Last month, I emailed readers announcing an upcoming mailbag post—the WBW post version of an AMA. 1,500 questions poured in—remarkably interesting, creative questions on a wide range of topics. I picked some for this round, and we’re keeping the rest in a database that I’ll go back to for future mailbags (firstname.lastname@example.org is always open, so send questions anytime and we’ll add them to the list).
There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get going.
Question from my 7-year-old: How many germs would you have to put together to actually be able to see them? What would it look like? – Kirsten, Zachary’s mum (Sydney, Australia)
You’re my kind of guy, Zachary. Let’s discuss.
There are a lot of germs out there. A smaller germ, like the virus that causes covid, is 120nm across. The smallest object we can see is about 0.1mm—about the width of a human hair. You’d have to line up about 800 coronaviruses to get to 0.1mm—but that would be a one-dimensional line way too thin to see. To actually see something, you’d have to give it some area and turn the 800-virus line into an 800 x 800 square. That clump of 640,000 viruses would be just big enough to see as a tiny speck.1 As for what it would look like, your guess is as good as mine Zachary.
Like how big all the bacteria in the human body would be if you clumped it all together. I had always heard the famous stat that there are 10 times as many bacteria in your body as human cells. It turns out that that’s been debunked. The real ratio is closer to 1:1, with both kinds of cells in the ballpark of 40 trillion in an adult human body.2
Anyway, the NIH estimates that all that bacteria adds up to only 0.3% of a human’s body mass. Zachary is 7, so let’s estimate his mass at 25 kg. That means the bacteria in his body adds up to 75 grams—about the weight of a plum. Assuming the density of Zachary’s bacteria is similar to the density of his body, that would make the bacteria ball about the size of a plum too.
This led me to the obvious next question: how big would all the bacteria on Earth be if you bunched them all together?3
Thankfully, University of Georgia microbiologist William Whitman has done the hard work of coming up with an estimate for the number of bacteria on Earth: 5 nonillion.
To couple that estimate with a wild estimate of our own, we can use the volume of an E. coli bacteria (.7µm3) and assume that’s somewhere around the average size of Earth bacteria. 5 nonillion x .7µm3 comes out to a cube with a base of about 15km (~9.5mi).
This massive cube of bacteria covers a large part of Los Angeles and rises higher than the cruising altitude of commercial airplanes. If you were on the ground, it would take a full day to walk around the cube, and it would be a bad experience because the whole day you’d be right next to a vile bacteria cube.
If we took a huge butter knife and smeared the cube out evenly on the Earth’s surface, it would cover the entire Earth with a layer of pure bacteria 7mm (1/4 inch) thick, and everything would be gross.
K let’s move on.
What do you think of scientists putting mini human brains in mice? Where do you think this kind of science could lead in the future? – Leah N. (Quincy, IL)
I have no idea what’s going on with this question but it’s now all I care about. I’m picturing a world with tiny field mice with human intelligence. They’d form tiny societies run by tiny iron-fisted mouse tyrants. They could have little academies and do research on mice-related things. They might organize a mouse Olympics that we could televise and bet on. Some people would befriend mice and some might even choose to get married to mice. I hope this is what you’re talking about Leah, and I refuse to look it up because I’m sure whatever you’re actually talking about will be a huge letdown.
Drugs: do you do them? What do you think of them? – Tom C. (Nottingham, UK)
Kind of what I think of cars. Cars can be incredibly useful, fun, and life-changing if you understand how cars work and know how to drive safely. If you don’t know anything about driving or you tend to drive recklessly, you’re probably not ready to use cars.
Why do we prefer to watch a film we haven’t watched before but we want to listen to songs that we have heard hundreds of times? – Anastasia S. (Athens, Greece)
Many films are the most fun the first time because a part of our brains loses itself in the plot and actually experiences what the characters are experiencing, to an extent. Part of why that’s so fun is the uncertainty, which makes it like a real-life adventure. Once we know what’s going to happen, the experience is less exciting for the same reason an adventure would be less exciting if you already knew how everything was gonna play out.
A song works the opposite way. Not knowing where the song is going can be intellectually interesting, but what our brain really wants to do is mentally dance with the song, and it can’t do that if it doesn’t know the “steps.” That’s why a catchy song is only okay the first time but it can quickly become orgasmic after we hear it a few times and our brains get the hang of it. Once our brain memorizes a song, the song has a special pathway carved in our heads and it feels great to light that pathway up by hearing the song (and if we don’t give our brain the chance, it might just start lighting up the pathway itself, and the song gets “stuck in your head”).4
Back to films, the thing is, a film isn’t just a plot. It can also be a piece of art, which is why in some cases, we do like to watch films (or TV shows) repeatedly (I’ve seen The Shawshank Redemption, Back to the Future, Shutter Island, and The Office (UK) like 9 times each).
What age range do you currently think you’re most likely to die (disregarding cryonics)?
– Sean M. (New Orleans, LA)
The pessimistic part of my brain says: A) 70–100. My grandparents lived to 87, 87, 91, and good old Nana is still going strong at 95.5 My lifestyle is not a big enough step above theirs, healthwise, to imagine that I’ll beat them out by very much. And sure, medicine is improving dramatically, but then I look at charts like this one (click for bigger view):1
As promising as that data is, we don’t seem to be getting too far with the 100+ thing. Even the most freak outliers don’t crack 120. The human body seems programmed to shut itself down somewhere around the century mark, if it hasn’t already. Clearly something other than the current type of healthcare advances will be needed to crack through the natural human lifespan ceiling—it’ll take some deeper recoding of the human genome.
But then the optimistic part of my brain imagines what it would be like to show George Washington around 2021 and watch him die of shock at how magical everything was, and it thinks about how the accelerating returns on progress mean that the world of 70- to 100-year-old me might be equally shocking to people today, and so it answers D) 150–250.
The pessimistic part of my brain, looking at reality, makes a sad face and pats the optimistic part of my brain on the head.
