Music is just meaningless noise, so why do we love it?

There’s a quote attributed to Plato from 2,400 years ago:

“I would teach children music, physics and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.”

Today, music still holds a major role in our society.  Music has never been more democratic and widespread than it is right now.

There is no greater example of music’s reach than the number of views on youtube of Adele’s “Hello”–

On youtube alone, that song has been played over 1 billion times!

The Super Bowl Halftime Show with Coldplay, Bruno Mars, and Beyonce received 115.5 million viewers this year, and the Grammys drew 24.9 million viewers to idolize music makers.
Kanye West’s new album that came out last week has already been illegally downloaded over 500,000 times.  That’s not including the times it was emailed or dropboxed or google drived to friends.  Officially his album is only available on Tidal, and that service, too, saw a huge spike in users:

With all that’s going on, I’ve been thinking a lot about music.  It’s everywhere.  It’s even on in the background as I write this.  (“Amsterdam” by Gregory Alan Isakov for those wondering).  Music is ever present in our lives, and most of the time we take it for granted.  But today in the Bulletin, I’m talking about music’s special role for the human species.

Aliens don’t do music

Imagine for a moment that you are a space alien visiting Earth for the first time.  You hear some sounds that are language between humans, but then you hear other sounds that seem totally separate from language – sounds made with strings, reeds, horns, drums, and voices.  All music is a wash of beats and tones, and for an alien brain these tones could be unintelligible.  An alien might wonder why our species has such a fascination with meaningless noise.

But our human brains are capable of something incredible.  Out of that sound, we draw meaning.  Music can lift our spirits, inspire us to dance, calm us down, or bring us to tears.  Even songs without words it can affect us.  We write film scores to carry the audience through the emotional arc of a scene.  We go to the symphony, and something inside (some of) us stirs.

Actually, this scenario with the aliens hearing our music is the subject of a romantic, folk duo, sci-fi, comedy called The History of Future Folk that I totally want to see now that I’ve watched the trailer:


So why and how do our brains hear, understand, and love music?

Oliver Sacks wrote a whole book, Musicophilia, on the subject of human attraction to music.  Early on, he writes about the strangeness of being a human and hearing music:

“It really is a very odd business that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads.”

And he goes on to explain that music has very powerful, deep, and multidimensional connections in the brain.  There is no “music center” in the brain.  Instead the whole brain pitches in to make the experience of listening to music.

Sacks’ book is full of case studies of people who’ve experienced varying forms of brain malfunction and have therefore changed the way they perceive music.  Some lose their ability to appreciate it entirely while others obsessively play and compose.

In turn, the making of music has a profound impact on the brain.  Brain imaging shows strong links between brain areas.  It also shows enlarged auditory, motor, and attention centers in the brain.  Sacks writes:

“Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer or a mathematician – but they would recognize the brain of a professional musician without moment’s hesitation.”

We know music is deep-seated in the whole brain, and that it is a fundamental part of being human.  Granted, for some the love of music is more powerful than others, but at heart most all of us can get enjoyment from some form of music.  For something to be so universal across a species, I began to wonder where our love of music came from.

The beginning of music

Of course, all explanations of the origins of music are just guesses.  Music predates history.  In fact, some of the
earliest history we have was preserved not in writing, but orally through song.  Our oldest literature, like Homer’s epics, were told by bards who sang the tales in the great halls of noble men.

Steven Mithen wrote a whole book hypothesizing about the origins of music called The Singing Neanderthals. He puts forward a theory that music co-evolved with language.  In the protolanguage of the neanderthals, he suggests, volume, rhythm, and pitch played as important – if not more important – roles in communication than vocabulary (phonemes and morphemes).

We do know that music exists in all societies on Earth, past and present.  The music varies widely, but even groups that have long lived in isolation develop their own music.

The creation and imitation of sounds goes way back.  Some monkeys and birds do this, with drumming and songs.  But using sound to intentionally change emotions, according to Wikipedia, dates back to 30,000-60,000 years ago when humans also started painting walls, making jewelry, and ceremonially burying their dead.  Women may have used music to choose a mate, and ritual music may have ensured survival by creating emotional harmony and communion within a group.

“The key is to make it”

The story of the neanderthals is not so hard to imagine when we consider that music always has brought us together and it continues to.  The Super Bowl Halftime Show is the biggest event in the country, but growing up my family gathered in the living room to sing.  Most schools have bands and choirs.  Churches, synagogues, and mosques have hymns and sung-prayers.  We use music to build community.

Music can be personally impactful as well.  Listening to your favorite song can be meditative.  Athletes will put on headphones to get into the zone before competition.  Music therapy can have powerful effects for patients, including the mentally handicapped, war veterans, and trauma victims.

I guess that’s what Plato meant by music being the key to learning.  Music unlocks the mind in ways even the best neurologists can’t explain.  Listening to music means doing something uniquely human, something that humans have always done, and when we listen to music we participate in a species-wide ritual.  We can’t explain how or why music makes us feel the way it does, but still as humans we’re compelled to make it and listen to it.

