Ogilvy on Dating: The Consumer isn’t a Moron, She is [Hopefully] your Wife

Hello lonelyhearts. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Dating is really the oldest form of direct marketing. You’re marketing yourself — it’s a specialized form of advertising. So who better to get dating advice from than the King of Madison Avenue, David Ogilvy himself

To this end, we have collected a number of direct quotes from Ogilvy’s writing, and combined them into the greatest dating/marketing manual of all time. Now you can use it to YOUR advantage!

To help get in the spirit of things, we have replaced a few words and phrases with their romantic equivalents. These amendments always appear in ALL CAPS. Aside from this, the section titles, a few clearly-marked notes, and the order in which the passages appear, everything is Ogilvy’s.


What really decides FOLKS to DATE or not to DATE is the content of your advertising, not its form. Your most important job is to decide what you are going to say about your YOU, what benefit you are going to promise. Two hundred years ago Dr. Johnson said, “Promise, large promise is the soul of an advertisement.” When he auctioned off the contents of the Anchor Brewery he made the following promise: “We are not here to sell boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.”

Handling PARTNERS once you have got them is deadly serious business. You are spending other people’s TIME, and the fate of their RELATIONSHIP often rests in your hands. But I regard the hunt for new DATES as a sport. If you play it grimly, you will die of ulcers. If you play it with lighthearted gusto, you will survive your failures without losing sleep. Play to win, but enjoy the fun.

The function of most advertising is not to persuade people to DATE your YOU, but to persuade them to DATE YOU more often than the other SINGLES in their repertoire.

You cannot generalize. … The PLAYERS which are most successful in new DATES are those whose THEM show the most sensitive insight into the psychological make-up of the prospective CUTIE. Rigidity and salesmanship do not combine.

There is one stratagem which seems to work in almost every case: get the prospect to do most of the talking. The more you listen, the wiser he thinks you are.

I never accept A DATE unless I believe that I can do a conspicuously better job than the previous BOYFRIEND.

I have never wanted to get A GIRLFRIEND so big that I could not afford to lose HER. The day you do that, you commit yourself to living with fear. Frightened GUYS lose the courage to give candid advice; once you lose that you become a lackey.

A posture of enthusiasm is not always the one best calculated to succeed. Five or six times I have turned down SUITORS which did not meet MY qualifications, only to find that the act of rejection inflamed the SINGLE’S desire to SMOOCH. 

When a FELLA PICKS YOU, it is because he has decided that YOU ARE the best available to him. His advisers have reached this decision after making a thorough study of what YOU have to offer. But as time goes by, he acquires new advisers. Every time this happens, it is expedient for YOU to convince the new adviser that his predecessor was right in selecting YA GIRL.

This meme but unironically

The most important word in the vocabulary of DATING is “test”. If you pretest your PHOTOS with THE INTERNET, and pretest your PROFILE, you will do well in the marketplace. [SMTM’s Note: Perhaps with Photofeeler]

Twenty-four out of twenty-five new BACHELORS never get out of test markets. Manufacturers who don’t test-market their BACHELORS incur the colossal cost (and disgrace) of having their BACHELORS fail on a national scale, instead of dying inconspicuously and economically in test markets.

Test your promise. Test your media. Test your PROFILE and your PICS. Test the size of your DATE NIGHTS. Test your frequency. Test your level of expenditure. Test your MEMES. Never stop testing, and your DATING will never stop improving.


In the early days of DATING APPS, I made the mistake of relying on words to do the selling; I had been accustomed to radio, where there are no pictures. I now know that in APPS you must make your pictures tell the story; what you show is more important than what you say. Words and pictures must march together, reinforcing each other. The only function of the words is to explain what the pictures are showing.

MOST SINGLES think in terms of words, and devote little time to planning their HOT PICS. Yet the illustration often occupies more ATTENTION than the copy, and it should work just as hard to sell the YOU. It should telegraph the same promise that you make in your PROFILE.

Dr. Gallup has discovered that the kind of photographs which win awards from camera clubs—sensitive, subtle, and beautifully composed—don’t work in PROFILES. What do work are photographs which arouse the reader’s curiosity. He glances at the photograph and says to himself, “What goes on here?” Then he reads your PROFILE to find out. This is the trap to set.

Harold Rudolph called this magic element “story appeal,” and demonstrated that the more of it you inject into your photographs, the more people will look at your PROFILE.

Keep your PHOTOS as simple as possible, with the focus of interest on one person. Crowd scenes don’t pull. Avoid stereotyped situations like grinning housewives pointing fatuously into open refrigerators. [SMTM’s Note: the ‘60s female equivalent of the guy holding the big fish]


I belong to [a] school, which holds that a good PROFILE is one which sells the SINGLE without drawing attention to itself. It should rivet the reader’s attention on the SINGLE. Instead of saying, “What a clever PROFILE,” the reader says, “I never knew that before. I must DATE THE HELL OUT OF THEM.”

When you sit down to write your PROFILE, pretend that you are talking to the woman on your right at a dinner party. She has asked you, “I am thinking of SEDUCING a new BOYFRIEND. WHO would you recommend?” Write your PROFILE as if you were answering that question.

(1) Don’t beat about the bush—go straight to the point. 

(2) Avoid superlatives, generalizations, and platitudes. Be specific and factual. Be enthusiastic, friendly, and memorable. Don’t be a bore. Tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating.

We make PROFILES that people want to read. You can’t save souls in an empty church. 

Profile Facts

Very few PROFILES contain enough factual information to sell the SINGLE. There is a ludicrous tradition among MATCHMAKERS that consumers aren’t interested in facts. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

When I was a door-to-door VALENTINE I discovered that the more information I gave about my SELF, the more I sold. Claude Hopkins made the same discovery about advertising, fifty years ago. But most modern DUDES find it easier to write short, lazy PROFILES. Collecting facts is hard.

The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your FUTURE wife HOPEFULLY. You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to DATE anything. She wants all the information you can give her.

Competing BACHELORS are becoming more and more alike. The men who ARE them have access to the same scientific journals; they use the same production techniques; and they are guided by the same research. When faced with the inconvenient fact that their SELF is about the same as several others, most BACHELORS conclude that there is no point in telling the consumer what is common to all DUDES; so they confine themselves to some trivial point of difference. I hope that they will continue to make this mistake, because it enables YOU to pre-empt the truth for YOUR DATES.

Competing BACHELORS are becoming more and more alike. 

You cannot bore people into DATING. The average GIRL is now exposed to more than 1500 BLOKES a day. No wonder they have acquired a talent for skipping the DUDES in newspapers and magazines, and going to the bathroom during television PERSONALS.

The average woman now reads only four of the PERSONALS which appear in the average magazine. She glances at more, but one glance is enough to tell her that the PROFILE is too boring to read.

Competition for the SINGLE LADY’S attention is becoming more ferocious every year. She is being bombarded by a billion dollars’ worth of DUDES a month. Thirty thousand DUDES are competing for a place in her memory. If you want your voice to be heard above this ear-splitting barrage, your voice must be unique.

Profile Headlines

Keep your opening paragraph down to a maximum of eleven words. A long first paragraph frightens readers away. All your paragraphs should be as short as possible; long paragraphs are fatiguing. 

Include your DATING promise in your headline. This requires long headlines. When the New York University School of Retailing ran headline tests with the cooperation of a big department store, they found that headlines of ten words or longer, containing news and information, consistently sold more merchandise than short headlines.

People are more likely to read your PROFILE if your headline arouses their curiosity; so you should end your headline with a lure to read on.

Profile Focus

The most effective PROFILES are built around only one or two points, simply stated. A hodgepodge of many points leaves the viewer unmoved. That is why PROFILES should never be created in committee. Compromise has no place in advertising. Whatever you do, go the whole hog.

The purpose of a PROFILE is not to entertain the viewer, but to sell him.

Most PROFILES are too complicated. They reflect a long list of objectives, and try to reconcile the divergent views of too many FRIENDS. By attempting to cover too many things, they achieve nothing. Their PROFILES look like the minutes of a committee.

How do you decide what kind of image to build? There is no short answer. Research cannot help you much here. You have actually got to use judgment. (I notice increasing reluctance on the part of GUYS AND GALS to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post, for support rather than for illumination.)

Most SINGLES are reluctant to accept any limitation on the image of their SELF. They want it to be all things to all people. They want their SELF to be a male brand and a female brand. An upper-crust brand and a plebeian brand. They generally end up with a SELF which has no personality of any kind.

Ninety-five per cent of all the PROFILES now in circulation are being created without any reference to such long-term considerations. They are being created ad hoc. … Hence the lack of any coherent personality.

Research shows that it is dangerous to use negatives in PROFILES. If, for example, you write “our DATE contains no arsenic”, many readers will miss the negative and go away with the impression that you wrote “our DATE contains arsenic”.

It is a mistake to use highfalutin language when you advertise to uneducated people. I once used the word “obsolete” in a headline, only to discover that 43 per cent of housewives had no idea what it meant. In another headline, I used the word “ineffable”, only to discover that I didn’t know what it meant myself.

Some DATERS write tricky PROFILES—puns, literary allusions, and other obscurities. This is a sin. In the average APP your PROFILE has to compete for attention with UH, VERY MANY others. Research has shown that readers travel so fast through this jungle that they don’t stop to decipher the meaning of obscure PROFILES. Your PROFILE must telegraph what you want to say, and it must telegraph it in plain language. Don’t play games with the reader.

Can A GOOD PROFILE foist an inferior BACHELOR on the consumer? Bitter experience has taught me that it cannot. On those rare occasions when I have advertised BACHELORS which consumer tests found inferior to other BACHELORS in the same field, the results have been disastrous. If I try hard enough, I can write an advertisement which will persuade consumers to DATE an inferior BACHELOR, but only once—and most of my clients depend on repeat DATES for their ROMANCE. Phineas T. Barnum was the first to observe that “you may advertise a spurious article and induce many people to buy it once, but they will gradually denounce you as an impostor.” Alfred Politz and Howard Morgens believe that advertising can actually accelerate the demise of an inferior BACHELOR. Says Morgens, “The quickest way to EXPOSE a BACHELOR that is off in quality is to promote HIM aggressively. People find out about HIS poor quality just that much more quickly.”


There are certain universal rules. Dress quietly and shave well. Do not wear a bowler hat. Go to the back door (most DUDES go to the front door, a manoeuvre always resented by maid and mistress alike). Tell the person who opens the door frankly and briefly what you have come for; it will get her on your side. Never on any account get in on false pretences.

However thoroughly you investigate prospective DATES, it is almost impossible to find out whether they qualify on all these counts until you meet them face to face. You then find yourself in a delicate position, simultaneously selling your SELF and eliciting from the prospect enough information about himself and his SELF to decide whether you want his LOVIN’. It pays to listen more than you talk.

The worst fault a ROMEO can commit is to be a bore. Pretend to be vastly interested in any subject the prospect shows an interest in.

The more she talks the better, and if you can make her laugh you are several points up. Perhaps the most important thing of all is to avoid standardisation in your sales talk. If you find yourself one fine day saying the same things to a bishop and a trapezist, you are done for.

You must always be faced sooner or later with questions and objections, which may indeed be taken as a sign that the prospect’s brain is in working order, and that she is conscientiously considering YOU as a practical proposition for herself. 

Some DUDES expound their subject academically, so that at the end the prospect feels no more inclination to DATE than she would to SUCK FACE WITH the planet Jupiter after a broadcast from the Astronomer Royal. A talkative prospective is a good thing.

Try and avoid being drawn into discussing competitive makes of BOYFRIEND, as it introduces a negative and defensive atmosphere. On no account sling mud – it can carry very little weight, coming from you, and it will make the prospect distrust your integrity and dislike you.

The best way to tackle the problem is to find out all you possibly can about the merits, faults and sales arguments of competitors, and then keep quiet about them. Profound knowledge of other BLOKES will help you put your positive case for YOU more convincingly

Don’t sing your DATING message. DATING is a serious business. How would you react if you went into a Sears store to DATE a frying pan and the salesman started singing jingles at you?

Candor compels me to admit that I have no conclusive research to support my view that jingles are less persuasive than the spoken word. It is based on the difficulty I always experience in hearing the words in jingles, and on my experience as a door-to-door VALENTINE; I never sang to my prospects. The BACHELORS who believe in the DATING power of jingles have never had to DATE anything.

The more prospects you talk to, the more SINGLES you expose yourself to, the more DATES you will get. But never mistake quantity of DATES for quality of DATESmanship.

When the prospect tries to bring the interview to a close, go gracefully. It can only hurt you to be kicked out.

Most SINGLES and their FRIENDS spend too much time worrying about how to revive DATES which are in trouble, and too little time worrying about how to make successful DATES even more successful. In advertising, it is the mark of a brave man to look unfavorable test results in the face, cut your loss, and move on.

Concentrate your time, your brains, and your DATING money on your successes. Recognize success when it comes, and pour on the DATING.


The more your PARTNER knows about your SELF and your TASTES, the better job THEY will do for you. When General Foods hired our agency to advertise Maxwell House Coffee, they undertook to teach us the coffee business. Day after day we sat at the feet of their experts, being lectured about green coffee, and blending, and roasting, and pricing, and the arcane economics of the industry.

