bookmark_borderMy Waystone Friends

There’s something to be said about the people in your life with whom you feel you can never get enough time with. 

As we get older, it’s harder to make new friends. That’s a natural phenomenon. Sometimes, you fall out of friendships because of newly discovered differences. Other times, you’ve simply grown apart. Bittersweet as it may be, it’s nice to cherish shared memories. Nobody can take those away from you. Yet, guilt is a tough feeling to untangle from it. How could you so easily let go of someone who once meant so much to you? It just happens, and it happens to everyone. 

The good news is that a bridge will stay standing until you set it ablaze. The “bad” news is that you never really cross it anymore. It’s not a part of your path as it once used to be. 

As I look back at my relatively short period of time alive–I see memories of happiness with a multitude of people. Many of them, I’m no longer acquainted with. I’m not at their top of mind, and they aren’t at the top of mine. Yet, something gnaws at me. Am I to simply forget the girl I spent hours talking to about the state of the music industry? Am I to forget my old classmate who I shared many walks with, speculating over the contents of an upcoming exam on our way to class? Am I to forget the guy I shared ramen with, imparting my wisdom from my benefit of being a year older? Am I to forget the countless other friends, who were fleeting presences in my life, a blip on the radar? Yes. I can forget them and they can forget me, but we’ll both keep the memories. 

If I were to see them again, I’d probably settle for a knowing smile and a friendly nod. After all, the unspoken bond is an indelible one. We formed tracts in each others’ consciousness, and that made us the people we are today. Many friendships are Hershey kisses, sweet but fleeting. 

In my camera roll, I’m greeted by faces of an unfamiliar past. With many memories, I see a lot of misses. Missed connections, misunderstandings, and misfortune. But that’s life, right? It’s the downs that makes the ups feel more…uppity (contrast is a hell of a thing). It’s a hot, fudge brownie paired with a smooth vanilla ice cream. 

I intend to keep making friends. It comes as easily to me as my inhales and exhales. However, I wish to find more of a second kind of friend–not the fleeting kind, but the enduring kind. 

What I said earlier refers to this kind of friend–

There’s something to be said about the people in your life with whom you feel you can never get enough time with. 

This is the person you can go months without seeing or hearing from, yet once you get back together, it’s like no time has gone by at all. This is the friend who feels comfortable going on at length about themselves, sharing equal enthusiasm in your own tales. You amplify each other’s energies, hanging onto each other’s every word. They are the friends who are on your wavelength. The friend that makes you feel that their companionship is enough for a lifetime. 

I struggled to find a word that captured this type of relationship until one day, the word Waystone popped into my head. It’s perfect. I thought. And it is. 

In Minecraft, there are things called Waystones – “A Waystone is a craftable structure added by Waystones that can be found throughout the world, primarily in Villages. By interacting with one, it is possible to teleport between these using levels.” (link)

These few that I refer to as my waystone friends mean a lot to me. The only reason we found each other is that I had to meet a lot of people and hang with tons of fleeting friends. One waystone friend is worth at least 100 fleeting friends. 

It’s always stress relieving to talk to them; you love hearing about their day, catching up on the tea spills and ticking the days off on the calendar for when you’ll get to see them again.

You may be separated by distance, yet there is warmth in every message, every image sent, every utterance. You’re proud of them and you’re each working in your little corners of the world. It feels more *real* when you interact with them. 

There is no set criteria for a waystone friend. I think it defeats the point to try and assign one. However, a core trait of a waystone friend is how they make you feel. You may feel weightless, or you feel grounded by their existence. Some of my waystone friends aren’t top of mind for me, nor I for them. But that’s just it. We can always pick right back up where we left off. The details are irrelevant, it’s the emotion behind them that matters. 

The critical thing is they make you feel comfortable to be you. They nudge you to be better, aim higher, and keep your chin up. They provide you with the perspective. They teleport you into their world and their happenings with an earnest desire to share what’s going on. Not every friendship or acquaintance is like this. Waystone friends are the closest you could get to a supportive family that’s not biologically related to you. 

I hope that as I get older, while my overall social circle might understandably get smaller, the waystones become stronger. I hope that the connections that remain, strengthen. 

To all my waystone friends. ‘Til we hang again. 🍻

bookmark_borderAnything You Want Book Notes

Derek Sivers‘s book Anything You Want is packed full of entrepreneurial wisdom.
I read through it and wrote down some of the key points and ideas in this book summary. Be sure to check out the book on Amazon!

Core Philosophies:

  1. Business is not about money. It’s about making dreams come true for others and for yourself.
  2. Making a company is a great way to improve the world while improving yourself.
  3. When you make a company, you make a utopia. It’s where you design your perfect world.
  4. Never do anything just for the money.
  5. Don’t pursue business just for your own gain. Only answer the calls for help.
  6. Success comes from persistently improving and inventing, not from persistently promoting what’s not working.
  7. Your business plan is moot. You don’t know what people really want until you start doing it.
  8. Starting with no money is an advantage. You don’t need money to start helping people.
  9. You can’t please everyone, so proudly exclude people.
  10. Make yourself unnecessary to the running of your business.
  11. The real point of doing anything is to be happy, so do only what makes you happy.

The rest of the book goes into great storytelling of how Derek learned each of these philosophies for himself. 

Derek faced friction when he wanted to distribute his music. That friction caused him to create a solution. He expanded that solution to friends as a favor who would use it and from there, more and more people took notice.

A business plan should be quick to make. Start simple. Use your common sense to check if the numbers will work. 

Don’t misinterpret persistence as stubbornness. Success happens when you are persistent in improving. If it’s not a hit, switch.

When deciding if something is worth your time, a good general rule of thumb is “If it’s not ‘hell yeah’ then it’s a ‘no’.”

Every no gets you closer and frees you up for the “hell yes” opportunities. 

Make every decision based on what’s best for your customers. The best service to a customer will let them push you to greater heights. To grow your business, focus on your existing customers. 

Every decision has to be approached with the mindset of “What’s the best outcome for your customers?”

If you can’t hire someone to do it, teach yourself how to do it and do it. You don’t need funding. Can’t waste money if you don’t have any to waste.

The Business Formula 

  • Idea x Execution
    • The best idea with the no execution is worth nothing. A weak idea executed brilliantly can be worth millions. 
    • Ideas don’t mean a thing until they’re put into practice. If you want to revolutionize education, start by teaching someone something and then find someone who will pay you to teach them and scale up from there. 

Don’t worry about formalities and fear-mongering that others will pitch you to get you to spend money. 

Don’t be dictated by your clients. This is something you risk if you’re working for bigger clients.

If you have many smaller clients, you become decentralized. 

In that case, you only need to please the majority or yourself and in effect, since no one client can demand you to do anything, you’re your own boss. 

Exclude with confidence. The money is not the point. The happiness of the customer is. Don’t add things like advertising to your site if your customers aren’t telling you “yes, please put in more ads on your site.”

You don’t have to have a plan or a vision. There’s many ways to approach things so your first idea is just one option. Have 10 radically different plans to secure yourself to make the most of things. Focus yourself on helping people today. 

Grade yourself based on how well you’d are about your customers. We all grade ourselves by different measures like net worth or how much money you can give. 

Your company has to be to willing to die for your customers. Businesses are made to solve problems. If the problem is solved, it would cease to exist. (some companies choose problems that are unsolvable, but approachable or change the problem in order to stick around)

Act like you don’t need the money. This will attract money.

