Growing mushrooms at home

Apart from raw oysters, E’s favorite things in the world to eat are mushrooms. She has been trying to grow blue oyster mushrooms (haha) in a box in our living room for nearly a week now. It has been a sleepy exercise until this morning. (I’ve gone through several days of E bouncing out of bed, running to her mushroom box, and then sulking because there was nothing there.) They finally decided to take off.

I think they are adorable.

I learn a lot from having an extremely bright and curious child. I have to say, the structure of hyphae has been one of the most interesting things she has made me research.

I had always wondered why we’d get mushrooms sprouting up in the yard along the circumference of a large circle. (Folks often call these circles “fairy rings.”) Mushroom caps are a small part of a much larger, networked organism that spreads underground.

Here is a long, nerdy explanation:

The name fairy ring comes from an old folk-tale. People once believed that mushrooms growing in a circle followed the path made by fairies dancing in a ring. Fairy rings are found in open grassy places and in forests. In grass, the best known fairy ring fungus has the scientific name Marasmius oreades. The body of this fungus, its mycelium, is underground. It grows outward in a circle. As it grows, the mycelium uses up all of the nutrients in the soil, starving the grass. This is the reason a fairy ring has dead grass over the growing edge of the mycelium. Umbrella-shaped fruiting bodies, called mushrooms, spring up from just behind the outer edge of the mycelium. 

Large rings are created when the older mycelium in the center finally exhausts the soil nutrients and dies. On the death of the central mycelium, the nutrients are returned to the soil and grass can grow again. The living edge of the mycelium continues to grow outward. As it grows, it secretes chemicals into the ground ahead. These chemicals break down the organic matter, releasing nutrients so that the mycelium will have food when it reaches this area. For a brief time, the grass at the outer edge of the ring also benefits. The extra nutrients make the grass darker green, taller, and thicker than the rest of the lawn or pasture. This lush grass dies when the mycelium grows under it and steals the nutrients. Fairy rings made by fungi like Marasmius oreades are called “free” rings. 

They will continue to grow outward until a barrier is reached. Sometimes the barrier is another fairy ring! Rings can grow into each other’s territory and die as each reaches the other’s “dead zone.” If there are no barriers, free rings can grow outward at up to 8 inches (20 cm) per year. They can reach a diameter of over 30 feet (10 m). One ring formed in France by the fungus Clitocybe geotropa is almost a half mile (600 m) in diameter. This ring is thought to be 700 years old. Mycorrhizal fungi, which live in symbiotic partnership with trees, also form fairy rings. Their rings are called “tethered” rings. A tether is like a leash. The fungus and its mycorrhizal partner tree need each other to survive. The mycelium of these fungi always remains joined to the tree’s roots. Roots are the “tether” that keeps the fairy rings of mycorrhizal fungi from growing too far from their tree.

What is also cool is that fungi communicate among themselves and with other plants (and their growth is sensitive to electric fields).

Artificial intelligence and why people who are “aggressively online” are terrible

Over the years, I have joined and quit-for-good Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I still have a LinkedIn profile, but I rarely ever look at it unless some contact messages me (and, frankly, most of them know better ways to get in touch). As a general rule, I now only read content where the author has made a bona fide investment of time and thought: books, investigative journalism, blogs, and so on. I won’t allow our daughter to use YouTube unless she’s supervised because there are still so many child predators on there. I can’t imagine allowing her to have social media accounts of her own and watching them irretrievably destroy her peaceful and loving personality. I dread those future conversations.

You don’t understand how miserable social media makes you until you finally cut it out of your life. And I don’t mean the week or two after you quit where you see something that you wish you could tell someone about and can’t and that is annoying. I am talking about the weeks and months and years afterward, where you look around at your spouse, your kid, your house, your neighbors, your career, your body, your garden, the vacations you actually experienced instead of photographed, the stack of books on your nightstand, and on and on, and you realize the enormity of the opportunity cost of your being aggressively online. You also start to understand why the otherwise good people who remain aggressively online become a bit unhinged after a while.

I’ve written before about how social media platforms seem to have a clear life cycle. They are pleasant for early adopters. You find yourself talking to interesting, intelligent, and entertaining people that you would otherwise never meet. But over time, every ecosystem you inhabit becomes polluted with trolls and people (or companies) that want to discipline, direct, and take credit for what’s happening.

Everything becomes a managed narrative or potential source of conflict. No matter how many people you unfollow, mute, block, whatever, you cannot escape the bad actors. Your choices for participation are reduced to lurking or only posting the most inane, harmless content (though some people find a way to attack that too). Initially, your contempt for these problems is directed at a specific platform. But after you ditch your third or fourth profile, fatalism takes over, either about social media or society as a whole. You wonder why it is that these companies cannot balance freedom of speech with eliminating characters who don’t have anything in particular to say but just want to provoke or harass or cause pain.

The answer is (1) they can’t, and (2) even if they could, they wouldn’t want to.

