How Shellac is Made

April 18, 2024 • #

I’m in the process of building some cabinets, and yesterday I was working on the drawers. I decided to use shellac as the finish for the drawer interiors. Never used it before, but heard that it applies easy, cures fast, and is generally more pleasant to work with than harsh chemical urethanes. It has the consistency and properties of other synthetic resins, but is totally organic — actually secreted naturally by the lac bug.

Shellac sharts

How it’s made is a marvel of human discovery, tinkering, and problem-solving, and also nature’s incredibly weird ability to produce naturally things we couldn’t reliably make synthetically:

Shellac, like silk, honey, and beeswax, is made by bugs, not of bugs. Laccifer lacca, a small insect about the size and color of an apple seed, swarms on certain trees in India and Thailand. Like most bugs, it eats during its larval stage, then settles down and creates a sort of cocoon in which to mature. In this case, the bugs create a huge, hard, waterproof, communal protective shell on the branches of the trees they live on. Soon, the adult males emerge from the shell and fly away. The females do not fly; they attach permanently to the tree and stay there.

Once the males have gone, natives collect the branches and scrape off the hard crust. This gets crumbled into what we call “seedlac.” Seedlac is filtered to remove any random bits of bark and bug legs to make shellac.

Here’s a great video that follows the entire production chain from a lac farm in India all the way to its final uses:

It’s interesting to imagine watching this procedure from start to finish as an alien observer, with no idea what’s being done — totally weird-looking and unexplainable steps like drying insect goop in the sun into crystals, putting it in a 30 foot-long sock to melt it and filter impurities, making huge sheets with a palm leaf. The whole process is an awesome example of human ingenuity to experiment with any methods that work to ultimately solve our problems.

And shellac solves many of them. The same insect resin gets used for making beads, coatings on medicines, hard candy, fruit preservatives, and, of course, wood finishes.

Earning Knowledge

April 3, 2024 • #

I ran back across this quote today, from one of Jonah Goldberg’s G-Files from a few years ago:

In Suicide of the West, I argued that our biggest cultural problem is that entitlement has eclipsed gratitude. This seems to be a variation of that. We all want to know stuff, but we increasingly resent the idea of having to learn it. It’s like wanting to be in great shape but not wanting to exercise. And when we discover something—like, say, the colonial divisions of Africa—that is actually important and useful to us, our sense of entitlement leads us to think it must have been hidden from us on purpose. Even our own ignorance is someone else’s fault. The proper (and healthier) response to learning something interesting that you didn’t know is gratitude. “Hey, thanks! I didn’t know that.”

In the piece ($) he’s making the argument that just because you didn’t know something doesn’t mean you were slighted, or that someone that does know the thing was advantaged against you. They may have had an advantage of some sort. But most often that person went out of their way to earn said knowledge.

It reminds me of something I used to hear earlier in my career from colleagues. When I’d advocate learning or reading up on a particular skill (one I enjoyed having invested in), I’d hear variants of “well that’s easy for you to say, you already know X”, or “yeah of course you’d be in favor of that, you got to learn Y already”. It used to piss me off royally, the entitled lack of respect.

That I knew how to use Linux or the command line or how to write coherently — these weren’t gifts from above. And at the time I had no explicit understanding that these things would become valuable skills to me later in life. I spent countless hours in college building and rebuilding computers, reading books, and writing on the internet because I enjoyed them and saw some value in them for myself — all while the critics were partying or watching TV instead.

Evolution Has No Goal

February 27, 2024 • #

There’s a common misconception that evolution is “seeking” fitness — that there’s some inherent motivation in the process pushing toward a particular objective.

But evolution is an undirected process of mutation, testing, and accidental discovery of fitness. Within the genes of an organism, there is no memory acquiring feedback from these experimental genetic guesses. Genetic drift, mutation, and natural selection are evolution’s conjecture and criticism. But the criticism feedback loop doesn’t close in a single generation.

