Responsicle to From Tree to Shining Tree

I recently heard the podcast episode From Tree to Shining Tree. Great episode! Understanding how the trees in a forest are connected via a deep network of fungi that exchange nutrients and send chemical signals is mind-blowing.

As an armchair evolutionist, I wanted to offer one possible answer for whether the fungus or the tree allocates nutrients from a dying tree to a new tree.

It’s the fungus.

From an evolutionary perspective, organisms survive when their prioritize their genetic reproduction. From this perspective, a tree has no incentive to pass its nutrients to a tree of another species.

Another clue offered was that the newer, more viable trees get nutrients from dying or climate change vulnerable trees. The collective fungus, perhaps genetically indistinguishable within a forest, survives better when viable trees are prioritized over dying ones. Via a long-term chemical ‘contract’, the fungus and trees can create a pact allowing the fungus to raid the nutrients of dying trees in exchange for receiving a steady supply of nutrients while the trees are healthy.

Similarly, it could be the fungi that are controlling the chemical ‘messages’of trees that are injured or pest-infested. Detecting the presence of an infestation or other injury, the fungus could then alert other trees (and trigger the bad-tasting defenses) to help them prevent a similar fate. It’s in the fungi’s best interest to keep as many trees as healthy as a possible, and the fungi would have no reason to prioritize one species or tree over another.

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Responsicle to The Weakness of Strength Theory

Recently I read your ‘Weakness of Strength’ Theory post and was really moved. I came to his realization myself several years ago- that the years I spent banging my head against the wall over some ‘flaw’ may be an expression of a strength in disguise. I then shifted focus from fixing these flaws to leveraging my strengths, and a whole new world opened up.

You described the novelist Ivan Turgenev’s dinner party chaos and his meticulous writing style. This is a great example of some of the ‘flip sides’ of hidden strengths that some of us unusual types overlook when we focus on our flaws. Others I’ve found include:

  1. Anxious people are often meticulous and good at scenario planning. Though it may feel horrible to them, their ability to see into the future and envision every possible thing that could go wrong is invaluable for strategy-setting and long-term planning. They arrive early and overprepared, reassuring clients and employers that they’re on top of their game, even if they’re unaware of it themselves.
  2. ADHD is a handy tool for entrepreneurs. Though most of us think of ADHD sufferers as being distracted, they’re also great at multitasking, able to switch effortlessly from one issue to another. For entrepreneurs, this superpower allows them to effectively handling a production crisis, an employee meltdown, a sales snafu and a financial hiccup without batting an eyelash.
  3. Those who are easily distracted are most likely to hold their focus for extraordinarily long periods of time. This is counterintuitive, but the very people who flit like butterflies from topic to topic are the same ones who can sit, focused and rapt and unending, for 12 hours a day. They are the ones who don’t feel the exhaustion or hunger or affects us mere mortals. This hypomanic state is great for artists and entrepreneurs and others in certain stressful positions.
  4. People who are chronically late are highly productive. Chronic lateness is often a sign that they perceive time differently- an hour is not an hour is not an hour. These people can slow time to a crawl, examining every second and packing every minute with focused attention. Losing ‘track’ of time is simply a mismatch between the world’s time and their own.
  5. People who are forgetful or scattered are highly conceptual and good at pattern recognition. The brain can either take in and retain a small amount of information, or else it can scan for patterns and discard unnecessary info. Expect that scattered and forgetful types are able to synthesize massive amounts of information to find patterns and secrets that no one else can see.


These are just a few of my observations from the Weakness of Strength Theory. Hopefully those who’ve gone through life thinking that something is wrong with them can take comfort in knowing that they have a rare, undiscovered gift.


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Responsicle to ‘What Goes Through Your Mind’ by Nicole Chung

Hi Nicole! I recently read your piece ‘What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism’ open-mouthed and suddenly feeling like I’d met an ally. I’m African American, living outside of the US, and have had many of these moments at home and abroad, and until your article had convinced myself I was the only one who goes through these ruminations. I’ve struggled for years to explain both the meaning and impact of these exchanges to my friends, some of whom are whites from the US, some of whom are non-white majorities abroad. It’s difficult – VERY difficult- to adequately put into words, but I believe you‘ve done it.

