Strawberry leaves, assumptions, and learning

Nitin sent along this article about the health benefits of strawberry leaves a few months ago.

Two half cut and whole strawberries on cutting board on vintage table

He explained that he, like most people, used to remove the leaves of the strawberry before eating it. After he learnt about all the antioxidants in the leaves, he now eats them whole and has grown to love how they taste.

It got me thinking about how I learnt to remove strawberry leaves. No one taught me how to eat a strawberry. At least not that I remember.

I must have seen someone else remove the leaves at some point and just assumed that’s the way a strawberry must be eaten. And, now that I’ve become aware of the assumption, it has changed how I look at the leaves of a strawberry.

So goes the process of learning. We start with some assumptions about ourselves and the world. Someone or something makes us aware of them and then helps us understand that we can change them. And, if we choose to do so, we learn.

It isn’t easy to change assumptions. It is much easier to attempt to find information that confirms them.

That’s what makes learning hard.

Professor Cowen

Why for instance should I be called “Professor Cowen,” but few people would address the person fixing their toilet as “Plumber Jones”?

For a long time I have insisted that my graduate students call me “Tyler.” My goal has been to encourage them to think of themselves as peer researchers who might someday prove me wrong, rather than viewing me as an authority figure who is handing down truth.

This post from Tyler Cowen about titles resonated.

There’s something about forced titles that annoys me. I don’t like introducing myself with my title because it signals a place in the organization. And I abhor terms like mentor and mentee.

It is an idea a good friend shared with me a decade ago when I asked him if he’d be my mentor. “Let’s just be friends” he said. If he was wise enough, he reasoned, he’d share perspective that was useful. He didn’t need to be called a mentor for that.

Exactly right.

“If it all goes as per plan”

But of course it won’t.

Acting surprised or cursing our luck isn’t useful. There’s no fighting this. It’s like fighting gravity – good luck with that.

The better approach is to simply expect that to be the norm and allow ourselves to be (positively) surprised when things do work.

We’ll make more progress that way.

Form and iron-air batteries

Form Energy, a Boston-based startup, announced a fascinating breakthrough in battery technology recently (WSJ article – paywalled). They claim to have built an inexpensive “Iron-air” battery.

Iron-air batteries are attractive for several reasons. We have plenty of iron and know how to extract it cheaply ($200/ton of ore compared to $12-15k per ton for Lithium salts).

While these will be too heavy for electric cars, they will help solve a much bigger problem – energy storage on the electric grid. These batteries will enable us to store large amounts of renewable electricity. Current estimates are that Form’s batteries should be able to operate at around $20 per kWh, sufficient to compete with fossil fuel systems. 

The progress on this one felt is similar in nature to the likes of mRNA. It is technology that has been in development for nearly 50 years. But, progress in nanotechnology and catalysts have enabled the path for Form. 

This could be huge. Fingers crossed.

(H/T: Azeem’s Exponential View)

Missteps and learning

The problem is never the misstep. Missteps are guaranteed – it is impossible to learn to walk without making missteps.

The problem is our response to the misstep.

Missteps can either be demoralizing or a catalyst for further learning or growth.

Our choice.

Hidden in the most unlikely places

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” | Roald Dahl

A friend said this was one of her favorite quotes.

I can see why. Reading it gave me goosebumps.

Celebrating constructively

I saw this short clip of the Argentinian football (“soccer”) team players celebrating their victory against Brazil in “Copa America” – the South American variant of the Euros.

A few seconds in, we hear one of the players begin singing a song that makes fun of Brazil. Lionel Messi – Argentina’s star captain and arguably the greatest player of all time – stops him immediately. “No no” – he nods vigorously as he walks away.

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It is a powerful moment for many reasons. It speaks to the importance of leadership in reinforcing culture. By immediately saying no, the Captain made it clear that “this is not how we do things here.”

Messi also underscored a simple idea – we can celebrate constructively. Enjoying our own victory doesn’t have to include mocking someone else’s failure or defeat. It is an idea that is easy to forget as we go through our lives – especially in competitive endeavors.

Finally, it is a reminder that money and success do not guarantee class.

And that is exactly what that was – a moment of class.

Giant goldfish and connected ecosystems

There was a fascinating article about giant goldfish being found in lakes around the United States.

Those innocent looking fish grow to between 0.2 to 0.6 pounds in a tank. But, when fish owners dispose them in the wild, they can grow up to 30-40 times bigger. Here is an example.

Giant goldfish found in Minnesota lake

Here’s another example to get a sense of size.

As is the case with species that aren’t part of the natural ecosystem, these goldfish are invasive and end up messing with the ecosystem within these lakes. Disposing these fish in lakes is now illegal in many states.

A few months ago, there was a remarkable paper posted about the influence of the 2019 wildfires in the Amazon on global climate. While deforestation was thought of as the only contributor to these fires, the researchers showed that climate analogies originating in the Indian ocean likely was ~40% contributor to the problem.

This is a particularly powerful finding because deforestation in the Amazon causes climate anomalies all over the planet. When said climate anomalies come back to affect the Amazon, it speaks to just how connected the global ecosystem is.

Deforestation in the Amazon is a particularly sensitive global issue because the Amazon used to be one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. However, that is sadly no longer true. In an ingenious study (paper, article), a research team studied the Carbon dioxide and Carbon Monoxide profile of parts of the Amazon between 2010 and 2018. And, they’ve found that the South Eastern Amazon is now a Carbon source rather than a Carbon sink.

That’s both the powerful and challenging thing about understanding ecosystems – especially that on our planet. Things are more connected than we think. There’s more nuance than we think. And the balance is more delicate than we think.

Transformation

I’ve been thinking about the word “transformation” recently. It means “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.”

It reminds me of a quote about learning – “To learn and not to do is not to learn.”

So, learning inspires change. These changes are often small – most learning, after all, is done incrementally.

But, learning also compounds. With compounding, small steps effectively become leaps over time. Continuous learning thus results in dramatic changes over time.

That right there is the recipe for transformation in my mind.

It is tempting to think of transformation in people and organizations as a dramatic event.

Of course, that might happen. But, odds are that it probably won’t.

We’re far better off betting on continuous learning instead.