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The Whippet #139: Heads or tentacles?

McKinley Valentine — 11 min read

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Today I am thinking about: weird career milestones.

So there’s career milestones you might be able to imagine and dream of from the outset —

  • winning an industry award
  • published or interviewed in a particular venue
  • working for a specific organisation, getting tenure
  • praise from a respected peer

Things like that.

And then there’s career milestones that absolutely are indicators of prestige, but ones that you never would have deliberately aimed for or thought about achieving.

For example, a Melbourne writer named David Milner made some anti-Herald Sun stickers (the Herald Sun is the Murdoch newspaper in Victoria) and encouraged readers to stick them everywhere.

They had a nice, clear, non-cringey design (and I’d be remiss if I didn’t promote them) and people did indeed stick them everywhere, and post photos of the stuck stickers to social media.

Then this:

What writer has “protest stickers selected by government body for historical preservation” on their list of career aspirations? But it’s amazing.

So that’s my question today!

Please tell me about a career milestone you achieved (or you heard about someone else achieving) that is weird/unusual/you would never have thought of until it happened.

Doesn’t need to be Nobel Prize level! Just a marker of success, however you define it.

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(Clicking that button will also take you to the Comments if you just want to read them. Will there be any comments? haha who knows, there’s a reason “community manager” is a whole job some people have)

Oh PS!! Next Wednesday, Feb 9th, I will have been making The Whippet for five years. That’s mad. I’ve never even lived in the same house for five years, not even when I was a kid. Weird weird weird. Five!! 5.

There’s this link I’ve had bookmarked to put in The Whippet for nearly a year and I just can’t quite ever bring myself to write about it or research it further, so I’m gonna throw in the towel and link it bare bones:

Scientists grew tiny tear glands in a dish — then made them cry

Mazda had to issue recalls TWICE because petrol-loving spiders were getting into the fuel lines

The yellow-sac spider loves petrol (aka gasoline) and it gets into the lines and builds webs which block the vent and cause the fuel tanks to crack. The problem only occurred in Mazda 6 sedans built in a specific plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, although presumably they’d love to build webs in everyone’s cars but are constantly stymied.

Mazda recalled them and added a spring into the line that was supposed to keep the spiders out. The spring turned out not to be enough, and they had to recall them AGAIN to add more spiderguards. If you’re looking for further analysis, here it is:

It just likes the smell of gasoline, an auto analyst told Reuters at the time.

which reminds me of this Poorly Drawn Lines comic: The Top Secret Agent.

Heads or tentacles?

A silver litra from Syracuse

Ancient Greek coins with octopuses on them! The source pointed it out as well, but I found the ‘webbing’ interesting. It’s not how modern children draw octopuses; it’s what an octopus actually looks like, along with the head shape.

‘Calamari’, incidentally, comes from ‘calamus’, the Latin word for pen. Apparently because it has a pen-shaped internal shell, but come on, it MUST be because of the ink as well, surely. Be reasonable.

More photos here, including coins with dolphins, crabs, turtles and herons.

Heads or tentacles redux

L: Kabuto of gusoku (Tosei-gusoku), 16th-17th century, Tokyo National Museum (McK: note the crescent) | R: Samurai kabuto with octopus. 18th century, Edo period. Stibbert Museum

These are kabuto, Samurai helmets. (In Japanese, ‘kabuto’ just means any combat helmet, but I write to you in English today.)

As you can see, some of them had extremely ornate crests.

I also love this one with a crouching rabbit, and this one that’s just a big spiky conch shell.

The way you think everything is connected isn’t the way everything is connected

There’s a particular strand of New Age spirituality that leans heavily on misunderstandings of quantum physics to justify it. Personally I think you cheapen the beauty and awe of spirituality when you add a pseudoscience veneer, and there’s just no need for it.

