Idea Gardening – from Perl to Obsidian

One of my favorite writing activities is idea gardening. I’ll think about something that might make a good blog post and make some notes. But more often than not, I’m not ready (read: I’m too lazy) to finish it. So it gets set aside, incomplete. But that leads me to another idea. I move that idea forward a little bit. But then I get distracted by Twitter.

“Idea gardening” is, of course, a charitable term. It might be less charitably called diffuse attention-deficit bullshit non-writing. I get to pretend like I’m writing, but really I’m moving distractedly from one topic to another without actually completing anything.

But years of desultory experience have taught me a few things. One is that I genuinely enjoy idea gardening, whether or not I finish anything. So, like playing the ukulele badly, I’m willing to call it a hobby and feel good about it. The other other lesson is that good tools can make a big difference. Good tools can help me cycle more quickly through my garden of ideas, pruning and weeding and watering, and occasionally harvesting. I love that moment when a topic becomes substantial enough, mature enough, that it almost seems to grow to completion on its own.

Tools and Tool Hounds

So, if tools matter, what tools should you use? I like watching what the cool kids, the tool hounds who review new tools, are playing with these days. But switching tools can be a dangerous time sink. It’s easy to convince yourself that these are the shoes that will (finally!) let you play like Michael Jordan. It’s easy to spend more time installing and polishing tools than using them. And it’s easy to mistake the honeymoon glow of mere novelty for a genuine productivity boost. After all, what Michael Jordan really does is pull on his shoes and play ball. It’s the rest of us who obsess about the shoes.

But still! Tools really can make all the difference. When it comes to idea gardening, these are the tasks that I’m asking the tool to help me with.

  • Catch ideas. Quickly create new documents
  • Survey ideas. Move quickly between documents.
  • Connect ideas. Find patterns in documents.
  • Polish ideas. Refactor and edit documents.

I could try to do all this in Microsoft Word. But what would be the fun in that?

My history of gardening tools

I’ve been at this for a long time, so some of these go back into the last century. This list is just from my personal history. Any comprehensive list would go on for pages.

  • Perl. When the web was young, I wrote tiny web-enabled perl scripts that would let me edit any text file by clicking on a link. Effectively, this was just a crude proto-wiki. Which may be why I instantly fell in love with wikis when they came along.
  • Trellix. This was a creation of Dan Bricklin, the same guy who wrote VisiCalc. It was a revelation to me that someone else valued this workflow and was willing to make a product out of it.
  • Wiki. Built to support collaboration among multiple authors, wikis also support the idea gardening of one person. I even installed a personal version of MediaWiki (the software behind the Wikipedia), but it proved too heavy for my needs.
  • Scrivener. This is a professional’s writer’s tool I learned about from journalist and tool hound James Fallows. It was fun to play with, but also more machinery than I need.
  • Simplenote. This was closer to my ideal of speed and simplicity. But maybe a little too simple. Moving between files and ideas was still a little clunky.
  • Evernote. I eventually took the big dive into Evernote. I’ve used it for a long time and I still like it a lot, but it’s on a path to excess functionality and bloat. Beyond that, I can’t think of any feature (that I care about) that Obsidian doesn’t do better and faster.
  • Notability. This is a beautiful iPad app, but it’s geared to the pen and tablet note-taking experience. It’s not so great for searching and assembling text.
  • Obsidian. For now, for me, this is the clear winner. Free, fast, text-based, extendable, it checks all the boxes.

I feel like I’ve been searching for the perfect idea-gardening tool for ages, and Obsidian is it. I’m sure it’s not the last word in idea gardening, but it’s passed a threshold that, for me, means it has fully arrived. I’m having so much fun with it. Will it actually cause me to write more? We’ll see.

Facts, Belonging, and the Emperor’s New Clothes

You know the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. A king is duped into believing he’s dressed in the latest fashion, when in fact he’s wearing nothing at all. Everyone plays along until a little boy says: “That man is naked!” Truth is triumphant and mirth ensues, with the exception of the chagrined and trouser-less king.

