The Whippet #92: The "Nothing About Coronavirus" Edition


Look. Is there anything I could possibly say that you haven't already read or thought or heard? I do not think there is. We are all hitting refresh on every available information source approximately every 17 seconds. If you genuinely want my stressed-out coronavirus takes, you can follow me on twitter, but they're not going to be in The Whippet.

JRR Tolkien was accused of writing "escapist" literature, in writing The Hobbit and Lord of The Rings, because it doesn't deal with the "real world". Here's his view on that:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used.

Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?

Be sweet to yourselves x


Arctic Foxes create gardens in the barren tundra

Photograph by Daniel J. Cox

Arctic foxes dig dens to keep warm in subzero conditions. They take a lot of work, and so foxes re-use dens rather than building new ones. Some of them are over a century old. (Source: NatGeo).

They fertilise the earth, hence the comparative lushness and variety of plant life. The fox gardens attract caribou and hares to graze on the grass. They also attract scavengers to eat the bones and carcasses the foxes leave outside their dens. Bigger predators like wolves and bears are attracted by the grazing herbivores. More animal life means even more fertiliser.

Like dam-building beavers, arctic foxes are "ecosystem engineers", totally changing the shape of the ecosystem around them.


Researchers in Antarctica are starting to develop an Antarctican accent

New accents - and eventually, languages - develop when groups are isolated. Their pronunciations and word choice shifts, and they don't have the mainstream 'baseline' to align with, because they're not in contact.

It's very slight at the moment, but still: rad.

Podcast / transcript
Journal article

One of the coolest things I know about Antarctica is there is one remote research station where you have to get your appendix removed before you're allowed to visit. It's so remote, that if you were to get appendicitis, there would be no way to save your life. Over the long winter, the ice completely locks in all the ships, and there's no way to get there. If you can handle being more upset, here's the story of the scientist in Antarctica who got appendicitis and had to remove his own appendix. The new precautions are better.


This hyena is having the best time

This hyena's name is Harley. It is her 12th birthday.

For more videos like this, google "hyena bath oakland zoo".


Giant flying murder heads

I was absolutely unaware of how big Quetzalcoatlus was. I thought all the flying dinosaurs were on the smaller side. Many were. Not this guy.

Some cool tidbits: researchers applied aeronautical equations to biology to figure out that Quetzalcoatlus would have taken off from a quadrupedal stance (as pictured). "Taking off from land with an upright, bipedal stance [as birds do], would have shattered the femurs of larger species of pterosaurs."

The same researcher called pterosaurs' head to body size ratio "ridiculous" and "stupid". “They were giant flying murder heads.” (Source: NatGeo)

Another fun part of this article is that pterosaur paleontology is apparently a niche and incredibly petty field of study.

“We’re a very small group, and we don’t really get along,” one pterosaur specialist says. The field, says another, “has a reputation for people who viciously despise one another.” Pterosaur researcher A will readily volunteer that B is “a waste of carbon,” while C independently remarks of A that certain people “would happily see him at the bottom of the ocean.”


Unsolicited Advice

How to approach a potential mentor (if you want a mentor)


A mentor is not necessarily an ongoing relationship, but a person who is doing what you want to do - but more successfully, or a few steps ahead of you - that you can ask for a piece of advice.

Gretchen McCulloch breaks down the best way to do this, and I love it because a) I reckon it's spot on, and b) I love when people break down social relationships into actionable steps, because honestly it is not always that intuitive! Some guidelines help!

She say:

1. Say: “I’ve done X and Y towards Concrete Goal, do you have any suggestions for what I should do next?”
2. Do the thing they suggest.
3. Report back to them on how it went (even if it went badly).

I think this is perfect. You need to, with step 1, show you've done the obvious things that would be on the front page of google. It's offensive to ask someone to take their time writing up something you could just as easily have googled yourself. Also, it shows you're actually going to put the work in, so it's worth their time to offer help. People generally are happy to help others in their field, but they don't want to help the kind of people who are always talking about doing something, but clearly never really going to act on it, because it's annoying and makes you feel used.

Reporting back is gratifying, people like to know that advice they've given has been acted on. Again, it also shows you're serious and are worth taking the time to give advice to. So reporting back is not annoying them with a second email, it's rewarding them for the time they spent writing the first email.

That's the gist, but honestly if you're thinking of doing this you should read the whole post about it.

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