Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I don't think Taleb's black swan metaphor is original or all that useful, but I like what he has to say

Over the past couple of years, I've heard a number of trendy, Web 2.0 types mention Nassim Nicholas Taleb's concept of the "black swan". I first heard about this concept on a podcast of one of Mr Taleb's Poptech seminars that a friend pointed me towards a few years ago.

The idea of the "black swan" seems very simple (and I'm not sure that Mr. Taleb meant it to be anything original or pseudo-revolutionary, but just intended to make a point; and others have made it more than it is). The idea is simply that, for a long time, everyone assumed all swans were white and that it was just taken for granted for a period of time, until a black swan was discovered, thereby upsetting people in certain circles whose worldview had been tampered with. It is meant to be a metaphor for unexpected, unpredictable, earth-shattering occurrences that change people's concept of the way the world works.

Mr. Taleb is a very entertaining speaker and has some very valid criticisms of economics and market theory, but the ingenuity or originality of the "black swan" theory never sat very well with me. First of all, I don't think that the discovery of a black swan is a suitable metaphor for catastrophe because it simply isn't that alarming. He used the September 11th attacks as an example of a black swan, but it's hard to imagine that the discovery of a black swan would have had the same impact as those attacks, and it's somewhat insulting to the families of the victims, I think. I don't think it's a very good metaphor.

But, beyond that, it's nowhere near new (and, to be fair, he notes that it is not his own idea -- J.S. Mill first put forward the metaphor). Embarrasingly, I couldn't figure out exactly why I had a problem with it until the past few weeks, and it wasn't important enough to me to go and do any digging about it. But, this week, I've been reading well-known investor George Soros's book on his philosophy around why current economic theory is invalid, and the interim discussion in the book reminded me of why I don't find much value in the "black swan" idea as a freestanding metaphor: it is an age-old point of contention in the field of philosophy of science.

In the 1930s, Karl Popper published his book, "The Logic of Scientific Discovery". In this book, he challenges the idea of verifiability held by the logical positivists -- a movement that formed in the 1920s. The problem with verifiability, he says, is that you can never ultimately prove something to be true. No matter how many times you demonstrate that something is true, you can never prove it to be eternally true because you can never be sure that you've tested every possible permutation of events and interactions surrounding the object of your assertion. Note that this is, essentially, the idea behind the black swan theory. Popper instead proposes that science would be better moving forward with the question of falsifiability: that a theory can be held as bring true, or "true enough", as long as there are no instances proving it to be false. By allowing this, it allows a much broader application of science but also leaves many of those applications hanging at various stages of completion. Unfortunately, I think that one of our biggest problems in modern times is that we aren't very good, as individuals, at discerning the natural sciences from the social sciences, and the mature sciences from the immature sciences. But, that's an aside.

So, what "black swan" adds to the above -- if anything -- is some consideration of the impact of having something unexpected occur because of an over-reliance on falsifiability. And, again, while "black swan" is a reasonable metaphor for the unexpected, I'm not sure it's an appropriate metaphor for the fallout of catastrophe because, no matter how hard you try, it is difficult to realize the discovery of a black swan as catastrophic.

I briefly studied the philosophy of science in university and it was one of my more memorable bouts. Thomas Kuhn's ideas about paradigms and the orderly progression of scientific revolutions, in my humble opinion, is very important for everyone to read as a part of any balanced literary diet. In fact, I think that it should be required learning for someone entering a society that is romantically involved with science and therefore can't always see it for what it really is.

I am enjoying Soros's book, although I admittedly find it a bit challenging in places and I'm not sure if it's because I'm not smart enough to process it, whether I'm overanalyzing (the most likely -- I do this with everything except drinking a glass of water), or whether it isn't very well written. It is more of a philosophy book than a book on economics or markets, and philosophy books have a tendency to appear to chase their own tail to those that can't or won't follow the narrative. Taleb's discussions, too, are very interesting and form a part of a growing collection of very good arguments against the insanity of an economic and social model that seems to know that it's wrong but sticks with the old because it can't articulate a good new. Here's the collection so far:

"The Trap" is a very interesting BBC documentary that, in part, studies the impact of the false assumptions behind economic theory to its applications to broader society. Specifically, it attacks the idea that society should be operated on the assumption that people are purely self-interested and perfectly rational and can be motivated with personal incentives to meet numerical targets that measure all kinds of different facets of life -- a way of thinking that has gradually been developing over the past 40 years. It's not available on DVD, but you can find it on YouTube.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Georgetown farmer's market opens, and I am already up to no good: roughly Middle-Eastern spicy tuna pitas

Today was the first day of the Georgetown farmer's market. Unlike some of the other seasonal markets in the region, the Georgetown market opens roughly at the beginning of crop availability. Oakville's market, in comparison, opens in early May and sells things like bedding plants and shrubs until the growing season gets well underway and Ontario-grown food is actually available.

