Mailbag #1

Welcome to a new Wait But Why thing: the mailbag.

I get a lot of email from readers asking great questions, and there’s just not time to give most of them a proper answer. Unless, of course, I do a full post dedicated to those questions. So that’s what this is.

When the last post went out, I asked our email subscribers to submit mailbag questions, and a lot of you responded. I can group the responses that came in into two categories:

1) Questions whose answers would be somewhere between one sentence and a few paragraphs

2) Questions whose answers would be somewhere between a few paragraphs and 30,000 words

The latter went into my Potential Future Posts List. The former were perfect for the mailbag.

For this mailbag, I started with 46 questions and saved the rest for future mailbags. Moving forward, you can submit a mailbag question anytime to [email protected].

Okay let’s jump in—


Smooth or crunchy peanut butter?James T. (Adelaide, Australia)

Smooth. I have a jar of peanut butter and sometimes I take a big spoon of it and eat it, and the next 45 seconds of my life is chaotic and upsetting. Crunchy adds another factor on top of that situation, which is the last thing I need.


What do you think about The Martian? Do you like the book or movie better? Scott R. (Richmond, VA)

Book for sure. The movie was solid and enjoyable, but kind of just another pretty good movie. The book was special. It was one giant thought experiment that explored, “What would happen if a super-smart astronaut got stranded on Mars?” and you got the answer to the experiment told through the detailed, inner thoughts of the astronaut. I loved how many technical explanations there were in the book as Watney puzzled his way through problems, and the movie lost 90% of that aspect. In fairness, I read the book first and had no idea what was gonna happen, and I watched the movie without that suspense, so I’m not a fully fair judge.


What do you believe that not many other people do? (i.e., what are some of your unpopular opinions?)Jeremiah O. (New York, NY)

Saying you’re purely pro-life or purely pro-choice are both inane, for different reasons. A post on this is high up in the queue, so not gonna expand here. But that’s what I think.

Being inside is better than being outside in not all but most cases.

The longer the plane ride, the better. Plane rides are the best—as long as I don’t have to work or have to sleep.

Great music without lyrics is better than great music with lyrics.

Black licorice is delicious.

Chocolate is a bad flavor of ice cream.

Animated TV or movies are more fun to watch than real people TV or movies.

Washing your hair every day is a silly thing to do.

Ordering fish in a restaurant is for people who don’t care about happiness.


Would you call yourself a transhumanist? Saurabh S. (New Delhi, India)

I’m not entirely sure what a transhumanist is. Hold on.

Okay Wikipedia says it’s this:

Transhumanism is an international and intellectual movement that aims to transform the human condition by developing and creating widely available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. Transhumanist thinkers study the potential benefits and dangers of emerging technologies that could overcome fundamental human limitations, as well as the ethics of using such technologies. The most common thesis is that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into different beings with abilities so greatly expanded from the natural condition as to merit the label of posthuman beings.

Uh, yeah, definitely. The objectives of transhumanism strike me as the kind of thing a lot of people think is wrong or distasteful or unnatural…until it becomes commonplace. And then people can’t imagine what life was like before and would never want to go back.

I’m always in favor of getting rid of what’s “natural” for something that’s better. Sleeping in caves is natural, and it’s really great that we found a better way. Riding horses is how humans got around for a long time, and driving cars is a huge upgrade for both the human and the horse. I’m sure people thought the concept of the organ transplant was terribly unnatural before the technology became possible, and now they don’t. So yeah, let’s go for it. I’m not at all attached to the biological body I was born with if we can find a better way.

That said, at some point you start running into the question “what makes you you?” I’ll upgrade any part of my existence in any way available until it gets to the point where doing so kills me by making me not me anymore. If science can replace my brain with a synthetic brain containing the identical data as my own, with the advantage that it’ll never age, it sounds great—unless I suspect that the new me seems like me and acts like me but I don’t actually have access to that consciousness. When an upgrade gets to the point where it’s essentially creating a synthetic clone of me to take my place in the world—that’s right where my transhumanism ends. The exception might be if I was going to die either way and creating the upgraded no-longer-me clone me can serve people on Earth somehow, like someone creating a clone of themselves so their family doesn’t have to lose them.

We don’t know when an upgrade causes you to cease to exist because there’s no clear answer to what makes you you. But we’re a long way from crossing that bridge, so for now, I’m pro-transhumanism.


Will you ever finish up the presidents series?
Jennifer R. (Davis, CA)
– Danielle P. (Arlington, VA)
Emily B. (Arlington, VA)
Ron G. (San Marcos, CA)
Claire L. (Cape Cod, MA)

I know, I know, and I haven’t forgotten about it. The presidents series will be completed, probably with two more parts, but I don’t have a specific timeline yet.


Do you know how to code? Or are you planning to learn it?Dawid P. (Sufczyn, Poland)

No. But I do know BC Calculus, thank god, because the American public school curriculum was last updated in 1820.

Part of me thinks it’s a no-brainer time investment to learn to code, but part of me also wonders if we might be in a phase of time when it’s an important skill to have, but then that phase ends. There was a time when it was important for computer people to know how to actually use 1’s and 0’s and now there’s no need for that, so maybe people who are being born now will never need to learn how to code? I’d prefer that narrative, because it would mean A) it excuses me from having to deal with learning how to code, and B) I only made a dramatic two-decade mistake by not learning how to code in college and not a lifelong one.

I should probably learn how to code.


Why did you decide to buy a tortoise? Samantha K. (Singapore)

In 2005, I went to the pet store to get a fighter fish because why not have a little screensaver on your desk. When I got there, I walked by a glass terrarium with a golf-ball-sized tortoise in it. I asked to hold him immediately, lifting him up by pinching his shell between my thumb and index finger. His four legs moved back and forth as he tried to figure out why he was suddenly levitating in mid-air. And the decision was done.

11 years later, Winston and I live happily together. As I type this, he (now the size of a football) is moseying by me, going about his business, living his life.