The cheapest food in the world

Last night, I ate these:

Two things.
1, They didn’t look like that (bc no fast food looks like the picture).
2, They were delicious and legitimately $1 each.
I tried all the flavors.

Incidentally, if you happen to be in the market for a crunchwrap slider, I would steer clear of the BLT one. Beefy nacho and sriracha chicken were pretty good. (Anyone interested in an in-depth breakdown of the whole Taco Bell menu can email me)

Anyway, I tried all of the cruchwrap sliders. That scratched only one thing off my current list of fast food deals that are happening right now:

  • $1 crunchwrap sliders from Taco Bell
  • Pick 2 for $2 at McDonald’s
  • 5 items for $4 at Burger King
  • 2 or more pizzas for $5 each at Pizza Hut

Am I going crazy or are these deals ridiculous? I’m sure they give you tiny servings, but since when have you been able to get things for less than $1 each at Burger King? And the only $5 pizza I know of is Little Caesars’ Hot-N-Ready cardboard.

“No!!! Why?! Why?!”

The past few weeks, so many combo meal deals have been advertised that I’ve started asking, “Why?”

The idea of a combo deal isn’t new, of course.  The combo meal was first spread in the early 70s as an operational necessity for the rapidly expanding franchises of McDonald’s, Burgerking, and Castle.  Customers were taking too long to order from a list of items, so combo meals offered a pre-packaged way for customers to decide, order, and keep the line moving.

But why make them so cheap?  Usually, restaurants make their money off combos, because fries and a drink have crazy profit margins.  Now, it seems like restaurants have to be barely breaking even on these items.  In fact, franchisees are upset that the company makes them offer these deals, because the deals often lose money.

So why so cheap? And why do multiple restaurants offer similar deals at the same time?

Part of it is competition.  If McDonald’s offers a combo deal, you better believe Burger King is gonna offer something, too.  Nobody wants to lose market share.

From there, the meal deals proliferate.  Taco Bell has to keep up and stay in the public’s mind so they offer a $1 menu item.  Then Pizza Hut wants some of the action, too, so they pile on with a $5 pizza.

New Year, New Deals

Ok, but that still leaves the question of why January 2016 is special.

The answer is that 2015 was not a good year for fast food.  Companies like McDonald’s are used to more sales, more customers, and more stores every year.  The past two years, traffic was flat for fast food restaurants.

(Aside about the graph: McDonald’s sales are going down.  Basically, if the graph is above the red line, that means the company is doing better than it was doing at this point last year.  Below the red line, worse.  “Y/Y% change” means year-over-year percent change.  “Comp US store sales” means comparing a set of stores to themselves.

In practice, this means for instance that McDonald’s got the numbers from all their stores in February 2014.  In February 2015, they went back to all their stores and got the numbers again.  They then filtered out all the stores that opened and closed in the year between, so that they were just comparing the stores that were open in Feb 2014 to themselves in Feb 2015.  If you look at the graph, you’ll see that Feb 2015 shows a -4% change year-over-year in comp US store sales.  The same stores did 4% worse than the year before.)

Lucky for McDonald’s, they own Chipotle, and “fast casual” restaurants like Chipotle are the new gold standard for making profit.  “Build your own bowl” restaurants are growing while fast food stays stagnant.  In DC at least, I can think of several places that fit this “fast casual” model. Shop House (stir fry and noodle place), Noodles & Co. (noodles), Chop’t (made to order salads), and Potbelly (sandwiches) come to mind.

Fast food execs are upping the ante in 2016.  They’ve realized they can’t compete with the customization or the freshness of Chipotle, et al.  But they do have an assembly line that can produce food for cheap.  And they can beat Chipotle, et al. on price.

Price check

There are a lot of factors that contribute to the dollar menu’s low price point.  Each could be a Bulletin topic in itself.

First, the dollar menu and similar deals at Taco Bell, Burger King, Wendy’s, etc. are a loss leader.  Restaurants don’t make money on the dollar menu.  It just gets you in the door.  After that, they hope to sell you fries, drinks, ice cream, or larger items to make money.

Second, low worker wages keep overhead down.  Most restaurants also hire their employees strictly on a part-time basis, meaning they don’t have to offer benefits.  Even if these employees work 40 hours a week, they can still be qualified as part time.

Third, commodities are super cheap right now, and that brings us back to the “why now?” question.  These fast food places can afford these deals right now largely because of how cheap commodities are.  Before I wrote this, I didn’t really know what a commodity was, besides the fact that Eddie Murphy trades orange juice commodities futures in the movie Trading Places.

At their most basic, commodities are energy, metals, and grain/produce–raw materials that come from the earth.  Because oil prices are so low right now, it becomes cheaper to produce and transport grain and produce, driving those costs down, too.  On top of all that, some commodities like corn are already subsidized by the US government and aritificially cheaper because of it.

But isn’t there another side to the coin?  What are the real effects of cheap food, and can cheap food be a good thing, too?

The cheapest food in the world

Maybe this shouldn’t surprise me, but the United States has the cheapest food in the world compared to what its people make.  On average, Americans spend just 9% of their bugets on food.  This has dramatically decreased over time.  In 1960, we spent 17% on food.  In 1930? 24%.