The optimistic part of my brain, remembering how bad humans are at intuitively understanding exponential growth, pats the pessimistic part of my brain on the head.
How do you fall asleep? – Anastasia S. (Athens, Greece)
When I can’t fall asleep, it’s either because my mind is caught in an anxious loop of some kind or my phone is keeping me up. The surefire fix to the anxious loop issue is to distract my mind with something else.
But what that something else is is important. If I start texting or scrolling around social media or brainstorming / researching for work or playing an addictive iPhone game, that’ll just make me even less likely to sleep. Other activities, for whatever reason, seem to have the opposite effect and put me right to sleep. For me, what’s effective is reading in the dark on a Kindle on dark mode, listening to a podcast or audiobook,6 doing a crossword puzzle on my phone, or as a last resort, YouTube videos, which work for the same reason it’s so easy to fall asleep in front of the TV.
The problem with this is that most of these involve my phone, which also has all of those things that are great at keeping me up. Worse, when I wake up next to my phone, I inevitably start my day by getting sucked into inane phone stuff. This isn’t just a time-waster—the grown-up-ness with which I start my day usually sets the tone for the whole day. And the morning is often when some of the best insights pop up for me—if they have space to pop up. The phone kills that space.
So I came up with a little scheme. Which brings me to:
What is the best permanent lifestyle change you made in your life? – Elmar S. (Munich, Germany)
I dug an old iPhone 6 out of my drawer (I had tried to trade it in but I botched something with the “activation lock” whatever the hell that is and Apple sent it back to me) and this became my bed phone. No SIM card, not signed into iCloud, no apps except Kindle, iBooks, Downcast (podcasts), NYT Crosswords, YouTube, and some practical ones (alarm, calendar, notes and voice recorder for those morning insights). Then I leave my real phone in a different room, as far away and inconveniently located as possible. This has been pretty groundbreaking for me. I find that I actually look forward to saying bye to my normal phone and transitioning to the bed phone stage of the night. Bed phone still has worlds of fun in it—just the healthy-for-night/morning kinds of fun.7
Do you have an inner monologue? – Malaika D. (Groningen, The Netherlands)
I actually wanna talk about this. I kind of think I don’t have an inner monologue. I have certain moments when I’m actually talking to myself in my head, but I find that 90% of the time my head is up in the clouds (which is most of the time) I have a lot of thoughts going on but no specific words in my head. I can’t tell if that’s what everyone is like or if I’m weird. The reason I wonder about it is that when people explain why you should meditate, they say something like, “it’s important to quiet the constant ‘chatter’ in your head.” And I always wonder whether “chatter” is just the word they’re using for the constant stream of thoughts or if there is actually a voice to those thoughts in most people’s head but not mine. Someone tell me what’s up.
Anyway I get your bigger point, Malaika, and I’m with you, but I don’t have a good answer beyond something obvious like “try meditation!” So hopefully a commenter can tell us both how to fix ourselves.
What really makes you angry? – Ingrid M.
- When I’m late and a person in front of me is going really slowly at the cashier
- When I’m late in an Uber and the driver makes a wrong turn
- When I’m late at the airport with no margin for error and TSA decides it’s the perfect time to search my bag and there are two other bags that need to be searched in front of mine and no one is searching any of the bags because the woman who searches bags is doing something else
- When I go to a Broadway show and look at the little slip of paper in the Playbill and the main character is replaced by an understudy
- When anyone needs me to do something that involves printing something
- Bluetooth connectivity difficulties
- When I get a new bottle of liquid soap and I can’t get the nozzle to pop up and instead it just spins around infuriatingly
- Any other kind of packaging that’s hard to open
- When my packages get stolen from my shit-ass building lobby
- When I’m sleeping somewhere either with no A/C or bad A/C and it’s like 78º all night and I sleep 2 hours
- When some gem of a photo op presents itself with my dog or something on the street and my phone camera freezes on the blurred screen
- When I finally select the flight I want on Kayak and I’m relieved I got a good price and I go to buy it and it takes me to the airline site where I fill everything out and click “purchase” and it comes back with a message that says “the flight you’ve selected is not available.”
- When people disagree with me about politics and think they’re right
- When I bought a tin of fancy salt and the fucking lid was impossible to get off and I finally got it to snap off and the salt went everywhere
- When I go to a site and select a menu item and the site finishes loading and the page jumps up just as I click and I select the wrong item and then I press back and select again and the same thing happens
- Obscure name clues in crossword puzzles
- When my opponent opens up a huge spot in Words With Friends and my letters are awful
- When I’m at a breakfast restaurant and ask for Tabasco Sauce and the waiter remembers to bring it 0 out of 100 times
- When I’m watching something riveting on an airplane TV and the captain makes a long, drawn-out announcement
- When my tortoise shits on the floor while I’m not in the room and then tramps through it and gets shit on every square inch of the apartment floor and 3 inches up every wall
- How long it takes an iPhone to turn back on when you plug it back in after it dies
- When I’m watching a movie with someone and I’ve seen it and they haven’t and they talk or look at their phone during an important moment
- Sandwiches or burgers with hard, thick bread
- When I’m in the car with my sisters and they think it’s an okay thing to blast their inane songs
- When an apartment building puts a sign up that says “Please keep noise down between 10pm and 7am” because no one cares about late-night people (early riser privilege!)
- The 99-year-old technology at my mom’s house
- Websites that won’t let you go back – you just keep hitting the “back” button and it keeps refreshing the current page
- When I get delivery food that includes fries and instead of a little container of ketchup, they give me a bunch of tiny packets
- When I ask someone for the address where I’m going and they tell me directions instead of just giving me the address to put in my phone
- When I go on vacation with people who want to wake up early and fill the day with icky activities
- Jeans with button flies
Are we bigger than we are small, or smaller than we are big? – Jarhead (Toronto, Canada)
Biologically, we’re definitely bigger than we are small. A typical blue whale is about 15 times the length of a human and around 2,500 times the mass. A human compared to microbes is many orders of magnitude larger. We’re less big amongst mammals, but even there we’re bigger than we are small. A human is about 35 times the length of the smallest mammal—the adorable bumblebee bat2—and 40,000 times more massive.