I’m not really sure why everyone doesn’t own a tortoise. They’re hilarious entities, they’re unthinkably cute, they’re unbelievably chill and require very little from you, they’re a great party trick when you have friends over, and they won’t expire until your grandkids are in their 80s.

I mean:


What would you do if you could meet antimatter Tim? Treyvon C. (Houston, TX)

Thanks, Treyvon, for sending me on an hour spiral reading about antimatter and what happens when you combine it with matter.

Here’s the deal. Antimatter is matter made up of antiparticles, which are like normal particles except with the opposite charge—negatively charged protons, positively charged electrons, etc.

Antimatter occurs very rarely in nature and is incredibly hard to produce—so hard that in 1999, NASA estimated that the going rate for antimatter was about $62.5 trillion per gram. A later estimate in 2006 brought the price down to only $25 billion a gram nbd.

I weigh about 160 lbs or about 73 kg. So at the cheapest, anti-matter Tim would be worth about $1,825,000,000,000,000 and would be getting mugged constantly.

But if he managed to make it intact to a meeting with me, it would be fun to meet him until we shook hands and the Earth blew up.

Here’s the problem: when matter and antimatter are put together, both of them are annihilated and a lot of energy is released. How much energy? E = mc2 much. That example—a gram of antimatter and a gram of matter colliding—comes out like this:

E = mc2

Mass = 2 grams in this case, and c = the speed of light in meters/second = about 300,000,000 m/s, so:

E = (.002 kg)(300,000,000)2

E = 1.8 x 1014 joules

1 kg of TNT releases 4,184,000 joules of energy. So our gram of antimatter collision produces an explosion equivalent to blowing up about 43 million kg of TNT.

= 43,000 tons of TNT
= 43 kilotons of TNT
= an explosion about three times bigger than the Hiroshima bomb

And that’s a gram of antimatter.

Back to my hangout with antimatter Tim. He and I each weigh about 73,000 grams, so our handshake would be unpleasant for both of us, blowing us both up in an explosion that releases the same energy as 3.1 million kilotons, or 3,100 megatons of TNT. (A megaton = a million tons = a billion kgs)

The density of TNT is 1.654 g/cm3. So a kg of TNT would be about the size of a grapefruit, a ton of TNT would be a little smaller than a car, a kiloton of TNT would be the size of a house, and my handshake with antimatter Tim would be like blowing up a cube of TNT with a side of 1.2 km. Very similar, it turns out, to what I once figured out was the size of the building needed to hold all the world’s humans:

TNT cube 2

It wouldn’t quite blow up the Earth, but with an explosion 200,000 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb, me meeting antimatter Tim would be bad for everybody.


Do you have any insights as to how one finds their calling?Akshat V. (Bangalore, India)

Say two people want to find the love of their life, Person A and Person B.

Person A never goes on dates, opting instead to sit alone debating in her head about who the exact kind of person is she will fall in love with. She scours online profiles, but never contacts anyone. Instead, her plan is to wait until she comes across the profile so perfect for her that she’ll know she’s found The One. Then and only then will she reach out to that person for a date.

Person B goes on a lot of dates, constantly meeting new people and keeping an open mind, because she knows she probably doesn’t know either herself or the type of match that makes sense for her as well as she thinks she does.

Who’s more likely to find the love of their life?


Can you suggest [legal] ways to experience Whoa moments? Tóth B.

Psychedelic methods aside, I’d say this:

The best way not to experience a whoa moment is to live your days exactly how you normally do. You know how when you brush your teeth, you can think about something totally different and it doesn’t affect your ability to brush? Because it’s all being done by your subconscious? Well living your normal routine day is kind of like that—your brain is mostly on autopilot, and you’re living largely in an unconscious and comfortable groove.

To bring heightened clarity and new epiphanies into your life, try getting out of that unconscious groove by forcing conscious thought about things our consciousness doesn’t usually bother with because they’re not important for our daily tasks. I did this recently when I found myself with 15 minutes to kill on a street corner before meeting someone there. Instead of doing what I’d normally do—burying myself in my phone to pass the time—I decided to get into “conscious mode.” I looked up and around me at the architecture, I looked at little details on the sidewalk and the steps of a nearby building, I looked down at my feet and realized it was funny that I was supporting myself vertically on two sticks. And suddenly, everything was weird, and I was having a great time. It was hilarious watching all these people bustling around, all of them on their own two sticks, all of them stuck to the side of a floating rock in space, and none of them thinking about that. Full whoa moment.

But the people I was watching weren’t thinking about being stuck to the side of a rock floating in a huge void—they were completely lost in the unconscious groove we all spend most of our time in.

A whoa moment happens when your conscious mind takes a step back and glimpses reality for a second, which we all have the power to do—we just have to remember to think about it.


Have you ever been to Burning Man? If so, how was your experience? If not, why not?Sam B. (Kansas City, MO)

Funny you ask. I’m going this year for the first time—at least that’s the plan (I’ve failed so far at getting tickets). I’ve heard about Burning Man a lot, but it always struck me as something very not me-ish to go to. Without really knowing what Burning Man is, I’ve always just pictured a bunch of people standing in the 120º desert acting exactly like this woman, except with no stage or music nearby. And what the hell am I gonna do in that situation. Also very unclear why that video has so many views.

But over the past few years, I’ve heard so many people say so many fascinating things about it that I’ve become enticed enough to give it a try. Any advice from Burning Man veterans is welcome.


What kind of kid were you?Mia (Uppsala, Sweden)

I said a lot of words. I actually made what I now realize was the world’s first podcast in 1987 when I was five. I had this little tape-player/recorder and I’d regularly put a blank tape in and press record and say some shit for a half hour. Then I’d write “Tim’s Performance” on the tape and give it to my parents to enjoy. At one point, I suspected they were lying about actually listening to my musings, so I tested them by waiting until about 20 minutes into one of my recording sessions and then saying, “The secret number is 128. I’m going to ask you what the secret number is later, and remember, it’s 128.” I later asked my parents what the secret number was and they didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about. My podcast was not engaging.