This is by far the lowest food budget to total budget ratio in the world.  In Europe, they’re spending up to twice as much of their budgets on food.  At first, this might seem great, but some argue that the industrialization of food is detrimental to our health, environment, and society.  Here’s Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food:

“Cheap food is an illusion. There is no such thing as cheap food. The real cost of the food is paid somewhere. And if it isn’t paid at the cash register, it’s charged to the environment or to the public purse in the form of subsidies. And it’s charged to your health.”

Even as we pay less an less for food, we’re paying more for fresh foods.  Here’s a graph to drive that point home:
So eating a diet of fresh foods may actually only cost you as much as what European countries are spending on food.  But we’ve become so accustomed to the low benchmark of cheap food, that it’s now not uncommon to hear people say, “It’s too expensive to buy vegetables!”

How much a dollar cost

In 2013, an article in the New York Post caused a stir when Kyle Smith asserted that the McDouble was the greatest food in human history.

For millions of people, the McDonald’s hamburger offers a predictable, affordable meal.  It’s high in protein, fiber, and calcium.  And since it’s available in over 14,000 locations in the US, it is bountiful.  In most of those locations, it costs ~$1.19.

The article got tons of critiques.  A response in the article argued the point this way, though:

Many huffy back-to-the-earth types wrote in to suggest the alternative meal of boiled lentils. Great idea. Now go open a restaurant called McBoiled Lentils and see how many customers line up.

I’m not convinced that the McDouble is the highest achievement of agricultural bounty.  I’m less convinced that the availability of food like McDonald’s, particularly for poor people, is right, but the fact is that it’s everywhere and delicious and cheap. It’s hard to argue against the logic of someone short on money and/or pressed for time eating McDonalds. In college, McDoubles and McChickens got me through many busy days.

American food culture

In many ways, the McDouble and the crunchwrap slider and the Whopper have been built to meet our American cultural values.  They’re cheap, “triumphs” of capitalism.  They’re fast for people who are busy.

Our food is a reflection of who we are.

The upsetting part to me, though, is that the foods that are iconically American–the hot dog, the hamburger–are meant to be eaten standing up and walking away.  They’re mass produced without heart.  American meals are not meals to share, and they’re not meals you savor.  We devour them, and then wonder why we’re left unsatisfied and ordering another.

Because $1 may be cheap.  But sometimes it also feels empty.

1 in 292,201,338

Hi everybody,

Not sure if this is true for you, but Powerball is huge in my social circle right now.  If you’re not familiar with what’s going on, lemme catch you up.

The short explanation is that the Powerball jackpot is $1.5 BILLION currently; that’s billion with a “B”.  That’s the highest the jackpot has been on any lottery game ever.  Most Powerball billboards on the interstate don’t have room to display anything over $999 million.

My dive into the rabbit hole of how Powerball works started with a Jimmy Fallon tweet.

The hashtag #IfIWonPowerball has been trending this week.  Here’s my favorite #IfIWonPowerball tweet:
My coworkers are talking about Powerball.  My roommates are buying tickets.  I normally don’t think about the lottery, but this week it’s unavoidable.

I started to wonder: How can an organization give away $1.5 billion dollars and still exist?

I’ve never played Powerball, so I don’t really understand what it’s like to buy a ticket until I looked it up today.  Let’s start there.

Your lucky numbers are…

The Powerball drawing has five white balls and one red ball (the powerball), for a total of six numbers you need to pick on your ticket.

The five white balls come from one big bin of 69 balls, so the numbers you pick for those five need to be somewhere in the range of 1-69.  The white balls are picked without replacement, meaning no numbers will be repeated in the five white picks.  The order of the numbers doesn’t matter; they just get listed on your ticket in numerical order.

The red powerball comes from a completely separate bin of 26 red balls, so you can pick any number 1-26 for the powerball.  Since it’s completely separate from the white balls you could pick a powerball that is a duplicate of one of your white picks.

You pay $2 for your ticket (or $3 if you want to play Powerplay, which I’ll explain later).

Then once you have your numbers, you wait until the drawing.  These happen twice a week on Wednesday and Saturday at 10:59 pm.  They look like this:

“So you’re telling me there’s a chance?”

If all your numbers match then you win the jackpot, that’s the simplest part to explain.

But you can also win lesser prizes.  Even if just a few or even 1 of your numbers matches the chosen balls you can win.  For just matching the powerball alone, you win $4, doubling your investment.  If you match 4 numbers out of the 6, you win $100.  4 white and the powerball? $50,000.  Get all 5 white correct and you win $1 million.

This is where things get interesting.  If you pay $1 more and buy a $3 ticket, you can double, triple, or 5x those lesser winnings.  These are called “powerplay” tickets, and instead of $4 for example you would make $8, $12, or $20, depending on the night and whether 2x, 3x, or 5x gets randomly chosen.

When you factor in the lesser prizes, your overall odds of winning something are 1 in 24.87.

Your odds of winning the jackpot, however? 1 in 292,201,338.

