The Whippet #58: Small-town librarian solves tea-based mysteries

Good morning rainbow lorikeets -

No one really asks you what your favourite colour is once you're an adult, which is a pity because I have FEELINGS about it and I want to FIX THE SYSTEM.

People don't have favourite colours, they have favourite tones. If you like dark forest green, you probably also like ochre red, but not neon green or pale mint. Probably you like earth tones or pastels or brights or jewel tones or muted tones. No one likes every shade of blue! End the madness.

Relatedly, I have a dream of setting up a bookstore by tone instead of by genre. It is ridiculous to group "jaded cop tracks down serial killer (while battling heroin addiction)" with "small-town librarian solves tea-based mysteries" but we put it all under Crime. Gritty war books shouldn't be at opposite ends of the bookstore just because one of the wars is in a made-up country with a Dark Lord. All the gritty war books together! All the cosy books together! Hard-boiled space detectives with hard-boiled Los Angeles detectives! Lyrical, thoughtful fantasy with the lyrical, thoughtful Booker-prize winning literature! Oh no I accidentally didn't leave any room for the books about ageing male writers who are inexplicably lusted after by 18-year-old girls! They will have to go in the gutter!

How the Library of Alexandria got so big and how it was really destroyed

1. Obviously, mainly money. They sent buyers out all across Europe to purchase texts. But ALSO they aggressively boarded any ships that came into port and took any books or scrolls they found. Scribes made a copy, the Library kept the original and the copy was returned to the original owner. They also wrote huge numbers of scrolls - you should think of the Library as much as a research institute / university as a repository.

(The Library was in the Bruchium district near the Great Harbour, Portus Magnus, which will be relevant shortly.)

2. As someone who used to think of themself as an intellectual* the destruction of the Library of Alexandria held this position in my head as one of the greatest tragedies of all time, an ur example of the horrors of book-burning and anti-intellectualism. There are two main stories about the destruction of the Library, and neither of them are true. Caesar did set fire to the ships in the harbour of Alexandria, and a bit of the Library's collection got burnt, and that was, you know, not great, but it wasn't enough to seriously harm the insititution as a whole - it was thriving at least a century afterwards.

You might also have heard the anecdote of the Muslim ruler who said the contents of the Library "either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous" and so destroyed them all. That one's just 100% myth told by an anti-Islam bishop several centuries later. At least Caesar did set a bit of a fire.

The Library was never "destroyed". It just slowly declined as it lost funding, Alexandria became a less important city, and the best scholars went elsewhere. Also some things like the Romans granting membership based on being good at sports.

3. A surprisingly high % of its contents was commentaries on Homer's epic poems (the Iliad etc), so unless you've already read all the available contemporary commentary on Homer and are craving more, you may not actually be missing out on that much.

4. Just a fun fact,** the Library used papyrus as a way to support the local papyrus industry. Since that meant almost no papyrus was being exported, Europe was forced to use parchment (animal skins) and that's why parchment was so fundamental to Europe book production.

5. A certain type of atheist loves the idea that religion is anti-intellectual and the cause of the European Dark Ages*** and suppression of knowledge, and one telling of the destruction of the Library blames Christians rather than Muslims. But the reason we still have any copies of these ancient texts is because scribes - monks - copied them out, over and over again, and when the ink started to fade or the parchment crumbled, they re-copied them out again, keeping the documents alive.

* If you're wondering, I now think of myself as "just some lady, I don't know"
** I think i've lost all touch with what regular people think is fun
*** the idea that there ever was a 'Dark Age' is pretty well debunked. That was just Enlightenment-era propaganda.

Former CIA chief on how spies use disguises

Look I think you already know whether you want to see a former Chief of Disguise talk about disguises. I don't need to add anything. Video's about 9 minutes.

On scale: human, global, nano, infinite cosmos

Someone wrote to me to ask, roughly, "How do I deal with existing given my awareness of the incomprehensible vastness of time and space?" I don't have any Advice for this (watch Netflix until you forget?)

But later a friend (science communicator & comedian Tom Lang) said something relevant and interesting in a group chat. Maybe it will help.

"I was thinking about relative scale.