This blog post explains ‘quantum entanglement’ and the way in which everything is connected. He uses the example of a coin —

Let’s say you took a coin, the coin in the photo above, and carefully sawed it down the middle, and put both halves in sealed envelopes. Then you give me one envelope, and take the other one thousands of miles away. If I open my envelope, and see a head on my half-coin, then I can tell without looking that your coin has an octopus on it. I don’t have to open your envelope to check. Because of the way in which they’re connected to each other.

But that doesn’t mean I could, say, put my coin-half in the freezer and expect your half to get cold. So that’s roughly what “everything is connected” means, quantum physics-wise. The full post has more detail.

Another post I liked by the same blogger was on the Big Bang — this, in particular, surprised me:

We understand, in principle, how matter can come from “nothing”. This is sometimes presented as the most mysterious part of the Big Bang, the idea that matter could spontaneously emerge from an “empty” universe. But to a physicist, this isn’t very mysterious. Matter isn’t actually conserved, mass is just energy you haven’t met yet.

I didn’t know it wasn’t mysterious!

Crescent etymology

It’s just interesting to me that “shaped like a hollowed out semi-circle” is the later meaning of crescent.

Originally it meant “to increase, to grow bigger” — like how a crescendo gets louder. It has the same root (kre = grow) as accrual, recruit, create and cereal (growing grains).

It’s also what the moon does, so a waxing moon got called a “crescent moon”, and the word then became associated with the shape.

And here we are, with delicious croissants.

PS if you study this bug you’re a crescentomologist

Thornbug Cladonata

Fun fact: croissants are 40% butter! That’s why they taste so good. It also makes them a great treat if you don’t feel so good after eating a huge pile of wheat. More butter = less wheat *taps nose*

Food History Timeline

This website is a delightful timesink. It begins in pre-history, with the first recipes being “bread” and “soup”, and finishes with cronuts in 2013.

There are a lot of surprises I kept thinking things like “surely you just mean Black Forest Cake was only introduced in America in 1963, surely it’s actually been around much longer.” But no — if you click the hyperlink and go to the research, a tonne of stuff is a surprisingly modern recipe. They’ve developed from older recipes — fajitas are new, but the concept of tortillas with meat on them is not — but the currently known form really is recent.

This makes sense if you remember how ‘foreign’ older foods can seem — the flavour profile of even a lot of 19th Century recipes would taste wrong and bad to us. (Putting suet, which has a distinct meat flavour, into sweet desserts for example.)

Individual foods on the left; recipes on the right

Then again, there’s also some very old ones that I’ve eaten this year — dolmades in 350 BC, French toast in the 1st century AD, and halva and goulash in the 9th Century.

The Food Timeline

Unsolicited Advice: It’s okay that some things are unfixable

CW: death. This is pretty much the end of the newsletter if you just want to stop reading here — otherwise skip to the ‘Writing Course Recommendation’ bit, which is clearly marked.

So I was taking a speculative fiction writing course; it started in January. If you’ve seen Brandon Sanderson’s BYU lectures, it’s that, a semester-long course, two lectures a week, but taught by Sanderson’s teacher David Farland.

The start date was pushed forward a few days because David went into hospital, but the email said it was nothing major and not to worry. The course started, he gave two lectures, and then he died.

So. That was weird and sad and terrible. I go into more detail, but it would all amount to ‘weird and sad and terrible’, so I’ll leave it there.

The students from the class set up a Discord to talk about what we were going to do next, and something stuck out at me, which I want to talk about.

People were putting forward a lot of solutions — maybe we could watch some old recordings, do the homework together, critique each other’s work, have discussion groups. And some people were rejecting those ideas because, well, it wasn’t going to be nearly as good as having Dave teach the course, peer feedback isn’t as useful as feedback from a professional author, we wouldn’t be able to ask real-time questions, etc. All of which is true.

But it was like… they were trying to solve the problem of Dave being dead. When a solution wasn’t as good as Dave not being dead, they thought we could probably come up with something better if we put our minds to it.