If nobody wins the jackpot, they roll over the jackpot amount plus the new tickets into the next drawing.  That rollover is how we got to $1.5 billion.

Sidebar: If you’re going to play the Powerball

  • First, don’t expect to win anything.  Remember that 96% of the time you will be throwing away $2.
  • Second, do not pick the powerplay option.  Statistically it increases your liability more than it increases your expected benefit (pay $1 more to get only ~$0.82 of expected value if it’s a 5x multiplier that night, and most of the time it’s not a 5x multiplier).
  • Third, the best time to buy a ticket is when the jackpot is between $400 million and $600 million, after that too many other people start buying tickets and the chances of your sharing the prize go up drastically.

    Still, for every $2 ticket you buy, you can only reasonably expect to win $0.85. (See below)

So what is this organization that has $1.5 billion just laying around?

Powerball is run by the Multi-state Lottery Association (MUSL), and they don’t have $1.5 billion laying around.  44 states, DC, and the Virgin Islands sell Powerball tickets and contribute to the pot of winnings.  They also get back the earnings.

But the winnings aren’t $1.5 billion handed to you in cash.  Instead, they put the winnings into an annuity that pays every year, with a 5% increase every year.  Over 30 years, this annuity is worth $1.5 billion, pre-tax.  You can ask for straight cash, but that’s at a serious markdown.  For example, this week’s cash option was worth only $930 million, pre-tax (yes, I just wrote “ONLY $930 million” seriously).

And in order to protect the organization, the winnings are calculated based on market performance, ticket sales predictions, and overhead.  The jackpot is really only about 1/3 of Powerball’s budget.  And Powerball’s budget doesn’t include the lesser winnings ($4 – $2,000,000), because those are paid by the participating states.

The lottery has a pretty sweet deal.  MUSL’s director, Chuck Strutt has been working for the organization since its founding in 1987.  I don’t blame him.  If my job were selling pieces of paper that are mostly worthless and having millions of people buy them then that seems like a good gig.

And this brings us to the part that blew me away.  Since the jackpot began building on November 7th, lottery officials estimate that Powerball sold 1.55 billion tickets!  For Wednesday’s drawing alone, they sold 371 million.  When you realize that tickets sell for $2 or $3, and the winnings are paid over 30 years, you can see that Powerball isn’t exactly struggling to get by.

This is where things get confusing, because MUSL is a non-profit.

All dat cash tho…

MUSL can’t make a profit; it’s part of the deal when you’re a nonprofit.  They also have to satisfy the states that support Powerball and their other games (normally states wouldn’t like lotteries and gambling).  So MUSL and Powerball only operate and facilitate the games.  They do not take in the assets from tickets.  They only administer the jackpot winnings and coordinate the games between all the member states.

State lotteries pay all employees and take in all revenues.  Proceeds from Powerball get returned back into state budgets after paying the costs of running the lottery in the state, pitching in for the jackpot, and contributing to MUSL’s operations costs.  About 1/3 of ticket sales is returned to state budgets. This money gets used for all kinds of things.  Most notably though, states use the money for education.

(It’s always seemed ironic to me that we have “education lotteries.” If we had better education, maybe people wouldn’t play the lottery because they’d understand probability, or so I thought, but there are other reasons to play the lottery than thinking you’ll win and I’ll talk about those in a minute.)

Here’s the breakdown of proceeds for DC, where I live:

While MUSL can’t make a profit, each state lottery can and is expected to make money.  One study in 2008 found that lotteries contributed $77.8 billion to state budgets across the country.

Here’s how that compares to other ticket sales (2014).

It’s actually kinda messed up

Originally, money made in state lotteries was supposed to supplement the state budget.  In many states, though, legislators have cut taxes and rely on lottery proceeds to replace tax revenue.  While this might seem great in theory (people who have extra money and choose to spend it on the lottery can afford to pay for public services), in practice study after study have shown that those of low socioeconomic class and racial minority are the most likely to play the lottery and play it heavily.

  • In North Carolina, the poorest counties lead the state in lottery sales.
  • On average, poor people spend 9% of their income on lottery tickets.
  • One survey found that 21% of Americans believe the lottery is the most practical way to wealth.

When we use lottery revenues to replace tax revenues, it cuts taxes on the rich while the poor and non-white foot the bill.

While it’s clearly a problem that people think the lottery is a practical way to wealth, I don’t think playing the lottery is purely about wealth.

It’s also about hope

There’s something about a lottery ticket.  Even though you know you’re probably not going to win, there’s still hope that you could.  And sometimes that hope is enough.

That’s not to mention the trash talking that you can do with your friends about how good your numbers are and how awful theirs are.  Or the rush you get when the numbers are being picked.

The lottery strikes deep in a way.  We dream about the way things could be if only we had a million dollars… or $1.5 billion.  It takes us into the realm of hopes and dreams and the ideal life.

Last night, while talking with my roommates about the lottery, we started listing the things we would do with the money.  Some things were jokes, but others were very real wishes: “I would want to travel,” “I would want to buy a boat,” “I would want fame in public and a house that’s entirely secluded.”

