Skip to content

The Whippet #134: Those that tremble as if they were mad

McKinley Valentine — 8 min read

On this page

Good morning!

I wrote out how I was doing but it was all “first weeks out of lockdown” cliches and I know Australia was kind of early to the lockdown game and late to the vaccine game so I figure you’ve heard them all before.

Still, it’s been nice.


Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

In a Jorge Luis Borges essay, he cites a (made-up-by-Borges) Chinese encyclopedia that divides all animals into the following 14 categories:

  1. Those that belong to the Emperor
  2. Embalmed ones
  3. Those that are trained
  4. Suckling pigs
  5. Mermaids
  6. Fantastical ones
  7. Stray dogs
  8. Those included in the present classification
  9. Those that tremble as if they were mad
  10. Innumerable ones
  11. Those drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush
  12. Others
  13. Those that have just broken a flower vase
  14. Those that from a long way off look like flies

This is just a completely delightful list, and we could leave it there.

But we will not! In the essay [PDF here], he’s talking about how attempts at universal categorisation invariably become ridiculous. Heaps of the categories above would be quite useful in a given situation, but when you try and fit all animals into them and put all the categories together in a single list, it becomes useless and deranged.

It’s like the adage, “all models are false, but some models are useful.”

I’m a huge fan of categorising people and things (cf. the two kinds of conversationalists, or Rounds vs Pointys  ← that one is by Rosa Lyster and is excellent, read it if you haven’t) but you gotta know when to apply them. Like ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ are useful categories for navigating friendships, but very bad ones for deciding who to give chemotherapy to.

If you own a coffee shop, the categories you want for deciding who to give keys to are probably ‘employee vs customer’ not ‘confident people vs timid people’.

Sidenote, it is actually pretty fun to think of categories (metals and non-metals) and then situations they would be a poor decision-making tool for (should I feed it to a baby). So there’s a free lil mental game for you if you’re bored.

Leave a comment

This is why the “actually, tomato is a fruit,” people are so irritating. They’re applying “botanical name for the part of the plant” categories to the decision of “what meals would this taste good in?” It’s a different category set. It would be exactly as accurate and meaningful to say “actually, tomatoes aren’t a vegetable, tomatoes are red. I like to categorise foods by true but irrelevant features, and then insist that anyone who doesn’t use my unhelpful category system is factually wrong.”

Whether or not someone would say “actually, tomato is a fruit” is the categorisation system we should use for deciding who goes to jail. (I realise given the number of readers, statistically some of you probably say the tomato thing, and are feeling quite offended now. If it helps, the jail would have a good rehabilitation program.)

David Byrne (of Talking Heads) also read that Borges essay

and created a series of drawings called Arboretum (as in, collection of trees).

The artist explains:

In the Borges essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” he describes a Chinese system of categorization that breaks down the world into Things The Emperor Owns and Everything Else. Claude Lévi- Strauss claimed that one of the most basic categories we humans have is “Can I eat it?” and then, “Do I like to eat it?”

The way we categorize and perceive the world is sometimes based on what seem like arbitrary criteria. For example, there could be intersecting layers of categories: brown things, brown things that are alive, brown things that will hurt me, brown things that make nice pants material. One imagines a kind of plaid semi-translucent three-dimensional Venn diagram representing these categories and their intersections.

The number of categories in the world is, therefore, larger than the number of things in the world.

There are over 200 drawings in Arboretum, you can see a few of them at his website and some different ones at The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings).

“Human Content” by David Byrne

You can also buy the book of drawings at wherever you buy books.

Useful site for casual NFL watchers and nobody else

Spoiler-Free Scores is a site where people rank games from Mediocre through Average to Great and Must See, but without showing the scores.

So if you only occasionally watch NFL, you can check what games were on and pick a good one. Since I started using the site to decide, I’ve watched an absolutely excellent, nail-biting game each week.

It doesn’t have a tonne of users so if you’re a more-than-casual NFL watcher you could help out by voting.

(The site also has tabs for baseball, premier league, bundesliga and so on, but none of those currently have users voting on games, so it’s not useful.)

