TODOs from Paper Systems

I want to start by talking about the emotional experience of working with a todo list. 

The biggest hurdle todo faces is that the emotion you generally experience when you look at your todo list is shame. This is bad because it makes you uncomfortable with the tool and makes you want to avoid it — you don’t want to look at it because engaging with it makes you feel bad, so you don’t use it, or you wait until it’s too late, you avoid it, etc. etc. 

The key to fixing this is coming up with a todo system where the emotional experience is pride. This way you often want to look at your todo list, you enjoy the experience of working with it, you approach it, you seek it out, etc.

To help describe ways we can do this, I’m going to go over some of the pen-and-paper todo systems I’ve used and describe how I think they fulfill the goal of making the emotional experience of working with your todo list one of pride rather than of shame.

Example #1: Digital Painting Calendar

Back in 2017, I was trying to learn digital painting. I was enjoying keeping up with it, and so I set myself a soft goal for myself of trying to do some digital painting (even if only 10 minutes) almost every day.

To keep track of this, I printed out a single-page calendar for the year, and simply marked off every day where I did some digital painting. By the end of the year, I was so proud of this that I saved an image of the calendar, reproduced below. I think I have the hard copy somewhere, even. This was such a positive experience that looking at it STILL makes me proud, even years later: 

Why did this work so well? I think there are a couple reasons.

First of all, the goal was low-commitment (any painting at all). This encouraged me to start painting often, and 10 minutes often turned into 3 hours. But this is a feature of the goal, not the todo system.

The goal was also simple. This helped the todo system, because it made it very easy to determine whether I had “earned” the right to check off each day. 

The scope of this todo system also has some great features. Because the scope is a year long, as soon as I missed one day, I knew that there wasn’t a chance of me getting 100% on the full year, which made it feel lower-stakes, while still being important. Early failures made the stakes not feel catastrophic, which decreased the threat and sense of shame. Incidentally, I think this is a strong argument against the use of daily streaks in todo apps. Streaks are a threat, not encouragement.

The calendar is also naturally split up into sub-units. There are 12 months and about 52 weeks. This means each week and month could also stand alone for success (or failure), keeping the local stakes high enough to be engaging while still avoiding feeling catastrophic. You’ll see that I completed several weeks perfectly. I also tried (and failed) to do every day in April, then tried (and succeeded) to do every day in October. Having these “local stakes” increased the chances for feeling proud of an accomplishment while keeping the total stakes low in terms of failure. I feel good that I 100%’ed October, but I don’t feel bad at all that I missed a bunch of days in December.

I also think this system works well because it covers just ONE of the tasks that I had on my mind then. I did other things in 2017, but this document doesn’t even try to cover those aspects of my life. I wasn’t overwhelmed when looking at it, and it forms a nice historical document that isn’t cluttered by unnecessary context.

Finally, I think this system works well because it pushes back against what I’ll call “the Tetris Problem”. This is something we will come back to again and again. Namely, the Tetris Problem is:

In this todo system, however, both errors and accomplishments are equally and fairly presented. There’s also some value in the fact that they are presented as fact (did I do painting this day or not), rather than as a judgment.

Robert Caro’s “Planning Calendar,” 1971. He shoots for 1,000 words a day — each day is marked with how many words he wrote with excuses in parentheses. (“Lazy,” “sick,” etc.). Source 

Example #2: Trello

I mostly don’t like Trello, but one thing it gets right is the combo of cards and checklists. 

When you have a checklist of 10 things, as you burn through it, the checklist fills up. One day 3/10, then 5/10, then 9/10. When you hit 10/10, it gets bold or changes color or something, I don’t remember. 

The important thing is that this turns Tetris on its head. In this system, accomplishments pile up, and errors are nowhere to be seen. 

Another nice feature is that accomplishments pile up at multiple levels. Completed checkboxes pile up in a list. Completed lists pile up in a card. Then, when the card is all finished, you get a final rush when you drag it to the “completed” pile. 

Importantly, the accomplishments don’t disappear until you manually choose to put them behind you. This is a critical difference from Tetris! With Trello, you bask in your accomplishments for as long as you want — until you say, “this was good but I’m ready to put this chapter of my life behind me, let’s move on to some new projects!”

Though this makes me wonder, should a system have a “trophy case” rather than a “completed” deck? A good point of comparison might be the “run complete” screens from recent hit video game Hades. Every time you successfully escape from hell, the game shows you a bunch of stats about your last run and you can bask in the success as long as you want. This seems like a nice feature.

(Not one of our runs)

Example #2.5: Trello Mimic on Paper

I copied this approach a little back when I was teaching, except I used a pen-and-paper approach rather than Trello. 

Unfortunately I don’t have pictures, but the general idea was this. I pinned a 8.5 x 11 piece of paper to the wall in front of my desk, where I could easily see it every day. Then, what I did is I scoped out all my teaching duties for the semester in a bunch of vertical checklists. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but something like, there were 12 weeks of lectures, 5 major assignments, 3 exams, etc. Each got a checkbox, and as I hit each milestone, I would check it off — one week down, one exam graded, etc.

This wasn’t quite as exciting as Trello for some reason. It didn’t make me feel proud, but it certainly didn’t make me feel shame. I didn’t have any problem looking at that list, and it gave me a good sense of progress as I slogged through some of the dumb-ass grading they made me do lol. I think I would have liked it more if I had felt better about the classes at [SCHOOL REDACTED], but I did not!

I notice that like the digital painting calendar, the scope of this was pretty long-term. I think that is part of what I mean when I focus on accomplishments piling up — it’s not enough for them to just pile up, they need to stick around for a while. It’s also useful if accomplishments produce ephemera, like the calendar, or like these checklists.

A semester may not even be a long enough scope! As a teenager, I mostly thought about tasks in terms of weeks and quarters. When you’re young, your life is explicitly structured around these short-term horizons. But as an adult, I am already starting to think about progress in terms of years, even decades. 

Compare also to the traffic stats interface provided by WordPress for this here blog. Normally we look at traffic per day, but we can immediately zoom out to look at weeks, months (seen below), or even years at the click of a button. With this, we can appreciate a greater scope whenever we want, and it can be nice to see how far we’ve come.

Example #3: Post-its in College

A long-term sense of accomplishment is important, but when we talk about todo, we also need day-to-day elements.

The best todo system I ever used in my life was in college. At the beginning of every week, I took seven post-it notes, one for each day, and wrote out my major milestones for that week. As I went through the week, I would check each off in turn, adding and removing tasks as needed. 

I don’t have any photos, but here’s an artist’s impression: 

At the end of the week, I would pull all seven off the wall and replace them, which was always incredibly satisfying. I felt like I had slaughtered the week every time. 

I do worry that a digital system will never be as satisfying as physically checking boxes and peeling post-its off my dorm room walls. But Trello for all its failings did give me some of that, so I’m optimistic. Probably the thing to do here is to look to the world of game design, to the concepts of game feel, AKA “juice”. Need that screen shake on my checkboxes!!! 😛 

If this system was so great, why don’t I still do it today? Strangely enough, I think it comes down to a few simple factors. In college, I always had only one desk, which was in my room. Ever since then, I’ve generally had one home desk and one work desk, and even that small amount of separation is enough to kill this system. In college, my desk always faced a blank white wall, perfect for hanging post-its. These days, my desk generally faces a window, to reduce eye strain. Trade-offs, man!

There’s also the fact that, when most of my todos were clearly tied to classes and student groups, it was easier to plan a whole week in advance. These days, my schedule is actually a bit too flexible.

Either way, this was a great system and I think there are a lot of lessons here.

The first thing you’ll notice is that, as before, accomplishments pile up. Every week, I knew what I had accomplished so far that week. Even if I missed a task on Monday, if I managed to get to it on Tuesday, I could go back and check it off Monday’s list.

Planning for the week helped keep me from carrying a todo from day to day. These days I still use post-its, but only one at a time. If I don’t finish a task today, I add it to the post-it for the next day. But this is a bad habit, and stressful too. It encourages me to carry many tasks in my working memory (and/or the paper equivalent), rather than spacing them out across seven post-its.

With the old system, I would have put the task at the point in the week when I thought I would be able to accomplish it. I didn’t get to it that day (which did happen sometimes), I would be able to see that it was overdue. This helped give it a naturally higher priority, and made for a clear indicator of just how overdue it was.

It also helped conflate personal and professional accomplishments. Now you may say, why would I want to conflate these? Isn’t it better to treat them differently? Well, I worry that too many people try to keep their work and their personal accomplishments separate, when both are controlled by the same limited resource — time. Having “get groceries” on the same list as “finish term paper” was a nice structural acknowledgement of the fact that both tasks trade on the same resource. I think it kept me from feeling bad when I didn’t get any “work” done in a given day. Hey, those personal chores were important! They were on the list!

It also helped that post-its are small. This reflects the limited time in a day and kept my ambition focused. I could only ever list a few tasks, so I figured out what I really needed to finish each day. It encouraged me to break up big projects into reasonable pieces, each only a couple of hours long, so I could check off a piece of the project on a given day. 

There’s another element which is also critical, but harder to explain. Nonetheless, I strongly believe it to be true. Having these limited post-its encouraged me to 1) do everything on my list as soon as possible, and 2) filled me with energy and a feeling of freedom afterwards. The same experience is described by Sasha Chapin:

And echoed in the responses: 

Whatever the reason, this is definitely a real phenomenon. In college, I churned through my requirements with astonishing speed — and then continued working really hard at whatever I was interested in.

This may have something to do with what Scott Alexander has called infinite debt (see also here). Your school/work/personal/whatever obligations — your schedule obligations — are in some sense infinite. You can always come up with new things to do. Like the moral equivalent, this can make your todo list feel really bad and overwhelming. This makes for bad designs — you don’t want to look at your todo list and feel like “your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.” Ouch.

In contrast, by scheduling finite goals for each day, you can give yourself the sense of being on track — not discharging all of your schedule debt, but discharging all your schedule debt for that day. After that point, you’re free for the rest of the day! 

This works even better with my post-its-for-the-week approach. By scheduling out the major milestones for the week, when you finish your tasks for a day, you’re not just on track for the day, you’re on track for the week! 

This can even give rise to a feeling that is so powerful and vicious I can only describe it as “bloodthirsty”. Since your schedule debt is effectively infinite, you normally have no chance of catching up, let alone getting ahead. Scheduling out the day is better because you can catch up and be on track, but you still can’t get ahead. But if you mark out your milestones for the week, you can actually get ahead of schedule. If you finish your work for the day, and you feel energized (which you often will!), you can get that bloodthirst and chew through the tasks for later in the week! That makes you feel more accomplished, and it also gives you more free time later in the week, leading you to get even further ahead — it’s a positive feedback loop! 

The trick here is making each day’s set of tasks accomplishable in the 24 hours you have. But you should be doing that already. If you do this right, you feel great, you’re more productive than ever, and you get “bonus time”!

Example #4: The Modern Hybrid

Right now I am using something that is kind of like the pen-and-paper Trello checklist approach described above, but I’ve added a few features that I think are important. 

This fills a different niche from the post-its (and you could probably use both). Rather than daily organization, this is the near-term scope of 1-3 months or so. 

There are two-long running goals I’ve had for my todo organization, which I’ve struggled with, but I think these todo lists are starting to approach it nicely.

The first I’ll call “families”. This is simply a recognition that, while all tasks trade on time, different tasks belong to different classes or families. You have your personal list, your chores list, your work list, your hobby list, etc. Personally I find it very disorienting if I don’t keep track of which task goes in which family — or worse, if I don’t know how many families of tasks I have going on at all! This makes my todo list feel infinite, and as we covered before, infinite bad! 

So on the subject of families, you’ll see that my checkboxes are broken up into different sections, so I know how many families I have and what task belongs to which. I think any todo list worth its salt will break things up visually — possibly by color or shape, but even better is to be broken up spatially.

My ideal software would let me slide around tasks and families on the page much like I do when laying it out with pen and paper. This is another thing Trello approaches with its spatial organization, but you could certainly go a step or two further.

Two examples

Families also serve my second goal, which is a clear representation of dependencies. Tasks within a family often have a clear priority structure and sometimes even have literal dependencies, where one thing has to come before another. 

I’ve always really wanted a good way of representing dependencies, but actual graphs/connections and so on never worked for me. But in this notebook system, simple layout alone seems to work pretty well. In my first two passes (above), dependency is roughly indicated by a combination of left-to-right and top-to-bottom, like English reading direction. Things lower on the page and further to the right are generally lower priority and/or depend on things above and to the left of them.

Below is my most recent version, which instead uses top-to-bottom alone to indicate dependency. Each column is a family, and vertical order approximately indicates priority and dependency, with items higher in the list being higher priority and being requirements for lower items. 

I say “approximately” because it turns out, you don’t always need to indicate dependency explicitly. A todo list is a memory aid, not a memory replacement. I can remember what the dependencies are — the vertical organization just makes it easy for me to think about it, compare across families, not worry about tasks I haven’t reached yet, and so on. 

Having a quick visual shorthand for dependencies is useful and saves time. Actually bothering to map out all the dependencies tends to look cluttered, and does not save time at all.

In conclusion:

To make you feel pride rather than stress or shame, the ideal features of a todo system are something like:

  1. Accomplishments accumulate
  2. Long-term scope to see the arc of your success
  3. Multiple levels of scope to get sense of reward at multiple scales
  4. Recognize that tasks and events all compete for one resource — time 
  5. Limit your daily tasks and get “Bonus Time”
  6. Clear visual families & dependencies, probably through spatial organization

A Few More Predictions for 2050

This is an extension of our earlier set of Predictions for 2050.

Assistive Technology Meets in the Middle

Early hearing aids sucked. Your options were pretty much limited to asking people to shout, or using one of those giant ear trumpets. The first major advancement seems to have been smaller ear trumpets, shaped like seashells and worn on a headband:

Digital hearing aids started appearing in the 1980s, though you still had to wear a big transistor strapped to your chest. But things slowly got better and better with behind-the-ear devices and eventually in-canal hearing aids.

One of our family members wears hearing aids full-time, and modern hearing aids, while still expensive, are pretty impressive. They’re almost invisible, and they sit deep in the ear — you can use them to boost or block out certain frequencies, and if you turn them down, they essentially function as earplugs. They have bluetooth, so you can listen to music or have your phone calls go straight to your ears. They’re basically just a slightly fancier kind of earbud. 

Apple introduced AirPods in 2016. While they are still cheaper than a high-quality pair of hearing aids, that won’t last forever. Eventually these two devices will meet in the middle, and it won’t take until 2050.

This is an especially clear case, but the same thing will happen with lots of assistive technology. Inventions that are meant to restore our senses or abilities will begin to surpass them, and then everyone will benefit from using them, not just people with disabilities. It will happen with hearing aids first, but it’s easy to imagine a world where AR glasses become better than unassisted eyesight, or robotic leg braces end up better than your knees. You can already buy basic assistive exoskeletons for about $900, it’s coming.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a girl with sick robot boots – for ever. (source)
I for one welcome our new cyborg maid overlords (source)

Medical Science Realizes that Women are People too

More women’s health problems will be solved, and this will lead to greater understanding of how the human body works in general, since women and men are basically the same except for small differences in the amounts/ratios of their hormones. An obvious example is the role of hormones in thermoregulation — women usually feel colder than men, despite having slightly higher core temperatures and slightly more body fat, and hot flashes are the stereotypical side effect of menopause. This seems kind of weird but everyone just takes it for granted.

(For what it’s worth, men have hormonal cycles too, which are if anything even less well understood.)

Certainly this covers anything about menopause and hormonal rhythms, but women are also more likely to have IBS, arthritis, and celiac disease, and twice as likely to have migraines. About 2/3 of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women. Figuring out why women are more likely to have these diseases will help us treat everyone more effectively, and lead to medical breakthroughs.

Everything Will be on Video

For a long time no one really knew what a tsunami looked like. They strike rarely and without warning, so there isn’t much time for you to send your local landscape painter or a camera crew to the scene. They don’t tend to leave a ton of eyewitnesses — if you’re close enough to get a good look at what’s happening, you’re probably dead. So for a long time, most people imagined a huge cresting wave like the ones you see at a surfing beach, just ten or a hundred times bigger. 

But it turns out they were wrong. We’ll let XKCD describe

The real picture is slightly more complicated (Randall goes into more detail here) but in general he’s right. Do a google image search for “tsunami” and you’ll see a lot of photoshopped images of giant cresting waves rising up above major cities. 

But video from the 2004 tsunami showed that a tsunami isn’t a wave at all — the water level just goes up 20 feet all at once, which is really really bad all on its own. Since then, every major tsunami has been captured on video. And why not? Even in the developing world, nearly everyone has a video camera in their pocket at all times

Giant squid have long been monsters of legend, but the whole 20th century came and went without anyone photographing a giant squid alive. All this changed in (also) 2004, when a Japanese team managed to capture a photograph of a giant squid using a lure. Not long after that, we had video — first on the surface in 2006, and then in its natural habitat in 2012.

The 2020 Beirut explosion caught everyone by surprise. But there were still multiple videos and images available immediately, within minutes, to anyone on twitter:

You probably heard about the recent volcanic eruption near Tonga. Like Beirut, we immediately had multiple videos within hours. Unlike Beirut, some of these were satellite videos. Partially we point this out to say, you can see this shit from space. But partially we want to emphasize that even satellite video now ends up on twitter and reddit in a matter of hours, if not minutes. 

This is the world we’re living in. Almost everyone has a video camera in their pocket at all times. This isn’t entirely true in the developing world, but it’s getting more true there all the time. And when the event is something that can’t be captured on your cellphone, like a volcanic eruption visible from space, the footage will make its way to twitter in a few minutes anyways.

From here on out, anything interesting will be captured on video, and usually that video will be publicly available. When we were looking into the leanest and fattest cities in the US, and learned about the explosion at the Chemtool lithium grease factory in Rockton, IL, we were able to find not one but several videos of the explosion publicly available on the internet. We didn’t even have to look that hard.

Never seen anything like this” is right, and that’s the byword of the next several decades. This will probably be humdrum by 2050, but between now and then there will be a lot of firsts. Like the first (decent) video of a tsunami in 2004, and the first video of a giant squid in 2006, there will soon be the first video of Halley’s Comet, maybe the first video of an asteroid impact, and of course the first video of the Loch Ness Monster.  

So unless we have a total civilizational collapse, from now on expect that all important historical events will be captured on video. By 2050, expect them all from multiple angles, in glaring HD. If Napoleon is brought back to life through the power of cloning, and marches across Europe in 2034, expect to be able to count the pores on his nose in the newsreel footage.  

Double Book Review: Confessions of an Ad Man & The Way of the General


David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man opens:

As a child I lived in Lewis Carroll’s house in Guildford. My father, whom I adored, was a Gaelic-speaking Highlander, a classical scholar and a bigoted agnostic. One day he discovered that I had started going to church secretly.

“My dear old son, how can you swallow that mumbo-jumbo? It is all very well for servants but not for educated people. You don’t have to be a Christian to behave like a gentleman!

My mother was a beautiful and eccentric Irishwoman. She disinherited me on the ground that I was likely to acquire more money than was good for me without any help from her. I could not disagree.

For those of you who are just tuning in, David Ogilvy was a copywriter who made his way to advertising stardom. He founded the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather (now known simply as “Ogilvy”), and in 1962, Time Magazine called him “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry”. People still call him “the Father of Advertising” and “the King of Madison Avenue” to this day. Wikipedia describes him simply as a “British advertising tycoon”. 

It’s immediately obvious that Ogilvy is an engaging writer. He knows this, because he’s cultivated it. From the start he’s talking about the value of writing, and he never strays too far from the topic. You can tell it’s important to him. “We like reports and correspondence to be well-written, easy to read – and short,” he says. “We are revolted by pseudo-academic jargon.” Later he says, “American businessmen are not taught that it is a sin to bore your fellow creatures.”

The writing shines brightest in his personal narratives — his statistics training at Princeton, his time as a door-to-door salesman, dropping out of Oxford to go to work as an apprentice chef at the Hotel Majestic in Paris, trying to avoid the storm of forty-seven raw eggs thrown across the kitchen at his head (“scoring nine direct hits”) by the Hotel’s chef potager who had grown impatient with Ogilvy’s constant “raids on his stock pot in search of bones for the poodles of an important client” — and so on.

The Hotel Majestic, now known as The Peninsula Paris

But his business advice is equally gripping — hiring and firing, how to get clients, how to keep clients, how to be a good client, how to write ads for television, and so on. This is striking, because most business advice is tedious and bad. 

His advice escapes these clichés partly because it is delivered in the writing style he recommends — easy to read, short, and direct. But another part of it is that his advice has something of a timeless quality to it. So after the quality of the writing, the second thing we noticed is that Ogilvy strongly reminds us of 2nd-century Chinese statesman, mystic, and military strategist Zhuge Liang.


Zhuge Liang, also known by his courtesy name Kongming, or his nickname Wolong (meaning “Crouching Dragon”), was born in 181 CE, in eastern China. He grew to become a scholar so highly regarded that his surname alone is synonymous with intelligence. In China, calling someone “Zhuge” is like calling someone “Einstein” in the west, except less likely to be sarcastic. 

Zhuge’s parents died when he was very young, and he was raised by one of his father’s cousins. This was during the extremely unstable years leading up to the Three Kingdoms period, when war was tearing the empire apart, and famines were so extreme that whole provinces resorted to cannibalism. While Zhuge was still a teenager, he was forced to move to a town in central China.

There he grew into a man of great insight and intelligence. Eventually he was discovered by Liu Bei, a distant relation of the Emperor and one of the great men of the age. Liu Bei was an accomplished general, but he had a reputation for being direct and honorable to a fault. Zhuge, on the other hand, already had a reputation for trickery and cunning. He shared with Liu Bei an idea that came to be known as the Longzhong Plan, a plan which eventually led to Liu Bei being crowned emperor of the new state of Shu Han. Zhuge is a central character in the massive historical classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and shrines in his honor still dot China 1,800 years later.

The parallels between Ogilvy and Zhuge are surprisingly strong. Both were extremely well-read in a wide variety of topics, but neither of them were snobs. Zhuge could quote classics like the Analects of Confucius and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, but also enjoyed reciting folk songs from his hometown. In his book, Ogilvy references the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes, quotes statesmen like Winston Churchill, but also quotes a stanza sung by The Pirate King from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance

David Ogilvy

When Liu Bei recruited Zhuge Liang, Zhuge was working as a subsistence farmer in Longzhong valley. Fifteen years later, he was appointed Regent to Liu Bei’s son, the young Emperor of Shu Han, when Liu Bei died. 

“Fifteen years ago,” writes Ogilvy at the beginning of Chapter Two, “I was an obscure tobacco farmer in Pennsylvania. Today I preside over one of the best advertising agencies in the United States, with billings of $55,000,000 a year, a payroll of $5,000,000, and offices in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Toronto.”

Farming wasn’t the only profession they shared. After finishing his book, we were surprised to learn that Ogilvy also worked as a military strategist. In World War II he served with British Intelligence, where he applied the insights he had gained from studying polling (with George Gallup himself) to secret intelligence and propaganda.

Takeshi Kaneshiro as Zhuge Liang, in John Woo’s Red Cliff

Zhuge Liang has a couple surviving works to his name. His longest work is called The Way of the General, so that’s the main book we draw on today. We also consider his two memorials known as the Chu Shi Biao, as well as a letter he wrote to his son, called Admonition to His Son. Finally, as The Way of the General is sometimes considered to be a sort of commentary on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, we will occasionally reference that work as well. 

Similarly, Ogilvy has not only Confessions of an Advertising Man, but also a fascinating manual, The Theory and Practice of Selling the AGA Cooker, which Fortune magazine called “the finest sales instruction manual ever written.” With an endorsement like that, you know we will be referring to this piece.


Let’s start with the writing. The two men have a very similar style. Both books are clearly written. But while the language they use is normally plain, both men have an occasional tendency to dip into wild metaphors. 

Ogilvy describes founders who get rich and let their creative fires go out as “extinct volcanoes”, and refers to his set of techniques for writing great campaigns as “my magic lantern.” Meanwhile, Zhuge opens his book with the following imagery: “If the general can hold the authority of the military and operate its power, he oversees his subordinates like a fierce tiger with wings, flying over the four seas, going into action whenever there is an encounter.” On the other hand: “If the general loses his authority and cannot control the power, he is like a dragon cast into a lake.” 