I realized last night that a lot of those “would wants” that we talk about in the context of winning the lottery are actually just “wants.”  Thinking about the lottery can expose something about what you want in life.  Maybe that’s the value of the lottery ticket – not the money that you almost certainly will not win – but the chance to daydream about a better life.


Have a good week,

Raise hell, praise Dale

Hey everyone,

It was a clear day in February 2001. Tony Stewart was driving 200mph on a straightaway when a car nudged him from behind, sending Tony spinning into a wall. His car turned backward and collided head on with another speeding car, flipping high into the air, and tumbling over oncoming cars. That day in Daytona, NASCAR racer Tony Stewart’s crash took out nearly 30 cars.

I’m amazed at the destruction of the sport. The stakes are so high, and drivers risk their lives every time they race. Tony Stewart survived the crash, but three NASCAR drivers died in competition that year. Shortly after the wreck, Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR’s most respected racer, got on the radio with his crew to give one of the most haunting forewarnings in sports:

“If they don’t do something about these cars it’s gonna end up killing somebody” — Dale Earnhardt

Despite Dale’s concerns, tow trucks cleared the track and the race went on.  Dale’s premonition would come true too soon — on the final lap of that race.

I’m not a NASCAR fan, but Dale Earnhardt was a legend. And the story of his death is one of the greatest tragedies in sports.

Today in the Bulletin, I want to tell a little bit of Dale Earnhardt’s story. It’s a story of a man who was persistent, notorious, the king of NASCAR, and killed tragically.


The beginning of the story

Ralph Earnhardt, Dale’s father, was born in 1928 in the small town of Kannapolis, North Carolina. He grew up working in the cotton mill. In the evenings, Ralph would race his car on the dirt ovals in towns around Kannapolis. He developed a reputation as a discerning driver who kept his car in top shape despite the dirty races. Racing was his escape from the confines of the cotton mill, and it was one of the only ways out of poor wages.

Ralph started racing professionally in 1949, and by 1953 it was his full-time occupation, racing in cities across the south. In 1951, Ralph had a son: Dale.

Despite Ralph’s protests, they were a racing family, and because of Dale the family name would become known by every racing fan.

Dale Earnardt’s career took off with his start in NASCAR in 1975, and over the next 30 seasons (until 2001), Dale Earnhardt would win 97 races and finish in the top ten 503 times. In rural areas where NASCAR was most popular, Dale Earnhardt’s name and #3 became synonymous with swagger. He was the Michael Jordan of car racing, Superman on four wheels.

His aggressive driving and habit of riding rear bumpers gave him the nickname The Intimidator.

Throughout his 30 years on the track Dale Earnhardt dominated the sport.

“People used to boo Dale Earnhardt because he was winning too much”–Buddy Baker, long-time NASCAR driver and announcer

But there was one race he could never win: the Daytona 500.

200 laps around a 2.5 mi oval. Dale tried and failed to win that race 19 times, many times the race ended in heartbreak.

It eluded him for 20 years, until 1998. 13 million people tuned in to witness Dale win. When he did, grown men cried.


The Day He Died

Fast forward to Daytona three years later. Rmember the story I told you of Tony Stewart’s car tumbling and causing a 30-car wreck?  This was the same day. The same day Dale predicted these cars would kill somebody.

On the final lap of the race, Dale’s team held the top three positions.  His best friend, Michael Waltrip was in first.  His son, Dale, Jr., was in second.  And Dale held the third spot.

On the fourth turn of the final lap, Dale’s car made contact with another. His car veered onto the apron then back hard onto the track, only to be struck heavily on his passenger side. Dale slammed into the concrete retaining wall at an estimated speed of ~150 mph.

As his best friend and his son completed the race in 1st and 2nd place, Dale’s car came to a halt on the infield.

“This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever personally had to make, but after the accident in turn four at the end of the Daytona 500, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt. “ –Mike Helton, President of NASCAR

These comments on a Reddit thread tell what Dale meant to people, and maybe they say it better than I could:


Hope everyone had a good New Years.  Glad to be back writing the Bulletin.

As always if you have something to share, you can respond to this email.

Love you guys,


Rihanna’s Intravenous Vitamins

Hey everybody,

Earlier this year, Khloe Kardashian posted this photo on her Instagram:

The photo included a caption: “Vitamin party!!!!” as well as some choice words for haters because she re-uses the plastic bags, okay?!?

She takes pills everyday, and notice how they’re labeled AM and PM.  By my count, on Saturday alone she takes more than 15 pills.  And Khloe isn’t the only celebrity who’s vitamin crazy.

Katy Perry tweeted this photo:
With the caption, “I’m all about the supplement & vitamin LYFE!”

Then there’s Rihanna who gets intravenous with her vitamin intake:
These “vitamin jabs” cost over $500 a pop.

That’s just a drop in the bucket, because as I dug further I found that over half of American adults take some form of vitamin daily.  The vitamin and supplements industry is huge!  It’s a $36 billion/year industry.

Now, I don’t take a daily multivitamin.  Never have.  So I wonder if I’m behind the curve, missing out on something most of America has known all along?