  • It feels desperate when you posture yourself as needing it. Like a needy person looking for love–it’s a turnoff. Don’t do it for the money. People can tell.
  • People are happier to pay you when you set your business up like you don’t need the money.

Don’t make decisions when you’re angry. 

  • Being punitive on everyone due to one person’s mistake or action is the result of clouded thinking. 
  • When a customer wrongs you, think of the hundred thousands of others who have not. 
  • You can’t prevent bad things from happening, so don’t let it dictate your actions entirely. 

Be clear. If you are unclear, you’ll pay for it with time, money and team morale. 

You control the rules. A business is your world that customers join. Exert your influence over it and make it a pleasant place to be. The little things make all the difference.

You can be casual. Derek would “recruit” new employees just by asking his existing ones if they had friends who needed work. They’d show each other the tasks and get paid per hour. He hired lightly and fired lightly because he figured a few weeks on the job would be the best measure to see if someone is up to par. 

Prep for doubling. Ask yourself: what would it look like if I had twice the customers I do now? As you scale up, you need to streamline things to efficiently tackle new demand. 

It’s about being, not having. One of my favorite stories from Derek’s book is this one. He wanted to be a great singer. Recorded his first album at 25 after training for 11 years, taking voice lessons and practicing an hour a day. He performed as the lead singer of his band, and people kept telling him he wasn’t cut out to be a singer. His own mentor listened to his album and told him he just shouldn’t continue. At 28, he found himself thinking his voice was getting better. Derek couldn’t have continued to this point without having the persistence of belief in his identity.

It’s much harder to reject something once you’ve made it part of yourself. This is why identity is such a critical thing to have. James Clear notes this in habit formation in his book Atomic Habits as well. 

Don’t promise things to customers that are out of your control Derek experienced this first hand when CD Baby artists weren’t able to get instant access to Apple’s newly launched iTunes Store. 

People who work for you will ask you questions. Call a meeting, get everyone on the same page. Make the person who asked the question document the answer and teach it to someone else to consolidate it. Do this every time a question comes up and soon enough, no more questions will arise. 

Self-employment is fun and feels like freedom until you realize that your business will crumble if you stop working on it. To be a business owner, you should make it so that you could leave for a year and when you get back–business is doing better than when you left it. 

Delegate, delegate, delegate. You need to do everything to get it right at first. And so you do–you keep working harder and harder until you break. Put the time into quality training. Delegate. You will save yourself from crashing. 

Make it anything you want. Your role in your business can be what you choose it to be. Anything you hate to do, find someone else that loves to do it and let them do it.

Trust, but verify. When you delegate something follow up on it. Don’t just blindly leave it up to someone else. 

Delegate, don’t abdicate Empower your employees but don’t absolve yourself of all responsibility or you’ll end up leaving them disgruntled at your lack of control when you have to take it back. 

How do you know when it’s time to sell? You’ll know. Derek no longer felt as motivated as he used to be to grow CDBaby. He knew that if he cared about the customers of his business, he’d have to let go. And so he did. 


I make a small commission from the links in this article as an Amazon affiliate. This is at no additional cost to you and helps me subsidize the cost of these book notes for you to freely read. Feel free to share these notes with someone. 🙂

bookmark_borderNegative Clue: How Big Data Can Detect Diseases Early

Medtelkasten Article #2

I want to open this up with a story. A mystery if you will. Can you figure out the answer? 

A detective walked into a hardware store on his day off and wanted some peace and quiet As he’s quietly browsing the racks, his phone rings. It’s his officer friend, Kirby. He says he’s got a suspect but he’s not sure if it’s really him. He wants a second opinion if he’s nearby. Curiosity piqued, the detective agrees to weigh in. 

Minutes later, Kirby arrives with the suspect in tow. The suspect had an unkempt beard, with deep wrinkles in his forehead. His appearance lent an uneasiness to his presence in the store. Kirby began to speak. 

“He says he couldn’t have been the perpetrator because he’s been working at the docks all morning. He’s a fisherman…We searched him and turned up nothing, so I’m a bit stumped really. He kept saying that he was just at work, and he was going home early because he didn’t feel too well. ” He paused in thought before continuing. “His features match the eyewitness description and I’m still a bit uncertain. Story checks out, he does work at the dock…” The detective raised an eyebrow. 

“So you think he did it?” 

Kirby responded sheepishly. “No, I’m afraid not. He’s the prime suspect in this case however, and I don’t know how to test his alibi. There’s just something off about the whole thing.”

The detective stood up and walked over to the shifty fisherman. “So you were working at the docks all morning?” The fisherman nodded in affirmation. “And you were going straight home after work? No stops anywhere else?” The fisherman nodded once more. The detective straightened up and looked at his friend. 

“It’s him, Kirby,” the detective said. “It’s him.” Kirby was shocked. 

“But how do you know he’s lying?”

Can you figure out how the detective knew the suspect was lying?

I’ll give you some time to think about it. Perhaps another example will help you understand. 

An unknown virus is spreading across the planet at warp speed. Its presence is troubling and in its early stages, must be contained in order to save more lives. However, our resources are limited. We can only divert so many resources to every area before we are forced to cut back. 

Do we have anything at our disposal, data, tools, anything, to help us predict where an outbreak will occur or find areas that are at risk of becoming a hotspot and thus, need our intervention? 

Consider the following. Every time we type into a search box, we reveal a little about ourselves. This little area houses our embarrassing questions– the ones we’re afraid to ask out loud, the things we fear and the things we wish to understand. By using anonymized, aggregated data, it could be possible to tease out subtle patterns. 

Say someone googles “pancreatic cancer what should i do?” In that case, sure, you can easily determine that maybe the person searching has pancreatic cancer. But what would happen if you worked your way backwards? What if you looked at the data of all the people who searched “just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer” and trawl through the weeks or months leading up to that search to look for any googled health symptoms? That could be done. As humans with obligations and limited attention, we search and we forget. But the search engine remembers. In a way, it’s a memex for symptoms. 

And if you’re thinking this is a bit far-fetched, here’s the kicker: Microsoft already did this with Bing data. They found that searching “indigestion” and then “abdominal pain” correlated with pancreatic cancer while using only “indigestion” as a search query correlated with a lower likelihood of having pancreatic cancer. 

This is significant because when it comes to fighting many diseases–early diagnosis is critical. In the future perhaps, trained professionals could harness these searches and it could become a diagnostic supplement. While there are a ways to go before we can clear this for use on a case by case basis; the possibility is amusing.

Psst! Here’s the paper if you’d like to read it.

Clusters of search engine data localized to an area is something we could use to inspect and predict outbreaks based on search volumes. Spikes in certain search phrases could inform our understanding of the movement and potential symptoms of any rapidly spreading disease. 

In another example, researchers have been able to map COVID-19 outbreaks in India using Google Trends. The data is there, we just need the means and expertise to meaningfully interpret it. In a way, these aren’t obvious clues. They’re invisible–negative clues. 

Now back to the store with the detective. He claims the suspect is lying about working at the docks all morning and is thus, the perpetrator of the crime. 

Let’s hear his reasoning. 

The detective smiled at the skeptical officer. 

“Simple. He says he’s been working at the docks all morning, presumably handling all sorts of fish and aquatic animals. If that were really true, as soon as he walked in, we would’ve experienced the pungent odor of these ‘fish’.”

The odor was the negative clue. 

The moral of the story is to keep an eye out for the non-obvious. We would do well to ask ourselves: what other negative clues elude us? 

