The Whippet #124: There is no such thing as invisibility or silence

Good morning!

Two quotes from writers having a rough day. These always cheer me up —

Charles Darwin, in a letter to a friend:

But I am very poorly today and very stupid and hate everybody and everything.

He was writing a follow-up to Origin of the Species, a study of orchids, for the publisher John Murray:

I am going to write a little book for Murray on orchids, and today I hate them worse than everything.

I really think the sulk is underrated as a productivity tool. Sometimes it’s the only way to get through the working day.

This from Franz Kafka:

Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.

May you have a pleasant, straightforward life or else the foxcraft to wriggle through by subtle manoeuvres.

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Abstract painter from the 50s messes with the art establishment

ad reinhardt’s gig is BLACK

more specifically, black-on-black grids of very slightly varying shades of black, applied in a very matte, powdery way that left the paintings with almost no sheen. it’s a pretty cool effect in person

(The Art Institute of Chicago: Reinhardt once said, “There is no such thing as emptiness or invisibility or silence.” His career was a pursuit of this belief.)

unfortunately, the way he did the paint makes the paintings incredibly difficult to maintain. if you touch one, the oils on your hands will immediately stain the painting, and it can’t be cleaned or repaired.

“no prob, bob,” ad reinhardt said to the flustered museum curators and collectors. “if you mess it up i’ll just replace it.”

“but what about our original ad reinhardt!” said the curators and collectors

“yeah i’ll replace it,” ad reinhardt said, “with the same original painting but not fucked up.” this caused some consternation.

Collectors do not like to be told that the art they just purchased has no particular value as an object in itself

Written about at the Sartle Blog — the post talks about another artist, Yves Klein, also messing with the art establishment.

Reinhardt drew this enjoyably hostile defence of modern art:


Two-Gun Cohen

My new favourite random wikipedia guy

Opening sentence of his bio:

Morris (Moishe) Abraham Cohen (1887–1970), better known by the nickname Two-Gun Cohen and also known by his Chinese name Ma Kun (Chinese: 馬坤), was a Polish-born British and Canadian adventurer of Jewish origin who became aide-de-camp to Sun Yat-sen and a major-general in the Chinese National Revolutionary Army.


Closing sentence of his bio:

Having achieved good relations with both the Communist and Nationalist factions in China, a rare simultaneous public appearance of representatives from both factions occurred at Cohen’s funeral.


And if that isn’t enough for you, some middle sentences:

After one battle where he was nicked by a bullet, Cohen wondered what he would do if one of his arms were injured. He started carrying a second revolver, and found he was ambidextrous.

He was acquitted after serving as his own defense, and the Calgary Herald noted his “surprising knowledge of court procedures”.

Cohen spent time in Hong Kong, including at the Hong Kong Jewish Club where he played poker and performed magic tricks

He became manager of one of the Alberta’s leading real estate agencies and was appointed, on the personal recommendation of the Attorney General Sir Charles Wilson Cross, to serve the province as a Commissioner of Oaths, an appointment offered only to “fit and proper persons”.

If you told me those sentences were from 5 different people’s biographies, I’d have believed you.

Two-Gun Cohen on Wikipedia — the whole entry is worth reading


Americans: there’s going to be a bit of gentle generalising about Americans here. Please note the “love of American culture” part in the headline, and keep an open mind, or I guess skip this bit.

“My love of American culture and my resentment of its dominance is a constant war in my heart”

I’ve never seen this expressed so well — every sentence in this captures my exact experience of being a non-American, especially online. (Except replace Martin Scorsese, Frasier, and mid-2000s pop punk with the Coen Brothers, Person of Interest and Bob Dylan, but you get the gist.) It’s the satisfaction of a true thing said well.

The United States is so culturally dominant across the globe that the rest of us are primed from birth to know and care about it, in a way that no other country dominates Americans’ consciousness. I have lived in Ireland my whole life, but I think about America every day. I was raised on American films and television. American news, American pop music, American literature.

Even though the internet should be by definition a borderless, international place, the United States is treated as the Default Country online. It’s like a cultural one-way mirror, where we constantly observe the US and Americans never look back at us, aren’t even aware we’re there. And if they occasionally do look, they see us as cartoon versions of ourselves.

This makes America seem like a dreamland: going there would mean climbing inside the screen. Intellectually, I know this is a form of cultural imperialism. My visual imagination has been so thoroughly colonized that I do a double-take when I see someone drive on the left side of the road on-screen.

Yet I also dearly love a lot of American culture, in ways that don’t at all feel inauthentic or forced: Martin Scorsese is my favourite living artist in any medium, the best seasons of television ever made are Twin Peaks: The Return and the second season of Frasier, and I would probably be dead without mid-2000s pop punk. My love of American culture and my resentment of its dominance is a constant war in my heart.

[From a longer piece that is mainly a review of film noir director Jean-Pierre Melville]

I don’t know what can be done about it. I’m certainly not meaning to blame any individual Americans, except the ones who own mass media outlets.

There is one small thing you could do though. It’s trivial, but it’s a fairly common pet peeve. Any time people online are saying where they’re from, it goes something like this:

  • “I’m from Dusseldorf, in Germany.”

