rambling later!

The US postal service used to stab everyone’s mail, for reasons

wooden paddle covered in rows of spikes

and by ‘stab’ I mean ‘make holes in it with a spiky paddle’.

During epidemics, such as yellow fever epidemics in the 1800s, mail would be fumigated — blasted with sulfur fumes — to kill any disease. (As far as I know, sulfur fumes don’t kill the yellow fever virus, but it’s okay because the virus couldn’t be spread by mail anyway

In 1887, General F.E. Spinner, a former U.S. Treasurer, wrote the following to a Vermont friend:

“Your very kind letter—came here—punched as full of holes as your Donax sieve, and smelling of hellfire and brimstone—let a clean letter come from the pure of the Green Mountains and the cursed fools at the fumigating station seize it, punch it so that it is almost illegible, then pump an unbearable stink into it.”

It wasn’t completely crazy — smallpox and anthrax can be spread via the mail (accidentally as well as deliberately). Since the 2001 ‘sending anthrax to government officials’ thing, mail sent to zipcodes associated with US government agencies has been routinely irradiated at sorting centres.

[More in-depth article at The Smithsonian. Note this article is a year+ old, so it’s not a red flag that it says there’s no vaccine for Covid.]

You might remember at the start of the pandemic, that everyone was worried about mail and groceries and wiping them down or leaving them untouched for a while, and then we found out that it’s not actually spread by surface contact, but by aerosols?

And that that has been really really hard to get people to internalise? People are still like, “aerosols, got it, anyway, please take this hand sanitiser and stand with me in an unventilated room.”

I saw a piece of comms that I wish I’d seen wayyyy earlier: “Covid spreads like smoke, not like dirt.”

That is so much easier to understand than “aerosols”! I think people would have actually got why outside is safer than inside, and social distancing isn’t enough in an enclosed space.

Song Dynasty Cat Poems

or in Xiran Jay Zhao’s words:

how Song dynasty poet Lu You poem-liveblogged his descent from cat owner to cat slave 800 years ago

The year is 1183. Down On His Luck scholar-official Lu You gets a cat because rats keep munching on his books.
The effects are GREAT!! Lu You is delighted!!

Here he writes two more poems about how happy he is with his new cat, and gets another cat, Snowy [read them here].

and then cat #3, Pink-Nose!!! it seems that Lu You's cats have fish to eat now, but Pink-Nose seems to be slacking on its mice-eradicating duties...?
it finally hits Lu You, what has happened. he has made a terrible mistake, spoiling his cats so much. they're not working anymore. there is no going back. this is his life now. a life full of rats and birds his cats refuse to kill.

His final poem [here] is about giving up and accepting his fate.

I’ve left some of the poems out, so it’s worth looking at the whole twitter thread. Also, Xiran Jay Zhao is an author who recently published a book that’s “Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale”, check it out if that sounds good to you.

Yayagram: A machine to helps beloved elders keep in touch with their grandchildren

Yiayia means “grandma” in Greek; TIL yaya means grandma in Castillian Spanish.

The Yayagram was made by a guy called Manu and has two features:

  • Send voice messages via Telegram by just pressing a button.
  • Receive Telegram messages and physically print them on thermal paper.

(Telegram is a messenger app which I recommend if you’re not already using it — gets you away from Facebook-owned comms, but is also just way more useful and user-friendly and non-irritating.)

When you want to message a grandchild, you plug the jack in next to the right name, press and hold the red record button and speak into the mic. When you release the red button, the voice message is automatically sent to that person via Telegram.

When someone sends YOU a message via Telegram, it prints out on thermal paper so you can read it easily.

There are three LEDs to give the Yaya more information. One to show the Yayagram receives power, another one to show it’s connected to Telegram, and the last one to show you are recording a voice message.

Further notes from Manu:

  • My Yaya suffers from arthritis so using a virtual keyboard on a tablet is out of her scope.
  • My Yaya suffers from hearing problems so using a Phone is usually hard. Moreover, she relies on my parents to take or make a call. Video calls are also not ideal.
  • The Yayagram allows my Yaya to be more independent and start conversations with her grandchildren.