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bookmark_borderHere is a Surprising Solution to Startling Ambulance Bills

Medtelkasten Article #1

Surprise gifts are nice. Surprise bills are not. They’re unpleasant and no one likes them. Yet, surprise medical bills are an unfortunate reality for many in the US and will likely affect you too if you’re not careful. 

Surprise bills happen when a patient unwittingly gets treatment from a healthcare provider who isn’t part of their insurance network. Surprise bills also happen when you’re not at fault at all–an ambulance that’s not part of your network transports you to the hospital. Since they aren’t contracted with the system, your insurance pays little if any of that bill, shunting the rest to you. 

Now imagine someone in a life threatening situation. They’re incapacitated and someone else calls for help. The person getting the emergency care does not have the ability to shop around for the “best price” in-network ambulance ride. In these matters, time is the difference between survival or fatality. Patients can’t provide consent. Whatever ambulance is closest and can get to the person fastest–will get to save them critical time, but also get to bill them for ambulance fees. 

In the United States, over 20 million ambulance rides occur per year. Here’s why they matter. 

A Health Affairs report found that 71% of all ambulance rides risked surprise bills. On top of that, out-of-network charges were found to be a lot higher than in-network ones. Most of the rides are ground ambulances, while the rest are air ambulances.

What is an air ambulance?

Air ambulances were initially started to benefit patients in need and were run mainly by hospitals. Profit wasn’t part of the equation in some instances–some even operating at a loss on the service. Dr. Marty Makary, surgeon and professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins University in an interview with NPR describes it as such:

“Air ambulances really grew out of emergency rooms that decided, hey, we want to have a way to get people here faster. They were owned by hospitals. They were part of the hospital system. They were on the master hospital bill and often covered by insurance because it was a hospital service.”

This all changed after policy updates incentivized third parties to provide air ambulances. More money, more privately owned ambulances. 

The ironic part is that increased competition does nothing to drive down costs. Going from 2013 to 2017 accompanied 15% cost increases in air ambulance rides, even after inflation was factored in. This problem stems back to 2008, when the air ambulance industry was deregulated. Ambulances could take those with commercial insurance and charge them for trips.

The deregulation means air ambulance companies could raise their prices, insurance companies won’t cover and the remaining balance is shunted off to the unsuspecting patient. It’s all very punitive. 

A 2019 JAMA study found 86% of ground ambulance rides resulted in out-of-network bills. Ambulances are limited by geography. Sure, you can tell someone to go to a doctor miles away but you can’t really tell them to use an ambulance service from that far. 

Rural Healthcare

And speaking of distance, Air ambulance bills are also particularly troubling in rural areas. Those don’t have world-class care with high skilled physicians and healthcare workers within easy driving distance. Rural hospital closures only exacerbate the problem. As a result of write-offs on Medicare/Medicaid patients and uninsured patients–the insured have taken the hits.

Pew Research

Genesis of the Surprise Bill 

The insurance company only pays a small amount of what the total bill is, resulting in a crushing unsettled balance. This balance can range from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. Commercial insurance allows for balance billing in these cases.

The median out-of-network air ambulance bill was $21,698 more than the in-network price and over forty-eight times larger than the median ground ambulance surprise bill.

So what can you do about them?

Sally Pipes from Fierce Healthcare suggests transparency. She says that network information should be apparent to people before anyone is charged for services. The “in-network guarantee” must be clear. This could help lower surprise billing for non-emergency visits. 

Here’s a relevant example. 

You get a procedure done at a facility. That facility has physicians that aren’t in the same network as the insurance company that has a contract with it. On the day you go in, you happen to get a physician who is not in your network and they perform your procedure. As a result, the insurance company, who doesn’t have an agreement with this physician, will not cover the bill as in-network. It’s not fair. 

The proposal would make it so that in these non-emergency situations, the place you went to get your procedure done could NOT be marked by your insurance company as “in-network”–because not everyone employed there is “in-network.” 

Rideshare is Eating the World

While many expected rideshare services to falter in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, few have adopted well to the new consumer battleground. Uber pivoted into Uber Eats–allowing families to receive contactless delivery. In-person transactions fell but home delivery has picked up the slack. Companies like Just Eat Takeaway (JET) and Amazon have raked in obscene amounts of money during the pandemic.

The future pivot of these companies will lie in rideshare for healthcare. Rideshare makes accessible treatment feasible and reduces fear of surprise transport bills. No more juggling your schedule to get grandma to her appointment and back. For many older patients, rideshare could be an effective social engagement to get them to and fro their homes to their appointments. They wouldn’t need to worry about getting other family members to cover for them. I suspect that rideshare would drop the barrier for representative care by making it available for *any* individual with a little bit of training to be of service. 

It’s worth noting that generally the out-of-network trips are going down over time as more and more air ambulance companies join payer networks due to state-imposed regulations. Yet, until legislature with price controls are passed–I wouldn’t expect to see any marked decreases in these transport bills. 

As for doctor visits, not everyone can afford to take time off work or pay for babysitters to attend. On a wider scale, their preventative care is diminished. They’re set up for expensive consequences due to something that they have little control over. 

Case Study: Lyft and Access2Care

Back in 2018, Access2Care and Lyft (the rideshare service) worked together to manage AmeriHealth Caritas DC’s transport program. 

“Transportation is usually the first and last touchpoint for a consumer accessing care and has a big impact on how they engage with the healthcare system. When rides aren’t convenient or reliable, it often results in delayed care and a disjointed member experience.” –Shea Long, VP of Innovation at Centene.

The impact of Lyft’s entrance is clear:

  • 40% decrease in emergency room (ER) utilization
  • 15% decrease in low acuity non-emergent (LANE) ER utilization
  • 12% decrease in ambulance utilization
  • 45% increase in compliance rate for 42 Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set (HEDIS) measures

Further pilot programs in Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Texas showed similar improvements.

With a rideshare program, there were fewer 1-star ratings, a 99% on-time arrive rate and a two-thirds decrease in member-rider complaints. In the past, non-emergency medical transportation rides had a 28-minute wait time on average. With Lyft, this came down to 7 minutes.

Statewide Success

Another program in Tennessee was so successful that it was scaled up for the entire state. With the program, there was a 44% increase in primary care physician visits and a stunning 90% decrease in “transportation-related grievances.”

An Uber study found a 7% decrease in ambulance rates after it entered a new location. Wait time for the remaining ambulances was likely reduced and thus, more deaths may have been prevented.

Lyft has demonstrated their ability to improve access to care through partnering with organizations to provide emergency rideshare ambulance services

Ridesharing allows patients to pick which hospital they go to–which may lead to better outcomes. For emergency situations, dispatchers would pick ambulance providers based on proximity and how severe their situation was rather than insurance network. This makes sense–most emergencies are time sensitive. If you started having health problems, you wouldn’t want to delay getting to the help you need.

Something also tells me that you if you need emergency services, you’re not exactly going to have the ability to research whether the ambulance en-route is compatible with your insurance plan. Even more of a kicker is that air ambulances, in most casesdon’t provide significantly better outcomes.

Regulation

The Department of Transportation has to enact regulation to impress fair practices unto these private ambulance companies. While the Uber and Lyft initiatives are worthy of testing further rollouts, the root of surprise emergency will persist until legislation is passed setting price controls. Until then, we’ll just have to wait, see, and advocate.

bookmark_borderNo, You Shouldn’t Type Your Morning Pages

This is in response to a lot of posts I’ve seen on my feeds about Morning Pages.

