What is a tree made of?

Trees are massive, with some of the behemoths weighing hundreds of tonnes.

So where does all that mass come from? Is it mostly water? Or is it from the soil? We all studied that plants make their food from sunlight, so is all that mass mostly sunlight converted into wood?

Derek (from the excellent Youtube channel Veritasium) had several people wondering about this question in the video below. The answer is rather counter-intuitive – the mass of a tree is mostly carbon, from the carbon-di-oxide in the air around us.

Yes. All of those multi-storey hunks of wood are made of air! How fascinating is that? The folks at Ecosia have recognized this and are replanting rainforests to use their trees to capture the carbon-di-oxide in the air.

Wonder lurks in every corner of the world – even in the mass of that unassuming tree that we pass by everyday. All we need to do is to merely pause.

A search engine that fixes climate change

Not enough people know about Ecosia, the search engine that helps you fix climate change.

Just like Google, Ecosia runs on ads. But unlike Google, Ecosia directs most of its profits towards large-scale tree planting to serve as a carbon capture sink. The search page has a neat little counter to tally up your searches, each of which contribute towards tree-planting.

The search results are high-quality as well – Ecosia uses Microsoft Bing as the search engine. In several studies, Bing has been proven to be as good or superior to Google.

Further, Ecosia’s features that help you make eco-friendly purchasing choices. Searching for Patagonia gives you results with a green leaf next to the link, indicating that the company’s focus on sutainability.

In contrast, Amazon gets a ‘D’ for its climate efforts (or the lack thereof).

As consumers, we have immense power to vote with our wallets and fix climate change. An easy way for you to contribute is to make Ecosia the default search engine on your browser.

Protect your leisure

Who has more autonomy over their lives – an entrepreneur or an employee with a boss?

The reason several people turn to entrepreneurship is to have greater autonomy. Being an employee comes with its obligations – to one’s boss and to the employer’s goal. As an entrepreneur, you have greater power to choose your obligations.

A choice over one’s obligations. Let that sink in for a moment.

Merely having the ability to choose your obligations doesn’t mean that they disappear. Most entrepreneurs, at least when they start out, have very little leisure. Their work takes over most of their life. An employee working a 9 to 5 has their evenings and weekends free, and predictably so. Besides, several entreprenuers also have bosses in the form of investors or key customers.

Ergo, to be an entreprenuer doesn’t automatically translate to more autonomy. Many entreprenuers only learn this the hard way, after having slogged through several years in the prime of their lives, and often after multiple burnouts.

In the hustle culture of the 21st century, leisure often takes a backseat. But leisure is the wellspring of the quality of your work and your life. If you value quality over quantity, protect your leisure.

Success actually

Our culture tells us we are successful if we

  • Are famous (celebrities, sportspersons, actors etc.)
  • Are extremely rich (worth several million dollars)
  • Lead a lavish lifestyle (Lambhorginis, Michellin Star meals, destination weddings)
  • Are powerful (CEOs, Managing Directors, Founders)
  • Graduate from famous colleges (Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge)
  • Do something groundbreaking (Innovators, Explorers, Pioneers)

We are actually successful if we merely

  • Have enough leisure to not keep hustling
  • Nurture a close circle of family and friends
  • Eat nutrious food, and exercise regularly
  • Cultivate habits that preserves our well-being
  • Have enough money to sustain our needs
  • Lean into life with generosity and a sense of wonder

The list below might seem like a terrible compromise. But it is startling how many people deemed successful by the one above, have glaring gaps in the one below.

Leading an ‘ordinary’ but virtuous life is worth celebrating, because it is much harder and more important than our culture leads us believe.

There is no ‘good’ weather

The weather can be hot or cold. It can be sunny, rainy or snowy. It can be dry, humid or icy. It can be calm or windy.

There is musuem weather and park weather. Beach weather and ski weather.

Weather can be safe or unsafe. It is unsafe to be outdoors during a heatwave or to ride a bicycle when the roads are frozen. It is unsafe to set sail during a seastorm or to skinny dip in ice cold water – for most of us at least.

Yet, to brand any of these as ‘good’ is absurd. For the goodness lies not in the weather conditions, but how we respond to them.

There is no good or bad weather. There is merely our good or bad response to it.

What is a photograph for?

Even digital photos come at a cost. Taking a photo requires us to borrow from the present moment. When we compose a photograph, we don’t pay full attention to what we experience.

So why do we take photos?

The traditional answer to this question is some version of ‘capturing this moment’ for posterity. The idea is that a photo can be revisited and therefore, serve to preserve our memories of a good experience. The problem here is twofold – firstly, this binds us to the past or the future. When we take a photo, we invest in future enjoyment. When we look at a photo, we go back to the past. In both instances, we are sacrificing the present.

Yet, there is another, more noble reason for taking a photo – to share an experience with somebody else.

We now live in a world where friends and families separated across contients and time-zones are held together by the internet. For all of human history, our lives were shared with our dear ones. This has been made harder due to our physical separation. Sharing a photo bridges this separation.