I decided to do some research, and I went down the rabbit hole of the vitamin craze, and it’s much deeper and darker than I imagined.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Linus Pauling

In 1931, Linus Pauling published a paper called “The Nature of Chemical Bonds.”  This paper alone made him one of the pre-eminent scientists of his time.  He married quantum physics and chemistry to explain the bonds between atoms in a molecule.

When asked about Pauling’s work, Albert Einstein responded, “It was too complicated for me.”

After his paper was published, Pauling was inducted to the National Academy of Sciences, received a tenured position at Cal Tech, and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  He was 30 years old.

His later research into hemoglobin and proteins laid the groundwork for microbiology.

The man was a genius.

So when Linus Pauling started advocating copious amounts of vitamin C to fight off the common cold, people believed the Nobel-prize winning, beloved chemist.  Pauling had begun taking vitamin C when a fan recommended it, and shortly thereafter he wrote a paper recommending 3,000 mg/day (50 times the normal daily amount).  He believed the common cold would soon be a footnote in human history.

As early as 1942, other scientists smelled something fishy.  A paper published that year in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded,

“Under the conditions of this controlled study, in which 980 colds were treated . . . there is no indication that vitamin C alone, an antihistamine alone, or vitamin C plus an antihistamine have any important effect on the duration or severity of infections of the upper respiratory tract.”

After that, study after study showed no significant relationship between vitamin C intake and cold prevention.  During his lifetime, Pauling never backed down.  In fact, he doubled down, claiming vitamin C would be responsible for a 10% decrease in cancer and 25 year extension to life expectancy.  In the words of a colleague, Pauling’s “fall was as great as any classic tragedy.”

The existence of Emergen-C and Airborne are evidence that Pauling’s effects are still felt today.  In dozens of studies, vitamin C hasn’t been shown to prevent colds.  Eventually Pauling claimed that taking vitamin C with Vitamin A, E, Selenium, and beta-carotene could cure a whole raft of illnesses including cancer, heart disease, and aging.

Over the years, vitamins began to be peddled in magazines and TV ads as cure-alls.  High dosages of vitamins became a solution to health and happiness in pop culture.

Thus began vitamin mania.

Does that mean Rihanna is a sucker??

Just because Pauling was wrong about the common cold doesn’t mean vitamins are altogether wrong.  So I looked into what the research says about vitamins.  Aaaand the evidence is decidedly mixed.

  • Multiple studies have indicated that a daily multivitamin doesn’t do much to boost the average person’s health. Dr. Eliseo Guallar at Johns Hopkins even stated, “We believe that it’s clear that vitamins are not working.”
  • Some studies have found that those who take a vitamins live slightly shorter lives, including a study of smokers where those on a regular doseage of high-quality vitamins died earlier on average.
  • However, there are a few studies that find benefits.  A study from January 2015 found a slightly lowered risk of heart disease among women taking vitamins, but the effect was not seen among men.
  • In an overarching study, the US Preventive Task Force concluded there is insufficient evidence to recommend for or against the use of multivitamins for the prevention of cancer or heart disease.

If there is an overwhelming case for vitamins, I didn’t find it in my research.  Most of the studies I read were inconclusive or found negative effects.

But why then do people keep taking them?

The placebo effect

One reason why people keep taking Emergen-C, Airborne, vitamin jabs, gallons of pills, and multivitamins is because they think it will make them better, so they feel better.

It’s not clear that vitamins help you, but it’s not clear that they hurt you either.  And if the placebo effect makes you feel a little better, maybe that’s the true value of vitamins.

No regulation

This blew my mind.

The vitamin and supplements industry has very little oversight.  A 1976 amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act limited the FDA’s oversight, and vitamins don’t have to go through the same rigorous testing as drugs.  Vitamin companies are responsible for policing themselves.  The end result for consumers is that vitamins and supplements are often mislabeled.  Dosages are unchecked and often unnecessarily high.  In some cases, so-called “vitamins” are actually crushed up house plants or rice powder or sugar pills

The FDA doesn’t have the power nor the resources to regulate the $36 billion industry.

Let’s be real though

So the verdict is still out on vitamins, but at this point I’m not exactly scrambling to get Rihanna’s intravenous vitamin boost, nor am I even convinced that I should be taking a multivitamin.  The industry is sketchy at best, so I’m not sure I feel good supporting it.

At the same time, I can’t really blame Khloe.  Taking vitamins is about optics for her.  She can tell people her health game is “on point” and she gets to feel like she’s healthy.  And who doesn’t want that?

Hit me up if you know something interesting about vitamins.

Merry Christmas next week.  Enjoy your families, friends, etc.  If someone has a cold, hydrate and use saline spray.  Vitamin C doesn’t work.

Love you guys,

What I learned from Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute)

Hey everybody,

I’m sick.  I’ve been walking around with a stuffy nose that is inexplicably still able to run.  It’s disgusting.  Lots of Kleenex, DayQuil, and cough drops.

While my mucus and I made our way home from work yesterday, I listened to an interview with Rainn Wilson.  As of yesterday, I knew nothing about the guy who played Dwight on the Office.  It turns out he’s a really cool guy, and he’s doing a lot of interesting stuff.  So this week I’ll keep the Bulletin brief and share a few things I learned from Rainn Wilson.