Since I moved to Georgetown, I've gone to the market most weekends when it opens in the summer from late June until mid-October. This year is a bit different because I signed up for a Community-Supported Agriculture program offered by Whole Circle Farm in Acton. The deal is that you give them some money up-front in order to give the farm some funding, and you get a share of some of the crops each week throughout the growing season. They had an option to pick up the share from the Georgetown market, which is very convenient. The other option would be to go to Acton every week to pick up your share, but that's a 10-minute drive and I walk to the market. The cost was a bit higher to pick up from the market, but it's easily worth the convenience.

My first impression of the CSA share was that it was quite sparse. 1/4 lb. of spinach, 1/4 lb. of salad greens, a bunch of radish, and "help yourself" to some garlic scapes. I didn't have any idea what to do with garlic scapes, but the nice lady at the market gave me some ideas and I ended up using some of them in what will follow. The food in the share is very natural and fresh-tasting food, though. It's better than most farmer's market stuff, and pretty much as good as you'd get if you grew it yourself in your own garden. I am growing my own salad greens in the garden at the moment, and they are being harvested every day. Luckily, the ones I am growing myself are not mostly lettuce leaves, while the CSA greens were mostly different varieties of lettuce leaves. So, I can mix the two for salads and they will complement each other nicely. The spinach is better than any spinach I've ever tasted, and the radish are...radish. Radish are a bit hot, so I find it's difficult to decipher subtleties. I'm also growing radish in the garden, but I started late and it's not ready yet.

Elsewhere at the market, I picked up some strawberries, green onions, and new potatoes. You immediately notice a difference between the local strawberries and the imported ones from California. The taste is far more complex, the fruit is softer, and there's very little bitterness (but perhaps not enough sweetness).

This evening, I did a quick mental exercise to see how I could fit the garlic scapes into dinner. Garlic makes me think of onion, and the two together make me think of spicy things. I had some pitas, which cue Middle Eastern thoughts. Some mayonnaise, cumin, smoked paprika, tomatoes, parsley, and cilantro later, I had dinner.

Here's what I used:

Cooking ingredients

  • 1 tsp. cumin: not much to say about cumin
  • 1 tsp. smoked hot paprika: smoked paprika is expensive, but the taste is completely worth it and this wouldn't taste the same without it. Also, make sure it's hot smoked paprika because there are also sweet versions. If you have to use sweet, you could probably use it and compensate for the lack of heat by adding about 1/2 tsp. of dried crushed red chilies at the same time as the paprika
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. olive oil
  • two 3/4" slices of a medium-sized onion
  • 2 garlic scapes: you could probably use half a garlic clove to substitute. I was just using them because I had them.
  • 1 can of tuna

Cold ingredients

  • 1 whole wheat pita: about 8" diameter, cut in half and able to be used as a pocket
  • Hellmann's mayonnaise: full fat -- don't mess around!
  • 1 small-medium tomato: unfortunately, it was a supermarket one. I had too many supermarket ones at home and couldn't justify buying any from the market.
  • 1 small handful of parsley leaves (and a few stems): from the back garden
  • 1 small handful of cilantro leaves: supermarket ones; the garden ones are not yet mature enough to go picking handfuls off them

First, pre-heat the frying pan on medium heat. In the meantime, roughly chop the onion and the garlic scapes. When the frying pan is heated, add the olive oil and, after about 10 seconds, put the chopped onion and scapes into the frying pan. Move them around to get some oil on them and make sure they're spread out for proper cooking.

The onion and scapes should cook for about 3-4 minutes. While this is doing, cut your pita in half, open up the pockets, and spread a healthy amount of mayonnaise on the insides of the pita.

After the onion and scapes have been frying for 3-4 minutes, add the cumin and paprika and stir everything around to get it all coated. Let it cook for 1-2 minutes, and then add the drained can of tuna (if it's chunks of tuna, break them up into flakes with a fork) to the frying pan and get everything blended together. Let cook for another 1-2 minutes.

Remove the frying pan from the heat and carefully scoop its contents into the pitas. Finely chop the cilantro and parsley, blend them together, and layer them on top of the tuna (push the tuna down into the pita if you have to). Then, dice the tomato and layer this on top of the herbs.

That's all. I thought it was really good! The smoked paprika, in particular, made everything come to life.

And now I smell quite interesting.

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Matt, ready for a day of digging in the sun

I can't seem to have a picture taken of me in a hat without putting on a silly face. The reason is that I don't often wear hats and, when I do, I always feel like a garden gnome.