“Those who would be military leaders must have loyal hearts, eyes and ears, claws and fangs. Without people loyal to them, they are like someone walking at night, not knowing where to step. Without eyes and ears, they are as though in the dark, not knowing how to proceed. Without claws and fangs, they are like hungry men eating poisoned food, inevitably to die,” says Zhuge, while Ogilvy says, I prefer the discipline of knowledge to the anarchy of ignorance. We pursue knowledge the way a pig pursues truffles. A blind pig can sometimes find truffles, but it helps to know that they grow in oak forests.”

Sometimes these metaphors veer into the farcical. “Advertising is a business of words,” writes Ogilvy, “but advertising agencies are infested with men and women who cannot write. They cannot write advertisements, and they cannot write plans. They are helpless as deaf mutes on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.” Zhuge strikes a similar note in writing, “If the rulership does not give [generals] the power to reward and punish, this is like tying up a monkey and trying to make it cavort around, or like gluing someone’s eyes shut and asking him to distinguish colors.”

Both of them make a lot of lists. Zhuge has lists of five skills, four desires, fifteen avenues of order, and eight kinds of decadence in generalship (“Seventh is to be a malicious liar with a cowardly heart.”). Ogilvy has lists of ten criteria for accounts, fourteen devices to use when you need to use very long copy, and twenty-two commandments for advertising food products (“The larger your food illustration, the more appetite appeal.”). 

These lists are good enough that you could easily turn them into a series of Buzzfeed-style listicles: “8 Kinds of Decadence in Generalship – Number 7 will SHOCK YOU”

Both men sometimes use little parables to drive home their points. In one section, Zhuge lists a number of ancient kings and their approaches to winning wars with the least possible violence. Ogilvy sometimes combines a parable with one of his vivid metaphors, and ends up sounding rather a lot like a Chinese courtier himself:  

When Arthur Houghton asked us to do the advertising for Steuben, he gave me a crystal-clear directive: “We make the best glass in the world. Your job is to make the best advertising.”

I replied, “Making perfect glass is very difficult. Even the Steuben craftsmen produce some imperfect pieces. Your inspectors break them. Making perfect advertisements is equally difficult.”

Six weeks later I showed him the proof of our first Steuben advertisement. It was in color, and the plates, which had cost $1,200, were imperfect. Without demur, Arthur agreed to let me break them and make a new set. For such enlightened clients it is impossible to do shoddy work.

Both books hit their key themes over and over, in slightly different guises each time. They look at the same few ideas repeatedly, from different perspectives. Continuous focus on the fundamentals highlights what really matters, and maybe this is why much of their advice ends up sounding so similar.


For these two men, the root of their advice, and probably the root of their similarity, is that both of them are enormously ambitious. “Aspirations should remain lofty and far-sighted,” writes Zhuge. Despite being born a Scotsman, Ogilvy sounds very American when he says, “Don’t bunt. Aim out of the park.” Then he sounds kind of like Zhuge again, when he finishes with, “Aim for the company of immortals.”

Ambition gets a bad rap these days, but these two aren’t talking about accumulating piles of money, or being as big or as famous as humanly possible. Ambition means doing something meaningful with your life. “I have no ambition to preside over a vast bureaucracy.” says our Ad Man. “That is why we have only nineteen clients. The pursuit of excellence is less profitable than the pursuit of bigness, but it can be more satisfying.” 

Zhuge goes out of his way to specifically mention fighting injustice. “If your will is not strong,” he says, “if your thought does not oppose injustice, you will fritter away your life stuck in the commonplace, silently submitting to the bonds of emotion, forever cowering before mediocrities, never escaping the downward flow.”

And this is the other side of ambition, maybe the side that really matters: freedom from fear. Zhuge says, “The years run off with the hours, aspirations flee with the years. Eventually one ages and collapses. What good will it do to lament over poverty?” You only get one life and it’s going to end someday. You’re going to lose it all no matter what, so why not be ambitious? The alternative is cowering before mediocrity.

Many people are afraid of failing, or worse, the embarrassment that they imagine comes with failure. We say “imagine” because, once you try it, you’ll find that most of the time, the embarrassment never comes. And you can’t fight injustice, let alone make excellent ads, if you’re hung up on the idea of failing.

Hard Work & Relaxation

To the short-sighted, effort and relaxation seem like opposites. It’s easy to think there are two categories of people: those who work very hard for very long hours (and presumably burn out) and those who are slackers (and presumably go nowhere). In certain rare cases people talk about aiming for “work-life balance”, a sort of purgatorial or limbo-like concept that combines the worst of both worlds — the inability to get anything done at work with the inability to have anything more than the most superficial personal life.

Ogilvy and Zhuge understand that this isn’t how it works. Work and rest are complements, and they advocate a life where you both work extremely hard and place a high premium on relaxation. 

Maybe it’s not surprising to hear that a Madison Avenue executive worked long hours, but Ogilvy really did work some long hours. He reminisces about his time working for the head chef at the Parisian Hotel Majestic, who worked seventy-seven hours a week, and says, “That is about my schedule today.” When describing what he admires, Ogilvy comes right out and says, “It is more fun to be overworked than to be underworked.” Elsewhere he says, “I believe in the Scottish proverb: ‘Hard work never killed a man.’ Men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They never die of hard work.”

Zhuge mentions some long hours himself. “One who rises early in the morning and retires late at night,” he says, “is the leader of a hundred men.” He kind of makes a point of it. “Generals do not say they are thirsty before the soldiers have drawn from the well,” he says. “Generals do not say they are hungry before the soldiers’ food is cooked; generals do not say they are cold before the soldiers’ fire are kindled; generals do not say they are hot before the soldiers’ canopies are drawn.” 

These are grueling requirements, but much of it seems to spring from the noble desire to not expect anything from others that you wouldn’t do yourself. Zhuge says, “Lead them into battle personally, and soldiers will be brave.” In explaining his own long hours, Ogilvy says, “I figure that my staff will be less reluctant to work overtime if I work longer hours than they do.”

This seems like more than hustle culture. It’s closely related to the drive for excellence. “From morning to night we sweated and shouted and cursed and cooked,” says Ogilvy of his time at the Hotel Majestic. “Every man jack was inspired by one ambition: to cook better than any chef had ever cooked before.”

In warfare, excellence can save thousands of lives. It is somewhat more prosaic in advertising, but we think Ogilvy is sincere when he promises his employees, “I try to make sufficient profits to keep you all from penury in old age,” and excellence in advertising helps him make good on that promise.

The commitment to hard work is important in part because hard work is how you make something look easy. The height of woodworking is when you cannot see the seams, and the height of advertising is when you cannot see the ad:

A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself. It should rivet the reader’s attention on the product. Instead of saying “What a clever advertisement”, the reader says “I never knew that before. I must try this product.”

It is the professional duty of the advertising agent to conceal his artifice. When Aeschines spoke, they said, “How well he speaks.” But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, “Let us march against Philip.” I’m for Demosthenes.

To our ear, this sounds almost exactly like the following passage from The Art of War

To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence. Neither is it the acme of excellence if you fight and conquer and the whole Empire says, “Well done!” To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear.

What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage. He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated. 

While we think Ogilvy is more like Zhuge Liang than Sun Tzu, Confessions of an Advertising Man might be more like The Art of War than The Way of the General. Both are about the same length. The physical books are about the same size. Both are divided up into a modest number of chapters — 11 chapters for Confessions, and 13 for The Art of War. In both books, each chapter is devoted to a specific topic, like “How to Keep Clients”, “Variation in Tactics”, “How to Rise to the Top of the Tree”, “Laying Plans”, “How to Build Great Campaigns”, “The Use of Spies”, and “Attack by Fire”.

Zhuge and Ogilvy both stress the importance of relaxation as an explicit complement to their focus on hard work and long hours. In a letter to his son where he warns against being lazy, Zhuge also says:

The practice of a cultivated man is to refine himself by quietude and develop virtue by frugality. Without detachment, there is no way to clarify the will; without serenity, there is no way to get far.

Study requires calm, talent requires study. Without study there is no way to expand talent; without calm there is no way to accomplish study.

Ogilvy also likes to study, but he tends to think of it as “homework”. His true love is vacations, which he describes like so:

I hear a great deal of music. I am on friendly terms with John Barleycorn. I take long hot baths. I garden. I go into retreat among the Amish. I watch birds. I go for long walks in the country. And I take frequent vacations, so that my brain can lie fallow—no golf, no cocktail parties, no tennis, no bridge, no concentration; only a bicycle.

Zhuge makes it clear that calm is needed for study, so that you can increase your talents. Ogilvy is equally clear that he takes vacations because he needs them to be creative:

The creative process requires more than reason. … I am almost incapable of logical thought, but I have developed techniques for keeping open the telephone line to my unconscious, in case that disorderly repository has anything to tell me. …

While thus employed in doing nothing [on vacation], I receive a constant stream of telegrams from my unconscious, and these become the raw material for my advertisements.

Both men emphasize relaxation because they believe it will help them be more productive. You may see this as dysfunctional; if so, it’s telling that Ogilvy agrees with you. “If you prefer to spend all your spare time growing roses or playing with your children, I like you better,” he says, “but do not complain that you are not being promoted fast enough.“ 

But there’s also an interesting point to be made. Even if productivity is the only thing you care about (let’s hope it’s not, but even so), you still need lots of calm and rest to make it happen. Working long hours can be fine if that’s what you want, but people who work all the time are doing it wrong. 

It’s also worth noting how the two of them think about creativity in about the same terms: 

Creative people are especially observant, and they value accurate observation (telling themselves the truth) more than other people do. They often express part-truths, but this they do vividly; the part they express is the generally unrecognized; by displacement of accent and apparent disproportion in statement they seek to point to the usually unobserved. They see things as others do, but also as others do not.


An observant and perceptive government is one that looks at subtle phenomena and listens to small voices. When phenomena are subtle they are not seen, and when voices are small they are not heard; therefore an enlightened leader looks closely at the subtle and listens for the importance of the small voice. This harmonizes the outside with the inside, and harmonizes the inside with the outside; so the Way of government involves the effort to see and hear much.

Recruiting Great People

Zhuge and Ogilvy had different sorts of ambitions. Ogilvy wanted to be a great chef, then he wanted to make the best advertisements. Somewhere in between he wanted to be a tobacco farmer. Zhuge wanted to fight injustice, lower the people’s taxes, prevent government corruption, and (depending on the version of the story) embarrass Zhou Yu.

But despite these differences in focus, both of them agree that the highest form of ambition is to work with great people. Even so, the trouble with amazing people is, how do you find them? This question is at least as old as Zhuge’s time, probably much older, and both authors take it very seriously.

Ogilvy tells us that he has talked to some psychologists who have been working on the problem of creativity. But, he tells us, they have not yet caught up to his approach:

While I wait for Dr. Barron and his colleagues to synthesize their clinical observations into formal psychometric tests, I have to rely on more old-fashioned and empirical techniques for spotting creative dynamos. Whenever I see a remarkable advertisement or television commercial, I find out who wrote it. Then I call the writer on the telephone and congratulate him on his work. A poll has shown that creative people would rather work at Ogilvy, Benson & Mather than at any other agency, so my telephone call often produces an application for a job.

I then ask the candidate to send me the six best advertisements and commercials he has ever written. This reveals, among other things, whether he can recognize a good advertisement when he sees one, or is only the instrument of an able supervisor. Sometimes I call on my victim at home; ten minutes after crossing the threshold I can tell whether he has a richly furnished mind, what kind of taste he has, and whether he is happy enough to sustain pressure.

Zhuge has similar tricks. “Hard though it be to know people,” says Zhuge, “there are ways.” He doesn’t recommend visiting your prospective hires at home; instead, he suggests other situations you can put them in, to test their personalities. In characteristic fashion, he gives us a list:

First is to question them concerning right and wrong, to observe their ideas.

Second is to exhaust all their arguments, to see how they change.

Third is to consult with them about strategy, to see how perceptive they are.

Fourth is to announce that there is trouble, to see how brave they are.

Fifth is to present them with the prospect of gain, to see how modest they are.

Sixth is to give them a task to do within a specific time, to see how trustworthy they are.

Ogilvy goes a step further — not only does he give advice on how ad agencies can take the measure of potential employees, he lays out advice on how clients (that is, businesses) can take the measure of a potential ad agency! In spelling it out, he practically reiterates Zhuge’s list:

Invite the chief executive from each of the leading contenders to bring two of his key men to dine at your house. Loosen their tongues. Find out if they are discreet about the secrets of their present clients. Find out if they have the spine to disagree when you say something stupid. Observe their relationship with each other; are they professional colleagues or quarrelsome politicians? Do they promise you results which are obviously exaggerated? Do they sound like extinct volcanoes, or are they alive? Are they good listeners? Are they intellectually honest?

Above all, find out if you like them; the relationship between client and agency has to be an intimate one, and it can be hell if the personal chemistry is sour.

The most specific piece of advice the two authors agree on is where to find great people. “We receive hundreds of job applications every year,” Ogilvy admits. “I am particularly interested in those which come from the Middle West. I would rather hire an ambitious young man from Des Moines than a high-priced fugitive from a fashionable agency on Madison Avenue.” 

They agree that great people usually come from obscurity. “For strong pillars you need straight trees; for wise public servants you need upright people,” says Zhuge. “Straight trees are found in remote forests; upright people come from the humble masses. Therefore when rulers are going to make appointments they need to look in obscure places.” And apparently, this practice goes back pretty far. “Ancient kings are known to have hired unknowns and nobodies,” says Zhuge, “finding in them the human qualities whereby they were able to bring peace.”

Maybe these authors both feel this way because both of them started out in obscurity. But then again, here we are reading their books approximately 60 and 1,800 years later, so maybe they’re right. 

This is how Zhuge describes himself:

I was of humble origin, and used to lead the life of a peasant in Nanyang. In those days, I only hoped to survive in such a chaotic era. I did not aspire to become famous among nobles and aristocrats. The Late Emperor did not look down on me because of my background. He lowered himself and visited me thrice in the thatched cottage, where he consulted me on the affairs of our time. I was so deeply touched that I promised to do my best for him. 

Driving the point home is this memo Ogilvy sent to one of his partners in 1981:

Will Any Agency Hire This Man? 

He is 38, and unemployed. He dropped out of college. 

He has been a cook, a salesman, a diplomatist and a farmer. 

He knows nothing about marketing and had never written any copy. 

He professes to be interested in advertising as a career (at the age of 38!) and is ready to go to work for $5,000 a year. 

I doubt if any American agency will hire him.

However, a London agency did hire him. Three years later he became the most famous copywriter in the world, and in due course built the tenth biggest agency in the world. 

The moral: it sometimes pays an agency to be imaginative and unorthodox in hiring.

In case you can’t tell, he is describing himself.


When Zhuge and Ogilvy talk about greatness, they’re not just talking about skill. In fact, skill comes second, and a distant second at that! Without integrity, without virtue, skill means nothing. 

“I admire people with first-class brains, because you cannot run a great advertising agency without brainy people,” says Ogilvy. “But brains are not enough unless they are combined with intellectual honesty.” Zhuge quotes Confucius as saying, “People may have the finest talents, but if they are arrogant and stingy, their other qualities are not worthy of consideration.”

Ogilvy doesn’t pull his punches, here or indeed ever. “I despise toadies who suck up to their bosses,” he says. “They are generally the same people who bully their subordinates. … I admire people who hire subordinates who are good enough to succeed them. I pity people who are so insecure that they feel compelled to hire inferiors as their subordinates.” 

A good leader looks to their team for counsel — these people were recruited for a reason! “Those who consider themselves lacking when they see the wise, who go along with good advice like following a current, who are magnanimous yet able to be firm, who are uncomplicated yet have many strategies,” says Zhuge, “are called great generals.”

You don’t expect much personal virtue from Madison Avenue, but Ogilvy really seems to feel strongly about this one:

I admire people who build up their subordinates, because this is the only way we can promote from within the ranks. I detest having to go outside to fill important jobs, and I look forward to the day when that will never be necessary.

I admire people with gentle manners who treat other people as human beings. I abhor quarrelsome people. I abhor people who wage paper-warfare. The best way to keep the peace is to be candid. 

Integrity is especially important in leadership — “for what is done by those above,” says Zhuge, “is observed by those below.” Here especially, the two leaders exhibit their belief that they should not expect anything of others that they are not prepared to demonstrate themselves. “To indulge oneself yet instruct others is contrary to proper government,” says Zhuge. “To correct oneself and then teach others is in accord with proper government. … If [leaders] are not upright themselves, their directives will not be followed, resulting in disorder.”

Ogilvy gives more detail. “I try to be fair and to be firm,” he says, “to make unpopular decisions without cowardice, to create an atmosphere of stability, and to listen more than I talk.” This is in some ways a very Confucian perspective, that a leader owes their subordinates exemplary behavior. “A policy of instruction and direction means those above educate those below,” says Zhuge, “not saying anything that is unlawful and not doing anything that is immoral.”

Exceptional integrity means understanding that you have a commitment to the people who work for you. Not the same commitment than they have to you — more of a commitment.  

Zhuge paraphrases Confucius as saying, “an enlightened ruler does not worry about people not knowing him, he worries about not knowing people. He worries not about outsiders not knowing insiders, but about insiders not knowing outsiders. He worries not about subordinates not knowing superiors, but about superiors not knowing subordinates. He worries not about the lower classes not knowing the upper classes, but about the upper classes not knowing the lower classes.”

“In the early days of our agency I worked cheek by jowl with every employee; communication and affection were easy,” says Ogilvy. “But as our brigade grows bigger I find it more difficult. How can I be a father figure to people who don’t even know me by sight?” If Confuicius was right, I guess this makes Ogilvy an enlightened ruler.

“It is important to admit your mistakes,” Ogilvy tells us, “and do so before you are charged with them. Many clients are surrounded by buckpassers who make a fine art of blaming the agency for their own failures. I seize the earliest opportunity to assume the blame.” 

But it’s not all tactics — you also want to earn the respect of the people you work with. “If you are brave about admitting your mistakes to your clients and your colleagues, you will earn their respect. Candor, objectivity and intellectual honesty are a sine qua non for the advertising careerist.” 

Being respected does happen to be good for business, but it’s also important for your self-worth as a person. Ogilvy offers a few conspicuous cases where he decided to act honorably, even though it was against his business interests:

Several times I have advised manufacturers who wanted to hire our agency to stay where they were. For example, when the head of Hallmark Cards sent emissaries to sound me out, I said to them, “Your agency has contributed much to your fortunes. It would be an act of gross ingratitude to appoint another agency. Tell them exactly what it is about their service which you now find unsatisfactory. I am sure they will put it right. Stay where you are.” Hallmark took my advice.

When one of the can companies invited us to solicit their account, I said, “Your agency has been giving you superb service, in circumstances of notorious difficulty. I happen to know that they lose money on your account. Instead of firing them, reward them.”

Exceptional integrity means exceptional humanity. “One whose humanitarian care extends to all under his command, whose trustworthiness and justice win the allegiance of neighboring nations, who understands the signs of the sky above, the patterns of the earth below, and the affairs of humanity in between, and who regards all people as his family,” says Zhuge, “is a world-class leader, one who cannot be opposed.”

Exceptional humanity in advertising — in 1963 no less! — looks like this:

Some of our people spend their entire working lives in our agency. We do our damnedest to make it a nice place to work. 

We treat our people like human beings. We help them when they are in trouble–with their jobs, with illness, with alcoholism, and so on.

We help our people make the best of their talents, investing an awful lot of time and money in training–like a teaching hospital. 

Our system of management is singularly democratic. We don’t like hierarchical bureaucracy or rigid pecking orders.

We give our executives an extraordinary degree of freedom and independence. 

We like people with gentle manners. Our New York office gives an annual award for “professionalism combined with civility.” 

We like people who are honest in argument, honest with clients, and above all, honest with consumers.

We admire people who work hard, who are objective and thorough.

We despise office politicians, toadies, bullies and pompous asses. We abhor ruthlessness.

The way up the ladder is open to everybody. We are free from prejudice of any kind — religious prejudice, racial prejudice or sexual prejudice. 

We detest nepotism and every other form of favouritism. In promoting people to top jobs, we are influenced as much by their character as anything else.

And in case that isn’t scrupulous enough for you, there’s at least one product that Ogilvy entirely refuses to advertise: politicians. “The use of advertising to sell statesmen,” he says, “is the ultimate vulgarity.”


Zhuge and Ogilvy focus on different things. Zhuge has a section on grieving for the dead, Ogilvy has a chapter on writing television commercials. But these differences are superficial. Both men are animated by the same spirit. Both of them are infinitely ambitious — but it’s not a callous ambition. Their ambition is to be honest, relaxed, creative, and humane. 

We think these men would have been good friends. It’s tragic that they were born 1,730 years and several thousand miles apart. But it’s to our advantage that we get to read both books and see that these two authors are drawing from the same well. The best wisdom is timeless.

Reality is Very Weird and You Need to be Prepared for That


Maciej Cegłowski’s essay Scott And Scurvy is one of the most interesting things we’ve ever read. We keep coming back to it — and we hope to write more about it in the future — but today we want to start with just how weird the whole thing is.

Scott and Scurvy tells the true history of scurvy, a horrible and dangerous disease. Scurvy is the result of a vitamin C deficiency — if you’re a sailor or something, eating preserved food for months on end, you eventually run out of vitamin C and many horrible things start happening to your body. If this continues long enough, you die. But at any point, consuming even a small amount of vitamin C, present in most fresh foods, will cure you almost immediately. 

We can’t do the full story justice (read the original essay, seriously), but just briefly: The cure was repeatedly discovered and lost by different crews of sailors at different points in time. Then in 1747, James Lind tried a bunch of treatments and found that citrus was more or less a miracle cure for the disease. Even so, it took until 1799, more than 50 years, for citrus juice to become a staple in the Royal Navy. 

Instead of diagrams depicting the horrifying symptoms of scurvy, please enjoy this picture of James Lind shoving a whole lemon into some unfortunate sailor’s mouth.

Originally, the Royal Navy was given lemon juice, which works well because it contains a lot of vitamin C. But at some point between 1799 and 1870, someone switched out lemons for limes, which contain a lot less vitamin C. Worse, the lime juice was pumped through copper tubing as part of its processing, which destroyed the little vitamin C that it had to begin with. 

This ended up being fine, because ships were so much faster at this point that no one had time to develop scurvy. So everything was all right until 1875, when a British arctic expedition set out on an attempt to reach the North Pole. They had plenty of lime juice and thought they were prepared — but they all got scurvy. 

The same thing happened a few more times on other polar voyages, and this was enough to convince everyone that citrus juice doesn’t cure scurvy. The bacterial theory of disease was the hot new thing at the time, so from the 1870s on, people played around with a theory that a bacteria-produced substance called “ptomaine” in preserved meat was the cause of scurvy instead. 

This theory was wrong, so it didn’t work very well. Everyone kept getting scurvy on polar expeditions. This lasted decades, and could have lasted longer, except that two Norwegians happened to stumble on the answer entirely by accident: 

It was pure luck that led to the actual discovery of vitamin C. Axel Holst and Theodor Frolich had been studying beriberi (another deficiency disease) in pigeons, and when they decided to switch to a mammal model, they serendipitously chose guinea pigs, the one animal besides human beings and monkeys that requires vitamin C in its diet. Fed a diet of pure grain, the animals showed no signs of beriberi, but quickly sickened and died of something that closely resembled human scurvy.

No one had seen scurvy in animals before. With a simple animal model for the disease in hand, it became a matter of running the correct experiments, and it was quickly established that scurvy was a deficiency disease after all. Very quickly the compound that prevents the disease was identified as a small molecule present in cabbage, lemon juice, and many other foods, and in 1932 Szent-Györgyi definitively isolated ascorbic acid.

Even in retrospect, the story is pretty complicated. But we worry that it would have looked even messier from the inside.


Holst and Frolich also ran a version of the study with dogs. But the dogs were fine. They never developed scurvy, because unlike humans and guinea pigs, they don’t need vitamin C in their diet. Almost any other animal would also have been fine — guinea pigs and a few species of primates just happen to be really weird about vitamin C. So what would this have looked like if Holst and Frolich just never got around to replicating their dog research on guinea pigs? What if the guinea pigs had gotten lost in the mail?

Three of Theodore Roosevelt’s children posing in a photo with one of their five guinea pigs. Kermit Roosevelt is holding the pig.

Let’s imagine a version of history where the guinea pigs did indeed get lost in the Norwegian mail, so Holst and Frolich only tested dogs, and found no sign of scurvy. Let’s further imagine that Frolich has been struck by inspiration, and through pure intuition has figured out exactly what is going on. 

