Hello there 🙂
Welcome to issue twenty four of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.
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Speaking of coffee, grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, let’s do this thing…
Part I: Things I’ve Encountered Online…
Sharks have fascinated me ever since I first watched Jaws, aged seven.
I loved the film so much I wrote my own version. I felt strongly that the sea was too limiting in terms of potential terror; and so, in my version, Jaws could swim through the earth’s mantle, and pop up through the crust to terrorise people on land. I thought it was a really great story, and was hopeful that someone in Hollywood would option it; but sadly, no dice.
In addition to writing fan fic about sharks, I also really enjoyed learning more about them. I still do, and this week I learned something new:
Possibly you already know that sharks are cannibals: they’re totally down with eating both their own, and other species of shark. However, you might not realise quite how young this behaviour starts…
This week I discovered that some species of shark don’t wait until they’re born to start eating each other:
“The Story of Life BBC nature documentary starring Sir David Attenborough depicts this very type of cannibalism inside a sand tiger shark (Carcharias taurus). Also called grey nurse sharks, spotted ragged-tooth sharks, or tiger sharks, these sharks have a bloody war going inside their uteruses. Yes, plural. Female sand tiger sharks have two uteri.
Attenborough says it best:
“Inside each female, infant teeth are being put to good use, as the female’s two largest unborn pups slowly eat their siblings. It ensures only the strongest and largest babies survive.”
This macabre event was accidentally discovered in 1948 when a scientist poking around one of the uteri of a sand tiger shark was suddenly bit by one pup on the hand.”
But that’s not all:
“…once the sand tiger sharks are finishing eating their brothers and sisters, they turn to their mother’s unfertilized eggs. This practice is called oophagy (sometimes referred to as ‘ovophagy’) and literally means egg eating.”
Also, remember that female sand tiger sharks have two uteri?
“…in 1993, footage shot for a Discovery Channel program showed embryos inside a sand tiger shark moving from one uterus to another.
Scientists just recently found this same migration in another species. Using a special ultrasound device, scientists from Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Motobu, Japan, were able to see unborn pups of captive tawny nurse sharks (Nebrius ferrugineus) not only swim around their own uterus but move to the other one.
“Our data shows frequent embryonic migration between the right and left uteri, which is contradictory to the ‘sedentary’ mammalian fetus,” the researchers state in their report. “The data ranged from embryos switching uteruses three times to 24 migrations throughout the shark’s pregnancy.”
Researchers think this behavior may be due to how tawny nurse and sand tiger sharks feed their developing pups.
“It seems likely that in this mode of reproduction, the active swimming ability of the embryo may allow it to effectively search and capture nutritive eggs in the uterine environment,” the scientists state.
Sand tiger shark siblings eat each other in the womb, because, as Attenborough says: “It ensures only the strongest and largest babies survive.”
But this has implications for the genetic makeup of the species.
Female sand tiger sharks, like many animals, mate with multiple males.
Often in nature, females determine which males will sire the next generation by selectively choosing to mate with the most impressive bachelor (or bachelors) around.
If mating with multiple males at any given time (as sharks, insects, dogs, cats and many other animals do) the babies that the female eventually produces share the same womb with siblings that may have different fathers.
In the case of sand tiger sharks, however, there are two modes of selection at work: females may choose mates, but that does not guarantee those males’ genes will make the cut. The embryos the males sire will also have to survive the subsequent frenzy of cannibalism going on inside the female’s body.
So which babies survive?
“Authors of a 2013 study constructed microsatellite DNA profiles of 15 female sand tiger sharks and their offspring in South Africa between 2007 to 2012. By comparing the embryo genetics, they were able to see how many males were able to successfully fertilize eggs.
Nine of the females (60 percent) had multiple mates, but what was surprising was that 60 percent of the embryos that hatched first and grew shared the same father.
This bit confused me – I don’t think it’s very well-worded.
The 2013 study does a better job of explaining it. Essentially, 60% of the females in the study had multiple mates (or were polyandrous). As such the scientists expected to find similar levels of genetic polyandry (i.e. shark babies with different daddies) in the litters of hatchlings.
But that’s not what they found.
- In just 40% of litters they found genetic polyandry – i.e. shark babies with different daddies.
- In the remaining 60% of litters, the hatchlings were full siblings – i.e. they had the same daddy.
The scientists go on to say:
“Some instances of genetic monogamy in this population arise from the reduction in litter size by embryonic cannibalism.”
I don’t think that they’re saying shark babies only eat the other shark babies who have different daddies.
Instead, I think they’re suggesting that there are a few other factors in play:
- Timing might be important: the male who fertilises the female first might be more likely to sire hatchlings. This is because the eggs that hatch first are likely to be bigger and therefore perhaps more likely to eat (as opposed to getting eaten by) their siblings.