What I find interesting about this story is the boy’s behavior. Is it heroic or anti-social? We spend our time as parents coaching kids NOT to say things like this. Here’s a related story: The Neighbor’s Big Nose. One day your neighbor (who, let’s be honest, really does have a big nose) walks by and your son says “That man has a big nose!” You quickly try to defuse the situation, but your son’s defense is strong. “I was telling the truth! His nose IS big!” Becoming a properly socialized adult is all about developing a fairly nuanced relationship with the truth.

What’s the difference between these stories? When is politeness more important than truth? To what extent is civic harmony destabilized by truth? When is belonging more important than facts? Of course, there IS a defensible difference between these stories, but the line that divides them is tricky enough to carve a jagged rift right through the middle of our society.

This is something that Max Fisher talks about in his New York Times article Belonging Is Stronger Than Facts. In short, humans (particularly fearful humans) don’t generally seek the truth. They seek social safety and comfort, and they will use twisted and motivated reasoning to achieve that comfort. The story of the boy and the emperor entertains us precisely because the scene it depicts is rare. That kid is lucky not to be in jail.

I recently read a book on the topic of truth-telling called The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef. She also has a nice TED talk on this topic. The big idea is that there are two kinds of people (there always are): those with soldier mindset and those with scout mindset. In a nutshell, a soldier is more interested in winning an argument than in finding the truth, whereas a scout, faced with a convincing argument, will update their opinion. We would all like to imagine ourselves as nimble scouts, but it’s shockingly easy for anger and pride to drive us into the rigid and defensive argumentation of a soldier.

It’s a good book. It provides lots of good anecdotes and workable strategies for behaving more like a scout. And her premise seems incontestable: you’ll be better served, and you’ll live a happier, more prosperous life, if you’re realistic and honest. But then you look around and you see how much guidance we get, explicit and otherwise, to the contrary. Fake it till you make it. Display confidence even when you know it is unwarranted. Be “loyal” to the colleague that you know to be abusive of his power.

Is self-deception ever good? Is it ever good to tell the small lie to defend the big truth? Of course, her answer to these questions is no, and I believe her. But we humans got social long before we got rational. It’s hard work being a scout.

UFOs in the News

UFOs are cool again! But first, let me tell you about a recent trip I took to the beach.

I was taking a picture of my friend when I realized to my horror that he was being attacked by a giant insect. It looked something like this.

“Look out!” I cried. I turned to shout for help, and was amazed to see the bug move almost instantaneously to threaten a nearby sailboat.

No matter which way I turned, that bug monster kept zipping around, attacking the things I looked at. Finally I took off my sunglasses to get a better look at the evil creature, and wouldn’t you know it? It vanished.

But enough about giant bugs. Let’s talk about UFOs.

This is a 1951 picture of a UFO taken by Guy B. Marquand, Jr. in Riverside, California.

And here is a recently declassified picture of a UFO taken by a Navy pilot in 2014.

A lot of time has passed since 1951. Cameras have improved dramatically. And yet somehow UFOs are always these tantalizing smudges. Why is that? Why, after all these years, are we still getting these crappy, grainy pictures of UFOs? Are the aliens so advanced that they can assess our cameras and then purposefully arrange to be just blurry enough to be mysterious? You’re always seeing something that ALMOST looks like solid convincing evidence, but it’s not quite good enough.

Two things affect what you see. One is the thing being viewed and the other is the device, the lens, doing the viewing. The resulting image can tell you a lot about one or both of these things. Smudges turn out to be an ideal projection surface for our notions of what a UFO should be. Being tantalized is fun, so we seek out tantalization. We project tantalization onto convenient surfaces. Blurry is better. To focus would be to disappoint.

