#10: 2 Between 2 Cracks

The world's shortest reboot; Funchal's a pretty city; An accidental ethnography of a hospital; and many more!

Welcome readers old and new. This is one of Thomas Hollands’ notes in his search for ideas which are surprisingly general, or generally surprising. You can find all past issues here.

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The future of between the cracks

First of all: Thank you for subscribing to the early issues of this newsletter!

I have been repeatedly kicking myself for not writing more. I set myself a goal of a (nearly) weekly publishing cadence, but this has fallen by the wayside. I have had a lot of other projects going on, but that's no excuse. In fact, I accidentally baked failure into my very first post.

You see, you rise to the expectations that the people you like have for you. You become what you believe others believe. In my first post I published a quite detailed description of what I hoped to write about here: mostly describing ideas that I think are both interesting and overlooked — the surprisingly general or the generally surprising. When you all subscribed to this description, I believed that you expected me to stick to this promise. When my thinking varied too wildly from this theme, this belief prevented me from sharing it here. So I didn't. So I stopped.

But I don't want to stop. So: I'm restarting between the cracks, with a much more general remit. Hopefully writing this will successfully unblock me, so I can think better, more often, in public.

Here's my commitment: I will share my own marginally interesting thoughts here, on an almost-weekly cadence. I will also publish my understanding of other people's thinking, some of which will still be surprisingly general, or generally surprising. And finally I will share more thinking-in-progress, which may eventually turn into full blown essays on my blog.

Sorry if you were hoping for more essays on Boyd, Soros and friends. I may get to them eventually, but can't promise anything. I hope you'll stay with me on this journey, which is more meandering than intended. There's no clear destination in sight, but wherever we’re going, we're taking the scenic route. So sit back and enjoy the view.

And now, something I didn't feel empowered to publish before: a location update!

Madeira: so far so beautiful

I moved to Madeira for November and December last week, and damn is it beautiful! Funchal, Madeira's capital and my new home, has almost everything I find appealing in a city. Mountains. Seascape. Lots of charming local cafes. Relatively cheap prices, relatively high quality food, beer, and coffee. Walkable centre of town. The only downsides are the Covid regulations and that almost every Madeiran seems to have been inculcated into the cult of cancer sticks from the age of six. The street reeks of cigarette fumes.

Not knowing any Portuguese hasn't been too much of a burden so far. Most Madeirans speak english, and in the infrequent event that an interlocutor speaks only Portuguese, my rudimentary vocabulary and exaggerated gesticulating seems to do the trick.

One cool thing about Madeira is its age. It was uninhabited until 1420, when it was settled by Joao Goncalves Zarco and friends, who are still revered today by the locals. Scandinavian rat remains imply the island was first discovered by Vikings around 1100 AD. Prior to that it was an untouched volcanic island. Zarco’s final resting place, Funchal, has never been bombed or razed, and has rarely been fought over. As a result, many original 15th century buildings are still standing.

The first settlers seeded Madeira with European livestock, which started grazing and thus domesticating the indigenous flora. But the island wasn't really hospitable to large populations until the Portuguese carted shiploads of slaves over. These unfortunate Africans were responsible for building Madeira's levadas: massive canals that channel water from the island's rainy interior out to its habitable periphery. Madeira's volcanic mountains pierce low lying ocean clouds ensuring frequent rainfall, and happily, a reliable source of freshwater.

To begin with, Madeira served as a cheap farming colony for sugar cane. This became less important to Portugal after they claimed Brazil for their own, although Poncha, a local brew, is still made from fermented sugar cane today. More recently, Madeira became known for its gardens and its aged, fortified wines.

Madeira spans elevations from sea-level to 1500m, and as a result has a variety of micro-climates, from arid subtropical, to temperate. This makes it an ideal place to get exotic tropical fauna used to European climates. The colonists built long, ascending terraces along their levadas which reach high into the mountains. These terraces are gardens, each one with a slightly different height and climate. As you migrate exotic African plants up the terrace, they grow at temperatures closer to European ones. Once they graduate to the top of the terrace these plants are hardy enough for the Royal gardens of colonial powers.