The calculus you describe of pitting your self-esteem against everyone else’s enjoyment, of reading bad intent where there was none, of calling out an issue that no one would have noticed, is stomach-wrenching and night-ruining. You want to prove to yourself that you matter, that people cannot casually dismiss who you are and what you are about without being challenged for it, but you don’t want to be that person that made everyone stop having a good time to prove a point.

Recently I was at an alumni gathering for the university I attended, and an older alum walked up to me and said ‘you must be a musician!’. Taking it initially as a compliment for my artistic ability, I tried to push him on what about me seemed so creative (indeed, I’m a dancer). While we were talking, an Asian American woman in the conversation quietly excused herself and went to the living room to begin playing with the newly-assembled band. It was then I realized that he didn’t think I was a random musician, he thought I was one of the musicians, and one of the 5 people at the party who wasn’t an Ivy League graduate. Despite standing with an *actual* musician, he singled me out as someone who didn’t belong with the thirty-odd graduates of my alma mater. And yes, I was the only African American.

It’s these moments that are the loneliest, when you are looking at whether to openly challenge the other person, whether to highlight their racism, whether to let it go unnoticed, or whether to find some other way out. And as you discuss, you realize the fate of the party is suddenly entirely on your shoulders, and you resent your interlocutor for putting you in this position. I got a recent taste of this bitter medicine when I let several casually racist comments slide at a party. A guy was disparaging women from the country his ex-girlfriend came from. I was uncomfortable but said nothing, and counted it as karma when he jokingly made an offhand comment about African Americans he also thought I’d be ok with. I wasn’t, but I had to ask myself why I’d let his other comments go if I wasn’t ready to take similar ones myself.

I’ve battled this for a while, and I have no handy solutions. What I often seek to do is find some joking, half-sarcastic way to highlight their ignorance that is in keeping with the tone of the rest of the party. To point out their shortcomings in a way that invites others to laugh at them.

I don’t always manage.

And sometimes I take to Facebook to sound off and ‘set the record straight’, without using names or specific situations. That tends to make me feel better but likely is a source of bewilderment for others reading. And then, recently, I’ve decided to go to one of the sources itself, the media, to highlight why it makes us so dreadfully ignorant and accepting of horrible stereotypes.

I’m glad you shared your story. It feels comforting to know that others suffer through the same eternities in the nanoseconds that pass between comments, and that they feel the invisible wounds as well.

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Responsicle to Freakonomics Radio ‘Is Migration a Basic Human Right?’

I recently listened to your podcast, ‘Is Migration a Basic Human Right?‘. In it, you do interviews with thinkers, experts, economists and luminaries on the topic.

Central to the debate was the question ‘what if the borders were open?’ and there were a few comparisons that were made, but I think you could have looked farther. Specifically, the ‘open’ borders of the United States were mentioned, and how there aren’t major problems due to internal massive migration. This might be true currently, but hasn’t always been the case. The Great Migration of African Americans who fled the South after Jim Crow ended was one such event (there was another wave after the Great Depression). An estimated 6 million people headed for the West and North, primarily for economic reasons and to escape the oppression of the South. It was this migration that made African Americans primarily urban. To properly understand the effect of open borders, you’d need to look at this.

Another rich source of data for this hypothetical would be the visa lotteries that the US runs in other countries. Every year the US offers green cards for low-immigration countries by lottery, presumably because there is more interest than numbers would allow. To understand what the impact of an open immigration policy would be, you could simply look at the number of applicants per country. This page from 2013 suggests that 50,000 visas were issued as part of this program, from 12.6 million applicants. So an ‘open borders’ program might get up to 13 million additional people annually.