Frolich: You know Holst, I think old James Lind was right. I think scurvy really is a disease of deficiency, that there’s something in citrus fruits and cabbages that the human body needs, and that you can’t go too long without. 

Holst: Frolich, what are you talking about? That doesn’t make any sense.

Frolich: No, I think it makes very good sense. People who have scurvy and eat citrus, or potatoes, or many other foods, are always cured.

Holst: Look, we know that can’t be right. George Nares had plenty of lime juice when he led his expedition to the North Pole, but they all got scurvy in a couple weeks. The same thing happened in the Expedition to Franz-Josef Land in 1894. They had high-quality lime juice, everyone took their doses, but everyone got scurvy. It can’t be citrus.

Frolich: Maybe some citrus fruits contain the antiscorbutic [scurvy-curing] property and others don’t. Maybe the British Royal Navy used one kind of lime back when Lind did his research but gave a different kind of lime to Nares and the others on their Arctic expeditions. Or maybe they did something to the lime juice that removed the antiscorbutic property. Maybe they boiled it, or ran it through copper piping or something, and that ruined it.

Holst: Two different kinds of limes? Frolich, you gotta get a hold of yourself. Besides, the polar explorers found that fresh meat also cures scurvy. They would kill a polar bear or some seals, have the meat for dinner, and then they would be fine. You expect me to believe that this antiscorbutic property is found in both polar bear meat AND some kinds of citrus fruits, but not in other kinds of citrus?

Frolich: You have to agree that it’s possible. Why can’t the property be in some foods and not others? 

Holst: It’s possible, but it seems really unlikely. Different varieties of limes are way more similar to one another than they are to polar bear meat. I guess what you describe fits the evidence, but it really sounds like you made it up just to save your favorite theory. 

Frolich: Look, it’s still consistent with what we know. It would also explain why Lind says that citrus cures scurvy, even though it clearly didn’t cure scurvy in the polar expeditions. All you need is different kinds of citrus, or something in the preparation that ruined it — or both! 

Holst: What about our research? We fed those dogs nothing but grain for weeks. They didn’t like it, but they didn’t get scurvy. We know that grain isn’t enough to keep sailors from getting scurvy, so if scurvy is about not getting enough of something in your diet, those dogs should have gotten scurvy too.

Frolich: Maybe only a few kinds of animals need the antiscorbutic property in their food. Maybe humans need it, but dogs don’t. I bet if those guinea pigs hadn’t gotten lost in the mail, and we had run our study on guinea pigs instead of dogs, the guinea pigs would have developed scurvy.

Holst: Let me get this straight, you think there’s this magical ingredient, totally essential to human life, but other animals don’t need it at all? That we would have seen something entirely different if we had used guinea pigs or rats or squirrels or bats or beavers?

Frolich: Yeah basically. I bet most animals don’t need this “ingredient”, but humans do, and maybe a few others. So we won’t see scurvy in our studies unless we happen to choose the right animal, and we just picked the wrong animal when we decided to study dogs. If we had gotten those guinea pigs, things would have turned out different.


Frolich is entirely right on every point. He also sounds totally insane. 

Maybe there are different kinds of citrus. Maybe some animals need this mystery ingredient and others don’t. Maybe polar bear meat is, medically speaking, more like citrus fruit from Sicily than like citrus fruit from the West Indies. Really???

This looks a lot like special pleading, but in this case, the apparent double standard is correct. All of these weird exceptions he suggests were actually weird exceptions. And while our hypothetical version of Frolich wouldn’t have any way of knowing, these were the right distinctions to make. 

Reality is very weird, and you need to be prepared for that. Like the hypothetical Holst, most of us would be tempted to discard this argument entirely out of hand. But this weird argument is correct, because reality is itself very weird. Looking at this “contradictory” evidence and responding with these weird bespoke splitting arguments turns out to be the right move, at least in this case. 

Real explanations will sometimes sound weird, crazy, or too complicated because reality itself is often weird, crazy, or too complicated. 

It’s unfortunate, but scurvy is really the BEST CASE SCENARIO. The answer ended up being almost comically simple: it’s just a disease of deficiency, eat one of these foods containing this vitamin and be instantly cured. But the path to get to that answer was confusing and complicated. Think about all the things in the world that have a more complicated answer than scurvy, i.e. almost everything. Those things will have even weirder and more confusing stories to untangle.

This story has a couple of lessons for us. The first is just, don’t discard an explanation just because it’s weird or complicated. 

Focus on explanations that are consistent with all the evidence. Frolich’s harebrained different-citrus different-animals explanation from above does sound crazy, but at least it’s consistent with everything they knew at the time. If some kinds of citrus cured scurvy and other kinds didn’t, that would explain why it worked for Lind and for early sailors, but it didn’t work for the polar explorers after 1870. And in fact, that does explain it.  

It’s also testable, at least in principle. If you think there might be differences between different kinds of citrus fruits, you could go back and try to figure out the original source used by James Lind and the Royal Navy, and try to re-create those conditions as closely as possible.


We’re taught to see splitting  — coming up with weird special cases or new distinctions between categories — as a tactic that people use to save their pet theories from contradictory evidence. You can salvage any theory just by saying that it only works sometimes and not others — it only happens at night, you need to use a special kind of wire, the vitamin D supplements from one supplier aren’t the same as from a different supplier, etc. Splitting has gotten a reputation as the sort of thing scientific cheats do to draw out the con as long as possible.

But as we see from the history of scurvy, sometimes splitting is the right answer! In fact, there were meaningful differences in different kinds of citrus, and meaningful differences in different animals. Making a splitting argument to save a theory — “maybe our supplier switched to a different kind of citrus, we should check that out” — is a reasonable thing to do, especially if the theory was relatively successful up to that point. 

Splitting is perfectly fair game, at least to an extent — doing it a few times is just prudent, though if you have gone down a dozen rabbitholes with no luck, then maybe it is time to start digging elsewhere.

Scurvy isn’t the only case where splitting was the right call. Maybe there’s more than one kind of fat. Maybe there are different kinds of air. Maybe there are different types of blood. It turns out, there are! So give splitting a chance.

Be more forgiving of contradictory evidence. These days people like to put a lot of focus on the idea of decisive experiments. While it’s true that some experiments are more decisive than others, no experiment can be entirely decisive either for or against a theory. We need to stop expecting knock-down studies that solve things forever.

Contradictory evidence can be wrong! The person making the observations might have been confused. They might have done the analysis wrong. The equipment may have malfunctioned. They might have used dogs instead of guinea pigs, or they might have used the wrong kind of hamster. The data might even be fabricated! Shit happens. 

Things change as contradictory evidence piles up, but even then, it doesn’t mean you should scrap the theory you started out with. Everyone back in the 1870s made a big mistake throwing out their perfectly good “disease of deficiency” theory as soon as there were a few contradictory stories from polar explorers.

Their mistake was thinking “maybe the theory is wrong”, instead of “maybe the real theory is more complicated”. When you see evidence that goes against a theory, it could mean that you’ve been barking up the wrong tree. Or it could just mean that there’s a small wrinkle you aren’t aware of.

If you have a theory that’s been working pretty well for a while — it made good predictions, it solved real problems, it explained a lot of mysteries — you should stick with it in the face of apparent contradictions, at least for a while. When you hit a snag with a reliable theory, think “maybe it’s complicated” instead of “oh it’s wrong”. It may still be wrong, but it’s good to check!

Be careful of purely verbal, syllogistic reasoning. We make these arguments in conversation all the time. They seem plain, convincing, and commonsensical, but in reality they’re pretty weak. It’s hard to get away from commonsensical, verbal arguments since that’s how we naturally think, but don’t take them too seriously. They’re ok as starting points, but keep in mind that they’re not actually evidence.

“Different kinds of citrus fruits are more like one another than they are like polar bear meat” sounds very reasonable, but in this case it was wrong. Sicilian lemons really ARE more like polar bear meat than they are like West Indian limes, at least for the purposes of treating scurvy.

One of these things is not like the others. That’s right — the limes!

“Dogs are about as similar to humans as guinea pigs are” also sounds very reasonable. The three species are all the same class (Mammalia) but different orders (Carnivora, Primates, and Rodentia, respectively), so there seems to be some taxonomic evidence as well. But humans really are a lot more like guinea pigs than they are like dogs, or most other animals, at least for the purposes of getting scurvy.


We were tickled to see this paragraph near the end of Scott and Scurvy, for obvious reasons

…one of the simplest of diseases managed to utterly confound us for so long, at the cost of millions of lives, even after we had stumbled across an unequivocal cure. It makes you wonder how many incurable ailments of the modern world—depression, autism, hypertension, obesity—will turn out to have equally simple solutions, once we are able to see them in the correct light. What will we be slapping our foreheads about sixty years from now, wondering how we missed something so obvious?

This is really good, and we think it’s reason to be optimistic. We might be closer than we think to cures for depression, hypertension, and yes, even obesity

The answer to scurvy was just one thing, plus a few wrinkles — mostly “not all citrus has the antiscorbutic property” and “most animals can’t get scurvy”. This was only difficult because people weren’t prepared to deal with basic wrinkles, but we can do better by learning from their mistakes.

This means don’t give up easily. It suggests that there is lots of low-hanging fruit, because even simple explanations are easily missed.

Lots of theories have been tried, and lots of them have been given up because of something that looks like contradictory evidence. But the evidence might not actually be a contradiction — the real explanation might just be slightly more complicated than people realized. Go back and revisit scientific near-misses, maybe there’s a wrinkle they didn’t know how to iron out.

The Didactic Novel


James Clavell’s Shōgun is a historical novel about the English pilot John Blackthorne. The Dutch ship he’s piloting crashes in Japan in the year 1600, and Blackthorne has to learn how to survive in what to him is a mad and totally alien culture. 

All historical novels are somewhat educational, but Shōgun teaches you about more than just Japanese society at the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate. 

Blackthorne speaks a lot of different languages, and this is a big part of his identity. He speaks English natively and Dutch with his crew, but also Latin and Portuguese and even a little Spanish, which he uses to communicate with the few other Europeans he finds in Japan, mostly Catholic priests. This makes sense in the context of the novel — his ship is Dutch but their allies the English are the best pilots in the world, and they’re using stolen Portuguese documents to navigate strange waters, so he would need to speak that language too. 

So when Blackthorne finds himself stranded in Japan, he starts learning Japanese. At first this is hard because Blackthorne has only ever studied European languages before, and also because people keep trying to kill him. But he has a lot of experience learning foreign languages and little else to do, so he quickly starts picking it up.

What’s more surprising is that soon the reader is picking up some Japanese too. Linguistically, Clavell has put the reader in the very same situation as Blackthorne. The book starts out entirely in English, but suddenly you are confronted with words and phrases in a language you don’t understand. You end up learning many of these words and phrases just to follow along. 

Staged seppuku ritual, 1897

It seems like Clavell is doing this intentionally. The book is in English, but Blackthorne is the only English-speaking character in the novel. Except in the few cases where he’s talking to himself, all the dialogue is actually being carried on in other languages, but when the dialogue is in Dutch, or Portuguese, or even Latin, Clavell renders it all as English. When Japanese people are speaking Japanese to each other, he translates that into English too. But when Blackthorne encounters Japanese that he doesn’t understand, or just barely understands, it’s usually rendered as romanized Japanese. To follow these snippets you need to learn a little Japanese, so you do. And the interesting thing is, you learn this little bit of Japanese without any conscious effort.

It’s hard to read Shōgun all the way through and not learn at least a few words in Japanese. By the end of the first volume, most readers will know words like onna, kinjiru, wakarimasu, hai, ima, ikimasho, anjin, domo, isogi, and of course the omnipresent neh.

This isn’t a perfect language-learning tool. Shōgun is over 300,000 words long (and the original draft was considerably longer), but most of that is devoted to being a historical novel, an adventure story, and a romance, not teaching you Japanese. We love that there are lots of reasons to read it. But given the limited amount of space devoted to these basic Japanese lessons, it’s a very effective introduction.


Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson is a dense novel that alternates between historical fiction and near-future sci-fi. 

There are two storylines. The first is set during World War II, and follows a group of characters pioneering cryptography in an effort to win the war, and inventing the computer — among the characters are a fictionalized version of Alan Turing and his even-more-fictional German boyfriend, Rudolf “Rudy” von Hacklheber. 

The second storyline focuses on the grandchildren of some of the WWII characters in the modern day, several of whom are putting together a startup in southeast Asia in an attempt to create an anonymous banking system using magic internet money. The novel was published in 1999 so yes, this seemed like an ambitiously futuristic scheme at the time. It also maybe helped create that future — Cryptonomicon was required reading during the early days of PayPal.

Unironically the best ad ever created

But implicitly, and at times explicitly, Cryptonomicon is a textbook on something like information theory. Chapter One includes a long discussion where Alan Turing and Rudy von Hacklheber teach Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse (sort of the viewpoint character) about Russell and Whitehead, Gödel, the distinctions between mathematics and physics, how logic can be reduced to symbols, etc. If this sounds dry, it isn’t — you’ll probably learn more about philosophy of math in these 4000 words than you did during 4 years of college. Then Alan and Rudy give Lawrence a problem to go off and solve so the two of them can fuck. Sex comes up a lot in Cryptonomicon, possibly because sex itself is about the exchange of deeply encrypted source code, or possibly because Stephenson is just horny.

All that just in Chapter One. This is a book about cryptography, and so pretty much every other chapter has some lesson, implicit or explicit, about topics like symbols, languages, systems, inference, even actual algorithms or code snippets. Chapter 25 ends by walking you through the process of doing encryption and decryption with a one-time pad. There’s even information theory disguised (?) as small-business advice. It’s kind of Gödel, Escher, Bach in novel format, to the point that there are references to GEB hidden in a few places around the book. 

For the most part these lessons are subtle and deeply embedded:

One night, Benjamin received a message and spent some time deciphering it. He announced the news to Shaftoe: “The Germans know we’re here.”

“What do you mean, they know we’re here?”

“They know that for at least six months we have had an observation post overlooking the Bay of Naples,” Benjamin said.

“We’ve been here less than two weeks.”

’’They’re going to begin searching this area tomorrow.”

“Well, then let’s get the fuck out of here,” Shaftoe said.

“Colonel Chattan orders you to wait,” Benjamin said, “until you know that the Germans know that we are here.”

“But I do know that the Germans know that we are here,” Shaftoe said, “you just told me.”

“No, no no no no,” Benjamin said, “wait until you would know that the Germans knew even if you didn’t know from being told by Colonel Chattan over the radio.”

“Are you fucking with me?”

“Orders,” Benjamin said, and handed Shaftoe the deciphered message as proof.

But in a few places he does come out and state the idea plainly:

It all comes to him, explosively, during the Battle of Midway, while he and his comrades are spending twenty-four hours a day down among those ETC machines, decrypting Yamamoto’s messages, telling Nimitz exactly where to find the Nip fleet.

What are the chances of Nimitz finding that fleet by accident? That’s what Yamamoto must be asking himself.

It is all a question (oddly enough!) of information theory.

If the action is one that could never have happened unless the Americans were breaking Indigo, then it will constitute proof, to the Nipponese, that the Americans have broken it. The existence of the source—the machine that Commander Schoen built—will be revealed.

Waterhouse trusts that no Americans will be that stupid. But what if it isn’t that clear-cut? What if the action is one that would merely be really improbable unless the Americans were breaking the code? What if the Americans, in the long run, are just too damn lucky?

And how closely can you play that game? A pair of loaded dice that comes up sevens every time is detected in a few throws. A pair that comes up sevens only one percent more frequently than a straight pair is harder to detect—you have to throw the dice many more times in order for your opponent to prove anything.

If the Nips keep getting ambushed—if they keep finding their own ambushes spoiled—if their merchant ships happen to cross paths with American subs more often than pure probability would suggest—how long until they figure it out?

The whole book is backwards and out-of-order — not only because the chapters set in 1942 are intermixed with the chapters set in 1997, but because internal storylines are intentionally disjointed. Effects come before causes, explanations come many chapters before or after the thing they are meant to explain, critical hints are brief and easily missed. But this is intentional. The whole book is a giant combination lock, the final exercise left for the reader, and deciphering it is part of the reading experience and part of the lesson.

In any case, it’s hard to read Cryptonomicon all the way through and not learn something about information theory. You won’t be an expert, but it’s a damn fine introductory textbook. And because Stephenson is such a master, the book is designed to give up more mysteries every time you re-read it. Each time you revisit, you’re struck with stuff you missed the last time around. 

Writing novels that are secretly textbooks kind of seems to be Stephenson’s MO. Cryptonomicon has a prequel series called The Baroque Cycle. Just like Cryptonomicon deals with the invention of computing and information theory, these books deal with the invention of the scientific method, following historical characters like Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm (von) Leibniz. It’s also about the invention of banking/modern currency, and it’s heavily implied that the two are connected — a true historical fact is that in addition to his work in physics, Isaac Newton was the Master of the Mint, in charge of all English currency, for thirty years. He even went out to taverns in disguise to personally catch counterfeiters. 

The perfect disguise

Stephenson also seems to be aware that this is what he’s doing. Maybe this is not surprising given his other novel The Diamond Age, a book about a book that teaches you things. The Diamond Age follows a similar model and tries to implicitly teach the reader about the basics of computer science and macroeconomics.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMoR) is a 660,000-word Harry Potter fanfic by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Explicitly, HPMoR asks the question: what if Harry Potter were raised by an Oxford professor and was intensively homeschooled, instead of being raised in a closet by the Dursleys? Also explicitly, HPMoR is Yudkowsky’s attempt to teach the scientific method and “the methods of rationality” to a general audience.

Clavell and Stephenson seem somewhat aware that their novels are educational, but Yudkowsky is the only one of the three who comes right out and talks about how this is his goal, at least that we’ve seen. In a post on why he wrote the fanfic, he says:

But to answer your question, nonfiction writing conveys facts; fiction writing conveys *experiences*. I’m worried that my previous two years of nonfiction blogging haven’t produced nearly enough transfer of real cognitive skills. The hope is that writing about the inner experience of someone trying to be rational will convey things that I can’t easily convey with nonfiction blog posts.

Yudkowsky is referring to his other attempt to teach these skills as “The Sequences” on LessWrong. Elsewhere he says that these two attempts, fiction and nonfiction, don’t even communicate the same thought. But to editorialize a bit, it seems like HPMoR was more successful than the Sequences. It’s certainly reached a broad audience — among other things, it’s been reviewed in venues like Vice, Who Magazine, and The Hindustan Times.

(To editorialize a bit more, Yudkowsky’s writing on writing might be more interesting than either the Sequences or HPMoR. But of course we’re very interested in writing so we’re kind of biased.)

Yudkowsky describes his goal as teaching “real cognitive skills”, and he’s on the money with this one. Many skills are better taught through experience than presented as a block of facts — you’ll learn more Japanese from getting lost in Tokyo than you will from skimming a Japanese grammar. So for skills like these, a didactic novel is better than an explicit textbook, or at least a good complement.

HPMoR is spread a little thin — unlike Japanese or information theory, “rationality” is not really a single subject, so it’s a little less cohesive. But Yudkowsky does still have a lot of specific points he’s trying to make, and it’s hard to read HPMoR all the way through and not learn something about genetics, psychology, heuristics, game theory, tactics, and the scientific method.

The Didactic Novel

All three of these novels were extremely successful. All of them try to teach you something more concrete than the average novel tries to teach you. And all of them are at least somewhat successful.

Some skills, like oil painting or bicycle repair, are hard to learn from just reading about them — you actually have to go out and try it for yourself. But in many skills, the basics can be picked up vicariously. You won’t be a great codebreaker after reading Cryptonomicon, but it gives you a very firm foundation to start from.

Novels are powerful teaching tools because they’re more fun than textbooks, and fun is good. Educational and entertaining are treated like foils, but they’re actually complimentary. If something is entertaining, it holds your attention; if it holds your attention, you will be able to engage; if you engage you can learn something. If something is boring or tedious you will go look at twitter or pick your nose instead. Shōgun doesn’t teach you quite as much Japanese as you would get from a Japanese 101 course at the local university, but we guarantee it’s twice as fun and two hundred times easier to read Shōgun than it is to take all those quizzes. Japanese for Busy People is a pretty good textbook, but you don’t want to cuddle in with it on a snowy afternoon.

And frankly, fun sticks in your brain easier. 

Fiction is great. It engages. It inspires. Fiction led thousands of people to develop an intricate understanding of the history and politics of Westeros, including hundreds of characters and thousands of events and relationships. It led people to create detailed models of fictional castles in SketchUp. Fiction inspires people to scholarly discourse on the details of medieval sieges, or painstaking minecraft replicas of entire continents. Fiction leads people to totally overthink why an empire might destroy a province in a show of military might, or speculate in-depth about the project management that it would require. And yes, the power of fiction led to millions of words worth of Harry Potter fanfic from literally thousands of authors. Imagine if we harnessed even a little of that power.

Do you have strong opinions about which of these people you would invite to your birthday party? Which of them you would have an ale with? Which of them you would let look after your child? You do? FICTION

Language Learning

We think there should be lots more didactic novels — novels that try to teach you something concrete, like a skill. And we actually think that James Clavell got it right with Shōgun, that the best subject for a didactic novel is language learning. 

Shōgun is distracted by having many other priorities, but a novel that put language-learning first could be an engine of unimaginable education. Much like Clavell, you would start the story entirely in English, and introduce words in the new language one by one. Eventually you would start introducing basic grammar. The bits in the target language would start out on the level of “see spot run”, but would gradually become as complicated as the sections in English. As you move through the novel, the text would transition slowly from all-English to all-target-language. By the end, you would just be reading a novel in Swedish or Arabic or Cantonese or whatever.

This transition would have to be very slow for this to work, so the novel would have to be really long. But if you do it slowly enough, it won’t feel difficult for the reader at any point.

You might be worried that people won’t be willing to read such a massive story, but we don’t think it’s a problem. People already spend a lot of time on language-learning apps. Language-learning is a big market, and people are plenty happy to invest their time and money. As just one example, Duolingo is now worth more than $6 billion. And Duolingo isn’t even that great — it’s kind of bad. 

And while there’s a stereotype that people don’t like to read, or don’t like long books, the rumors of the death of our attention spans are greatly exaggerated. Shōgun itself is on Wikipedia’s list of the longest novels of all time, at over 300,000 words, and it sold six million copies in the first five years of publication. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, also about 300,000 words, was a smash hit and won a slate of awards. The entire Lord of the Rings series (minus The Hobbit), is about 500,000 words. Infinite Jest is about 550,000 words, all of them dense.

The entire Harry Potter series is more than 1,000,000 words long, and millions of pre-teens have wolfed it down without stopping for breath. If a school story with magic wands could inspire kids to do that, imagine how they would respond to a book that actually teaches them German, or any other language their parents don’t understand. Half the fun of any YA series is all the weird shibboleths you develop that adults can’t pierce. On this note, the web epic Homestuck was arguably even longer, and captured the minds of a generation, for good or for ill.

You really can engage 13-year-olds with 1,000,000+ words of arcane bullshit

Game of Thrones, the first book alone, is about 300,000 words long, and the whole A Song of Ice and Fire series is about 1,700,000 words so far. While most people have not read all the books, you can’t deny their impact. And it’s not like the sales have been lackluster or something, Martin is one of the highest-earning authors in the world.

You could make a pretty good case that Dune, almost 200,000 words long and with five sequels, is already a didactic novel about ecology, or maybe political science, or maybe the intersection of ecology and political science. I’m at the ecology. I’m at the political science. I’m at the intersection of ecology and political science. 

A Case Study

Since we think Clavell has done the best job so far, it’s worth taking a bit of a look at how he does it.

(Minor spoilers for Shōgun from here on.)

The prologue has no Japanese at all, since it’s set on a Dutch ship in immediate danger of going down with all hands. But in Chapter 1, things are immediately different. Blackthorne wakes up in a strange room. A woman comes in and says something to him in Japanese — “Goshujinsama, gokibun wa ikaga desu ka?” It’s the very first page, and already we get a full sentence in Japanese.

A few pages later, we learn our first word. Blackthorne points at the woman to ask her her name. She says, “Onna”. But this is a misunderstanding — “onna” is just the Japanese word for “woman”. This will come back to get Blackthorne in the ass, but not for a while.

A few pages later we learn the words “daimyo” (a type of Japanese noble) and “samurai” when Blackthorne talks to one of the local Catholic priests, who challenges him in Portuguese.