If you think that your SUGAR PIE is performing badly, or if you think that a particular DATE is feeble, don’t beat about the bush. Speak your mind, loud and clear. Disastrous consequences can arise when a MAN pussyfoots in his day-to-day dealings with his HONEY BUNCH.

I do not suggest that you should threaten. Don’t say, “You are an incompetent mucker, and I will get another GIRLFRIEND unless you come back tomorrow with a great DATE.” Such brutality will only paralyze the troops. It is better to say, “What you have just shown me is not up to your usual high standard. Please take another crack at it.”

At the same time you should explain exactly what you find inadequate about the submission; don’t leave your PARTNER to guess. This kind of candor will encourage your PARTNER to be equally candid with you. And no partnership can fructify without candor on both sides.

The Scientific Virtues

Science education usually starts with teaching students different tools and techniques, methods for conducting research. 

This is wrong. Science education should begin with the scientific virtues. 

Teaching someone painting techniques without teaching them composition will lead to lifeless paintings. Giving business advice to someone who lacks civic duty will lead to parasitic companies. Teaching generals strategy without teaching them honor gets you warlords. So teaching someone the methods of science without teaching them the virtues will lead to dull, pointless projects. Virtue is the key to happy, creative, important, meaningful research.

The scientific virtues are:

  • Stupidity
  • Arrogance
  • Laziness
  • Carefreeness
  • Beauty
  • Rebellion
  • Humor

These virtues are often the opposite of the popular image of what a scientist should look like. People think scientists should be intelligent. But while it’s helpful to be clever, it’s more important to be stupid. People think scientists are authority figures. Really, scientists have to defy authority — the best scientists are one step (or sometimes zero steps) away from being anarchists. People think scientists are arrogant, and this is true, but we worry that scientists are not arrogant enough

Anyone who practices these virtues is a scientist, even if they work night shifts at the 7-11 and learned everything they know about statistics from twitter. Anyone who betrays these virtues is no scientist at all, even if they’ve got tenure at Princeton and have a list of publications long enough to run from Cambridge to New Haven.

Cultivating virtue is the most important way to become a better scientist. Many people want to be scientists but are worried that they are not smart enough, or not talented enough. It’s true that there is not much you can do to become smarter, and you are mostly stuck with the talents you were born with. But virtues can be cultivated infinitely — there is no limit to how good you can get at practicing them. Anyone can become a better scientist by practicing these virtues — maybe even a great scientist.


The great obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.

Daniel Boorstin

To a large extent, your skill as a researcher comes down to how well you understand how dumb you are, which is always “very”. Once you realize how stupid you are, you can start to make progress.

A different writer might say “humility” here rather than stupidity. But calling this virtue humility might make you feel smug and self-satisfied, which is not the right feeling at all. Instead, you should feel dumb. The virtue of stupidity is all about feeling like a tiny mote in a vast universe that you don’t understand even a little bit, and calling it humility doesn’t strike that note. 

Great scientists are not especially humble, as we shall see in just a minute. But they are stupid — they are practiced in practicing ignorance. They have cultivated the virtue of saying and doing things that are just entirely boneheaded, because this is vital to the process of discovery, and more important, it is relaxing and fun. 

It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.

Isaac Asimov

Stupidity is all about preparing you to admit when you’re facing a problem where you don’t know what is going on, which is always. This allows you to ask incredibly dumb questions at any time. 

People who don’t have experience asking stupid questions don’t understand how important they can be. Try asking more and dumber questions — lean in on how stupid you are. You will find the world opening up to you. Ignorant questions are revealing! 

I took mechanical drawing when I was in school, but I am not good at reading blueprints. So they unroll the stack of blueprints and start to explain it to me, thinking I am a genius. …

I’m completely dazed. Worse, I don’t know what the symbols on the blueprint mean! There is some kind of a thing that at first I think is a window. It’s a square with a little cross in the middle, all over the damn place. I think it’s a window, but no, it can’t be a window, because it isn’t always at the edge. I want to ask them what it is.

You must have been in a situation like this when you didn’t ask them right away. Right away it would have been OK. But now they’ve been talking a little bit too long. You hesitated too long. If you ask them now they’ll say, “What are you wasting my time all this time for?”

What am I going to do? I get an idea. Maybe it’s a valve. I take my finger and I put it down on one of the mysterious little crosses in the middle of one of the blueprints on page three, and I say, “What happens if this valve gets stuck?” — figuring they’re going to say, “That’s not a valve, sir, that’s a window.”

So one looks at the other and says, “Well, if that valve gets stuck –” and he goes up and down on the blueprint, up and down, the other guy goes up and down, back and forth, back and forth, and they both look at each other. They turn around to me and they open their mouths like astonished fish and say, “You’re absolutely right, sir.”

So they rolled up the blueprints and away they went and we walked out. And Mr. Zumwalt, who had been following me all the way through, said, “You’re a genius. I got the idea you were a genius when you went through the plant once and you could tell them about evaporator C-21 in building 90-207 the next morning,” he says, “but what you have just done is so fantastic I want to know how, how do you do that?”

I told him you try to find out whether it’s a valve or not.

Richard Feynman

Asking dumb questions was a particular favorite of Richard Feynman, who really cannot recommend it strongly enough: 

That was for me: I can’t understand anything in general unless I’m carrying along in my mind a specific example and watching it go. Some people think in the beginning that I’m kind of slow and I don’t understand the problem, because I ask a lot of these “dumb” questions: “Is a cathode plus or minus? Is an anion this way, or that way?”

But later, when the guy’s in the middle of a bunch of equations, he’ll say something and I’ll say, “Wait a minute! There’s an error! That can’t be right!”

The guy looks at his equations, and sure enough, after a while, he finds the mistake and wonders, “How the hell did this guy, who hardly understood at the beginning, find that mistake in the mess of all these equations?”

Richard Feynman

Reading about the lives of talented researchers, ones who have been praised by their peers and made stunning discoveries, you pretty quickly notice that they are not afraid at all of seeming or being very dumb, or very ignorant. For example, we can consider Niels Bohr, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922 for his pioneering work in quantum mechanics:

It is practically impossible to describe Niels Bohr to a person who has never worked with him. Probably his most characteristic property was the slowness of his thinking and comprehension. … In the evening, when a handful of Bohr’s students were “working” in the Paa Blegdamsvejen Institute, discussing the latest problems of the quantum theory, or playing ping-pong on the library table with coffee cups placed on it to make the game more difficult, Bohr would appear, complaining that he was very tired, and would like to “do something.” To “do something” inevitably meant to go to the movies, and the only movies Bohr liked were those called The Gun Fight at the Lazy Gee Ranch or The Lone Ranger and a Sioux Girl. But it was hard to go with Bohr to the movies. He could not follow the plot, and was constantly asking us, to the great annoyance of the rest of the audience, questions like this: “Is that the sister of that cowboy who shot the Indian who tried to steal a herd of cattle belonging to her brother-in-law?” The same slowness of reaction was apparent at scientific meetings. Many a time, a visiting young physicist (most physicists visiting Copenhagen were young) would deliver a brilliant talk about his recent calculations on some intricate problem of the quantum theory. Everybody in the audience would understand the argument quite clearly, but Bohr wouldn’t. So everybody would start to explain to Bohr the simple point he had missed, and in the resulting turmoil everybody would stop understanding anything. Finally, after a considerable period of time, Bohr would begin to understand, and it would turn out that what he understood about the problem presented by the visitor was quite different from what the visitor meant, and was correct, while the visitor’s interpretation was wrong.

George Gamow on Niels Bohr 

Great scientists were generally quite stupid, though we admit that some of them may have been stupider than others. More notably, most of them seem to have known it! 

The first thing Bohr said to me was that it would only then be profitable to work with him if I understood that he was a dilettante. The only way I knew to react to this unexpected statement was with a polite smile of disbelief. But evidently Bohr was serious. He explained how he had to approach every new question from a starting point of total ignorance. It is perhaps better to say that Bohr’s strength lay in his formidable intuition and insight rather than erudition.

Abraham Pais

Some of this is about fear. If you accept your ignorance, you will be aware of how stupid you are. Being afraid of being stupid, or seeming stupid, will lead you to make lots of mistakes. You will be afraid to look for mistakes; you will not double-check your work with the same level of care; you will be afraid that if people find out about your mistakes, they will laugh and think you are an idiot. Once you have accepted in full confidence that you, along with all other scientists, are in fact idiots, you will no longer be worried about this. You will notice your own mistakes, or others will notice them for you, and you will laugh it off. “I’m so glad someone caught this!” you will say. 

You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit and if I can’t figure it out, then I go on to something else, but I don’t have to know an answer, I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.

Richard Feynman

Mistakes are inevitable! You are a dummy; you will sometimes be wrong. It is ok to be wrong. If you’re not willing to accept that sometimes you’re wrong, you will have a hard time ever being right. Be wrong with confidence.

Don’t worry too much about your intellectual gifts. Despite popular misconceptions, a lack of IQ won’t hold you back. If you are really dumb and know it, you have a leg up on the smart people who, on a cosmic scale, are still stupid, but haven’t realized it yet. 

Brains are nice to have, but many people who seem not to have great IQs have done great things. At Bell Telephone Laboratories Bill Pfann walked into my office one day with a problem in zone melting. He did not seem to me, then, to know much mathematics, to be articulate, or to have a lot of clever brains, but I had already learned brains come in many forms and flavors, and to beware of ignoring any chance I got to work with a good man. I first did a little analytical work on his equations, and soon realized what he needed was computing. I checked up on him by asking around in his department, and I found they had a low opinion of him and his idea for zone melting. But that is not the first time a person has not been appreciated locally, and I was not about to lose my chance of working with a great idea—which is what zone melting seemed to me, though not to his own department!

Richard Hamming

Stupidity can also be part of the inspiration behind the virtue of rebellion, a scientist’s ability to defy authority figures. If you’re stupid, you don’t realize when you should keep your mouth shut, so you say what you really think. Feynman again:

The last time he was there, Bohr said to his son, “Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea. So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we’re not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr.

Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.” I was always dumb in that way. I never knew who I was talking to. 

Maybe more important is that accepting your stupidity helps you cultivate the virtue of being carefree. If you think you have a great mind, you will feel a lot of pressure to work on things that are “challenging” and “important”. But you will never get anything done if you stress out about this kind of thing, and more seriously, you will never have any fun.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things that I ever heard him say was when, after describing to me an experiment in which he had placed under a bell-jar some pollen from a male flower, together with an unfertilized female flower, in order to see whether, when kept at a distance but under the same jar, the one would act in any way on the other, he remarked:—”That’s a fool’s experiment. But I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them.”

E. Ray Lankester, recalling Charles Darwin


My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.

Stephen Hawking

Arrogance is the complement of stupidity, the yang to stupidity’s yin. Being stupid is all about recognizing that you know nothing about everything, and in fact you have little chance of ever understanding much about anything. Having accepted such complete ignorance, you must then be extraordinarily arrogant to think that you could ever make an original discovery, let alone solve a problem that has baffled people for generations. But this is exactly what we aim to do. To complement their stupidity, a scientist must also be arrogant beyond all measure.

No one else knows anything either, so when it comes to figuring something out for the first time, you have as good a shot at it as anyone else does! Why not go for it, after all? 

The condition of matter I have dignified by the term Electronic, THE ELECTRONIC STATE. What do you think of that? Am I not a bold man, ignorant as I am, to coin words?

Michael Faraday

Most people have the good sense to know what is realistic and practical, and to laugh at people who think they can do the impossible. So you have to be very dumb indeed, to be arrogant enough to think that you can change the world! 

Who would not have been laughed at if he had said in 1800 that metals could be extracted from their ores by electricity or that portraits could be drawn by chemistry.

Michael Faraday

A great gap in research is between people who try things and people who sit around thinking about whether to try things. Truly, aiming low is a dead end. Aiming low is boring.

Confidence in yourself, then, is an essential property. Or, if you want to, you can call it “courage.” Shannon had courage. Who else but a man with almost infinite courage would ever think of averaging over all random codes and expect the average code would be good? He knew what he was doing was important and pursued it intensely. Courage, or confidence, is a property to develop in yourself. Look at your successes, and pay less attention to failures than you are usually advised to do in the expression, “Learn from your mistakes.” While playing chess Shannon would often advance his queen boldly into the fray and say, “I ain’t scared of nothing.”

Richard Hamming

You will not always be right. Often you will be wrong. This is why stupidity comes before arrogance, because you have to be prepared to make lots of dumb mistakes. If you are prepared to make dumb mistakes, you can act with confidence. You will put ideas out there that you think might be wrong. But sometimes you will surprise yourself.

Is it dangerous to claim that parents have no power at all (other than genetic) to shape their child’s personality, intelligence, or the way he or she behaves outside the family home? … A confession: When I first made this proposal ten years ago, I didn’t fully believe it myself. I took an extreme position, the null hypothesis of zero parental influence, for the sake of scientific clarity. Making myself an easy target, I invited the establishment — research psychologists in the academic world — to shoot me down. I didn’t think it would be all that difficult for them to do so. … The establishment’s failure to shoot me down has been nothing short of astonishing.