What is one thing that you don’t procrastinate about and why do you think that is?Richard R. (Fort Lauderdale, FL)

I had to think about this for an upsettingly long time to come up with an answer. What I finally came up with is eating my gummy vitamins each day.


What’s a recent embarrassing YouTube spiral you’ve gone down? – Jackie V. (Perth, Australia)

this > this > this > this > this > this


Has your sense of life purpose changed with a newfound look on human mortality? If so, how? If not, why?Will H. (Berkeley, CA)

For those unacquainted, I believe Will is referring to the fact that I started Wait But Why 100% sure I was going to die somewhere between 2013 and 2100, and then I wrote posts like the Fermi post and the AI post and the Truthism post and the Cryonics post and now I have no idea what the fuck is going on. Suddenly, the prospect of living till I’m an ultra-cranky 1,280-year-old seems perfectly plausible.

I’m not sure my life purpose has changed because I’m not sure I had a life purpose in mind to begin with. But it’s definitely put me in a better mood about things. An atheist is already at rock bottom when it comes to their personal long-term outlook, so realizing that the world of 2050 might be unrecognizable to us, with totally different rules, is a delightful development.


Do you have any recurring nightmares? – Daniel J. (Cape Town, South Africa)

Yes. About really big numbers. It’s me somewhere, in the shit, while some huge booming voice is telling me I have to do stuff involving huge numbers like a billion and a trillion. It goes all the way back to when I was a kid. I just got the shivers writing this.


What are your MBTI results?
As one of the many (I’m assuming here) people out there who read snippets of your posts to an unreceptive spouse, I’m wondering if there are clusters of Myers & Briggs personality types that find your writing particularly appealing. So, I would really enjoy the following: (1) Your MBTI results, (2) The results of a survey of your email subscribers, and (3) Your thoughts on the whole thing.Preston S. (Oklahoma City, OK)

For those unacquainted, Myers Briggs is a famous personality test that labels everyone with a four-letter code. It judges personalities on a set of four binary criteria. As explained by the Myers Briggs website:

Favorite world: Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).

Information: Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning? This is called Sensing (S) or Intuition (N).

Decisions: When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances? This is called Thinking (T) or Feeling (F).

Structure: In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options? This is called Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).

So one person might be an ENFP while another person might be an ISFJ, and so on. Myers Briggs also lays out the typical characteristics of each of the 16 possible types here.

The whole thing seems a little simplistic to me, given how complicated and multi-dimensional humans are. But it’s still fun.

When I took the test, I got an INTP. I was close to the I/E border and the S/N border, while very strongly a T and a P.

Preston also asked about doing a survey of email subscribers. Let’s just put a survey here. We’ll publish the results on the WBW Facebook page.

[Update: MBTI Survey Results]


Do you have any favorite interesting/educational YouTube channels to watch? Christopher D. (New Haven, CT)

There are so many good ones – it’s incredible how easy it is today to have someone teach you stuff in an entertaining way for free while you’re sitting on the couch. Six favorites:

CGP Grey

Would love to hear about others in the comments.


What are your thoughts on routine infant circumcision, beneficial procedure or human rights violation? Beau S. (Brisbane, Australia)

If I take a step back and look at this from first principles, I start by looking up whether the procedure is important for health reasons. When I find out the answer is probably not, it becomes pretty clear that circumcision is nothing other than a primitive, religious practice of genital mutilation that for some reason is common today. It makes no sense, and once we all stop doing it, it’ll seem like an absurd custom of the past. I had friends recently go through this decision with their new baby, and every argument went against circumcision except one: not circumcising their son would make him different than most of the other guys in his world in a part of life where being different can be mortifying, especially as either a little kid being made fun of by his friends or an already-sexually-insecure teenager. They went with circumcision. And I get it. But it makes no sense, aside from the fact that we’re all doing it (at least in the US). Can we just all agree to stop it with new babies?


Do you like waffles? Matt V. (Bartonsville, PA)

I’ve never understood waffles / pancakes / french toast people. A few bites of that on the side, sure, but if I’m hungry at a breakfast restaurant, I want something that involves salt and tabasco sauce. Ordering those sweet things for breakfast seems to me like ordering cake for dinner.


What are some of your favorite movies, and what do you think they say about you?Joe S.

As I thought about the answer to this question, I realized that the movies I’ve liked the absolute most in my life were movies made for 7-10-year olds when I was 7-10. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Home Alone, The Princess Bride, Back to the Future, etc. Are those movies all incredible, or does this just always happen with whatever happened to be the best movies of your childhood? Not really sure.

For movies I’ve seen from the age of 10 onwards, I’ll give some awards:

Most obvious answer that’s also just really good though: The Shawshank Redemption (Runners-up: Godfather 1/2, Braveheart)

Less obvious answer that should be more obvious and I’m not sure why it’s not everyone’s favorite movie: Shutter Island

Movie that is considered good but I probably liked it more than most people cause it was exactly my type of fun plot: Memento

Movie that’s pretty random to put on this list but I just really liked it: About Schmidt

Movie I thought was only pretty good but then it stuck with me way more than I realized it would and sometimes makes me wonder if I’m Truman and this thing is happening to me and having me seeing The Truman Show was a really intense, fun part of the plot for everyone watching: The Truman Show

Most fun movie-watching experience even though I wouldn’t really call it a great movie: Ocean’s 11 (Runner-up: Limitless)

Movie whose first 70% makes this list but not the last 30% because that part sucked: Minority Report

Movie that I loved and took fully seriously and then saw again with people who were laughing the whole time and realized it was actually a comedy: Being John Malkovich. (Runner-up: American Psycho)

Movie that’s not considered very good but I actually think it was great: The Invention of Lying

Movie that might have been great but also it might have been terrible and I don’t know because I don’t know what the fuck happened: Mulholland Drive

Documentary that was a terrible experience to watch the entire time but also the best documentary I’ve ever seen: Dear Zachary

Documentary that was almost as good and it wasn’t a nightmare to watch: March of the Penguins

Documentary that’s comforting as fuck to watch and I’ve seen it three times and there will be more viewings in the future: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Movie that I think about every time I see a person yelling things to no one on the street: Requiem for a Dream

Movie that was incredibly good and also, kill me: Life is Beautiful

Movie that is objectively pretty great but it also kind of annoys me how “cool” it is: Every Quentin Tarantino movie (Runner-up: Every Stanley Kubrik movie)

Movie that ruined my happiness permanently: The Ring

Movie that’s embarrassing to put on this list but sorry it was just really good: Love Actually. (Runner-up: Titanic)

Worst movie I’ve ever seen: American Wedding. (Runner-up: From Hell. And Dodgeball. And Transformers 2. And Next Friday.)