Then a samurai appears and says, “Nanigoto da,” a phrase we don’t understand, three times. Then we get our second full sentence. The samurai, whose name is Omi, asks Blackthorne, “Onushi ittai doko kara kitanoda? Doko no kuni no monoda?” which the Portuguese priest translates as ‘Where do you come from and what’s your nationality?’” He also explains that the Japanese use the suffix “-san” after a name as an honorific, like we use “Mr.” or “Dr.” before ours, so he should call the samurai Omi-san.

Clavell doesn’t give us the rest of the conversation in Japanese, but at the end Omi asks him, “Wakarimasu ka?” which the priest translates as “Do you understand?” Blackthorne is already itching to learn the language for himself, and asks how to say “yes” in Japanese. The priest tells him to say, “wakarimasu,” which is sort of correct. He also sees Omi behead a man and shout “Ikinasai!” twice. Most of what we hear at this point isn’t translated, but we’re already getting exposed to a lot of Japanese.

From the 1980 miniseries

Blackthorne talks to a few more samurai on his ship, and hears the phrases “Hotté oké!”, “Nan no yoda?”, and “Wakarimasen”, which astute readers might already notice is similar to “Wakarimasu ka?” and “wakarimasu” from before. When he uses signs to ask to go to his cabin, they say, “Ah, so desu! Kinjiru.” Based on how they threaten him when he tries to go inside, he correctly infers that “Kinjiru” means “forbidden”.

After spending a lot of time with his crew, he goes back to the house he woke up in. He hears “konbanwa” from the gardener, and while it’s not defined, context makes it clear that this is a greeting — in fact, it’s Japanese for “good evening”. 

Then he asks to see “Onna” and the joke set up at the start of the chapter comes full circle. He hears “hai” and “ikimasho” and “nanda”, not understanding, and then one of the women tries to get into bed with him, until the village headman, who speaks a little Portuguese, explains that “onna” means “woman”. We also see our first “neh”s.

And that’s all the Japanese in Chapter One. Blackthorne is taught the words onna, daimyo, and samurai, and is taught to use the suffix –san. He is sort of taught the word wakarimasu, and he correctly infers the meaning of kinjiru. He — along with the reader — is also exposed to several words that are not yet defined explicitly, and a few complete phrases, some of which get approximate translations. 

In Chapter 2, and forever onwards, daimyo and samurai are used as normal vocab, since these terms don’t have equivalents in English, and we see the suffix -san where appropriate. We also see one other full sentence in Japanese — “Ano mono wa nani o moshité oru?”, which isn’t translated — but that’s it. 

In Chapter 3, we learn the suffix -sama, meaning “lord”. We also learn that ronin are “landless or masterless peasant-soldiers or samurai.” But this chapter is also short, and we barely see Blackthorne at all, so both of these translations are provided by the narration.

In Chapter 4, we hear the word “isogi”, which is translated as “hurry up!” Then we hear it again. We also see “kinjiru” twice, with only the reminder that it’s “the word from the ship”, but context and the hint help recall the meaning. 

In Chapter 5, Blackthorne starts using Japanese himself, saying “kinjiru” twice to talk to a samurai.

In Chapter 6, the local priest tells him that the Japanese word for “yes” is “hai”. Blackthorne uses the word four times. We see the phrase, “wakarimasu ka” twice, which the priest translates the first time, but not the second time. We encounter the word “okiro” for the first time, translated as “you will get up.” We also learn the word “anjin”, which means “pilot”, when Omi tells Blackthorne that the Japanese can’t pronounce his name and will call him “Mr. Pilot”, or “Anjin-san”.

In Chapter 7, we learn the phrase “konnichi wa”, which they translate as “good day”. Blackthorne then uses the phrase six times to greet people, and we hear it once from someone else. We see the word “Anjin” at least a dozen times — Clavell wants us to get used to it, because it’s Blackthorne’s new name. We see “hai” twice, and “wakarimasu” and “wakarimasu ka” and “isogi” and “kinjiru” once each. 

During this chapter, Blackthorne also meets a Portuguese pilot (Rodrigues), who tells him that “ima” means “now”, and also uses the term “ikimasho”, a term we saw once in Chapter 1, but doesn’t define it. He also uses the term “ichi ban”, which he doesn’t explain, and throws around a bunch of “wakarimasu ka”, “kinjiru”, and “sama”. When he argues with some samurai, they say “gomen nasai”, which is translated as “so sorry”, and “iyé”, which isn’t translated but clearly means “no”. 

In Chapter 8, Blackthorne and the Portuguese pilot Rodrigues use “wakarimasu ka” and “hai” with one another, just as part of normal conversation. Blackthorne hears him use “isogi” again, asks what it means, and Rodrigues tells him it means “hurry up”. Blackthorne uses the word not long after when he takes control of the ship in a storm. We see “wakarimasu” twice and “hai” four times. We see a new term, “arigato goziemashita” (not the common spelling), which isn’t defined but is clearly in the context of someone thanking him. We also see “iyé” again, in a context where it clearly means “no”, confirming its meaning.

In Chapter 9, we see “hai” twice, and “isogi” once. We also see “iyé”, and again Clavell refuses to define it explicitly. But by now, the reader has seen it three times in contexts that all clearly mean “no”, and is probably starting to pick up on that. 

In Chapter 10, we see “konnichi wa”, “isogi”, and “wakarimasu ka” once each, and “hai” five times. None of them are translated, and the chapter doesn’t miss a beat. These are all just normal vocabulary in the novel at this point, the reader is expected to know what they mean. 

At this point the novel takes a break from language education to spend a few chapters mostly focusing on plot, so we’ll stop here too. But already, you can see the pattern. 

Clavell mixes it up a lot, but the general formula goes like this:

  1. The first time you encounter a word, it isn’t defined and no one explains what it means, but there are often context clues.
  2. Soon after that, the word is used again and someone either tells you what it means, or Blackthorne guesses. 
  3. The next time you see the word, you get a little reminder either of the definition, or of the last time you saw the word.
  4. After a few more uses with clear context, the word becomes part of the general vocabulary. From then on, you are expected to know what it means!

This is essentially how you learn words as a child, or how you would learn Japanese if you had to use it as part of your daily life. The first time you hear a word, you have no idea what it means. Eventually someone tells you what it means or it becomes clear from context. The next time you see or hear the word, you might need a reminder. But once you’ve used it a bit, it gets locked in. 


Let’s look at some examples. The word “hai” means “yes”. You hear it first in Chapter 1, with a little context that suggests what it might mean. We don’t see it again until Chapter 6, when the local priest tells us what it means. It’s then used a couple of times in Chapter 7. In Chapters 8-10, it’s just a normal word, fully integrated into the story, with no further reminders. 

The word “kinjiru” means “forbidden”. Blackthorne hears it first in Chapter 1, and guesses what it means from context. We see it again in Chapter 4 with a simple reminder (just “the word from the ship”), and Blackthorne uses it in Chapter 5, where context makes it clear what it means. From then on, it’s in the vocab.

We first encounter the word “isogi” in Chapter 4, where the narrator translates it for the reader as “Hurry up!” But Blackthorne doesn’t get the benefit of this translation. When it reappears in Chapter 7, he still doesn’t know what it means. It comes back in Chapter 8, Blackthorne asks what it means, and Rodrigues tells him. Later that chapter, Blackthorne is using the word himself. It’s the same principles, just slightly mixed up.

The approach Clavell is using is called spaced repetition, a memory technique that works by introducing new content and then bringing it back after a bit of a delay. This works because of something called the forgetting curve. When you’ve just learned something, it’s strong in your memory, but that trace gets weaker and weaker over time. If you’re asked to remember the thing right away, it’s still fresh in your mind and takes no effort — but if you wait too long, you’ve forgotten entirely. So the thing to do is wait until the memory has decayed just a bit, and then bring it back. This stresses the memory and reinforces it, sort of like how stressing a muscle builds strength.

Clavell is taking advantage of the fact that most people will not chug this 300,000-word novel in one sitting — most people will read it a few chapters at a time. This gives them time to partially forget many of these words between chapters, so that when they return to the book in a day or two and the words come up again, they are jostled out of memory, and the meaning of the word is reinforced. 

(Stephenson uses the same approach as a storytelling technique. Something called “Van Eck phreaking” is an important plot point near the end of Cryptonomicon, so Stephenson makes sure that it’s explained before it becomes important, and that it comes up a few times before it’s explained.)

This is how you should write your didactic novel too. Start with a character who doesn’t know the language at all, who is in the same position as the reader. Words and concepts are introduced in the background first, without any explanation. After the reader has seen the word a few times, a character comes out and tells the reader what it means, or else they guess what it means, or it’s used in a context that makes the meaning clear. Shortly afterwards, the word is used again, either in a context that helps reinforce the meaning, or with a gentle reminder. 

Use the word a few more times in situations where context helps make the meaning clear. After that, add the word to your “approved vocabulary” list, and use it wherever it’s appropriate in the novel — the reader is now expected to know what it means. If you teach people a couple words each chapter, you can outstrip the average language 101 class in a decent-length novel.

All you need to do is go harder than Clavell, and make language-learning your secondary focus. We say secondary and not primary because your primary focus is to make sure it’s an enjoyable read. The book won’t teach anything if no one gets through it!

Naturally, you can use all the same techniques if you’re writing a didactic novel about calculus or music theory. All the same ideas still apply — language learning just offers an exceptionally clear-cut example. 

A Narrative Addition

Clavell’s technique is similar to the hero’s journey. This is a template for writing and describing stories, where a person starts out in their comfort zone, is forced out by circumstance, confronts trials, gains knowledge, and returns to their comfort zone, but stronger than they were before.

Clavell doesn’t exactly use this technique, but you could easily combine the hero’s journey with his approach.

The hero’s journey can be as epic as a series of fantasy novels, or as unassuming as a man changing a tire in the rain:

Fade in on a meek-looking man driving a car. It’s raining. Boom. Flat tire. He struggles to keep the car from ditching. He pulls it to the side of the road and stops. He’s got fear on his face. He looks out his car window at the pounding rain… It doesn’t matter how small or large the scope of your story is, what matters is the amount of contrast between these worlds. In our story about the man changing his tire in the rain, up until now, he wasn’t changing a tire. He was inside a dry car. Now, he opens his car door and steps into the pouring rain. … Our stranded, rain soaked driver has finished emptying the contents of his trunk on the side of the road. He sees the spare tire and he lets out a very slight, very fast sound of relief. That’s all. This is a story about a man changing a tire. … When you realize that something is important, really important, to the point where it’s more important than YOU, you gain full control over your destiny. … You have become that which makes things happen. You have become a living God. Depending on the scope of your story, a “living God” might be a guy that can finish changing a tire in the rain. 

This is such an engrossing story format because it mirrors the process of self-improvement in the real world, which the reader can enjoy vicariously. You learn something unfamiliar, use it, and master it. But in the didactic novel, we can put the reader in nearly the same situation as the character, and have them go through the journey together.

This approach would work well with genres like adventure novels, police procedurals, sitcoms, detective dramas, or Monster of the Week shows, which lend themselves well to stories with explicit cycles. Anything super-pulpy should fit the bill, anything episodic or serialized. 

The American spy stranded in Russia needs to get home, but to survive for the moment, he needs to learn some Russian. He finds an old run-down garage where two old farts, who speak a little English, let him hide out. Each cycle goes like this: During the intro, Spy encounters some Russian that he doesn’t know, on the radio or in the newspaper or something. This is foreshadowing, phrases that will come up later in the cycle, and this is just to embed them in the reader’s subconscious. Then he has a conversation with one of the old guys, who tells him some vocabulary or explains some part of Russian grammar to him. 

After this, the spy goes out on a mission or a job or something — get some supplies, meet a contact, follow up on a lead, normal spy shit. During the climax he is in a real pinch, but he remembers the words the old guy taught him that morning, and he manages to fix things. He uses those words a few more times to really embed them in the reader’s mind, and then he goes back to his hideout. The words he learned today go in the vocab box, and the author will use them freely from now on, maybe making sure to give them a guest appearance next episode so they stay in the reader’s memory.

For obvious reasons, novels that want to teach a language will have an easier time if the novel is set in the past, because there were more places you could go where you’d have to learn the language to get by. For similar reasons, setting your story in a time before cell phones and the internet will generally help a didactic novel on any subject, since it lets you isolate your characters from textbooks and dictionaries. Post-apocalyptic, fantasy, and far-future settings would also work.

So if you decide to write a didactic novel (or other didactic fiction), give us a holler.

Predictions for 2050

Erik Hoel makes a list of predictions for 2050.

This may seem like the far-flung future, but as Hoel points out, it’s only 28 years away. Making predictions for 2050 based on what we see today is just like sitting in the early ‘90s and predicting what the world will look like in the 2020s.

Hoel makes his predictions based on a simple insight: change is incremental, and the minor trends of today are the institutional changes of tomorrow. If you want to know what 2050 will look like, think about the nascent trends of the early 2020s and project them into the future:

If you want to predict the future accurately, you should be an incrementalist and accept that human nature doesn’t change along most axes. … To see what I mean more specifically: 2050, that super futuristic year, is only 29 years out, so it is exactly the same as predicting what the world would look like today back in 1992. … what was most impactful from 1992 were technologies or trends already in their nascent phases, and it was simply a matter of choosing what to extrapolate. For instance, cellular phones, personal computers, and the internet all existed back in 1992, although in comparatively inchoate stages of development. … The central social and political ideas of our culture were established in the 1960s and 70s and took a slow half-century to climb from obscure academic monographs to Super Bowl ads. So here are my predictions for 2050. They are all based on current trends.

We think this approach is really smart. In fact, we like it so much that we wanted to take it for a test drive. In this post, we make our own set of predictions for 2050, using Hoel’s method of picking out trends that we suspect will go on to shape the 2020s, 2030s, and 2040s.

Projects are more fun when you do them with friends, so we invited a bunch of other bloggers to make their own predictions for 2050, using the same approach of extrapolating trends that they think are important today. So far we have predictions from:

Here at SMTM, we’re going to add something to Hoel’s original method of extrapolating “technologies or trends already in their nascent phases”: regression to the mean. What we mean by this is, well — the 20th century was very unusual in many different ways.

A lot of things that we take for granted are really, really new — like 401ks (invented in 1978), Traditional (1974) and Roth (1997) IRAs, and modern credit scores (1989). Indexes like the Dow Jones and the S&P 500 run back several decades, but index funds that track them only appeared in 1972. In 1940, only 5% of US adults over 25 had a college degree and only 25% had a high school diploma. Even income tax wasn’t a permanent part of the US tax system until 1913 — we had to do a whole amendment to the Constitution to make it happen.

Some of these may be here to stay, but looking back from 2050, a lot of 20th century “institutions” will look like a flash in the pan. The trends that are holding will probably hold, but any 20th century abnormalities that seem to be reversing are likely to go back to the way they were for most of human history. A nascent trend that looks like regression to the historical mean is much more likely to be a trend that will continue on to 2050.

Hoel’s Predictions

We agree with a lot of Hoel’s predictions. A Martian colony, or crewed missions to Mars at least, are looking pretty likely as the price of space travel drops (and he’s not the only one predicting this). We’re also reminded of the recent increasing interest in charter cities and Georgism — Mars would be a great location for your wacky new city and it’s the closest we’re going to get to making all-new land, at least any time soon. 

Hoel is clearly right that we will move away from stores, but this might also look like more business done out of people’s homes (like was done historically) or like more business done in something like a marketplace with semi-permanent stalls (like was done historically). 

Genetic engineering of embryos to avoid disease is already being done and it does seem like this will happen more and more. Similarly, anti-aging technology is already here and will just keep getting better and cheaper, especially given that Peter Thiel is involved. But this is sort of hard to square with Hoel’s final prediction, that 2050 will be “the winter of my life”, at the age of only 62. It seems a little pessimistic on Hoel’s part. Didn’t you hear that in 2050, 62 will be the new 25?  

Sometimes we agree with the general picture, but not with the details. Education will indeed be mostly online (again, it already is), but it will look more radical than what Hoel imagines. The real education giant today is not Harvard, or even MITx, but YouTube, and we will see more of THAT in the future. 

Hoel is right that AI will be impactful in day-to-day life, but we think this is true only in the obvious ways. You will still have Siri and Alexa, but you won’t have Data, or even Bender. We might have better image classifiers and even decent chatbots. Strong AI may be a possibility by 2050 (a topic for another time), but by the “extrapolate the future from current trends” technique, in 2050 many classifiers will still have a hard time telling the difference between a dragonfly and a bus. GPT-29 will be able to churn out a movie script as formulaic as that of the average Hollywood scriptwriter (and may well replace them) but it won’t be replacing writing that requires anything as complicated as “themes” or “meaning”. 

Hoel predicts wild changes in family structure — specifically, the decline of the family and the rise of the throuple. We agree family dynamics will change, but again we disagree on the specifics. More on this in a minute.

A few predictions we disagree with in general. Hoel predicts that the online mob will create an endless culture war, and that “the future really is female”. But the current culture war is amusingly soft compared to many cultural conflicts in living memory, and the fact that women get a majority of all degrees means very little when you believe that university degrees are worth less and less all the time!

Finally, we disagree that people and culture will become boring. Thanks for reading a pseudonymous mad science blog called SLIME MOLD TIME MOLD

SMTM Predictions


This first one is less an original prediction than an elaboration on Hoel, who says: 

Buzzing drones of all shapes and sizes will be common in the sky (last year Amazon won FAA approval for its delivery drone service, opening the door for this). Small robots will be everywhere, roving the streets in urban areas, mostly doing deliveries.

We agree. Robots will stay dumb but you will see a lot of them, possibly in delivery. It’s hard to look at work from Boston Dynamics and not expect that in 30 years we’ll have lots of quadrupedal robots trotting around our streets, carrying goods and generally acting as porters, footmen, and stevedores. 

If you get the price point low enough, small robots might even replace backpacks and suitcases. Boston Dynamics’ robot Spot currently costs $74,500, but 30 years of R&D can do a lot. Let’s take computers — in the early 90s, 1 GB of storage cost about $10,000. But these days you can get a 2 TB drive for about $50, which puts a 1 GB at only a few cents. If the same thing happened to Spot, it would cost less than a dollar. We don’t expect anything this drastic, but similar forces could turn quadrupedal robots into household goods. Our bet is on robotic palanquins.

The Witch of the Waste: robotics thought leader.

It also seems very likely that with 30 more years of R&D, we’ll have ironed out all the last problems with self-driving cars, so expect that kind of robot as well.

More Infectious Disease

For most of human history, infectious disease was a fact of life. As in so many things, the 20th century was an aberration. We developed antibiotics, improved hygiene, even eliminated some diseases altogether. But this pleasant moment in the sun is over. Someone writing in December 2019 might be forgiven for thinking that with our medical knowledge and scientific might, we could defeat any disease that might rise up. But evidently not.

This XKCD from 2015 aged kind of poorly. even says, “at the time of writing it was not readily apparent that the old dog still has some teeth”

This means more pandemics. Many will become endemic, as will probably happen with COVID. Some existing diseases will become resistant to our best antibiotics. If we’re really unlucky, we will see the return of smallpox or some horrible mystery plague released by the thawing permafrost. (Hoel is also concerned about this.) 

We still have germ theory, so we won’t be sent back to the state of things in 1854. But the future will look more like the past, and we’ll have to start paying attention to disease in the way our ancestors did. As historian Ada Palmer describes, “I have never read a full set of Renaissance letters which didn’t mention plague outbreaks and plague deaths, and Renaissance letters from mothers to their traveling sons regularly include, along with advice on etiquette and eating enough fennel, a list of which towns to avoid this season because there’s plague there.” Embrace tradition with this delicious recipe for Fenkel in soppes

Citizen Research

These days, big universities and medical centers and stuff are responsible for most research. But this is a big deviation from the historical norm. In the past, random haberdashers and architects and patent clerks and high school teachers, or just rich people with too much time on their hands, were the ones doing most of the cutting-edge research. 

There are already many signs of regression to the mean on this. Anonymous 4channers are publishing proofs to longstanding superpermutation problems on anime boards. The blog Astral Codex Ten (and predecessor blog Slate Star Codex, by the same author) publishes major reviews (“much more than you wanted to know”) on a wide variety of topics — disease seasonality, links between autism and intelligence, melatonin, you name it. Sometimes he even does empirical work — case studies on the effect of CO2 on cognition, large nootropics usage surveys, studies of SSRI usage, etc.

Pseudonymous internet besserwisser Gwern writes long articles on everything from Gaussian expected maximums to generating anime faces with neural networks. Wikipedia, the largest and most-read reference work in history, is written entirely by volunteers. And of course there’s us, Slime Mold Time Mold, creating a book-length original work where we argue for a new theory of the obesity epidemic. 

This is only going to speed up. The 2020s will see a lot more research from people who aren’t in the academy, and by 2050, most of the best scholarship will be done by laypeople.

Elective Chemistry

At some point in the near future, the trends of plastic surgery, nootropics, psychedelic legalization, trans hormone therapy, and bodybuilding will collide, with spectacular results. 

Doing things to reshape your body and mind is an idea as old as dirt, but with recent advances in technology, and breakdowns in cultural taboos, the practice of what could be called “elective chemistry” is going to take off, probably in the next 10 or 20 years. 

Why let nature be the only one who has any say over the chemicals affecting your mind and body? It’s already common to use caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco to reshape your mind. If you’re willing to go out of your way, you can get a psychiatrist to prescribe any number of mind-altering chemicals, and many people today are on lexapro or modafinil or adderall or wellbutrin full-time. And while this is easy enough to do legally, it’s even easier outside the law — many people use psychedelics, steroids, or hormone therapies illegally, to change their minds or bodies as they see fit.

This won’t just become more acceptable for people on the margins of society, it will become mainstream. Cis people are already the largest consumers of hormone therapy and other medical procedures normally assocaited with trans healthcare (largely because of base rates, but even so). Cis men sometimes go on androgen replacement therapy as they age, and cis women often go on hormone replacement therapy after menopause, which sometimes includes testosterone. And it’s equally easy to use them as mind-altering substances, since they have psychological effects as well as physical ones.

Working out, getting plastic surgery, and taking steroids or hormones are all just forms of body modification. We’ve already come to accept piercings and tattoos, to the point where they’re practically boring. In the near future, most forms of body modification will be unremarkable, in the literal sense that you cannot be bothered to remark on them.  

(This may be extended even further by the development of better prosthetics, like the extra thumb or connecting your brain directly to social media — wait that last one seems like a bad idea.)

Europe will become less important, regional politics more important, and general de-globalization

Europe was a technological and cultural backwater for most of history. Then, in the 16th century, Europe began a period of explosive growth and development, sometimes called the Great Divergence. There’s a lot of interesting debate as to why this happened, but it definitely did happen. 

It was also definitely a historical anomaly, and there are already signs of things going back to the way they were. There was a crunch in favor of Europa and her direct offshoots up to the middle of the 20th century, but since 1950 things have been turning around:

The fastest-growing economies in the world are all countries like Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Turkey, and Iran. Brazil is already the 13th-largest economy in the world, Indonesia the 16th, and Nigeria the 27th — all ahead of countries like Ireland (29th), Norway (31st), Denmark (37th), and Portugal (49th). It’s hard to predict who the big winners will be, but it’s clear that Europe will become less and less important, as countries in the rest of the world become major powers.

As wealth and power gets more distributed, supply chains will get shorter and less global. Measures of globalization used to increase year after year, but they sputtered in the financial crash of 2008 and never really recovered. COVID has provided another shock, a disruption that is far from over. There isn’t really a trend away from globalization yet, but the trend in favor of globalization has definitely stalled. 

There may also be regression to the mean in protectionism. Historically, many states have supported themselves largely through tariffs (see e.g. for the US), and protectionism may be good for growing economies. If globalization really has stalled for the long-term, and certainly if it starts to reverse, we may see more and more tariffs, even a shift in how governments fund themselves. Russia and India have already begun taking steps in that direction, and other countries may follow.

Non-nuclear families

Historically, most people lived in large extended families. The nuclear family, at least as we know it today, is largely an artifact of the unusual circumstances of the 20th century. As income inequality and the cost of buying a home increase, more people will live in large groups — be that group houses, “adult dorms”, or multigenerational homes. COVID has accelerated this trend. More young adults (18 to 29) are living at home now than they were at any point since 1900. The future doesn’t look like Leave it to Beaver, or even The Simpsons

Part of this will be transitioning back to a system where familial wealth is more important than personal wealth. Historically if your family disowned you, you were screwed. This is why a mainstay of 19th century literature is killing your brother for an inheritance.

And as much as the “kill your brother for the inheritance” thing was a pattern of the upper classes, familial wealth was more important than personal wealth even for peasants (though for peasants, it was sort of more communal wealth than familial).

