The Cobra effect

There’s a fascinating anecdote from when the British occupied India.

As the city of Delhi was infested with cobras, the officials offered a bounty on cobra skins. Soon, however, a cottage industry of cobra farming sprang up. People were breeding them for their skins.

So, while the British paid out more and more money, but the cobra infestation did not abate. Instead, the cobra farming only added to the problem.

When authorities finally got wise to the scam and withdrew the bounty, the farmers set their now-worthless cobras free. In this case, truly the road to hell was paved with good intentions – and cobra skins.

It is unclear if this is a true story. But, it makes for a great reminder of the power of perverse incentives.

One for us to keep in mind as we design incentives ourselves.

The best decisions

As we talk to others about our decisions, it is easy to buy into the narrative that we make “the best” decisions. Our way worked fabulously for us after all. Maybe you should do as we did?

Of course, that isn’t true.

Just because it worked for us doesn’t mean it’ll work for someone else.

In such conversations, it helps to replace talking about the outcome (i.e. the decision) with an explanation of the process of how we got there. Once we share what we were optimizing for and how we ended up where we ended up, it becomes much easier for those listening to figure out what would apply to their situation.

Understanding ourselves and making decisions that work for us is a good thing. If we’re going to talk about it, let’s focus on how we might be able to help someone else.


For years, every effort at generating energy from nuclear fusion generated no more than 3% of “ignition.” That means, for every 100 units of energy used to generate the reaction, the attempt produced no more than 3. We need at least a 101 for the effort to be net positive.

Then, a few weeks back, the National Institute of Ignition at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, did something unprecedented. A single laser shot shattered the record for the amount of energy product. Most importantly, energy produced was a whopping 70% of ignition.

As we figure out how to navigate the climate crisis with expected amounts of dysfunction (try getting large groups of humans to do anything together), playing offense with innovate technology is going to be just as important as playing defense by reducing emissions.

I hope this near-breakthrough accelerates funding for nuclear fusion. Cracking this would make for a giant leap in our efforts to create limitless clean energy.

Brute force and furniture

There’s a lesson you learn when you assemble furniture – brute force is rarely the answer to your problem.

When it goes well, things seamlessly slot into the right place. If you’re finding yourself using brute force, there’s likely something you did wrong. So, more often than not, we’re better off retracing our steps and avoiding unintentional damage.

It is a learning that is applicable well beyond furniture assembly.

The goal is not to avoid mistakes

Periodic reminder to self – the goal isn’t to avoid mistakes. It is to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

If we’re trying different things and stretching ourselves, new mistakes and those embarrassing falls/stumbles are inevitable.

So, instead of spending time reviewing that dreaded highlight reel of all of our mistakes as we wrap up the week, here’s to celebrating the new mistakes (and the accompanying learning). :-)

Failure, after all, isn’t in the falling down. It is in the staying down.

Happiness as parents

The Atlantic featured an interesting article from Paul Bloom recently about what having kids does to a parent’s happiness. Here’s the TLDR:

(1) On average across multiple studies, parents reported a decrease in happiness and marital satisfaction.

(2) This happiness decrease is uneven however. It depends on how old you are, whether you are a mother or father, and where you live. Countries with good child-care policies have significantly higher scores relative to countries that don’t (the US reports the largest drops). Mothers report a steeper drop than young fathers.

(3) But, despite all this, parents still describe parenthood as “the best thing they’ve ever done.” There are two explanations. The first is memory distortion – we forget the pain and remember the peaks and ends. Another is attachment.

(4) “This relates to a second point, which is that there’s more to life than happiness. When I say that raising my sons is the best thing I’ve ever done, I’m not saying that they gave me pleasure in any simple day-to-day sense, and I’m not saying that they were good for my marriage. I’m talking about something deeper, having to do with satisfaction, purpose, and meaning.”

(5) “The writer Zadie Smith puts it better than I ever could, describing having a child as a “strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight.” Smith, echoing the thoughts of everyone else who has seriously considered these issues, points out the risk of close attachments: “Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation?” But this annihilation reflects the extraordinary value of such attachments; as the author Julian Barnes writes of grief, quoting a friend, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.””

The sub title of the piece did a great job laying the stage for these takeaways – “Research has found that having children is terrible for quality of life—but the truth about what parenthood means for happiness is a lot more complicated.”

It resonated.

Irrigation and wine

I was at a celebrated winery recently where they explained their approach to making wine. I knew little about making wine. So, it was all new.

One idea that I found fascinating was that they refused to irrigate their plants. The grapes are planted on a hill with limestone 10-15 feet below the ground. Limestone is known for holding moisture. So, the roots need to make it to the limestone and get the moisture directly from the limestone.

Our guide explained that this lack of irrigation defines their wine’s taste and character. The harder the plants have to work, the more resilient they become. And the more resilient they become, the more likely they create strong wine.

Much like how we our character gets shaped too.

Halloween and Diwali

A friend once described Halloween as similar to an American version of Diwali.

Growing up, Diwali was the most fun festival of them all. Diwali meant fireworks, well-lit homes, hanging out with our neighbors, and sharing sweets.

We celebrated our first real Halloween yesterday as our kids are now old enough to both understand and be excited about “trick or treat.” We ended up joining a group of kids and parents from around our new neighborhood who were doing the same, walking up to decorated homes, and saying hi to all the neighbors who gave our kids candy.

Absent the fireworks, it did remind me of Diwali growing up.

I’ve spent nearly as many years away from India as I have growing up. And, in all these years spent across various continents, I’ve always stumbled upon similar traditions – with no exceptions.

Lost in all the conversation, political discourse, and (typically) rhetoric about our differences is the fact that we’re all human. And, no matter the color of our passport or our skin, we all crave love, safety, and belonging.

So, it is no surprise that there are similar traditions wherever there are humans.


I am because we are.