Hello there :)
Welcome to issue eleven of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected and often delightful things I’ve recently encountered.
I’m sending this edition a day early because this Friday is a bank holiday in the UK, future editions will be sent each fortnight on a Friday as normal.
Grab yourself a suitable beverage and enjoy…
Part I: Good Things I’ve Encountered Online
Earlier this month, Austin Kleon wrote an absolutely delightful post in which he noted:
“Like a lot of people, I find myself looking to animals in these times, for some kind of escape, if not inspiration.”
Within his post he talks about the pair of screech owls he has living in his backyard before moving on to talk about two other remarkable creatures:
Scientists have discovered that some sea slugs are able to chop off their own heads and grow new bodies:
“Self-amputation, known as autotomy, isn’t uncommon in the animal kingdom. Having the ability to jettison a body part, such as a tail, helps many animals avoid predation. However, no animal had ever been observed ditching its entire body.”
He then goes on to talk a little about the the seemingly invincible tardigrade:
Reading Kleon’s post reminded me of some other amazing animals I’ve stumbled across whilst bumbling aimlessly around the internet in the past:
Axolotls also possess remarkable regeneration abilities:
“Many animals can perform some degree of regeneration, but axolotls seem almost limitless in their capabilities. As long as you don’t cut off their heads, they can “grow back a nearly perfect replica” of just about any body part, including up to half of their brain.”
And there’s also another amazing sea slug called the leaf sheep, which has the ability to photosynthesise:
“Leaf sheep retain the chloroplasts from the food they eat and use them to manufacture their own energy - just like a plant would. The process, known as kleptoplasty, is only found in certain sacoglossan sea slugs. While leaf sheep aren't particularly good at photosynthesising, some species can live for months on photosynthesis alone.”
Moar serendipitous finds:
GPT-3 Generated Pickup Lines by Janelle Shane
Janelle Shane initially assumed that GPT-3 generated pickup lines would be terrible because they would be something like human pickup lines. Instead, she found that they were terrible for more delightful reasons.
You should definitely read her full post, but for me “I will briefly summarize the plot of Back to the Future II for you” is an absolute winner, closely followed by: “I love you. I don't care if you're a doggo in a trenchcoat”.
This is what clouds look like on Mars!
A photo of the sky on another planet - amazing, huh?
Ayham Jabr - Damascus Under Siege
Syrian artist Ayham Jabr transports us to the fringes of a surrealist reality, stuck between two wars: the Syrian and the Martian. Drawing inspiration from a fused universe caught between fiction and reality, he uses elements of science-fiction to create his collages.
They are absolutely amazing:
“I’m a huge fan of science-fiction films, and have always been fascinated by the beauty of an outer space world around us, which we hardly know anything about… The underlying theme is one of human ignorance, greed, the illusion of power, and the artificial pursuit of eternal recognition.”
You can read more about Damascus Under Siege here, and see more of Jabr’s work here.
I endorse this:
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
It’s been a fortnight of wonderful fiction.
First up, This Brutal House by Niven Govinden. On the steps of New York’s City Hall, five ageing Mothers sit in silent protest - they are the guardians of the vogue ball community, men who opened their homes to countless lost children and provided spaces for them to explore their true selves. Their children have been going missing, but their absences are ignored by the authorities and are not investigated by the police. City clerk Teddy, who was raised by the Mothers, is now charged with bringing the protest to an end.
The novel explores the concept of reality versus realness (an artifice that’s perhaps better than the real thing). Reality is biological mothers rejecting their sons because of their sexuality; realness is the flawed, but nevertheless nurturing Mothers. Reality is the often precarious life these children are living, realness is the freedom of self-expression and the sense of belonging they find at the vogue balls.
Govinden also highlights the hypocrisy of a city where the police neither protect nor serve certain communities, and where public services are extended only to those deemed worthy of them.
The book asks difficult questions: is it possible to be part of the establishment (like Teddy) and also be a protestor? How do we best steer change? Perhaps, at its heart though, it’s a book about what it means to be a good parent, and also what it means to be a good son or daughter.