One thing about this list is there are very few comedies. It’s not that I never like comedies—I just think comedy movies are rarely that funny. I can’t think of many movies that can equal the funniness of the funniest TV shows—shows like The Office (UK), Curb, It’s Always Sunny, Family Guy, etc.

As for what these say about me? I don’t really know—that’s for Joe to decide.


Lately I’ve been stumbling into the most frustrating arguments about a ridiculous topic: “The Earth is Flat.”
Well, that’s what a lot of people have been trying to tell me lately and I haven’t been able to convince any of them of the truth. I feel like you would be the best person to break it down and explain how it is just not possible, in a way that they would understand. Anyway, just a request, if you can’t convince people the earth is a globe then no one can. It may sound funny but unfortunately I’m being serious.
– Kennard M. (Antioch, CA)

Far more interesting than any answer I can give is the specifics of the arguments you’ve been hearing. Please expand in the comments.


What’s your wpm? Kevin B. (Riverside, CA)

I didn’t know the answer to this, so I tested myself here. On my first try I clocked in at 84 words per minute. On the second try I did 92. And on the third try I did 98. Pleased.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 2.01.39 PM

Then it was ruined when I sent it to Alicia (Wait But Why’s Manager of Lots of Things) to try and she got 147 like a psycho.

Anyway, the site has you type out famous quotes, and an unexpected side benefit of doing this was realizing at one point that I was speed-typing Montesquieu summing up life:

If you only wished to be happy, this could be easily accomplished; but we wish to be happier than other people, and this is always difficult, for we believe others to be happier than they are.


Has your curiosity ever been a problem for you?Mariam C. (Paris, France)

My most prominent emotion when traveling in other countries (or in parts of the US I’m not used to) is curiosity. That’s part of why I often pick destinations that I don’t know much about or that seem super different from my world.

The most interesting experiences happen when I befriend locals, which usually allows me to get a much deeper glimpse into what life is like in that place than I ever could as a voyeuring tourist. I’ve gotten myself invited into homes, weddings, social events, factories, etc.—and it’s usually a great experience.


On one of my solo trips, I was out in the Rio nightlife district of Lapa and met two extraordinarily friendly dudes. They really liked me, so much that they invited me to a nearby house party.

A random Brazilian house party! I had no idea what a Brazilian house party was like, and I was super excited to find out. Luckily for me, I had found two guys who just really like befriending random foreign dudes and bringing them to parties.

Then we went to the party, which turned out to be us standing on a silent street a few blocks away from the crowded area while they forcefully took my things and ran away. Interesting party, but they had a better time than I did.

Hilariously, I had taken a selfie with them earlier in the night when we were all still BFFs. It was on a disposable camera, and that was one of the things they decided not to bother taking, so I still have the picture.


Kind of funny looking at their faces and knowing now that the smiles were, “Oh god yes I think this guy’s actually gonna come with us!”

One other example that came to mind is the time I was about 12 and got curious about what would happen if I put my hamster, Waddles Urban, up my dad’s t-shirt when he was lying on his back on the couch sleeping. It was a very bad experience for both my dad and Waddles and a terrific one for me—kind of the reverse of the Brazil incident.


Would anything ever change your opinion about the existence of God? Would you discount it as a psychological error or hallucination? Could anything ever prove the existence of God to you?Michael S.

Why don’t you believe in God?Luis C. (Dallas, TX)

How can you be 100% sure that there isn’t something deeper to life than the material realm?Noli S. (Prishtina, Kosovo)

When it comes to everything written in the Bible, Quran, Torah, Vedas, Guru Granth Sahib, and all the rest, I’m atheist for the same reason I’m atheist about Greek Myths when I read them—they were written by people a long time ago who knew less than we do about the world, not more. No, lightning isn’t caused by Zeus throwing lightning bolts, it’s caused by the interaction of oppositely-charged particles in heavy clouds. And no, ancient rocks and fossils and mountains and canyons weren’t created by a great flood 6,000 years ago, they were created by a bunch of other stuff that happened over the past five billion years—stuff that we now understand. So when it comes to the various gods described in the world’s religions—yes, I’m as atheist as can be. With those gods, the question isn’t “Why don’t I believe in God?” it’s “Why would I believe in God?”

That said, when it comes to the question, “Is there a higher force or higher being or grand creator of some kind?” I’m entirely agnostic. We don’t even know if we’re alone in the universe or not—as far as we know, there are trillions of superintelligent civilizations out there, with capabilities we couldn’t understand even if they tried to explain it to us (could you explain human capabilities to a chicken?). Could one of them have created life on Earth in some lab? Sure, why not?

Could it be that it’s common for higher civilizations to create simulations, and if so, wouldn’t that mean that they might create trillions upon trillions of them, and if so, wouldn’t that mean that there are far more simulation civilizations in existence than real ones, and if so, wouldn’t that mean that just by the percentages, it’s far more likely that we’re one of the simulated ones than one of the real ones? Uh…I guess yeah?1

We don’t even know what the universe is. It might be one of hundreds or millions or an infinite number of universes, or it might be the only thing there is. It might be a blip of energy floating around in one of the quarks inside one of the atoms that makes up the toenail of a red and blue baby pig bathing himself in a five-dimensional jelly swamp, and it comes into and out of existence in a nanosecond of the piglet’s life since every second in his world is 1010925 years for us. That literally might be what’s happening. It’s as likely as anything else you can come up with.