The Madeiran wine story starts in the 16th century. Merchant sailors noticed wine had a more intense flavour after it was transported in barrels submerged in the sea, attached to the hulls of their ships. At first they thought this was due to the wine's movement as the ship travelled to its destination. This started a practice of sailing ships laden with barrels of wine round and round the island, in order to fortify its cargo as quickly as possible. But this practice had no noticeable benefit to merely leaving a ship at anchor with wine barrels strapped to its outside. Eventually, winemakers realised it wasn't the seas motion, but its warmth, that fortified their wine. They learned the longer the wine spent warm, the richer it tasted, and the stronger it became. Madeirans have been aging their wine in hot attics ever since, some vintages for up to 100 years.

Madeira of today is a well-run, beautiful island, with preserved old buildings and modern infrastructure. I don't know much about recent Madeiran history, but I'm excited to learn more over the next few weeks!

If you have any Madeira recommendations, please let me know!

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The wrong kind of cutting edge

A bad workman blames his tools. A combination of bad habits and bad utensils left me waiting in the emergency ward of the local hospital on Monday night. I aimed for garlic, but I slipped and cut skin, nerve, and ligament instead.

It was quite scary slicing halfway through my finger. S and I immediately wrapped it up, more tourniquet than bandage. I felt fine, but when I saw my finger turning turqouise, I knew I'd have to rewrap it. We cantered to the well-lit bathroom, and I peeled back the plasters. Roils of blood sputtered onto the sink. It looked like my finger had grown another knuckle, only this new one was carmine red and growing in size.

I became dizzy, mostly due to shock. Blood ran down from my hand to my arm. We decided to put our curry on hold and taxi me to hospital. I had to wait in a different ward to most other patients, because, since I had only arrived six days ago, I was still a covid risk. A pleasant Portuguese nurse rewrapped my bandage and I began the wait.

Sitting in ER really puts your life into perspective. I watched two elderly Portuguese in critical condition roll in on ambulance trolleys, their heartbeats amplified, each irregular beep a reminder of passing time we'll never get back.

Paramedics grasped one patient's leathery legs like they might fondle produce at the supermarket, testing its suitability by pressing fingers into flesh, seeing if the skin rebounds. This one was overripe.

Madeiran doctors dress in surreal technicolour. Each one had a different set of brightly covered scrubs to the next. In reds, yellows, greens and blues, and protected by goggles and faceshields, they looked more like teletubbies than medical professionals.

We only saw a few patients in the two and a half hours I waited for my stitches, but for the rainbow clad orderlies it was party time. Hospital staff were constantly cracking jokes and doing what seemed like flirting — it was hard to tell beneath their protective gear and foreign language. Though they were constantly catching each others' eyes, I could tell I had long to wait because they always left my gaze unmet. When I finally saw the doctor she explained the delay — due to my potential covidity, she had to layer up in protective gear to come see me, and sanitize afterwards. This made it much more appealing to keep treating patients in the normal ward, instead of stepping into the danger zone.

Two days on, my finger is healing fast. I'm enjoying dressing my wound and observing how it heals way too much. The stitches are sewn slightly open: apparently if you over-stitch it you can stretch the skin, at which point it turns black and then all falls off, like the outside of a half-peeled clove of garlic. To prevent bacterial infection, you can't get any water in it either. Surprisingly, I can type with it already. It just gets sore after overuse — which reminds me to get outside to enjoy the Madeiran sun.

Bits n bobs

  • Louise Perry wrote a great article on the commercial sex industry in which I am quoted (can you guess why?). I learned the term "limbic capitalism" from her, a neat idea which uses human physiology to explain both why app buttons are bright luscious colours, and why companies make their products as addictive as possible. Maybe it'll become a future newsletter subject.

  • I'm maintaining an ongoing thread of things I wished I knew when I started doing indie consulting / unusual freelance work. Please let me know if there are any obvious mistakes I'll make in the future.

  • I recently published an essay on how a Game of Thrones inspired question has helped me work out what I want to do with my life. Maybe it can help you too.

  • Slava Akhmechet's explanation of how he reads is fascinating, and it shares some parallels with my own (though he's more intentional than me). If you're interested in my process, let me know!