  • “I’m from Brisbane, Australia.”

  • “I’m from Ipoh, in Malaysia.”

  • “I’m from Pittsburgh.”

    or sometimes even just “PA”

Americans never give their country in these conversations. (<— that was the generalisation I warned you about.) I started watching for it last year because I’ve been in a tonne of international workshops what with everything being on Zoom now, and it’s a Thing.

There are three reasons I can logic out for this:

  • You don’t give your country name when you’re talking to people from your own country, and you assume all strangers on the internet are from America

  • You know you might not be talking to fellow Americans, but you expect an international audience to be familiar with all US state capitals and abbreviations, even though you you are not familiar with the state capitals of other countries

  • You don’t assume either of these things, but you don’t alter your speech patterns to make yourself more easily understood when addressing an international audience, the way people from other nations do

All of those are… not great.

  • Or, a different reason?? Please feel free to tell me if there’s a reason I’ve missed! When you try and logic out the possible motivations for a behaviour that you don’t understand, it’s pretty common to have blind spots, so I won’t be shocked to hear I’ve missed something

So that is my one request, if you are in an international situation (that is to say, anywhere on the internet except like your apartment building facebook group), and people are saying where they’re from, give your city and country.

You know how, when you meet a celebrity, and they introduce themselves like a normal person, they come across as chill and down-to-earth? But if they behaved with the supreme confidence that you already know who they are — even if you do know, because they are very famous — it still wouldn’t create a great impression. I don’t know if that analogy works.

Second request: no anti-Americanism in the comments. There’s a difference between being upset about US-normativity and making negative comments about people based on their country of origin. That is not rad behaviour.


Now, this!

Close-up of the Great Pyramid of Giza

This image doesn’t seem thatttt interesting until you notice the woman at the bottom.

The Great Pyramid of Giza is built from 2.3 million stone blocks weighing about 3 tonnes each, and so weighs around 6.5 million tonnes in total.

I wanted to tell you what body of water weighs the same as the Great Pyramid of Gaza, but it turns out even quite a small lake weighs a hundred times that. (Assuming 1 litre of lake water = 1 kilogram, not accounting for sediment and eels and so on.)

Unsolicited Advice: Look every quote you see up on Quote Investigator for a week

Quote Investigator is the Snopes of quotes — if you see a quote, google it + quote in investigator:

It doesn’t just say myth BUSTED!!, it actually traces the development of the false history — when the quote first appeared, how it ended up associated with that figure, how the quote changed over time as it was re-published etc. — so it’s properly interesting.

(Re: the Ghandi quote above, TIL it’s a heavy paraphrasing. What he actually said was:

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.

The reason I think this matters is not because I care whether Arleen Lorrance (the paraphraser) gets full credit. It’s because it teaches you terrible critical thinking / media literacy etc. skills

This is a quote I saw attributed to Buddha the other day:

You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.

If you’re familiar with Buddhism, you will immediately be like, “wow, that sounds like the exact opposite of something Buddha would say”. But if you’re not familiar with Buddhism — and there’s no reason you should be — you will now be laden with this completely incorrect idea of his teachings, which will throw up all kinds of communication and understanding blocks if you’re ever talking to a Buddhist.

There’s a great example in Wikipedia’s List of Common Misconceptions:

The myth:

Spices were not used to mask the flavor of rotting meat before refrigeration.

How you can figure out it’s not true, even if you’ve never heard the myth before:

Spices were an expensive luxury item; those who could afford them could afford good meat.

It’s not logical for it to be true. The problem is not being mistaken about this one trivial fact. The problem is that if you consume a bunch of these bad facts, you’ll never be able to build up a general picture of what the past (or whatever) was like. (Understanding that spices were an expensive luxury item is crucial to understanding the flow of goods between Europe, Asia and the Americas — if you get that fact wrong — if you get the impression, from the myth above, that spices were cheap, then parts of the history of colonialism are not going to make sense, the story will feel implausible.

Imagine if 20% of the facts you heard about Antarctica were things like:

  • Once a year, scientists from the New Zealand and Argentinian research stations compete in a 100-metre nude swim.

  • When Australian geologists Edgeworth David and Douglas Mawson came to Antarctica in 1911, they brought a pair of kangaroos with them as mascots. The pair escaped and there is now a small but stable colony of kangaroos on the coast of the Weddell Sea.

The individual “facts” are trivial and it really wouldn’t matter if you mistakenly believed them except, in aggregate, you would get the impression Antarctica is, you know, livable. Warm enough for amateurs to swim in the water without instantly dying and with enough plant life to support even a small number of kangaroos.

And being wrong about that would make it very hard to understand many of the true facts about Antarctica (all the stuff people have to do to survive the knife-edge conditions). Your context for them would be all wrong, they wouldn’t make sense.

So this is why I care so much about false fun facts. It’s not the individual fact, it’s that they cripple your ability to develop an accurate general understanding of the world.

Anyway you can’t fact-check every single thing you read, because you have to live your life, but you probably could fact-check every quote you read for the next week.

Quote Investigator!

Thank you for reading what really turned into a rant at the end there! Also at the middle.

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