DRMacIver's Notebook

Thoughts from David R. MacIver

2020-04-07

What's cooking?

A Recipe

Let's start with a recipe, because everybody hates it when food blogs start with a long preamble before you finally get to the recipe:

Quantities left to your own judgement, but roughly I had about a 3 : 3 : 1 ratio of apples, cashews, raisins.

Making this:

  1. Coat the cashews in just enough oil to lubricate them (don't use too much! They'll get super oily if you do), add salt to taste, mix thoroughly, and bake at 180C for 15 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, chop the apples as finely as you can be bothered. Toss them with "an amount" of allspice (honestly I would have used cinammon but I could find the allspice)
  3. Take the cashews out of the oven, add the raisins and apple to them, mix thoroughly with a suitable amount of honey.
  4. Raise the oven to 210C and bake for another half hour (then turn the oven off and leave it while you finish making the rest of dinner, in my case a chicken, vegetable, and lentil, soup)

You may notice a couple of key features of this recipe:

It is, fortunately, delicious, but it will probably be tinkered with endlessly if I make it again, and I doubt I'll ever formalise it with anything so gauche as quantities.

A Story

As this is apparently now a food blog, it's time for a deeply personal anecdote about my relationship with this food. It's a story in two tragedies, first one sort of plague and then another (and after all, food blogging during a plague is a fine tradition).

Why did I make this recipe? Well, because I had far too many of the ingredients. This is something I tend to call "forced abundance": When you have too much of a good thing and have to reorient your plans around making use of that.

First, we had Brexit. We still have Brexit, and we're probably going to massively self-own at a crucial pandemic-handling moment as a result of it, but last year I argued (And I still believe my argument was correct) that you should be stockpiling food for the event of a no deal Brexit. Either the food would be neutral to mildly positive to have or the food would be essential to have, and the probabilities of the latter were low but far enough from zero to be worth planning around.

As it turns out, I underestimated how positive this could be, because now that we're trapped in lockdown due to COVID-19 it's really useful to have a giant larder of food supplies. As I put it, annoyingly presciently, in that post:

Another scenario is to consider is that if things get unpleasant, we’ll have a situation reminscient of the London riots – it’s not that you can’t leave the house, you’d just maybe... rather not.

Unfortunately my prepping supplies were less sensible than my argument, and one of the things I didn't realise is how short the shelf life on some items were. In particular the cashew nuts and the raisins mentioned above are about 6 months out of date. They're mostly fine still - the cashews are a little stale, but fine as long as they're cooked. The raisins are very dry but perfectly edible. No sense at all in throwing them away, but better to use them up.

Also, it turns out that 2.5kg of cashews and 5kg of raisins are really quite a lot of cashews and raisins.

On top of this I placed an order for a fruit and veg box from allgreens. Allgreens allow no customisation of their boxes, and as a result I had a great deal of apples.

How do I like them apples? Cooked. For some reason I'm just really not very into raw apples. Not sure why.

So, long story short, I had a great many apples, cashews, and raisins to use up, and I was pretty sure that was a flavour combination that would work well, and after some cursory googling confirmed that I probably wasn't completely off base, and the above is what I came up with. It is indeed a flavour combination that works well.

An Observation

One of the interesting things about forced abundance is how rarely it happens in modern life.

My parents have a garden, so I'm used to it. During the appropriate seasons you discover that there is, for example, such a thing as too many delicious, fresh, raspberries, and that it is perfectly feasible to fill yourself up on artichokes. The degree and specifics of this vary from year to year, but the feeling of sometimes having too much is a thing that everyone with a garden is used to.

Supermarkets don't do that to you. The only time I've ever had anything resembling forced abundance from a supermarket was the year where a Sainsbury's misjudged how many blueberries people wanted for Christmas and so on the 27th we discovered that there were a very large number of blueberries a day or two before their use by date available for about 20p per punnet. We bought a lot of them.

Another relatively common experience of forced abundance is leftovers - when you've made a really large quantity of something and then end up having to eat it up for a week. Especially common after Christmas or Thanksgiving if you've roasted an entire turkey for fewer people than an entire turkey is needed for (Solution: Have a better bird for your holiday meals. Turkey is fine I guess but mostly very boring).

As I discovered this week, vegetable boxes are another one. I used to have an Abel and Cole subscription and the "Oh gods what do I do with all these vegetables?" struggle was significant. Even with the allgreens boxes being purchased on demand I expect I'll still have this, because the thing about boxes is that they bundle everything together. Being out of bananas and fixing that suddenly mean that you've got a lot of tomatoes to use up too.