The liminal space between the seen and the unseen is the medium we use to shape our ghosts, our dragons, our aliens, and our giant insectoid beach marauders. As a general guideline, when something stays perpetually just out of view, it’s likely telling you more about your lens than it is about the world.

Stuck on the Social Plateau

I’m always amused when I see somebody whose relationship status is set to “It’s Complicated.” More often than not, “It’s Complicated” is a code phrase, a way of covering for a situation that’s actually quite simple. For instance: “I have two girlfriends, but I can’t say that out loud.” It’s not complicated, but it’s gratifying to cover yourself in that label. It makes something shallow sound deep.

We live in a time beset with many troubles: political, economic, racial, climatic. It’s tempting to come up with many complex theories about how these troubles came about, but ultimately, it’s not that complicated. Our most urgent and difficult problems stem from tribalism. People under stress draw back, aligning with their tribal ingroup and rejecting any threatening outgroups. This built-in human tendency makes it easy for demagogues to stir up righteous anger, blaming outgroups for every kind of trouble. Nationalism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, religious intolerance, they all emerge from this deeply human tribal impulse.

This leads to some interesting questions: where did this tribalism come from? How did it evolve in the first place? Why is it so hard to override or rewire? I found excellent answers to these questions in the book The Human Swarm by Mark Moffett. In it, Moffett tackles the problem of how the first human societies originally formed. By societies, he means the big coordinated populations that granted us unstoppable power as a species, that gave us the keys to the planet.

It may seem at first that the key to forming societies is cooperation. But many animals cooperate, and in any event, social structure depends on managing not only cooperation but also conflict within your ingroup. Instead, the key element is identity. Small social groups, like troops of chimpanzees, depend on identity in the sense of recognizing individual members. This is useful, but to scale up to the level of cities and societies, you need to be able to identify your ingroup comrades without actually knowing them. Humans’ big brains became exquisitely skilled at identifying an array of social markers like skin color, language and accent, customs and cultural norms. This is the crucial skill that lets you build economies and armies. I can trust you because you’re like me.

This came to me as a great revelation, because the tribal emphasis on identity that causes us so much trouble now is exactly the thing that made us dominant. The thing that made us strong is now chewing us up, like a kind of autoimmune disease. Tribalism isn’t a quirky side effect. It’s a tent-pole for our species. It will be a hard habit to break.

I think we are sitting at an evolutionary plateau, a social plateau that, thousands of years ago represented an extraordinary advance and break with the past. But now we’re stuck, in need of another extraordinary advance. Must we always require adversarial outgroups to create functioning societies? Or can we find a new, more tolerant social cornerstone to build on? Can we shift our emphasis from tribe to planet? As a planetary megasociety, we have reached the edge of the petri dish. We are now poisoning ourselves with literal pollution and with the ideological pollution of identity-obsessed tribalism. We haven’t changed much yet, which is cause for pessimism. On the other hand, the dangers we face are now so stark that we must change or perish. That’s how evolution works. The scare will do us good. I’ll call that optimism.

Euclidea: Winning Geometry

In the future, everything will be gamified. That’s the premise of my favorite dystopian video, Hyper-Reality. At times it may seem like we’re headed down that path, but in practice, a lot of life is pretty resistant to gamification. Life kind of sucks that way.


It’s not like it’s going to be possible to turn your math homework into a fun game. Or is it? I was intrigued this weekend to see that an app called Euclidea was a top puzzle game in Apple’s App Store. Euclidea is based on proving propositions in Euclidean geometry. The fact that they turned Euclid’s Elements into a highly rated iPad game reeled me in. I downloaded it. Sure enough, it’s pretty great. Can it deliver on the notion of being fun while helping you actually get better at geometry? I think it can.