Judith Rich Harris for Edge

Like stupidity, arrogance is linked to the virtue of rebellion. If you think you are hot shit, you will not be afraid to go against the opinions of famous writers, ivy-league professors, public officials, or other great minds.

The idea that smashed the old orthodoxy got its start on Christmas 1910, as Wegener (the W is pronounced like a V) browsed through a friend’s new atlas. Others before him had noticed that the Atlantic coast of Brazil looked as if it might once have been tucked up against West Africa, like a couple spooning in bed. But no one had made much of it, and Wegener was hardly the logical choice to show what they had been missing. He was a lecturer at Marburg University, not merely untenured but unsalaried, and his specialties were meteorology and astronomy, not geology.

But Wegener was not timid about disciplinary boundaries, or much else. He was an Arctic explorer and a record-setting balloonist, and when his scientific mentor and future father-in-law advised him to be cautious in his theorizing, Wegener replied, “Why should we hesitate to toss the old views overboard?”

— Richard Connff for Smithsonian Magazine

You shouldn’t cultivate arrogance in a way that makes you an asshole, though some scientists have made this mistake. This virtue is not about thinking that you are better than other people. Forget about other people. It is about thinking that you have the potential to be really good — to be damn good. It is about moving with extreme confidence. You cultivate arrogance so that if someone says, “that’s very arrogant of you!” you respond, “so what?”


Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible. 

Richard Feynman

Everyone knows that research requires hard work. This is true, but your hard work has to be matched by a commitment to relaxation, slacking off, and fucking around when you “should” be working — that is, laziness.

Laziness is not optional — it is essential. Great work cannot be done without it. And it must be cultivated as a virtue, because a sinful world is always trying to push back against it.

Leonardo, knowing that the intellect of that Prince was acute and discerning, was pleased to discourse at large with the Duke on the subject… and he reasoned much with him about art, and made him understand that men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least, seeking out inventions with the mind, and forming those perfect ideas which the hands afterwards express and reproduce from the images already conceived in the brain.

Giorgio Vasari

Hard work needs to happen to bring an idea to fruition, but you cannot work hard all the time any more than a piston can be firing all the time, or every piston in an engine can fire at once. Pistons are always moving up and down. A piston moves up; it fires; but that action is matched by the piston moving down, and spending some time not firing. It would be foolish to complain that the piston is not firing all the time, but this is what some people do in trying to work hard all the time. They are trying to keep the piston in the down position the whole time, not recognizing that this will stop the piston from firing again, and will damage the whole engine. 

They would do better to cultivate the virtue of laziness, and go take a nap or stare at the clouds or play fetch with their dog or something. Taking a nap is just turning your brain off and then on again, which solves 90% of my computer problems.

Albert Einstein once asked a friend of mine in Princeton, “Why is it I get my best ideas in the morning while I’m shaving?” My friend answered, as I have been trying to say here, that often the mind needs the relaxation of inner controls — needs to be freed in reveries or day dreaming — for the unaccustomed ideas to emerge.

Rollo May

Mathematicians are not exactly scientists, but they certainly have one of the best claims on pure idea work. So you might expect that for mathematicians, more time spent working would lead to more results. But apparently not. G.H. Hardy, one of the great British mathematicians of the 20th century, started his mornings by reading the cricket scores (or when cricket was not in season, the Australian cricket scores). He would work only from 9 to 1, after which he would eat lunch, play tennis, or (surprise) watch a game of cricket. His collaborator John Edensor Littlewood said:

You must also acquire the art of ‘thinking vaguely,’ an elusive idea I can’t elaborate in short form. After what I have said earlier, it is inevitable that I should stress the importance of giving the subconscious every chance. There should be relaxed periods during the working day, profitably, I say, spent in walking. … On days free from research, and apart from regular holidays, I recommend four hours [of work] a day or at most five, with breaks about every hour (for walks perhaps). If you don’t have breaks you unconsciously acquire the habit of slowing down. 

John Edensor Littlewood

Henri Poincaré is perhaps the best example. He was something of a mathematician but also worked in physics and engineering, and he worked around four hours a day. Poincaré happened to have several experiences where hard work failed to crack a problem, but laziness or relaxation did the trick; for example, drinking coffee too late and messing up his sleep schedule:

For fifteen days I strove to prove that there could not be any functions like those I have since called Fuchsian functions. I was then very ignorant; every day I seated myself at my work table, stayed an hour or two, tried a great number of combinations and reached no results. One evening, contrary to my custom, I drank black coffee and could not sleep. Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions, those which come from the hypergeometric series; I had only to write out the results, which took but a few hours.

Henri Poincaré

Or, even more effortless, getting onto a bus:

I left Caen, where I was living, to go on a geological excursion under the auspices of the School of Mines. The incidents of the travel made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with a conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty. On my return to Caen, for conscience’s sake I verified the result at my leisure.

Then I turned my attention to the study of some arithmetical questions apparently without much success and without a suspicion of any connection with my preceding researches. Disgusted with my failure, I went to spend a few days at the seaside and thought of something else. One morning, while walking on the bluff, the idea came to me, with just the same characteristics of brevity, suddenness and immediate certainty, that the arithmetic transformations of indefinite ternary quadratic forms were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry.

Henri Poincaré

(In fact there seems to be something about buses. If you are working on a problem you just can’t crack, maybe take a bus ride?)

In 1865, Kekulé himself came up with the answer. He related some years later that the vision of the benzene molecule came to him while he was riding on a bus and sunk in a reverie, half asleep. In his dream, chains of carbon atoms seemed to come alive and dance before his eyes, and then suddenly one coiled on itself like a snake. Kekulé awoke from his reverie with a start.

Isaac Asimov

Poincaré and Kekulé aren’t the only ones. For Linus Pauling, a head cold and pulpy detective novels seems to have done the trick:

In Oxford, it was April, I believe, I caught cold. I went to bed, and read detective stories for a day, and got bored, and thought why don’t I have a crack at that problem of alpha keratin.

Linus Pauling

This was one of the one of the many achievements that led to his Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954. So next time you think, “I shouldn’t read detective stories until I get bored, I should be working,” please reconsider.

Insight comes suddenly and without warning, but rarely when you have your nose to the grindstone. So spend some time staring out your dormitory window. If you don’t learn to be lazy, you might miss it.


I lie on the beach like a crocodile and let myself be roasted by the sun. I never see a newspaper and don’t give a damn for what is called the world.

Albert Einstein, letter to Max Born

The hardest of the scientific virtues to cultivate may be the virtue of carefreeness. This is the virtue of not taking your work too seriously. If you try too hard, you get serious, you get worried, you’re not carefree anymore — you see, it’s a problem.

So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate — two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?”

I don’t remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one.

I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, “Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is…” and I showed him the accelerations.

He says, “Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?”

“Hah!” I say. “There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.” His reaction didn’t discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked.

I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was “playing” — working, really — with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.

It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

Richard Feynman

This is related to the scientific virtue of laziness — a carefree person will find it easier to take time off from their work, to relax, go sailing, play ping-pong, etc. But carefreeness is a higher virtue than even laziness is. Being carefree means not worrying and relaxing even when you are working very hard.

If you do not cultivate the sense of carefreeness, you will get all tangled up about not working on “important” problems. You will get all tangled up about working on the things you think you “should be” working on, instead of the things you want to be working on, the things you find fun and interesting.

If research starts to be a drag, it won’t matter how talented you are. Nothing will kill your spark faster than finding research dull. Nothing will wring you out more than working on things you hate but you think are “important”. 

This is tricky because there are many different ways you can lose your sense of carefreeness. There are a lot of things that can throw off your groove. The first is becoming attached to worldly rewards — cash, titles, fancy hats, etc.

I am happy because I want nothing from anyone. I do not care about money. Decorations, titles or distinctions mean nothing to me. I do not crave praise. The only thing that gives me pleasure, apart from my work, my violin, and my sailboat, is the appreciation of my fellow workers.

Albert Einstein

When you start seeking these rewards, or even thinking about them too much, the whole research enterprise falls apart. Sometimes this can happen overnight. 

You might say, “well surely someone has to think about these practical problems.” It’s true that some people should think about worldly things, but we don’t exactly see a shortage of that. What cannot be forced, and can only be cultivated, are free minds pursuing things that no one else thinks are interesting problems, for no good reason at all.

We must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become like the radium a benefit for humanity.

Marie Curie

The best ideas are almost certainly going to be ones that seem insane or stupid — if they seemed like good ideas, someone would have tried them already. How can there possibly be a market for such ideas? They are left to people who are carefree enough in their spirit to pursue these dumb ideas anyways. Most great advances are preceded by announcements that they are impossible, and you need to be ready and willing to ignore that stuff:

The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space]… presents difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss the notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author’s insistent appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed impossibility of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually accomplished.

Sir Richard van der Riet Woolley, British astronomer, reviewing P.E. Cleator’s “Rockets in Space”, Nature, March 14, 1936

Some people are ok at resisting money and fame. But people find it harder to avoid being swayed by praise. It is easy to want to impress people, and want them to like you. But if you start worrying about praise, two things will happen. First of all, you will be worrying, which will cloud your head. Second, if you are trying to get praise, you will work on problems that are popular. Popular problems are fine, but you have to know that they will be seductive. You should pay more attention to topics you like that aren’t popular. 

Focusing on unpopular problems you find fascinating is a good sign that you’re making use of your particular talents. Following praise is a sign you are being led away from your gifts! Taste is really important — follow what you find interesting.

…my work, which I’ve done for a long time, was not pursued in order to gain the praise I now enjoy, but chiefly from a craving after knowledge, which I notice resides in me more than in most other men. And therewithal, whenever I found out anything remarkable, I have thought it my duty to put down my discovery on paper, so that all ingenious people might be informed thereof.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Letter of June 12, 1716

Another is worrying about being an “expert”, keeping up with the field, staying aware of the latest publications, et cetera. Staying carefree means being happy to ignore these things (if you feel like it). 

You can tell really good science because it stays carefree even when the stakes are very high:

I remember a friend of mine who worked with me, Paul Olum, a mathematician, came up to me afterwards and said, “When they make a moving picture about this, they’ll have the guy coming back from Chicago to make his report to the Princeton men about the bomb. He’ll be wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase and so on — and here you’re in dirty shirtsleeves and just telling us all about it, in spite of its being such a serious and dramatic thing.”

Richard Feynman

Staying carefree is how you keep in touch with what really interests you. It is how you practice going with your gut. It is how you make sure you are still having fun. 

No one is doing great work when they are bent over their lab bench thinking, “gee I wish I were doing something else!” Great work doesn’t come from banging your head against your keyboard a little harder. 

Alan Turing’s celebrated paper of 1935, which was to provide the foundation of modern computer theory, was originally written as a speculative exploration for mathematical logicians. The war gave him and others the occasion to translate theory into the beginnings of practice for the purpose of code-breaking, but when it appeared nobody except a handful of mathematicians even read, let alone took notice of Turing’s paper.

— Eric Hobsbawm on Alan Turing

We cannot emphasize enough that great work almost always comes from things that at the time seemed like pointless nonsense. Those scientists did it anyway, because it interested them. But to do that you will have to be ready to stand against the world, people telling you that you should be using your gifts on something more productive, that you are wasting your talents! Cultivating this carefreeness will help you ignore them.

A large part of mathematics which becomes useful developed with absolutely no desire to be useful, and in a situation where nobody could possibly know in what area it would become useful; and there were no general indications that it ever would be so. By and large it is uniformly true in mathematics that there is a time lapse between a mathematical discovery and the moment when it is useful; and that this lapse of time can be anything from 30 to 100 years, in some cases even more; and that the whole system seems to function without any direction, without any reference to usefulness, and without any desire to do things which are useful.

John von Neumann

Not every pointless idea ends up being a great discovery — most of them do not. But a feature you will see over and over again in great scientists is a complete lack of fear when it comes to pursuing ideas that seem like (or truly are) nonsense. You might have to look into 100 dumb ideas before you find one that is any good — in fact, maybe you should start right now.

I’ve noticed that my dog can correctly tell which way I’ve gone in the house, especially if I’m barefoot, by smelling my footprints. So I tried to do that: I crawled around the rug on my hands and knees, sniffing, to see if I could tell the difference between where I walked and where I didn’t, and I found it impossible. So the dog is much better than I am.

Richard Feynman

Most people find it hard to stay carefree all the time. When you choke, and start worrying about things — are you working on the right stuff, are you wasting your life, etc. — cultivating the virtue of carefreeness is the way to get back on top.


I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progress can be reduced to mechanisms, machines, gearings, even though such machinery also has its beauty.

Neither do I believe that the spirit of adventure runs any risk of disappearing in our world. If I see anything vital around me, it is precisely that spirit of adventure, which seems indestructible and is akin to curiosity.

Marie Curie

The fifth virtue that a scientist must cultivate is an appreciation for beauty. There are practical reasons to do science, but in the moment, great research is done just to do something because it’s beautiful and exemplifies enjoying that beauty.  

This eye for beauty is not optional! It is, like all the scientific virtues, essential for doing any kind of original research.

The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because it pleases him, and it pleases him because it is beautiful. Were nature not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, life would not be worth living.

