Hello there 🙂
Welcome to issue thirty two of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.
This newsletter is free to receive, but if you’d like to support me in this odd little endeavour you can buy me a coffee 🙂
Speaking of coffee, grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, let’s do this thing…
Part I: Things I’ve Encountered Online…
Lumb Bank is an 18th-century millowner’s house in West Yorkshire, which once belonged to Ted Hughes. Despite having the ghost of Hughes at my shoulder, (whispering unhelpful feedback like “not enough crows”) it was a nourishing and delightfully productive week.
On the final day of the course David Gaffney introduced us to N+7, an Oulipian constraint. It works like this: you take an existing piece of text, and a dictionary. First identify all the nouns, then replace each one with the seventh noun that follows it in your dictionary.
As an alternative to doing N+7 manually, there’s an N+7 generator which will do the work for you. Whack in your text and it will generate 15 alternative texts, from N+1, (which replaces each noun with the next one in the dictionary), to N+15, (which takes the 15th noun following).
The results are deliciously odd, and it’s strangely addictive – I’ve spent more time playing with this generator than I meant to because the results are so entertaining.
Here’s an example – the original text I’ve used here is from the description of the writing course I just attended:
Original Flash Fiction Course Description
“Flash, short-story, drabbles, micro-stories – whatever the name, they are slippery, addictive, powerful little beasts.
Fire up your imaginations and join todays’ flash stars. Reduce your drafts to ultra-short format while keeping your stories lucid, rich, effective. Find out how best to use your writing skills to suit the challenges of flash, how to express your ideas in paragraph-sized nuggets without losing a thing.
Explore how to employ your flash fictions to best effect – in performance, in collaborations, in collections. Explore individual flash markets, flash competitions. Explore the potential of longer narrative forms that rely on flash, and learn how flash is not just a product, but a process that can help you tackle writers’ block.
By the end of the course, you will not only have a body of new work and ideas for more, but also sharper craft skills to strengthen your broader writing.”
Here is the generator’s N+9 version:
N+9 Flash Fiction Course Description
“Flatfish, short-stranger, drabbles, micro-strangers – whatever the narcotic, they are slippery, addictive, powerful little beavers.
Firefly up your imps and join todays’ flatfish states. Reduce your drams to ultra-short fortune while keeping your strangers lucid, rifle, effective. Find out how best to use your yam skippers to summer the champions of flatfish, how to external your idiots in parapet-sized nursemaids without losing a thorax.
Explore how to enactment your flatfish fiends to best eggcup – in periphery, in collectives, in colloquiums. Explore individual flatfish marquees, flatfish complexities. Explore the pouch of longer native fortnights that rely on flatfish, and learn how flatfish is not just a profit, but a prodigal that can help you tailwind writers’ bloodhound.
By the energy of the cousin, you will not only have a bole of new work and idiots for more, but also sharper crankshaft skippers to strengthen your broader yam.”
It’s interesting to me that whilst the nouns have all been changed, the meaning isn’t entirely lost – I feel like I can still (somewhat) sense the message behind the original text. It reminds me a little of Janelle Shane’s GPT-3 pickup lines, and there are so many phrases in here that I love.
From here on out I will no longer be “tackling writers’ block”; instead I will be “tailwinding writers’ bloodhound”.
Moar serendipitous finds:
The word “moist” gives lots of people the ick, but why is that?
“When you ask people why this might be, there is no shortage of armchair theory: that there’s something about the sounds involved, that it puts your face in a position similar to the facial expression of disgust, or that it reminds people of mold or sex.”
Psychologist Paul Thibodeau and his colleagues at Oberlin ran a study in an attempt to uncover the answer. Across three different experiments, they gave participants a set of words and asked them to rate how, whether, and to what degree, each word made them uncomfortable.
“Twenty-one percent of the people in the study had an aversion to the unloved word. It turns out that the sounds don’t have much to do with that effect. Similar-sounding words, such as “foist,” did not generate the same reaction. Because those words also put your facial muscles in similar positions, we can also discount the disgust-facial expression theory.
So what about the meaning?
Well, people found “moist” most aversive when it followed an unrelated, pleasant word, such as “paradise.” There seems to be a contrast effect going on here. “Moist” seems bad when following “paradise” but not when following a really negative word, like a racial slur.
“Moist” also didn’t seem so unpleasant when it followed words related to food, such as “cake.”
In contrast, it provoked the most negative reactions when preceded by overtly sexual words (use your imagination). These results show that reminding people of certain meanings of “moist” can affect one’s disgust reaction to it.