Moving beyond the realm of biology—if we consider ourselves in relation to well-understood objects, we might make our endpoints a proton (10-16m) and the sun (108m), in which case we’re much closer to the size of the sun than the size of a proton. Big again. But if we use the Milky Way (1020m) as our upper end point, then we become smaller than we are big.
Then there’s the whole range of size. According to my Universe in a Nutshell app (plug!), the smallest known unit of space, the Planck length (maybe our universe’s pixel size), is about 10-35m. The largest space we can see is the observable universe, which is around 1026m range. If those are our endpoints, the midpoint between them would be a bit smaller than the width of a human hair—making us bigger than we are small.
But the observable universe is probably only a tiny piece of the full universe, and then there’s the multiverse if that’s a thing. So the real upper endpoint is probably high enough, if it exists at all, to make us much smaller than we are big.
My takeaway here is that we’re extremely middling when it comes to size, which I guess isn’t the worst thing to be.
How do I get over a breakup if I’m still in love? – Anon
There’s no way to make an excruciating loss not excruciating except time, and I’m sorry to hear about the excruciatingness you’re going through.
Maybe it’ll help to remember that everyone you know, everyone you see on the street, everyone who’s ever lived in every place and time, has probably been there too or will be there in the future—because excruciating loss is an unfortunate staple of the human experience.
It might also help to remember that the part of you that feels like this wound will never heal is almost definitely wrong, and being wrong about that is also a staple of the human experience. Make that part of you write a letter to yourself, expressing how it feels. It’ll be fun to read that letter later, when you’re totally in love with someone new.
When parking, if both options are available, do you pull into the spot or back in? – Brighid D. (Manchester, NH)
Pulling in forward is Present You living their best life and treating Future You like their assistant. Backing in is Present You acting like Future You’s assistant. Pulling forward out of a spot you previously backed into is a highly luxurious experience, but as a procrastinator type whose jam it is to fuck over Future Tim, a rare one for me.
What is the coolest magic trick that you’ve seen? – Abhinav P. (Jaipur, Rajasthan, India)
Professional magic is by far the most underrated form of entertainment. Anytime I hear about a new magic show in NYC getting buzz, I buy tickets (magic over video can also be surprisingly great—check out this incredible show).
The most inexplicable trick I’ve seen was actually one where I happened to be the chosen subject from the audience. This guy (a “mentalist” not a magician whatever that means) had me go into my phone contacts and scroll and stop randomly somewhere and then remember where my finger was. It was on a friend named Lucy. He told me to put the phone away and concentrate on the name. He then told some fictional story and towards the end revealed that the main character’s name was Lucy. There was no way he could see the phone at any point, and having held it close to me, I’m almost sure no one behind me could see it either. Later in the night he correctly guessed my friend’s ATM PIN number. Nothing he did was okay. I’m upset just talking about this.
Why do you live in NYC? – Yertle T. (New York, NY)
NYC is an extreme place. It’s great at being exceptional and it’s great at being awful. It’s a high-priced filth bucket with great weather 25% of the time. It’s supposedly this world-leading city and yet it’s often behind the innovation curve and feels less futuristic than many other cities. The restaurants are world-class but it can also sometimes be hard to find a fresh salad for lunch. I could go on.
But it’s also a place where within a 20-minute walk of my apartment I can find every cuisine in the world, every type of art, every kind of shop, and a million different cultural experiences (many in secret underground nooks). It feels like the entire world is crammed into this city.
Among US cities, it’s not #1 for tech (SF), entertainment (LA), politics (DC), medicine (Boston), or a handful of other major industries. But it’s at least top 5 in every industry. NYC has breadth like nowhere else I know (at least in the US). This is especially appealing to me since I like to dig into a lot of totally different areas with my writing.
On a me-specific level, it’s a place where a large portion of my friends and acquaintances live, and of those who don’t live here, a large portion come through the city at least once a year. Nowhere other than NYC would I be able to get this level of in-person contact with such a large percentage of people I care about. (It’s also a quick trip to Boston, where much of my family lives.)
Finally, I really like the historical aspect. 300 years of human ingenuity gives a place a lot of character (I know that sounds paltry to non-Americans but it’s a big deal here!). Every street has an epic story to it. It makes the city like a big history museum to explore, and I like knowing that I’ll never even scratch the surface.
The awful things about NYC suck. A lot. But for me at least, the good things make living here a clear net positive.
How are you? Just checking in. – Jake E. (Kristiansand, Norway)
Besides the giant dark “I gotta finish this book” cloud hovering over my entire existence and preventing me from being present or content in any moment ever, great!
What is the silliest thing you have placed on top of your tortoise? – Juan
For his 14th birthday, we threw a party for Winston and tied a string around his shell with a helium balloon attached. This was a great way to make sure no one stepped on him because the balloon was at eye level, like another guest at the party. Anyway he doesn’t like parties so he moseyed his way into some little private cove, thinking no one would know where he was, not realizing there was a very obvious balloon giving him away.
What should one do if a piece of media (book or movie or song) that holds some nostalgic value to you turns out to have been created by someone who’s a ‘bad’ human being? – Anoushka D. (Delhi, India)
I think in most cases, we should feel fine loving the art we love, regardless of who the artist is, what they did, or what they believed. John Lennon was physically abusive in his early relationships. Picasso and Jackson Pollock were abusive husbands. Walt Disney wasn’t a fan of the Jews, nor is Cat Stevens. Ellen DeGeneres was a dick to her staff. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife. I could have listed 1,000 of these because artists are often messed up, unstable people who do or say bad things (and because most people secretly hold deep-down beliefs you would disapprove of if you knew about them). That a lot of great art emerges from troubled minds shouldn’t be a surprise or invalidate the art as great art to be enjoyed—at least not to me.