Henri Poincaré

Every scientist is limited by their appreciation for beauty. If you have developed an eye for it, your work will benefit. Without a sense for it, your work will suffer. It does not matter if your taste is for poetry, pinwheels, or cricket plays. You can have an obsession with video game music, or be an ameteur baker. You must be able to see the beauty in something — it is practice for seeing the beauty and the harmony of nature. The more kinds of beauty you learn to appreciate, the better your work will become.

The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics. 

G. H. Hardy

To many people, a scientist will seem obsessive. This is true, but obsession is not by itself a virtue. The obsession you see in many researchers comes from their sense of beauty — they know what it should look like. They have an intense need to get it right. They cannot let it alone when they know it is wrong — it keeps calling them back. Only when it is right will it be beautiful.

Copernicus’ aesthetic objections to [equants] provided one essential motive for his rejection of the Ptolemaic system.

Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution

This is why we cultivate an appreciation for aesthetics, rather than cultivating obsession itself. Pure obsession will lead you to pursue any project anywhere, even if it leads you up a tree. Cultivating aesthetics, you will only follow projects if they lead you up the trunks of particularly beautiful trees.

This builds on itself. Building an aesthetic sense leads you to become a better researcher. Practicing this sense in your work becomes another way to develop this virtue. Having developed the virtue, you can now appreciate the beauty in more things. This develops your aesthetic sense further, your work improves, the virtue reaches a higher stage of refinement, etc.

I have a friend who’s an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, “I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.” I think he’s kind of nutty. … There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

Richard Feynman

Part of what is called beauty could simply be called fun. If you don’t know how to have fun, you will not be able to appreciate the beauty around you — you will not have a good time.

McClintock was motivated by the intrinsic rewards that she experienced from the work itself. She was rewarded every day by the joy she felt in the endeavor. She loved posing questions, finding answers, solving problems. She loved working in her garden and in her laboratory. She recalled later, “I was doing what I wanted to do, and there was absolutely no thought of a career. I was just having a marvelous time.” 

Upon hearing that she had been named for the Nobel Prize, McClintock told reporters, “The prize is such an extraordinary honor. It might seem unfair, however, to reward a person for having so much pleasure, over the years, asking the maize to solve specific problems and then watching its response.” When asked if she was bitter about the lateness of the recognition, she said simply, “If you know you’re right, you don’t care. You know that sooner or later, it will come out in the wash.”

— Abigail Lipson on Barbara McClintock

Given all this, perhaps it’s not surprising that many scientists are also talented artists and musicians.

If I was not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. … I cannot tell if I would have done any creative work of importance in music, but I do know that I get most joy in life out of my violin.

Albert Einstein

Just how good a violinist was Einstein? One time, a confused music critic in Berlin thought Einstein was a famous violinist rather than a famous physicist, and said, “Einstein’s playing is excellent, but he does not deserve world fame; there are many others just as good.”

Leonardo da Vinci is famous for his painting and drawing, of course, but what you may not know is that he was also something like the 15th century equivalent of a heavy metal virtuoso:

In the year 1494, Leonardo was summoned to Milan in great repute to the Duke, who took much delight in the sound of the lyre, to the end that he might play it: and Leonardo took with him that instrument which he had made with his own hands, in great part of silver, in the form of a horse’s skull—a thing bizarre and new—in order that the harmony might be of greater volume and more sonorous in tone; with which he surpassed all the musicians who had come together there to play. Besides this, he was the best improviser in verse of his day.

Giorgio Vasari

Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1965) was famous for playing bongos, and briefly played the frigideira in a Brazilian samba band. He also made some progress as a portrait artist, to the point where he sold several pieces and even had a small exhibit. 

Barbara McClintock (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1983) played tenor banjo in a jazz combo for years, but in the end she had to give it up because it kept her up too late at night. 

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1906) ranks up there almost with Da Vinci in terms of the incredible breadth of his artistic pursuits:

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934) is one of the more fascinating personalities in science. Above all he was the most important neuroanatomist since Andreas Vesalius, the Renaissance founder of modern biology. However, Cajal was also a thoughtful and inspired teacher, he made several lasting contributions to Spanish literature (his autobiography, a popular book of aphorisms, and reflections on old age), and he wrote one of the early books on the theory and practice of color photography. Furthermore, he was an exceptional artist, perhaps the best ever to draw the circuits of the brain, which he could never photograph to his satisfaction.

Larry W. Swanson, foreword to Cajal’s book Advice for a Young Investigator

We can add to this list that Cajal also wrote a number of science-fiction stories that were considered too scandalous for publication. Five were eventually published under the pseudonym “Dr. Bacteria” (yes, really), but the rest were considered too offensive to be published even at this remove, and they have since been lost.

This was also true for many of the old masters. James Clerk Maxwell was fascinated by color, and helped invent color photography. Robert Hooke was apprenticed to a painter as a young man, and proved pretty good at it. He did all his own illustrations for his book Micrographia, which to this day remain impressive. Sir Isaac Newton also seemed to have quite the knack for illustration:

Mr. Clark, aforementioned now apothecary, & surgeon in Grantham, tells me, that he himself likewise lodg’d, whilst a youth, in that same garret in the old house where Sr. Isaac had done. he says, the walls, & ceelings were full of drawings, which he had made with charcole. there were birds, beasts, men, ships, plants, mathematical figures, circles, & triangles. that the drawings were very well done. & scarce a board in the partitions about the room, without Isaac Newton cut upon it. … Sr Isaac when a lad here at School, was not only expert at his mechanical tools, but equally so with his pen. for he busyed himself very much in drawing, which he took from his own inclination; & as in every thing else, improv’d it by a careful observation of nature.

— William Stukeley on Isaac Newton

This is only an incomplete list — not every talented scientist is also a musician or artist. But a scientist’s success depends on the cultivation of their aesthetic sense, and this sense of beauty is essential to every researcher.

I am no poet, but if you think for yourselves, as I proceed, the facts will form a poem in your minds. 

Michael Faraday


… a reaction I learned from my father: Have no respect whatsoever for authority; forget who said it and instead look what he starts with, where he ends up, and ask yourself, “Is it reasonable?” 

Richard Feynman

To do research you must be free. Free to question. Free to doubt. Free to come up with new perspectives and new approaches. Free to challenge the old ways of doing things, or worse, ignore them. Free to try to solve problems where everyone thinks they know the answer. Free to not spend all your time hunched over your workbench and let your mind wander. Free to tinker with pointless ideas. Free to turn over rocks and look at the bugs underneath. 

The world must be free and open as well. You need to be free to meet and discuss things with anyone you want. You must have free access to books, libraries, journals, the internet. You must be free to try things and build things for yourself. 

But not everyone shares these values. And, because we are social creatures and we were brought up in societies that are less than totally free, we carry around an inner authoritarian in our heads. We cultivate the virtue of rebellion to free us from inner and outer attempts to suppress our freedom of thought and expression. 

There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry … There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors. Our political life is also predicated on openness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress.

J. Robert Oppenheimer

Spitting in the eye of authority isn’t easy — it doesn’t come naturally to most people. So rebellion must be cultivated in small ways every day. You may not have to actively rebel very often, but the material for raising hell should always be kept in readiness.

To do science you have to be ready to pick at the idea that something might be wrong. The most important new ideas are going to be most at odds with what we believe right now. Having a mind free enough to think thoughts that have never been thought before is absolutely necessary.

The vibe of rebellion is, “the prevailing order is wrong — but some other order might be right.” Things could be fundamentally different than they are now; everything you take for granted could be ungranted. 

It’s not that this is true 100% of the time — sometimes the usual way of thinking is right — just that it won’t be obvious unless you’re questioning what you “know”. To some degree, rebellion is basically just acknowledging that the status quo can lead you astray.

Not everyone likes the idea of turning the current order upside down, so you may have to fight for it, or even for the right to speculate about it. But it’s important because making the world a better place is worth it. 

Research depends on cultivating the skill of looking at something and thinking — gee, this could be better. This instrument could be better. This theory could be better. Our understanding of this question could be better. This leads to the cultivation of the virtue of rebellion, where you look at how things are today, and think, you know what, they could be better.

I won’t stop at being Robin Hood. I feel more like a revolutionary because the final goal is not only to download all the articles and books and give open access to them, but to change legislation in such a way that free distribution of research papers will not face any legal obstacles.

Alexandra Elbakyan

Rebellion is one of the highest scientific virtues. It is supported by stupidity — because you have to be pretty dumb to bet against the status quo and think you can win. It is supported by arrogance — in that you must be pretty arrogant to think you know better than the experts. It is supported by aesthetics — because seeing the possibility for a more beautiful experiment, a more beautiful theory, a more beautiful world is needed to inspire your rebellion. It is supported by carefreeness — not worrying about whether you win or lose makes the struggle against authority that much easier. Whenever possible, rebellion should be fun.

Rebellion is also egalitarian — it means focusing on people’s arguments, not their credentials. If their arguments are solid, then it doesn’t matter if they are, in fact, a soccer mom. If their arguments are so full of holes you can see them from a mile away, then it doesn’t matter where their PhD is from, or what university gave them tenure.

If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That is all there is to it.

Richard Feynman

The virtue of rebellion means cultivating in yourself the ability to stand up to anyone on the planet, to question them as an equal, and to not take anything they say on authority alone. But rebellion is not about getting in fights for no reason — be strategic.

John Tukey almost always dressed very casually. He would go into an important office and it would take a long time before the other fellow realized that this is a first-class man and he had better listen. For a long time John has had to overcome this kind of hostility. It’s wasted effort! I didn’t say you should conform; I said “The appearance of conforming gets you a long way.” If you choose to assert your ego in any number of ways, “I am going to do it my way,” you pay a small steady price throughout the whole of your professional career. And this, over a whole lifetime, adds up to an enormous amount of needless trouble.

Richard Hamming 

This virtue extends outside of the research world, because nature does not stop at the laboratory door! Practicing rebellion has to extend to every part of your life. 

It’s easy to parrot experts. Even just saying “I don’t understand” is an act of rebellion. If you want to be free to be confused, to doubt, to ask dumb questions, you need to be prepared to be a rebel.

Every valuable human being must be a radical and a rebel, for what he must aim at is to make things better than they are.

Niels Bohr

You need to cultivate rebellion because people won’t always understand the value of that weird thing you are doing. You have to be ready to do it anyways. One reviewer of Charles Darwin’s book On The Origin of Species suggested that “Mr. D” re-write the book to focus on his observations of pigeons. “Every body is interested in pigeons,” they said. “The book would be reviewed in every journal in the kingdom, & would soon be on every table. … The book on pigeons would be at any rate a delightful commencement.” Barbara McClintock’s parents were against her research because they didn’t think there was any value in genetics!

The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome.

Isaac Asimov

Similarly, if you have cultivated this virtue, you will also be ok with other people doing research that you don’t understand. Anyone doing really first-rate work must be doing something you don’t get — because if you understood it, it couldn’t possibly be all that original. So when you see a project that makes you scratch your head, think — it might be nothing, but let’s see where it goes, it could be a big deal.

In addition, exercising your rebellious thinking on social issues is good practice for rebellious thinking on scientific issues.

Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.

Albert Einstein

Many people are open-minded. But some people have a hard time imagining society changing in any way, even for the better. It makes some people uncomfortable. So you need to be ready to try anyways, even in the face of this discouragement. 

I used to cut vegetables in the kitchen. String beans had to be cut into one-inch pieces. The way you were supposed to do it was: You hold two beans in one hand, the knife in the other, and you press the knife against the beans and your thumb, almost cutting yourself. It was a slow process. So I put my mind to it, and I got a pretty good idea. I sat down at the wooden table outside the kitchen, put a bowl in my lap, and stuck a very sharp knife into the table at a forty-five-degree angle away from me. Then I put a pile of the string beans on each side, and I’d pick out a bean, one in each hand, and bring it towards me with enough speed that it would slice, and the pieces would slide into the bowl that was in my lap.

So I’m slicing beans one after the other — chig, chig, chig, chig, chig — and everybody’s giving me the beans, and I’m going like sixty when the boss comes by and says, “What are you doing?”

I say, “Look at the way I have of cutting beans!” — and just at that moment I put a finger through instead of a bean. Blood came out and went on the beans, and there was a big excitement: “Look at how many beans you spoiled! What a stupid way to do things!” and so on. So I was never able to make any improvement, which would have been easy — with a guard, or something — but no, there was no chance for improvement.

Richard Feynman

This puts you at odds with authority. Kings, princes, and network executives do not want revolutionary new ideas. They generally like the current system, because they are used to it, and this system has given them positions of respect and power. They are going to do what they can to encourage people to accept how things are, or at least accept that for any problems that do exist, qualified people are taking care of it.

The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain. Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question – to doubt – to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.

Richard Feynman

It is not enough to simply question the wisdom of experts, or to not listen to authority yourself. You have to cultivate ACTIVE REBELLION. Authority will constantly be telling you that things are understood, that they cannot be improved, that you cannot run in the halls. You need to actively undermine this — by finding ways that the world is not understood, by trying to improve things, by organizing go-kart races during lunch period. 