Further analysis showed that “moist”-averse people also tend to dislike related words, such as “damp” and “wet,” showing further support for the idea that it’s the meaning, not the sound, of the word that’s setting people off. “Moist”-averse people also tended to have more general disgust reactions to bodily functions, suggesting that the problem is the connotations of bodily functions and sex.
So if it’s really the meaning that makes it sound disgusting, why would people think the disgustingness came from the sound of the word? Thirty-nine percent of those people attributed their “moist” aversion to the sound of it (and linguist Ben Zimmer conjectures that the “oi” diphthong may be unappealing). They think there’s something inherently unpleasant about the sounds made when you say it.
This happens with accents, too, where people will often think that the lower classes have accents that are aesthetically harsh, vulgar, or unpleasing, independent of social conditioning and historical preferences that there’s something inherently low-class sounding about the accents of people who are less well-off.
But studies have cast serious doubt on this too. In one study that exposed Americans and Canadians to different British accents they were unfamiliar with, they couldn’t guess with any accuracy which ones belonged to people in the upper classes and which ones to people in the lower classes.
Through association, we come to find the very sound itself distasteful, just as the bodily meaning of “moist” can infect our perception of the sound.”
I read the actual study too – it’s pretty dense (as these things tend to be), but I found the experiments they devised fascinating.
Russian photographer Dmitry Kokh, has captured a delightful series of photos of a group of polar bears that have taken over the abandoned buildings of a meteorological station on Kolyuchin Island.
Kolyuchin Island is north of Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula, and measures just 2.8 miles in length, with a maximum width of 0.93 miles. In 1934, Soviet scientists built a meteorological station here, which functioned until 1992, when it was closed. The island was then abandoned.
At some point after this, the polar bears moved in:
Here, Josh MacPhee charts the evolution of the design of Penguin Crime covers. It’s fascinating- I have so much time for in depth articles like this, and it’s brilliant to see so many book covers in one place.
Dear reader, this tweet found its way into my timeline, and I then googled my way to the article linked above. I’ve included the tweet because it includes an image (and I wanted you to see a photo of this guy), but the article is gold.
Eunice aphroditois, is apparently otherwise known as a bobbit worm. But why is that?
“Apparently around 20 years ago, an underwater photographer thought it and other species in the Eunice genus were reminiscent enough of the Bobbitt family incident of 1993 to warrant the nickname, according to a 2011 paper in Revista de Biología Tropical. The incident involved Lorena Bobbitt chopping nearly half her husband’s penis off, and E. aphroditois is similar, said biologist Sergio Salazar-Vallejo from Mexico’s El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, “because either the widely open jaw pieces resemble scissors, or because the exposed portion resembles an erect penis”, referring to the way these marine worms bury themselves in the sea floor and expose just a fraction of their very long bodies for hunting.
This explanation cannot be confirmed, however, as a reply by Anja Schulze from the Department of Marine Biology at the Texas A&M University noted that it doesn’t make sense, seeing as Lorena Bobbitt’s weapon of choice was a knife, not scissors. Another possibility is that these worms got their nickname from a myth that after mating, the female cuts off the male’s penis and feeds it to her young. But these worms don’t have penises, and their levels of parental care are minimal at best.”
Initially, I felt that the “bobbit’ name made no sense at all, but then, an alternative possibility for reasoning behind this nickname occurred to me. The author of the article, Becky Crew notes:
“Sometimes its prey is cut clean in half because of the speed and strength of E. aphroditois’ attacks”
As such, I guess you could say an Eunice aphroditois attack somewhat mirrors that of Lorena Bobbitt. This makes me very uncomfortable though – it’s a weird parallel to draw: Lorena Bobbitt committed a violent act after years of domestic abuse; Eunice aphroditois is a violent hunter, but so are all hunters in the natural world. As such I’m choosing not to use the Bobbit moniker (which, you might have noticed is spelled incorrectly in any case).
But back to Eunice aphroditois:
“According to a report led by Hiro’omi Uchida, assistant director of the Kushimoto Marine Park Centre in Kushimoto, Japan, a three-metre-long specimen was found hiding in one of the 120 floats of a mooring raft in Japan’s Seto Fishing Harbour in 2009.
“It is uncertain when the individual first entered the mooring raft and fish corral during the 13 years the structure sat in the harbour. It is also uncertain whether the worm arrived by larval settlement or at a semi-adult stage of development,” wrote Uchida. “Nonetheless, the individual surely had been living in its comfortable floating home for a quite a long time.”
