Veg*n dishes versus constrained optimization

Mathematical optimization is concerned with  problems of the form \text{maximize~} f(x) \text{~ for ~} x \in X for some set X \subset Y and function f : Y \to \mathbb{R}. In this post, we’ll think of Y as the set of possible restaurant dishes, X\subset Y as the set of dishes satisfying certain constraints like being digestible, non-poisonous and not containing human flesh. The function f to optimize is some combination of price, healthyness and taste.

A first observation is that for any X' \subset X the maximum of f(x) over X' is no bigger than the maximum over X, for if x \in X' attains the maximum of f(x) over X', then also x \in X, so the maximum of f over X is at least f(x). In normal words, if you restrict your diet, you can miss out on good dishes, but never gain access to better dishes than on an unrestricted diet.

From this, we could deduce that you should never pick a vegan dish in a restaurant because the non-vegan dishes were made with fewer restrictions and hence can only be better than the vegan dish. Same for choosing recipes to cook yourself. Before I was vegan, this was my conscious reason for always choosing dishes with meat.

But is the deduction true? I don’t think so. Because, unbeknownst to many, the meat dishes are actually constrained to contain meat. I don’t know why, but my two prime suspects are Goodhart’s law impacting the reasoning above, or meat-eaters being scared of vegetables.

As it turns out, making a good vegetarian meal takes non-zero skill, contrary to making a good meal with meat. In my experience, this causes chefs to put actual thought into their vegetarian dishes, causing these to actually be tastier than most dishes with meat. So the argument from mathematical optimization actually gives the wrong answer here!

On rainbow t-shirts and colleagues

Shopping for pride t-shirts is non-trivial. Few pride t-shirts look halfway decent, and few t-shirts look good on my big man-shoulders. Imagine my delight when I found this pretty one at the Human Rights Campaign shop in San Francisco. I bought it back when I was a student a year ago, and I have been wearing it regularly ever since.

The simple student life is passed. These days I am a PhD student, and I periodically visit conferences and workshops in various countries. One important part of these activities is to meet people and develop a professional network. I wonder, is it appropriate to wear a pride t-shirt to a conference?

On the one hand, I might not want to come out to colleagues I meet for the first time. Moreover, it might be seen as an overt political statement in an otherwise apolitical environment.

On the other hand, my field could use more queer visibility, and, most importantly, deliberately not wearing my pride shirt is also a political statement. Not an identifiably visible one, but a political statement nonetheless.

It is misguided to think anything can be apolitical. Everything is either overtly political or political by omission. The only choice is, whose politics will I adhere to? I proudly choose my own.

Abstinence-only education criticism as general template

TW: self-harm, suicide, substance abuse

Context: In conservative regions in the US, there is a thing called abstinence-only sex education. People believe that you can tell teenagers “Don’t have sex before marriage” and that that will protect them from STI’s and unwanted pregnancy. Leftist people point to research that shows this is ineffective, and it is much better to tell kids how to have sex safely. I have not looked at the research so I will not link it.

If you squint, you can see how abstinence-only education is used for other things as well. It makes me wonder whether the same criticism would transfer.

Self-harm

One area to which it might transfer is self-harm. Everybody says you should not self-harm. In many psychiatric hospitals, you may temporarily lose privileges (being allowed to watch tv or to go outside) if the staff thinks you have self-harmed while there.

If you search online for “self-harm tips”, the first result is a wordy self-righteous “Don’t do that“. I used to find this really really frustrating. Same goes for online self-harm communities: they mostly forbid giving instructions and such.  Positively helpful stuff gets silenced, like when Reddit banned /r/selfharmpics. Ironically, that sub used to help me get my thoughts away from harming myself by living it vicariously through others.

Here is a link to some good self-harm tips and advice. Though I can think of a dozen other pieces of information that could help a lot of people. Examples include:

  • Hiding scars: What parts of the body scar the least? What body parts are least visible in common positions?
  • Preventing scarring: How much do anti-scarring creams really help? Do cuts with sharp or dull blades make for less visible scars?
  • Safely climbing the hedonic treadmill: a list of body parts sorted by sensitivity to pain would help people to safely get more painful wounds without cutting deeper.
  • What is a good place to cut when you are just starting out?

Some of these things you can maybe find online if you know the academic jargon, but that won’t help most self-harming persons.

Suicide

I have no idea if the abstinence-only criticism would meaningfully transfer to suicide. But at least this area does have educational resources provided by helpful individuals, like http://lostallhope.com/. I never found this website before I started researching for this post, but it might not have had much PageRank credit back when I was looking for these things. [Also santioned-suicide.com]

Drugs

This is an obvious case where the abstinence-only education criticism directly transfers. Some substances are way worse for your health than others, so it would be good if people knew which those are, even if one would also recommend to not do them at all.

My high school actually did this. They were pretty backwards in many respects, but here, they were on point. We got a guest lesson by a cool lady who had tried all kinds of drugs. She told us about various kinds of drugs and what they do, and we got to ask all kinds of questions. I mostly remember her warning that heroin is super addictive, like, a single use and you’re addicted. That was a great lesson, and exactly the sort of thing I want to see on more issues.