Authority will tell you to wait until the time is right, or wait for other people who are more qualified to have a go at it. But if you wait you will never get anywhere. You need to try small things right away, to try and fail and learn, to experiment and have a go at it.

Science as subversion has a long history. … Davis and Sakharov belong to an old tradition in science that goes all the way back to the rebels Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Priestley in the eighteenth century, to Galileo and Giordano Bruno in the seventeenth and sixteenth. If science ceases to be a rebellion against authority, then it does not deserve the talents of our brightest children. … We should try to introduce our children to science today as a rebellion against poverty and ugliness and militarism and economic injustice.

Freeman Dyson

This even puts you at odds with other scientists. Like other entrenched authorities, any change to the status quo threatens the position of scientists who have come before you. In fact it’s somewhat worse with other scientists, because the more famous they are, the bigger a target there is on their back. A good way to do great work is to tear down famous work by the previous generation, and you can imagine why the previous generation has a hard time feeling excited about this idea.

When an old and distinguished person speaks to you, listen to him carefully and with respect — but do not believe him. Never put your trust into anything but your own intellect. Your elder, no matter whether he has gray hair or has lost his hair, no matter whether he is a Nobel laureate — may be wrong.

Linus Pauling

Ideas can also have authority. A good idea in science tends to stick around until you barely notice it anymore. It’s not just that you see them as necessary, it’s that they start to seem like part of the background, a totally reasonable assumption. You take them for granted. But questioning old ideas is even more important than questioning old people, and a high exercise of rebellion is trying to tear down old ways of thinking, ways of thinking so old that you didn’t even realize you thought that way.

Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable givens. Thus they might come to be stamped as “necessities of thought,” “a priori givens,” etc. The path of scientific progress is often made impassable for a long time by such errors. Therefore it is by no means an idle game if we become practiced in analysing long-held commonplace concepts and showing the circumstances on which their justification and usefulness depend, and how they have grown up, individually, out of the givens of experience. Thus their excessive authority will be broken. They will be removed if they cannot be properly legitimated, corrected if their correlation with given things be far too superfluous, or replaced if a new system can be established that we prefer for whatever reason.

Albert Einstein, Obituary for physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach (Nachruf auf Ernst Mach)

This is the great curse of success in science — it turns you into an authority figure. All of a sudden you, the little fringe weirdo that you are, are regarded as an expert. People start taking you seriously. People stop questioning your work, and start defending it! What’s worse, they defend your work on its reputation, rather than on how good it is. 

To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself.

Albert Einstein

If you are so unlucky as to live to see this tragedy, you should try to see your status as an authority figure as a big joke. When it comes to these things, you need to have a sense of…


Good design is often slightly funny. … Godel’s incompleteness theorem seems like a practical joke.

Paul Graham

The final and — perhaps most important — virtue is humor. We see over and over again that individual scientists had wonderful, strange senses of humor.

Einstein in real life was not only a great politician and a great philosopher. He was also a great observer of the human comedy, with a robust sense of humor. … Lindemann took him to the school to meet one of the boys who was a family friend. The boy was living in Second Chamber, in an ancient building where the walls are ornamented with marble memorials to boys who occupied the rooms in past centuries. Einstein and Lindemann wandered by mistake into the adjoining First Chamber, which had been converted from a living room to a bathroom. In First Chamber, the marble memorials were preserved, but underneath them on the walls were hooks where boys had hung their smelly football clothes. Einstein surveyed the scene for a while in silence, and then said: “Now I understand: the spirits of the departed pass over into the trousers of the living.”

Freeman Dyson, “Einstein as a Jew and a Philosopher”, The New York Review of Books

A good sense of humor comes in many forms — wordplay, slapstick, poking fun at annoying colleagues…

It is said that the Prior of that place kept pressing Leonardo, in a most importunate manner, to finish the work … he complained of it to the Duke, and that so warmly, that he was constrained to send for Leonardo … [Leonardo explained] that two heads were still wanting for him to paint; that of Christ, which he did not wish to seek on earth; … Next, there was wanting that of Judas, which was also troubling him, not thinking himself capable of imagining features that should represent the countenance of him who, after so many benefits received, had a mind so cruel as to resolve to betray his Lord, the Creator of the world. However, he would seek out a model for the latter; but if in the end he could not find a better, he should not want that of the importunate and tactless Prior. This thing moved the Duke wondrously to laughter.

Giorgio Vasari

In On the Origin of Species, Darwin wrote that bumblebees are the only species that pollinates red clover. He discovered in 1862 that honeybees also pollinate red clover. Prompted by this discovery, he wrote to his friend John Lubbock, saying, “I hate myself, I hate clover, and I hate bees.” In his correspondence to W. D. Fox in October of 1852, he writes of his work on Cirripedia, “of which creatures I am wonderfully tired: I hate a Barnacle as no man ever did before, not even a Sailor in a slow-sailing ship.” Another time he wrote, “I am very poorly today and very stupid and hate everybody and everything.”

Many things conspire to make humor so important. One aspect of humor is noticing a pattern that almost everyone has missed, but which is undeniable once it’s been pointed out. Really good research does the same thing — you notice something that has always been there, and which is apparent in retrospect, but that no one has ever noticed before.

Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this.”

Isaac Asimov

Making these little connections is an essential part of humor. If you train yourself to see and appreciate these little jokes in your everyday life, with friends, at the movies, etc., you will get better at seeing them in your work.

In spite of twenty-five years in Southern California, [Aldous Huxley] remains an English gentleman. The scientist’s habit of examining everything from every side and of turning everything upside down and inside out is also characteristic of Aldous. I remember him leafing through a copy of Transition, reading a poem in it, looking again at the title of the magazine, reflecting for a moment, then saying, “Backwards it spells NO IT ISN(T) ART.”

Igor Stravinsky, Dialogues

David Ogilvy wasn’t a scientist, but he was right when he said, “The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible.”

One of economist Tyler Cowen’s favorite questions to bug people with is, “‘What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?’ If you don’t know the answer to that one, maybe you are doing something wrong or not doing enough.” For scientists, the perfect practice is telling jokes. 

László Polgár believed that geniuses are made, not born, and set out to prove it. He kept his daughters on a strict educational schedule that included studying chess for up to six hours a day. There was also a twenty-minute period dedicated to telling jokes.

— Louisa Thomas on László Polgár

Having a sense of humor also helps keep things in perspective.

When I gave a lecture in Japan, I was asked not to mention the possible re-collapse of the universe, because it might affect the stock market. However, I can re-assure anyone who is nervous about their investments that it is a bit early to sell: even if the universe does come to an end, it won’t be for at least twenty billion years. By that time, maybe the GATT trade agreement will have come into effect.

Stephen Hawking

Humor keeps you from taking yourself too seriously.

The downside of my celebrity is that I cannot go anywhere in the world without being recognized. It is not enough for me to wear dark sunglasses and a wig. The wheelchair gives me away.

Stephen Hawking

Life is hard — sometimes the world is very dark. Research can be challenging. Pursuing an interest that few people understand, that sets you up against the authorities of your day, is often isolating. Scientists may discover things they would rather not have known. A sense of humor lessens the burden.

Schopenhauer’s saying, that “a man can do as he will, but not will as he will,” has been an inspiration to me since my youth up, and a continual consolation and unfailing well-spring of patience in the face of the hardships of life, my own and others’. This feeling mercifully mitigates the sense of responsibility which so easily becomes paralyzing, and it prevents us from taking ourselves and other people too seriously; it conduces to a view of life in which humor, above all, has its due place.

Albert Einstein

Another reason to cultivate humor is that nature is really weird. It will always be stranger and more amusing than you expect. The only way to keep up is to try to think in jokes. If you have a good sense of humor, you will end up closer to the truth. “Wouldn’t it be absurd if X were true?” you think, only to discover the next day that X is indeed true. 

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…”

Isaac Asimov

 Finally, science is very social. If you have a good sense of humor, people will like you. You will get along with them better; you will have more fun; probably you will do better work together! Humor is worth cultivating for this reason too. 

Humor is generative. It attracts unusual people and ideas, the sort that wouldn’t otherwise end up in the same place together.

A deep sense of humor and an unusual ability for telling stories and jokes endeared Johnny even to casual acquaintances.

— Eugene Wigner, in “John von Neumann (1903 – 1957)”

Science is too important to be taken seriously. In the end, if you cannot have some fun out of your research, if you cannot see in some way how ridiculous the whole thing is — then what’s the point? 

When I was younger I was anti-culture, but my father had some good books around. One was a book with the old Greek play The Frogs in it, and I glanced at it one time and I saw in there that a frog talks. It was written as “brek, kek, kek.” I thought, “No frog ever made a sound like that; that’s a crazy way to describe it!” so I tried it, and after practicing it awhile, I realized that it’s very accurately what a frog says.

So my chance glance into a book by Aristophanes turned out to be useful, later on: I could make a good frog noise at the students’ ceremony for the Nobel-Prize-winners! And jumping backwards fit right in, too. So I liked that part of it; that ceremony went well.

Richard Feynman

Predictions for 1950

[Previously in this series: Predictions for 2050, A Few More Predictions for 2050]

Happy New Year to all! Welcome to 1922, and welcome back to our column, Slime of the Times.

Last year Professor Erik Hoel of Tufts University wrote in his column about all the things that will change between now and the far-distant future year of 1950. But this is no pulp-magazine tall tale; Professor Hoel says that the best way to predict the future of tomorrow is to extend the burgeoning trends of today.

While it sounds impossibly far off, the truth is that 1950 is a mere 28 years away. Making predictions for 1950 based on what we see to-day is just like sitting in the Gay Nineties and predicting what the world would look like in 1920 — no mean task, but not impossible either.

To us this seemed like jolly good fun. So without further ado, here is our set of predictions for the distant future that is 1950.

You Can’t Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm 

By now you all know the 1919 hit song of wild acclaim, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” Probably you have heard the recording by legendary vaudeville darling Nora Bayes. And maybe you know the single from last year, “In a Cozy Kitchenette Apartment” from Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue, rhapsodizing about urban living. 

Well, Miss Nora and all the other songbirds are right. The rural problem is here and it’s here to stay — city drift is the trend of the next 30 years and beyond. Already more than half of all Americans live in cities, and that is not stopping any time soon. The agrarian America we know and love is coming to an end. 

Metropolitan apartment living will soon be normal and even, in time, respectable. The home as you know it will soon be out of date, and instead of living in a pleasant frame dwelling with a front yard and crimson rambler roses over the porch, your son or daughter will live in a huge apartment building, where among hundreds of cell-like cubicles, they will be known to their neighbors not by name, but as “50A” or “32B”.

Young people in the cities will eat from “delicatessens” and “cafeterias” rather than from the kitchen. Already there are more than fifty delicatessens in Baltimore, and they are spreading in most every major city. Meanwhile the so-called cafeterias bring Chicago ideas of mechanical efficiency to the American dinner service, resembling nothing so much as a factory assembly line.

Some of you may think that delicatessens are the emblems of a declining civilization, the source of all our ills, and the destroyer of the home. But to our children and our children’s children even this scourge will become unremarkable, whatever the consequences may be to the American family.

Yes, our great-grandchildren will eat sandwiches, a natural by-product of modern machine civilization, and never know what they are missing of their heritage.

The Servant Problem

The movement to these “efficiency apartments” will be spurred by many things, but one is the gradual but ever-increasing decline in the role of the domestic servant. The servant problem comes and goes, and if you read tips on how to hire and clothe them in the magazines, you might be convinced it is simply a seasonal concern. But it gets harder to find servants every year, and it will get harder still, until the servant as we know her disappears.

The middle class will soon abandon servants almost entirely. The very well-to-do might employ a maid, but she will not attend the household day and night, and they will have no cooks and certainly no chauffeur. If they have a maid, they might even share her with other families. By 1950, only the very oldest, richest families will employ live-in servants. English butlers and Scotch maids, so common today in the households of your more fortunate relations, will be a thing almost entirely of the past.

Just imagine it. The silence of the once-great household. No more bustle on the streets every Sunday, when the maids and footmen take their weekly day off. No more fine, uniformed chauffeurs in front of estates. But where would you house them to begin with, in the tiny apartments of the far future? 

The Nation will be Powered over the Wires 

All of us can remember the time, not so long ago, when electric power was rare, even a novelty. But soon this wonder will be common-place in the homes of all. Indeed, it is already coming not only to private but to public buildings. President Benjamin Harrison was the first to benefit from electricity in the White House, all the way back in 1891. In 1906, Grand Central Terminal in New York City was electrified as well.

By the end of this year, almost four out of every ten US households will have electric wiring, and before 1930, more than half of households in the nation will be electrified. By 1950, every public building, and all but the meanest house, will have the full benefits of modern electrical systems. Even the most rural parts of our great nation will shine with electric light.

The posters might look something like this

The Finest Delicacies at Any Time of Year

Imagine a technology that captures freshness, abolishes the seasons, and erases the limitations of geography. Imagine food out of season; peaches from South Africa and strawberries picked green and shipped around the world. Imagine a midwestern housewife serving her family fresh filet of sole. 