So it’s outrageous to declare anything about the origin of life, the existence of one or more higher beings, or what our place is in all of this other than “I don’t know.” Agnostic.

And when any fellow human—in 2016 or in 100 A.D.—declares that he knows the deal with God, including a bunch of details, I immediately say “Nope.”

I think that answers Luis and Noli. As for Michael—the answer is yes. I know what I know because of the information I have. If new information presents itself to me, it might change what I believe. But even if some rad supernatural shit happened like some woman levitated on the sidewalk when I walked by and then suddenly went shooting upwards through the clouds, I’d be quicker to assume that it was the work of a biological or AI being from another part of the universe, or that we were in a simulation and the beings running it got bored and decided to fuck with me, than I would be to take what I saw as evidence that one of the Earthly religions was true.


Would you rather be attacked by 100 duck-sized horses or 1 horse-sized duck? Kyle P. (Cheshire, CT)

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this.

I’d go for the 100 little horses. Here’s why:

The duck would be terrifying. Have you seen how ducks act when you throw a piece of bread in the water? They turn into ravenous psychos. They use their wings, beaks, feet, and anything else they can to violently knock the other ducks out of the way. Then they lunge at the bread with their big hard duck beak. Now imagine a huge duck and you’re the bread. You’re done. That cock will charge at you and try to bite your head off. And you can’t run away—because it can fly. And its beak is still narrow enough that if you try to hide somewhere it can probably wedge its beak in there and pull you out. You’re done. It’s over.

The horses would be bad. But not as bad as the duck. Angry horses are pretty angry. And their bite could probably take a chunk out of your leg. Or maybe they’d kick you with their hind legs, which would give you painful little ankle bruises. All of that would be painful, but not lethal. Lethal happens when you’re frantically kicking them one by one and you accidentally fall over. Falling over would be a huge disaster with the little horses. They’d be biting your neck open and kicking you in the crotch and jumping up on your stomach. Done. But unlike with the duck, you could probably escape the horses. You could just climb up on a bench and now what? They’re screwed. They can charge the bench and jump up on their hind legs all they want, but you’re a full foot above their highest jump, and they can’t climb or fly, so you can just lay down and nap on the bench while they tire themselves out. Then when you wake up, you can carefully grab them one at a time and bring it up to the bench and use its tail to tie its back legs together, neutralizing that horse. It would take a while, but eventually they’d all be neutralized, hobbling around on the ground, in the shit with their leg situation, and you could just step over them and walk away.


Why does the atmosphere of the earth circle around the earth? We circle with the earth because we are attached to the ground, but the atmosphere isn’t attached to the ground so why does it circle around with the planet?Sinan A. (Baghdad, Iraq)

You say “we circle the earth because we are attached to the ground,” but what does “attached” mean? What it really means is there’s friction between our bodies and the surface of the earth that “pulls” our bodies. The oceans are less “attached” to the ground than a solid human body, but oceans rotate with the earth too, because there’s friction between the water molecules and the ocean floor. There’s less friction between the atmosphere and Earth’s surface than there is in the case of solid or liquid matter on the surface, but there’s still friction—which affects the atmosphere enough to pull it, too, along with Earth’s rotation.

But in all of these cases, friction is only why these things initially began to rotate along with the earth. Once something is up to full Earth rotational speed, the reason the atmosphere or anything else continues to rotate with the earth is inertia—an object in motion stays in motion. If the earth suddenly and instantly reversed rotational direction, there would be utter chaos on the surface, and everything would go flying. We, the oceans, and the atmosphere would all still carry the normal rotational velocity and the earth no longer would—kind of like when a moving car slams on the breaks and everything in the car lunges forward. But once the chaos settled down, the rotational velocity of all things on Earth’s surface would eventually be slowed down and reversed to match Earth’s new spin—because of friction. You’d be dead though.


Which are scarier – horror movies about ghosts or serial killers? – Layla P. (Mexico City, Mexico)

Ghosts 100%. Serial killer movies make me edgy as fuck when I leave the theater and I’m walking down the street and there are strangers all around. But ghost movies take a shit in a much deeper part of my soul, and suddenly everything in my apartment—a blank white wall, a picture in a frame, a lamp on my nightstand—is terrifying.


If you could pick one future event that you could witness first hand, what would it be?Brian G. (Cambridge, UK)

On the heels of the recent cryonics post, I might pick the first time a vitrified person is successfully and fully revived.


How do you be a good person? Katerena K. (Seattle, WA)

This warrants a 12,000-word post, but for now, I’ll start with one idea:

I think a great way to be a good person is to get in the habit of consciously thinking about the fact that almost every stranger, co-worker, friend, acquaintance, fling, customer service representative, driver, waiter, customer, client, neighbor, and person on the internet you come across:

  • Has a family who loves them and vice versa
  • Has hopes and dreams and regrets and frustrations
  • Has as many thoughts going through their head at all times as you do
  • Is dealing with random health problems, trying to make ends meet financially, and is probably tired
  • Might be supporting one or more other human beings
  • Might be just a little sad all the time about a tragedy in their past
  • Might be the most important person in someone else’s life
  • Is just trying to figure out how to be happy

i.e. They’re a full human just like you.

Remembering that will make you kinder and more empathetic.


What kind of thermos is your favorite thermos? Is it a Thermos-brand thermos? What color is it? How old is it?Maxfield M. (Sacramento, CA)

My sister had a blanket she was obsessed with as a toddler that she inexplicably called her Ninee (like “night” without the t and then “knee”). If you tried to take her Ninee away from her she flipped her shit. It was a critical part of her being.