I’ve traveled to many countries where moving to the US represents the biggest dream people an hope for. But what I’ve noticed is that in many cases this is based on the TV and film version of American life that gets exported. Often when they get here the cold, hardship, racism, dirt, and aloofness is in stark contrast to what they’ve always dreamed of, and they’re too ashamed to come clean to their families.

Does this mean that the borders shouldn’t be open? I’m not sure. But I do know that we should look long and hard at historical data, and the number of people currently trying to get in.

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Responsicle to Sandrine Thuret’s TED talk “You can grow new brain cells. Here’s how”

Responsicle to Sandrine Thuret’s TED talk “You can grow new brain cells. Here’s how

Thanks for the talk, Sandrine, it was brilliantly structured and delivered. As a layperson and armchair neurologist, I’ll confess that I always assumed that we could grow new neurons as adults. That this was up for debate was a surprise.

In the exercise with the audience you outlined a few areas that either increased or decreased neurogenesis, and most of the items fell reassuringly along the lines of conventional wellness wisdom: exercise, sex, and learning is good; stress, sleep deprivation and aging are bad.

But what was worth delving into more is the dietary effects. Specifically that the ‘good’ list contained:

  • Resveratrol
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Calorie restriction
  • Intermittent fasting
  • Flavonoids
  • Blueberries
  • Caffeine
  • Crunchy foods
  • And other vitamins.

while the ‘bad’ list detailed:

  • Ethanol
  • High saturated fat
  • High sugar
  • Soft foods
  • Vitamin deficiencies

On the face of it, these fall along the lines of accepted modern medical wisdom. But I’m more interested in why this might be from an evolutionary perspective. If we assume that this has been the same for all humans for the past million years, what purpose might this have served?

The human brain is enormously expensive in terms of calories, consuming about 15% of our total energy but weighing only about 2% of our total body weight. On a 2,000 calorie daily diet, these numbers suggest the brain consumes about 300 calories, almost 250 calories more than its weight would predict. That’s a pretty big requirement for an early human diet, where every morsel had to be hunted, plucked, or dug by hand.

So why would fewer calories lead to more neurons? Why would softer foods lead to fewer neurons?

Looking across the two lists and disregarding vitamins and plant toxins such as resveratrol, ethanol, and caffeine, two patterns emerge. The first pattern is associated with a low-calorie diet: caloric restriction, intermittent fasting, and plant-based. In premodern times before deep fryers, crunchy foods were likely fresh vegetables and some insects, both low in calories. Flavonoids are common to many plants, and blueberries hail from an ancient and hardy fruit family, native to many parts of the Northern Hemisphere including cold climates. Omega-3 fatty acids are (mostly) found in fish, a relatively low-calorie animal protein source. People who had this type of low-calorie and inconsistent diet probably lived in nutrient-poor environments, and likely faced starvation and malnutrition on a regular basis.

Conversely, the neuro-suppressant diet of high saturated fat, high sugar, and soft foods suggests a well-fed populace with easy access to food sources. Saturated fat primarily comes from high-calorie foods such as mammalian animal protein sources (cows, sheep, etc.), selected high-energy fruits (coconuts, cacao), and nuts. A high-sugar diet would likely have occurred in areas with abundant fruit trees and vines, such as tropical forests. Meats and fruits are far softer than vegetables and insects, and they are higher in calories as well. The soft texture of these foods may signal the brain that they are high in calories.

Recent research in animals has linked caloric restriction to longer lifespans, and delaying the aging process. This might suggest that in addition to neurogenesis, harsh nutritional conditions also delay aging.

So what might account for this effect? Why would people at risk of starvation generate more neurons and live longer than those with no food shortages?

There might be an evolutionary reason related to care and oversight of offspring. Past the reproductive age, most animals begin the period of senescence (aging). Delaying senescence is unlikely to increase the reproductive capacity of an individual, but it could impact the ability of existing offspring to survive.

