The Whippet #41: Thus we live ever without tedium or envy


Good morning lovelies!

So a thing I do pretty often is catch the wrong tram and not realise until I've gone way past the point where the two tramlines diverge, and then have to walk a bunch of blocks across to where my proper tram is. And I swear this always happens on the day when I'm most tired, most miserable, most desperately just want to be home.

Which I at first thought was some sort of attention bias - I only notice the times when it sucks. But then I realised it's because it's the times I'm completely exhausted that I'm not paying attention, get on the first tram that comes past, and sink into a seat and close my eyes rather than look exactly where I'm going.

So my idea is, that "trouble comes in bunches" thing is true. You make mistakes, or don't react well, or don't react fast enough, when you're tired and stressed, and the first trouble is what makes you tired and stressed.

I also lock myself out more often than I'm pretty sure is normal for adults. I wrote in a previous issue that I think considerateness is partly a product of having open attention (as opposed to focused attention where you're oblivious to everything else) and I'm increasingly convinced that 'attention' might be one of those meta skills that quite a lot of things are boosted buy (bravery/courage is another).

Human eyes are weird

Specifically, look how much of the whites of Catherine Zeta-Jones's eyes you can see, compared to the cats'. Most animal eyes are like that: almost totally iris. Other primates are the same.

The prevailing theory is that we evolved it because it works really well as a non-verbal form of communication. In experiments, great apes track where humans are looking based on the direction our heads are facing, whereas a human baby tracks gaze direction.

It means we have a form of communicating intention that's silent and essentially secret from other animals and fits into our whole 'ridiculously social' deal. (The exception is domesticated dogs, who learn to follow human gaze). (Study this is from: PDF]

Also reading the Wikipedia article on this - man, eyes are tough.
"The sclera [whites] is rarely damaged by brief exposure to heat: the eyelids provide exceptional protection, and the fact that the sclera is covered in layers of moist tissue means that these tissues are able to cause much of the offending heat to become dissipated as steam before the sclera itself is damaged.

...molten metals when splashed against an open eye have been shown to cause very little damage to the sclera, even while creating detailed casts of the surrounding eyelashes."

A delightfully long bow to draw

My favourite hot takes are... actually good and insightful, but my second favourite are when someone takes a niche topic and then draws a conclusion that's maybe just 8% past reasonable.

Today: good quality furniture is good for the environment, and not because it lasts and you're not replacing it all the time. Because it is comfy.

Robert Nelson of Monash University (a well-respected one if you're not Australian), says "If we lead a rich domestic and imaginary life, we are less inclined to dissatisfaction, and to make up for it by restless or greedy patterns of consumerism and travel, with their terrible environmental consequences."

"In some categories, such as chairs and couches, furniture has a direct impact on our comfort. But all pieces of furniture, even shelves or wardrobes, are capable of either contributing to our contentment or not. The difference is not necessarily how well the pieces serve us physically – though that is important – but how their function serves us imaginatively, to the point that we relish contemplating their presence."

He says something which is quite true, which is when you stay in a depressing hotel, you don't even want to read a book there, you just want to get out.

Rest of article also talks about the specifics of why modern furniture is uncomfortable, also he has written a book called "Instruments of contentment: furniture and poetic sustainability", he's basically a Professor of Hygge, or whatever Scandinavian term we're currently obsessing over.

Minimalism vs essentialism

Basically the difference between having as little as possible, and having what matters (I would think of it more as "the essence" than "the essentials". It's basically what konmari means - actually enjoying and treasuring possessions because you can see them and use them everyday because they're not buried in a box or part of a general clutter. It's just a word that rings more true and useful to me!

It's something I've always liked about post-apocalyptic and survivor-type fiction - things stop being disposable, each item is treasured, even a tin can, because we won't be able to make another. Things would matter. (I think this is one of the appeals of post-apocalyptic fiction that doesn't get talked about much.)

PS book recommendation: The Rending and the Nest - a post-apocalyptic book that's more about what people do next, how you make a community, what parts of yourself you present when you have no traceable past - it's very much not hard scifi, it's about characters and interactions and doesn't particularly seek to unravel why the apocalypse happened - it just deals with what is, now. In some ways it's more like magical realism.

9th Century Irisk monk writes a poem about his cat

Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are
Alone together, scholar and cat
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;
Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.

(translation by W.H. Auden)

The cat's name is Pangur Bán, White Fuller, a fuller being someone who cleans wool as part of the cloth-making process, so it's probably referring to the cat washing itself, which is very cute.)

My brother and I would say, 'What do you think is wrong with our family? Why are we so weird?'

This story is wild. I can't really summarise so I'll just give you the intro and hope you click. You will be rewarded.

"Pauline Dakin's childhood in Canada in the 1970s was full of secrets, disruption and unpleasant surprises. She wasn't allowed to talk about her family life with anyone - and it wasn't until she was 23 that she was told why.