My thermos is my Ninee. My ideal way to drink coffee is to slowly have one 16-ounce cup of black coffee over a four-hour span. Coffee in an open mug stays hot for like eight minutes. In a covered, paper take-out cup, maybe 15 minutes. Both totally unacceptable. I suffered for my whole life with this issue until I realized thermoses existed a few years ago. I got this one and it solved all my problems, with the added benefit of it being closable, so I can pop a full thermos in my bag or put it on the floor on an airplane (upright in my shoe).

Because I’m a child, I lose my thermos by leaving it somewhere about twice a year on average, but at $22, it’s only a little devastating every time it happens.

I’ve also recently gotten into the small S’well thermos, which I use when I don’t have my bag because unlike my normal one, it fits in my jeans pocket.


What is happiness?Frank P. (Tokyo, Japan)

Reality minus expectations.

I have a much longer answer, but saving it for a post.


What do you think about hypnotherapy?
A relative of mine who is a very critical thinker recently became a “qualified hypnotherapist” which made me ponder how credible this field is. How does it work? Is it effective? And so on… Matt B. (Leicester, UK)

I’m pretty sure those absurd stage hypnosis charades with a bunch of “hypnotized” people barking like a dog or having an orgasm or forgetting the number two on stage in front of a laughing crowd have to be some combo of people enjoying attention, peer pressure, and some element of placebo effect. No way that can be real.

But serious, one-on-one hypnotherapy? Sure, why not? The brain is weird, so why wouldn’t a trance-like state be able to be induced? From what I’ve read, hypnosis is just an extension of the phenomenon of a person getting so wrapped up in a thought that when someone calls their name, they don’t even hear it. That kind of hypnosis seems to be real, though it works on some people better than others and for some not at all. The problem for the credibility of hypnosis is all the fictional, cartoony hypnosis we’ve seen in movies, where the person is a robot who will do whatever the hypnotist says—pretty sure it doesn’t work like that.

I have a friend who’s been doing a type of hypnosis called EMDR with his therapist and claims that while doing so, a memory of himself breastfeeding flashed in his consciousness for a second. Nahhh, right? Or could it be possible?


In what other aspects of your life do you apply the rationale you use to avoid a Vegan/Vegetarian lifestyle? (i.e. “This action/choice is indefensible but I’ll do it anyway since it’s 1. enjoyable, and 2. socially permissible.”) Ndi S. (New York, NY)

If I’m understanding correctly, the question is: “You’ve admitted that despite knowing how wrong it is to support the torture and brutal slaughter of helpless animals, you do it anyway because you’re kind of a dick. Where else in your life are you kind of a dick in a similar way?”

Good question. Let’s see…

I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro made in a Chinese factory of nightmares and suicide.

I buy plastic things a lot and only recycle them if it’s easy.

I’m wearing clothes most likely sewn by a melancholy 11-year-old somewhere far away in “Let’s just not think about that!” land.

I sometimes leave the water running while I’m brushing my teeth even though lack of clean water is destroying like 50% of the world’s happiness.

I hire unpaid interns sometimes.

I walk by 15 homeless people a day and give them money only when I have change in my pocket and then walk into a coffee shop and tip the barista a dollar or two even though they definitely have a bed.

If I walk by someone’s house and a mean-looking dog is in the yard behind a fence, I bark at him to get him worked up because it’s funny and he doesn’t know how to open the gate.

I leave my phone on LTE until the plane gets too high to get a signal.

I sneak down to better seats at the Red Sox game.

I sometimes sign Andrew up for the mailing lists of fortune tellers and other mystics when I have a few minutes to kill on the internet.

I cohabitate with a tortoise in a small apartment even though he belongs in the desert.

Thanks Ndi.


How do you choose what to work on for WBW? When you run out of ideas, how do you plan to source new ideas? Ricky Y. (San Francisco, CA)

One thing that will never be a problem for me is a shortage of post topics. I currently have a 116-page Word document full of topics, thoughts, questions, and random brainstorms I want to make into posts. Whenever I’m in an interesting conversation, or think of a funny observation, or find myself with an intriguing question, I write it in the doc. And if you just get in that habit, the potential-post-topic doc becomes long pretty quickly. To make it into the doc, a topic generally has to satisfy at least one of these:

  • It’s something I think people know about and hear about but generally don’t understand
  • It’s something about life we all notice subconsciously but we don’t usually think about it or put it into words
  • It’s something that many of us are feeling or thinking secretly but no one is saying
  • It’s something important that we don’t think about very intelligently because we don’t have a useful framework in our heads, or an important psychological concept that we should have a concrete label for but don’t
  • It’s something I come across that blows my mind and I know it’ll blow readers’ minds too

When it’s time to start a new post, I scan down the big doc and pick something that excites me at that time. I get really exhausted by a topic by the time I’m done with it, so I try to mix things up—if the last post was really researchy, the next one might be more brainstormy, or if the last topic was heavy, I might pick something lighter next.


What Chrome extensions do you use? – Kyle

Pocket – to save articles I want to read later or offline URL shortener

The Great Suspender – freezes tabs I have open but haven’t used in a while which goes a long way to reduce Chrome’s insane memory burden.

Tabs Outliner – So when Chrome crashes or I lose my tabs for any other reason I can easily restore them.

Momentum – Makes my day 0.5% better every day so why not.

Google Calendar

Honey – finds discount codes

Another Chrome thing I did once which was very worth the time: I put the 30 or so sites I go to most in the bookmarks bar, but I left each with a blank name, so the bookmarks bar is just a big line of logos. This makes basically every site I ever go to just a button click.


What do I do if I always feel stupid?
There are so many awesome things in our world, e.g. gravitational astronomy, physics of superconducters, neuroscience, genetics, AI, space exploration, math problems, WBW posts. Well, you get it. Much more than an average person could ever learn, I guess. Therefore my question is: what do I do if I always feel stupid? Like, really, always. Katie S. (Russia)

Stupid is when you don’t know that much about anything and you feel like everyone else does. The good news is, everyone else doesn’t. At all. The world is full of exciting, complex things that almost no one understands. Once you realize this, all the stuff you don’t know isn’t upsetting, it’s exciting.