In many cases, we’re also talking about artists who lived in different times—times when your own ancestors who lived then almost certainly were doing or saying some things that would make them “bad people” by today’s standards.
For those who generally agree with me about this, there might still be exceptions. Maybe an important part of why you liked The Cosby Show was the belief that Bill Cosby really was a lot like Cliff Huxtable, and knowing what you know now, the show loses its charm. I just find those to be the rare exceptions, not the rule.
Finally, I would say there are two okay views to have here: 1) my view, that you can enjoy art by people you disapprove of, and 2) the opposite view, that not liking the artist ruins the art. What’s not an okay view is 3) “Art by a person I disapprove of should be banned so that no one is allowed to consume it, and any platform that doesn’t ban it should be punished.” There’s way too much #3 going on right now.
What countries were your absolute favorite travel experiences? – Samantha K. (Singapore)
When I was 20, I took a solo backpacking trip to Thailand and China and became infatuated with traveling. Since then (covid notwithstanding), I’ve tried to visit at least two new places every year. Here are some of my favorite travel experiences and best recommendations (most can be done on a backpacker’s budget):
Riding the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk, looking out the window, making friends with passengers, and seeing how the political views changed the further east we got (more on that trip here).
Driving around desolate parts of Utah national parks, and sleeping every night outside the car on the edge of a canyon and waking up to the best view ever.
Staying with a family who lives in a yurt on the edge of the alpine Lake Song-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, spending the day in silence tagging along with the non-English-speaking shepherd as he did his thing with the sheep up on the mountain, and watching their weekly horse race.
The Yangon New Year’s Water Festival in Myanmar. Good god. We got invited onto the back of a truck with a bunch of locals, and the truck proceeded to drive around the city for five hours while we got absolutely wrecked by power hoses.
Driving from Dubai to Southern UAE and camping out on the softest dunes ever.
Going to Gen Yamamoto’s bar in Tokyo for six of the fanciest little cocktails imaginable (he’s kind of the Jiro of cocktails) over two amazing hours.8 Also just the entire country of Japan in general.
How can I become a higher-rung thinker? – Avery H. (Zeeland, MI)
To borrow a Paul Graham suggestion, keep your identity small. High-rung thinking isn’t some fancy thing. It’s just being self-aware about what you know and what you don’t know—about staying close to the humility sweet spot.
One of the biggest impediments to this is when you start to identify with certain beliefs, stances, or ideologies. Once that happens, your Primitive Mind enters the equation and will do whatever possible to keep you from changing your mind, which cripples your ability to learn. Keeping your identity small is hugely liberating, and a lot less stressful. When your identity is small, you have nothing to cling onto and you can just relax and explore. So start by doing a self-audit and figuring out which ideas you’ve come to hold sacred—we all do this, it’s human—and remind yourself that they’re just ideas, they’re not you.
What is your favorite form of transportation? – Sidhi (San Francisco, CA)
Without question the hoverboard. A few years ago, I was walking in NY and some guy passed by with one and I accosted him and asked him what the fuck that incredibly fun-looking thing was. He told me he actually sells them and gave me his info. A few days later I was the weird guy rolling around NY like a futuristic nerd, having the time of my life. I got really good at it and impressed lots of strangers and everything was great. Then, after a few weeks, the battery, though appearing to be half full, suddenly died and I wiped out in the middle of the street mortifyingly. I carried the board home and charged it up and pretended like nothing had happened and kept riding around. Then a few days later the battery died again out of nowhere and I wiped out mortifyingly in the street again. Turns out I had bought a cheap Chinese-made knockoff without realizing it. Bummer.
I was gonna get a new one, this time online with some research and not from some shady fuck I met on the street—but right around that time, NY decided it didn’t know what a hoverboard was and didn’t know how to categorize it or whether it should need a license or whether they should go in the bike lane or sidewalk and just shrugged and banned them. Disappointing all around.
If I time machined to 2040, one of the things I’d hope to see would be lots of people traveling around on fun hands-free toys like that.
How do you feel about advertisements? Do they annoy you, or are you enticed about what they’re trying to sell to you? – Anon
I love targeted ads, when the AI is good enough. The problem with targeted ads is normally they’re not really good at targeting, so they’re useless and annoying. But Instagram has gotten pretty good at it and now I own a gravity blanket, a moon pod, stretchy jeans, a great hoodie, and like 19 fidget toys and physics toys and other stupid things that make me happy. Buying dumb shit you like is a good thing to do because you’re supporting small businesses (this is the story I tell myself), and effective targeted ads connect supply and demand in an optimal, nuanced way. I hope down the road the targeting gets so good that ads will pop up and be like “your dad’s birthday is coming up, here are five great options for him that we know he wants—click your favorite and it’ll arrive to him, gift-wrapped, on his birthday!”
I know I’m supposed to feel the opposite way about all of this because it’s creepy and non-privacy-y, but I’m gonna be dead at some point for trillions of years so who cares if big companies are manipulating my simple psychology for profit, if it brings me joy?
If you were forced to live in a country outside of the top 50 for 5 years, which country would it be and why? – Dom W. (New York, NY)
If you ask me when I’m feeling energetic and ambitious, I’d say Nigeria. After visiting there in 2014, I came away feeling excited. With over 200 million people, it’s the 6th-most populous nation, and Lagos is a massive metropolis bustling with energy—somewhere I wouldn’t get bored and where I could find lots of outlets for my own projects.
But Nigeria would also be a hectic choice, and a hard place to live at times, so if you ask me when I’m tired, it would probably seem a bit “much” for a five year stint. In that mood, I’d choose Laos. Never been, but it looks insanely beautiful and the food would make me happy.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received? – Laura H. (New York, NY)
I met Chris Anderson, the head of TED, in 2015. He had read a few WBW posts and offered me the opportunity to give a TED Talk at the 2016 conference (which was six months away). Immediately full of both gratitude/excitement and dread/anxiety, I asked him if it might be better to wait a couple years until I had some more speaking experience. He paused thoughtfully for a few seconds before saying, “There’s no time like the present.” I took his advice. Since then, his voice saying those words has popped into my head again and again during hard decisions, and I’m yet to regret following them.