Generically, two main things that can create forced abundance:

  1. Things coming in at a greater rate than you can use or store them.
  2. Things that you already have stored that are about to go off.

The apples are an example of (1), the cashews and raisins of (2).

The reason these things don't happen with supermarkets is basically supply and demand. If a supermarket needs to get rid of something, they lower the price on it (either on individual items through reductions or sales, or more globally for in season produce and the like) until it clears. If nothing will move a product then they throw it away, which is essentially a limited version of the price going negative.

Supply and demand and market pricing is very good at distributing abundance (it's not necessarily good at distributing it fairly mind you, that may require other mechanisms), and through supermarkets we are all the beneficiaries of that.

However, as an individual who is not set up to sell things, we can't do this. Theoretically my parents could sell the output of their garden (and they now have an informal deal where they dump excess on a local cafe in exchange for favours in kind), but because they are not set up for selling things already it's vastly more effort than it's worth. Some years my mother tries to sell her pumpkins and even that is just not worth the trouble.

For most people, in normal times, our food supply comes from supermarkets on a fairly as needed basis this limitation doesn't really come up, because we're operating on a pull-based rather than push-based model: We decide what we need to make, informed by availability and price certainly, and acquire what we need to make it. Any surplus on the supply end is not our problem.

This creates what is, historically, a somewhat anomalous relationship to food: We treat ingredients as something we have free choice over rather than the starting point. Cooking is a process of creating meals, not a process of turning raw ingredients into meals.

This is a subtle but important difference that you can see even during normalcy. There are, roughly, two types of cook:Those who decide what they're going to make before they go to the supermarket, and those who use the supermarket to find out what they're going to make (this is, of course, actually a spectrum rather than a binary). I'm very much in the latter camp, and I feel like we're having a much better time of cooking in quarantine.

There's nothing wrong with recipes of course, and in many ways pull-based cooking is excellent. I'd be hard pressed to argue that forced abundance is a good thing - it's quite annoying in some ways, and it's tellingly not something that people opt into unless created by circumstances - but it's certainly an interesting thing, serving as the culinary equivalent of a writing prompt, and it forces you in creative directions that you otherwise wouldn't have taken.

2020-04-06

Being safe for others

It will come as no surprise to the regular reader of this blog that personal growth is a bit of a thing for me right now. It is unlikely to come as a surprise (given that I'm writing about growth and run a support group) that I'm also keen to help others with theirs. I've had a lot of good experiences on this front recently, many of which I owe to other people, and want to help pay it forward, both to my friends and also to random people on the internet.

One of the skills that seems most helpful in doing this is being safe to tell things to. People are mostly OK at the desire part, and where they're not you can't really help them with that outside of a very close relationship, but everyone is lacking in safety, and if you're to be able to provide people with a platform for growth you need to be able to extend that safety to them.

There is only one thing you really must do for this: Don't react badly, especially don't react judgementally, when people tell you things that they've been hiding about themself. You need to be someone people can extend trust to.

This is, of course, extremely difficult in general. If someone confesses to some truly terrible crime, of course you're going to react badly to it, no matter how highly you think of them. It doesn't matter how much good faith you're extending, some things are just too much. Fortunately, usually it isn't this bad.

I'm not yet sure what to advise on developing this skill, but some things that seem to help:

A lot of these are, of course, the skills that one learns to apply as a therapist, but I'm hopeful that more people can develop them without retraining as therapists.

2020-04-03

Anxiety vs Worry

Here is a distinction I've found useful recently: You are anxious about something if the emotion attaches to the uncertainty in the situation, you are worried about something if the emotion attaches to the possible outcomes.

NB that this doesn't perfectly track colloquial usage, but I think it works pretty well with it. Also if you're not sure how to tell what the emotion attaches to, may I recommend Focusing?

It's certainly possible to worry about things without being particularly anxious about them. Sensible precautions often work like this: e.g. I lock my door because I'm worried that if I don't people might otherwise come in and steal stuff, but there's no anxiety attached to that worry because it's just something I can act on to limit the chances.

You can be anxious without worry in situations when all of the potential outcomes are positive (it's also possible to mistake excitement for anxiety in these scenarios, but the anxiety can be real too). If one possible outcome

Anxiety and worry are far from mutually exclusive, and indeed tend to go hand in hand, but it is worth untangling the two conceptually, and even where both are present they are still different emotions.

For example, with COVID-19, I am worried about specific outcomes - harm to people in general, harm to people I love, overall negative societal effects, but am also also COVID-19 has more or less destroyed my ability to reason about the future, and that makes me anxious.