It’s like reading. I’ve read a bunch of good books, but there are 1,000 times as many that I haven’t read. If I believed that most people had read most books and for some reason I had not, I’d feel embarrassingly not-well-read. But because I know that most people haven’t read most books, I can take my own situation out of the thought process and just enjoy the fact that I’ll never run out of good new books to read.

So even though people sometimes present themselves as more knowledgeable about more things than they really are, remember that really, most people don’t know much about anything, and try to get excited about the fact that with every year of your life that goes by, you’ll know more and more and more.

And remember, to actually learn about a topic you don’t get, you have to build a tree trunk foundation of understanding before you can start tacking onto that foundation by adding on branches and leaves (like news articles about recent developments). The thing that makes people feel stupid is trying to absorb branches and leaves when they don’t yet have a tree trunk, so it always goes in one ear and out the other and you feel like it’s hopeless for you to ever grasp the topic—but it’s not.


Do you cook much? If so, what is your favorite cookbook (or chef, cooking website, etc)? Al T. (Charlottesville, VA)

Cooking some elaborate thing using a recipe is for me like reading fiction—when I do it, I thoroughly enjoy it, but I do it like once a year. Mostly, I keep it to things like stir frying vegetables and rice, which is an excuse to have a condiment/spices party.

As for cookbooks, I recently got J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s The Food Lab, which is delightful so far. Not a big chef fanboy person, although I had a phase with Bobby Flay’s Boy Meets Grill show at one point and I’m pretty infatuated with how cocky and rad Danny Bowien is (the Mission Chinese guy).

My greatest culinary passion is whichever 15 hot sauces I happen to have in my fridge at any given time. Currently:



How does wind work? What is the mechanism behind wind happening? Why does it happen? Steven H. (Cape Girardeau, MO)

I’ll need to read about how weather works for 30 hours before I can give a proper answer to this question, but I’ll take a crack.

The key to wind is air pressure. Forget the atmosphere for a second and take a breath in. What happens? Air from outside your body rushes into your body. Now exhale—and air rushes back out. What’s happening is that the air outside your body is staying at the same pressure level, but when you inhale, you’re increasing the volume in your lungs, which lowers the air molecules / volume ratio in your lungs, which lowers the air pressure in your lungs. Air always “wants” to even things out, so air rushes into your lungs to accommodate for the extra space created by your inhale and equalize the pressure inside and outside of you. When you exhale, you’re decreasing the volume in your lungs, which increases the air pressure to a level higher than the air outside your body, so air rushes out to make things equal.

When the sun heats up parts of the atmosphere, the air rises, which leaves less air down near the surface than normal—a low pressure system. Hot air rising and leaving a void underneath is kind of like the atmosphere “inhaling.” Just like what happens in your expanding lungs, air from higher pressure systems surrounding the low pressure system rushes in to equalize things—i.e. the low pressure area “sucks” in surrounding air. In the reverse situation, when there’s a higher-than-normal pressure system in the atmosphere, it’s like a human exhaling. The higher pressure system presses outward into lower pressure areas and the air rushes there to equalize things. That rushing air is what we experience as wind. Wind is just air moving from areas of higher pressure to areas of lower pressure.

Relatedly, this is cool.


I would be interested to know in what position two similar sized human bodies are touching the most. Surface mapping? I would like to create a mathematically correct sculpture.Ludescher S. (Vienna, Austria)

No idea. But I included this odd question so someone who knows can explain it to all of us in the comments.


What’s one of the most important life lessons you’ve learned in your years so far that you would give to a young adult/college student?Cathy J. (Toronto, Canada)

Making really close lifelong friends is a hard thing to do for most people, and it gets even harder once you hit the real world and everyone lives in isolated apartments and spends their days at work. Really close friendships are built by spending a ton of hours with the same person or group of people again and again, and there’s nowhere better to foster that than college or the years after college when people often live with roommates.

Given that, one piece of advice would be to first, assess your friendships and figure out who’s in Q1 (here’s a refresher on what Q1 is, from this post).

Then, invest in those friendships, and remember that lazy afternoons sitting around doing nothing with them might seem mundane, but it’s actually building a foundation of closeness and comfort that you’ll be thankful for later. It’s time well spent.

And if you don’t think many of your friends are in Q1, ask yourself why that might be. Maybe you’re not hanging out with the right kind of people for you.


Can you share any advice on becoming a good writer?James M. (Dublin, Ireland)

1) Write. I wrote 300 blog posts between the ages of 23 and 29 before starting Wait But Why. It can take a while to find your voice and your tone and your style. At the beginning, you’ll be all over the place, the same way you are when you try a new sport or video game or musical instrument. That’s good—you’re experimenting on a canvas. Don’t judge your own writing at this phase—you’re experimenting and searching and playing—you’re not doing your best writing yet. If your mammoth is freaking out too much and ruining things, start with an anonymous blog.

2) Don’t be a complete perfectionist, but don’t settle for writing you know isn’t working. Even if you’re experimenting, if something you’re trying isn’t working, try to figure out why, rewrite parts, start over and try a new approach, etc.—keep fiddling until it clicks. Each time you go through the hard, painful work of agonizing over writing that isn’t working and eventually get it to click, you become a better writer.

3) Read a lot. It’s like fertilizer.

4) On one side of the spectrum, you’re completely copying the exact style and even the wording of another writer you like—let’s call that a 1. On the other side, you’re completely unique, writing in a way the world has never seen before—let’s call it a 10. Your goal is to start somewhere in the middle and then work your way up the scale as you mature as a writer. That said, having influences is inevitable and perfectly okay, because true 10s don’t exist. This same concept applies to stand-up comedy, music, or any other type of art. It’s a badge of honor to say The Beatles are one of your influences, but no one likes a songwriter who’s blatantly copying The Beatles. Without getting to a 7 or 8 on the uniqueness spectrum, there’s likely a ceiling on how high your writing career can go.