While I was out digging today, it smelled like the beach. I was digging sand; I was wearing sunscreen on the extremities not covered by the hat; and cigarette smoke was wafting over from the chain smokers sitting out in the backyard of the house next door. The beach.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Finally: good whole wheat bread from the Zojirushi bread machine

I expect that there are a lot of people out there that, like me, bought a bread machine thinking it'd be a great way to make your own bread at home with complete control over what goes in it.

No more "modified milk ingredients"; no more "soy lecithin"; no more of the things like the following, as exist in Whole Wheat Wonder Bread:
  • mono and diglycerides
  • exthoxylated mono and diglycerides
  • dough conditioners (sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium iodate, calcium dioxide)
  • datem
  • calcium sulfate
  • yeast nutrient (ammonium sulfate)
  • extracts of malted barley and corn
  • dicalcium phosphate
  • diammonium phosphate
  • calcium propionate

For the record, this is all you need to make whole wheat bread in about 4 hours:

  • whole wheat flour
  • yeast
  • water
  • sugar
  • salt

But, it would not be a very nice bread to the Wonder Bread palate. It would dry out quickly, be quite bitter, be quite dense, and definitely would not be soft. The Wonder Bread contains the above, but also the further above, presumably in the interest of producing a Wonder Bread crowd pleaser while accommodating an industrial production system at the same time.

What happened after I bought the bread machine, though, was that I stopped buying bread at the supermarket, and I had been buying mostly whole wheat bread at that time. After I got the machine, I tried the whole wheat recipes that came with the machine and they weren't very good. They smelled nice and the crust was decent, but the innards were dense and the taste was quite harsh. So, I stopped making whole wheat bread at some point and went back to white. So much for the "health" angle: white flour is essentially dust with synthetic vitamins added to replace the ones that were removed in order to make it white.

I tried a few options but was not all that successful. Until recently.

Not too long ago, I picked up Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads book. I was still interested in getting the whole wheat thing going, and I liked his previous books, so I thought I'd give it a try. The book turned out to be great; far more for the discussion that takes place inside than the recipes themselves. I now have a decent understanding of why the above problems occurred and it gave me some ideas about how to fix them.

I've now reached a repeatably reliable recipe from which to make a tasty and soft whole wheat bread in the machine, on the regular cycle, while still using only natural ingredients. It does take some forethought and planning, though -- you need to get it ready about 24 hours before you plan to put it in the machine.

The recipe is adapted from the Reinhart book, and made with the Zojirushi BB-HAC10 bread machine.

24 hours beforehand

24 hours before you plan to start the machine, you need to get the biga and soaker ready. These are both very easy to do.

First, get two bowls out.

For the soaker, put 113 grams of whole wheat flour, 1/4 tsp. salt and 89 grams of milk into one bowl. Stir them until they're combined and all of the flour is incorporated, cover with a damp kitchen towel and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.

For the biga, put 113 grams of whole wheat flour, 1/8 tsp. instant yeast, and 85 grams of tepid filtered/spring water into a bowl. Stir until combined and then knead in your hands for a few minutes (the dough is so small that you can do it right in your hands). Let it rest for 5 minutes and then do a bit more kneading with wet hands for about 1 minute more. Put the bowl in a plastic bag and put the bag in the fridge for 22 hours (24 hours is fine, too, but you need to bring it to room temperature before using it in the machine, so 2 hours out of the fridge will do this).

On bread-making day

To make the bread, use a pastry scraper to cut the soaker and biga into 6 pieces each. Drop the pieces into the bread machine pan in alternating order (add a piece of soaker, then a piece of biga, etc.). To the pan, add 1/4 tsp. salt, 7 grams of soft butter, and 21 grams of honey. Then, add 28 grams of whole wheat flour (try to add it in a mound, rather than scattered evenly). Make a small well in the mound (it will not be much of a well because there's not much flour, but you just need to keep the yeast reasonably dry). In the well, put just over 1 tsp. of instant yeast.

Now, you just have to put the pan in the bread machine and start it on the regular cycle.

So, this recipe satisfies at least two important parts of whole wheat bread making: it soaks the flour for an extended period of time, allowing more of the flavour to come out and the bitterness to subside, and it softens and moisturizes the flour to allow the dough to stretch further (making it more airy). It also adds more sweetness, and you do need more sweetness in whole wheat bread than in white because it's just what's necessary to complement the flavour of whole wheat properly.

This produces a soft whole wheat bread that is great for sandwiches and OK for toast, too. When toasted, the crust crumbles rather than crackles, so it may not be to everyone's taste for that purpose. It's still better than most industrial whole wheat bread for toast, though. If you let it cool for a few hours, it will slice very nicely with a bread knife. It also freezes well.

Compared to the whole wheat recipe that came with the Zojirushi machine, it is less bitter, more evenly flavoured, has a softer crust, a nicer texture, and is far more airy and rises better.

Here is a picture of how it looks:

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