The Whippet #136: Please don't explain to me what a metasurface is
Good morning! This issue is very text-heavy so here’s a rainbow-bearded thornbill:
💖´ *•.¸♥¸.•** bird **•.¸♥¸.•*´💖
Oh, just to continue the left-handed discourse from last issue, here’s a satisfying piece of trivia: most Muppets are left-handed, for the reason that most muppeteers are right-handed*
* and prefer to control the head/mouth with their dominant hand, and the arms/hands with the other
I fought the train and the train won
There isn’t a lot to this story that isn’t captured in the memorial sign, except it is in eastern Malaysia and was a British train. Since Malaysia was occupied by Britain in 1894, I choose to interpret the elephant’s actions as an act of anti-colonial defiance.
The limited info we have comes from a blogger who remembers seeing the sign when he was a kid — here’s the link.
Library of Misremembered Books
Artist Marina Luz searched book forums for people asking if anyone can remember the title of this book they read a while back, (“It was set in France, or maybe Belgium?”) and turned their fumbling descriptions into book covers:
The illustrations are collected in a book which you can purchase, here.
If you, yourself, have a book/song/movie that you can’t remember the name of, try posting on r/TipOfMyTongue. It has 1.8 million members, so your chances are better than you might think.
Mark Slutsky of newsletter Something Good wrote up his memory of a lost book, and his summary of it is so compelling that it is now one of my favourite books, even though I’ve never read it:
[movie epilogue text]: It remains unidentified to this day.
The world’s deadliest shark is not the one you think it is
And not in some trick way like they use its liver to make mustard gas or something.
Death-by-shark* statistics only count deaths close to shore, with great whites, tiger sharks and bull sharks topping the charts. But far, far more people are killed by sharks in deep oceans (well, on the surface of deep oceans), and most of those are killed by the Oceanic Whitetip Shark.
How people get to be in the water in the middle of the ocean: sinking ships and plane crashes.
The speech in Jaws about the USS Indianapolis was roughly correct: it was torpedoed in 1945, sunk in 12 minutes and 900 people were set adrift. There was already blood in the water, the explosion had attracted attention from miles around, and no one came to rescue them for four days. It’s hard to say how many people were killed by sharks vs thirst, exposure, etc. but survivors say it was a lot. (In the film they say it was tiger sharks; that’s not correct. I’d guess it’s because “oceanic whitetip” doesn’t sound as scary.)
Similar thing with the RMS Nova Scotia, also in 1945. But these were ships with over a thousand people on them each — so there was a high chance of at least some people surviving to talk about what happened. When it’s a much smaller ship or plane, with all hands lost, it’s next to impossible to figure out the exact cause of death.
It also might be unfair to blame sharks — the cause of death is still very much “torpedo”, or “corporate shortcuts on aviation safety”, regardless of the final moments.
* Conservationists and accuracy fans prefer the term “fatal shark bite” to “shark attack” unless it’s definitely an attack — which it usually isn’t, oceanic whitetips aside. Typically great white sharks are just curious and don’t have a lot of sensory options available to them. Genetically engineer a shark with hands and we wouldn’t have this problem.
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I read a very long and boring PDF which confirms the RMS Nova Scotia incident — it also included this:
“Provoked” seems fair.
Camera the size of a grain of salt
Using a technology known as a metasurface, which is covered with 1.6 million cylindrical posts, the camera is able to capture full-color photos that are as good as images snapped by conventional lenses some half a million times bigger than this particular camera.
Long explanation of how it works and how it was developed at Science Alert.
All the damps
Link to tweet | Link to Wikipedia explanation of the various mining damps
In the course of looking this up, I discovered there are rising damp truthers, who claim rising damp is a myth. I assume they’re all landlords.
[Google “is rising damp a con?” if that’s a rabbit hole you want to go down]
Who gets to decide if something’s 'unforgiveable’?
This is a parable type thing. Read it and decide who you agree with.
It’s an excerpt from The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie:
Alone, Chamcha all at once remembered that he and Pamela had once disagreed, as they disagreed on everything, on a short-story they’d both read, whose theme was precisely the nature of the unforgivable. Title and author eluded him, but the story came back vividly:
A man and a woman had been intimate friends (never lovers) for all their adult lives. On his twenty-first birthday (they were both poor at the time) she had given him, as a joke, the most horrible, cheap glass vase she could find, its colours a garish parody of Venetian gaiety.
Twenty years later, when they were both successful and greying, she visited his home and quarrelled with him over his treatment of a mutual friend. In the course of the quarrel her eye fell upon the old vase, which he still kept in pride of place on his sitting-room mantelpiece, and, without pausing in her tirade, she swept it to the floor, smashing it beyond hope of repair.