Every photo or video we send to the right person tells them that we wished they were with us. However, merely sharing a photo doesn’t make the act generous. It has to be shared with people who care about us – not with ‘followers’ on a social media account. The thumb rule here is that the person receiving the photo is enriched by it. Most photos we see on social media don’t enrich us, but rather deprave us.

Today, we also live in a world where it is far easier to share a photo with somebody we care. Therefore, to take a photo is no longer a selfish attempt to ‘capture a memory’, as long as it is shared generously.

The key to clicking a generous photograph is to not ask ‘do I want to remember this moment’. Instead, we ought to ask ‘who else will enjoy seeing what I am seeing’.

Merely dont screw up

It can be demotivating to see your chess moves analyzed by a computer software.

Every move is evaluated using a score. You start at a score of zero, and if you make the best move throughout, your position’s score remains zero. The moment you make a bad move, your score plunges to a negative number. The best you can do from there on is to keep that negative number constant, but with time, it invariably spirals downwards.

In other words, you aren’t rewarded for a good move, but are brutally punished for every small mistake. Most chess grandmasters usually win by merely not losing. They wait for their opponent to make a small mistake, and like a python, they wrap themselves around that advantage and nurture it slowly to constrict their opponent.

With most things in life, we are so focussed on progress – on making things better – that we forget to check if this progress comes at a grave cost. The key to leading a successful life, as in chess, is to merely not screw up.

The arithmetic fallacy

One of the arguments brokered against immigration is that an influx of immigrant labour reduces average wage levels within a country.

Let’s say that the average height of a professional basketball team is 6 feet and 2 inches. Now a team of primary kids enters the field, plunging the average height to 5 feet. However, the pros aren’t at any disadvantage now, despite the group’s average height being lower. They can still utilize their full height while dunking.

An influx of immigrants does drop average wage. But at an individual level, it has been shown that everybody earns a slightly higher wage – the immigrants are paid better than their home country (which is why they migrated in the first place), and this influx frees up the locals secure better positions – such as leading a team of freshly recruited immigrants.

Say the average wage in a town is $50,000. The influx of immigrants brings this average down to $45,000. But despite this, the local average might rise to $55,000 with the avarege immigrant wage being $25,000. Despite the average wage going down, everybody, including the locals, is better off.

The flipside happens when a rich millionare moves into the town. This person alone could single-handedly increse the average income by $10,000, without anybody being better off.

You fall for the arithmetic fallacy if you merely consider the average numbers without paying heed to individual numbers.

Inspiration: Open Borders

Choose your questions

Hannibal Barca, the great Carthaginian general, always follwed a signature rule – he never let the enemy pick the site of the battle. If Hannibal ever fought a battle, it would only be at a site of Hannibal’s choosing. That way, the great general would pick a site that gave his army an advantage while dealing the opponent a disadvantage.

Pick the site of the battle, and you automatically choose the battle’s strategy. A similar principle could be applied in debate. The rule here is to never let the opponent choose the question. Every question there is an answer that is planted into it – one that could be to your opponent’s favour. Socrates used this principle to great advantage, often bombarding his verbal opponents with questions to later bend their answers against them.

It might appear honest to provide a straight answer to every question. But in the real world of politics and perception management the key to having the best answers is to carefully choose your questions. Never respond with a straight answer to a question that makes no sense to you.

Inspiration: Antifragile

Ask not and you shall recieve

You are most likely to secure a loan if you can prove that you don’t need it.

In a negoatation, the strongest party is one that is most prepared to walk away from the table.

To be knowledgeable begins with knowing (like Socrates did) that you know nothing.

To be sophisticated you need to accept that you are not so.

It is only when you don’t care about your reputation that you tend to have a good one.

Happiness is reserved for those who do not actively seek it.

The cobra effect

The British colonial government was concerned about the number of venemous cobras in Delhi.

The government offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Initially, this was a successful strategy – a large number of snakes were killed for the reward. However, this led to large-scale breeding (and killing) of cobras for income. On learning this, the government scrapped the bounty programme. The cobra breeders set their now-worthless snakes free, causing the cobra population in the city to further increase.

A similar problem occurred in Hanoi, Vietnam, when the French colonial government created a bounty program for every rat killed. Rewards were offered for the severed tail of a rat. Colonial officials, however, started noticing rats in Hanoi without tails. The bounty hunters would capture rats, sever their tails, and release them back into the sewers tto produce more rats.

The paleontologist G. H. R von Koenigswald offered to pay Javanese locals for each fragment of homonin skulls they could find. He later discovered that the people had been smashing up the skull into smaller pieces to maximise their payments.

In 2002, British officials in Afghanistan offered poppy farmers $700 an acre in return for destroying their poppy crops. This sparked a poppy-crop growing frenzy, with some enterprising farmers harvesting the sap before destroying the plants, thereby getting paid twice for the same crop. The Brits had apparently not learnt their lesson.

History (and the present) is filled with numerous examples of incentives that backfire, leading British economist Charles Goodhart to coin Goodhart’s law – ‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.’

Measures are almost never an end in themselves – they are often a means to a different end. Confusing the two can lead to an incentive that backfires.