These qualities represent the cutting edge of culinary modernity, and all will soon be made reality through the incredible power of refrigeration. Refrigerated railroad cars will bring delicacies long-distance from any locale. Refrigerated silos will store them year-round. Whatever regional delicacies you please, wherever you are.

Say good-bye to ice-harvesters and iceboxes! Forget about going down to the pond with a pair of tongs and bringing back a dribbling piece of ice. When foods and dishes reach your home, they will be stored in a fully electrified home refrigeration unit. You have probably heard of or even seen the clunky gas-powered household refrigeration unit produced by General Electric, or the more recent Kelvinator put on the market by General Motors. 

To be frank, these models are ugly and they are expensive — the Kelvinator will put you back as much as a new car! But everyone knows there is money in refrigeration. In the coming decade, dozens more models and companies will enter the fray. Some will be powered by gas, some by kerosine, but the ultimate winners will be those that run on electricity. Home refrigeration units will become more and more affordable. They will become compact and sleek, until they are admired as objects of modern beauty. These things will soon be so completely nifty to look at, that merely to see one will be to have a passionate desire for one.

Advances in freezing foods will revolutionize American cuisine. Modern frozen foods are invariably soggy and lifeless, but scientific control over temperature will soon give us frozen dishes that preserve each food at the very peak of freshness. Peas, asparagus, and spinach, each vegetable as delicious as if they had just been bought from the farmer down the road, ready from the moment they are drawn from the freezer, with no preparation required, not even washing. Farm-fresh broilers, tender calves liver, halibut, and even frozen goose — meats, poultry, vegetables, and fruit.

By 1950, futuristic markets equipped with refrigeration technology on a massive scale will be the norm. Enter any town market and choose from a huge variety of neatly stacked cartons of frozen fruits and vegetables, meats, and seafood, all of uniform quality, tastefully arranged in great refrigerated display cases that run the entire length of the store. 

There will be another Great War with the Hun

In Germany they are already concerned about the depreciation of the German mark. Each additional payment to France, England, and the United States brings a flood of paper currency and makes the depreciation of the marks greater. Yet the London ultimatum shall be held, Germany will be destabilized, invigorating unhealthy parasitical elements in Germany itself, and within a generation, there will be another great war.

This war will be, if it can be believed, even worse than the great war we just concluded. Already we have seen the evolution of aircraft, tools of peace, into first machines for reconnaissance, and then into “fighters” and bombers. In the next war, great flotillas of aircraft will level the jewels of Europe. New and terrible weapons will make even the mustard gas seem as quaint as a musket.

This time the war will be truly great — a world war. China and Japan both fought in the last war, and have gotten a taste for it. Japan in particular grows hungry, and bold after their victories over Russia. They desire nothing more to be a great power, and will take advantage of any chaos to rival not only Russia but Germany, Great Britain, and perhaps even the United States.

However, the Ottomans will be gone, and will no longer be a major power. We would frankly be surprised if the Ottoman Empire lasts the rest of the year.

There will be another Great Depression

We all remember the hard times of the past two years, what will surely come to be called the Depression of 1920–1921. Many of you also remember the Panic of 1907 or Knickerbocker Crisis, when the breadlines in New York City grew to incredible lengths.

Now things seem to have stabilized, and the 1920s show every sign of being another long economic boom. Businesses are growing and factories are running full tilt, churning out line after line of dazzling new goods.

But we warn you that even in the world of tomorrow, expansion is followed by contraction, and we will see another Great Depression within a generation. It may even be worse — maybe this next downturn will be so bad that it will come to be called the Great Depression, and everyone will forget that there ever was a Great Depression of 1873.

We don’t remember this part of Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, but we have to assume that the bears were part of a sound fiscal policy.

Business Girls

Many of us still carry in our minds psychological remnants of the age when the home and indeed the country was built upon masculine protection. But in reality, the world has already changed, and it is changing more rapidly all the time. A quarter of the American workforce is already staffed by women, working outside the home as typists, switchboard operators, stenographers, waitresses, store clerks, factory hands, and bookkeepers. 

Even now, there are some young couples where both the man and his bride hold down full-time jobs. (This is why they come to rely on the delicatessen.) When the next great war with the European powers comes — and come it will — more women will take on jobs left open by boys who are sent to the front. Old gentlemen may scoff, but the truth is that any woman who can use a kitchen mixer can learn to operate a drill. We will see women auxiliaries to our armed forces, women carpenters, perhaps even a woman riveter or some other such futuristic vision. 

The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, in effect for only two years now, will change the face of American politics as much as the wars change the face of American labor. Before 1930 we shall see a woman senator, a woman representative, women mayors, and even women governors. Gradually women will enter the White House and serve in presidential cabinets. There shall be women diplomats. By 1950 Americans will have come to think nothing about a woman for the highest post in the land.

You Will Hear the Latest from New York and Chicago in the Comfort of your Drawing Room

It sounds like something out of a pulp magazine, but by 1950 there will be a radio in every home. Turning on the radio receiver will be as normal to your children, as picking up a newspaper is to you. 

You may already have heard of some of the early success stories, like KDKA in Pittsburgh, which you might know by its old call sign, 8XK. They have aired religious services, a speech by the great humanitarian Herbert Hoover, the Dempsey – Carpentier heavyweight boxing match, and just a few months ago, the first major league professional baseball game, the Pirates-Phillies game at Forbes Field. This is not the future — this is the present! You simply have not caught up yet to the incredible pace of advancements in radio.

Everything newspapers can do, radio will do better. And not only coverage of baseball games and boxing matches. Syndicated radio shows, like syndicated columns, but with voice and music. Radio plays, almost as good as going to the theater. News coverage, live from any city in the nation, or from around the world. Don’t read about the president’s speech in the paper; hear it in his own voice as if you were in Washington. 

The Newsroom of Tomorrow

Links for January 2022

There’s a new blog in town. All the old blogs are still here of course. Our small mining town is filling up, it’s shoulder-to-shoulder blogs in here. Blogs in the ditches, blogs in the pantry, blogs under the floorboards. Last night I went to my room and found three strange blogs asleep in my bed. Send help. Anyways this new blog is Experimental History. The name comes from the author’s defining argument that psychology is best understood as the study of bothering people. “It’s nearly impossible to do psychology without bothering somebody,” he says, “and the moment you do, you’ve made experimental history.

MichelangEmoji Bot is by far our favorite AI art project. In particular, it seems like a good argument against the idea that AI will remove human creativity from the process of creating art. The tools get weirder and weirder, but some genius still had to come up with templates like “EMOJI EMOJI – Landscape Series -” and “Portal to the EMOJI EMOJI Dimension”.

Our header image this month is Portal to the 💥💗 Dimension. Please enjoy this additional selection: 

And a similar idea: Horror design based on; 😂🎃🦈 Listen, uh… is she single?

Hmmm. Given all this, are emoji the hieroglyphs of the internet? Yes. There’s even an emoji Alethiometer.

Interesting two-part series about how (and when) the New York Times tests multiple headlines for a single article and what kinds of articles make it to the front page.

Speaking of which, we know that whoever wrote the headline for “Scientists fight crab for mysterious purple orb discovered in California deep” was doing it to get us to click, and listen, it worked.

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet of course, but this is big if true: autistic redditor claims that prescription oxytocin nasal spray temporarily suppresses his autism.

End of history disproven by awesome sink.

In Florida they don’t have snow days, but they do have Iguana Warnings.

Noah Smith: “There’s no stopping [the technology] bus. I can only promise you that it’s going to get weirder.” Strap in! 😀 

In other future-predicting news, expect cloaking devices on cars by 2030.

When Timothy Leary (the LSD guy, Harvard Psychology Professor, etc.) finally ended up jail in 1970, this happened:

On January 21, 1970, Leary received a 10-year sentence for his 1968 offense, with a further 10 added later while in custody for a prior arrest in 1965, for a total of 20 years to be served consecutively. On his arrival in prison, he was given psychological tests used to assign inmates to appropriate work details. Having designed some of these tests himself (including the “Leary Interpersonal Behavior Inventory”), Leary answered them in such a way that he seemed to be a very conforming, conventional person with a great interest in forestry and gardening. As a result, he was assigned to work as a gardener in a lower-security prison from which he escaped in September 1970, saying that his non-violent escape was a humorous prank and leaving a challenging note for the authorities to find after he was gone.

If psychedelics are not your thing, consider the exciting and unusual world of hobby tunneling, where random people go full mole and sometimes dig elaborate series of tunnels beneath their house, yard, local public park, etc.

Notable examples include: 

Cray cray indeed: 

On twitter, Anton argues: what if we fixed San Francisco by doing crimes? “illegalism is a political philosophy which says that under unjust systems of control, doing crimes is a political act and revolutionaries ought to establish a parallel illegal economy” He also includes a list of “good crimes to do”, saying, “there’s a lot of really great crimes you can do if you have the resources and the will”. 

In related news, Applied Divinity Studies writes absolutely-not-medical-advice about how you can get fluvoxamine for less than $100 and a few minutes on a video call. We’re reminded of similar work by Scott Alexander, like Mental Health On A Budget and his “long post is long” post, Navigating And/Or Avoiding The Inpatient Mental Health System.

Also see this great thread by Maia Bittner, including tips like “literally no doctor cares if you’re tired or in pain or can’t work. *but* they do care about Activities of Daily Living (ADL). … Show up in kind of a decrepit state. Doctors are power freaks and they dismiss you if you’re put together. Super over-do your ADL- if you can’t put on socks, walk in barefoot. They need to see evidence of how your problem negatively affects your life when you walk in the room.” and “you know how every doctor gives you a 5 page form to fill out with all your family history of every possible disease? just skip it and give it back to them blank. they don’t even notice or look at it”. We’re not doctors so we don’t know if this is true, but either way, more stuff like this please. Medical praxis seems like incredibly valuable low-hanging social good, and most of it isn’t even illegal! Someone should make a manual. In fact, if you want to make a manual, let us know

Speaking of stoopid laws: The secret history of jaywalking

Surprising boondock etymology – “1910s during or around the Philippine–American War after the Spanish–American War, from Tagalog bundok (‘mountain’), adopted by occupying American soldiers serving in the mountains or rural countryside of the American-occupied Philippines under the United States Military Government of the Philippine Islands. The term was reinforced or re-adopted during World War II under the U.S. military, where terms like boondockers (‘shoes suited for rough terrain’) came originally in 1944 as U.S. services slang word for field boots. It was later shortened to boonies by 1964 originally among U.S. troops serving in the Vietnam War in reference to the rural areas of Vietnam, as opposed to Saigon.”  Can you guess why we looked up this etymology this month? 

Bad news for the West, friends — the world’s first classical Chinese programming language is out. It’s also beautiful: 

Pike squares were developed to fight cavalry. Slings could be used to panic war elephants. So too the answer to cheap modern drones may be motorcyclery — essentially, militarized biker gangs.  

If you are looking for new characters for your fiction novel, please please enjoy this list by Jess Nevins of the best characters from the pulps who were created in 1926 and thus fall into the public domain starting this year. Who among you will bring back the Crimson Clown: “The Crimson Clown is a ghastly frickin’ nightmare, of course—just *look* at that picture I posted two tweets back—it’s a clown with a gun, drinking Scotch! Pure nightmare fuel—which is why bringing him back and making him *really* scary would be a great idea.”

A video! Watch to the end.

Q: We’re going to ask this neighbor here, what do you think is happening in Telde?  What do you think is happening here? Hey, sir, I’m talking to you, don’t turn your back on me, man. What happens in your yard? Zapatero. What is your opinion on Zapatero’s government? What is your opinion on the Canary government? And of the city council of the island? Let’s ask him if he receives a subsidy from the government. Do you receive a subsidy from the government? Let’s see. What is going on with the mayors? What is happening with the president of the government and what is happening with the mayors of the island? What is happening with the city councilors? What’s happening…? Let’s see. Let’s see. Come here. Please. Don’t turn your back on me man, I want to talk to you. Look: What is going on with the mayor of Telde? What is going on with the mayors of the island?


“Excited to share a new study led by Shachar Givon & @MatanSamina w/ Ohad Ben Shahar,” begins this tweet. “Goldfish can learn to navigate a small robotic vehicle on land. We trained goldfish to drive a wheeled platform that reacts to the fish’s movement.” This is exciting but turns out home hackers have been letting fish control robot cars since at least 2014. Compare also to studies in teaching rats to drive tiny cars — researchers say the rats find this relaxing. Ok, new prediction for 2050: robot exoskeletons for small animals that let them navigate the human world, drive, take jobs, etc. Everyone was worried about automation, no one was worried about the goldfish taking our jobs. Alternatively if the self-driving cars don’t arrive on schedule, we can get rats or goldfish to do it.

“While recording the audiobook version of Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White needed 17 takes to read Charlotte’s death scene because he kept crying.”

Magawa, the landmine-sniffing hero rat, dies aged eight. Rest in peace hero 😢🥇🐀

Like a Lemon to a Lime, a Lime to a Lemon

We recently wrote a post
about Maciej Cegłowski’s essay Scott And Scurvy, a fascinating account of how the cure for scurvy was discovered, lost, and then by incredible chance, discovered again. At the time we said that this essay is one of the most interesting things we’ve ever read, and that we hoped to write more about it in the future. It was, we do, and here we go.