For each level, you’re given a proposition to demonstrate (“Construct the tangent line through a point on a circle”). Your job is not only to provide the necessary demonstration, but to do it in optimal ways. This can be tricky. I was pleased with myself for solving one of the problems easily enough: inscribe a square inside a circle. But then they had the temerity to assert that my solution was bloated. In fact, you could find the solution with exactly seven elementary steps: either using a compass or a straightedge, but nothing else. Or so they said. I convinced myself that this was impossible.

Fortunately, I know how to play (cheat at) games in the modern age. YouTube will always tell you what you need to know, and after I beat my head against the problem for a while, I gave in. This video did the trick. Sometimes you cheat and you feel bad. I could have figured that out if I wasn’t so lazy. But sometimes you cheat and you realize that you’ve been schooled in something altogether new, something you were never going to discover on your own. This was one of those situations. I was impressed. Spoiler: Here’s what my screen looked like after I cheated.

Seven magic steps I never would have found without YouTube

This raises a question: if it’s so easy to cheat, if YouTube is always one click away, then who will bother to learn? This is exactly why gamification becomes so important. It gives you the story, the motivation to pay attention to the cheat video when it finally comes. On my own, I didn’t find the optimal solution to the inscribed square problem, but I watched carefully and was amazed when I finally saw it demonstrated. No other pedagogical approach would have glued me in place quite so thoroughly. I call this cheating your way to mastery. It’s a real thing, and it works. More than that, it’s a prominent feature of our age. Remember, the problem isn’t cheating. The problem is being sufficiently motivated to learn.

Incidentally, the idea of using modern graphics and UI to explore planar geometry has been around for a long time. One good example is the Geometer’s Sketchpad. Sadly, it was acquired by a textbook company, so it was promoted as an instructional tool rather than an explorational game. It never achieved the widespread audience it deserved. I hope Euclidea will go farther.

What Was Henry Ford Nostalgic For?

In 1924, Henry Ford bought a patch of land in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford is often credited as a being far-seeing businessman, but in this case he was looking backward, not forward. On this corner of Dearborn, he started Greenfield Village, an homage to, in his words, the “saner and sweeter time” he remembered as a boy. For this village-as-museum, he collected old buildings along with the artifacts that would have been used in them: a carriage barn, a cider mill, a blacksmith’s shed. But the prize dwelling on the site, at least from Ford’s point of view, was his boyhood home. He had had it moved and re-fashioned to be exactly as it had been when he was thirteen. That was 1876, the year his mother died.

To realize this vision, to make this old house rise from the ashes, he had agents scour the countryside for all the items he recalled from youth: the rugs, the dinner plates, the silverware, the wood stove, the pump organ, and on and on. We all get nostalgic for our younger days, but Ford’s obsession is noteworthy for a few reasons. First, he had the money to pursue this nostalgia with an unmatchable intensity. Next, it turns out that he had never cared for farm life as a boy. He hated the work, dreamed of using automation to make it go away, and escaped from it as quickly as he could. Finally, and most significantly, he did more than anyone else on the planet to destroy the “simple” agrarian world of his youth and bring about the greasy, smoky mechanical age.

To sum up: at great expense, Henry Ford built a museum to commemorate a time he hadn’t liked, and which he subsequently bulldozed over a cliff.

This question fascinates me: What, exactly, was Henry Ford nostalgic for? Did he feel guilty? Did he experience dreams of something real that had been, or were they instead the lopsided projections of memory theater? I think of the “real” Greenfield Village as a girl he broke up with in high school. Imagine we track her down today. Life has been hard for her, and it shows. She says “Ha! So old Henry Ford says he loved me, huh? Well he sure had a funny way of showing it. He did everything he could to drive me away. And now he’s built this shrine to what? To me? To something that never existed. I don’t know who that is, but it isn’t me.”

What does nostalgia enable, and what does it block? Memory can be a wonderful celebration, but it can also be a loaded gun. It can carry an implied curse at the present, a maudlin memorialization of a golden past that never was, a rejection of the Now that was already immanent in the Then. Whenever you toast the past, be sure to tip your hat to the present.