Great advice is sometimes great because it’s totally original or framed in an original way. But, as in my story, a well-known platitude, at the perfect moment, can also make a huge impact. What makes Chris’s advice so valuable to me wasn’t that it was something new—it was that the lesson I learned from taking the advice in that particular moment turned a cliché into a mantra.
What are your thoughts on TikTok? – Annie (Ontario, California)
For a long time, TikTok was this impossibly annoying-seeming thing that wouldn’t go away. Then my friend Isabelle started posting pro-nuclear-energy videos on TikTok, so I finally got the app to watch them. Then I got sucked in.
The thing is, the TikTok algorithm is really good. It knows me better than I know myself. I don’t follow any accounts on TikTok, I just go to the “For You” tab and start scrolling down the video stream TikTok has prepared for me, and the curation quality is strong.
Sometimes there are people being funny. Sometimes there are people doing pranks. There’s George and Hector and this squirrel and this drunk chicken and the bees lady. And then there are the trolls. People trolling their boyfriends and girlfriends and husbands and wives and cats and dogs and babies and teachers and customers. And a lot of people trolling their parents. TikTok isn’t for everyone. But it is for me.
I’ve now created a fun activity, where I “favorite” the best videos during a scroll and at some point beam my phone up to the TV to show my wife the favorites. Highly recommend this activity.
Are you a tabletop gamer? – Ryan M. (Odessa, TX)
Of the staples, I love Scrabble and have played like 1,000 games of Words With Friends (which has in turn fucked up my Scrabble game). I have periodic chess phases, though they never last long enough for me to become not bad (my chess.com rating peaked in the 900s during my last bout).
My sister is always upsettingly pushing new games on me, which I first resist and then become addicted to. Recently, she’s gotten me into Coup and Codenames (both delightful). I’ve dipped my toe into the Polytopia wormhole and am scared about the possibilities. Not a tabletop game, but a consistent winner with groups is what my friends and I call the Name Game (variations are called Celebrity or Fishbowl)—rules in this footnote.9
What supplements or multivitamins do you take? – Stacey W. (Perth, Australia)
I usually take some kind of one-a-day multivitamin that I deep down believe does nothing but I take it just in case. And a spoonful of Metamucil every morning so I can be happy.
And then I like to experiment with work/productivity supplements. I’ve recently been trying a combination of gingko biloba and lion’s mane supplements. I’ve also been trying out Qualia Mind, made by Flow Genome Project, but just started so no verdict yet. Always open to suggestions, so let me know if you use anything that works well for you!
What’s a recent embarrassing and/or interesting rabbit hole you’ve found yourself going down semi-unintentionally? – Jace L. (Tulare, CA)
I have a love-hate relationship with YouTube. Love the videos, hate myself. The problem is, YouTube spirals happen for me almost exclusively when I’m in the Dark Playground—that place you’re in when you should be working but you’re not working. Either someone sends me a YouTube link or I go there for genuine research purposes—and then the algorithm pulls me into the pit.
But then there are the dark moments. When nothing good at all is happening. In order to answer Jace’s question, I decided to play a dangerous game: lifting off the hood of my YouTube history and seeing, staring me in the face, all the places I’ve been. Some of the more disturbing finds from the past few years (each spiral goes up chronologically, with the first video I watched at the bottom):
Here’s a typical run:
One day, I spent a lot of time with this man while he hurt himself:
This day started with string quartet covers before things got Jewy:
Sorry not sorry:
Who needs to work when you have Hitler!
Needed a drink at the end of this:
The Bushmen and the Pygmies are my friends and not yours:
Not sure what happened here:
Not proud of this:
Can’t explain this:
Possibly the strangest sequence I found:
Would you rather be 11 feet tall or nine inches tall? – Alexander R. (Windhoek, Namibia)
Surprisingly hard one. 11 feet seems like the obvious answer. You’re a full “thing” everywhere you go and everyone would flip out, but then they’d get used to it and you could still have an almost normal life. You could still have an almost normal house. You could for sure play in the NBA. You could still have sex.
No one is fucking a nine-inch tall person. And you couldn’t go anywhere without everyone you’re about to see being fully prepped ahead of time for the situation. Your house would be a joke. That said, there would be benefits. You could sneak into anything and hide very easily. Like you could probably smuggle yourself on a plane to Russia without anyone noticing, sneak into the Kremlin, and listen in on the most secretive Putin meetings while hiding behind the curtains or somewhere. But then what?
So I guess my answer is that the nine-inch-tall option would be very fun for a while but then when you got bored of the perks, you’d be confronted with your life as a pencil person and would probably regret the choice. So I’d go with 11 feet tall.
Can you suggest methods for dealing with the crushing realization that people you used to have a lot of respect for don’t hold the principles/values you thought they did and therefore might no longer be worthy of your respect? Especially close people like parents, teachers, mentors, and religious leaders? – JD I. (Charleston, SC)
I find this to be a pretty reliable graph:
The better I get to know people I’ve previously demonized, the more pleasantly surprised I am. The better I get to know people I’ve previously lionized, the more disappointed I become. This makes sense, because people are neither demons nor angels—they’re humans. The crushing realization you’re experiencing is probably less some awful truths you’re learning about people you admire and more a truth you’re seeing about humans in general. Even the people you look up to are fallible and flawed—but that doesn’t mean they can’t also be worthy of your love and respect.
With all that in mind, I’d consider three things:
First, take a hard look at ways you feel these people are disappointing you, and try asking whether your own judgments might be off. On more than one occasion, I’ve scoffed at those I once considered wise only to later realize that they weren’t all that wrong after all.
Second, think about all the ways a human can be good and wise, and you’ll be reminded of certain ways these people are still very much worthy of your admiration. Focusing on those areas can restore the respect you want to feel towards them.