This is a real diagram from a study into whether seals can see the stars ✨❤

For science reasons: There is a theory that seals navigate by the stars like old-timey sailors (“astronavigate”), but how can we prove it? Well, Step 1, to be able to navigate by the stars, you need to be able to see the stars. Seals’ eyes are adapted to seeing underwater, so the lens shape and so on might mean they have pretty poor eyesight out of water.

In this experiment, scientists taught a seal to look through a tube (“seal telescope”) and rewarded it when it reacted to the “star” (an artificial light they put in the tube). Once it’s trained, they can just set up an empty tube for it to look through, and see if it notices the stars coming out. [ABSTRACT]

The seal reliably detected Venus or Sirius becoming suddenly visible when the telescope was moved across the night sky.

(We still don’t know if seals astronavigate but at least we know it’s possible.)

Cloud spooks

“Curiosity” by Vorja Sánchez

Vorja Sánchez has done a whole series of these cloud spooks looking over the hills. I love them, they have such a feeling of spooky + lonely that is exactly the vibe I like in a ghost.

You can see more of them at Colossal and he also has prints for sale (I bought the one above, soon I will have a spook-friend).

10-second TikTok for my executive dysfunction friends: #relateable although not today obviously.

(If you already use TikTok you’ve probably already seen it, it’s a classic.)

Unsolicited Advice: Unsolicited recommendations are the same thing as unsolicited advice

The name of this section is a joke from way back when at the beginning of Whippet, because I was like, “I’d love to do an advice column!” but then I just didn’t wait for people to tell me their problems.

Unsolicited advice is obnoxious but tempting, but there is a very easy trick which is: take an additional five seconds to ask “I have some advice on that, if you’re looking for it” and wait for a yes/no answer.

Recommendations are advice, you’re literally advising that they watch/listen/read something.

There is a weirdly common type of unsolicited recommendation that I get: I say/tweet “I’m really happy with my current provider of [coffee/cloud storage/jeans]” and people respond with recommendations for coffee/cloud storage/jeans.


I’ve literally just said, “I am currently not looking for coffee/cloud storage/jeans.” I am in that moment, the person on earth who is least likely to welcome recommendations for those things. You would have better chances randomly replying to any other tweet in your timeline, no matter how irrelevant, or calling up a stranger, because they might have a 0.000001% chance of being interested, where I am, in this moment, a dead 0%.

I do actually know why people do this, it’s because you also have a provider you’re excited about and they reminded you of it, and now you want to talk about it.

Thing you could do instead: Just talk about why you like it, instead of recommending they use it, in the same way you might talk about different movies you like.

I have to reiterate that I really do understand the urge to actually recommend though — whenever I read an amazing book, I desperately want my friends to also read it, as well as any strangers, because I think there is no way they won’t find it as amazing as I did.  But living in a society means that when you get an urge to say a thing, sometimes you have to stop yourself from saying the thing.

But listen, there is no shortage of communication outlets these days: if you are on any social media at all, in a group chat, or speak to anyone face-to-face or on zoom, you can just say, apropos of nothing, “I tried this great provider of coffee/cloud storage/jeans today, here are the reasons it was rad.”

So you don’t have to totally resist the urge to give unsolicited recommendations, you just have to take a deep breath, pause, and find a more appropriate outlet.

(And then you will probably get unsolicited recommendations for that exact thing you don’t need recommendations for, I’m afraid. Who will be the one to break the cycle?)

Anyway, next time you really, really want to give someone unsolicited advice… I was going to say, “decide if it’s more important to you to give the advice, or to have a warm and positive relationship with that person” — but you don’t even have to do that! You can just ask first!! Sorry I’m so mad today!!!

(PS If you think I’m specifically calling you out, I’m probably not, it’s happened like 5 times this week and is also a thing I have definitely done in the past myself.)

If anyone I didn’t insult today would like to support The Whippet, you could become a paying subscriber!

Subscribe now

You can also become a paying subscriber if I did insult you, but it feels a bit gauche to ask.

(Gauche is one of those words you’ve probably heard but might not have seen written down: it’s pronounced like “ghost” with a sh at the end instead of a st, it means “lacking social graces, doing socially clumsy things” and “tacky/tasteless”. It’s different from “socially awkward” because it never means “but in a cute way?” Anyway it’s a great word.)


Sign in or become a Whippet subscriber (free or paid) to add your thoughts.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.