Social media platforms are engineered with one goal in mind: to make people spend ever more time online. They want a captive, addicted audience who will generate revenue for them all day, every day. Who will look at promoted content. Who will give them an endless stream of personal data to hawk. They don’t want to educate you. They don’t want to challenge you or make you think. They don’t give a rat’s ass if the content you see makes you happy or smart or miserable, suicidal, anxious, full of hate, whatever, except to the extent that you can’t turn away from content that makes you feel something and that’s profitable. They are not, and never will be, moral actors.

This article from a former Google engineer, The Toxic Potential of YouTube’s Feedback Loop, is an excellent summary of why social media platforms tend to cause otherwise normal people to morph into trolls and their online ecosystems to morph into troll colonies. The author starts with how YouTube’s massive pedophile problem was built:

In February, a YouTube user named Matt Watson found that the site’s recommendation algorithm was making it easier for pedophiles to connect and share child porn in the comments sections of certain videos. The discovery was horrifying for numerous reasons. Not only was YouTube monetizing these videos, its recommendation algorithm was actively pushing thousands of users toward suggestive videos of children ….

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first scandal to strike YouTube in recent years. The platform has promoted terrorist content, foreign state-sponsored propaganda, extreme hatred, softcore zoophilia, inappropriate kids content, and innumerable conspiracy theories.

Having worked on recommendation engines, I could have predicted that the AI would deliberately promote the harmful videos behind each of these scandals. How? By looking at the engagement metrics.

Using recommendation algorithms, YouTube’s AI is designed to increase the time that people spend online. Those algorithms track and measure the previous viewing habits of the user—and users like them—to find and recommend other videos that they will engage with.

In the case of the pedophile scandal, YouTube’s AI was actively recommending suggestive videos of children to users who were most likely to engage with those videos. The stronger the AI becomes—that is, the more data it has—the more efficient it will become at recommending specific user-targeted content.

Here’s where it gets dangerous: As the AI improves, it will be able to more precisely predict who is interested in this content; thus, it’s also less likely to recommend such content to those who aren’t. At that stage, problems with the algorithm become exponentially harder to notice, as content is unlikely to be flagged or reported. In the case of the pedophilia recommendation chain, YouTube should be grateful to the user who found and exposed it. Without him, the cycle could have continued for years.

Failures at detecting destructive content are far from the only problem having substantially all traffic deriving from recommendation algorithms produces, however. Their tendency to create feedback loops is what’s mechanically responsible for our society’s apparent collective mental illness (emphasis mine):

Earlier this year, researchers at Google’s Deep Mind examined the impact of recommender systems, such as those used by YouTube and other platforms. They concludedthat “feedback loops in recommendation systems can give rise to ‘echo chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles,’ which can narrow a user’s content exposure and ultimately shift their worldview.”

The model didn’t take into account how the recommendation system influences the kind of content that’s created. In the real world, AI, content creators, and users heavily influence one another. Because AI aims to maximize engagement, hyper-engaged users are seen as “models to be reproduced.” AI algorithms will then favor the content of such users.

The feedback loop works like this: (1) People who spend more time on the platforms have a greater impact on recommendation systems. (2) The content they engage with will get more views/likes. (3) Content creators will notice and create more of it. (4) People will spend even more time on that content. That’s why it’s important to know who a platform’s hyper-engaged users are: They’re the ones we can examine in order to predict which direction the AI is tilting the world.

More generally, it’s important to examine the incentive structure underpinning the recommendation engine. The companies employing recommendation algorithms want users to engage with their platforms as much and as often as possible because it is in their business interests. It is sometimes in the interest of the user to stay on a platform as long as possible—when listening to music, for instance—but not always.

We know that misinformation, rumors, and salacious or divisive content drives significant engagement. Even if a user notices the deceptive nature of the content and flags it, that often happens only after they’ve engaged with it. By then, it’s too late; they have given a positive signal to the algorithm. Now that this content has been favored in some way, it gets boosted, which causes creators to upload more of it. Driven by AI algorithms incentivized to reinforce traits that are positive for engagement, more of that content filters into the recommendation systems. Moreover, as soon as the AI learns how it engaged one person, it can reproduce the same mechanism on thousands of users.

As toxic people and toxic content is promoted on these platforms, more toxic content is produced. AI routes people to that content. People who do not like this content walk away or stop interacting. The percentage of content that is toxic increases even more as normal conversations are suffocated. Pretty soon, toxic content is the only content that is being produced. Literally the only way to generate and preserve a following is to participate in the toxicity. And the cumulative effect on the country’s mental health is devastating.

This also goes to show you how naive statements like “get outside of your bubble” are. A liberal having a token conservative friend is not going to reverse the avalanche of toxic content. Media companies fully understand this too. They have started producing grotesquely slanted content, shunning nuance, and ignoring unpredictable takes because they don’t need to reach as many people as possible with what they write. They just need to feed the toxic wasteland they’ve produced on a regular basis and let the algos do the rest.

In many ways, these big tech companies resemble Wall Street banks before the financial crisis. (It’s funny how many of the costly doom loops that emerge in history have similar structures no matter what the medium may be. But I digress.) They look at the world with very short time horizons. They want as much traffic and data as they can possibly get right now, and the fact that their billions of users are increasingly becoming insane, violent, and ill-informed is not their problem. They don’t care about that the generations that are going up aggressively online are now basically unemployable. They don’t care about the volume of criminal activity they are harboring or that it impacts some of the most vulnerable populations in the country.