He never spoke to her again; when she died, half a century later, he refused to visit her deathbed or attend her funeral, even though messengers were sent to tell him that these were her dearest wishes. “Tell her,” he said to the emissaries, “that she never knew how much I valued what she broke.”
The emissaries argued, pleaded, raged. If she had not known how much meaning he had invested in the trifle, how could she in all fairness be blamed? And had she not made countless attempts, over the years, to apologize and atone? And she was dying, for heaven’s sake; could not this ancient, childish rift be healed at the last? They had lost a lifetime’s friendship; could they not even say goodbye?
“No,” said the unforgiving man.
“Really because of the vase? Or are you concealing some other, darker matter?”
“It was the vase,” he answered, “the vase, and nothing but.”
Pamela thought the man petty and cruel, but Chamcha had even then appreciated the curious privacy, the inexplicable inwardness of the issue.
“Nobody can judge an internal injury,” he had said, “by the size of the superficial wound, of the hole.”
It does seem petty and cruel, and in his position I would have forgiven her. But I am not in her position, and surely in principle only the wronged person gets to decide how serious the wrong was? Certainly the perpetrator doesn’t get to decide. So how can I make a judgement that she’s in the right?
I love this story because I don’t actually know who I agree with — both maybe. I suppose Chamcha. I don’t know.
Unsolicited Advice: Read The Satanic Verses, I guess? If you want?
Satanic Verses is such a good book, and I didn’t read it for ages because the fatwa completely overshadowed it — I thought it was just going to be a boring militant-atheist lecture. But a) it’s about a dozen or so different things, of which Islam is only one, and b) the stuff that is about Islam isn’t a didactic screed — as with the excerpt above, pretty much everything in the book presents two sides of a question, and compelling reasons why either could be right. For example: one question it asks is “if a religion is beautiful and meaningful, does it matter whether or not the founding facts of it are true?”
(In this case, does it matter whether the Archangel Gabriel really spoke to Mohammed.) Obviously one answer to that is blasphemous to a hardliner, but it’s not trying-too-hard-to-be-edgy-Ricky-Gervais blasphemy, it’s an interesting question that you can apply to secular parables as well.
Secular parables (can you tell I added the subheadings in later?)
Here’s one secular parable: “Steven King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times before it was finally accepted, and went on to become a bestseller.” The moral is “don’t give up, even if don’t see immediate success.”
If we found out that actually, he got a lot of offers to publish Carrie, but he turned them down until the 30th because he thought he could do better — would it matter? Is “don’t give up” still a worthwhile lesson?
(For more secular parables, see: any TED talk. They’ll tell a story about a study that was debunked years ago, or a reductive anecdote about a specific person — “and that man went on to become Steve Jobs” — and then tell you the lesson they think you should take from it.)
Satanic Verses is FULL of these binary philosophical questions on a wild range of topics, so it’s fun to read with a buddy and argue about. It’s like a pokemon evolution of Life of Pi, if you read that (Life of Pi has just the one parable+question, similar to the religion one above, but it’s well told).
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Last note on The Satanic Verses: the first chapter, 10 or so pages, is written in this dense, poetic, stream-of-consciousness prose style, which is pretty tough going. It switches to much more normal prose after that. (You can see from the excerpt above that it’s very readable.) So don’t give up on it if you read the first few pages and hate it! Skim ahead, the book-police will never find out.
Last last note, don’t be a dick about religion in the comments please 🙏✌
Thanks for reading! I’m gonna take a little bit of a break over the break. I’ll probably skip the issue that’s due just before Christmas, and the first issue of the new year will be on the short side.
I’ve talked about this before, but it’s less about getting a break from writing, as getting a break from sieving the entire internet through my brain in order to collect the krill of decent content.
Hey did you know when people say “whalebone corsets”, they mean baleen, not the whale’s actual bones? I was sort of outraged to discover that, even though logically I see how you can’t make a strong-yet-flexible corset out of this.
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Anyway, if you would like to support The Whippet, recommending it to a specific friend who you think might like it is really helpful, and financial support is also incredibly appreciated (via becoming a paying subscriber).
I actually wrote a bunch more about some of the other ideas in the Satanic Verses, but it was already getting to be a Lot, so that will be coming out in a Whippet Cetera [occasional extra bits for paid subscribers] in a few days.
I have no idea whether that’s an enticement or a deterrent.
I think it's interesting that no one has suggested that the woman should have let go of the friendship when it was clear he no longer wanted the relationship to continue.
I'm not saying either side is right.
I have always been somewhat mystified by people's need for clear dualistic answers. I mean, the guy is absolutely intitled to be unforgiving and still he can be a jerk about it. It DOES matter if a parable is true, but the moral can be correct and a good lesson even if it is not. Though I suppose, thinking about it, I do long for clear simple answers sometimes, so I guess I mystify myself.
Thank you for another exelent news letter, enjoy your holiday break!