- Genetics might also be important: males who are genetically predisposed to pass on any trait that enhances the competitive ability of the embryo might also be more likely to sire hatchlings. For example, individual growth rate could determine which of several similar-sized embryos would hatch first and consume its younger siblings. As such, if a male carries genes that promote rapid embryonic growth, their progeny might be more likely to survive.
As gruesome as all this sounds, by the time those shark babies are finally ready to be introduced into the big, bad world, all of their pre-birth inner feasting has paid off. They emerge from their mother measuring about 95 to 125 centimeters long (a bit longer than a baseball bat), meaning fewer predators can pick them off than if they had shared food with their siblings and were therefore, born smaller.
“Baby shark, do do do do do do…”
Moar serendipitous finds:
If, like me, you feel like you’re seeing an awful lot of articles from journalists which purport to be reporting on cultural consensus, but on closer examination, appear simply to be sensationalist coverage of a handful (or even fewer) random tweets, you’ll likely find this interesting.
Written by journalist Kate Lindsay, this was published back in May, but I only came across it this week. Lindsay wrote the piece largely thanks to the “furore” around Billie Eilish’s British Vogue cover:
“…VICE News correspondent Roberto Aram Ferdman tweeted a New York Times analysis of Billie Eilish’s British Vogue cover…
The story claimed that “not everyone” was happy about the pop star’s decision to don lingerie.
Ferdman pointed out that “not everyone” is actually a single tweet from a German Twitter account with only three followers. From that, the NYT extrapolated an entire backlash to the singer.”
“This horrified me not because of the writer’s harmful exaggeration (or archaic ideas about cultural consensus, as Ryan Broderick argued in yesterday’s Garbage Day), but because I’ve done something like this maybe a hundred times.”
She goes on to share an example:
“When I was assigned a story about Ariana Grande getting what seemed to be a culturally appropriative tattoo, my draft was handed back to me with the instruction to find some tweets to support that idea.
We couldn’t be the ones saying she was appropriating, because maybe one day she’d do an interview with us (she never has), so instead I had to find other people saying it and point to them.
The thing is, few people were saying this.
This wasn’t the big controversy our headline was making it out to be.
In fact, I found only one tweet claiming it was. It was thoughtful and from a real person—perfect!—so I threw it in there and we published the story. And when the person who wrote that tweet saw our story, they thought, understandably, that we had ripped off their idea. I didn’t know how (and wouldn’t have been allowed, anyway) to explain how their tweet even ended up in this article.
A true explanation would have gone something like this:
I have to write five stories a day, so if I scrap one, I need to rush to replace it to keep proving my value (get clicks) because there are layoffs every six months at this publication and we live in a country where healthcare is tied to employment and I’m on medication, so this tweet was essentially a life raft all because we couldn’t just fucking say ourselves that Ariana Grande probably shouldn’t have gotten a tattoo in botched Japanese.”
As Lindsay notes:
“There’s no big bad villain causing any of this. It’s just the result of a decade of learned toxic productivity, trickling down to a single, stupid, embedded tweet.
Digital media relies on overworked writers and random Twitter users.”
It’s a disquieting thought, no?
Remember Genius? The site formerly known as Rap Genius that started out decoding rap lyrics but then wanted to create a new layer on top of the entire internet and “annotate the world”?
They’ve just been sold for less than they raised over the years in venture capital.
Perhaps, like me, you’ll feel a momentary frisson of schadenfreude upon reading this.
Through his books, author William Gibson predicted the late-stage capitalist tech hell we currently live in. This you likely already know.
But do you follow him on twitter?
If you take a look at Gibson’s twitter timeline, you’ll a series of wordless retweets. For me, it’s a quiet but nevertheless glorious piece of public performance art.
As journalist Whitney Kimball notes:
“[He} wordlessly observes like a retweet bot broadcasting our descent into madness in real-time.”
Thanks to this article I also learned that Gibson did a pretty amazing job of describing something that sounds an awful lot like NFTs in Count Zero, in 1986:
Picard, if that was the man’s name, was speaking with a broker in New York, arranging the purchase of a certain number of “points” of the work of a particular artist. A “point” might be defined in any number of ways, depending on the medium involved, but it was almost certain that Picard would never see the works he was purchasing. If the artist enjoyed sufficient status, the originals were very likely crated away in some vault, where no one saw them at all. Days or years later, Picard might pick up that same phone and order the broker to sell.”
The naked Nirvana baby has been recreated yet again – this time on the streets of Adelaide.