In the COVID-19 case the anxiety feels almost more like an existential feeling - there's not a specific thing I'm anxious about so much as a general sense that the unknown unknowns are dwarfing the known unknowns, let alone the known knowns (the unknown knowns remain huge given how ideological responses are being). The thing that is making me anxious is the uncertainty itself, not the bad outcomes possible.

Reducing worry is often more tractable than reducing anxiety, because you can reduce worry by planning. If you have a scenario you're worried about, you can ensure that you're prepared for it (e.g. COVID-19 precautions, or talking through your concerns about a situation with the people involved before you get into it). I like Chris Hadfield's advice for dealing with worry, which is "Figure out the next thing that's going to kill you" - plan for the worst, and convince yourself you can handle it. Also often what you're worrying about is outdated scenarios that no longer apply, so learning to debug that can help with this.

Anxiety can be resolved by reducing uncertainty by making the situation more deterministic, but often that's not a good idea! A certain amount of nondeterminism is often very useful, and many of the ways to reduce uncertainty do this by increasing the chances of failure (e.g. procrastination until it's too late to do a good job).

There are a couple of things you can do:

  1. Focus on any worries first, because often a lack of safety is the thing that makes uncertainty uncomfortable. Uncertainty isn't intrinsically bad, because if you're always certain you'll never learn anything.
  2. See if you can reframe any of the anxiety. For example, you can be uncertain about the outcome but certain of your ability to handle it. Can you focus on that? Are there good things about the uncertainty too? Can you appreciate those as excitement? (This one rarely to never works for me)
  3. If you've managed to get your anxiety down to a low enough level, it can be worth practicing a certain amount of discomfort tolerance. Anxiety isn't intrinsically bad, it may be telling you useful information about the world, so the correct amount of anxiety may be non-zero, and it's important to acknowledge that and be prepared to sit with it.
  4. If you've not managed to get your anxiety down to a low enough level, often me neither I'm afraid (I've got a lot better since I've acquired the "legacy code" tools). Consult someone with better advice than me and let me know what they said.

2020-04-02

Teleology is fake

Tobi has written about origin stories and the importance of asking "What is this for?" instead of "Where does this come from?". He doesn't use the word teleology (the study of the purpose of things) but in the Adlerian psychology the post is based on that is what he's talking about.

I've previously talked about the usefulness of teleology in understanding our emotional reactions and how understanding the purpose of an emotional reaction (its teleology) is important to adjusting it.

Both Tobi and my posts have the same aetiology (origin story), which is that we read The Courage to be Disliked (a useful yet punchable book), which is in large part about using an understanding of teleology to change your social behaviours.

I do not want to minimize the importance of this approach, which is very powerful and important, but it does have a critical problem with it: Teleology is fake. Things don't happen for reasons.

Questions to ponder:

The answer to all of these questions is: There isn't a good reason, but they're still important. Teleology is fake.

Chesterton's fence is the idea that if there is a fence in a field, you should not take it down unless you know the reason why it is there:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, 'I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away.' To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: 'If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.'

But "Why is this fence here?" is a slippery question. Do we mean it as a question of aetiology or teleology? "What is the use of this fence?" is a very different question from "Who put this fence here and why?". You might answer the latter, find out that it is for reasons that no longer apply, and tear the fence down, and discover that the local ecology collapses because now grazing sheep can get somewhere they previously couldn't.

There's a quote that is apparently from a sci-fi novel I've never read, by Donald Kingsbury:

“Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems. Throw away the solution and you get the problem back. Sometimes the problem has mutated or disappeared. Often it is still there as strong as it ever was.”

This, like Chesterton's fence, is an extremely conservative principle against reform that is also wildly optimistic about how easy reform is.

The problem is that tradition is not just a solution to problems we've forgotten, it's also a foundational layer on which we have built subsequent things. In the fence example, maybe the sheep came long after the fence, and were just never a problem before now. Changing the tradition invalidates foundational assumptions for many other things you were doing, possibly without even knowing they were there.

Now lets talk about giraffes. Animals are a good model for social behaviour after all. Why do giraffes have long necks?

Well there are a couple possible reasons:

All of these seem to be good hypotheses. Which one is the true reason?

Well... probably all of them. Evolution doesn't actually do things for reasons. Evolution just tries random nonsense, and sometimes the random nonsense proves useful in ways that gives a net advantage. If something is useful for multiple weak reasons, that's just as good as it being useful for a single strong reason (potentially even better! More robust, more directions to develop in). So the "reason" giraffes have long necks might just be "All of the above, plus some things we didn't think of, plus these add up to being worth the cost".