Evolution’s feedback loop is survival. If a gene survives, it will replicate. If it doesn’t, that mutation is “found” not to have worked (though the genes themselves never receive the message directly)1. A gene’s only goal (if one can call it that) is to copy itself. The environment provides the pressure to select one mutation over another. But the environment has no goal either. It merely is, and genes have evolved to continually mutate, then poke and prod at the environment to perpetuate their replication.

DNA replication

Though from the Big Bang to now it appears evolution is seeking ever-higher forms of intelligence, this too is deceiving. There are no steps on a ladder, no “global maximum” on offer. Further complexity often confers an advantage, but not always. This fact fools us into believing evolution is in search of higher-order complexity on purpose.

We’re fooled into believing there’s an objective because humans have a tendency to seek patterns. Because we ourselves can conceptualize abstract goals and proceed incrementally on a planned path, we imbue evolution with a similar characteristic.

Evolution is a soup of primitive ingredients being continually mixed, matched, and tested against the chaotic environment around it. When thought of as its own form of knowledge creation distinct from the way human-created knowledge works, it’s a helpful mental model for thinking about all forms of complex adaptive systems.

  1. The theory that genes receive feedback within a single generation is called “Lamarckism”, a fascinating subject in itself. A story of humans projecting our own means of knowledge creation on evolution’s purely undirected, emergent process. 

The Two Enlightenments

February 20, 2024 • #

We learn about “The Enlightenment” as a singular entity, a historical age associated with rationality, scientific inquiry, humanism, and liberty. The Enlightenment and scientific revolution were defining moments that spawned an unprecedented period of progress and human flourishing. But in his book The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch adds useful texture for better understanding the motivations of the Enlightenment’s contributors.

He divides the movement into two broad forms: the “British” and the “Continental”.

Both branches agree on the core principles of rationality, progress, and freedom. Where they disagree is on how to achieve these goals. They pursue the same ends, but disagree on the means. The British model builds on the concept of fallibilism: progress happens through conjecture, empirical evidence, and falsification. The Continental relies on pure reason, and our theoretical ability to find final, objective truth. Thinkers like Kant, Rousseau, and Voltaire best fit in the Continental camp. The likes of John Locke, Edmund Burke, Karl Popper, and Adam Smith in the British.

Here’s a summary of qualities that differentiate these two approaches to pursuing human progress:

Continental Enlightenment British Enlightenment
Utopianism Fallibilism
Society can be perfected Society can only be indefinitely improved
Problems are soluble, NOT inevitable Problems are soluble, AND inevitable
Perfect the state through design Improve the state through gradual evolution
Top-down Bottom-up
Comprehensive reform of institutions Messy, improvement of imperfect forms

Deutsch himself favors the British form. As with issues of contemporary politics and philosophy, it’s important to understand not only the goals a particular philosophy seeks, but how it proposes we go about doing so.

Screenshot Essays

February 14, 2024 • #

A recent tweet from David Perell prompted me to give this concept a shot.

I’ve done 3 screenshot essays in the past week, and it’s invigorating. I struggle going from messy, one-liner level notes, or jumbles of bullet points into longer form pieces. The screenshot format is fun because ideas don’t have to be big to contain enough substance to fit a screenshot. In fact, the more compact, the better. 200-250 words.

What I’ve noticed so far is it makes it much easier to remove the friction to expand on tiny seeds from my notebook. For example, right now I have a single bullet in my notes that says “Build for yourself”. If I wanted to write 1,000 words on that idea, it sounds like a big hill. I don’t even know where to start. But 200 words? I could mash that out. Then in the process of the 200ish words, the seed develops into a seedling. There’s some forward progress that kickstarts the creative engine. My last Res Extensa essay began as an expansion on a fleeting clipped quote.

There’s a lower barrier to producing them, easy to consume, easy to share, and importantly, easy to produce consistently.

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