The Whippet: mammoths, a cursed emerald, sign language and the sea

This morning I rode past a hand-written sign saying “Lost your keys? Message me which Disney character is on the keyring and I’ll get em back to you.” They wanted to make sure the keys went back to their rightful owner, not just any sneak who called up and claimed them.

Which makes sense with wallets and jewellery and handsome tartan umbrellas, but if you don’t know what Disney character’s on the keys, how do you know which lock they fit?

I realised that you could stumble across the keys to the national mint, the Louvre, to every door in Berrimah jail, and they would be utterly worthless if you didn’t know what they were for. Keys are a treasure that depend on a very specific piece of information.

It was known in the early 1800s that people had unique fingerprints, and that these could be lifted from crime scenes, but it was only really useful if you already had a suspect. Otherwise, what – are you gonna compare the one from the crime scene to every single fingerprint you have on file, one by one, by hand and eye? It wasn’t until a system of categorisation was developed (by length, width, type and direction of whorl, etc) that fingerprints became look-uppable, and about a billion times more useful.

You see what I’m getting at. Context and connections are what makes something valuable.

Assuming that somehow having the keys to the mint also gave you the legal and moral right to take everything you found there, money only has value because people agree that it does (if it was from the mint, it would have sequential serial numbers, and it could be declared worthless. Then you’d have to see how many people you could convince it was still money before you got caught). Art is a bit more objectively valuable, because you have an emotional reaction to it that has intrinsic worth, but financially it’s bizarre. The Mona Lisa is valued at US$790 million but it’s also worth US$0 because you couldn’t sell it.

In conclusion, go for the handsome tartan umbrella every time.

Your ability to focus declines after 30 (it's not just because smartphones)

This uncharacteristically warm weather feels more like LA than NY, and this trendy trekker is definitely bringing the heat. A simple black t-shirt and jeans hasn’t looked this good since Hank Moody. Forget the beautiful weather outside, all I care...


There are two totally separate systems that govern attention:

  • your ability to maintain focus on the thing ('enhancement')

  • your ability to tune out other things ('suppression').

"These processes are so separate, in fact, there are different networks of brain structures that carry out their respective functions, each of which is critical for attention."

Although it may seem counterintuitive, we now appreciate that focusing and ignoring are not two sides of the same coin […] it is not necessarily true that when you focus more on something, you automatically ignore everything else better.

By understanding these as separate systems, rather than seeing an inability to suppress distractions as just a side-effect of not having focused well enough, you'll be better equipped to try and improve the situation.

This article says that it's the suppression aspect, our ability to tune out distracting stimuli, that declines with age. That's a huge relief, because as a kid I used to read in the playground and not notice stuff like a basketball hitting the wall next to my head (generally thrown by a kid who was annoyed that I spent all my lunchtimes reading.) But I can't do that anymore, and I assumed it was just smartphones and stuff, the Age of Distraction, and I'd let that skill deteriorate through my own fault. But it probably isn't, not totally.


So, just like if you needed reading glasses you'd just buy them and wear them, maybe now you need to remove external distractions to read a book properly, and you should go ahead and do that instead of just CONCENTRATING... HARDER...

It also probably means older people are genuinely more sensitive to a cluttered room or desk than young people (rather than young people just being too lazy to tidy or whatever the prevailing theory is).

Also you already know this, but meditating will help you improve since it's literally practising focusing, go on, take your damn medicine.

Image taken from hotdudesreading.tumblr.com

The last mammoths died out because their DNA became 'riddled with errors'

Woolly mammoth


"The last woolly mammoths to walk the Earth were so wracked with genetic disease that they lost their sense of smell, shunned company, and had a strange shiny coat."

Researchers found "many deletions, big chunks of the genome that are missing, some of which even affected functional genes".

Dr Rebekah Rogers of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the research, said the mammoths' genomes "were falling apart right before they went extinct".

"Knowledge of the last days of the mammoth could help modern species on the brink of extinction, such as the panda, mountain gorilla and Indian elephant." Full article

pixel artist: @probzz

The deaf body in public space


“It’s rude to point,” my friend told me from across the elementary-school cafeteria table. I grasped her words as I read them off her lips. She stared at my index finger, which I held raised in midair, gesturing toward a mutual classmate. “My mom said so.”