This is why we agree with Hoel’s prediction of major changes in family structure. We agree that “normal families” are on their way out. But we disagree on nearly all the specifics. We don’t expect to see lots of single-parent homes — we expect more multi-generational homes, group homes, or other arrangements, with lots of adults co-raising children. See e.g. Kelsey Piper’s experience, her main conclusions being “I have no idea how people with two parent households manage” and “I wish we had even more breastfeeding parents”. Put that on a t-shirt: Even More Breastfeeding Parents by 2050.

And instead of seeing a rise in throuples, we expect to see a return of that very old-fashioned arrangement, the Harem — where a person of means has multiple wives, one wife and multiple concubines, etc. etc. 

Wage labor becomes less common 

Tying yourself to a major employer is still the norm today, but this is changing. Some people will be paid on retainer (i.e. a salary), and some jobs where you really are being paid for your time (e.g. security guard) will still be hourly, but more and more people will be paid to complete specific tasks or deliver a particular result, with no questions asked as to how fast they did it.  

We think the gig economy is coming for the rest of the marketplace, but instead of everything being chopped up into little tasks and ruled by corporations (à la Uber), we expect it to look like more contract workers and fewer full-time employees. More people will be self-employed, or will form small companies to deliver goods or services on demand. 

We expect this is (mostly) a good thing. People benefit from being their own boss and being able to do the work however they want, as long as they get it done. Being paid to stand around and look busy isn’t good for anyone. 

To a historical person, wage labor would be one of the strangest things about the modern world, and the idea of a steady job with benefits would be even stranger. Most people were farmers and almost never had any reason to handle money. Even if you were a potter or a blacksmith, you were paid for your product, the actual bowl or knife you were selling, not for your labor or the hours you worked.

Antibodies to the Outrage Economy

Once upon a time, clickbait was a major annoyance, but it was mostly a problem because people fell for it. The term was invented in 2006, and clickbait was the scourge of the internet for a few years, but by 2014 the cultural immune response was in full swing. The Onion launched ClickHole that year, Facebook started taking steps to squash clickbait, blah blah blah.

Now, no one reads clickbait because we’ve learned better. People are learning again. Hoel is worried that “Social media will ensure an endless culture war and internal social upheaval.” But we’re not worried, because soon we will develop cultural antibodies to the outrage economy, just like we developed cultural antibodies to clickbait, or to evolution vs. creationism debates, or to whatever was blowing up the internet in the 1990s (arguments about Microsoft?).

In fact, we’re already getting there. There was a time when we used to click on outrageous political stories. Now I think, “They’re rifting me”, and move on without clicking. No one has written the definitive piece on it yet, but “don’t read the news” is a meme that’s gaining steam. We hear it from our friends all the time. People are waking up to the fact that the news will do almost anything to raise your blood pressure, and that freaking out about “the issues of the day” does no one any good.

There will always be some new brainworm that we have to develop cultural antibodies to. And it might be fun to speculate which stupid argument will threaten to tear us apart next. But the outrage economy is on its way out, and the divisions of 2050 will look very, very different from the divisions we see today.

Identity and Anonymity Online

In the early days of the internet, everyone was anonymous — as the old saying goes, “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

But today the assumption is that everyone uses their real name. This is Mark Zuckerberg’s fault, for pushing real names on Facebook. “You have one identity,” he says in David Kirkpatrick’s 2010 book, The Facebook Effect. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

But this will be even more of a flash in the pan than fighting about politics online. Internet anonymity is already coming back into style (hello) and this trend will continue into the future. Most people will have a mix of public and private accounts, pseudonyms, alts, and pen names. As with many of our other “predictions”, this is pretty much true already — what will change is that there will eventually be widespread acknowledgement and acceptance.

This is also a regression to the historical mean. Public anonymity and pseudonymity is a long and esteemed tradition — just ask Voltaire, George Sand, Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, George Orwell, or Dr. Seuss.

During the American revolution, practically everyone was using a pseudonym. Many of these guys were already famous public figures, and ALSO writing pseudonymous letters. They were having it both ways — they had alts! 

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote The Federalist Papers under the name “Publius”. But Ben Franklin was the real master of this — his pseudonyms included not only Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanack, but also “Silence Dogood”, “Caelia Shortface”, “Martha Careful”, “Anthony Afterwit”, “Miss Alice Addertongue”, “Polly Baker”, and “Benevolus”. We shudder to think what he would have done with even a dial-up connection.

Advances in crypto, VR, AR, and social networking will splinter the web, not unite it. More virtual locations means more places for different identities to thrive — just like how your family group text is different from the Discord channel you have with your friends, is different from your reddit comments, is different from your LinkedIn profile, is different from the messages you send on tinder. 

Loss of the distinction between “Lowbrow” and “Highbrow”

In 2018, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. became the first rap album to win a Pulitzer. Before this, the prize had only ever gone to classical or jazz. In 2020, skateboarding was in the Olympics for the first time, and most of the medals went to teenagers. The game Hades from Supergiant Games recently won a Hugo Award. It’s the first video game to do so, but it’s unlikely to be the last. 

In fact, the Hugo Awards themselves may be a good example of this trend. Back in 1953 when the Hugos started, fantasy and science fiction (and everything nerdy) was fringe stuff, totally marginal. Today, comic book superheroes dominate the box office and Targaryens are household names. 

This trend shows every sign of continuing. Things that are fringe, lowbrow, and popular will continue getting more and more official recognition, to the point that we will eventually lose the distinction between lowbrow and highbrow art at all. Olympic fencing is already on the same plane as olympic surfing, and soon there will be no social difference between comic games like Untitled Goose Game by House House, and comic operas like Le nozze di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. If that seems impossibly flippant, remember that Mozart once composed a canon in B-flat major called “Lick me in the ass”.

High culture

This is part of why we’re not concerned that people and culture will become boring — cultural forces are constantly driving bizarre, fringe works towards the mainstream, and this trend shows no signs of stopping. Among other things, this will be really good for social mobility.

Minorities as minorities

Saying that America will be a majority-minority country by 2050 is the wrong way of thinking about it. By 2050, we won’t think about minorities in the same way at all. We won’t hold on to this sense of minority-nonminority — we’ll give up the minority-nonminority idea in favor of something more specific.

The categories that are important now won’t be important in 30 years. Concept that we take for granted — the idea of being Italian, or German, or even just European — didn’t exist until pretty recently. We expect a return to a sort of negative multiculturalism — everyone is sort of fighting with everyone else, like how all the cities on the Italian peninsula used to go at it without much of a sense of shared Italian identity.

Legacy media struggles to keep up, but race and gender already compete with minority identities like subculture and political leanings. Your identity comes from being a goth, a furry, by wearing hiking clothes to the office, by wearing a $1,200 Canada Goose jacket on the New York subway in October, by your favorite sports team, by the websites you frequent, by which author or podcaster you won’t shut up about, by which YouTubers you reference, by being a progressive or a libertarian or an ACAB commie. In many contexts, your status as one of these minorities already matters more than your race, gender, or even sexuality — and online, your meatspace traits barely matter at all. 

The True Uses of the Internet are not yet Known

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, but Martin Luther didn’t publish his 95 theses until 1517. If it takes a new technology 77 years to come into its own strength, we shouldn’t be surprised.

There are a number of dates we could choose for the invention of the internet — the first ARPANET connections in 1969, the TCP/IP standard in 1982, or the first web pages in 1991. Maybe 1993 is the right choice, being the year of the first web browser, the invention of HTML, and Eternal September, though basic technologies like URLs and HTTP didn’t come until a few years later! 

If we do go with 1993, then 77 years later would be the nice round 2070. Maybe the modern world moves a little bit faster than the protestant reformation, but anyone who thinks the internet hasn’t lived up to expectations in terms of changing the world should wait a minute. The cutting-edge developments of the early 2020s will come to seem like Jacobus de Varagine’s Legenda aurea — which you’ve probably never heard of, that’s the point. We haven’t seen the internet’s real face yet.

Links for December 2021

…and now, back to your regularly-scheduled SMTM links posts.

Barcode scanners: the cool new instrument, especially if you strap one to your skateboard.

A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry takes an extremely close look at the operations and logistics of two sieges depicted in The Lord of the Rings — the Siege of Minas Tirith in six parts and the Siege of Helm’s Deep in eight parts! In both series, the Pedant makes a compelling case that the logistics on both sides of each siege are effective characterization of the commanders involved — you learn a lot about Théoden, Saruman, Denethor, and the Witch-King of Angmar by how they conduct their operations. This blog is great in general, but we’ll refrain from making any other specific recommendations, he just has too many good posts. He keeps hitting that sweet spot of “incredibly long but so good it’s worth reading anyways”.

Other people who really get it: BREADSWORD on Disney’s Robin Hood and the Death of Color. Why mirth and joyousness are important — and if you don’t get it, “these pages are not for you”. To prepare for this video, Breadsword watched every Robin Hood movie and TV show ever made, it’s worth seeing. And as you may know, this tradition is an interest of ours.

Lars Doucet, who won the first ACX book review contest with his review of Henry George’s 1897 book Progress & Poverty, is back with the first three parts of an extensive series on Georgism, kicking the tires to see if it’s worth taking these ideas seriously. He goes after the big three critiques people have of Georgism —  is land really a big deal?, can landlords just pass land value taxes on to their tenants?, and can the value of land be accurately estimated separately from the buildings sitting on top? He’s planning to keep the series going at, so this story ain’t over yet.

Many of you were amused at the historical dildo reference we found in the 1674 anonymous WOMEN’S PETITION AGAINST COFFEE REPRESENTING TO PUBLICK CONSIDERATION THE Grand INCONVENIENCIES accruing to their SEX from the Excessive Use of that Drying, Enfeebling LIQUOR, which we mentioned in our essay Higher than the Shoulders of Giants; Or, a Scientist’s History of Drugs. So here’s some more scholarship on historical dildos, focusing on an 18th-centry piece “​​fitted with a plunger to simulate ejaculation”. Lots of juicy quotes from this one, but we’ll refrain — read it for yourself.

What made The Matrix so special? One possibility: “They have this really admirable view of people, that everybody is as smart as they are, which is one of the reasons why The Matrix is such an unusual movie. … The Wachowskis always think people are gonna get it. They always think of people as smart.” Bonus trivia: before he got woken up, Morpheus was a barber.

You will never love anything as much as Biquette the goat loved punk rock. “To put it plainly,” reports VICE, “Biquette was a goat who loved grindcore.” Her favorite food, cigarette butts “in all [their] forms (butts from the ashtray, lit cig in your hand….)”, may have contributed to her early demise. 

Forcing your smart toaster to play the 1993 first-person shooter DOOM is a standard benchmark in computer science. Now psychologists are getting in on the fun: training rats to play DOOM in VR. See also the technical report here. So far the rats can walk down a hallway and sometimes shoot monsters, but research is ongoing. 

Rita Levi-Montalcini made major discoveries in neuroscience from her bedroom, using a couple of microscopes, a camera and paper, some melting wax, chicken eggs, and “an egg incubator that her brother built with a thermostat and a fan”. All this through the Allied bombing of her home town of Turin. She later went on to win a Nobel Prize and become the first Nobel laureate to live to 100. 

From the Unicode Consortium: The Most Frequently Used Emoji of 2021. Among many other things: “it appears that reports of Tears of Joy’s death are greatly exaggerated 😂.”

Borgen presents a view of politics in which little is at stake beyond the central character’s attainment of deserved power and success; government is merely an arena for self-realization. … The viewer gets the sense that to acknowledge the impacts of government actions on the public at large would somehow spoil the fun, complicating our identification with the heroine.” An analysis of “a social stratum in the modern West that sees politics as a realm of spectacle and personal drama” through the lens of a critically-acclaimed and critically-naïve Danish political drama

Smaller-scale but similar issues; a vignette on political talk and small talk. What do you do when someone tries to rehash a conversation that both of you have heard, point for point, a hundred times before?

What happens if you use human stem cells to make a brain organoid? Well, they “generate primitive sensory structures that are light sensitive and harbor cell types similar to those found in the body.” We like mad science but this is kinda creepy even by our standards.

Everyone knows that the microbiome is important to your health. Turns out the quality of black tea is also impacted by ITS microbiome. Has anyone tried rubbing yogurt on their… you know what, forget it.

A Chemical Hunger – Part X: What to Do About It



Assuming you take our main thesis seriously — that obesity is the result of environmental contaminants — what should you do about it?

Our suggestions are very prosaic: Be nice to yourself. Eat mostly what you want. Trust your instincts. 

Diet and exercise won’t cure obesity, but this is actually good news for diet and exercise. You don’t need to put the dream of losing weight on their shoulders, and you can focus on their actual benefits instead. You should focus on your diet — not to get thin, but to make sure that you have enough energy to do everything you want to do in life. This means eating enough and making sure you get what you need. You should exercise — not to slim down, but to gain strength and energy, and you shouldn’t get discouraged when you don’t drop 50 lbs fast.

Don’t be mean to fat people. If you’re fat, don’t be mean to yourself about it. Don’t be a dick.

Pancakes Good

And this doesn’t apply to most of our readers, of course, but just in general — we gotta stop spending money on circular nutrition research. It’s clearly not going anywhere. Other theories of obesity don’t engage with the observations that are out there about the obesity epidemic, and try to explain the wrong thing.

Most theories focus on the dynamics of individual weight loss, under the assumption that obesity is the result of the normal mechanics of eating, exercise, weight loss, and weight gain. But we think that the dynamics of individual weight loss have almost nothing to do with the real question, which is why obesity rates are so much higher now than they were in the 1970s, and the rest of human history. Individuals can gain or lose 15-20 lbs from their set point, but this is messing around within the range of control — we only care about the set point.

Let’s say it’s 50 °F outside. If your thermostat is set to 72 °F and you open the door, your house’s temperature will drop at first and then will go back up to the set point of 72 °F. If your thermostat is set to 110 °F and you open the door, your house’s temperature will drop at first and then will go back up to the set point of 110 °F (assuming your furnace is strong enough).

This is a standard feature of how homeostatic systems respond to major disturbances — the controlled value swings around for a bit until the system can get it back under control, and send it back to the set point. So all the diet and exercise studies we’ve done over the last 50 years have just been an exercise in who can create the biggest, most jarring disturbance — but the lipostat always finds a way to bring your weight back where it wants it.

So all these “punch the control system as hard as we can” studies don’t tell us anything about why the thermostat is set to 110 °F in the first place, which is what we’re really interested in.

Get It Outta Me

Bestselling nutrition books usually have this part where they tell you what you should do differently to lose weight and stay lean. Many of you are probably looking forward to us making a recommendation like this. We hate to buck the trend, but we don’t think there’s much you can do to keep from becoming obese, and not much you can do to drop pounds if you’re already overweight. 

We gotta emphasize just how pervasive the obesity epidemic really is. Some people do lose lots of weight on occasion, it’s true, but in pretty much every group of people everywhere in the world, obesity rates just go up, up, up. We’ll return to our favorite quote from The Lancet:

“Unlike other major causes of preventable death and disability, such as tobacco use, injuries, and infectious diseases, there are no exemplar populations in which the obesity epidemic has been reversed by public health measures.”

The nonprofit has data from the WHO covering obesity rates in almost every country in the world from 1975 to 2016. In every country in this dataset, the obesity rate either stayed the same or increased every single year from 1975 to 2016. There is not one example of obesity rates declining for even a single country in a single year. Countries like Japan and Vietnam are some of the leanest countries in the world (about 4% and 2% obese, respectively), but in this dataset at least, even these super-lean countries don’t see even a single year where their obesity rates decline.

We see the same trend even for smaller-scale data. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) has a dataset of county-level obesity data from 2001 to 2011, which is publicly available on their website. Using this we can look at obesity rates across the United States, and we can see how much obesity rates have changed in each county between 2001 and 2011. We see that between 2001 and 2011, obesity rates decreased in zero counties, stayed the same in zero counties, and increased in 3,143 out of 3,143 counties and county equivalents in the United States.

The smallest increase between 2001 and 2011 was in Eagle County, Colorado, where obesity rates went from 20.0% in 2001 to 21.5% in 2011, an increase of 1.5%. You’ll notice that this is Colorado once again, and it turns out that the five counties with the smallest increase from 2001 to 2011 are all in Colorado. Of the 25 counties with the smallest increase, 13 are in Colorado. The take-home here is that Colorado really is special. 

If we zoom in a little further on these data, we can find ONE case of obesity rates declining — they went from 22.7% in 2009 to 22.4% in 2011 in Fairfax City, Virginia, a drop of 0.3%. There were also two counties where rates stayed the same 2009-2011. But this is one county with rates going down, two staying the same, and 3,140 going up. If population-level reversals are this tiny and this rare, it’s hard to imagine that there is much an individual can do to change their own weight. 

But that said, here are a few ideas, approximately in order from least extreme to most extreme.

First off, there are a few things that won’t change how many contaminants you’re exposed to, but that may have an impact on your weight anyways.

1. The first is that you can put on more muscle mass. This won’t affect your weight as it appears on the scale, but it does often seem to affect people’s body composition. The lipostat pays attention to how much fat you have, but it also seems to pay some attention to how much you literally weigh (see these studies in mice, and this recent extension in humans). So if you gain muscle mass, you may lose fat mass. For advice on how to gain muscle mass, please see the internet.

2. — The second is that you could consider getting gastric bypass or a similar, related surgery. Our understanding is that these procedures are very effective at causing weight loss in many cases. However, they are pretty dangerous — this is still a surgical procedure, and so inherently comes with a risk of death and other serious complications. If you consider this option please take it very seriously, consult with your doctor, etc.

Many of you, however, are not just interested in weight loss, or are interested in weight loss along with reducing how many mystery chemicals you’re exposed to — “You stupid kids I don’t want to lose weight I want to get these contaminants out of my body!!!” So here’s a list of steps you could take to reduce your exposure and possibly lose weight, again approximately in order from least extreme to most extreme.

1. — The first thing you should consider is eating more whole foods and/or avoiding highly processed foods. This is pretty standard health advice — we think it’s relevant because it seems pretty clear that food products tend to pick up more contaminants with every step of transportation, packaging, and processing, so eating local, unpackaged, and unprocessed foods should reduce your exposure to most contaminants. 

2. — The second thing you can do is try to eat fewer animal products. Vegetarians and vegans do seem to be slightly leaner than average, but the real reason we recommend this is that we expect many contaminants will bioaccumulate, and so it’s likely that whatever the contaminant, animal products will generally contain more than plants will. So this may not help, but it’s a good bet. 

3. — The third thing is you can think about changing careers and switching to a leaner job. Career is a big source of variance in obesity rates, so if you have a job in a high-obesity profession like truck driver or mechanic, consider switching to a job in a low-obesity profession like teacher or surveyor. For a sense of what careers are high- and low-obesity, check out this paper about obesity by occupation in Washington State and this paper about obesity by occupation in US workers. If you are already in a pretty lean career, then ignore this one.

We think this goes double if you’re in a profession where you’re working with lithium grease directly, or even around lithium grease. Do what you can to stay away from the stuff.

4. — The fourth thing you can consider is changing where you live. The simplest is to change where you live locally — stay in the same area, but move to a different house or apartment. This one is tricky, and sort of a shot in the dark. How will you know if you are moving to a more or less-contaminated house? But if you suspect your house is high in contaminants, it might be worth moving. If you find specific contaminants especially concerning, you can try having your local water tested for them.

5. — A better option is to move to a leaner place altogether. If you’re in the United States, we recommend Colorado. Colorado is the leanest state, has exceptionally pure water sources, individual cities and counties in Colorado are extreme lean outliers, etc. Unbelievably, this comic exists: 

By Brian Crain for The Washington Post

If Colorado doesn’t suit you, you can move to some other state — Hawaii and Massachusetts are not far behind. To find your dream location, look at the CDC’s list of states, or one of the datasets of county-level data like this one or this one, and find a location with a lower rate of obesity than where you currently live. Or pick one of the places from the list of leanest communities in the US

6. — This may not be extreme enough. After all, even Colorado is more than 20% obese. So a more radical version of the same idea is moving to a leaner country altogether. 

If you live in the United States, the good news is that most countries are less obese than where you live now, even if you live in Colorado. Especially good choices seem to be Japan, South Korea, and Thailand, but there are many options — for the whole picture, check out the summary from Our World in Data

But don’t just take our word for it, listen to these happy customers. Like this person who lost weight over five months in Vietnam, this person who moved to Vietnam and lost 112 pounds in ten months, this person who lost about 4kg (9lbs) after about two months in Japan (and similar stories in the comments), this person who lost 5lbs on a two-week trip to Japan, or this person who lost 10lbs during a two-week trip to Japan, despite not keeping up with their exercise regimen. Most of these people attribute their weight loss to eating less and walking more, but you’ll also notice that most of them say it was easy to eat less and walk more, and that many of them report being surprised at how much weight they lost and how easily they lost it. 

We’ve also gotten a number of similar stories from commenters on the blog. First up is Julius, who said:

I currently live in Seattle but have moved around a lot. I’ve made 6 separate moves between places where I drank the tap water (mostly USA/UK/Hungary) and places I haven’t (South East Asia, India, Middle East). Whenever I’ve spent significant time in bottled water countries I lost weight (up to 50 lbs), and each time, save one 3 month stretch in Western Europe, I gained it back in tap water countries. I also lost weight for the first time in the States (20 lbs) this year around the time I switched to filtered water.

There’s also a similar story from Ross:

Very thought provoking and well researched piece. How about Japan? Very low rates of obesity. Similar issues with chemical residue. Anecdotally when I moved to Japan from the West I began to lose weight involuntarily, down to a BMI of 22. When I moved back to the West I regained weight. It’s a big rich country with plenty of processed, packaged food.

And a story from Tuck about their daughter:

Yes, my daughter is going to college in Japan. They have the “Freshmen 15 lbs” over there as well, except it’s the 15 lbs the foreigners lose when they go on a Japanese diet. Got a few panicked messages about “not having anything to wear”… LOL

So before you sign up for the gastric bypass, try spending a couple months in a lean country and see how it goes.


The question “what do we do about it” also includes the question “what research comes next?” Here’s what we’re thinking.

Correlational Studies

A lot of people’s first instincts when reading this work is to propose correlational studies. (We don’t necessarily mean a literal correlation, we just mean something that’s not a controlled experiment.) But we think that correlational studies are the wrong way to go at this point.

The first reason is statistical. We covered this in Part IV but it bears repeating. Because most of the modern variation in obesity is genetic, the apparent effect of any contaminant will be quite small, probably no larger than r = 0.50 and maybe a lot smaller. In any study we could run, the range of the variable would probably be restricted, and when the range of a variable is restricted, the correlation always ends up looking smaller than it really is. Some people have proposed we do animal studies for more control — but this is also a bad choice statistically, since the obesity effects in animals seem to be smaller than the effects for humans.

The combination of these problems means that any correlational study would be searching for a pretty small effect, and that means you would need a huge sample size to even have a good chance of finding a potential relationship. So “run a quick correlational study” starts looking like “find a way to fund and organize a study with 1,000 mice”. While we love mice, this seems like an awful lot of them. And even if we have enough statistical power that we have a 90% chance to detect a relationship, that still means we have a 10% chance of missing the relationship altogether. We don’t love those odds. 

Second, A Chemical Hunger already documents a lot of correlational evidence for contaminants in general, and for a few contaminants in particular, especially lithium. If you already find this evidence compelling, it’s hard to imagine that one more piece of correlational evidence will do anything for you. And if you don’t find our review convincing, it’s hard to imagine that another piece of correlational evidence will change your mind.

The contamination theory of obesity has to be possible, in the sense that we know chemicals can cause weight gain and we know various chemicals are in the environment. We hope we’ve also convinced you that it’s plausible. Now we want to figure out, is it true? More correlational evidence isn’t going to get us there.

So overall we recommend going right for the jugular. If this theory is correct, then we have a good shot at doing what we really want to do — actually curing obesity — and no result could be more convincing than that. 


So in general, we approve of the idea of doing experiments to just cure obesity straight up.

Normally in public health it’s hard to do this kind of experiment, because it’s unethical to expose people to dangerous chemicals. Back when they were trying to figure out if cigarettes cause cancer, they didn’t do any studies where they assigned people to smoke 3 packs a day. But there’s nothing unethical about removing a contaminant from the environment, so we like that approach. 

We call these experiments, and they are, but in many cases we can actually cheat a little by not bothering to include a control group. People almost never spontaneously stop being obese, so we can just use the general obesity rate in the population as our control group. 