This is so smart, and so thoughtful and actually meets a person’s need. More things to be made that way.

This twitter thread has the full details of how it was made, what items, what to solder, etc.

He has the full instructions including source code etc. on his website, and you can also pay him to make one for you; it’s not even crazy-expensive, less than a lot of phones cost. Link here.

Siena: Vendor Eating Spaghetti in his Hut (1950)

Jean-Philippe Charbonnier, Sienne », vendeur mangeant des spaghettis dans sa cabane ca. 1950

via Sardonicus on twitter, whom I will never stop ganking photos from. “Who curates the curator?” as they say.

Short story, PS if you’re not liking these, I’m only gonna share one more next issue and then we’re done: my three favourites

The Flash

by Italo Calvino

It happened one day, at a crossroads, in the middle of a crowd, people coming and going.

I stopped, blinked: I understood nothing. Nothing, nothing about anything: I didn’t understand the reasons for things or for people, it was all senseless, absurd. And I started to laugh.

What I found strange at the time was that I’d never realized before. That up until then I had accepted everything: traffic lights, cars, posters, uniforms, monuments, things completely detached from any sense of the world, accepted them as if there were some necessity, some chain of cause and effect that bound them together.

Then the laugh died in my throat. I blushed, ashamed. I waved to get people’s attention and “Stop a second!” I shouted, “there’s something wrong! Everything’s wrong! We are doing the absurdist things! This can’t be the right way! Where will it end?”

People stopped around me, sized me up, curious. I stood there in the middle of them, waving my arms, desperate to explain myself, to have them share the flash of insight that had suddenly enlightened me: and I said nothing. I said nothing because the moment I’d raised my arms and opened my mouth, my great revelation had been as it were swallowed up again and the words had come out any old how, on impulse.

“So?” people asked, “what do you mean? Everything is in its place. All is as it should be. Everything is a result of something else. Everything fits in with everything else. We cannot see anything absurd or wrong!”

And I stood there, lost, because as I saw it now everything had fallen into place again and everything seemed natural, traffic lights, monuments, uniforms, towerblocks, tramlines, beggars, processions; yet this didn’t calm me down, it tormented me.

“I’m sorry,” I answered. “Perhaps it was me that was wrong. It seemed that way. But everything’s fine. I’m sorry,” and I made off amid their angry glares.

Yet, even now, every time (often) that I find I don’t understand something, then, instinctively, I’m filled with the hope that perhaps this will be my moment again, perhaps once again I shall understand nothing, I shall grasp that other knowledge, found and lost in an instant.

When I first read this, I was shook by how perfectly it managed to point to a specific experience I’ve had. I’ve shown it to some people and their reaction has been, “yes, lots of the modern world is pretty crazy, but we just take it for granted” but that’s intellectual, that’s not (I don’t think) the experience he’s pointing to. It’s not just some thoughts, it’s a heightened emotional state — like how deja vu isn’t just an opinion that the same thing has happened before, it’s an intense, hard to articulate emotion that slips out of your grasp if you try to pin it down in the moment.

It occurs to me reading it now that the experience he’s describing is a form of dissociation/derealisation. Which I think just goes to show that the Western tendency to pathologise all non-standard brain patterns is kind of ham-fisted. What I mean is: there’s good dissociation and bad dissociation, helpful hallucinations and harmful ones. (In a lot of other cultures, people who ‘hear voices’ often perceive hear friendly and comforting voices rather than threatening ones — source.)

I mean I completely get why you would put the attention and resources into people who are suffering, rather than people who experience derealisation as brief and pleasant, but it leaves you without much of a framework to talk about the rest.

Why you feel worse after a nap and more tired on holiday

Okay so sleep inertia is a thing (you feel groggy for a bit after waking up) and sometimes you walk for hours and hours when you visit a new city.

But there’s another reason:

When you’re overworked and overstressed, you’re full of adrenaline and cortisol, and that’s masking your fatigue like a bunch of black coffee would.

When you get some rest, your body calms down a bit, and so you feel how tired you actually have been the whole time. You feel worse because you really needed the rest.


Unsolicited Advice: Have a nap. I know I know it’s not that simple.

Thank you so much for reading!

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Take care of yourselves x


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