The worm measured 299 cm, weighed 433 g, and had 673 segments, making it one of the largest specimens of E. aphroditois ever found.”
THAT WORM WAS CLOSE TO 3 METRES LONG! That’s nearly two of me!
“That same year, a metre-long E. aphroditois was found to be wreaking havoc on one of the reef display tanks of Newquay’s Blue Reef Aquarium in the UK, chopping the coral up and killing its inhabitants.
The entire tank had to be emptied of its coral, rocks and plants, after the aquarium staff’s traps failed to turn up the culprit. The aquarium’s curator, Matt Slater, told the Daily Mail, “Something was guzzling our reef but we had no idea what. We also found an injured Tang Fish, so we laid traps, but they got ripped apart in the night. That worm must have obliterated the traps. The bait was full of hooks which he must have just digested.”
Turns out the worm likely hitched a ride into the tank by hiding in a piece of coral when young, and secretly grew enormous over a number of years. Slater also mentioned that E. aphroditois is covered in thousands of bristles that are capable of inflicting a sting ‘resulting in permanent numbness’ in humans.”
You might also like:
- I’m guessing Ted Hughes’ ghost would like this: Here’s a pandemic pet you may not have considered: Rooftop crows. Also check out this video.
- George Pointon asks a group of 6-year-olds “Who should be the next prime minister?”
- Have we built an internet where enjoying an innocent thing is, quite simply, impossible?
- Want some other newsletter recommendations? I’ve got you: start the day right with a poem in your inbox with Pome, Jeanette Winterson’s Mind Over Matter newsletter is wonderful, and I’m excited to receive Amanda Palmer’s first missive.
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
Over the past fortnight I’ve read far less than usual, but I feel like Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, definitely merits a mention. The novel opens in 1945, and our protagonist, Nathaniel Williams, is 14. His father and mother have travelled abroad (supposedly because of his father’s job), and Nathaniel and his sister Rachel, have been left behind in London, in the care of a mysterious figure called the Moth.
The first half of the book is vivid, delightful, and strange, as we hear Nathaniel recount his unusual upbringing by the Moth and a range of his strange associates. However later parts of the novel creak a little, and for me at least, weren’t so satisfying.
“We order our lives with barely held stories…” Nathaniel says at the end of the book; and possibly this is the point Ondaatje is driving at throughout. Even the people closest to us are largely unknowable, and whilst we might attempt to weave together the threads of what we think we know about them, whatever it is we create will inevitably be incomplete.
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
Dear reader I have watched very little TV, but I have been watching The Apprentice (BBC).
I’ve not tuned into The Apprentice for several years, and to be honest, not an awful lot has changed. Candidates are still selected largely based on their tendency to overstate their expertise and experience, and the tasks are set up in a way to make failure an extremely likely possibility. The house they’re forced to live in together is a soulless McHome and they appear to sleep in dormitory-style rooms like children. They are still woken at 4am on the mornings they have a task.
It remains wonderfully entertaining thanks to the cruel editing.
I sit, and I watch, and I wonder what I might have done in those candidates’ places. (I suspect I would make slightly different mistakes to them, but still come out looking pretty terrible in the edit.)
I enjoy watching it; feel like I ought to feel bad for enjoying it; but don’t actually feel bad.
Part IV: What I’ve been up to…
Flash fiction writing course
As I mentioned previously, I’ve just returned from a week-long flash fiction course at Lumb Bank. Everything about it was wonderful.
I promised I’d share something with you that I wrote on the course. However, whilst on the course, I learned that if I have hopes of getting something published in the future (and/or if I want to enter competitions) there are strict rules around entries being previously unpublished, and, apparently even newsletters like mine count.
As such, I cannot share the story I’d really like to share with you. But I can share this teeny tiny piece of flash which I wrote during one of the writing exercises last week:
When you find yourself following a stranger in an orange van for over 100 miles up the M1 on a Monday, in January, it is only natural to fall in love, just a little.
And to wonder what your children might look like.
Trying out a Four-Day Work Week in January
I’m not quite on a four-day work week this week, it’ll be four-and-a-half days instead; but I’m pretty comfortable with that. I feel like I will be able to manage four-day work weeks again in February though.
I am now the proud owner of a metal ruler…
And I have made collage number two.
Short story submissions
I will submit the short story which I wrote last week to some publications. Once again friends, you’re my accountability buddies – writing this here means that I will definitely do this.
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