Generally speaking, there are two approaches. “Broad-spectrum” experiments take the overall contaminant theory seriously, and just try to reduce contaminant exposure generally, without committing to any specific contaminant. “Targeted” experiments go after one contaminant in particular, and see if controlling levels of that contaminant alone can lead to weight loss.

These have clear trade-offs. The broad-spectrum experiments are more likely to work and require less experimental control, but if they cure obesity, they don’t tell us what contaminant is responsible (curing obesity would still be pretty cool tho). The targeted experiments are less likely to work because we might go after the wrong contaminant, or we might fuck up our experimental control and let some contamination through — but if they DO work, then we have strong evidence that we’ve found the contaminant that’s responsible.

For all of these studies, the big hurdle is that we don’t know how quickly obesity can be reversed, even under the best circumstances. It might also vary a lot for different people — we have no idea. So if we try any of these experiments, we need to run them for several months at the very least, just to get a good idea of whether or not it’s working. Maybe if we’re lucky we’ll find out you can cure obesity in 2 weeks; but 3 months, 6 months, or even 1 year seems more plausible. 

Below, we propose a few basic ideas for experiments. These aren’t exhaustive — as we do more research, we may come up with new and better ways to try to cure obesity. But they seem like an ok place to start.

Broad-Spectrum Experiments

Slime Mold Time Mold’s Excellent Adventure

The idea is simple. Some places, like Colorado, are pretty lean relative to everywhere else. We think that’s because those places are less contaminated. So we find some people who are obese, and pay for them all to take a year-long vacation to Boulder, Colorado, and see if they lose any weight. 

For better effect, go a step further and send them to one of the leanest countries in the world instead. Vietnam seems to be the leanest country in the world right now, at only about 2% obese, and rent is pretty cheap there, so that would be a good option. If you want to stay in heavily industrialized nations, Japan is a good alternative; if you want to stay in the English-speaking world, maybe the Philippines. There are lots of good places to choose from.

For full effect, you would want your participants to eat the local food and drink the local water as much as possible. If they’re eating American food and drinking American beer, then you’re right back where you started.

(If you know of any study abroad or similar programs that we could piggyback on, please let us know!)

Throw Water Filters at the Problem and See What Happens

This is a broad-spectrum version of a targeted idea, below. The basic idea is simple. Contaminants might be in the water supply; filters get lots of stuff out of water; people drink water. So in this study, we find a bunch of people who are overweight or obese, send them the strongest/best water filters we can afford, and see if they lose any weight over the next several months. 

For even more effect, send the filters to people who live in the most obese states, or even target some of the most obese communities directly.

This really is not a precision instrument — filters don’t get everything out of water, and water might not even be your main source of contaminants. Maybe your food or your carpets are the bigger problem. But if losing weight were as simple as throwing a water filter at the problem, that would be pretty exciting, and we would want to know.

Targeted Experiments

Right now lithium is our top suspect, so we’re using lithium as our go-to example in all of these experiments. But if it turns out that lithium isn’t a good match, any of these experiments could be retrofitted to target some other contaminant instead. 

To use a targeted approach, we need to be able to figure out how much exposure people are getting, and we need to know what we can do to reduce that exposure. So there are a few pre-experiment projects we need to do first.

To begin with, we need to figure out which water filters (if any!) remove lithium from drinking water. If we can find a filter that works, this will let us make sure any water source is lithium-free.

In addition, we’re worried that lithium might accumulate in food, so we need to do another study where we look at as many different types of food as we can and try to figure out if there are high levels of lithium in any of the stuff we’re all eating. Without this, any study will be hopelessly complicated because we won’t be able to control for the lithium in your food. But if we figure out what crops (if any) are concentrating lithium, maybe we can figure out a way to feed people a low-lithium diet.

Targeted Water Filters

Assuming we can find a water filter that does the job, we could do a pretty straightforward study where we send people a water filter that takes lithium out of their water, and see if they lose weight over a couple months.

For maximum effect, we would also want to make sure they weren’t getting any lithium from their food, which is why we want to do a study on how much lithium is in the food supply. It’s not clear how easy this would be — we might have to curate food sources and provide people with all their meals as well, which would make this study a hundred times more complicated.

There are a couple other things we could do to improve this study. We could focus on sending water filters to people in the most obese parts of the country, or to places where we already know the water is contaminated with lithium.

We could test the amount of lithium in people’s blood, urine, and/or saliva as they use the filter, see if it goes down, and see if the decrease in lithium in their body tracks on to weight loss. Assuming people did lose weight, this would be important because it might help us figure out more about the mechanism of lithium leaving the body. Some people will probably clear lithium faster than others, and if lithium causes obesity, we would want to be able to figure out how to help people clear it from their body as fast as possible. 

We could also do a slightly bigger study, where we go to one of the fattest places in the US and install a bunch of whole-home water filtration systems for a couple randomly selected families who are overweight or obese. This would be more expensive but it would have some perks. If it turns out that showering in lithium-tainted water is really the active ingredient, and not just drinking it, then a whole-home water filtration system would take care of that. 

There’s also a small chance that there’s just no filter on the market that can get lithium out of drinking water. Or maybe distillation works, but the cost is prohibitive for a whole-home system. In that case, we could rent a few water tanker trucks, fill them with water we know is low in lithium (we’ll import it from Colorado if we have to!), and take them to a cul-de-sac in one of the most obese communities in the US. If we can find a neighborhood who’d sign up for this, we could switch their houses’ water supplies over to our tanker trucks for a few months, bringing in new water as needed, and see if that did anything for their health. 

Amish Obesity

This piece from the LA Times is pretty bad, but it tells an interesting story. In part of Ontario, Canada, a group of Old Order Amish have “stunningly low obesity levels, despite a diet high in fat, calories and refined sugar.” The figure they quote is an obesity rate of only 4%. But about 200 miles south, the Amish in Holmes County, Ohio have obesity rates similar to the rest of the population, closer to 30% obese.

These two groups should be genetically similar. Both groups grow most of their own food. Both of them have pretty similar lifestyles — despite what the LA Times piece and this related article say, even if “only” 40% of the Amish in Ohio do hard farm labor, their lives are still more like the Amish in Ontario than the non-Amish in Holmes Country. 

This makes them almost a perfect comparison. Why are the Amish in Ohio so much more obese than the Amish in Ontario? If the contamination hypothesis is correct, then we should be able to look at the local environments of these two communities and find more contamination (of one sort or another) in Ohio than in Ontario. 

Because both groups grow most of their own food (we think?), we don’t need to worry about the influence of food imported from elsewhere — whatever contaminants are in their water will also be in their plants, and they won’t be bringing in contaminated food from outside. This makes this situation a much more controlled environment to study our hypothesis.

If lithium is the contaminant that causes obesity, we might expect to see deeper wells in Ohio than in Ontario. Information about the Amish is hard to find on the internet, for obvious reasons, but we have found some information that suggests that the Amish in America do use drilled wells, some of which may be relatively recent. We can’t find anything about the wells used by the Amish in Ontario — but it would be interesting if they were still using older, shallower wells for their water.

Another thing we might expect to see, if lithium is to blame, is evidence of some kind of fossil fuel activity in Ohio and not in Ontario. Well, in our last post we did review evidence for fossil fuel contamination in a number of places in Ohio. And when we were looking for documentation on water wells in Amish Ohio, we came across articles like Fracking on Amish Land (in Ohio), Energy Companies Take Advantage of the Amish Prohibition on Lawsuits (in Ohio), this excerpt about natural gas wells (in Pennsylvania), and Tradition, temptation as Amish debate fracking (in Pennsylvania, but mostly in Ohio). 

Ontario has its own problems, including thousands of abandoned gas wells, but very few of them appear to be on Amish land. Zoom in on the towns of Milverton, Millbank, Newton, Linwood, and Atwood on that map, and you’ll see that there are almost no petroleum wells around these Amish communities. And unlike in Ohio, we haven’t found any news stories about recent drilling or fracking on Amish land in Ontario. 

Or we could just go test the water. It’s a simple question, how much lithium is in the water in each place, and testing for other contaminants might not be a bad idea either. If we find similar levels of lithium in both places, and there are no complicating factors like imported food, that would be a strike against lithium as an explanation. But if there’s more lithium in the food and water in Ohio than in Ontario, that would be quite a mark in favor of the lithium hypothesis. Assuming they were interested, we could then work with the Amish in Ohio to try to get the lithium (or whatever) out of their water, and see if that reduced their rates of obesity. 

We don’t expect that we have many Amish readers, but if you know of a good way to get in contact with the Amish in either of these locations, we’d be interested in talking to them!  

Research Advising

There are also a few ideas we have that we won’t be pursuing ourselves, but if someone else (or a small team) wants to go after them, we would be happy to advise.

Taking lithium out of the water supply as a whole would be pretty hard, so it’s not usually an option. But it might be an option for countries that get most of their drinking water from desalination. You could run this as an experiment — one desalination plant uses lithium-free brine while another continues with the normal procedure — but you wouldn’t have to. In this case, there’s no need for a control group. If Saudi Arabia or Kuwait changed their desalination process so that no lithium ended up in their water, and saw their obesity rate fall 10% over the next five years, that would be evidence enough. Or you could do a version of this study with some other relevant group, e.g. seafarers drinking desalinated water as suggested by commenter ugoglen. So if anyone is able to do something like this, we would be interested in being involved.

In our post on PFAS, we did a small amount of regression modeling using data from The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and found evidence of a relationship between BMI and certain PFAS in the data for 1999-200, 2003-2004, and 2005-2006. This finding is very suggestive, but we only tested some very simple models, and we only looked at three of the datasets that are available. We think that a bigger analysis could be very illuminating, but model fitting isn’t our specialty. We would love to work with a data scientist or statistician with more model fitting experience, however, to conduct a more complete analysis. So if you have those skills and you’re interested, please let us know

We’re still pretty interested in the all-potato diet. So far all we have are anecdotes, but the anecdotes are pretty compelling. Chris Voigt famously vowed to eat nothing but 20 plain potatoes (and a small amount of cooking oil) and lost 21 pounds over 60 days, without feeling very hungry. There’s also Andrew Taylor of Australia, who lost 114 lbs over a year of eating nothing but potatoes and reports feeling “totally amazing”. Last we heard he’s still doing pretty well. Magician Penn Jillette lost over 100 lbs using a strategy that started with two weeks of a potato-only diet (h/t reader pie_flavor), and seems to be keeping it off. This also inspired at least one copycat attempt from a couple who have jointly lost over 220 lbs starting with two weeks of an all-potato diet.

There’s also this comment from u/DovesOfWar on reddit:

To complement the potatoes anecdote, at some point to save money and time I ate almost nothing but potatoes, onions and butter and I lost like 60 pounds. I stopped because everyone thought I was starving (despite not being hungry) and I chugged it off to extreme lazyness/depression (despite not being sad) so I stopped doing that and never connected it to my diet, but what I should have done is write a fad book on the diet and solve the money problem that way. I’m back to a normal healthy 29 BMI now and still relatively poor, so I see I interpreted the experiment completely wrong and now my life sucks.

Based on those examples, you can see why we’re interested. It seems pretty low-cost (potatoes are cheap) and low-risk (if you feel bad, you can stop eating potatoes). If someone wants to organize a potato-centered weight-loss study, or if people just want to get together and try it for themselves, we’d be happy to advise. You can coordinate on the subreddit u/pondgrass set up over at r/spudbud if you like, though so far there doesn’t seem to be much activity.

We’re also interested in the effect of alkali metal ions, especially potassium. Lithium, currently our prime suspect, is an alkali metal ion that appears to affect the brain. Other alkali metal ions like sodium and potassium also play an important role in the brain, and there’s evidence that these ions may compete with each other, or at least interact, in interesting ways (see also here, here, and here). If lithium causes obesity, it may do so by messing with sodium or potassium signaling (or maybe calcium) in the brain, so changing the amount of these ions you consume, or their ratios, might help stop it. 

This is supported by some hints that potassium consumption is related to successful weight loss. Potatoes are high in potassium, so if the all-potato diet really does work, that might be part of the mechanism.

You can easily get sodium from table salt, and you can get potassium from potassium salts like this one or this one. We’ve tried them, and we find them a little gross, but to some people they taste just like regular salt. If that’s no good, there are always dietary sources like potatoes.

So trying various forms of alkali-metal diets — high-K+, high-K+/low-Na+, high-K+/high-Na+, high-K+/low-Ca2+, etc. — seems pretty easy and might prove interesting. As before, if someone wants to organize a community study around this angle, or if people want to try it for themselves, we’d be happy to advise. These salts are pretty safe, and not prescription medications, but they’re not quite as basic as potatoes — before you try seriously changing your sodium or potassium intake, please talk with your doctor.

Also, how about lithium grease? These greases are basically the perfect slow-release form of lithium, which make them kind of concerning. Mechanics work with lithium grease and are relatively obese. But there are alternative kinds of greases that don’t use lithium, and sometimes companies intentionally switch what kind of grease they use. If a company switched out lithium grease for some other grease in one of their factories, we could compare the weights of workers at that factory to workers at other factories, and see if there was any weight loss over the next few years. And what happens when mechanics who use lithium grease every day switch to a new job? What happens if they get promoted to a desk job? What happens when they retire? If you know a group of mechanics or some other group that works with lithium grease and might be interested, please let us know!

We’re also interested in advising original ideas. We love it when you send us ideas we never would have come up with ourselves. So if you have some great idea — a review of a contaminant we didn’t cover, another idea for a related study, relevant anecdotes that might inspire something, etc. — let us know. If we like it, we’ll do what we can to help — advise you, promote it, try to help you get funding, whatever.

This is the end of A Chemical Hunger. We will still write more about obesity, and probably more about contamination, but this is the end of the series. Thank you for reading, commenting, sharing, contributing, questioning, challenging, and yes, even disputing! We’ve learned a lot from your comments and questions — and we hope you’ve learned something from reading!

Even if you still don’t find our hypothesis convincing, thank you for reading the series all the way to the end! We think it’s great that you were willing to give our wacky idea the time of day. This kind of exploration is essential, even if some of the theories turn out to be a little silly. And even if our theory is totally wrong, someday someone will figure out the answer to this thing, and we’ll send the global obesity rate back down to 2%.

As we mentioned, we want to conduct some research to follow up on the book-length literature review you just finished reading. Our near-term goal is to better understand how people get exposed to contaminants, especially lithium, so we can give advice on how to avoid exposure. Our medium-term goal is to figure out what causes obesity, probably by trying to cure it in a sample population. Our long-term goal is to try to cure it everywhere. That would be pretty cool.

If you’re interested in supporting this research, you can become a patron on patreon, or contact us if you want to help fund a larger project.

In conclusion: Be excellent to each other. Party on, dudes.

A Chemical Hunger – Interlude I: The Fattest Cities in the Land


It’s surprisingly hard to tell what the fattest and leanest American cities are. 

We can’t find an official source — the closest we can find is this Gallup report from 2014 that lists some of the most and least obese US communities, out of 189 “Metropolitan Statistical Areas”. They offer a top 10 most obese list and a top 10 least obese list both for all US communities, and for “Major US communities”, which are communities with populations above 1 million. This isn’t perfect, but Gallup is pretty reliable, so for now let’s take it seriously. 

We’ve already seen that communities in Colorado get most of their water from pure snowmelt and are exceptionally lean. It would be interesting to see if other communities on the leanest list seem to have exceptionally pure local water, and if there’s any evidence of lithium (or other contaminants) in the drinking water of the communities on the most obese list.

There are 38 communities on Gallup’s lists. We’re going to hit them all, so to keep this from spiraling out of control, we’ll focus on communities where we can find actual measurements of how much lithium is in their water. For everywhere else, we’ll give a decent overview, and let you know if we can make educated guesses, but keep the speculation to a minimum.

Because “major communities” is kind of vague and long-winded, we’ll be calling the communities on that list “cities”.

Lithium isn’t commonly recorded in water quality assessments, so for most of these communities, no direct measurements of lithium in drinking water were available — so we use other local measurements, like levels in nearby groundwater, instead. If you find actual tap water lithium measurements for any communities we missed, please let us know!

Before we start, let’s orient you to the lithium measurements we’ll be looking at: 

  • 2 ng/mL is low, about how much was in the water in 1964 
  • 10 ng/mL starts to seem like a concern, and is the EPA’s threshold for drinking water
  • 40 ng/mL is the EPA’s threshold for groundwater contamination at power plants
  • 100+ ng/mL is a lot, about how much the Pima were exposed to

Least Obese

Gallup offers these lists for the least obese communities in the United States:

Boulder, CO – #1 Leanest Community

In our last post, we discussed how Colorado gets almost all its drinking water from snowmelt, so it’s no surprise that three of the ten leanest communities are from Colorado.

Even for Colorado, Boulder is a crazy outlier, at only 12.4% obese. Boulder is a college town, so age may be having some effect here, but nearby Fort Collins is also a college town, and their obesity rate is 18.2%. So is Boulder’s water source separate? Is it somehow crazy-extra-pure? Strangely enough, the answer on both counts may be “yes”. Boulder gets its water from a different company than Denver does, and its water generally comes from much closer by

Naples-Marco Island, FL  – #2 Leanest Community

Water in Naples “is drawn from the Lower Tamiami Aquifer via 51 wells.” We found this document suggesting that in 2008 the city of Naples was contracting analysis including lithium for the City Utilities Department. But we haven’t been able to find any actual lithium measurements either for the city or the Lower Tamiami Aquifer, and no other indications of lithium contamination in the area.

Fort Collins-Loveland, CO – #3 Leanest Community

Another Colorado town, Fort Collins’ appearance on this list is unsurprising. The water in this town comes from “the Upper Cache la Poudre River and Horsetooth Reservoir.” We can’t find any lithium measurements for these sources, but they appear to be snowmelt sources similar to other surface waters in Colorado. Their water appears to be at least partially provided by a company called Northern Water, which also provides water to Boulder.

Charlottesville, VA – #4 Leanest Community

Charlottesville gets its water from South Fork Rivanna River Reservoir and Ragged Mountain Reservoir. These collect water from the surrounding mountains, and the watershed appears to be about 70% forested. We haven’t been able to find any lithium measurements related to Charlottesville or from either of the reservoirs.

Bellingham, WA – #5 Leanest Community

The City of Bellingham gets its water from Lake Whatcom. According to this report, lithium measurements for Lake Whatcom should be available in a CSV called lakemetalstoc.csv on this page. All the other data files are indeed there, but lakemetalstoc.csv is not, and we can’t find it anywhere else. We fired up the Wayback Machine and found a version of the page from 2011, which helpfully tells us that “metals, TOC … are not posted in electronic format, but are included in the printed copies of the annual reports.” Ok then.

Denver, CO – #6 Leanest Community, #1 Leanest City

In our last post we reviewed how Denver gets its water from pure snowmelt off the Rocky Mountains, but we hadn’t tracked down any actual lithium measurements. Happily, we can now add something to that previous finding. This report from Denver Water in 2010 lists lithium as one of the “Contaminants Not Found In Denver’s Drinking Water” — “either below the reporting limit or the average result was less than the reporting limit.” Same for this report from 2016, this report from 2017, etc. etc.

San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA – #7 Leanest Community, #2 Leanest City

In San Diego, 85-90% of city drinking water is “imported from Northern California and the Colorado River”. We haven’t been able to find any measurements of lithium in San Diego tap water, but this report from 2018 says that wastewater at the San Diego North City Water Reclamation Plant ranged from 12 ng/mL to 48 ng/mL in 2018. Similar numbers are found in this report about wastewater at the South Bay Water Reclamation Plant from 2011. In fact it looks like there are a LOT of wastewater reports, but we’ll stop there. 

This doesn’t tell us how much is in San Diego drinking water exactly, but wastewater almost certainly contains no less lithium than the tap water it started as, so this suggests that the lithium concentration in San Diego drinking water is somewhere below 12-48 ng/mL.  

San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA – #8 Leanest Community, #3 Leanest City

For San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, we’ve been able to find some lithium measurements for the tap water itself. This report from 2017 finds a range of “not detected” to 25 ng/mL in the water served to San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, with a median level of 5.60 ng/mL. This is pretty low. The numbers in this report from 2018 are even lower — a range of “<5” to 6.2 ng/mL and an average of “<5”. There’s also this other report from 2018 finding a range from “not detected” to 8.1 ng/mL, with a median of 3 ng/mL.

Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT – #9 Leanest Community

Bridgeport and surrounding towns appear to get their water from “mostly surface water drawn from a system of eight reservoirs (Aspetuck, Easton Lake, Far Mill, Hemlocks, Means Brook, Saugatuck, Trap Falls and West Pequonnock).” 

We haven’t been able to find any lithium measurements for the city or for any of these reservoirs, but we do want to note that at least some of these reservoirs were in use back in 1964, and back then they all contained less than 0.50 ng/mL lithium, a truly miniscule amount. There isn’t any sign that they’ve been exposed to lithium since then (no nearby coal power plants, no petroleum mining in Connecticut at all), so lithium levels in these reservoirs may still be that low. There is a coal power plant in Bridgeport itself, but while it might be contaminating the harbor, the city isn’t drinking that water.

Barnstable Town, MA – #10 Leanest Community

Barnstable Town is a small town on Cape Cod. Like every part of Cape Cod, Barnstable relies on the Cape Cod Aquifer for its groundwater. We managed to find this report from 1988 where some hydrologists injected bromide and lithium into the Cape Cod Aquifer to test their transport in the aquifer over time. To do this they needed background readings of lithium levels so that they could track their own sample, and they found that the background concentration of lithium in the aquifer was “below the detection limit”, or something less than 10 ng/mL. Unfortunately their analysis wasn’t very sensitive so we don’t know how much less.

San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA – #4 Leanest City

You may remember from above that the water in San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara contains very little lithium. This water system gets about 20% of its water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, a reservoir located in Yosemite National Park, and this is relevant to San Francisco because Hetch Hetchy supplies San Francisco with 85% of its drinking water.

We can’t find any lithium measurements for Hetch Hetchy itself (not even in the 1964 data!), but Hetch Hetchy water largely comes from snowmelt, and if it’s providing San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara with 20% of its drinking water, Hetch Hetchy can’t be holding much lithium. For this reason, we suspect that the lithium levels in San Francisco drinking water are probably low as well. 

Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA – #5 Leanest City

Boston and most of the surrounding towns get their water from the Quabbin Reservoir in western Massachusetts. Again we can’t find any modern measurements, but Boston was drawing from the Quabbin in 1964, and in the 1964 data we see that water sourced from the Quabbin contained only 0.21 ng/mL lithium. Massachusetts hasn’t drilled any new oil wells right next to the Quabbin or anything in the past 60 years, so while we’d love to see some modern tests to confirm this, there’s no reason to expect lithium levels in the Quabbin to be much higher today.

Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL – #6 Leanest City

In Miami, “water supply comes from the Biscayne Aquifer, the County’s primary drinking water source.” In the USGS well water dataset, there are 53 measurements from the Biscayne Aquifer, all from either 2010 or 2016. The average level of lithium in these samples is 1.26 ng/mL, the median is 1.11 ng/mL, the maximum level is a mere 2.60 ng/mL, and in a full 24 of these 53 samples, the levels of lithium were below the detectable threshold. 

This aquifer is such an exceptional case, they mention it by name in the abstract: “no public supply wells in the Biscayne aquifer (southern Florida) exceeded either threshold, and the highest concentration in that aquifer was 2.6 [ng/mL].”

Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV – #7 Leanest City

Water for DC comes from the Potomac River. DC Water provides detailed water quality reports online, all the way up through 2021, and in the report for 2021, the average level of lithium in DC water was 2 ng/mL and the range was 1 to 2 ng/mL. Now, the Gallup numbers are from 2014 — well, in the report from 2014, the average level of lithium in DC water was 2.1 ng/mL and the range was 1.2 to 4.0 ng/mL. Case closed.

Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI – #8 Leanest City

Minneapolis and St. Paul both draw much of their water from the Mississippi River. This may not seem like a good idea, but they’re so close to the headwaters that the Mississippi hasn’t really had a chance to pick up all that much stuff on its way to the ocean. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to find any lithium measurements from either city. 

Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA – #9 Leanest City

Drinking water in LA comes from a couple different sources — the Owens River, Northern California and the Colorado River, and groundwater. Again we haven’t been able to find actual measurements, but we can note that much of this water is piped hundreds of miles from distant mountain ranges (see figure below).

We also found this news report from 2015 about “a massive natural gas leak at Aliso Canyon” that appears to have contaminated tap water in the Los Angeles water system. This includes a picture of lithium measurements from what appears to be a powerpoint slide deck, indicating average lithium levels in LA drinking water of 65.4 ng/mL. This is pretty high, but of course the gas leak occurred in 2015 and the Gallup obesity numbers are from 2014. 