And this might explain what’s going on. Early humans in food-deficient environments may have needed to care for offspring much later in life, assisting them in the basics of food acquisition. This could have taken the form of teaching them how to hunt difficult or dangerous prey, which plants to consume or avoid, and how to make toxic foods non-toxic.

For example, Hákarl is an Icelandic delicacy with a 5-month preparation that involves leaving shark meat to drain and decay underground with special soil types for months before being air-cured and consumed. The fresh shark meat is so toxic with tremendously high ammonia levels that only decomposition renders it edible. With its strong smell of ammonia and putrescence, Hákarl regularly makes the list of world’s foulest delicacies, dedicated foodies use it to test their mettle, and tourists are served it alongside a bucket for the near-inevitable retching. Times must have been very tough for early Icelanders to rely on such strong-smelling, rotten food for nutrition. Also, the complex detox process may have created a precarious situation where one misstep could spell death. It would have been important for detailed instructions to be passed down from generation to generation, a situation that favored having elders in the family that could supervise the preparation, lest the family inadvertently poison themselves.

This need for elders well into offspring’s adulthood may explain both lengthened lifespans as well as heightened neurogenesis. Elders in nutrient-poor environments may have been relied upon to oversee complex and dangerous food acquisition and preparation, favoring cognitively-sharper, longer-living individuals. Perhaps the elders’ own bodies signaled this need by ‘turning up’ neurogenesis and ‘turning down’ the aging process to live longer and be more useful to their families. Their families, in turn, may have survived longer and been able to reproduce more.

If so, this is yet another of life’s evolution miracles, a brilliant mechanism to help offspring acquire food and avoid starvation.

I welcome any reactions or thoughts you have.

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Responsicle to Ross Pomeroy’s “10 Problems With How We Think”

Responsicle to Ross Pomeroy’s 10 Problems With How We Think

Thanks Ross for this great summary of heuristics and biases. My BA is in this field (social psychology, specialized in influence and persuasion), so it’s near and dear to my heart.

I have a some additional considerations and a few suggested changed. You rightly point out that these heuristics are not just academic anomalies, they have significant real-world impact and we ignore them at our peril.

  1. Sunk Cost Fallacy

Finishing the restaurant meal is not really a sunk cost fallacy, I’d argue. Not necessarily, anyway. There are many people who believe in getting their ‘money’s worth’, by over-consuming in one way (food) even if it harms them in another way (digestion). The Sunk Cost Fallacy is backward-looking,but this would be forward-looking.

Similarly, I’m nots sure I buy the example of watching the horrible TV show to the end despite hating it. THere might be a bit of Sunk Cost Fallacy at work, but many shows nowadays are written to a storytelling crescendo, so people are afraid of ‘missing out’ of the good part.

I walked out of Mad Max: Fury Road. Even thought it was expensive, in an Imax theater and I was with friends, etc. I just didn’t enjoy it, and eventually did this calculation in my head: would I prefer another hour of this movie, or an hour of Facebook? Because Facebook won, I hightailed it downstairs (where, incidentally, someone had just OD’d in the bathroom, so the paramedics were there to revive and escort him to safety).

  1. Halo Effect

This is a big one, and is wholly responsible for a lot of lost time and money investigating scandals involving politicians and other public figures. For some reason, we humans have difficulty separating an occupation from a set of behaviors. But they’re not linked: a famous ‘Good Samaritan’ study of seminary students on the way to speak about ‘The Good Samaritan’ were asked by a (fake) needy person for help. Those running late didn’t help. Those who had time did help. The fact that they were about to lecture on the virtues of behaving kindly in that exact situation didn’t seem to matter.

Unfortunately, it also compromises our ability to see great leaders as the rich yet flawed human beings that they are or were. The pasts of Gandhi, MLK, and Mandela are more uneven and less praiseworthy than we’d like, so we alter history to make them more palatable.