They will pretend that deleting troll accounts is a solution. They’ll issue a press release saying they’ve deleted two million predatory accounts in the past month knowing full well that two billion more will follow. The problem isn’t individual accounts and they know that. It’s the engineering. It’s their basic business model. It’s their economic incentives.

Florida’s incredible farmers markets

I love all farmers markets and seeing what local produce is available where. Nothing, however, compares to the farmers markets on the Florida coast. You can get sacks of fruit and vegetables for a dollar or two, fish fresh off the boat that morning, and all kinds of exotic tropical produce. In many states, it is difficult for people from all economic backgrounds to have access to healthy foods. That is not the case in Florida, and much of this great food is available year-round. Many of these farmers markets have permanent locations, so you don’t have to show up at a particular time or on a particular day. They are always there and always open.

We came home today with these coconuts that weigh two or three pounds each.

We also found loads of plants for our vegetable garden that we did not already have. New varieties of tomatoes and peppers, some fantastic basil, and Cuban oregano. I picked up some small sweet beets that I am looking forward to eating with a pile of feta, sinfully sweet cantaloupe, and a dozen duck eggs.

I am counting down the days until I can pick up figs everywhere. Figs are my all-time favorite thing to eat. We make a divine salad of figs, mâche, strips of prosciutto, and mozzarella chunks, with a dressing of walnut oil, balsamic vinegar, and Dijon mustard (with a pinch of salt). It is the most amazing thing.

One of the wonderful things about homeschooling is that we can take breaks during the middle of the day to run over to the farmers market down the street from us and pick out fresh food for lunch. (No mystery meat in our cafeteria!) Our daughter is exposed to the life skills of deciding what and how to prepare and food from many other cultures, as Florida is a giant melting pot of people from the US, Caribbean, Europe, and Asia. We try to frequent the many international grocers in our town for spices and curries and whatnot. We love the Portuguese folks and Thai communities here in particular and have made a lot of friends among them.

Our dog is not impressed with virtual reality

My husband bought E a virtual reality headset and about a dozen games for her Play Station. It is incredible how far graphics engines have progressed in my lifetime. She is in love with it, but Sherlock… Not so much.

I have always struggled with virtual reality games (and honestly, anything that seems like it is filmed with a jerky camera) because they give me motion sickness. The only exception is at Dave and Buster’s, which I learned today is because they incorporate fans into their VR games. I had thought that was because the sensation of air blowing on you added to the idea of movement through some medium, but it is actually because it contributes to your sense of equilibrium.

This is a helpful article on how to get over motion sickness in VR. Not sure I would recommend developing a pot-smoking habit for the sake of gaming, but the others are decent recommendations.

A Fire on Glenns Creek

I am pretty tired of bad things happening this week, to be honest.

Before we moved to Florida, we lived on McCracken Pike in Woodford County, Kentucky, on Glenns Creek, in between the distilleries for Woodford Reserve, Jim Beam, and Old Taylor (Castle and Key now). We lived on a farm there in the middle of horse farms for many years. Our daughter was born there. Our old English Mastiff was named Duke of Glenns Creek. It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life.

Last night, lightning supposedly hit one of the Jim Beam warehouses, sending the equivalent of six million bottles of aging bourbon up in flames. The fire burned for half a day. In interviews with firefighters, they said it was the best smelling fire they had ever put out, thanks to the famed “angels’ share” or whiskey that evaporates as it is aging and lingers around the warehouse.

Having spent so many years playing in those waters and getting to know the animals that live there, I am so profoundly sad, however. There’s no doubt that the bourbon has polluted the waters of both Glenns Creek and the Kentucky River, killing everything in its wake.

The view of Glenns Creek, in our old backyard, immediately upstream from the Jim Beam warehouses.
View of the Kentucky River, where Glenns Creek flows in,
immediately downstream from the Jim Beam warehourses.

We sold that property years ago, but it’s sad to see such a fate for a place that we held so dear.

It takes a library to raise a child

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post called Modeling Being a Lifelong Learner for Your Children. I argued that much of the problem with the “screen time” debate among parents is that it misses an obvious point, which is that kids will reproduce the behavior they see in their home. It does not matter how many rules parents have or how thoroughly they attempt to micromanage their kids if parents do not also model virtuous behavior themselves.

Well, here’s a recent study that seems to confirm my point: Scholarly culture: How books in adolescence enhance adult literacy, numeracy and technology skills in 31 societies. One of the biggest indicators of literacy, numeracy, and facility with technology in children is the size of the library in their house. Kids who grow up in houses with 350 or more books are the most literate adults. A home library is also a profound source of social mobility (meaning it provides a source of economic opportunity to kids who come from less privileged backgrounds).

Making books available and reading to children is the single most important thing a parent can do for their child’s education. You can get your kid into a trendy preschool. You can get your kid all the best gadgets on the market loaded with educational games. You can play them Beethoven in their crib. None of it matters if you don’t read as a family.

Our home library (half of it, at least.)