The problem of transfer

The game of chess revolves around strategy.

Chess grandmasters are excellent strategic thinkers. However, we don’t put a bunch of chess grandmasters in charge of formulating a company’s corporate strategy. We know that strategic thinking on the chessboard does not translate well into strategic thinking in a different domain. It would be absurd to assume that it does.

Yet, we fall for the same trap when we deal with classroom education. In our classrooms, we are taught to solve theoretical problems and case-studies that are often divorced from the real world. Our assumption is that these classroom sessions give us generic problem solving skills that we can directly apply to real-life situations.

Alas, as Scott H. Young outlines in Ultralearning, Transfer of learning – the ability to learn in one domain and transfer it to another – is a notorious problem in education. Several studies have shown that whatever is learnt in the classroom stays largely in the classroom.

As a thought experiement, think of 5 concepts you learnt in school, and consider how often you apply them in real life. Then take 5 skills you have acquired in the real world and try linking them to what you learnt inside a classroom.

To deal with the probelm of Transfer of learning, we need to ensure that our classroom sessions resemble the real-world as closely as possible. Needless to say, the most effective classroom is the real-world itself.

Inspiration: Ultralearning

Marketing in action

In a recent trip to Prague, we lunched at an Indian restauarant.

I noticed how the dishes were rather expensive. When our order arrived, I was surprised by how small the servings were. I stated aloud to the table, ‘for the price we were charged, the portions ought to have been larger’.

I then picked up a piece of roti and ate it with the curries we had ordered. No sooner than this morsel of food released its juices into the cavern of my mouth than did it release an explosion of goodness! I soon found myself saying aloud ‘but this food is great quality, and quality has its cost’.

If something is marketed well, we remember how it made us feel. Otherwise, we remember the price we paid for it. In this case, I have already forgotten how much we paid for the meal, even as its goodness still lingers on in my memory.

First dignity, then status

Does every human being deserve dignity and respect?

Historically, most human beings enjoyed neither dignity nor respect. Throughout civilization, a small group of humans were always regarded as better than others. To elevate their status, other human beings were stripped of all dignity.

Status is something that every human being craves for. However, status is a zero-sum game. If one person has high status, it is necessary that several others have low status.

There are broadly two paths to gain status. The path we have chosen historically is to provide status to a few elites by pushing down the status of the masses. That is how we went from a society of egalitarian hunter-gatherers to monarchies built on slave labour.

In modern times, we have discovered another path. We can satisfy the human need for status not by pushing the masses down, but by elevating the elites. We now strive to guarantee basic human rights for every person, while elevating a few with power, rewards and recognition.

Status is a zero-sum game, but dignity and respect are not. Before we elevate somebody’s status, we must ensure that it does not come at the cost of somebody else’s dignity.

Fame or virtue?

The vast majority of famous historical leaders were cruel tyrants with loose morals.

Alexander the Great, Hannibal Barca, Julius Caesar, Constantine, Atilla the Hun, Genghis Khan, Temujin, Babur, Napoleon Bonaparte, Otto von Bismarck, Winston Churchill. Most of these men are revered even today, but none of them were paragons of virtue.

Besides, most of them also didn’t live a happy life that was free from agony. Most of them suffered greatly throughout their lives despite their ‘lofty’ achievements.

On the contrary, the vast majority of people who led virtuous and moral lives were ‘ordinary’ people with ‘boring’ lives that we don’t bother to document in history books. Yet, during their lifetime, these people were filled with happiness and well-being. Through their virtuous lives they minimized suffering and quietly spread joy, even if they did not wield power or influence over thousands of other people.

There is an inherent tension between the experience and the memory of our lives. If we wish to be remembered, we need to gravitate towards power, influence and status. If we wish to merely experience a good life, we probably need to drift in the opposite direction.

It is important for us to have a clear answer to the following dichotomy – would you rather be famous and internally tormented, or be obscure and internally at peace. In the rare case, like the Buddha, you can be both famous and internally at peace. But if you had asked the Buddha, he would have had a clear pereference.

Beyond quality

I was on a guided tour in a Jewish synagogue recently – one whose quality was clearly poor.

The tour was in English, and the guide’s command over the language wasn’t good. Further, her thoughts and explanations were all over the place. And every question or comment would take her off on a tangent entirely unrelated to whatever she had just started to present.

However, the group ended up enjoying it. The reason here was that everybody could see how strongly she felt about her Jewish heritage, and how she channeled feeling into the tour. I bet that despite its poor quality, the tour would have received a good rating.

We can define and measure quality. But we can also sense such things as effort, enthusiasm and emotional labour. Meaningful experience requires quality, but is enriched because of what we can only sense.

The inconvenient truth

The thrill of trekking without GPS navigation.

The langauge barrier during a visit to a foreign town.

The deviation from a well-planned cycling route.

The unforeseen obstacle that threatens a project’s completion.

The feeling that something might not work.

There can be no meaning without inconvenience. In the era of convenience, those that lean towards the inconvenient lead fulfilled lives.