Being content with little

When he was first starting out acting in NYC, Rainn Wilson lived in the city on $17k/year.  He ran his own moving company.  He owned a moving truck and would help people move houses in between acting gigs.  His goal was to shoot a few commercials or be an extra – anything to make a stable income.  That was as big as his dreams got.  He never imagined he’d become famous on NBC.

Rainn’s experience with being poor reminded me of a quote from Seneca:

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’”

Sometimes people say, “What’s the worst that could happen?” in a joking, off-hand way.  Seneca is urging us to actually think about and even act out the worst case scenario.  Once you’ve experienced the worst case, according to Seneca, your fears have more perspective.


Rainn Wilson is of the Baha’i faith, and if you asked me yesterday I would have had no idea what members of the Baha’i faith believe.  But today I can tell you the Baha’i faith has three core principles:

  1. The oneness of God – there is only one God
  2. The oneness of religion – all major religions come from and point to the same God
  3. The oneness of humanity – all races, tribes, people are created equal

It’s a kind of overarching religion that says that Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, and Krishna were all messengers from God to move the human race along spiritually.  There are 5 million Baha’i in the world.

I don’t know if Baha’i really are as peaceful as the philosophy would suggest, but it’s nice to hear of a religion so heavily based on unity and bringing people together.  At least for Rainn Wilson, it’s a joyful message and helps him be a hopeful person.  In response to an interview question, “What is something you believe that many people don’t believe?” Rainn answered, “I believe world peace is possible.”

Soul Pancake

You remember when that Kid President video was a huge deal?  It was produced by Soul Pancake.  Turns out Rainn Wilson is one of the co-founders.  Soul Pancake’s mission is to “tackle life’s big questions” while bringing more joy into the world.

I’ll do a more in-depth Bulletin next week when I’m feeling better.

Love you guys!


Oliver Sacks’ final essays on gratitude

One of the greatest modern scientists died this August.  In the last two years of his life, Oliver Sacks wrote four essays on living well.  The essays were originally published in the New York Times, and they’re now compiled into a book that went on sale yesterday.  The book is simply titled, Gratitude.

This week, we’re all busy with the Thanksgiving holiday, so I’ll just share a quote from the book and that’ll be it.  I plan on diving into Oliver Sacks’ writing as soon as I finish my current books.

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

–Oliver Sacks

Happy Thanksgiving.  Love you guys.


It’s the Little Things

Alexander FlemingAlexander Fleming didn’t tidy up his lab before leaving on vacation.  He left the window open, and his petri dishes full of Staphylococcus bacteria remained scattered on the tabletop.  Fleming departs on vacation, and when he retuns to his lab he decides to clean the lab.  He inspects each dish before submerging it in cleaning solution, and most are covered with a lush lawn of staph bacteria.  BUT, he comes upon a dish where the lawn of bacteria is not so lush.  There appear to be circular areas where the staph is not growing.

Like any good scientist, Fleming grabs his microscope.  He finds that the staph is dying at an unprecedented rate.  In these circles, there is virtually no living staph.  At the center of these circles are specks of mold.  They must have blown in through the window and landed in his petri dishes.  But the mold is DESTROYING the staph, savagely murdering every staph in the area.  This is great news if you’re Alexander Fleming, or if you’re a human being.  The mold Fleming found is called Penicillium, and it’s the basis for penicillin.

Welcome back to the Bulletin.  This week, all the stories I’ll share with you revolve around a theme.  The theme is, “It’s the little things.”

A little mold

Fleming published his findings on Penicillium and Staphylococcus in 1929.  He realized that when Penicillium was grown in a certain substrate, it would produce an antibiotic substance, what Fleming called penicillin.  It wasn’t until 1938, with the help of chemists, that penicillin was purified and tested, and not until 1941 that a patient received penicillin as treatment.  It took the devestation of World War II to convince governments to fund the mass production of penicillin, but once they did production skyrocketed.  As researchers and army doctors realized penicillin could be used to treat wounds, production leapt to 650 BILLION units PER MONTH by the end of the war in 1945.  It is estimated that Fleming’s discovery of a little mold saved 200 million lives to date.

Ever had strep throat, staph infection, scarlet fever, stomach ulcers, chlamydia, gangrene, tooth abscesses, lyme disease, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, pneumonia, or necrotizing fasciitis?  Still alive?  Thank Fleming.

Fleming’s story is the first of a couple cool stories on a recent Radiolab episode.  Check it out if you want to learn more.

Little aliens

This animated short film about a lazy guy in outer space is pretty funny.

Little sounds

There are certain things that once you know them about a song, you can’t unhear them.  Lemme show you what I mean with 2 examples (both great songs in their own rights btw).

In the tUnE-yArDs song, “Water Fountain,” the clanking percussion is from an aluminum water bottle Merrill Garbus found at a thrift store.

Or in The Postal Service’s, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” they layered in a loop of the female vocalist singing “on and on and on and on….” right here.