Like, the things that are easiest for humans to build and operate are big things. Shovels, cupboards, houses, pyramids. We're very capable at that level. Things like microchips and buckyballs and nanotechnology are incredibly, insanely difficult for us to build and operate. Yet they're trivial for bacteria, or viruses, or even our own cells. The easiest way to make a nanostructure is to trick a living organism into making it.

But the parts of us that make, like, insulin, are doing it themselves, and the Greater Unified Person has no direct control over that single insulin-making cell. And that got me thinking that really all life is very small things, operating on a small scale. Bacteria, algae, etc, trading insulin for glucose, or shuffling rubisco around to make ATP. And when you get something like a tree or a human, you have the illusion of a large thing, but you're just seeing a lot of very small things working away at their own jobs, creating the emergent properties of that large thing.

Your insulin-producing cell can't make an ikea table. The collective of cells called a human can't make an insulin molecule.

And if you get a whole bunch of humans together, in a community or a city or a country, they collectively do larger and larger things, but lose the capability to do the small things. A human can't build a freeway overpass. But a city can. Yet a city can't bake a cake. It can influence the cake being baked. It can adjust economic conditions favourable to baking, or organise a bake-off, but can you imagine the paperwork it would take for a city to even BUY a cake?"

This isn't so much a solution as an acknowledgement that thinking at the wrong scale will indeed mess you up. If it helps, the stuff at the incomprehensibly furthest reaches of the universe is mostly hydrogen, identical to the stuff you're mostly made of. An old friend.

(If you have science questions, you can tweet them at Tom Lang)

Electricity-generating cyborg mushroom!

Speaking of friends. What you're seeing is an ordinary button mushroom on a little stand, with a spiral of cyanobacteria drizzled around it, linked up by 3D-printed graphene nanoribbons.

Cyanobacteria converts sunlight into electricity and the nanoribbons collect the current. The challenge is that cyanobacteria can't live on inorganic material, so you can't just make cyanobacteria solar panels. But it can live on a mushroom. Several bionic mushrooms wired together can power a lamp, but that's just with ordinary pond cyanobacteria - you could genetically engineer it to produce more current. Why I am I pretending I care about it as an alternative energy source, we already have great alternative energy sources, just use solar and wind, the reason I care about this is because bionic mushroom [Source: BBC].

The best of Japan's Sober Halloween (ordinary cosplay)

L: "Mother chasing after her kids, with all the things they've left behind at home"
R: "A guy, who bought instant noodles & filled them with hot water at a nearby convenience store, and is now waiting at a traffic light, on his way back to the office"

I want to post all of them, but I'll settle for sharing the thread.

Unsolicited Advice

Keep your house less cluttered by dealing with greyspace

Random memory from high school: a girl slides an orange-coloured folder into her perfectly and pristinely organised locker (between a red folder and a yellow folder, of course). She catches me looking and says: "A place for everything and everything in its place!" At the time I thought she was a narc, and honestly for a 14-year-old to have habits like that, she probably was a narc.

But the worse part is, she was right. If you anything you own doesn't have a home, it will end up on the floor or your dining table. What I've learned recently is that the things that cause the most trouble are greyspace items (grey as in, neither one thing nor the other). They are sort of homeless by nature.

  • Clothes that aren't clean enough to go back in the drawer, but not dirty enough to go in the laundry basket. If you don't have a chair or basket assigned for them, they'll end up on the floor.

  • People's stuff that you need to return; gifts you haven't yet given, online shopping you want to return.

  • Unpaid bills, unsigned contracts, uncashed cheques, anything that you can't put away but can't turf.

  • I bet you have other greyspace examples specific to your life.

If you struggle with clutter, I bet you a billion dollars you don't have proper solutions for your greyspace stuff. Maybe you need a To Do box, a 'still in rotation' clothes basket or chair, an 'other's people's stuff' shelf, etc. Also, this means when the person comes over and you want to give them their book back, you don't have to go searching through your whole house for wherever you randomly stashed it, you just go to your Outbox or whatever you're calling it.

To ward off any accusations of smugness, I've had a To Do box as of only a couple of weeks ago; it's been eye-opening what a difference it makes, which is why I'm sharing.

(Another possibility is that your homes for things are bad, like annoying and difficult to reach)

If you want solicited advice, send questions to or just reply to this email.

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