(And by the way, I learned about Greenfield Village in Richard Snow’s excellent book I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford. I recommend it.)

Cute Force, Not Brute Force: The Gnomes Are Coming!

Mosquitoes are a problem, but what can you do about it?

If you can’t just screen them off, then you’ll need poison: insecticide. Insecticide is a dumb technology in the sense that it can’t discriminate between different types of insects, and also in the sense that you have to put it everywhere the mosquitoes might be, since you don’t know where they are. In other words, you need too much to have enough. But dumping loads of poison mostly in the wrong place kills lots of beneficial insects too. And because poisons build up in the environment, you end killing much larger animals too. You’re whacking the ecosystem with a baseball bat. Brute force.

But suppose you could hire some clever gnomes whose job was to listen for mosquitoes, and then shoot them dead with tiny crossbows whenever they came near? Assuming these gnomes are good at their job, you wouldn’t need too many of them to make a big difference. Instead of ladling gallons of neurotoxin indiscriminately across everything in the neighborhood (children, pets, garden vegetables, honeybees), you just deploy a few mosquito-sniping gnomes in strategic locations. Instead of brute force, call it cute force.

What I want to tell you today is that the gnomes are coming. The Photonic Fence, though still in early development, is a real thing. It promises to bring you a sharp-shooting cohort of pesticidal gnome-bots. Cameras can spot the mosquitoes, and low-powered lasers can then shoot them from the sky like tiny anti-aircraft cannons.

The big idea behind cute force is simple: smart, cheap devices that can identify and eliminate whatever is undesired (like killing bugs) or retrieve whatever is desired (like picking fruit). And it’s all being enabled by cheap AI and robotics. Compared to what they can replace, gnomes are (or soon enough will be) cheap. Doing things cleverly and one-at-a-time scales better than you think. You’re going to start seeing gnomes everywhere.

The brute-force approach shows up a lot in agriculture. Consider the problem of weeding. To get rid of the bad plants, the current strategy is to kill all plants. On a conventional farm, this is done with a broad-acting plant poison called Roundup (glyphosate). Organic farms can’t use Roundup, but look what they do instead.

It may seem a little medieval, but they literally scorch the earth with propane torches to kill all plants. This meets the guidelines for organic farming, although it’s clearly not great for the atmosphere. Either way, you’re wiping out everything in your path, with significant collateral damage.

Suppose instead you could hire some clever weeding gnomes who knew the difference between good plants and bad plants? There are dozens of companies working on exactly this problem. Some of them use lasers. Some use robotic arms. Some use spinning string-trimmers. Some still use herbicide, but 95% less of it because it gets applied exactly where it’s needed. The breakthrough products haven’t arrived yet, but they will. The tech is getting cheaper every day. Robots never need to sleep, and they can eliminate the need for tons of expensive and dangerous chemicals. Once you start thinking about problems like this, you see them everywhere.

Here’s a Dutch company killing moths with drones. Or why not detect and zap cancerous cells one at a time in the bloodstream to prevent metastasis? Or how about building smart nets that only catch the kind of fish you want? And then there is, of course, the topic of warfare, which is more or less defined by the concept of eliminating undesirable things. Explosives are the ultimate expression of brute force. Why be so wasteful and destructive if you can just land a small killbot drone in exactly the right place? On a less grim note, you wouldn’t need to force all cars to get (easily evaded) emissions inspections every year if you had a reliable network of gnomes who could quickly detect and ticket offending vehicles on the roads.

The gnomes are coming! Some of them are already here. You can even buy this little green garden gnome today to patrol your pepper patch.

Renewable Energy Leverage

California recently hit 95% renewable energy sources for its electrical power generation.

