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The Whippet #98: On the scene, discussing the numbers

McKinley Valentine — 7 min read

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So I have a policy of not talking about what’s in the news cycle in The Whippet. This isn’t because I’m apolitical (I care enormously about the best way to structure society so that as many people as possible have health, happiness, justice and so on - which is what “politics” means). But I think that if you want to know what’s happening in the US, then you already know, and there’s nothing new or helpful I could tell you about it.

If you’re Australian and looking for a way to help locally, Sisters Inside are a great org. Explanation of what they do and a donation link here.

Quote expander: ‘For whom the bell tolls’:

This is one of those phrases you’ve heard so often you don’t think of it as meaning anything. It was originally written in the 1600s - churches would ring their bell when there was a funeral, so if you lived in a small village and you heard it ring, you’d wonder who died, who the bell was ringing for. So the phrase “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” means “If you hear that someone has died, don’t ask who it was - it was you.” It means that we are all connected, and so it matters when anyone dies, even if you didn’t know them.

It’s from a longer, also beautiful paragraph, and you’ll recognise the first line as well:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

I also really like the full quote that the phrase “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is taken from. (You can read it here.)

He was talking about whether we should treat the Pope as infallible, but basically it doesn’t literally mean “everyone in power is corrupt”, it means that, with an ordinary person, you should give them the benefit of the doubt, but since power tends to corrupt, if you see a powerful person acting shady, you should assume they’re being shady. Don’t give powerful people the benefit of the doubt, give them the… detriment of the doubt.

Whale bones

“On the S. Coast of Snæfellsnes, near Búðir”, photo taken in Iceland around 1900.

h/t Sardonicus on twitter, who posts a tonne of cool old images

In space, metal can spontaneously weld together

It’s called cold welding or contact welding. In regular welding, the surfaces have to melt first, join together as liquids, then resolidify.

In space (or an artificial vacuum), metal of the same type can weld together just by touching.

The reason for this unexpected behavior is that when the atoms in  contact are all of the same kind, there is no way for the atoms to  “know” that they are in different pieces of copper. When there are other  atoms, in the oxides and greases and more complicated thin surface  layers of contaminants in between, the atoms “know” when they are not on  the same part.

— Richard Feynman

On earth, there are always other molecules all around the metals, in particular oxygen. In space, there isn’t. So they take certain precautions when they’re building satellites and spacecraft - when two pieces of metal would rub against each other (like with a hinge or something), they use different types of metal, or ceramics or plastics, or a durable coating.

In praise of the walking coffee

Walking doesn’t improve the taste of coffee, but coffee improves the  experience of being in the world. It blunts the harsher edges. Without  coffee, there is “public space” and “private space.” With coffee, the whole city is your living room.

This piece is a delightful reflection on the pleasures of the walking coffee.

I also am a huge fan of the walking coffee, although for different reasons, it’s like high-flying lawyer cosplay, I feel efficient, I’m on the scene, I’m discussing the numbers, I’m this guy:

Look how serious I am, you can tell I meet up with people who are also walking with coffee and they stride along together and no one makes small talk, they just dive straight into the Serious Plot Development, and everyone picks up on it immediately instead of going “What? Sorry is this about that thing from the other day?”

Dead flamingos can stand on one foot

(Pictured: alive flamingos)

I was looking up why flamingos stand on one foot, and it’s because it’s the easiest way to stand: their knee locks up and they balance perfectly, so they don’t have to engage any muscles. They can sleep standing one one leg.

Scientists tested whether they really didn’t have to use any muscle tension by getting dead flamingos and trying to balance them on one foot. Which apparently works.

The reason flamingos sleep on one foot is because the waters they live in are toxic. They live in lakes that are either filled with blue-green algae (usually a menace, its poisonous to most animals) or lakes so salty they can strip off human skin. (I imagine this is an advantage because there’s not much competition for food and nesting space in a toxic lake.)

Their legs are covered in tough, scaly skin, but their bodies are softer. If they were to sleep floating on the water like ducks do, the water would burn them. This idea of living your whole life perched standing on deadly ground, unable to sit or lie down… gosh.

Unsolicited Advice: A lazy way to broaden your general knowledge

Every time you look up a fact, read the whole Wikipedia page.

So for example I saw that cute flamingo photo and thought, “hang on I don’t actually know why flamingos stand on one leg” and I googled it and the answer was “because it doesn’t use any muscles”. But I read the whole page and found about the toxic lakes thing, which I had no idea about 5 minutes ago and would never have thought to google. I didn’t know it was a thing to know. “Why do flamingos stand on one leg?” is a question that naturally occurs to you if you see a flamingo. “What sort of lakes do flamingos live in?” is not. You would never find out about the toxic lakes just by finding the answer to the questions that naturally occur to you.

Even if it’s trivial, like you suddenly want to know whether Jennifer Aniston is married now. Fine, but read the whole page on Jennifer Aniston, not just the answer to that question. Or you want to know who a song is by. Again, read the whole article on the album or artist. Now you know way more than you did before.

And you’ll be expanding outward from your natural curiosity, so it will feel way less like “work” than choosing a whole book that you feel like you ought to read. And the more you learn cool extra little facts, the more motivated you’ll be to do it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing The Whippet, it’s that cool facts never walk alone. There’s always, always some other rad thing I would never have found out about on the same Wikipedia page as the first cool fact. For example, flamingos also have special glands in their beaks that filter out salt water. That’s a third cool flamingo fact I didn’t know, and none of these are flamingos’ main schtick, being pink.

Stage 2 is checking every time you notice a knowledge gap. (Like me seeing the photo of the flamingo and realising I don’t actually know why they do that.) And getting better at paying attention and following up on the little sparks of curiosity.

Do that for a year and you’ll end up with a vast shoreline of knowledge where you know a little bit about heaaaaaaps of stuff and have little outwardly growing promontories and peninsulas of areas where you know a pretty decent amount.

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