Finally, where you do firmly believe you have something right that they don’t, remember that wisdom is a multi-generational collaboration. When mentorship works, it raises mentees to be wiser than the mentor—mentees who can then be even better mentors to the next generation. This is how the wisdom trend slopes continually upwards. If your mentors are forever wiser than you, they failed as mentors. So when you do feel wiser, it’s not a bad thing—it means it’s your turn to take the wisdom torch and try to bring it to the next level.
What are your most left-wing, and most right-wing, political positions? – Hannah J. (London, UK)
At the moment I’m feeling progressive about the legalization of drugs and sex work (in both cases, the black markets that result from illegality seem to cause more harm than the thing itself), and conservative about wanting the government to be smaller (bigger government seems to correlate with both less competence and more corruption).
What conspiracy theory do you think is most probably true? – Maja (Ottawa, Canada)
One that I’ve been considering (only a hunch, no actual info) is that big alcohol companies (Anheuser-Busch, etc.) are the new big tobacco companies (Philip Morris, etc.). And instead of trying to suppress evidence that cigarettes are disastrous for your health, the big alcohol companies need to keep all the other fun drugs stigmatized and illegal—and with tens of billions of dollars at stake, they’ll spend billions of dollars to keep the status quo the way it is.
When I grew up, the rules were clear: if a party is a cool party, it has alcohol at it, and if you’re a cool person, you drink alcohol. If your party doesn’t have alcohol, it’s not a cool party, and if you don’t drink alcohol, you’re not a cool person. If you take a step back and think about it, that’s kinda weird. This one particular drug, of so many, has been deemed A) the socially acceptable, non-stigmatized one, and B) the definition of cool. Meanwhile, alcohol is just an alright drug—probably a below average one—while also being one of the most dangerous and harmful ones. It makes no sense—until you remember that cigarettes made no sense either…
What’s your best advice for someone moving to NYC? – Tessa C. (Kansas City, MO; living in Dublin, Ireland; moving to New York, NY)
Get rid of your stuff (or store it somewhere) unless you really love it. Small apartments can be cozy and great if you don’t have too much stuff.
Do all the touristy things (Statue of Liberty, etc.) while you’re still in the honeymoon phase, because if you don’t, you’ll never do them.
Look up a list of the best pizza places in the city and go to one a month until you’ve tried them all. Lucali and Paulie Gee’s are my top recs.
Look up lists like this and actually do the things. Nowhere has more amazing secret spots than NYC.
Why the King of Spades? And are his eyes always looking up that way? – Hector F. (San Antonio, TX)
When I was tossing around potential names for the site, “Miniature King” was in the running. At least to me it was, before it was promptly vetoed by my wife / then girlfriend. But in the process, I had become attached to the visual I had in mind—something with a very small, very tyrannical king who was outraged about being the non-consensual mascot of a random blog. So when it was time to design the eventual site, I stuck with the king as the mascot. He’s looking up because he’s rolling his eyes at the concept of being the WBW mascot and because he’s upset about the little men that are marching up onto his head, which is not a very dignified thing to be happening to a great tyrant king.
What’s a view/opinion you were holding for a long time but changed recently (let’s say in the last few years)? – Mike L. (Singapore)
Religion being a generally bad thing overall. Obviously religion can be, and often is, a bad thing that does more harm than good. But what’s become more clear to me is that we’re a religious species, period, and while today’s prominent religions are certainly flawed, the political religions of history or today are often even worse.
It just doesn’t seem like we’re a species that’s ready for widespread atheism quite yet. Until things change, traditional religions are probably more helpful than they are harmful. Still thinking about this one.
How do you balance reading the news/staying up to date on current events with avoiding burnout and the feeling that everything is terrible all the time and nothing you do matters so why bother? – Fenway D. (Greensboro, NC)
A lot of what used to be news has morphed into propaganda, and there’s no shame in ignoring propaganda. The really big stuff will filter its way to you no matter what you do.
If you do want to keep up with the news, it also doesn’t have to happen directly, via the media. Listening regularly to a few good interview-style podcasts, for example, can be a great way to get a feel for the big issues going on in a more indirect way.
As far as feeling like nothing you do matters, I actually think that’s an intuitive but incorrect assumption. In a moment when so many people are afraid to express their real views in public, doing so can make a real difference.
You often mention being inspired and challenged by interesting conversations. How have you increased the proportion and/or frequency of these conversations in your life? – Andrew N. (London, UK)
One thing that can go a long way: see the people you really like talking to more frequently. This is about more than the obvious point that doing so literally increases the cumulative time you’ll talk to them: When you don’t see someone frequently enough, every time you do hang out ends up being a big catch-up, where both of you update the other on your lives. This doesn’t seem like a problem until you consider that the whole relationship now mostly consists of catching each other up (and reminiscing about old times because you’re not making any new times together). This isn’t actually hanging out. Hanging out means shooting the shit about whatever’s on your mind and exploring new topics together. If I haven’t seen someone in forever and then they’re in town for a week and I see them twice, it’s the second hangout, with the catch-up out of the way, where the more interesting conversation usually happens.10
Two friends and I started zoom-chatting every Friday during covid and it just turned into a thing that now happens once a week, and the conversations are great because they’re free of big-picture catch-up—they’re either about ongoing keeping up, or more often, just fun divergent conversation about third-party topics. If you have anyone you like talking to enough to do it a few times every month, try to make that happen.