Evolution doesn't design things how a human designer sits down and design things (although in practice things created by humans are also designed in an evolutionary way, but the "mutation" process is a bit more directed) - it doesn't need simple legible reasons for what it does, it just tries stuff and sees how it pans out.

(Even this is of course too much of an anthropomorphisation of evolution, but it's a useful one)

Moving away from complex messy evolved systems that make no sense to instead discussing the human mind and its decision making, which obviously makes complete sense, I'm going to be taking singing lessons once the pandemic has lifted and I can find a teacher.

Why? Well...

Those are the big ones, but there are more. But no single one of these is remotely close to enough to convince me to learn to sing. Any two or three wouldn't be. What's convinced me to learn to sing is that an accumulation of enough good, individually insufficient, reasons, has tipped it over to the point where the cost-benefit analysis is a clear net win.

This is how everything works. Teleology is a useful lens to look at problems through, and should not be discarded, but ultimately if we think things are happening for a simple, clear, and comprehensible purpose, and that if we change them then nothing will change except insofar as it is related to that purpose, we're going to be in for an unpleasant surprise.

2020-04-01

The problem of deduction

As I mentioned on Twitter earlier I am trying to reread books I've already read a bit more, because I'm failing to read new material. Not reading them cover to cover, just dipping in and refreshing my mind about interesting bits, seeing how it fits in with new information, etc.

The book I picked up to do this with this morning is Harman and Kulkarni's book Reliable Reasoning. Great book. Strong recommend if you've got the prerequisites (mild mathematical and philosophical sophistication) and are interested in the subject (inductive reasoning and what we can learn about it from statistics).

I opened it in the middle, decided I needed some refreshing on the first chapter, so went back to that and read it for a bit. On doing so I encountered a bit which caused me to go "Hmm. This is a good and powerful insight. I must remember it."

There is, however, a problem, which is that having that insight makes me realise that this is the third time that's happened. So now I'm going to explain it to you so that hopefully I'll remember it.

The official story: Deductive reasoning is when you go "All A are B. This is an A. Therefore it is a B". Inductive reasoning is when you go "All A I've seen so far are B. This is an A. Therefore it is a B". The former is obviously valid. The latter is obviously invalid.

I've mentioned my favourite joke before but here it is again:

There’s a joke about a planet full of people who believe in antiinduction: if the sun has risen every day in the past, then today, we should expect that it won’t. As a result, these people are all starving and living in poverty. Someone visits the planet and tells them, “Hey, why are you still using this anti-induction philosophy? You’re living in horrible poverty!” “Well, it never worked before...”

The problem of induction is basically "Why is induction so weird compared to deduction?". Deduction is based on seemingly universally applicable principles, it's reliable and trustworthy. It really is true that if all A are B and this is an A it must be a B. That's just how logic works. In contrast, the inductive version isn't true - we're in the middle of a major black swan event right now, so we know damn well that sometimes the world surprises you.

This book offers a surprisingly good answer: This question is a category error.

Deductive reasoning isn't a thing, because deduction is not a reasoning process. It is a logic of what follows from what. You can build reasoning on top of that, but you cannot do reasoning with it.

Suppose you believe all swans are white, and that this bird is a swan, and that this bird is black. This is, deductively speaking, an inconsistent set of beliefs. As it is inconsistent, anything follows from it. From a black swan it follows that eating cabbage grants you immortality. However, we would look quite suspiciously on this as a line of reasoning I hope.

The way the book puts this is:

From inconsistent beliefs, everything follows. But it is not the case that from inconsistent beliefs one can infer everything.

It is true that if we believe all three of 1) All swans are white, 2) This bird is a swan, and 3) This bird is black, then anything follows, but our inference procedure from here is not that we infer whatever we like, it's that we stop believing one of these things (or choose to remain inconsistent and are very cautious about what we infer from them). Deductive logic doesn't give us any insight as to which of these things we should drop.

It is still the case that a deductive argument from premises to conclusions is universally valid. It is true that if all three of these things hold then cabbage makes you immortal. This is a valid deductive argument. But a deductive argument is not a reasoning process.

The category error is thus that deduction is a process of argumentation about what follows from what, and induction is a process of reasoning of how we infer beliefs from information. These are not the same thing, and when you properly integrate deduction into the reasoning process what you find is that actually most of the things that were straightforward about it don't help you.

So, if you want to know why induction is so weird, the reason is that induction is the bit that lets you actually reason and infer things about reality, and the problem of deduction is that it can't actually do that for you.

2020-03

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