Great news! Enthusiasts will want to bang the drum, but skeptics will observe that this record comes with a number of conditions. “High water marks” like this happen at particular times of day during particular times of year. At this point in the calendar, the daylight hours are abundant and temperatures are still moderate enough to keep demand relatively low. A calm, hot day in the summer will look very different. And the picture changes dramatically as we leave California. The total nationwide contribution of solar to electricity production, for example, is still less than 3%. Wind is less than 10%.

Source: US EIA via Wikipedia

Despite these relatively low percentages, I want to show how much leverage renewables (coupled with batteries) can have on the market even when their relative contributions are quite small. One dramatic example of this is from a hot summer day in Australia back in 2019. In the last few years, Australia has installed some of the world’s largest grid-connected batteries. Nevertheless, in terms of the overall electrical market, they are tiny. And they’re quite expensive. So how can they turn a profit? Watch this.

December 19th of 2019 was extraordinarily hot, so electrical demand for cooling was high. As the sun set, solar power generation dropped away. As luck would have it, winds were calm. This led to a shortfall in power generation as natural gas and diesel assets were ramping up. This, in turn, caused the spot price for electricity to jump briefly to $14,700/MWh. And who was in a position to claim that price? The big batteries at Hornsdale and Lake Bonney. In just two days, these batteries earned $1 million.

Source: Renew Economy

The picture tells the story. You can see that the thin sliver of battery capacity captured most of the attractive profits before the fossil-fuel generators could cough to life. The key is speed. Batteries can instantaneously discharge their power in response to market conditions. They are the nimble mammals dodging between the legs of the lumbering dinosaurs. In the first four months of operation, the Hornsdale battery with 2 per cent of the capacity in South Australia claimed 55 per cent of the revenues in South Australia.

This is terrible news for natural gas and diesel peaker plants. One of the reasons peaker plants exist is because they can capture this very profit. Someone needs to pay for all that idle time when they sit around playing cards, waiting for a call from grid manager. From the point of view of fossil fuels, renewable plus battery is a brutal one-two punch. Solar pushes down your prices all day long while the sun is smiling, and then, just when you can taste those delicious sunset profits, a zippy little battery swoops in and gobbles them up. So even in their current diminutive form, renewables cast a long shadow over the future of fossil-fuel power generation. Building a new gas plant is so expensive that you need to count on consistent profits for many years. With the growth of cheap renewables, the capital needed to build a fossil-fuel plant gets more and more expensive. Bankers, it turns out, just hate loaning money that might never get paid back.

The bottom line is that renewables are already having an outsized effect on the overall market. They punch above their weight, and they are continually trending up. I’m looking forward to more “high water mark” days.

Thinking about Nothing: Stuff and Nega-stuff

I once read an article about the phantom traffic jams that seem to crop up at random. So there’s no accident or road closure, just a wicked knot that mysteriously slows you to a crawl, and then just as mysteriously lets you go. It turns out that, once traffic reaches a critical volume, it only takes one person stomping on the brakes to form that knot, and then it might take an hour or more to clear.

If you’re stuck in a jam like this, what can you do about it? The author had a ready answer: feed it space. I understood what he meant. Don’t crowd the car in front of you. But I also like how he put it. Feed nothing into the traffic jam.

Turning nothing into something, or turning inaction into an action, can be an extraordinarily effective brain tool.

In the semiconductor physics that govern things like transistors, scientists find it useful to talk about electrons, which are bona fide things, and “holes”, which are the places where electrons aren’t. Holes are notional particles of non-particle-ness, a convenient shorthand that comes about when we refer to the absence of something as something.

You can see this phenomenon many places. A vacuum is another example. The vacuum isn’t sucking things into it. The vacuum is the absence of pushing. But we find it convenient to talk about a vacuum as a thing that sucks. It’s not a logical flaw so much as a reframing that simplifies our reasoning.