I was 6 or 7 years old, but I remember stopping with a jolt. Something inside me froze, too, went suddenly cold.

“I’m signing,” I said out loud. “That’s not rude.” Pointing was a truly fundamental act for me; it was how I expressed what my grown-up scholarly self would call relationality — the idea of being in the world in relation to others."

When hearing people learn to use sign language, "they must overcome the cultural taboos about excessive movement, pointing and gesture." As well as gestures, sign language involves what hearing people would see as exaggerated facial expressions. Meanwhile the "listener" maintains a continual gaze (in order to follow the signing) which hearing people can find uncomfortably intense.

"Hearing culture presents us with ideals of speaking with good elocution, restraint and self-control. Now, I admit, I see these ideals as visually impoverished, inaccessible and uninteresting: They produce spaces full of immobile talking heads, disembodied sound and visual inattentiveness."

There is so much here I'd never thought about before.

Relatedly, I am addicted to watching ASL performances of songs. Try flipping back and forth between mute and unmute. (This is Eminem's Lose Yourself.)

(Riparian means related to riverbanks, which I only know because of editing stuff for the Department of Environment. It's an important biome okay.)

The curse of the Bahia Emerald, a giant green rock that ruins lives

"Right now, in a vault controlled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, there sits a 752-pound emerald with no rightful owner. This gem is the size of a mini­fridge. It weighs as much as two sumo wrestlers. Estimates of its worth range from a hundred bucks to $925 million.

"Over the past 10 years, four lawsuits have been filed over the Bahia emerald. Fourteen individuals or entities, plus the nation of Brazil, have claimed the rock is theirs. A house burned down. Three people filed for bankruptcy. One man alleges having been kidnapped and held hostage. Many of the men involved say that the emerald is hellspawn but they also can’t let it go. As Brian Brazeal, an anthropologist at California State University Chico, wrote in a paper entitled The Fetish and the Stone: A Moral Economy of Charlatans and Thieves, “Emeralds can take over the lives of well-meaning devotees and lead them down the road to perdition.”

This is a long read but I can only beg you to please still read it. The story is like a Coen Brothers movie, and the writer had had the decency to tell it like one. Bookmark or something for when you have time.

Hey if you like The Whippet, please forward it to a friend!

This week’s reader question is: “Something about the sea”


which I’m going to be obnoxiously meta about. The reader was after bizarre sailor stories because I once wrote an article for Cracked (<-- brag) about Crowhurst and his absolutely bonkers attempt to sail around the world.

But instead I’m going to answer “something about the sea”. The something that is about the sea is hubris.

All sea stories of any grandeur and drama are about hubris. The unsinkable Titanic, obviously. The above-mentioned Crowhurst chose a catamaran that was never meant to sail on the open ocean, a problem he planned to solve by designing his own experimental safety devices, which he figured he’d have time to install once his trip was underway (also, he left all his tools and equipment on the dock).

America was drawn into World War I when Germans sunk the (debatably) civilian ship the Lusitania. But it knowingly went through German-occupied waters after Germany had said they didn’t intend to leave it alone.

"The truth is that the Lusitania is the safest boat on the sea," its makers said. "She is too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her."

The Wreck of the Hesperus is an incredibly popular poem about a guy who ignores the warnings of his crew:

The skipper he blew a whiff from his pipe,
And a scornful laugh laughed he
.

And lashes his daughter to the mast. Things do not go well for the Hesperus:

She struck where the white and fleecy waves
Looked soft as carded wool;
But the cruel rocks, they gored her side
Like the horns of an angry bull.


Or the daughter:

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
On the billows fall and rise.


And the captain freezes to death.

James Buchan said "The sea endures no makeshifts. If a thing is not exactly right it will be vastly wrong.” but every shipwreck story you hear will involve some makeshift, either literal or an "oh I know I shouldn't but just this once, it'll be okay."

The sea endures no makeshifts! Tattoo it on your arm.

Ask me a question on any topic except contemporary politics. You can ask by replying to this email: thewhippet@mckinleyvalentine.com make sure to include how/if you want to be named/linked.

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