Don’t waste your time

I know what you’re thinking. But typing them is so convenient! Good observation. That’s exactly the problem. When you type your morning pages you’re making a mistake because it’s too easy.

What you find when you first start writing morning pages is that some days you’ll have more to say than others. Sometimes, it’ll only take you a few minutes to burn through them and other times, you’re left scraping your mind for more.

When you type, you write fast. When you write fast, you think fast. When you think fast, you think shallow. That fundamentally misses the point of writing morning pages.

You may think that capturing more thoughts quickly is a good thing. After all, that’s more content to work with and examine, right? Not really. You’ve just skimmed the surface for what you think is valuable in favor of covering more area. There’s also the camp that believes by completing brain dumps, you can get into a mindset that lets you make serendipitous connections.

Gardening With Purpose

While this can work to a certain extent, the difference is that you’re sending thousands of seeds onto a plot of land and connecting the dots as you spread them. Why not slow down and give each individual seed its rightful attention? When you build a solid foundation, and have examined the possibilities, it actually becomes easier to come up with unique combinations of ideas. The hyper stream-of-consciousness allows you to generate more saplings of ideas but they aren’t rooted as deeply. You haven’t really considered as many aspects of those thoughts and feelings than if you were writing slower.

If you skimp on the materials for the foundation, anything else you build on top will be flimsy as well. Then, you’re left having to go back and salvage those ideas if you want to use them again. Great insights don’t come to those who wade in the coastal waters. They come to those who risk it all to sweep the ocean floor.

Childlike Mentality

When you first learned how to write as a kid, you needed to follow explicit guidelines. Through deliberately practicing you got better. You had to focus and concentrate at first to get the hang of matching sounds to letters and how they looked on a page. It would’ve taken you much longer to learn to write if you simply went about the process prioritizing speed over accuracy.

Consider a study done with German kindergarten students. Researchers were testing the idea that the relatively frictionless method of typing accelerated reading and writing in young children. The results showed that the handwriting group could write and read words much better than the typing group. A contradiction. There wasn’t enough proof in the data to suggest that typing was better for uptake than handwriting. Speed itself doesn’t carry the implication of acquiring understanding and improvement.

Reduce Friction, but at What Cost?

As for my own creating process, my preference is to reduce friction in whatever I’m doing. It seems like that’s the ultimate goal. But friction is important. Without it, 12-wheelers would be sliding off icy roads and life would be unlivable.

Similarly, when typing morning pages, your thoughts are unmoored. They’re streamed from conception to reality with little gap or ponder time.

This is why I prefer handwriting my journal entries. Sure, I can’t get out all my thoughts as fast but by slowing down, I’m able to really consider what I’m writing. There’s something humbling about such a human constraint. I’m forced to linger on the words, thoughts and ideas I’m thinking about. That’s what morning pages are for me. They allow me to go deeper with ideas as I write them. I process my insights differently.

It makes sense. There’s a reason why studies have found that students who hand wrote their notes were able to perform better on answering conceptual questions. When you go from mind to page and seamlessly port the information, you don’t give yourself enough time to actually process what you’re writing. When you slow down, you force yourself to rephrase or reconsider ways to note the things you’re trying to say in a more effective way. This is only possible with deeper consideration of the thoughts you have. That’s what makes journaling and writing morning pages interesting.

I can’t just rush through the forest of my thoughts to get to some predetermined end point every time. It’s physically impossible. I can, however, take a few moments to admire the saplings I stopped to plant last week.

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Thanks to Joe and Cullin for beta-testing this essay.

bookmark_borderThe Great Mental Models Vol. 1

Note: all links to the material are affiliate links, meaning that at no additional cost to you I get a small referral payment if you purchase the book. 🙂

Book Notes:

This book is one in a series of a few volumes to be released on mental models. Our mental models help us anticipate things that will happen and provide an explanation for those things.


In collecting models and picking up more wisdom there’s inherent value.
Why? It reduces our “blind spots” meaning, we can think and interact with the world more effectively.  

Mental models are just things that show you how something works. Solving a problem requires understanding it. Mental models help you understand problems by making it easier for you to accurately assess a situation. 

You have to be open to other perspectives to understand what effect your actions have. 
Thus, there are three flaws to be aware of:

  1. Perspective
    You need to be open to different perspectives, so you better understand the results of your actions. You don’t have all the info. 
  2. Ego
    We’re afraid of what others will say so we don’t get criticism
  3. Distance
    When you’re not as invested in something i.e. more distant from something, the less likely you are to update your understanding and you won’t be as cognizant of your actions. 

Better models mean better thinking. You have to be able to update your models if you notice flaws in them. 

Variety is key. If you specialize too much, you miss out on the insights that could only be derived through a multidisciplinary lens. 

Different people in different occupations will have different default ways of approaching the world. If you can have a variety of models, you get a more comprehensive understanding of the world and how to approach problems.

Three Buckets of Knowledge:

  1. Inorganic Systems
    • Math, physics laws, the universe
  2. Organic Systems
    • Earth’s biosphere
  3. Human History

The three buckets represent the world and the world changes over time. The world as it is now is not how it always used to be. Thus, when you consider that everything is shifting it becomes clear. No individual perspective is “correct” or “incorrect.” A Multi-lens system allows for multifaceted understanding. 

Consider an elephant: 
If 7 people were blindfolded and told to guess what was in front of them based on touch, they would each come up with different answers depending on what part of the elephant they’ve touched. 


The Map is Not the Territory

Maps are just representations of things. They’re meant to be reductions of things. If they’re true to size, they’d stop being useful. They’re bookmarks of a place in time. They’re explanatory and predictive. 

A description of something is not the thing itself. 

Maps and models are just abstractions so if you want to use them, you have to understand their limits. 

How do you use a map accurately?

Use the 3 Considerations.

  1. Reality is the ultimate update
    1. Maps are built on feedback loops. Just because a map captures the depiction of the now, it won’t necessarily accurately capture what the reality of the territory is like in the future. 
    2. As time changes, as we get more information from the real world; we must adjust our maps accordingly. 
  2. Consider the cartographer
    1. Maps are not objective. The cartographer has certain values or perspectives that inform how the map looks. The physical boundaries of a map may not show the ethnic makeup of the area. 
  1. Maps can influence territories. Creating a model for something can influence how you interact with the real thing. You might try to change the reality to align with your model, which can cause problems.

Circles of Competence

Here’s a quick way to check your competence:

  • Have you worked on the problem for a few years?
  • Have you failed in this area a few times?

If you answered no to either of the above, you are not in the circle. 

How do we know we’re competent?

  • Whatever is in your circle of competence is everything you know and the shortcomings you are aware of. 
  • You can distinguish between where your expertise begins and where it ends. 

How do you build and maintain one?

  1. You need to be willing to learn from others and approach with a curious mindset. Be honest about your failures, learn from them.
  2. You must track your progress and prior works in the circle that you’re trying to be accomplished in.
    1. Keep a journal. It forces you to take a wide view and consider: what worked? What didn’t? How can I improve? You’ll find patterns you’ve never seen before. 
  1. You need good feedback from others.
    1. You need years of experience, tons of mistakes and deliberately searching for better methods. You need experts operating on a level that can observe you in your circle and offer relevant advice. 

Ego death is the game. You can’t reasonably take feedback in stride if you let your ego get in the way. How do you operate outside of one?