Do you have some tips of where and/or how to meet people who tend to think more high-rung, both online and in real life? Or is it more about recognizing them scattered throughout our lives? – Steven D. (Zavantem, Brussels, Belgium)
Where’s the entrance to the idea labs? I’m a teenager and right now I’m trying to accumulate knowledge and skills as much as I can. There are quite a few people who inspire me and they all seem to be in a network of other smart/amazing people. The question is – how do you find other people who want to grow and exchange knowledge? – Mikhail I. (Moscow, Russia)
1) Mine people you already know for hidden high-rung-ness. Sometimes two people get stuck in a dynamic where both feel like they have to agree with each other, which is kind of boring and stressful and makes it hard to dig deep and explore anything—but neither one actually prefers it to be this way. They’re just stuck in a social rut. In this case, all it might take is one person actually starting to say what they really think and being willing to break the “disagreement” ice, and the whole relationship can transform into something much more interesting and high rung. Of course, there are plenty of other times when an Echo Chamber dynamic is in place because one or both people very much want it to be that way, and an attempt by one party to snap out of that will go over badly (btw, this isn’t the end of the world—it just means that high-rung conversation won’t be a part of that relationship, you can still enjoy the rest of what it has to offer). If you do find that most of your existing relationships are stuck on the intellectual low rungs, you’ll want to supplement things with some new friendships that can better indulge your intellect. This is where the other two points come in.
2) Collect high-rungers you happen upon in the wild. Post-college-age people tend to be really bad at making new friends. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There will be moments—at work, at a dinner party, at some event—when you discover a super interesting-seeming person you really like talking to, and you wish you were friends with them. If you feel this way, there’s a decent chance they feel the same way about you. And if you can fight off your mammoth (who is irrationally horrified by the possibility you may put yourself out there and get rejected) and get in the habit of getting their phone number and sending a “great meeting you! would love to chat again sometime” text—and then if the response is positive, actually scheduling a coffee or lunch or drink (mammoth: “but what if they were just being polite!”), over time you’ll accumulate a whole new basket of high-rung brains to play with.11 It’s really easy to just not put yourself out there for new friendships as an adult, but those who do are usually rewarded.
3) Actively go out looking for high-rungers. This is the ickiest, most amorphous item, and I don’t have specific suggestions beyond: put yourself in high-rung environments whenever possible. That can mean the place you live, the place you work, the places you spend your free time, the forums you hang out in online, the events you go to. Speaking of which—
Do you plan to have another Wait But Hi?– Fausto L. (Madrid, Spain) – Mini (Perth, Australia) – Sam W. (Raleigh, NC) – B. (Budapest, Hungary) – Kelvin J. (Turku, Finland) – Chelsea I. (Perth, Australia)
Yes, definitely. Like everything Wait But Why, this has been on hold because of the Story of Us albatross, but the answer is yes. We consider “Wait But Hi” to be not a single event, or even a single type of event, but the “in-person” category of Wait But Why. The first Wait But Hi centered around a hypothesis that people who read WBW would probably like meeting other people who read WBW, and the event confirmed it. Alicia, Andrew, and I have had many brainstorms about other creative WBH formats, so stay tuned.
What animal would you shrink down to pocket size (or the size of a coke can) to keep as a pet? – Tandice U. (New York, NY)
Most other animals already have a mini version (a small tiger or lion is basically a kitten, small alligator is a gecko, small buffalo is like half the weird little dogs I see on the street). But there’s nothing like a small elephant. Plus they’re usually so big so it’s extra funny. Plus they’re smart and have great personalities. And they live like 80 years. The ideal miniature pet.
If you had power to dictate what should be taught in schools—things that everyone had to master before they get to enter adulthood—what would you add to the curriculum? – Audrey T. (Toronto, Canada)
General (should be part of many classes):
- Independent, first-principles thinking
- How to argue and debate productively
- How to be an effective learner
- Intellectual humility
- Independent problem-solving skills, through practice
- Basic math
- Basic science, and more importantly, a lot of practice with the scientific method
- Basic civics
- Basic money management
- Enough writing and speaking skills to be an effective communicator
- Enough history to understand why fundamental liberal rights were invented and how precious they are
- Older students should be able to go deeper in the areas they feel most drawn to or, if resources allow, take electives where they can learn a more specific skill
- Indoctrination in the teacher’s particular political ideology
- Oh wait definitely not that last one
I just started a new relationship. How do I not fuck it up and/or how do I make love stay? – Robert B. (Denver, CO)
A general suggestion: Have your mantra be “I’m gonna show them exactly who I really am and if it turns out they don’t like it, they’re not the right person for me anyway.” Takes all the pressure off.
A specific suggestion: Plan fun, creative, exciting “mystery dates” and refuse to tell them what the plan is until they get there. A mystery date can be any kind of experience or activity—just something outside the box.
Do you think, overall, covid accelerated progress of the human colossus or slowed down progress of the human colossus? – Sean M. (New Orleans, LA)
Desperate times call for desperate measures and desperate measures have a knack for wildly accelerating progress and innovation. At least in the modern era, this phenomenon usually outweighs the destruction and lost time caused by desperate times. The classic example would be World War II, which is why we have the computer, the nuclear weapon, and the moon landing—or at least why we got those things as quickly as we did.
Covid certainly slowed down progress in some ways—but a ton of learning and innovation happened in the past year that may have set us way forward in some very important areas. The average person in 1945 knew that the war had advanced certain technologies, but few could have foreseen the amazing ways those advances would be applied in the decades to come. If something like mRNA technology has just taken a major leap forward, the people of 2050 might have covid to thank for some of their most groundbreaking biotech.
If you were an omnipotent god for 24 hours, what would you do? After the 24 hours, you’d turn back into your regular self but still remember that day. – Lena S. (Munich, Germany)
“Omnipotent god” is a very legit amount of power. Here’s what I’d do:
Restore the level of carbon in the carbon cycle to 1850 levels and invent some insanely powerful and efficient, cheap-to-make, totally safe nuclear fusion reactor that you could fuel with garbage like the Delorean in Back to the Future 2, and put instructions for how to make it online.
Randomly select a color from the Pantone deck and make all human skin that color.
Invent an easy, cheap way to make succulent lab-grown meat and put the instructions online.
Make the U.S. government a parliamentary system.
Learn the deal with the Fermi Paradox.
Learn the deal with dark matter.
Tribalism out. Teleportation in.
Tweak the human body so that Oreos and Chinese food are both perfect health food.
All couches are forever incredibly comfortable and like an L-couch except the long part of the L extends across the whole couch, so it’s like a king bed.
All internet is free and fast forever.