The article also includes a statement from a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power spokesperson saying that “the agency doesn’t test for lithium and is not required to.” This suggests that there are probably no official lithium records to be found for the city, so it’s no surprise we weren’t able to find anything.

Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA – #10 Leanest City

Seattle gets most of its drinking water from two large watersheds in “mountain forests” to the east. The only lithium coming out of Seattle is a Nirvana byproduct. Ok but seriously, we couldn’t find anything.

Most Obese

Next, let’s look at the most obese communities.

Gallup sez:

Huntington-Ashland, WV-KY-OH – #1 Most Obese Community

Let’s start at the top. Huntington-Ashland WV-KY-OH is the #1 most obese community on Gallup’s list and appears to get all of its drinking water from the Ohio River. We can’t find any measurements for lithium in the actual river water, but we found this report outlining several nearby power plants that show coal-ash contamination in groundwater. 

Coal-ash contamination is relevant because fossil fuels and their byproducts are often extremely rich sources of lithium. This includes coal ash as well as oilfield brines and other “produced water” from petroleum extraction.

The first power plant we’ll look at is the Mountaineer Plant in New Haven, WV, which is about 70 miles directly upstream of Huntington-Ashland and was found to be contaminated with lithium in 2019. These reports are a little tricky to read, but if you flip through the plant’s own groundwater monitoring reports, it looks like the levels in the plant’s groundwater monitoring wells often exceeded 40 ng/mL and sometimes exceeded 100 ng/mL.

The Mountaineer Plant, the locations of the plant’s groundwater monitoring wells, and the Ohio River

Just a few miles downstream on the Ohio River sits the Gavin Power Plant. This plant is split up into three sections on the groundwater testing reports. There isn’t much lithium in the Bottom Ash Pond, but in the Residual Waste Landfill, several wells are heavily contaminated, and the highest level recorded was 249 ng/mL. In the Fly Ash Reservoir, many testing wells contain more than 100 ng/mL lithium, the highest level detected being 702 ng/mL.

Just 1.6 more miles down the Ohio River, in the direction of Huntington-Ashland, sits Kyger Creek Station. Many of the groundwater monitoring wells at this plant also show high concentrations of lithium, including levels as high as 480 ng/mL.

How many other places in America are right downstream from three coal power plants? This seems too crazy to be a coincidence. If lithium causes obesity, then it’s no wonder that Huntington-Ashland is #1 in the nation.

McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX – #2 Most Obese Community

McAllen, Texas gets its water from the Rio Grande. This one is almost too easy — the USGS well water report says, “the highest concentrations [of lithium] were in the High Plains, Rio Grande, Stream-valley aquifers and Basin and Range basin fill aquifers of the West.”

We have access to the raw data, and we can confirm that the Rio Grande aquifer had the second-highest levels of lithium of all the principal aquifers in the dataset. In Texas, there were only 9 measurements from this aquifer, but the level of lithium was pretty high in all of them — the median was 59.7 ng/mL, the mean 64.83 ng/mL, and the range was 20.8 ng/mL to 115.0 ng/mL.

Hagerstown-Martinsburg, MD-WV – #3 Most Obese Community

Hagerstown-Martinsburg MD-WV is interesting because Hagerstown is in Washington County, MD. By coincidence, one of the few good sources we have for levels of lithium in the 1970s is a 1976 paper looking at 384 drinking water samples from Washington County. Back in 1976 they found very low levels of lithium in the well water in Washington County, with 90% of samples containing less than 10 ng/mL and the highest level being only 32 ng/mL.

Unfortunately we can’t find good modern data for lithium levels in Hagerstown or Washington County as a whole. As far as we can tell from their water quality reports, Washington County doesn’t test for lithium at all. Numbers from the state as a whole do seem to have increased since 1976, but the state’s trends don’t tell us all that much about this one town.

We can also mention that Martinsburg, the other half of Hagerstown-Martinsburg MD-WV, is notable for being exceptionally contaminated with PFAS, even for West Virginia. According to this source it looks like the USGS is planning to test West Virginia for lithium too, keep an eye on this one! 

Yakima, WA – #4 Most Obese Community

Most of Yakima’s drinking water comes from the Naches River, though this is supplemented by 4 wells that draw from the Ellensburg Aquifer. This USGS report from 2013 suggests that well water in the area is pretty low in lithium, but most of their water doesn’t come from the wells. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to find any measurements at all for tap water in Yakima or for the Naches River in general. There is this 1987 USGS report that includes measurements of lithium in Yakima River Basin streambed sediment, if anyone wants to try to make sense of that.

There’s also a possible mining connection — the Bumping Lake Mineral Spring Calcium Mine is upstream of Yakima and has lithium listed as one commodity of interest. Even so, it’s not clear whether this is relevant.  

Little Rock-N Little Rock-Conway, AR – #5 Most Obese Community

Drinking water in Little Rock comes from two surface water sources, Lake Winona and Lake Maumelle, which supply Jackson Reservoir. Drinking water in Conway comes from nearby Brewer Lake. Unfortunately we have not been able to find any lithium measurements from any of these bodies of water.

Now, Arkansas does sit on a huge amount of lithium in the form of the Smackover Formation, which is being mined by Standard Lithium Ltd., but this is all in southern Arkansas and should be downstream from the Little Rock area, so unless something weird is happening (which is possible) that shouldn’t be reaching Little Rock. 

That said, there are plenty of petroleum jobs in Little Rock. Maybe it’s just more plain old oil-field brine spills — like this spill from 2015, when a pipeline under the Arkansas River near Little Rock ruptured, spilled 4 million cubic feet of natural gas, and blew up a tugboat.

Charleston, WV – #6 Most Obese Community

Charleston is the capital of West Virginia and the state’s most populous city. The city sits at the intersection of the Kanawha and Elk rivers. The city’s water supply appears to come primarily from the Elk River. We can’t find any lithium measurements either in Charleston tap water, or in the water from either river. 

Even so, there are good reasons to suspect lithium contamination in the area. West Virginia has a long history of Coal and Natural Gas production, and Charleston is no exception. In fact, the first natural gas well in the United States was drilled in Charleston in 1815 by Captain James Wilson. Most of the official histories (including say that the first natural gas well in the United States was drilled in 1821 by William Hart in Fredonia, New York, but what they mean is that the first intentional natural gas well in the United States was drilled in 1821 by William Hart in Fredonia, New York. This is true, because when Captain James Wilson hit natural gas in Charleston in 1815, he wasn’t drilling for gas — he was drilling for salt brine. 

This is because the Kanawha River has an even longer history with salt brines than it does with natural gas. It was such a big deal that the little community upstream of Charleston now known as Malden, WV, was originally known as Kanawha Salines! In some ways this shouldn’t be a surprise, since we already know that fossil fuels and salt brines tend to pop up in the same areas.

This is a concerning potential source of lithium contamination, but can we confirm this with any measurements? We can’t find any modern measurements, but this 1906 report includes an analysis of a sample of brine from Malden taken in 1905 and finds a level of lithium chloride of 0.101 “parts in 1,000 parts by weight.” Parts-per notation can be a little ambiguous, but this probably works out to around 101,000 ng/mL lithium in the brine. In any case, it was more lithium than was found in the brines in other parts of West Virginia — about 3x that found in Webster Springs and about 10x that found in Hartford City.

Toledo, OH – #7 Most Obese Community

When you Google “toledo ohio lithium”, one of the first links you see is this: 

Ouvrir la photo

This leads to a news story about a chemical fire at the Lithium Innovations plant in central Toledo, Ohio. “The fire is releasing lithium gas, a potentially toxic fume, into the air,” reports WTOL11 News. “The gas could make the air difficult to breathe.” There’s even a police drone video of the fire on Youtube.

The fire was in 2017, so while it probably wasn’t good for the health of the community, it couldn’t have impacted Gallup’s obesity numbers, which are from 2014. But the Lithium Innovations plant came to Toledo in 2009, so it had a couple of years to expose people to the metal. The news report we quoted above also casually mentions, “during a 2010 inspection, fire inspectors found large quantities of lithium.”

We can’t find any direct measurements of lithium in Toledo’s drinking water, but this does look pretty bad. 

Clarksville, TN-KY – #8 Most Obese Community

Water in Clarksville comes from the Cumberland River. Clarksville, and the Cumberland, are practically surrounded by fossil fuel plants. About 20 miles downstream, sitting right on the river, is the Cumberland Fossil Plant. Groundwater testing wells at this plant seem to have pretty high levels of lithium — in 2018, the highest level was 79 ng/mL. 

About 80 miles upstream is a different plant, the Gallatin Fossil Plant, which also sits right on the Cumberland River. In fact it sticks way out in a bend in the river, so it’s surrounded by the Cumberland River on three sides. Several of the groundwater testing wells show an average of more than 60 ng/mL lithium, and the well with the highest level of contamination, right on the river’s edge, has a mean concentration of 1,660 ng/mL and a maximum of 2,300 ng/mL. This is further away, but the level of lithium contamination is almost 30x higher, and it is upstream.   

Jackson, MS – #9 Most Obese Community

Water in Jackson comes from a couple different sources — the Pearl River, the Ross Barnett Reservoir, and six groundwater wells. Unfortunately we can’t find any lithium measurements for any of these sources.

Like some other places on this list, Jackson has a long history of natural gas mining within the city limits, which gives us this great line from Wikipedia: “failure did not stop Ella Render from obtaining a lease from the state’s insane asylum to begin a well on its grounds in 1924”. 

They also tried to mine oil in Jackson, but it didn’t work out. Wikipedia gives us this other very interesting line about why: “The barrels of oil had considerable amounts of salt water, which lessened the quality.” Now is a good time to mention that Jackson sits right on the Smackover Formation, which is notorious for the high level of lithium in its brines. We can’t find any measurements for the levels of lithium in these brines around Jackson specifically, but this report does mention “lithium-rich produced water from Norphlet and Smackover completions in east central Mississippi” in the abstract.

There are also some weird records suggesting that people have been drilling for CO2 deposits from the Norphlet formation right on the banks for the Ross Barnett Reservoir, but these reports are much more vague than we would like.

We also found this report about oilfield brines contaminating groundwater and streams in Lamar and Marion Counties, Mississippi, and this other report about oilfield brines contaminating groundwater in Lincoln County, Mississippi. Neither of these are near Jackson but it does make you wonder. So no smoking gun, but it seems suggestive. 

Green Bay, WI – #10 (tied) Most Obese Community

Lake Michigan is Green Bay’s “main source” of water. Green Bay also has a lot of coal stuff going on. They used to have two coal power plants, both right on the water. Green Bay West Mill (sometimes called Green Bay Broadway?) burned coal for more than 100 years, but as of 2020 they are switching over entirely to natural gas. There was also Pulliam Plant or JP Pulliam Generating Station, a coal and natural gas power plant which operated from 1927 to 2018. Unusually, we can’t find any groundwater monitoring data for either of these plants.

But these are not the end of Green Bay’s coal-based attractions. Arguably more interesting are the coal piles stored by C. Reiss Coal Co. right on beautiful riverfront property, right in the middle of town, and a 10-minute walk from the local elementary school. 

The locals have an interesting relationship with these coal piles. The announcement that the city might be able to move the piles was: 

…embraced by residents of the Astor Neighborhood, across the Fox River from the coal piles, whose properties can be covered by a thin film of coal dust when the wind blows out of the west.

Resident Cheryl Renier-Wigg said the coal dust was “an unpleasant surprise” when she moved into the neighborhood in 1990. 

“It’s that you don’t realize you’ve got this coal dust lingering in the air until you clean your windows or your outside tables and chairs,” Renier-Wigg said. “You wipe it down and it’s black. Plastic things get pitted to the point you can’t clean them anymore.” 

So these are not lithium measurements, but the coal plants and coal dust blowing all over town are certainly the sorts of things that might be getting lithium into the local environment.

Rockford, IL – #10 (tied) Most Obese Community

According to the official report from 2020, “the source of drinking water used by ROCKFORD is Ground Water.” 

Rockford is located on the Rock River. Just upstream of Rockford on the Rock River is Rockton. A company named Chemtool built a new manufacturing facility in Rockton in 2008. What does Chemtool make, you ask? 

The plant grew and soon employed dozens of people. Everything was going well until June 14th, 2021, when the plant exploded.

Memphis, TN-MS-AR – #1 Most Obese City

We found this 2021 story from the Memphis Flyer about the Allen Fossil Plant, which is located adjacent to Memphis on the Mississippi River. The plant ran from 1959 to 2018 — according to the Flyer, it consumed 7,200 tons of coal per day, producing about 85,000 tons of ash every year. The plant is now closed but the ash remains, in “two massive ponds at the old coal-plant site.”

The TVA report from 2019 finds lithium in the monitoring wells at the plant — only one is above the safety threshold of 40 ng/mL, but it’s at concentrations above 20 ng/mL in other wells. There’s also something weird going on here, where many of the measurements are marked as “the result is estimated”, and there are a few much higher values (up to 125 ng/mL) that are marked as “the analyte was not detected above the indicated reporting limit.” It’s also notable that they report background levels, for theoretically uncontaminated groundwater, of up to 34 ng/mL. This isn’t a huge concentration — but it is very high compared to the levels found around Memphis in 1964, which ranged from 0.51 to 3.80 ng/mL.  

Because coal power plants often use inadequate testing mechanisms, the true level of lithium around plants may be higher than reported. For example, in some cases power plants use methods with a reporting limit of 200 ng/mL, which makes any levels below this threshold appear on reports as “not detected”. 

San Antono, TX – #2 Most Obese City

The San Antonio Water System “draws water from the Edwards Aquifer to service its customers in all 8 counties of the Greater San Antonio metropolitan area.” This is kind of complicated because the Edwards Aquifer is divided into different zones, and San Antonio sits right on the line between the freshwater and saline water zones, or “bad water line”. The saline water zone definitely contains a ton of lithium, up to 290,000 ng/mL. 

Some of this also appears to end up in the freshwater zone, and in drinking water. This USGS report from 1987 looked at four “subareas” of the Edwards Aquifer and found 12.9, 13.0, 16.0, and 100.0 ng/mL lithium in each. This other USGS report from 1987 found 22 ng/mL lithium in a well in the freshwater zone. There’s also this 2014 report on the Edwards Aquifer from the Edwards Aquifer Authority, which is confusing and vague, but suggests that about 33 samples from the freshwater zone contained 50 ng/mL or more of lithium. We can also just look at the USGS well water data again, because they pick out the “Edwards-Trinity aquifer system” specifically. In these 100 observations from 2008-2018, the median level of lithium is 6.03 ng/mL, the mean is 20.74 ng/mL, and the maximum is 188.00 ng/mL. 

And all of these measurements are much higher than historical values — in 1964, four wells in San Antonio were tested and found to contain only 1.5 ng/mL lithium.

Richmond, VA – #3 Most Obese City

Richmond gets its water from the James River and has since 1924. 

Chesterfield Power Station sits on the James River downstream. In 2020, several monitoring wells at this site were found to contain more than 100 ng/mL lithium, the highest concentration being 265 ng/mL.

The lower ash pond at Chesterfield Power Station

Bremo Power Station sits on the James River upstream. It was originally commissioned in 1931 and burned coal until 2013, when it converted to natural gas. In 2020, two monitoring wells were found to contain high levels of lithium — 121 ng/mL in one and 330 ng/mL in the other. Coincidentally, these seem to be the two wells closest to the James River, just a couple hundred feet from the banks. There are four monitoring locations in the river, and at the time of testing none of them registered high levels of lithium — but the reporting just says “<7.3” ng/mL for all four of them, suggesting they are not very sensitive.

New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA – #4 Most Obese City

New Orleans gets its water from the Mississippi River. In the 100 cities paper from 1964, they report 4.3 ng/mL lithium in the Mississippi River near New Orleans. A similar amount was found in 1979, with this paper reporting 3.8 ng/mL lithium in New Orleans drinking water. By 1984, this paper reports about 15 ng/mL lithium in the Mississippi River near New Orleans. 

Unfortunately this is where the trail goes cold. We can’t find any more modern sources for lithium in either New Orleans drinking water or in the lowest stretches of the Mississippi River (if you are a chemist in the area, would you mind going down to the river for us? or just turn on your tap). 

Columbus, OH – #5 Most Obese City

Columbus gets its drinking water from — well, it’s complicated. Four wells in Franklin County provide about 15% of the city’s water supply. The other 85% comes from the Griggs and O’Shaugnessy Reservoirs, fed by the Scioto River, and the Hoover Reservoir, fed by Big Walnut Creek.

The only lithium measurements we were able to find come from this USGS report from 1991,  where they found lithium levels in the Scioto River between 10 ng/mL and 45 ng/mL. This is south of the city, however, so these are the levels after it has passed through the city. Even so, it’s interesting that the levels were all above 10 ng/mL even back in 1991. 

North of Columbus in Morrow County, there are a bunch of Class II injection wells, which are used to send oil brines BACK TO HELL back deep beneath the earth. This seems concerning for Columbus because Morrow county is the headwaters of Big Walnut Creek, and some of these injection wells appear to sit right alongside some of the area’s many streams.

The local injection authorities make all the usual claims about how these brines never get into creeks or public water supplies, but there have been spills — like this one in 2016, where a train plowed into a brine truck, spilling 3,200 gallons of brine. See also this senior thesis from 1974 documenting oil-field brines in Morrow County — it begins, “Since the discovery of oil in Morrow County, Ohio in 1961 the area’s ground and surface water has become grossly contaminated by oil-field brines.” And also this paper by Wayne Pettyjohn from 1971 which mentions extensive brine contamination, with several contamination events in Morrow County specifically.

Most of these reports don’t include any actual lithium measurements, but the Supporting Information for this paper does, and they find that oilfield brines in eastern Ohio contain between 202 ng/mL and 108,000 ng/mL lithium.

Oh, and they spread it on the roads as a de-icer, even though it’s definitely radioactive.

Rochester, NY – #6 Most Obese City

Rochester draws its drinking water from nearby lakes. Back in 1964, the local lithium levels were around 1.2 ng/mL. This report finds no lithium at all in Hemlock Lake between 1975 and 1977. 

Today things seem like they are different. We found this USGS report on groundwater quality in western New York from 2006, which reports lithium concentrations in the local aquifers as high as 917 ng/mL. Thankfully the sites with levels this high don’t appear to be close to any population centers, but the two wells closest to Rochester contain 64.2 ng/mL and 78.9 ng/mL lithium. 

We can’t find any actual measurements for either lake or for the local drinking water. The city’s annual water quality reports give a clear list of all the contaminants they test for and lithium isn’t on the list, so there probably aren’t any records out there for us to find. 

Louisville-Jefferson County, KY-IN – #7 Most Obese City

Louisville appears to get most or all of its drinking water from the Ohio River. Like other cities we’ve looked at along the Ohio River, Louisville is downstream from a coal power plant with a lithium problem.

The Ghent Generating Station is about 70 miles upstream from Louisville. This news article from 2021 describes coal ash being moved to ash ponds near the Ohio River, and mentions that “groundwater monitoring wells at the Ghent power plant had lithium levels up to 154 times the amount considered safe … one of the highest lithium levels documented at 265 coal power plant sites.” We also found this news article from 2019 about how “Louisville Gas and Electric power plants are illegally contaminating groundwater flowing into the Ohio River”, which mentions lithium specifically. We tracked down some actual measurements, and found that levels of lithium found in the groundwater at this plant can be as high as 6,167 ng/mL.

Oklahoma City, OK – #8 Most Obese City

The Oklahoma State Capitol has the interesting distinction of being the only state capitol grounds in the United States with active oil rigs. This is because Oklahoma City, Oklahoma sits on top of the Oklahoma City Oil Field. This produces a lot of oil and a lot of brine.

Oklahoma State Capitol Building; note oil derrick on the right

At this point the contamination should not be a surprise. Here’s a USGS report from 1998 on water quality in the confusingly-named Canadian County, Oklahoma, which is just one county over from Oklahoma City. They report one measurement from a test well in the area, which showed a concentration of 32 ng/mL of lithium.

We can’t find any more recent measurements in drinking water, or for the brine itself, but as always there are the news reports of oil and gas wastewater wells overlapping with drinking water wells, and news reports of oil-field brines polluting the water supply “to such a degree that no trees or flowers will grow.”

Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI – #9 Most Obese City

It probably won’t take any special convincing to get you to believe that the drinking water in Detroit might be contaminated. Unfortunately Detroit is another one of those cities that just doesn’t seem to test for lithium, but it’s still looking pretty bad.

To begin with, at the Trenton Channel Power Plant on the Detroit River, all eight groundwater testing wells are heavily contaminated. Six out of eight had an average level of lithium above 40 ng/mL, and the highest level on record is 370 ng/mL.

And at the end of the day, the city is just generally polluted. Take for example the Samuel B. Jolly Site at 3445 West Warren Avenue, Detroit. This used to be a gas service station, but is currently a vacant lot. The service station structures have been removed, but three 8,000-gallon gasoline storage tanks, “temporarily out of use”, remain underground. The report calls this a leaking underground storage tank (“LUST”; no, really) site, and documents the petroleum contamination. The units are a little unfamiliar because they’re for soil rather than water, but suffice to say, of the 14 samples, 10 contained more lithium than the statewide background levels, and the highest measurement was almost 30x higher than background levels.

Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH – #10 Most Obese City

Cleveland drinking water comes from Lake Erie. Cleveland doesn’t seem to test for lithium, and we can’t find any modern measurements for the lake, though we’ll note that Cleveland is downstream of Detroit. 

Without any measurements, the best we can do is note that the water around Cleveland has a history of being really, really polluted. Cleveland sits where the Cuyahoga River empties into Lake Erie, a river so polluted that it has caught fire at least 13 times. Most of these were in 1969 or before, but another one came around in 2020, when an oil tanker truck crashed and leaked flaming gas into the river. 

The timeline seems a little off for this, since the river was more polluted in the past than it is now. But a lot of these pollutants have stuck around in one way or another, leading to headlines like, “Cleveland’s water supply at risk as toxic blob creeps across Lake Erie, Ohio EPA says”.

But we can also just note that Cleveland was only 28.0% obese in 2014, which seems to be sightly less than the rate for Ohio overall in that year. We may have simply reached the point on the list where the cities are catching up to background levels.   

In Conclusion

Looking at the leanest list, we were able to find explicit measurements of the lithium levels in the drinking water of five communities. In Denver’s drinking water, lithium is consistently tested for but not detected. In San Jose, the median level of lithium in the water was around 3-5 ng/mL, and the maximum observed was only 25 ng/mL, which seems to be an outlier. In Barnstable Town, the aquifer they draw their water from appears to contain less than 10 ng/mL lithium, though the analysis we found wasn’t sensitive enough to say how much less. Miami’s aquifer contains a median of 1.11 ng/mL, and the maximum level observed was only 2.6 ng/mL. Finally, in DC we found an average of 2 ng/mL and a range of only 1-4 ng/mL in drinking water. 

There were also six communities where we weren’t able to find measurements of lithium in drinking water from modern sources, but were able to find evidence that suggests that the lithium levels are probably quite low. In most cases this is suggested by the fact that the community gets its drinking water from a pristine source, like remote mountain snowmelt, and in some cases we were able to support this with historical measurements. If a source wasn’t contaminated in 1964, and nothing has happened to change that, then the source probably still isn’t contaminated now.

Finally, in six of the communities on the leanest list, we weren’t able to find any indication of how much lithium is in their drinking water.

Looking at the most obese list, we were able to find good measurements of the lithium levels in the drinking water of two communities. In McAllen, the median level we found was 59.7 ng/mL, with a range from 20.8-115.0 ng/mL. In San Antonio, the most recent analysis found a median level of lithium of 6.03 ng/mL, a mean of 20.74 ng/mL, and a maximum of 188.00 ng/mL. 

In twelve communities, we found evidence of groundwater and/or drinking water source contamination from fossil fuel sources — usually coal plants nearby or upriver, but also natural gas wells, injection wells, other coal sources, etc. In nine of these communities, we found direct measurements of the contamination, with levels of lithium levels in groundwater often smashing the reporting limit of 40 ng/mL, the highest being 6,167 ng/mL. In the other three, we found evidence of nearby coal plants or other major petroleum contamination, but couldn’t find direct measurements of lithium levels. 

We also found five communities with evidence of lithium exposure or contamination from some other source — like explosions of local lithium-grease factories.