There are three parts to successfully operating outside a circle of competence.

  1. Get the basics down. Recognize that you only really know the basics.
  2. Talk to someone with a strong circle of competence and ask them actually deep and thoughtful questions. The idea is like you’re probing what the limits of their circles are. 
    • Someone with a strong circle of competence doesn’t mean they will be purely benevolent. People will act in ways that help themselves either directly or indirectly.
  3. Take the mental models you’ve picked up and use them to facilitate your understanding of that field.
    • That gets you the foundational points. It’s normal to have to act on things are outside your circle but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Nobody will have an all-inclusive circle of competence. Knowing their limits and your limits will help you become competent. Another thing to consider is the idea of falsifiability. Try to prove a theory wrong, and when you fail to do that, you make it stronger. 

Historicism: The idea that history has trends that lead to outcomes. There’s no way to test things like the idea that human technology will always be increasingly complex. It’s not a testifiable hypothesis. Trend is not destiny. 


Think From First Principles

Keep questioning to avoid relying on emotional connections. Get down to a falsifiable statement. When you build your knowledge around first principles you can make something new out of it. By removing assumptions, you hit upon the bedrock of understanding. 

How do you think from first principles? Follow the Socratic principles. See below:

Clarify thinking. 

  • Why do I think this? What exactly do I think?

Challenge assumptions. 

  • How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?

Looking for evidence. 

  • How can I back this up? What are the sources?

Considering alternative perspectives. 

  • What might others think? How do I know I am correct? 

Examining consequences and implications. 

  • What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am?

Questioning the original questions. 

  • Why did I think that? Was I correct? 
  • What conclusions can I draw from the reasoning process?

Asking Why

  • Children are good at this by nature. They ask why so many times until you get to the point where you get stumped and say “I don’t know. It’s because it’s the way it is!”

If you reason from first principles, you can break away assumptions and see what’s really possible. From there, you can evaluate anything else built on top of those principles and uncover something new.


Thought Experiments

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines thought experiments as “devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things.” 

These are just as rigorous as a traditional experiment if you go about it correctly. How do you do that?

  • Ask a question
  • Conduct background research
  • Construct hypothesis
  • Test with (thought) experiments
  • Analyze outcomes and draw conclusions
  • Compare to hypothesis and adjust accordingly (new question, etc.)
  • “If I had all the money in the world” 

Thought experiments are supposed to help you understand the potential outcomes of any one decision. They help you intuit the non-intuitive. You can double-check your intuition through deliberate thought experiments. 

When you pose a thought experiment the greatest strength is that you can change a variable any number of times to see how your outcome. You’re like Doctor Strange-ing it. However, you have to be careful with these as small changes in any singular event could have largely different outcomes. 

Thought experiments allow you to consider many possibilities when making decisions. They allow you to think critically and better understand cause-effect relationships. 

Reduce the Role of Chance

  • Necessity is Different from Sufficiency. 
    • Just because something is necessary, doesn’t mean it’s enough. 
      • Bread is necessary to make a sandwich but that doesn’t necessarily mean that if you have two slices of bread you’ve got a full sandwich. The bread is necessary but insufficient for a sandwich. 

Ultimately there are a few things in life that happen due to chance and it’s not in your control. While you should lower the reliance of your things to chance, keep in mind there’s no guarantee. 

Another powerful principle is Second-Order Thinking

Second Order Thinking

  • Whenever you do something, there are some effects, big or small. Second-Order thinking looks at the “effects of the effects”
  • If you don’t think about the effects of the effects of your actions…it can be very bad. 
  • There’s a reason why we also call this the “Law of Unintended Consequences” 

There are two places where you can use second-order thinking:

  1. Prioritizing long-term interests over immediate gains
    • You can overlook any short term effects to identify what the long-term effects are. 
  2. Constructing effective arguments
    • You can anticipate challenges to address them ahead of time. If you can answer for second-order effects, your argument is more compelling. 

When using the second-order thinking model there’s one thing you have to be careful with:

The Slippery Slope Effect

  • Saying that making any one mistake will lead you down an irredeemable life is faulty reasoning. That’s the slippery slope: one action leads to another which leads to another, resulting in a downward spiral to hell. 
  • Remember that second-order thinking has limits. 

Thinking ahead can save you a lot of time later down the road.


Probabilistic Thinking 

  • This is when you weigh the likelihood of any specific event or outcome happening. This can be done through maths and logic. This helps you improve your accuracy when making decisions. 

There are 3 aspects of probability you should know.

  1. Bayesian Thinking (AKA Bayesian updating)
    1. The core of it is that as we come across new information, we should consider it in light of what we already know. You take the information as a sort of base on which you can use to frame future decision making. 
    2. For every new bit of knowledge you add, you aren’t treating it as either completely right *or* completely wrong. You are only considering the probability of it being true. This probability is referred to as the Bayes factor or the likelihood ratio. 
    3. Over time, you replace the most out-dated information in them because of your active validation of information. 
  2. Fat-tailed curves
    1. This relates to conditional probability. In a bell curve, like below which depicts the weights or heights of people, there is a normal distribution. The outliers are generally well-defined in this situation. You won’t usually meet someone who is ten times the size of an average person. In a fat tail curve situation, this gets flipped on its head. You might consistently bump into people who are 10, 20, 100 times wealthier than the average person. In life, you have to position yourself to plan and think ahead about a world you don’t fully understand. 
  3.  Asymmetries
    1. You need to understand “metaprobability” which is the probability your estimates are good or valid
    2. Sometimes people tend to overestimate confidence in estimates like “oh, we’re definitely going to beat the market and get a 20% return per annum.” 

You have to have a sense of the probabilities in a situation, verify your assumptions, and make decisions. You won’t be 100% correct but you will be more accurate and that will give you better outcomes. 


Anti-fragility

Anti-fragile things thrive in volatile contexts. How can you arm yourself with anti-fragility?

  • Upside Optionality:
    • Look for situations that promote serendipity. There’s no guarantee of anything happening if you attend a cocktail party with people you would like to know. Whether the interactions go well or not is ultimately irrelevant. You’ll never have the chance of a good meeting if you don’t attend the meeting in the first place. 
  • Fail properly
    • Never take a risk that will wipe you out completely.
    • Build your resilience to learn from failure and start over. 

Supporting Idea: Correlation vs. Causation

  • Just because you see two things happening at once doesn’t mean that one causes the other. 
  • Statisticians measure this likelihood of the factors being related as the correlation coefficient. Things that are expected to have no relation to each other like suicide rates and bottled water consumption will have a correlation coefficient value of 0. 

Correlation coefficient values

  • 0
    • No relationship 
  • 1 or -1
    • Strong positive correlation or negative correlation, respectively
  • Any other number between -1 and 1
    • Varying degrees of relationship between your two factors. 

Regression to the mean: “Whenever correlation is imperfect, extremes will soften over time.” The worse appears to get better and the best does the opposite. 

  • Example: Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow. His example is that giving depressed children an energy drink over 3 months significantly improves their condition. This is just an example of regression to the mean even if it’s a perfectly viable thing. 
    •  

Inversion

  • It’s easier to avoid stupidity than it is to be super intelligent. Inversion allows you to make use of this idea. 
  • Think backward and forwards. Proceed with this mentality: the thing you’re trying to prove is true. Now if that were true, what else would need to be true? That’s the purpose of inversion. You can think about what you want to “avoid” in your model and then check out what’s left.
  • Here’s the process: 
    • ID the problem. 
    • Define the objective.
    • ID what supports change towards your objective
    • ID what forces impede change towards your objective. 
      • Most of us stop after the third step. Inversion is the sub-step between 3 and 4. Don’t just think about how you can solve a problem. Think of how you could make it worse and then avoid doing that.