Pete Stokes rode about 150km on a single-speed bike to sketch the outline of the famous Nevermind cover. His efforts, tracked by GPS-based site Strava, show the baby’s (slightly angry) face over the CBD and the banknote over the leafy eastern suburbs of Burnside and Kensington:
I wholeheartedly approve of this human etch-a-sketch artwork.
Friendly monsters with enthusiastic grins and pastel fur and feathers have been sauntering through the streets of New York City thanks to Loe Lee. The characters are part of the Chinese-American illustrator’s Creatures of Hope series, which overlays photographs of the city with whimsical figures.
The project was born out of the city’s strength and perseverance this last year:
“As a native New Yorker, it was heartbreaking to see NYC endure such crippling loss and confusion during the pandemic last year. Yet, despite everything, I still saw people striving with unshakable resilience.”
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
This fortnight I read Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford. (This is another Booker Prize Longlist novel, I have three more left to read).
Here, five young victims of a wartime bomb are resurrected, and as readers, we see these five characters for a single day in 1949, 1964, 1979, 1994 and 2009.
The idea came to Spufford as he was walking down London’s New Cross Road towards Goldsmiths, where he teaches. There’s now a branch of Iceland, on the site where, in November 1944, a German V2 rocket fell. A plaque commemorates the killing of 168 people, including several children, in what was then a Woolworths.
Thinking about the lives cut short, he decided to write about five working-class children, allowing them to survive and grow up, (but not using their actual names) and transposing their stories to the invented south London borough of Bexford.
Possibly because I grew up in London, I found this invented borough disorienting. There are real places named and described here, alongside fictional ones, which made it tricky for me to piece Spufford’s version of London together.
Problems of orientation aside, the book is well-written, and, you’d have to be dead inside not to feel sadness about the fact that nothing in this novel actually happened. And I did feel sad. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading a soap opera (albeit a well-written one); and in short, this novel really wasn’t for me.
That said, doubtlessly lots of people will love this, and if it sounds like your bag you should get yourself a copy.
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
I watched Vigil (BBC), and I’m honestly not sure what to think about it.
For the uninitiated, Vigil is a six part police procedural drama set on a Royal Navy submarine which is armed with nuclear missiles.
There is a suspicious death on the submarine, and the powers that be elect to send a claustrophobic police officer with a bunch of unresolved trauma (played by Suranne Jones) investigate. Jones ropes in her colleague and ex-girlfriend to help run the investigation back home.
Onboard the submarine the Navy are very Navy-ish about the whole thing. No one wants Jones to investigate anything, or indeed do anything that even vaguely resembles her job. Pretty much everyone on board behaves secretively. Various men threaten to lock her up in cupboards, which is apparently a legit Navy thing that important Navy men do in the Navy.
Meanwhile back on land Jones’ colleague is doing her best to figure things out. The Navy are pretty Navy-ish to her too, but no one threatens to lock her in a cupboard. I suspect the cupboard protocol is valid only on submarines.
Jones’ colleague can send messages to Jones on the submarine but they have to be kind of cryptic because other people get to see them before Jones does. The messages she sends are not very cryptic.
Jones can’t send messages back to her colleague because *reasons*.
IT IS VERY TENSE. Or at least I think that’s what we are supposed to be feeling. I fell asleep a few times and was woken up by a tense musical score and people shouting.
As the series progresses lots of things go to hell because the Navy are Navy-ish and cover everything up, and possibly the submarine is being sabotaged, and the submarine might sink, and nerve agents are released, and also there a thing with America, AND THE RUSSIANS ARE A THREAT, and there are some other things too I think, but like I said I kept falling asleep.
Did I mention that the script is laughably bad? It is.
One reviewer noted that Vigil has been the first vaguely watercooler-ish drama to air since life went slightly back to normal, and there’s been something comforting about overhearing the hushed demand of, “oh my god, did you watch Vigil last night?” across the office.
This sort of makes sense to me. Perhaps the people who’ve watched it (rather than falling asleep through it) were invested not so much in the series, but in the conversations they’d be having about it the next day.
Or possibly they genuinely enjoyed it. Perhaps it really is brilliant and I really should have stayed awake.
I could try re-watching it, but y’know what? I think I’m good.
Part IV: What I’ve been up to…
I had a really lovely time on my holidays. We did some lovely walks, ate some really great pub lunches, I got to visit my favourite book shop, and we managed to complete this puzzle:
In other news, the online course I signed up for with London Lit Lab has just started, and I’m really enjoying it. I’ve not done much in the way of creative writing this year (or last year either, to be honest), and it feels really good to be writing again.
I’ll likely tell you a little more about it in a future edition of this newsletter; but if creative writing’s your bag, but you’ve been struggling to put pen to paper, I’d really recommend checking out both London Lit Lab’s courses; and also the courses run by Arvon.
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