Finally, in two of the communities on the most obese list, we weren’t able to find any indication of how much lithium is in their drinking water and weren’t able to find any evidence of lithium contamination. 

Overall, there is evidence of lithium contamination in most of the most obese communities. In contrast, when going down the list of the leanest communities, we didn’t find any indication of lithium contamination, and in the drinking water measurements we found, we never saw a lithium level above 25 ng/mL. We also didn’t find any evidence of fossil fuel mining or waste disposal near any of the leanest communities. 

Drinking water is important, but this still surprised us — we didn’t expect such a clear association. There’s something kind of weird going on here. When we discovered evidence that wolfberries concentrate 100 ng/mL lithium in water to 1,120,000 ng/mL in the plant, we were pretty excited. Trace doses are really low compared to psychiatric doses, which makes it seem a little weird to expect trace doses to have any noticeable effect at all. But if other crops concentrate lithium like the wolfberry does, then people could be getting sub-therapeutic (i.e. pretty huge) doses from their food alone.

For a while there we thought this was the solution — that if lithium caused obesity, it did so via subtherapeutic doses in your food. But in our last post and in the examples we give above, we found what looks like a pretty strong relationship between how much lithium is in the groundwater and how obese people are, even down to the community level. 

We’re not sure what to make of this. It could be that lithium doesn’t cause obesity, it’s something else that commonly co-occurs with lithium, something else found in coal ash and oilfield brines. 

Maybe trace levels of lithium in your drinking water really are enough to make you obese, all by themselves. Or maybe it’s not “drinking” water per se. Maybe lithium has a different, much stronger effect when it’s absorbed through your skin, or when you inhale lithium-rich steam droplets into your lungs. If this were the case, then tap water levels would matter a lot, at least if you’re showering in the stuff. As far as we know there aren’t any studies where they had people shower in distilled water, but if you find one, let us know.

A Chemical Hunger – Interlude H: Well Well Well


A while back, one of us was talking to a family member about the improperly sealed abandoned boreholes in the Gila River Valley, and how oilfield brines are really high in lithium. This inspired him to speculate that while most of us don’t live near improperly sealed abandoned boreholes, there is a different kind of hole in the ground that many of us interact with every day — the wells we draw our water from.

There are a couple of things that make water wells seem kind of suspicious. When it comes to obesity, we’re looking for something that’s really universal, something that would reach pretty much everyone, because every part of the world is becoming more obese all the time. Maybe some people have oilfield brines in their water, sure. But not everyone is downriver from a pipeline.

Well, back in the day, nobody got their water from deep, drilled wells. Nowadays, millions of people drink well water every single day. The USGS estimates that 115 million people, more than one-third of the nation’s population, rely on groundwater for drinking water, and that 43 million of those people are drinking from private wells. And just because you aren’t drinking well water doesn’t mean you’re not affected — when all those wells bring up water from the depths, it ends up mixing with the surface water. 

This could represent a pretty big change in the ecosystem. You might think of groundwater as just normal water — maybe more pure, but still just water. But often it’s not like surface water at all. Some of the water flowing underground has been there only for a few weeks, but some of that water has been down there for hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years. 

Generally speaking, the deeper the well, the older the water you’re drawing. But sometimes even relatively shallow wells draw from very old waters. For example, this analysis from Alberta suggests that in the Paskapoo Formation aquifers, “a very important source of water for irrigation and drinking in southwestern Alberta,” some water samples drawn from relatively shallow depths (less than 60 meters) are more than 1,000,000 years old.

Who knows what might be down there. The USGS helpfully notes, “old groundwater is more likely than young groundwater to have contaminants from natural sources, such as metals and radionuclides, because old groundwater can spend thousands of years in contact with and reacting with aquifer rocks and minerals that might contain these elements.” If water from drilled wells tends to have more lithium in it than water from shallow wells or surface water does, that would explain why people are exposed to more lithium now than they used to be, and could explain why the exposure is so universal. 

Artist’s rendition of Paskapoo Formation wells in Alberta, Canada

Basic well-drilling technology first arose in the early 1800s. We can take as an example Levi Disbrow, who according to some sources drilled the first artesian well in the United States in 1824. Things took a leap forward in 1909 when a patent for the first roller cone drill bit was issued to Howard Hughes Sr. — but even then, drilling tools were all still platform-based, and impractical for homeowners. It wasn’t until the 1940s that portable drills became effective, and it took until the 1970s for drilled wells to become common for individual homes. 

Most states keep pretty good records for drilled wells, so we’re able to confirm this with publicly available data. Rather than trying to hunt down data for every state, we did some spot checks. For example, Massachusetts keeps a database of wells dating back to 1962. Looking just at new, domestic wells, we see that about 96% were drilled in 1970 or later, and about 91% were drilled in 1980 or later. The two biggest decades for domestic drilling in Massachusetts were the 1990s and the 2000s, when about 37,000 wells were drilled each decade.

In Vermont, well drillers have been required to submit reports to the state on each well they drill since 1966, but there are some records dating as far back as 1924. We found that of the wells in the database, 96% had been drilled since 1970, and 83% had been drilled since 1980. Again, the two decades with the most well drilling were the 1990s and 2000s.

Since we mentioned bioaccumulation in plants last time, we also want to mention that a lot of crops these days are irrigated with water from drilled wells. Without getting too much into the details, it looks like most irrigation wells were also drilled pretty recently. In Kansas for example, it looks like only five of the irrigation wells on record were drilled before 1970, compared to about 22,000 wells drilled afterwards! 

The timeline for drilled wells lines up pretty well with the timeline for the spread of obesity. These days lots of people get their water from drilled wells, but that’s historically weird. If well water contains more lithium than surface water does, and lithium causes obesity, that would explain why obesity is so widespread.

The second reason this seems plausible is that similar things have happened with well-drilling and other contaminants. Let’s look at one well-documented example (h/t Phil Wagner):

It was the best intentions of governments and world bodies in the 1970s to improve health that led to the crisis in Bangladesh. Until the 1980s, most villagers drew water from shallow wells, or collected it from ponds and rivers – and regularly suffered cholera, dysentery and other water-borne diseases. 

In response to these preventable illnesses, the UN and many western donors advised Bangladesh to bore deeper “tube wells” into the underground water aquifers to draw clean, pathogen-free water. But the scientists and donors advised drilling to about 150ft (46m) – almost precisely the depth of arsenic-rich rock. 

The first cases of arsenic poisoning were discovered in the early 1990s, and, in 1995, an international conference in Kolkata drew the world’s attention to the problem.

Efforts have been made to do something about this, but it still seems to be a huge problem. This report from the Human Rights Watch in 2016 says that “an estimated 43,000 people die each year from arsenic-related illness in Bangladesh”.

Similar contamination can be found elsewhere. In parts of India, wells are contaminated with uranium.

Third and finally, we want to point to a few examples that indicate that lithium specifically might be a problem in deep, drilled wells. The first is a passage from Sievers & Cannon (1973), the Gila River Valley paper, about where the Pima got their home drinking water:

Wells, the main source of domestic water, have needed deepening because the ground-water table has dropped at least 20 feet in the last few years. The lower aquifers now in use produce water of higher salt content than previously.

They don’t quite say it outright, but this suggests that the Pima wouldn’t have been exposed to as much lithium if they hadn’t deepened their wells. The lower aquifers have a higher salt content, and this likely includes dissolved lithium salts.

An even clearer example can be found in this paper about lithium levels in part of Maryland in 1976, where they found that deep wells had abnormally high levels of lithium compared to other sources: 

Lithium levels varied by type of water source. The highest lithium levels were found in deep wells. Two thirds of the samples with concentrations greater than or equal to 10 [ng/mL] were found in deep wells, and 24% of the deep wells had concentrations greater than or equal to 10 [ng/mL]. City waters had no levels greater than 12 [ng/mL], and less than 2% had levels over 10 [ng/mL].

This all just makes the idea seem plausible. What we really want to know is, is there an appreciable amount of lithium in well water today? 

Lithium in Modern America

The answer is yes!

The first time we wrote about lithium, we said we didn’t know if there was lithium in the groundwater, we didn’t know if groundwater concentrations of lithium had increased over time, and the USGS wasn’t interested. Well, we are happy to report that all of that has changed.

On February 11, 2021, the USGS released a report titled Lithium in U.S. Groundwater. The first conclusion they share is that “45% of public-supply wells and about 37% of U.S. domestic supply wells have concentrations of lithium that could present a potential human-health risk.” It doesn’t get any better from there. The header for the report looks like this:

The report is backed by a paper released on May 1, 2021. The raw data is available here (see the two urls near the bottom).

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this paper, but mostly we want to know if there are serious levels of lithium in well water, and if most Americans are getting lithium in their drinking water. The answer in both cases seems to be a pretty clear “yes”:

Concentrations nationwide ranged from <1 to 396 [ng/mL] (median of 8.1 [ng/mL]) for public supply wells and <1 to 1700 [ng/mL] (median of 6 [ng/mL]) for domestic supply wells. For context, lithium concentrations were compared to a Health Based Screening Level (HBSL, 10 [ng/mL]) and a drinking-water only threshold (60 [ng/mL]). These thresholds were exceeded in 45% and 9% of samples from public-supply wells and in 37% and 6% from domestic-supply wells, respectively

This dataset includes a few samples from as far back as 1991, but almost all the samples were collected after 2000, and the biggest chunk are all from 2010 or later, so this is a pretty modern dataset. As we can see, the median concentration in well water is about 6-8 ng/mL, though this kind of obscures the fact that about 40% of all wells contain more than 10 ng/mL of lithium. Since we have the raw data, we can clarify and state that the median for all samples was 6.9 ng/mL. 

There are two comparisons we want to make. The first is to historical sources — are we being exposed to more lithium now than we were back in the day? Our best source for this is that 1964 paper, Public water supplies of the 100 largest cities in the United States by Durfor & Becker, which as you may remember is available on Google Books. They report a median level lithium concentration of only 2.0 ng/mL in the water supplies they analyzed. Based on this, the median level in US drinking water seems to have increased 3-4x since 1964. But this obscures the long tail of these data. Back in 1964, the maximum level they recorded was 170 ng/mL. In the modern data, the highest level is 1700 ng/mL, 10x higher.

We can also compare this to the Pima, who in the early 1970s were being exposed to about 100 ng/mL of lithium in their drinking water. This was very unusual back then but it is only somewhat unusual now — about 5% of the modern well water samples were in this range or higher, and about 1% contained more than 200 ng/mL. 

The median level of contamination has increased somewhat, but the maximum level of exposure has increased by an order of magnitude. There’s definitely more lithium in the groundwater today than there was in the 1960s and 1970s.

(We also noticed that in this paper, they mention: “As the stream flows toward its mouth, many sources contribute dissolved and suspended matter to the stream. … It is not surprising that the raw water obtained by Minneapolis, Minn., from the upper reaches of the Mississippi River contains about one-half the amount of dissolved solids as the raw water used by New Orleans, La., near the mouth of the river.”)

The other comparison we want to make is to other countries. The United States is pretty obese, much more obese than most other parts of the world. So the next step is to track down some data and see if other parts of the world have more or less lithium in their groundwater and/or drinking water than we do. 

We’ve found sources for a couple other countries, and we’re prepared to make some comparisons. These distributions are generally skewed, so the median is really the most appropriate metric here — but unfortunately some of these sources don’t report it and just report the mean instead. So to keep us comparing apples to apples as much as possible, remember — the US is about 36% obese, the median of lithium in the well water dataset is 6.9 ng/mL, and the mean is 19.7 ng/mL.

Greece is about 25% obese. In 2013, a team published this paper looking at lithium levels in 149 samples of drinking water from 34 prefectures of Greece. They found that the average level of lithium in the samples was 11.10 ng/mL, with a range from 0.1 to 121 ng/mL. (They also looked at 21 samples of different kinds of bottled waters and found mean lithium levels of 6.21 ng/mL) We can see that the average is lower than the average level in American well water, and that while there is quite a range of values, the range is also much more limited than the range in modern American water samples. We can also point out that the highest level for lithium in this sample (121 ng/mL) was on Samos Island, and in our first post on lithium, we found hints that people on Samos Island are about as obese as Americans.  

Denmark is about 20% obese. In 2017, a team published this paper looking at lithium levels in 158 drinking water samples from 151 public waterworks supplying approximately 42% of the Danish population. Of these, 139 measurements came from “a drinking water sampling campaign, executed from April to June 2013, spatially covering the entire country”. They found an average level of lithium in their sample of 11.6 ng/mL (SD 6.8 ng/mL), with a range from 0.6 ng/mL in Western Denmark to 30.7 ng/mL in Eastern Denmark. This average is pretty high, though lower than the average in our American samples, but it’s also notable that the range and maximum levels are quite low. Even though the Greek and Danish averages are very similar, the Danish maximum value is about one-fourth the Greek maximum value. They also happily report the median value, 10.5 ng/mL.

Austria is about 20% obese. In 2018, a team published this paper looking at 6460 lithium measurements in drinking water samples from all 99 Austrian districts. The average level of lithium was 11.3 ng/mL (SD 27 ng/mL), with a range from “not detected” to 1300 ng/mL.The authors mention that the measurements are extremely skewed — between this and that extreme maximum value, we expect the median is much lower than 11.3 ng/mL.

Italy is about 20% obese. In 2015, a team published this paper looking at lithium concentrations in drinking water at 145 sites in Italy. The average level of lithium in the samples was 5.28 ng/mL, with a range from 0.110 to 60.8 ng/mL. The mean and the maximum level are markedly lower than the levels found in American water. 

Japan is about 4% obese, making it the leanest industrialized nation in the world. In 2020, a team published this paper (h/t commenter Patrick Halstead) looking at lithium levels in 434 drinking water samples in the 274 municipalities of Kyushu Island, the third largest island of Japan’s five main islands, which is home to about 10% of the population. They found that the average level of lithium in the samples was 4.2 ng/mL (SD 9.3 ng/mL), with a range of 0 ng/mL to 130 ng/mL. 

This average is lower than any of the other modern averages we’ve seen. If you look at the map below, you’ll see that only three municipalities had more than 40 ng/mL lithium in their water. Combined with the high maximum value of 130 ng/mL, this suggests an extreme skew, and suggests that the median value is lower than 4.2 ng/mL, maybe much lower. Unfortunately the authors haven’t publicly shared the raw data, so it’s hard to know what the median value really is.

There’s also this paper from 2020 (h/t commenter AJ), by some of the same authors, which looked at lithium levels in tap water samples across the 26 municipalities of Miyazaki Prefecture. Miyazaki Prefecture is part of Kyushu Island, so this is sort of zooming in on the result above. The average lithium levels in the tap water samples was 2.8 ng/mL, with a range from 0.2 ng/mL to 12.3 ng/mL. This time they also report the median, which is 1.7 ng/mL. Note that this median level is lower even than the median in the US in 1964.  

There’s also this paper from 2009, again by some of the same authors, again looking at a prefecture on Kyushu Island. This time they looked at Oita Prefecture, which borders Miyazaki Prefecture to the south. The only difference is that the data are somewhat older, being collected in 2006. Unfortunately they don’t seem to report a mean or a median, but the range was from 0.7 ng/mL to 59 ng/mL, and the authors note that “the distribution of lithium levels was considerably skewed.” Reporting on this paper, the BBC said, “The researchers speculated that while these levels were low, there may be a cumulative protective effect on the brain from years of drinking this tap water.”

Taken together, these three papers strongly suggest that Japanese people have much lower levels of lithium in their drinking water than Americans, or indeed any industrialized population.

We’re comparing a lot of unlike things here. We’re comparing means to medians; comparing sources from different countries and across different years; comparing samples from “groundwater”, “well water”, and “drinking water” without knowing if these are meaningfully different. But even with these limitations, we see that drinking water in America clearly has higher levels of lithium than the drinking water in other countries. This is apparent in the average levels found in large samples, but even more impressive is the differences in extreme values. Most other countries see maximum values of not much more than 100 ng/mL, while the American maximum value recorded was 1700 ng/mL, and a full 1% of samples in our best dataset contained more than 200 ng/mL lithium.

There’s more lithium in American well water than there is in the drinking water of these countries. But there’s also more lithium in the drinking water of these countries than there was in America in the 1960s. Greece, Denmark, Austria, and Italy all have more lithium in their water today than America did in 1964. The median in the dataset for America in 1964 was 2.0 ng/mL — we only have averages for most of these countries, but they all are much higher than 2.0 ng/mL. Denmark, where they do report the median, has a median value of 10.5 ng/mL. The only exception is Japan, where the median (if we could calculate it) might be around 2.0 ng/mL. But modern-day Japan is leaner than America was in 1964 — they’re about as lean as America was in 1890! 

Lithium and Depth

We can also look at the data from this new USGS report to see if there’s anything to our suspicion that drilling deeper and deeper wells is leading to more background lithium exposure. 

The most basic thing to look for is just to see if deeper wells have higher concentrations of lithium, and the answer is a clear “yes”. The paper itself comments, “Lithium concentrations … are positively correlated with well depth”, and naturally we see the same thing in the raw data.

The relationship varies slightly depending on how you do the analysis, but however you slice it, well depth and lithium levels are correlated at about r = 0.2. Because the sample size is several thousand, these are always statistically significant. The relationship also remains significant, and about the same strength, when we control for other variables we expect to be relevant.

In the case of the arsenic contamination in Bangladesh, arsenic was concentrated at a depth of around 50 meters. Wells at around this depth tended to be heavily contaminated, but wells that were either shallower or deeper were generally fine. We thought there might be a similar “sweet spot” for lithium, but so far we haven’t found much evidence for this. Overall there is a weak but pretty constant relationship, where the deeper the well is, the more lithium it contains. There are some indications of a sweet spot for certain types of aquifers, but we’d need to do a more detailed analysis.

There’s even some evidence that wells have been getting deeper over the years. This dataset doesn’t contain information about when wells were drilled, but when they were tested is a proxy for when they were drilled — a well tested in 2003 couldn’t have been drilled in 2008. When we look at the data, we see that the depth of the wells being tested shows a consistent increase over time. In the 1990s they tested 39 wells, and the deepest was only 260 feet deep. In the 2000s, they tested 1,288 wells, and 313 were deeper than 260 feet. Only two of the wells tested in the 2000s were more than 2,000 feet deep. In the 2010s and on, 33 of the wells they tested were more than 2,000 feet deep.

This is supported by the publicly-available well data we pulled from Vermont and Massachusetts earlier, where we see moderate correlations (about r = 0.3) between the year a well was completed and the overall depth. This is omitting the wells in the MA dataset that were listed as being 4,132,004 and 10,112,002 feet deep — we think these may be typos.

What about the maps? 

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this project, it’s that people love maps. This paper contains a few, and they’re pretty interesting. This one is the most relevant: 


One thing that you’ll notice is that the distribution of lithium in well water doesn’t match up all that well with the distribution of obesity. Colorado is the leanest state but has pretty high levels of lithium in its well water. Alabama is quite obese but levels of lithium in the well water there are relatively low. What gives? 

We think there are a couple of reasons not to be concerned about this. The first is that the sample is nowhere near representative. If you look at the map, you’ll see that the domestic-supply networks are thick around the coasts but thin in the interior of the country — except in Nebraska, where they are massively overrepresented for some reason. Only six wells were recorded in West Virginia and only three in Kentucky, which is too bad because those states seem pretty important. No effort seems to have been made to target population centers — this is a study by the USGS, so they are more interested in figuring out the features of major aquifers than of major cities. If a major city happens to be drawing from an especially contaminated source, they might have missed it.

The second is that there are big seasonal and weather effects, which they don’t adjust for. There’s almost no lithium in rain and snow — it’s essentially distilled water — so when it rains, lithium levels in groundwater drop as it becomes diluted with this influx of pure water. Similarly, there are seasonal effects — in part due to precipitation and snowmelt cycles — where lithium in the groundwater rises and falls over the course of the year.

But the third and most important thing is that all of these measurements are of well water, but many areas get their drinking water from surface sources rather than from wells. 

Let’s start with Colorado, since it’s the clearest example. As you can see from the map above, the average level of lithium in Colorado well water is higher than the national average. We have the raw data, so again we can tell you that the median level in Colorado wells is 17.8 ng/mL, the mean is 28.0 ng/mL, and the max is a rather high 217.0 ng/mL.

But this doesn’t matter, because almost none of the drinking water in Colorado comes from wells. Instead, most of the drinking water in Colorado comes from surface water, and most of that water comes directly from pure snowmelt.

Denver is the largest city in Colorado and also the capital. A company called Denver Water, which is Colorado’s oldest and largest water utility, serves the city of Denver and surrounding areas. They have this to say about where they get their water

Denver Water … relies on a system that collects rain and snow from across 4,000 square miles of mountains and foothills west of Denver. … On an average year, the utility captures 290,000 acre-feet of rain and snowmelt in its collection system. That’s roughly 94 billion gallons of water — or enough to fill up nearly 157 Empower Fields at Mile High. The water flows down rivers and streams, then through a network of tunnels, pipelines and canals to treatment facilities in the Front Range to be cleaned for delivery to homes and businesses. Because most of the water comes from mountain snowmelt in the spring, water is stored in mountain reservoirs until it is needed.

On another page, they say:

Denver Water is responsible for the collection, storage, quality control and distribution of drinking water to 1.5 million people, which is nearly one-fourth of all Coloradans. Almost all of its water comes from mountain snowmelt, and Denver is the first major user in line to use that water. Denver Water’s primary water sources are the South Platte River, Blue River, Williams Fork River and Fraser River watersheds, but it also uses water from the South Boulder Creek, Ralston Creek and Bear Creek watersheds.

Colorado Springs is the second-largest city in Colorado. Despite the name, they also get most of their drinking water from snowmelt. Per

Colorado Springs is a community that lacks a natural water source. 80% of our community’s water comes via pipelines from the western slope, 200 miles away.

And per

Most of Colorado Springs’ current water comes from snowmelt, either on Pikes Peak or on the Western Slope. If snowfall is inadequate and precipitation falls as rain, the water is not easily captured in the high mountains where the Homestake pipeline begins. However, the Southern Delivery System (SDS) project would capture water as the flow emerged from the mountains as the Arkansas River and into Pueblo Reservoir.

Also enjoy this video from Colorado Springs Utilities called What it Takes to Drink Snowmelt.

Aurora is the third-largest city in Colorado (and right next to Denver). We bet you can guess where we’re going with this! From

One of the benefits of living in a state that relies primarily on this surface water is that unlike groundwater, surface water is a renewable water source. 

Aurora receives 95 percent of our water from surface water sources, with the remaining five percent coming from deep aquifer groundwater wells. Replenished each year through snowmelt, Aurora’s water supply is transported from 180 miles away through a complex and extensive system.

As we mentioned above, precipitation has extremely low levels of lithium because it’s basically been distilled. In one study of rainwater in Montréal, they found a mean level of only 0.48 ng/mL. This means that if you are drinking rainwater or snowmelt, you are getting less lithium in your drinking water than any other group we’ve seen — less than in Italy, less than the Japanese, and less than Americans back in 1964. 

People in Colorado more or less are drinking nothing but snowmelt. It runs through rivers and reservoirs first, so it probably picks up some trace minerals and other contaminants from the slopes and riverbeds. But it doesn’t matter if the well water in Colorado is high in lithium — people aren’t drinking that, they’re drinking snowmelt.

Lithium aside, this is pretty interesting just from the perspective of Colorado being the leanest state. Snowmelt will be extremely low in pretty much every contaminant, so this seems to be additional evidence that obesity is caused by a contaminant that is carried in drinking water. We think you can still get exposure from other sources as well, probably your food — which is why Colorado is 20% obese, rather than 2% obese like premodern populations — but this seems like some evidence that drinking water alone makes some difference.

Other states also use surface water, but we’re pretty sure no one else is getting 95-100% of their drinking water directly from snowmelt. Utah is just on the other side of the ridge, but their Department of Environmental Quality says

Utah’s drinking water comes from either surface water (lakes, reservoirs, rivers) or ground water (wells or springs), altogether 1,850 sources. Utah’s larger cities generally use surface water and wells while its small towns depend on springs that serve the system all year long, supplemented by wells during the summer months.

Nearby Nebraska seems to get most of their drinking water from wells. According to one source, about 80 percent of the population consumes drinking water that is pumped from groundwater sources; according to another source, 85% of the population does. So unlike Colorado, Nebraska should be concerned about the levels of lithium in their groundwater — a median level of 17.6 ng/mL and a mean of 21.7 ng/mL — because they’re actually drinking it. And the rest of us should be concerned as well, because Nebraska is #3 in the nation for agricultural production.