It wasn’t entitlement, it was just… finding it very hard to accept that a thing has happened, and it’s permanent, and the world is, in a small but measurable way, a little bit worse. Some other things in the world are good, but they’re not a counterbalance, they’re just different good things elsewhere. The reason you can’t find a solution is because what happened sucks, plain and simple.

It’s not just with death — say someone loaned you an item of sentimental value, and you broke it beyond repair. And you want, desperately, to make it up to them, but the fact is, you can’t. You can be forgiven, you can be friends, you can get them a non-sentimental copy of it, but you can’t make the world into a place where it isn’t broken, and you have to live in the world you’ve made.

In some ways the promise of “I’ll make it up to you” can be pretty insulting, because they’re dealing with having broken something you value (possibly ‘trust’) by devaluing it, trying to convince you the irreplaceable can be replaced.

But I don’t actually think they’re trying to convince you, they’re trying to convince themselves, because they feel bad and have almost no tolerance for feeling bad.

With the Dave Farland reaction, I think another huge part of it is a sort of fallacy that if we can define the solution space, a solution must exist that fits there.

Fairly often I am trying to think of a very specific word that I need to convey something. I know exactly what it needs to mean and I feel sure that it exists, I can feel the shape it ought to be. I sometimes spend a long time looking on forums or crowdsourcing suggestions from group chats, and it’s never successful! Never! The fact is, I have a very wide vocabulary — if it’s a non-technical word and I haven’t found it by scanning a thesaurus, then the word either doesn’t exist or would be too obscure to be useful in whatever I’m writing anyway. (I know I sound grandiose here but look we all have different strengths.) But I can’t shake the belief in it.

It’s like Descartes’ argument for the existence of god — that since he can imagine it incredibly clearly and precisely, it must exist. (I’m not even being that reductive here, it’s a very bad argument.)

But like I say, I do it as well, just with words instead of God, so it’s probably a human psychology thing.

Anyway, vale Dave Farland.

In some ways this topic is kind of a downer, but the alternative is “death not that bad because people pretty much interchangeable” so in a complicated way, I find it uplifting.

Writing course recommendation

One of the great things about Dave as a teacher is that — very unusually — he wasn’t just focused on all the mistakes you should avoid making.* He had suggestions for techniques you could try, that would have good effects.

He also — again very unusually — had stuff for intermediate writers, not just beginners. Instruction for beginner writers sells better because there’s a lot more of them.

If I was going to recommend a course (these are all pre-recorded), it would be Writing Mastery 1, which is about prose style. Writing Mastery 2 is about macro stuff (structure, conflict etc.) and is probably excellent but I haven’t taken that yet, so I can’t speak to it. Those courses are $400 but you can access them for free if you join Apex Writers, which is $30/month and has a free trial.

The text of the site hasn’t been updated since his death, which is a little eerie, so just… bear with that. It’s also got a bit of an infomercial vibe but the actual lessons are good, so who cares.

* Great piece on the problems with contemporary writing instruction here:

Any list of the typical absolutes in contemporary writing instruction—shun adverbs, loathe the passive voice, cut latinate words, use short sentences—has the character of, at best, limiting the threat of mistakes because it removes so many tools. If you’re only permitted one note on the piano, perhaps it’s a little easier to keep it tuned. So the typical writer today ends up with a pen and paper and a very narrow range of expressions: nothing beyond what can be stated with short sentences and short words and short, crisp thoughts.

This is the ethos of the contemporary writing seminar, or most communication classes, even though any template that promises to induce good prose will also shove away any potential for expansive or artful prose—it is the realm of instructions, manuals, blueprints, and checklists. Where all sentences are trapped between guardrails. Where the purpose of writing instruction is to prevent errors. Where the writer begins every sentence with nothing more than thoughts of what to avoid.

Desk Notes by Charles SchifanoThe Problem With Contemporary WritingDesk Notes explores writing, travel, and literature—with a new issue every Friday…Read more13 days ago · Charles Schifano

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Happy Whippetversary everyone!


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