All human brains are on a mild dose of MDMA at all times.
Terraform Mars to Earth-like perfection with a snap of my omnipotent fingers. Make a few backup copies of Elon that activate one by one if he dies or gets bored. Incept the idea in Elon’s head that Tim Urban absolutely must be on the first voyage to Mars but not to do any icky work, just to blog about the experience.
Perfect anti-aging technology so everyone can revert their body to any age they prefer and stay there until they’re bored enough of living they’re ready to die. Put instructions for the technology I used to make Elon backups online so everyone can make backups of themselves in case they die in an accident. Use my omnipotence to ensure that all backups are in fact still “you.” All backups are constantly updated to mirror the main version, and only one can be activated one at a time.
All sentences in articles or tweets that are untrue automatically appear in red block letters.
My book is done and everyone agrees it’s just “a really good point.”
My dog is perfectly trained, no longer needs to eat or drink or pee or shit, bathes herself once a week, lives forever, and can be switched off when we go on vacation.
All my shrunk t-shirts are unshrunk and permanently unshrinkable.
There’s a Dan Carlin episode for everything that’s ever happened and Hamilton goes all the way through to today, instead of stopping in like 1802.
Rainbows are climbable and slidable. Clouds are jumpable.
All ocean and pool water is 95 degrees F. All hot tubs 104.
Paper straws are banned, plastic straws are back.
Tweak the human body so exercise makes you fat and depressed and stagnation makes you fit and happy.
Create a benevolent superintelligent AI that “just gets it.” This AI ensures that all future AI is friendly and that no one is too big of a dick. The AI is also in charge of making sure that none of my new rules or inventions backfires in unexpected ways.
Who is your dog? – Tim Urban (New York, NY)
Glad you asked!
What are your thoughts on Elon’s controversial side? – Ekin K. (Izmir, Turkey)
It emerges from the same quality that invents new things, challenges conventions, and changes the world: extreme originality, whether people like it or not. So I’m all for it.
Why hasn’t anyone created something between a cat and a dog? What would it be called? – Leo L. (London, UK)
How has writing Story of Us changed you personally? – Ankit L. (Pune, India)
Writing the Story of Us—first as a series and now as a book—has totally reshaped the way I think. The core mental model in the book has become a lens I use constantly. I’ve also learned a lot about politics, history, psychology, and sociology that I didn’t know before. My goal with the book is to take the most important parts of both the framework and the things I’ve learned and package it in a way that can resonate with many different kinds of minds and actually stick. I want people who read the book to feel 20 years from now like it still impacts the way they think.
There were lots of mailbag questions about both the series and the book, but given that every month, as I get closer to the finish line, what the best plan is seems to shift, I’ll leave it at that big-picture point for now.
I’ve been a Patreon for like 4 years now. But now that you will be releasing a book, will you still need my support? What are your plans for the future? – Kyros J.(Barcelona, Spain)
Here’s how I think about Patreon, from our side:
Patreon is a means of creative freedom. Without Patreon, money would be a sizable part of our decision-making process. We’d have to take on sponsorships, sell products, and use paywalls, whether we felt good about it or not. Patreon allows us to do whatever we think actually makes sense for us and what we’re trying to do. It allows us to make a big list of potential projects and to prioritize them based on what we’re most excited about and what we think is the most important, not based on what will make the most money. Patreon means that we’ll do some projects that make money and others that won’t, and we don’t have to worry too much about which ones are which. It allows us to start a podcast without a sponsor and have the “we’ll get a sponsor if and when it feels right” attitude. It allows us to turn the Story of Us into a book, because it makes sense in this case, and to have turned down opportunities to make other post series into books, because it wasn’t something we felt made sense. It allows us to email readers about a product in our store only when we’re actually excited to tell them about that product. Having money as a secondary concern is an unbelievable creative luxury and one that makes Wait But Why a better place.
Here’s how I think about Patreon, from your side:
The independent internet creator is a pretty new kind of thing, and I think we’re all still figuring out the best ways for that to work, financially. Patreon gives regular readers three options:
1) I like this person’s work, and I’d like to pay something for it
2) I like this person’s work, and I’d like to pay something for it, but right now I can’t afford to
3) I like this person’s work, but it’s not something I want to pay for
The great thing about having a sizable audience is that if a small portion of our readers end up in Category 1, we’re covered. So far, that’s exactly what’s happened. Category 1 readers have combined to be an incredibly important support for us and provide that treasured creative freedom I talked about.
But that also means that we’re totally cool with Categories 2 and 3.
People in Category 2, who would like to support us but don’t have the budget to spare: not only is that okay, but please know that the last thing I want is for WBW support to be an uncomfortable or stressful expense in your life. I love the idea of WBW being free for people who are only able to consume free content at a given time in their lives.
People in Category 3, who simply prefer to put their dollars towards other causes, please continue doing so. This is the cool thing about the voluntary donation model—only some people have to do it for it to work perfectly. Category 1 has everyone else covered.
If you’ve been a Category 1 supporter of ours, huge hug, we love you, and we’re endlessly grateful. You should also never feel weird or guilty about stopping. Supporting us doesn’t have to mean supporting us forever. Once a Category 1er, always a Category 1er, no matter when you stop.
Finally, Patreon is only one way to support WBW. There’s also buying stuff we sell and, probably most important, sharing WBW with others.
As for the future of Wait But Why:
At the moment, it’s hard to imagine a time when I will want to be doing anything other than creating new things on this platform. My “future topics list” is longer than I could ever get through in one life, and as long as I’m curious, I’ll be working my way through it.
Within that broader picture, there are a ton of fun possibilities. We plan to expand the platform from just writing to writing, audio, and video. We want to keep trying new things and new collaborations (like the app we made with Kurzgesagt). We want to dig in deeper with the community with more in-person events. We’ve sketched out plans for a new, much better site.
It’s been a slow few years as I’ve worked on a single, big project, but my excitement and energy have never been higher. I hope I’m still making good things when I’m 80 and I hope you’re still here with me.
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