In the other post, we talked about what the history of scurvy can teach us about contradictory evidence — stuff that appears to disprove a theory, even though it doesn’t always. In this post, we want to talk about something different: the power of concepts.

First we’re gonna show you how bad it can be if you don’t have concepts you need. Then we’re going to show you how bad it can be if you DO have concepts you DON’T need.

Diseases of Deficiency

As Cegłowski puts it:

There are several aspects of this ‘second coming’ of scurvy in the late 19th century that I find particularly striking … [one was] how difficult it was to correctly interpret the evidence without the concept of ‘vitamin’. Now that we understand scurvy as a deficiency disease, we can explain away the anomalous results that seem to contradict that theory (the failure of lime juice on polar expeditions, for example). But the evidence on its own did not point clearly at any solution. It was not clear which results were the anomalous ones that needed explaining away. The ptomaine theory made correct predictions (fresh meat will prevent scurvy) even though it was completely wrong.

We’re not quite sure if he’s right about the concept of “vitamin” — even James Lind seems to have thought the cure was something in certain foods, maybe the fact that they were so tart and acidic. More critical might be the problem of focusing on the noticeable aspect of citrus (they are very tart) and missing the hidden reason it actually cures scurvy (high in vitamin C). Not sure what advice we could give there except “don’t mistake flash for substance”, but that’s easier said than done.

But we do wonder about the concept of a deficiency disease in the first place. Even James Lind thought that scurvy was actually caused by damp air, and vegetable acids were just a way to fight back. Vegetable acids were thought to be cures, not essential nutrients. They were “antiscorbutic” like “antibiotic”. The concept of a deficiency disease doesn’t seem to have existed before the 1880s and got almost no mention until 1900, at least not under that name:

Without this concept, it does seem like doctors of the 19th century were missing an important tool in their mental toolbox for fighting disease. 

This reminds us of other problems in global medicine — maybe we should introduce the idea of a “contamination disease”. People are already familiar with this concept to a point — lead poisoning, arsenic poisoning, etc. — but people don’t look at a disease and think, maybe it’s from a contaminant. In fact, they often look at the symptoms of exposure to contaminants and think, that’s an (infectious) disease.

A good example is so-called Minamata disease. In 1956, in the city of Minamata, Japan, a pair of sisters presented with a set of disturbing symptoms, including convulsions. Soon the neighbors were showing signs as well. Doctors diagnosed an “epidemic of an unknown disease of the central nervous system”, which they called “Minamata disease”. They assumed it was contagious and took the necessary precautions. 

But soon they started hearing about mysterious cases of cats and birds showing similar symptoms, having convulsions or falling from the sky. Eventually they figured out “Minamata disease” was not contagious at all — the disease was methylmercury poisoning, the result of mercury compounds a local Chisso chemical factory was leaking into the harbor.

You might say, “Well it was not a disease at all; they were poisoned. If SMTM are right, then obesity isn’t a disease either; everyone has just been low-grade poisoned all at once.” We think this highlights the need for a deeper discussion about our categories!

“Disease” really does come from just “dis” “ease”. If you’re a doctor and someone comes to you, and they are not at ease, they are diseased, and that’s what you should care about. The disease might ultimately be bacterial, or viral, or an allergy, or a parasite, or the result of a deficiency, or the result of exposure to a harmful contaminant or poison, but it’s still a disease. For more discussion of this particular point, see here, also coincidentally about obesity, we didn’t stack the deck on this one it’s from 2010.

(If we were being really strict, we would say that obesity is a symptom, because conditions like Cushing’s Syndrome and drugs like Haldol can cause it too. If one or more contaminants also cause obesity, then the result of that exposure is a contamination disease, with obesity as a symptom. For more discussion of THIS particular point, see here.)

Lemon Mold Lime Mold

One of the weirdest things Cegłowski describes is how back in the day, people used the words “lemon” and “lime” interchangeably to describe any citrus fruit, which they thought of as a single category:

The scheduled allowance for the sailors in the Navy was fixed at I oz.lemon juice with I + oz. sugar, served daily after 2 weeks at sea, the lemon juice being often called ‘lime juice’ and our sailors ‘lime juicers’. The consequences of this new regulation were startling and by the beginning of the nineteenth century scurvy may be said to have vanished from the British navy. In 1780, the admissions of scurvy cases to the Naval Hospital at Haslar were 1457; in the years from 1806 to 1810, they were two. 

(As we’ll see, the confusion between lemons and limes would have serious reprecussions.)

This ended up making a huge difference in the tale of the tragedy of scurvy cures:

When the Admiralty began to replace lemon juice with an ineffective substitute in 1860, it took a long time for anyone to notice. In that year, naval authorities switched procurement from Mediterranean lemons to West Indian limes. The motives for this were mainly colonial – it was better to buy from British plantations than to continue importing lemons from Europe. Confusion in naming didn’t help matters. Both “lemon” and “lime” were in use as a collective term for citrus, and though European lemons and sour limes are quite different fruits, their Latin names (citrus medica, var. limonica and citrus medica, var. acida) suggested that they were as closely related as green and red apples. Moreover, as there was a widespread belief that the antiscorbutic properties of lemons were due to their acidity, it made sense that the more acidic Caribbean limes would be even better at fighting the disease. 

In this, the Navy was deceived. Tests on animals would later show that fresh lime juice has a quarter of the scurvy-fighting power of fresh lemon juice. And the lime juice being served to sailors was not fresh, but had spent long periods of time in settling tanks open to the air, and had been pumped through copper tubing. A 1918 animal experiment using representative samples of lime juice from the navy and merchant marine showed that the ‘preventative’ often lacked any antiscorbutic power at all.

It’s worth focusing on one part of this passage in particular: “Both ‘lemon’ and ‘lime’ were in use as a collective term for citrus.” This seems to be the case. As far as we can tell, the word “citrus” wasn’t really used prior to 1880. It was probably introduced as a scientific term for the genus before slowly working its way into common usage. Before then, “lemon” dominated the conversation, and “lime” dominated ten times over:

Though note that many uses of “lime” probably refer to things like quicklime. 

Maybe it’s not surprising that it took the language a while to sort itself out, but it still seems surprising that your great-great-grandfather didn’t think to distinguish between two fruits that you can tell apart at a glance. Even so, we think there are a couple of reasons to be sympathetic.

The name stuff is confusing, but swapping out one citrus fruit for another seems understandable, even if it ended up being misguided. To Europeans at the time, the thing that stood out about limes AND lemons was how tart they were, so it’s not surprising that they thought that the incredible tartness of these fruits was critical to the role they played in treating scurvy. But sourness in citrus fruits generally comes from citric acid, not vitamin C / ascorbic acid (incidentally, this is ascorbic as in “antiscorbutic”). Unfortunately, they had no way of knowing that. 

The second reason to be sympathetic is this: People mixed up limes and lemons in the 1800s. You may laugh but actually you are mixing up citrus right now.

The lemon is a single species of fruit, Citrus limon. It’s a specific species of tree that gives a specific yellow fruit that is high in citric acid and high in vitamin C. If you go to the store and buy a lemon, you know what you’re getting.

(Well, mostly. The Wikipedia page for lemons has a section called “other citrus called ‘lemons’”, which lists six other citrus fruits that are also called lemons, like the rough lemon and the Meyer lemon. But besides this, a lemon is a lemon.)

There’s also this kind of lemon, but the British Admiralty didn’t have access to these back in the age of sail.

In comparison, the Wikipedia article on limes says,

There are several species of citrus trees whose fruits are called limes, including the Key lime (Citrus aurantiifolia), Persian lime, Makrut lime, and desert lime. … Plants with fruit called “limes” have diverse genetic origins; limes do not form a monophyletic group.

The very first section of the article is called, “plants known as ‘lime’”, which gives you a sense of how vague the name “lime” really is. The list they give includes the Persian lime, the Rangpur lime, the Philippine lime, the Makrut Lime, the Key Lime, four different Australian limes, and several things called “lime” that are not even citrus fruits, including the Spanish lime and two different plants called the wild lime. They also say: 

The difficulty in identifying exactly which species of fruit are called lime in different parts of the English-speaking world (and the same problem applies to synonyms in other European languages) is increased by the botanical complexity of the citrus genus itself, to which the majority of limes belong. Species of this genus hybridise readily, and it is only recently that genetic studies have started to shed light on the structure of the genus. The majority of cultivated species are in reality hybrids, produced from the citron (Citrus medica), the mandarin orange (Citrus reticulata), the pomelo (Citrus maxima) and in particular with many lime varieties, the micrantha (Citrus hystrix var. micrantha).

This means there is not even a straight answer to a question like “how much vitamin C is in a lime?” — there are at least a dozen different fruits that are commonly called “limes”, they all contain different amounts of vitamin C, and many of them are not even related to each other.

On those remote pages it is written that limes are divided into (a) limes that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed limes, (c) limes that are trained, (d) suckling limes, (e) mermaid limes, (f) fabulous limes, (g) stray limes, (h) limes included in the present classification, (i) limes that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable limes, (k) limes drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) other limes, (m) limes that have just broken the flower vase, (n) limes which, from a distance, resemble flies.

The British Admiralty seems to have switched from lemons grown in Sicily to West Indian limes. You probably know these as Key limes, and in case the nomenclature isn’t complicated enough, they’re also called bartender’s limes, Omani limes, or Mexican limes. We’ll stick with “Key lime” because that’s probably the name you know because it makes me think of pie. Mmmm, pie

The kind of limes you buy at the store, Persian limes, are a cross between Key limes and lemons. We can’t find any actual tests of the amount of vitamin C in Key limes, so we think all the published estimates of the amount of vitamin C in limes are probably from Persian limes.

We generally see numbers of about 50 mg/100 g vitamin C for lemons and about 30 mg/100 g for limes, presumably Persian limes. Since Persian limes are a cross between lemons and Key limes, Key limes probably have less than 30 mg/100 g vitamin C. Genetics isn’t this simple, but if we were to assume that Persian limes are the average of their forebears, then Key limes would contain about 10 mg/100 g vitamin C, less than a tomato. You need about 10 mg of vitamin C per day to keep from getting scurvy, so already we can see why this might be a problem.

Cooking reduces the vitamin C content of vegetables by about 40% (though of course this varies widely with specific conditions), so the 50 mg or so in a lemon would become about 30 mg after boiling, but the 30 mg in a lime would become about 18 mg after boiling. Lemon juice would be as good of an antiscorbutic after boiling as Persian lime juice would be fresh, and Key limes seem like they would have less vitamin C than either, boiled or not.

Persian limes also turn yellow as they ripen — you only think of them as green because farmers pick them and send them to the grocery store before they change colors. And of course, lemons are green in their early stages of growth. So like, so much for the “limes are green and lemons are yellow” thing.

Lovely fresh limes. Yes you read that right.

All these issues pale in comparison to the fact that citrus taxonomy is insane. Not only are limes not limes, it seems like nothing is really anything, or maybe anything is everything.

You walk into a supermarket and you think you recognize a bunch of Platonic fruits — oranges, clementines, lemons, limes, grapefruits, and so on. But when you do a Google image search for “citrus genetics”, you get diagrams like:

And this diagram:

Apparently orange genetics are so insane that even the person who made this diagram just gave up. “The citron was crossed with a lemon to make a sour orange and then uhhhhhh some stuff happened! and you got a sweet orange.”

And this diagram:

We notice there are unlabeled spaces on this Venn diagram — apparently the citrus cartels are holding out on us. Where’s my micrantha x maxima hybrid???

And this diagram, in which the Bene Gesserit attempt to breed the Kumquat Haderach. No, really.

The written material on the subject is, if anything, even more disheartening. Let’s look at a couple passages from the Wikipedia article on citrus taxonomy:

Citrus taxonomy is complex and controversial. Cultivated citrus are derived from various citrus species found in the wild. Some are only selections of the original wild types, many others are hybrids between two or more original species, and some are backcrossed hybrids between a hybrid and one of the hybrid’s parent species. Citrus plants hybridize easily between species with completely different morphologies, and similar-looking citrus fruits may have quite different ancestries. … Conversely, different-looking varieties may be nearly genetically identical, and differ only by a bud mutation.

The same common names may be given to different species, citrus hybrids or mutations. For example, citrus with green fruit tend to be called ‘limes’ independent of their origin: Australian limes, musk limes, Key limes, kaffir limes, Rangpur limes, sweet limes and wild limes are all genetically distinct. Fruit with similar ancestry may be quite different in name and traits (e.g. grapefruit, common oranges, and ponkans, all pomelo-mandarin hybrids). Many traditional citrus groups, such as true sweet oranges and lemons, seem to be bud sports, clonal families of cultivars that have arisen from distinct spontaneous mutations of a single hybrid ancestor. Novel varieties, and in particular seedless or reduced-seed varieties, have also been generated from these unique hybrid ancestral lines using gamma irradiation of budwood to induce mutations.

For more on using radiation to make new fruit, please refer to these talking dinosaurs.