My favorite example of positive negation comes in the energy industry. Imagine you’re running a power grid in Hotsylvania. It’s a scorching day in July and everyone has their air conditioners on. As more demand comes online, you have to switch on more power plants. What else can you do? As it happens, there is an alternative. Let’s further suppose that you’ve set up a demand management program in which customers agree to decrease their demand at your request. Here is the key insight: from your point of view as the system operator, a “negative power plant” that reduces demand is just as useful as a positive power plant that increases supply. They both do the same thing to the energy balance equation. And once you make this conceptual breakthrough, it’s easy to see that not building a new power plant is likely to be much cheaper than building a new power plant.

Amory Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, referred to unrealized energy efficiency as “negawatts”. It’s the amount of power you might NOT use. Negawatts let you reason about loss and inefficiency as a “thing”, such that you might be able to do something about it. He liked to say that the United States is the Saudi Arabia of negawatts. If you can find a way to make money out of inefficiency, then negawatts become a resource that can make you rich. We’ve got heaps of the stuff.

Lovins applied this logic to the U.S. car industry, pointing out that our big petroleum-powered cars represent a huge negawatt reserve. Using the geological terminology of the oil extraction business, he called this the “Detroit Formation.” If you can sell a more efficient vehicle, and these days it’s clear you can, then you can make a fortune by tapping into the negawatts buried deep under Detroit.

Thinking about nothing as something doesn’t really change anything physical. But it makes new thinking possible. I even find it useful in the kitchen. If I want to eat less, instead of moaning that I can’t eat anything, I make a positive message: I can eat all the nothing I want. I’m consuming nega-calories. Or to return to the story about how to fix the traffic jam, instead of saying “Don’t drive fast”, I can say “Feed the jam some lovely space.” Obviously the outcome is the same, but I prefer the second message. It matters because it makes a difference to my brain, and so it makes a difference to my behavior.

We almost always want to solve our problems with more stuff. But often the most effective solution is with nega-stuff.

Cereal Box Arms Race

Cereal boxes, much like the competing trees in a tropical rain forest, need radiation to survive. For trees this radiation comes from the sun. For cereal boxes, you provide the attention radiation that illuminates and nourishes them. This so-called “att-rad” can lead to the next stage of the cereal box life cycle, grocery cartosis, in which harvested goods are placed in the cart and transported out of the store. Cartosis is followed by deposition in the kitchen cabinet reticulum for storage, and ultimately consumption by the human host. Competition for att-rad is, therefore, a deadly serious business, and much studied by consumer ecologists at organizations such as Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, and Frostie-Krunch Consolidated Heavy Carbohydrates, Inc.

One especially valuable and selected-for trait in the cereal aisle canopy is box height. Here we see the mighty Special-K box towering over a nearby companion. The monster in this picture was measured at close to 340 millimeters! On the shelves of the cereal forest, that diverse and superheated environment where boxes are harvested, this trait serves it well. Taller boxes appear to attract more of the precious and life-bestowing attention radiation from potential human hosts.

But beware! All phenotypes have maladaptive tradeoffs. The tall trees of the rain forest must cope with the hazard of being so tall that they pitch over in the wind. And this noble Special K box now finds itself in the awkward position of being poorly adapted for storage in the cabinet reticulum of the host’s kitchen-plasm. It’s too tall for its new home! To circumvent this problem, the fruit of the Special K box has been grafted onto a sturdy wild-type Chex box, as close inspection of this image will reveal. The Crispix fruit has suffered a similar fate. This cross-grafting can be an irritant to the human host.

Ultimately, box height comes at a steep ecological price. Here we see the remains of the box exoskeleton cast off into the recycling compost of the kitchen floor. All the energy that went into the box will now be passed to that ravenous detrivore, the recycling bin (Receptaclus cardboardi). Box height is energetically expensive, and it can irritate the human host, who must prematurely shuck and discard this extravagant cereal integument and then graft the fruit to a surrogate species. All to chase the fickle attention radiation that beams daily from your eyes. Is it worth it? Is this a stable and successful reproductive strategy? Evolutionary time will tell.