Occam’s Razor

  • A helpful way to consider things and frame them. It states that if two different things can explain something, the simplest one is likely the most optimal. We tend to overcomplexify (I made up this word) the world around us. This is not always ideal. Sure, things may not always be simple but it’s helpful to consider instances where it might be. 

Hanlon’s Razor

  • It’s more likely that something happens due to stupidity rather than bad intent. Don’t assume it’s intentional, assume it’s stupidity.

bookmark_borderYour Guide to Locusts

What do Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the nematodes from cartoon classic Spongebob, the Bible, and Doctors Without Borders have in common? Locusts. Okay, hear me out.

But first, a quick outline

Click to jump to wherever you want to start reading from.

What Are Locusts? Where Do They Come From? 🦗
Locust Clustering Network Effects 👯👯👯👯👯
Are Locusts Harmful? ☠️
Do Locusts Eat Meat? 🍖
Why Do Locusts Migrate? 🏃
Locust Swarm Frequency 📈
Are There Any Tools to Detect Locust Swarms Early? 🕵️
Are Locusts Edible? 😋
But Are Locusts Kosher? 🤔
Locusts in Religious Texts ✝️ 🕉️
Responses to Locust Swarms: Human Activity and Natural Predators 📌
Chinese Duck Armies? History repeats itself! 🦆🦆🦆
Are locusts good for anything? ➕
Research Directions👨‍🔬

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What Are Locusts? Where Do They Come From? 🦗

Locusts are part of the Orthoptera (from Greek words: Orthos which is ‘straight’/’rigid’ and ptera which is ‘wing’) order. There are 7,000 species of grasshoppers but only 20 are classified as locusts. These species can be found everywhere except Antarctica.1 Most locusts generally live and are found in Eastern Africa and over time, have found their way into India, Pakistan, and even China.6 When you look at a single locust and compare it to a grasshopper, they’re not too different. However, one key difference between them is that locusts can exist in two different physical states, solitarious and gregarious. Locusts are most similar to grasshoppers when in the solitarious state.2  Physically, tan brown and green hues on a locust mean it’s solitarious. For a locust in this phase, there is no hive-mind. It’s not part of a swarm.  

Locust Clustering Network Effects 👯👯👯👯👯

However, when multiple locusts happen to be in close contact for a while, things start to change. In close proximity, the locusts brush up against each other more frequently. Their hind legs specifically take in mechanosensory contact from resulting in body changes to the gregarious state.3  In the absence of crowded conditions, these gregarious locusts can revert back to the solitarious phase again.4 A host of changes occurs when they become gregarious, with new behavioral changes taking just a few hours to surface. Physical changes follow after just days. Their color changes to a warning yellow and black, their body becomes smaller, their brains get bigger, and their shape and fertility changes too.5 It’s no wonder that at one time in the past, locusts in different phases were considered different species.2 This drastic change in physical appearance reminds me of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Are Locusts Harmful? ☠️

Locusts aren’t directly harmful in that they aren’t inclined to bite people.5, 6, 8  They don’t attack people or animals. In Eastern Africa and Yemen, locusts endanger food security for 42 million people.6, 8 India, Ethiopia, Kenya, Yemen and few others have been threatened by harvests attacking crops. Swarms can be so dense that even aircrafts need to get diverted.5, 15, 8 In this way, locusts can be harmful when they proliferate and run unchecked on unwitting crop fields, endangering the livelihood and food security of millions of people. 

Do Locusts Eat Meat? 🍖

Locusts don’t eat meat but they possess an appetite for crops like sorghum, teff and wheat. The affinity of these locusts for plants suggests they also need a source of protein. However, at least for South American locusts, it seems they prefer loading up on carbohydrates while shifting into the gregarious phenotype. 1, 5, 13

Why Do Locusts Migrate? 🏃

Once in the gregarious phase, locusts start to migrate. This makes intuitive sense because if they’re staying in one place, they’re probably going to run out of resources quickly. Director of the Global Locust Initiative at Arizona State University, Arianne Cease, says that “…there are too many of them and they would run out of food,” and so locusts migrate to find better resources. Locust swarms embody the phrase “strength in numbers.” They’re like different beasts in these different phases. For example, a single locust on its own may avoid plants with hyoscyamine, a toxic alkaloid, but gregarious swarm locusts find its smell intoxicatingly attractive.1,8,6

These swarms, once mobilized, will move without much opposition. Entomologist Hojun Song, in an email correspondence with Umair Irfan and Jen Kirby of Vox said, “Locusts do not honor political boundaries and can easily invade other adjacent countries.”*

*This little quote prompted me to make this wonderful little graphic on my phone. It was inspired by the Doctors Without Borders logo. How did I do it? Check the appendix at the end of this article for an explanation.

Original Image by Eashan Reddy Kotha – Titled: “Locusts Without Borders”

Locusts in the gregarious phase become devastating due to sheer volume. How are they so prolific? To understand that, it’s important to take a look at factors affecting the locust life cycle. Weather and other environmental conditions are two such factors that affect desert locust lifespan.6 Generally, lifespan ranges from three to five months. The three stages of a locust’s life are the egg, then hopper, then adult.6 Locusts don’t go through a pupal stage like butterflies do when developing. They undergo what’s known as incomplete or direct metamorphosis and thus, look similar to adults while growing. 

Locust eggs take about two weeks to hatch on average. Hoppers become adults over thirty to forty days but this varies from species to species. Differences in temperature/habitat conditions also influence the range. Hoppers and adult locusts are ectotherms as they regulate body temperature by either moving to shady areas or into sunlight to maintain a stable temperature.2  The hopper stage can be divided further into stages called instars with a moult occurring between each instar. 

Picture shows a circular depiction of a locust moving from egg pod through instar stages to adulthood.

Image courtesy of the Desert Locust Control Organization for East Africa

With each successive moult, wings start to develop and grow bigger on the hopper. The final moult is called fledging. For the most part, juveniles look similar to the adults.2 The hopper or nymph stage is the key to locust swarm prevention because at this stage, they haven’t developed wings.1 After they enter adulthood, the locusts become significantly harder to deal with. They’re young, mobile, and hungry. Senior locust forecasting officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Keith Cressman likened them to “hungry teenagers” with a “voracious” appetite.1 Adults mature from two to four months.6 About a month into adulthood, by the time the locusts have eaten through nearby agricultural fields, they lay more eggs. This escalates the locust problem dramatically because there is a 20-fold increase with every new generation.6

A 20-fold increase is nothing to sneeze at. Again, how is this even possible? How do locusts reproduce? It starts when the male locust mounts the back of the female, applies the tip of his abdomen to hers and passes sperm into the reproductive tract.7 The sperm sac in the female abdomen stores the sperm, and once the eggs travel through the oviduct during laying, the sperm is released to fertilize them.7

The females lay eggs about 10-15 cm below the surface by using the ovipositor at their abdomen tip.6 Solitarious females lay anywhere from 95 to 158 eggs in a single pod and gregarious females lay slightly fewer than that.6 The pod is covered in a froth that helps protect the eggs from drying out, getting eaten, or becoming disease ridden.2 Now consider that in one square meter, there can be up to 1,000 egg pods. Individual locusts aren’t so much a problem as swarms that number in the billions over hundreds of thousands of acres. This is a plague of a Biblical scale. 