Knowing about these little sounds brings me so much pleasure every time I hear them.  There’s something about the process and the extra layer of humanity it brings to the music.  These are real people making sounds with what they have.

I heard both of these sounds on Song Exploder (here and here).  Love it, highly recommend.

Little things that make your day

When dishes come out clean the first time you rinse them.  Having a gym partner.  Getting a clean, new train on the metro.  Riding your bike through 4 green lights in a row.  Anytime food/drink is “on the house.”  A message from a friend you haven’t heard from in a while.  Hearing your roommate discover that “Lando is kind of a dick!” because this is the first time he has seen Star Wars. (He also told us, “never tell me the odds!”)

(Mildly entertaining: There’s this guy who has written one awesome thing a day since 2008.  Here are the top 1000 awesome things.)

Our little world

From Carl Sagan:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on the mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Reactions, responses, suggestions, comments, threats, entreaties, and epistles can all be sent via reply email.

Love you guys.  Have a good week!

The Day I Stayed Home

This week I’d like to share a memory of mine.
Poplar Springs Drive

Poplar Springs Dr. – Gainesville, GA

I couldn’t have been much older than ten, and we lived in a mundane, suburban house on the edges of Gainesville, Georgia – the poultry production capital of the world. I had a normal childhood playing catch and jumping on the trampoline in the backyard. But the in-ground pool in our backyard was broken and perpetually empty.  I can remember descending to the bottom of the deep end to clean out leaves or swat carpenter bees with a tennis racquet. The pool never got fixed until the day we moved out.

The Garner kids
Dad was several years into a challenging career and a life he never really chose. He felt a malaise that comes to many of us when we aren’t very good at understanding what we want in life. Mom had loneliness from being a stay-at-home mother whose husband is despondent, whose son is not good at little league baseball, and whose 2-year-old twin daughters kept her indefinitely anxious. And me, I felt empty because I wasn’t good at baseball or video games or much except school. My best friend, Preston, lived across the street. I couldn’t visit his house without smelling like cigarette smoke, and my mom often forbade me from visiting for fear Preston’s family would be a bad influence on me.

I distinctly remember one day. It must have been a weekend or a holiday, because there was no school. I woke up and went to the computer to fly simulated helicopters around a virtual city. Mid-morning, Dad asked if I’d like to go to Atlanta with him. He had a meeting I’d have to wait through, but then we could get burgers and fries at The Varsity. I hardly hesitated. Waiting through his meeting seemed unappealing and the prospect of flying helicopters all day won out; I stayed home. As the novelty of the video game wore off, of course, regret sunk in.  My throat thickened as I realized I missed a whole day alone with my dad. I sobbed. I asked mom to call dad and have him come back, but it was too late.

That’s the first memory I have of adult-caliber regret, having ruined what would have been a memorable day. The incident was small enough that neither of my parents remember the day, but I felt a kind of guilt and self-anger at nine years old that still stays with me. And that’s not a bad thing. I have expectations of myself and who I’d like to be. When I let myself down, I should feel pain. Not shame that tears you apart, but guilt that shows you when you’ve missed your potential.

 “Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly — it reminds us that we know we can do better.”
Kathryn Shulz

Please don’t think I’m trying to teach anybody a lesson with this story, I just notice that “no regrets” has become something of a motif in pop culture. In our world that’s so focused on being happy and fulfilled, I think we could use more thoughtful sadness and disappointment, the kind that makes you think about why you’re sad and what you truly want.  My dad sent me this note when I shared this story with him:

“I don’t have as much regret for that part of my life or the general course of my life now.  I have learned some valuable and hard lessons … Really, I guess I’m almost proud of myself for making it through. It’s peaceful.”

Thoughtful sadness reminds us of who we want to be.

I’d love to know your thoughts on sadness, disappointment, guilt and/or regret.

Also, let me know what you think of the longer format. And the personal content. Did you enjoy this?

This is Water

Welcome to another installment of Bennett‘s Bulletin.  Let’s get right down to it:

I’ve been thinking about internal dialogue this week.  There’s a little voice in my head narrating everything.  Sometimes the little voice is mean, and he says awful things about other people.  Often he is self-centered and selfish, thinking only about what’s best for me.  Unless I consciously choose what to think about, the default seems to be numb self-preservation, telling myself that I’m so important and that others are dumb or mean.

It’s hard to master thinking compassionately. There are times when I’m too tired or too preoccupied or just can’t be bothered to try to think differently about the world – to be nicer.  I have a hunch that it’s not just me.  In Washington, DC, I see people yelling into their cell phones or stomping down the street with furrowed brows everyday.  I don’t blame them; it’s hard.

I love the way David Foster Wallace tackles the issue.  His commencement speech to Kenyan College went viral a few years ago.  The title of the speech was “This is Water.”  It’s one of the most important things I’ve seen, and I revisit the speech regularly.

The audio is available here:
DFW turned the speech into an essay, too, available here:

This week, instead of spending your time reading my Bulletin, I hope you’ll either watch or read “This is Water.”  If you’ve seen it before, take the time to watch or read it again.

Let me know what you think.  Just send me your favorite quote(s) from “This is Water” and a few sentences about why.