  1. Confirmation Bias

This is really true, and very terrifying. A generation ago, everyone watched the evening news at 6 and again at 11, geting the same information from the same presenter who was expected to be neutral. Then cable TV and internet (then, strangly, cable TV again) emerged to divvy up the news among newscasters prepared to take sides. “Narrowcasting” was born, allowing people to choose their news a la carte with whatever political flavoring they fancied. Worse, they could completely block out the voices of dissent, literally if the voices were on on Facebook. This has served to make people more confident in their beliefs even as its made them more ignorant of other points of view. This is dangerous for any civil society.

The legal point is another angle on this that demonstrates just how dangerous this can be. I once served on a jury that returned a predictable yet highly disturbing result: every juror supported the side that matched them ethnically. How we call that justice is beyond me, but thankfully it was a civil case and no one was sent to prison. I know that’s not always the case.

It happened quickly: in the deliberation room, each juror saw the evidence as proof of the side they supported. Each new piece of evidence seemed to only convince them they were right, not challenge their beliefs. It was terrifying to see the legal system play out this way, and to know that we had real power over people’s lives yet were making decisions in such a blindly ad hoc manner.

  1. Discounting Delayed Rewards

I’ve always struggled a bit with this one, because the math is clear but the real-world implication is anything but. I agree with the quote of ‘perceived values at the time of decision, not potential final value’. But there’s a utility angle that this might not fully explore: let’s say the person being offered the decision was just diagnosed with cancer. Taking the $50 immediately would make sense. Also, holding out from 5 years to 6 for $100 also would make sense, if they felt that if they survived for 5 years their chances of making it another year would also be high.

Fortunately, most of us are not in that position, yet anything could happen. If you were just starting a business, $50 now holds more value than $100 next year, but $100 in 6 years would hold more value than $50 in 5 years, if the business was still around.

I’d love to see this repeated by varying the age, looking at teenagers vs. the elderly, and at size of sums, looking at small amounts vs major ones.

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Responsicle to Tim Kreider’s Lazy: A Manifesto

Responsicle to Tim Kreider’s reading of: Lazy: A Manifesto on Tim Ferriss’s blog and podcast.

Tim! Or Mr Kreider, if you prefer,

Thank you for writing the manifesto! It encapsulates so much of what I’ve been preaching saying over the last few years. I quit my fancy corporate job 4 years ago to be a minimalist vagabond writer and researcher and business consultant, and I haven’t looked back. Even during ramen weeks. I’m taking this space not just pat your back, but also to add a few more thoughts.

First, the Cult of Busy-ness that you describe is uniquely American, just like the Faction of Face Time and the Congregation of No Vacations. Bragging about being so hardworking and dedicated is part of the American work ethos. Unfortunately, it carries neither the power of Asian productivity nor the luxury of the European lifestyle. It’s just…..busy for busy’s sake. Here in Dubai they celebrate lazy and show it off like a badge of honor. One person here was caught ‘walking’ his dog by driving slowly around an empty parking lot with the leash out the window.

What we unapologetically lazies get ius exactly what you hint at, what Tim Ferriss has warned of, is that productivity does not equal busy-ness. And that once you free yourself from the need to seem busy, you can focus on what makes you actually productive. For creatives and thinkers, that might be long periods of time off, mini-sabbaticals between projects, or a fondness for staring at the wall or into a giant bowl of pasta. My best ideas come to me in bed, in the shower, and on the beach. And I’ve long known that hours and hours of numbing my fingerpads on a keyboard don’t equal the value of just one good idea, at just the right moment. And once you understand that, well, then the beach becomes an obligation.

So let’s start a revolution, Tim, one person at a time. When they tell us they are too busy, we tell them they are simply choosing something else. When they claim they have ‘no time’, we ask them how the latest season of Game of Thrones is progressing. When they brag about their number of years without a vacation, we helpfully whip out our iPhones to show them our latest, offering to photoshop them into a beach shot here or there. When they talk of how much they have to do, we ask them which of the items are the least important. Yes, an odd one or two of us may get run through with a pitchfork, or more likely poked with a freshly-sharpened pencil, but sometime, somehow, we’ll win them over.

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