5) While you’re experimenting with your writing, keep your mind open to all creative possibilities. The first 290 of the 300 blog posts I wrote in my 20s had no visuals. Only towards the very end did I try drawing something one night. And only then did I realize how much I liked combining hand-drawn visuals with my writing. That could have easily never happened, and if it hadn’t, Wait But Why would be an all-text blog today.

6) If you get feedback as you grow as a writer, be careful who it’s coming from. The person giving feedback should A) believe in you, B) be rooting for you, and C) be completely aware that what they’re reading isn’t your max potential but you experimenting, gaining confidence, and trying to figure out your voice. A person who satisfies all of those is great to get feedback from. Someone who fails any of those criteria is going to do you more harm than good, and will often be the person who makes you quit prematurely and never try again (even if you don’t realize they’re the reason that happened).

7) Remember that in most cases, the ideas behind the writing are more important than the quality of the writing itself. You’d rather have great ideas and pretty good writing than the other way around.


Do you speak any other languages? – Ricardo K. (Vinhedo, Brazil)

I speak 1.43 languages:

  • English
  • 40% of Spanish
  • 1% of French
  • 0.1% of about 20 other languages because I learned how to say a few sentences when I visited a country where that was the language

My .4 Spanish capabilities are super useful when I visit Spanish-speaking countries, but mostly when I need to say something to someone. Once I finish, the party’s over. For some reason, my brain decided to not ever learn to understand what the fuck anyone is saying when they speak Spanish to me.

My problem is that I never learned Spanish well enough to do that thing where you have a Spanish part of your brain. So instead, I’ve memorized a ton of Spanish words and when I speak to someone, I’m doing what people who are bad at languages do—I’m rapid-fire translating in my head with each word that comes out of my mouth. I’m proficient enough to get around a Spanish-speaking country and even have conversations with people—as long as they don’t say anything back. When they do, it’s like someone throwing five tennis balls at me every second and expecting me to somehow catch all of them. So I go into a panic and just keep saying “lentamente” until their pace comes down so far that I can figure out what they’re saying.


If you could eat one non-edible thing, what would it be? – Tandice O. (New York, NY)

The sticky hand.

Sticky hand

How many people have ever lived?

I have a question I figured only WBW could answer properly. It came up when I took a shower and I thought: “Wow, it’s kinda crazy that most people from the beginning of time till now haven’t felt the pressure of a hot shower,” since I guess that showers as we know it were invented only a couple of centuries ago (hot bath doesn’t count). But then I thought… Is it true? There are approximately 7.4 billion people in the world today, and I think the numbers got that big only recently.

This made me ponder: how many people have lived on Earth since the beginning of humanity? What percentage of them lived in the last 200 years? Zohar A. (Tel Aviv, Israel)

I’ve thought about the shower thing before. It’s incredible. Imagine being stranded on an island with only basic tools and trying to create an extended hot shower for yourself. Not gonna happen. A hot shower requires a ton of technology. In the interest of not spending two hours reading enough about the history of showers to be able to piece together an estimate for the number of people who have ever had access to a hot shower, I’ll leave it at that thought for now—though I’d be delighted if a reader would like to figure this out and put it in the comments.

As for the number of people who have ever lived, Carl Haub at the Population Reference Bureau estimated in 2011 that about 107 billion people have lived:

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 7.05.37 PM

I made a chart about this stat once in a post:


Of course, Haub’s or anyone else’s estimate for this is imprecise and up for debate, especially since people aren’t even in agreement about when humans “started”. Either way, the fact that around 1/15 of all people who have ever lived are currently alive struck me as very high, considering that the past century accounts for at most 1/500 of the time humans have been around.

In the same article, Haub estimates that about 40% of those who have ever lived died before their first birthday and estimates that “life expectancy at birth probably averaged only about ten years for most of human history.” If he’s right, it would mean that 1/10 of all humans age 1 or older who have ever lived are currently alive, and that fraction would become higher and higher as you increase the age. So maybe 1/5 of all 30+ year olds who have ever lived are currently alive and maybe a third of people who ever lived to 60 are still alive. And I’d bet that the majority of people 90 or over who have ever lived are alive right now. All guesses, but it seems logical.


What do you think about this picture?
I’ve been having a social issue over a photo of puppies I found on the Internet. Yes, a photo of puppies. I was bored (and admittedly in the dark playground), so I decided to search “adorable dogs” on Google images. I found the picture and was immediately in love. So, I decided to save it and show my family. I was taken aback when they reacted with disgust. My sister seems to think they look like “ugly pigs” and my mother has mentioned that they are too fat to be cute. It’s become a pretty heated debate. You seem to have good judgment, so if you have time, tell me what you think. Abigail S. (Hartford, CT)

photo of three newborn puppies

Fuckin shit, Abigail. This is literally what would happen if a human and a dog could breed. And in trying to figure out my thoughts on what you’ve presented to me, I’ve stared at it so long—especially the dog on the right—that I now have no idea what these creatures are. Also, I can only picture them having the same texture and consistency as a Stretch Armstrong toy if you pressed into their flesh. Like I’m picturing their skin being frictiony and rubbery, not anything like a biological creature. I’ve gone through a lot in the last few minutes—too much to really answer your question. If I had to answer, I’d say affection is closer to what I’m feeling than disgust, so I guess I agree with you.

And with that, let’s call it a day.


Check these out next:

Why You Secretly Hate Bars – The world’s least fun fun activity

How to Name a Baby – Beware the name fad

20 Things I Learned in North Korea – They’re positive the 1950–1953 Korean War is still in full force


If you like Wait But Why, sign up for our unannoying-I-promise email list and we’ll send you new posts when they come out.

To support Wait But Why, visit our Patreon page.

To submit a question for a future mailbag, email [email protected].

  1. Argument via Nick Bostrom.

Home Archive