Those thousands of laid eggs are a precursor for nearly 150 million locusts per square kilometer (600,000/acre).5  A singular locust may not be an issue to a large field of crops, but when each locust eats its own weight in plant matter per day, 150 million is enough to devour the equivalent food supply of 35,000 people per day.5,6 And if you were wondering if all that eating makes them lazy and unable to travel far, here’s some news: swarms can travel from 90 to over 100 miles in a single day, riding the wind like dandelion seeds.1, 8 These locusts are also very prepared to handle higher temperatures and drought conditions. Experiments by The Global Locust Initiative have shown that Australian plague locusts could survive without water for up to a month. This means that in time, locusts will be able to further expand their operations to wider ranges. 

Locust Swarm Frequency 📈

Locust swarms aren’t a consistent phenomenon. Sometimes, years to decades can occur between them. However, climate change has resulted in ripe conditions for these swarms to propagate.5 According to CBS News, locusts usually arrive in India from Pakistan in the summer months up to autumn (July-October).8 While historically, the swarms have been generally contained to Rajasthan, climate conditions have facilitated spreading into other states. Warm weather correlates with more locusts.8  

Heavy rainfall is a key variable. The Indian Ocean Dipole is a phenomenon that occurs when the Eastern and Western side of the Indian Ocean alternate between warmer and colder temperatures. Recently, increased evaporation due to a stronger temperature gradient led to downpours in India and East Africa. Dr. Koll, a scientist from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology claimed the warmer waters in 2019 resulted in greater rainfall.8 The downpours which forced evacuations, allowed for a vegetation boom. Heavy rains in May 2018 were enough to stimulate plant growth for six months in the southern Arabian Peninsula.1 That duration of time is enough for two generations worth of locust growth. That’s about a 400-fold surge. This abundance of plant matter made it favorable for locusts to swarm and breed rapidly. The limiting factor for their growth, removed. Some of the egg pods that hatched may have been new but there were also dormant locust eggs laid in prior cycles that were kick started by the rain. The locusts, in their hopper stage (also known as nymphs), start to chow down on the available greenery and if not kept in check, will aggregate into gregarious swarms.5 Another side to the problem with the 2020 locust swarms is posed by the deputy director of India’s Locust Warning Organization, K.L. Gurjar: “…the attack is by very young locusts who fly for longer distances, at faster speeds, unlike adults in the past who were sluggish and not so fast.” 1, 9 

Long term climate change has been making more extreme Indian Ocean Dipole events common, meaning locust swarms could become more and more common in the future. The World Meteorological Organization has also expressed concerns over higher-than-average temperatures.10 This frequent occurrence would create even greater food insecurity. The FAO has stated that over 20 million in the East Africa region have faced severe food insecurity. 135 million already face starvation, with another 130 million more at risk according to the World Food Program. 17 million people in Yemen are already at risk of famine because of locust issues and conflicts. A Turkana pastoralist, in an interview with the Guardian, said that as these scarcities increase, there’s likely to be more resource-based conflict in grassy areas.5, 17  We must also consider the displacement effects of farm workers with ravaged fields. Labor opportunities are likely to be scarce and the economic pressure of events result in further hardships for those seeking relief and opportunity. In a word, locust swarms are just like those nematodes in that one Spongebob episode

As expected, the chance occurrences of these swarms makes it difficult for countries to prioritize and allocate resources towards the threat. Another consideration is that these swarms are meant to be caught early to be prevented. They start up in remote spots with minimal human supervision. As a result, locust propagation may occur without people knowing and hit a threshold that becomes too hard to manage and there’s a runaway effect. 

Thus, locust detection and prevention in its current form is largely a feet-on-the-ground game and the local governments in these areas aren’t always prepared to play it. Other global issues such as pandemics complicate the ability of these governments to respond after the fact and scale up an effective response. Senior locust forecasting officer of FAO, Keith Cressman and his team likens locust plagues to wildfires in his interview with Wired.1 The team can model and predict locust distribution a month in advance and coordinate efforts with the endangered countries to get pesticides ready, set up drones, and recruit people to kill locusts.1 Lockdowns and social distancing, coupled with the issue of strained supply chains are all free spaces on the locust propagation Bingo card. “Ultra-low volume” pesticides are the first line of attack on the budding locusts.5 These rely on physical contact with the locusts themselves in order to affect them. Thus, it’s not enough to just crop dust fields from a distance with them. While locust control teams have been granted essential service status, curfews limit their efficacy in places like Kenya. 

India has been scrambling to respond to the locust swarms, using drones to track the crop destroying insects. The spread has affected Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh states.8 Conflict zones such as the Middle East are further mired by the issue because coordinated control efforts are harder to put together, further increasing the danger of food insecurity. The fact that locusts are highly mobile presents another issue because unlike the hoppers, locusts can affect whole regions. A swarm in the Middle East, if not controlled could rain devastation in East Africa. Sure, a quick response in one location could help that one location but ultimately, it doesn’t offset the responsibility for locust control in the nearby regions. 

Keith Cressman: “For the last two years we have not seen any single break in the weather for desert locusts,” Cressman said. “It’s just been phenomenally favorable to them.”

Are There Any Tools to Detect Locust Swarms Early? 🕵️

Locusts are a bother when they start to move. However, some tools that have been developed and are being tested in order to help detect early signs of locust swarms. NOAA has retrofitted existing tech that tracks wildfire and volcano plumes into an app  for the FAO.10 The app is modeled after NOAA’s HYSPLIT dispersion model and utilizes wind pattern forecasts to track movements of the passive flying desert locust. The technology has been employed in the past to track the plumes from other large motions like wildfires or volcanic plumes. Scientists expect to upgrade functionality and reliability in the coming years because in its current form, there’s no way to “incorporate locust breeding patterns” according to NOAA lead scientist, Mark Cohen. The app is currently exclusive to FAO. However, the hope is that the tool will be an improvement over the prior method of identifying locust spreads, that is, via satellite monitoring and reports from people on the ground.10

Are Locusts Edible? 😋

Yes, locusts have been eaten in the past for many reasons. Marketplaces with heaps and heaps of dead locusts are common in those countries.6  They can be roasted, boiled, stir-fried, or dried for eating later. They taste like a mix between prawns, toasted sunflower seeds and chicken schnitzel. In terms of nutritional value, proteins comprise 62% of the dry weight of an adult desert locust. Locusts contain many other trace elements (Si, Cu, Fe, Na, K, Mg, Ti, Ni, P, and S).6, 14 

But Are Locusts Kosher? 🤔

While insects generally aren’t considered so, locusts are kosher.11 Unfortunately, you generally can’t really eat your way out of a locust invasion. Heavy insecticide use means that they could be contaminated. Tainted protein isn’t so appetizing when it comes down to it. Israel is one such place that faces this issue with converting dead locusts into a food source.

Another consideration is that harvesting locusts as a protein source is a bit unviable due to the climate conditions required for it. The linked Times of India article goes into further math as to the potential of breeding locusts as a food source.12 The math is based on the pricing 1.32 dollars per kilogram for chicken and extrapolates that to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of product. 

For the sake of being thorough, let’s work out the napkin math. An average locust weighs 2 grams and a swarm can range from 100,000 to 200,000 tons. That means that on the low end, we’re looking at 90,718,474 kg and on the high end, 181,436,948 kg. This means the total value ranges from $119,748,386 to $239,496,771.36 in USD. 