From New York’s vogue balls, let’s cross now to a tiny Caribbean village in the 1970s, the setting for The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey. Here we meet a fisherman called David, and a mermaid called Aycayia.
It’s a story which simultaneously concerns the mythical: a centuries-long curse; and the real: the desire to love versus a desire to possess, and how the arrival of an outsider can reveal a community to itself. As Aycayia notes:
“Womanhood was a dangerous business if you didn’t get it right.”
Finally, my recommendation of the fortnight goes to Clara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. If you loved Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, then I suspect that you’ll love this too.
Here we’re thrust into a future reality that in many ways is not so very different from the world we currently live in. It’s told from the perspective of Klara, an artificial friend (referred to as an AF) - a robot built to observe and understand humans. She is purchased for a fourteen-year-old called Josie who has a mysterious illness; the true nature of which is revealed later in the story.
This novel shares similar themes to Never Let Me Go: both concern a moral shift in that technological advances have changed people’s sense of what it means to be human, which of course leads to decisions around who “counts”, and who doesn’t.
But there are additional complexities here, because there are also other technological advances in play. Some of the characters we meet here have faced difficult parenting decisions which caused me to wonder: if I were a parent, how much would I be willing to risk in order to try to secure a better future for my child? As a reader, you can’t help but wonder how you might behave in such a world, and whether or not the decisions you’d make would mirror the characters in the novel.
The emotional punch of Klara and the Sun comes from Klara’s innocence; as a reader, you understand the situation better than she does. You understand the potential ramifications of the actions of the humans around her better than she could hope to, and it’s the humans here, not the AI, that represent the real danger.
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
In the midst of watching an awful lot of episodes of X Files I took a little time out to watch Soulmates (Amazon Prime). It’s an anthology series with just six episodes, and perhaps controversially, given its somewhat mixed reviews, I do think it’s worth watching.
Set fifteen years in the future, we’ve apparently discovered something called the “soul particle” in humans, and so, with a non-invasive test, you can, (should you choose to do so), find your perfect partner.
There is a catch of course - there’s apparently just one perfect partner for each person, and so, to locate your partner, they too have to have taken the test. It’s a set-up which of course encourages you to ask questions of yourself - would you take the test?
It throws up some interesting questions for those already in committed relationships, right? If you take the test and match with someone new, would you leave your current partner for your soulmate?
But if you’re single, it’s a no-brainer, right? You take the test, you’ve nothing to lose. But what if you never receive a match? What if you do match with someone, but that person has died?
There’s an incredible number of stories an anthology like this could choose to tell, and in fairness, this is where the series falls short. There are a bunch of interesting “what ifs?” that weren’t explored (although there has been a second season commissioned); and indeed some “what ifs” which weren’t really explored fully.
For example, what happens when two women who identify as straight, match? This episode could have been an exploration of sexual fluidity and identity, but sadly, it really isn’t.
Some episodes are better than others, but I think it’s a fascinating premise, and overall, it’s a series I enjoyed. If you’ve watched it, drop me a note to let me know what you think, and also whether or not you’d take the Soulmate test yourself.
Part IV: Things I’m Doing
As mentioned previously, this section is here to keep me honest. I’m hoping that by documenting some of the things I’m planning to do, it’ll give me the extra motivation required to actually do them.
So, here’s what I’ve been up to:
Delighting in New Leaves
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before or not, but I am person who owns an excessive number of houseplants. Because it’s spring a whole bunch of them are sprouting new leaves which is filling me with joy. I’ve also had to repot a few. I find this to be tremendously satisfying, plus it’s not often that you get to mess around with mud as an adult.
Disappearing down an X Files rabbit hole
I mentioned previously that my friend Laura has never watched the X Files, and so I’ve been trying to figure out a way for her to watch a selection of episodes without fully committing to the 163 and half hours of viewing time that watching the entire back catalogue would entail. So, erm yeah, I’m still doing that :)
So what’s next?
It’s the Easter bank holiday this weekend - to celebrate I’m planning on eating as many mini eggs as I can in one sitting whilst playing with lego.
I’m also planning to see if I can create more of things like this using Bananagrams tiles:
That’s all from me for now.
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