[At 23] Pauline was to meet her mother Ruth outside a motel halfway between the two cities they were living in. When she arrived, Ruth slipped a note and an empty envelope into Pauline's hands.

The note read: "Don't say anything. Take your jewellery off. Put it in the envelope. I'll explain, just don't talk."

"It was just the most bizarre thing," Pauline remembers. "I thought, 'Who are you? What are you doing?' But I did what she told me."

Pauline spent that weekend listening to Ruth's stories, which explained many of the odd things that had happened while she was growing up, like the time she had come home to find her mother throwing away all the food from their fridge.

"The story at the time was that the food had gone bad, but I remember thinking, 'Ketchup and mustard don't go bad, there are things in there that don't go bad quickly. Why would you do that?'"

Reeeeeeeead meeeeeeeee

Solicited Advice

"How do you know when you're actually right about something -

because you know what you're talking about, vs just thinking you know that you're actually right about something because of hubris?"

Answer:

That is a great question which all good people should wrestle with! But I actually think it breaks down into a few parts:

1. You never know you're right, you just settle into a state of "this is how it looks to me at the moment - I am open to being challenged (with new information, not with repetitions of the same arguments you've heard a billion times) but at this point am not going to proactively seek more information on it, it's not a learning priority."

2. So the factors that go into that are, obviously, how much research have you done already, and how serious would the consequences be if you turned out to be wrong - which includes the stakes of the thing itself and how much impact you personally have on it, like is your opinion affecting how you behave and decisions you make, or is it pretty abstract.

(I'm working on the assumption that you wouldn't be asking if your opinion was formed without doing a significant amount of research and thinking.)

3. If you can't be bothered doing research, you have to go with the option that's nicest to other people. If you're not sure if you're right or not, you have to be kind. (If you're pretty sure you're right but there's little consequence to you personally, go with the kindest option anyway.)

Okay but for how you know if you're roughly right... one think it helps is to be wary of things that would be good if true ("good" includes "makes you angrier about a thing you're already angry about". Two articles I read recently - one was something like "people who stay up late are more intelligent" and another was "rich people have less empathy than poor people" - one would be flattering to me, and the other feels vindicating. So you should be really really aware of what things would be satisfying if they were true, and be cautious about believing them.

4. Intelligent people need to be around other intelligent people or they turn into assholes. I mean often they do anyway, but if you have a long history of always being right (like, actually you are right) then thinking you're right becomes a habit, it's super-toxic.

5. I recommend a stance of "I'm NOT sure I'm right, but it's where I've landed right now, and currently I am focusing my learning on [the early days of the Russian Revolution]". Time is finite and you don't have to keep rehashing the same things indefinitely, you are allowed to prioritise (see 1 & 2).

6. Hmm, do a lot of smart, experienced people agree with you? That's a good sign but not perfect because smart people can be swept up in fads as well.

7. Do you have a lot of personal experience in this area? Do people who do have a lot of personal experience disagree with you? Again, it's not proof - anyone can be wrong about anything - but it's a clue.

8. Be your own devil's advocate. Try sincerely to think, like "what if the other person's opinion was correct, what arguments could I find for that". The reason I'm suggesting you do it yourself is because you want a devil's advocate who gets how your brain thinks and works and presents arguments in a shape that will be compelling to you. If you have a friend with a similar brain-shape that would work too. The problem with random googling is every correct position has idiots arguing for it for reasons that make no sense, and if you encounter those arguments you'll just be bolstered in your view of how right you are.

On a personal note to the Advice Solicitor who has chosen to remain anonymous - you know we disagree wildly on a lot of things, for example, "all of capitalism", and I obviously think you are dead wrong about it and you think you're right, BUT, I do not think you thinking you're right about capitalism comes from hubris.

I'm wondering if this is coming out of a specific accusation. People have a really strong tendency to... think their own position is so obviously true, that they don't believe that anyone could really, honestly disagree with them. So they accuse the other person of arguing in bad faith (that is, being insincere). So you don't disagree because you've thought and read a bunch and that's where it looks like the evidence leads (from your honest perspective) - you think that because you're being stubborn, or you're virtue signalling, or you're just defending them because they're a friend, or... and it's quite hard to prove you're sincere, and I think it's a shady accusation to pull on someone.

the idea of hubris means: you know you're wrong but you don't want to admit it out of pride, or
you're so confident in your own intellectual powers that you're incapable of giving dissident viewpoints a fair go. Do either of those statements seem true for you?

(I do think people are wrong because of all kinds of biases, but that's not really hubris.)

There is a certain type of person who will never, ever admit they were wrong... but then later they will quietly abandon their position and take up the other, correct one, and then also swear that's the position they've held since they were in the womb. I have no clue what's going on in the interior of these people, if they know they're doing it or not, but that I would call hubris-related.

If you want solicited advice, send questions to thewhippet@mckinleyvalentine.com or just reply to this email.

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