Locusts in Religious Texts ✝️ 🕉️

In the Time of India article and other local news reports, interest in the Bible increased as the locust swarms tore through the country. Questions like “Who ate locusts in the Bible?” spiked on the Google Trends search. The oft referenced passage about locusts is provided below. There was also mention of how ancient Sanskrit poetry mentions locust plagues but I couldn’t find any legitimate source for that.

And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.

Responses to Locust Swarms: Human Activity and Natural Predators 📌

A common sight amongst communities dealing with locust swarms includes locals making loud noises, banging on pots and pans and clanging other metal objects in strained cacophony to drive away the locusts. Actions include drumming on rooftops, and running into cars to jam their car honk to drive locusts away. Some whistle, some throw stones, and others light fires (reminiscent of prescribed burns) to smoke the locusts out.15, 9 

Locusts have many predators such as ducks, chickens, and other mammals. However, there aren’t any specific locust-exclusive feeders so their impact on locust populations in an outbreak is minimal. The problem lies with scale because the predators can’t scale up quickly enough to feast on the sudden increase in locusts and the result is a replenishing pot effect, where the predators are sated and the locusts continue to reign. There are some birds that do feed on high density locusts, however. 

Chinese Duck Armies? History repeats itself! 🦆🦆🦆

There are many ways to control locust populations but perhaps the most amusing one has to be China’s duck army. In 2020, it was claimed that at least 100,000 (not a typo) ducks were to be sent to Pakistan as part of a test of locust control. Lu Lizhi, a senior researcher with the Zhejiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences in a telephone interview with Bloomberg said “one duck is able to eat more than 200 locusts a day.”14 Chickens could eat up to 70 locusts a day, making them more suited for small scale plagues.11,16 However, considering the logistics of the operation, China Agricultural University professor, Zhang Long denied the reports.17 

In Pakistan, local farmers are being incentivized to capture, kill and turn locusts into chicken feed. The idea was thought up by Dr Muhammad Khurshid, a PhD in natural resources management and former civil servant in the Ministry of National Food Security and Research. He says the idea was modeled after a similar initiative in Yemen when it was dealing with locusts in 2019. According to Johar Ali, a biotechnologist, they found that “the best time to catch locusts was between 10pm and 8am.” The initiative appeared successful as 25 tonnes of locusts were reeled in in just four days. Mothers, fathers, and children alike were part of the effort. Manual hunting for locusts also reduces pesticide use. Since locusts have such a high protein composition, they could be used as an alternative to soybean exports which only comprises 30-45% protein content. Apparently, it’s also cost effective compared to soybeans. It takes .39 USD per kg (30 INR per kg) to dry and mill locusts while soybeans are .70 USD per kg.

To a lesser extent, fungi, bacteria, and viruses play a role in curbing locust numbers. The limit of their effect is largely due to the arid temperatures in which locusts aggregate in. However, Metarhizhium acridum is a fungal strain that can attack locusts…but how? It works because the fungus can survive in high temperatures. Its method of action is through breaching the locust’s cuticle and infecting the cell layers within it resulting in system wide problems.18, 19,20 This biopesticide was made by CSIRO and has been used since 2001.  According to the Australian government, there has been a precedent of bacterial infection leading to mass mortality of locusts. An infestation in the vegetation in New South Wales in Spring 2010 was determined to be the cause.

Are locusts good for anything?

According to the FAO, locusts have been used for healing rituals and they can be useful because of their nutritional value. In the Philippines, locals soak locusts in coconut oil and later apply the oil to wounds or sprains. Locusts also make for good feed for animals and fish.11 We also mentioned before how there were initiatives to hunt and capture locusts without using pesticides in order to use them for animal feed and as a human food source. 

Extra Note: When Australia was hit by swarms in 2004, they were re-branded “sky prawns” to encourage people to eat, or at least control, them.11

Research Directions

The scientific field has been making strides towards understanding locust development in order to better deal with them. For example, a 2015 review investigated epigenetic mechanisms in locusts. 21  Part of the effort was to determine if there were any epigenetic mechanisms that could result in the transition of locusts from solitarious to gregarious phases and vice versa. This is a field with great opportunity because the earliest epigenetic studies on locusts were in 1951 and nearly 60 years passed between that time and the next discovery. RNA interference could be used to knockdown genes in locusts. However, scientists have been unsuccessful in using RNA interference to completely knock out target genes.21  Epigenetic research remains a promising means of studying locust phase transition. The Australian plague locust for instance, can change phases rather abruptly between generations. The review cites a study done by (Guo et al. 2013) which indicates that serotonin injections into gregarious locust head cavities resulted in behavioral shifts towards becoming solitary. This suggests that serotonin is one factor that is involved in the locust phase change. Overall, locusts have only recently been subjected to improvements in genomics but newer studies could help shape our understanding at the molecular level.22 RNA-Seq analysis has made it possible to determine gene differences between the solitarious and gregarious locust phases. These external changes in locusts as they shift from phase to phase are due to changes in the central nervous system. Gene overexpression is common in the gregarious phase because they need to be more active, metabolize more food, and undergo physical changes. It makes sense for these genes to be overexpressed. Higher protein production along with greater molecule turnover would correlate with higher gene expression.22  Environmental factors such as stress and mechanosensory stimulation result in changes at the genomic level. Those gene expression changes mean that as the locust moves from one phase to the other, the products of that expression lead to the other observable physical changes we’ve discussed. 

The FAO has called the desert locust “the most destructive migratory pest in the world.”10  The issue with locust swarms clearly underscores the need for not only research into the problem using genetic and biological tools but also behavioral and carefully designed epigenetic studies. We also need to create initiatives to address climate change through policy and initiative. That way, individuals wouldn’t have to suffer from future locust swarms. 

Some questions that come to my mind after doing all this reading are related to locust brains. We know that they change size as they shift from phase to phase. However, how are those brains being used in one state versus the other? Imagine if gregarious locusts were actually forming a sort of mind network that links them together and allows them to stay relatively coordinated as they ride the winds into the countryside and farmlands. Network effects strike again!

If you enjoyed reading this and would like to explore more about locusts. Check out these interesting papers on how temperature affects them. Find those here and here

Author’s Note: As I added the final touches on this fairly big piece of writing, I realized something else. Cicadas exist. How could I forget? And yet, I had. Maybe I’ll cover that topic another day. They are eerily similar to locusts but have definitive differences. While locusts tend to be more of a problem in Africa/Middle East/South Asia regions, periodical cicadas are ready to descend on the United States’ East coast in 17 year cycles. Millions of them. Yeah, I know.

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Appendix

Mechanosensory: physical movement of sensory organs like hair results in a neural signal being sent to the brain. 

Incomplete/Indirect Metamorphosis: Basically they don’t go into a cocoon like butterflies do but they start out looking like really small adults and then grow proportionally bigger into adult size and develop other things that indicate maturity like wings in the case of the locust. 

Ovipositor:  Tube-like organ used by some animals for the laying of eggs.

If you’d like more words to be defined properly, let me know on Twitter! (@eashankotha)

How did he do it?

Inspired by Doctors Without Borders; drew outline of a locust, then drew a red marker layer that looked similar in color/form to the Doctors Without Borders swoosh. Erased from the marker layer to create the outline of the locust through the white space. Used Instagram to tack on the text, all caps to emulate a similar style to the presentation of the logo.

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