Monthly Archives: August 2016

Words for emotions we didn’t know we had

It’s a funny thing about house guests. While they’re in your home and you’re tripping over the extra shoes and suitcases that are suddenly littered about your living room, you start dreaming about how nice it will be when they leave. Yet, after they do, your place often feels too empty. To the Baining people of Papua New Guinea, Smith writes, this feeling is so prevalent that it gets a name all to itself: awumbuk, or the feeling of ‘emptiness after visitors depart.’

Melissa Dahl, for New York Magazine, has had an interesting talk with Tiffany Watt Smith, who’s writing a book about emotions. She recounts the conventional wisdom that is to name your emotions, so as to help you understand them.

Her book, The Book of Human Emotions, is basically a list of very specific emotions that are different from the major ones (fear, happiness, etc.). 

Evolution, not revolution

An interesting argument against revolutions anywhere using complex systems theory, by Nicky Case (whom I’ve just discovered). 

It’s about how to change the world. Pair this with this idea on teamwork

The overarching moral is this: humility.

Humility is the knowledge we don’t have that much knowledge. We’re all too stupid to completely overhaul a complex political/economic/cultural system. We can’t build a world from scratch, so we have to use what’s already there. We can’t find a silver bullet, so we’ve got to evolve all the parts simultaneously. We can’t let hubris get the better of us, so we should go slow and steady and sustainably.

The problem with food and exercise studies

In one study, some foods boost your immune system. In another, they weaken it. What’s going on? Apparently, we can’t measure people’s diet effectively and so the research is mostly irreproducible. This is a problem that plagues scientific research, too.

Gina Kolata writing for The Upshot:

Dozens of studies are publicized every week. But those studies hardly slake people’s thirst for answers to questions about how to eat or how much to exercise. Does exercise help you maintain your memory? What kind? Walking? Intense exercise? Does eating carbohydrates make you fat? Can you prevent breast cancer by exercising when you are young? Do vegetables protect you from heart disease?

The problem is one of signal to noise. You can’t discern the signal — a lower risk of dementia, or a longer life, or less obesity, or less cancer — because the noise, the enormous uncertainty in the measurement of such things as how much you exercise or what exactly you eat, is overwhelming. The signal is often weak, meaning if there is an effect of lifestyle it is minuscule, nothing like the link between smoking and lung cancer, for example.

A Japanese company equips elderly staff with exoskeletons

Sohail Rahman reporting for Al Jazeera:

A Japanese hauling company which employs many elderly people has invested in an exoskeleton to take the strain off its staff.


The exoskeleton helps employees to carry out their jobs, which include constantly loading, unloading, carrying and bending.

“The burden on my back and legs has been lessened by half,” Kenji Takemura, an employee at the company for more than 34 years, told Al Jazeera.

The future is now. 

The largest war in animal history is happening right now

Suzanne Sadedin is one of the most interesting writers on Quora. Her answer to the question: ”Do animals fight wars and if so what was the largest war?” is both well-written and interesting:

Once upon a time there was a tiny brown ant who lived by a swamp at the end of the Paraná River in Argentina. Her name, Linepithema humile, literally means ‘humble’ or ‘weak’. Some time during the late 1800s, an adventurous L. humile crept away from the swamp where giant river otter played and capybaras cavorted.

She stowed away on a boat that sailed to New Orleans. And she went to war.

At home in the Paraná delta, L. humile nests would ferociously defend themselves from other nests, both of their own species and other kinds of ant. It was a life of never-ending territorial skirmishes, where nobody could really get ahead. When two L. humile met, they would flick their antennae over each others’ bodies, tasting the combination of hydrocarbons on their skin. This flavor would tell them whether the stranger belonged to the same nest. If she tasted familiar, she would be recognized as a sister. She would be gently stroked, offered food and welcomed into the nest. But if the flavor were not recognized, the ants would try to kill each other.

In New Orleans, something changed.

Come for the tool, stay for the network

Come for the tool, stay for the network is a model used to describe the success of some startups. Basically, users come for a “single-player” tool and then stay because a valuable network grows around it. 

This is Chris Dixon’s idea: 

I’m going to give two historical examples and leave it to readers to think of present-day examples (there are many): 1) Delicious. The single-player tool was a cloud service for your bookmarks. The multiplayer network was a tagging system for discovering and sharing links. 2) Instagram. Instagram’s initial hook was the cool photo filters. At the time some other apps like Hipstamatic had filters but you had to pay for them. Instagram also made it easy to share your photos on other networks like Facebook and Twitter. But you could also share on Instagram’s network, which of course became the preferred way to use Instagram over time.

The ‘come for the tool, stay for the network’ strategy isn’t the only way to build a network. Some networks never had single-player tools, including gigantic successes like Facebook and Twitter. But starting a network from scratch is very hard. Think of single-player tools as kindling.

Why being bilingual works wonders for your brain

Gaia Vince for The Guardian

In the 1960s, one of the pioneers of psycholinguistics, Susan Ervin-Tripp, tested Japanese-English bilingual women, asking them to finish sentences in each language. She found that the women ended the sentences very differently depending on which language was used. For example, ‘when my wishes conflict with my family… ’ was completed in Japanese as ‘it is a time of great unhappiness’; in English, as ‘I do what I want’. Another example was ‘real friends should… ’, which was completed as ‘help each other’ in Japanese and ‘be frank’ in English.

From this, Ervin-Tripp concluded that human thought takes place within language mindsets and that bilinguals have different mindsets for each language, an extraordinary idea but one that has been borne out in subsequent studies; many bilinguals say they feel like a different person when they speak their other language.

The article is interesting throughout. 

A list of useful mental models

Mental models are mind devices you can use to explain things.

Over the years, I have developed a few models that may be useful. I don’t know whether they attach to existing ones but here goes:

  • Scale: consider the scale of things, if they affect they micro-level and/or the macro-level. 
  • Factuality: consider the fact of something vs. the content of something. 
  • Meaning: what is said vs. what is meant. Often, people will say something and mean something else. 
  • Depth: consider the depth and/or breadth of something (a decision, for instance). 
  • Convenience: consider the convenience of something vs. its scale (especially useful in understand how technology and consumerism evolved). 

Here’s an example (Hanlon’s Razor) from Gabriel Weinberg’s list (he is the founder and CEO of DuckDuckGo, “the search engine that doesn’t track you”). 

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness.”