In case that isn’t weird enough for you, there’s even a graft chimera citrus called the Bizzaria (really), which produces fruits that look like this: 

We’re at the Florentine citron. We’re at the sour orange. We’re at the…

On limes in particular, this page says: 

Limes: A highly diverse group of hybrids go by this name. Rangpur limes, like rough lemons, arose from crosses between citron and mandarin. The sweet limes, so-called due to their low acid pulp and juice, come from crosses of citron with either sweet or sour oranges, while the Key lime arose from a cross between a citron and a micrantha.

All of these hybrids have in turn been bred back with their parent stocks or with other pure or hybrid citrus to form a broad array of fruits. Naming of these is inconsistent, with some bearing a variant of the name of one of the parents or simply another citrus with superficially-similar fruit, a distinct name, or a portmanteau of ancestral species.

While most other citrus are diploid, many of the Key lime hybrid progeny have unusual chromosome numbers. For example, the Persian lime is triploid, deriving from a diploid Key lime gamete and a haploid lemon ovule. A second group of Key lime hybrids, including the Tanepao lime and Madagascar lemon, are also triploid but instead seem to have arisen from a backcross of a diploid Key lime ovule with a citron haploid gamete. The “Giant Key lime” owes its increased size to a spontaneous duplication of the entire diploid Key lime genome to produce a tetraploid. [Editor’s note: uhhhhh]

Wikipedia tells us this is a “lumia”. W-what is that? We don’t know, but Wikipedia assures us that “like a citron, it can grow to a formidable size.”

Pretty much every citrus page on Wikipedia has shit like this, truly enough to drive a man mad. You wander onto Wikipedia trying to find out what in god’s name a lumia is, and soon you are reading this: “A recent genomic analysis of several species commonly called ‘lemons’ or ‘limes’ revealed that the various individual lumias have different genetic backgrounds. The ‘Hybride Fourny’ was found to be an F1 hybrid of a citron-pomelo cross, while the ‘Jaffa lemon’ was a more complex cross between the two species, perhaps an F2 hybrid. The Pomme d’Adam arose from a citron-micrantha cross, while two other lumias, the ‘Borneo’ and ‘Barum’ lemons, were found to be citron-pomelo-micrantha mixes.” Lovecraft, eat your heart out. 

Mr Lovecraft might also enjoy this lovely citro-AAAAAAH

This is the much deeper problem that the history of scurvy reveals. In science, you need tools you can trust. You need to have the right equipment, the right study design, and the right analysis techniques — but you also need the right concepts.

Most of us are trained to calibrate our equipment and to double-check our experimental designs, but how often do we reconcile our concepts? Back in the 1800s, they trusted the terms “lemon” and “lime” to be relevant, to be reliable, to be meaningful — and to be interchangeable, to mean the same thing as each other. But they were all of them, deceived. 

This will continue to be a problem forever. We distinguish between lemons and limes today, and we’re better off for it, but we aren’t safe and can’t afford to forget this problem. “Lime” is still considered a perfectly good tool, and if you were going to do a study on whether limes are good for your heart or something, no one except for citrus geneticists would think anything of it.

But “lime”, as we have hopefully convinced you today, is not a good category at all! It’s not a good tool. You can’t trust it. Yet the assumption that “lime” is a perfectly normal category is so deeply embedded that you never realized it was an assumption.

Evaluating simple propositions like “limes cure scurvy” depends on accepting that “limes”, “scurvy”, and even “cure” are coherent and meaningful concepts. But they may not be!

The TRUE way that reality is very weird is that words and concepts that you use every day and take entirely for granted may be just as incoherent as the term “lime”. Concepts you think of as normal may some day seem as crazy as using the words “lemon” and “lime” interchangeably for all citrus fruits. We can pretty much guarantee that this will happen for something.

In our last post we described “splitting” as the practice of coming up with weird special cases or new distinctions between categories in the face of contradictory evidence. Splitting concepts is especially risky, in part because concepts are so powerful. If there is a confusion of categories, then all the research up to that point will be hopelessly confused as well, entirely muddled.

But if you split the categories in a better way, you will suddenly be left facing nothing but low-hanging fruit — be they lemons, limes, other limes, grapefruits, other other limes, clementines, pomelos, lumias, etrogs, etc.

Newsletter Natural Selection

Apparently, Substack wants to destroy newspapers. And maybe that would be good — maybe it would be good for journalism to be democratized, for bloggers to inherit the earth. Of course we’re bloggers and not newspapers, so maybe we’re biased.

Obviously it would be great if someone came up with a set of blogging and newsletter tools that were just amazing, that were the clear front-runner, that outperformed every other platform. We’d love it if the technical problems were all solved and we just had a perfect set of blogging tools.

But if everyone ends up on the same platform, well, that’s kind of dangerous. If one company controls the whole news & blogging industry, they can blacklist whoever they want, and can squeeze users as much as they want.

Even if you think Substack has a good track record, there’s no way they can guarantee that they won’t squeeze their writers once they control the market. Even if you trust the current management, at some point they will all retire, or all die, or the company will be bought by wesqueezeusers.biz, and then you’re shit outta luck.

Substack just can’t make a credible commitment that makes it impossible for them to abuse their power if they get a monopoly. You have to take them at their word. But since management can change, you can’t even really do that. They just can’t bind their hands convincingly.

But there may be some very unusual business models that would fix this problem. 

On the Origin of Substacks

Imagine there’s a “Substack” company that commits itself to breaking in half every time it gets 100,000 users (or something), creating two child companies. Each company ends up with 50,000 users. All the blogs with even-numbered IDs go to Substack A, and all the blogs with odd-numbered IDs go to Substack B. The staff gets split among these two companies, and half of them move to a new office. Both companies retain the same policy of breaking in half once they hit that milestone again — an inherited, auto-trust-busting mechanism.

(Splitting into exactly two companies wouldn’t have to be a part of the commitment. They could equally choose to break up into Substack Red, Substack Blue, and Substack Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition.)

In addition, a core part of the product would be high-quality, deeply integrated tools to switch from one of these branches to another. Probably this would involve an easy way to export all your posts and a list of your subscribers to some neutral file format (maybe a folder full of markdown, css, and csv files), and to import them from the same format into a new blog. If you end up in Substack B and you want to be in Substack A instead (your favorite developer works there or something), the product would make it very easy to switch, maybe to the point of being able to switch at the push of a button.

To help with this, the third and final commitment of the company, and all child companies, would be to keep the software open-source. Unlike biological evolution, software evolution isn’t siloed. If Substack Air implements a great feature, and the team over at Substack Earth likes it too, they can just go to the open-source code of their sister company, snip that AAAGTCTGAC, and copy it over to their branch.

Each of these child companies would go on to develop their tool from the same starting point, but of course the companies would speciate over time. More competitive branches would get to 100,000 users first and would split again, so there would be more descendants of successful branches. Bad branches would die off or just never grow enough to speciate. 

Because it’s easy to switch, branches that make a bad decision will also face an exodus of users to different branches that don’t suck. Of course, one species of Substack might choose to remove the feature that allows you to switch easily, but this seems like evolutionary suicide. Faced with the prospect of being locked in, most users will switch away if there’s any hint of removing this feature. It’s ok if people decide to stay, of course, things might just get weird.

After several generations of isolation from the main line, bloggers will look like this.

Many branches would die — nature is red in tooth and claw, after all — but many companies die off in the normal course of the economy anyways. And it’s reassuring that there would be an ecosystem of similar, related companies that would be ready to hire on any deserving refugees.

Ghosts Undergoing Mitosis

This would keep one company from taking over the blogging ecosystem and imposing terrible conditions. Or rather, if one lineage did dominate the blogging ecosystem, that could be a good thing, not a danger to free thought and free expression. That lineage would be split up across multiple companies with different leadership styles and different values, and would lack the kind of monopoly that tempts men to evil.

If Substack were our company, we would not only implement this idea, we would emphasize it a lot in our marketing and recruitment — not least because your target demo, bloggers, are smart and paranoid. They want this kind of freedom, ownership, and control, and they’re worried about the fact that current platforms sometimes seem a little power-hungry.

It would take Substack a minute to make this pivot, but other companies could do it right now. In fact, the web publishing platform Ghost is already planning to do something along these lines.

Ghost is already open-source, which is the big requirement to get started immediately. If they developed some quality Ghost-to-Ghost migration tools (uhhh… G2G tools?) and started branching, they could do this tomorrow. But probably they don’t want to follow our plan, for in an amusing display of convergent evolution, they have come up with a very similar plan of their own: they plan to stop growing at 50 employees and let other companies take on the growth from there.

(For more about Ghost’s fascinating business model, see here.) 

John O’Nolan, the founder of Ghost, who apparently lives on a sailboat (mad props) was interviewed by the Indie Hackers Podcast, where he said (go to 41:49 or so):

Interviewer: I think with you, we were just talking about this, I think, a few months ago, you have this other arbitrary constraint, I’m not sure why you have it, it might be like a side effect of the fact that you’re a nonprofit, but you can’t hire more than fifty people, was it? At which point you’re constrained and you have to figure out how to grow and become bigger and better without hiring a single more person than fifty. So where’s that constraint come from? 

John: I love that you brought this up, because it’s something I think more and more about nowadays. We’re coming up on, I think 27 people, so more than halfway there, and the rate at which we’re hiring is increasing, so the kind of fifty-sixty number is very much on the horizon, it’s within sight. And the constraint comes from, I have never worked at a company bigger than that which didn’t have office politics, or disconnection from the mission, or where things kind of stopped being fun. And from all the people we’ve hired over the years, there’s a remarkable amount of refugees, who were ar startups, they passed the kind of sixty, seventy person mark, things stopped being fun, middle management came in, the founders sort of left the early team behind, and started pursuing growth goals at the cost of people, and everything just sort of like *sigh* lost what made the journey special, around about that point. 

And there are just so many people who have the exact same story, at a certain point we just said, ok, well, what if we just don’t grow bigger than that, we’ll just stick like not bigger than fifty-ish. Fifty, sixty, somewhere around there. Not going to like, say, be really belligerent about a fixed number, but around that point, what if we just put a line, say, “ok no more”. And… what will that do? 

So, first of all, the same as what I was talking about earlier, it keeps Ghost as a company I’m happy to be stuck with. I want to have a group of fifty or sixty people where I know every single person well — not a large group of strangers who are all just working to a common economic incentive, but a team, a group of people who really know each other deeply and meaningfully, which I think you can still achieve around that size. 

But then, the logical question that follows is, ok, what are the goals of the company once you have fifty or sixty people and you still have ambition? How do you fulfill whatever goals you have that kind of don’t fit into the model of that size of company? And the answer is, you have to change your ambition, or you have to change the model with which you approach your goals.

So, a lot of how I think about Ghost now is less about growing one company — one centralized company — and more about growing a large, decentralized ecosystem. So whereas many-slash-most companies will try to grow bigger, and absorb smaller companies, and kind of be this big blob, consuming more and more of the market to become the holy grail of what everyone wants to become, which is a monopoly that dominates a market, kind of think about the opposite, how can we make Ghost, the products, a really strong and stable core, and then spin off all the other things for which there is demand from the market, but that we don’t have a big enough team to build. 

So maybe that’s community features, or maybe it’s video and media that integrates with Ghost really well, or maybe there’s an enterprise hosting option of people who DO love to get those emails from large companies with a big procurement process and close those deals. If we can have our smaller team make a tight core that enables lots of businesses to exist around Ghost, and around that open-source core, then an ecosystem will evolve around it of multiple economic dependents, and it will probably function similarly to a large company, except that I won’t control all of it, and that’s actually very appealing to me, I don’t want to control all of it, I don’t want to have the final say in how everything should evolve. 

This sounds a lot like the speciation idea we describe above. He even uses the term “ecosystem”! 

There are a few core differences. Limiting the company by the number of employees rather than the number of users might be the better way to go. So in a different version of our proposal, the company could be organized into several teams and the teams could become separate companies once the company has hit 60 employees or something. 

O’Nolan envisions an ecosystem more like Darwin’s finches — related companies that spread out to fill different niches, one for blogging, one for comments, one for video, one for different hosting models, etc. This seems like it would be relatively easy to do, and you can see how a successful company would draw related companies into existence, like a coral reef.

In contrast, we imagine an ecosystem of different companies competing (hopefully friendly competition, but still competition) for the same major niche, like birds and mice all competing for the same nuts and seeds. This seems good because competition will lead to better products, especially given built-in features that let bloggers vote with their feet. It also seems uniquely good in that, if Ghost or Substack or anyone does come to dominate the blogging world, this system will keep them from monopolizing it. 

So we think Ghost should consider not stopping at 50 employees, but undergoing mitosis instead, and splitting into Ghost Day and Ghost Night; or Ghost Sweet and Ghost Sour; or Ghost To and Ghost Fro; or Ghost Claw and Ghost Fang; or Ghost Sound and Ghost Fury; or Ghost Charm and Ghost Strange; or Ghost Video and Ghost Radio; or Ghost Milk and Ghost Honey; or Ghost Rosencrantz and Ghost Guildenstern; or Ghost Migi and Ghost Hidari; or Ghost Ale and Ghost Lager (and Ghost Lambic); or X-Mas Ghosts Past, Present, and Future; or 

*cane reaches out from the wings and pulls us off stage*

Special thanks to our friend Uri Bram for enlightening discussions about the world of online publishing.

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.