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.

Delayed WordPress RSS feed

In the category “2-minute hacks for skilled people, 30-minute hacks for me because I can’t code for shit”, let’s replay an old RSS feed. Useful if you want to read the old posts on a blog but don’t want to do it all at once.

This way, you can relive the past of your favourite WordPress blogs. Requires a server with php installation and a feed reader that updates at least once per day. I’ve got a Raspberry Pi 3B running selfoss.

We’ll be using a fancy feature of Wordpess, namely that https://example.com/yyyy/mm/dd/feed gives the RSS feed with posts from that day interval. Actually every public-facing WordPress page can be appended with /feed to produce something meaningful. It will not be a truly faithful replay of old posts, because if posts get edited or deleted we won’t get to see the original post.

With this knowledge in mind, create a php file

$ touch public/delay.php
$ chmod 755 public/delay.php

and fill it with the following code

<?php
$url = htmlspecialchars($_GET['url']);
$years = floatval($_GET['years']);
$months = floatval($_GET['months']);
$days = floatval($_GET['days']);

// calculate the time stamp of some day in the past
// (we subtract a fixed amount of seconds so that we dont
// run into issues with how many days a month has and
// because I am not good enough at coding to handle this
// the right way.)
$months_delayed = $months + 12 * $years;
$days_delayed = $days + 30 * $months_delayed;
$moment = time() - intval(60 * 60 * 24 * $days_delayed);

// redirect to the RSS file with posts from that day
header('Location: ' . $url . '/' . date('Y/m/d', $moment) . '/feed', 303);
die();
?>

Requesting the page http://example.org/delay.php?url=https://bethzero.com/feed&months=1 will redirect you to an RSS file containing all posts made exactly 30 days ago. Because we’re using a temporary 303 redirect, the page that you get redirected to changes every day. If your feed reader updates every day, you should get to see every post.

One small issue happens if a day has more blog posts than can appear in the RSS feed (default is 10 in WordPress). In that case, you might miss out on the oldest posts of the day.

Heteronormativity in STEM

There are abysmally few women in mathematics. I had taken 35 math and CS courses in my bachelor’s and master’s before I first had a woman lecturer. It makes me feel demoralised and alienated. I feel lonely when I see that nobody in my field looks like me, which makes me doubt whether research is the career for me, no matter how happy I feel when I’m working.

There are efforts to make STEM more inclusive to women. In the long run, those hopefully help to improve the gender balance in these fields. But they also help in the short term, as an occasion to meet other women in different areas who are in the same situation. Bonding over sexism is an excellent way to stave off loneliness.

Meetings on women in STEM do leave me emotionally drained for another reason: they are drenched in heteronormativity. It’s all talk about how women are giving up their academic career or working part-time because they’ve got a husband and kids and their husband earns more money or whatever the cishets are worrying about these days.

Screenshot of https://twitter.com/HITStudies/status/1045645770001698816 Heidelberg Laureate Forum @HLForum tweeted ""Behind every succesful woman stands a strong man". Anna Wienhard credits her husband and mentions this as one of the success factors in her career. The crowd applauds. Just as important: mentors, determination, decision making. #HLF18" which got retweeted by dr. Wienhards institute HITS gGmbH @HITStudies who added "We fully proudly retweet this quote by @HITStudies group leader Anna Wienhard #HLF18 @HLForum"

It is frustrating on two levels. First off, it feels like people are saying that only straight women have a place in academia. They probably don’t explicitly mean it that way, but there is a message in their language, and it is not a friendly message. Secondly, if the straight cis women’s issues were the main issues, then why are nearly all cis women in STEM straight? If 10% of the people in the field are women, but only cis women in relationships with men were getting pushed out of STEM careers, then half of all women in STEM [w]ould be LGBTQI+. [But that is not the case.]

Asymmetry of passion

Some time ago I first read the phrase “asymmetry of passion” in an article (in Wired via Kottke) about so-called “keyword voids” in internet search engines. The article starts by discussing the internet search results for “vitamin K shots”, a routine injection that newborns get.

This is a routine practice—ask your pediatrician, your obstetrician, or the CDC. “Babies are born with very low stores of vitamin K, and without the Vitamin K shot … they do not have enough Vitamin K in their blood to form a clot,” the CDC says on its website.

But new parents who turn to search engines to understand the practice will find an aberrant—and dangerous—strain of thinking. Google “vitamin K shot” and the first result advises “Skip that Newborn Vitamin K Shot.” It isn’t until below the fold—the fourth result—that the CDC website appears.

This is blamed on an asymmetry of passion; anti-vaxxers put much more effort into writing blogs stating that the shots are unnecessary or even dangerous than government organizations like the US’ CDC do to refute their claims. Hence the search results get populated with all-natural anti-science lies. (I just tried the search and my results page only has a single anti-vax result. The Wired article made more scientifically literate websites write about the shots.)

Asymmetries of passion happen more often. One good example is blockchain technology, which has no use-cases apart from cryptocurrency, and possibly not even that.  Other examples include conspiracy theories and the alt-right.

The “marketplace of ideas” is a cute idea, but it is too bad that you can’t short.

Language policy for this blog

See also: content policy for this blog.

I have a habit of using ableist slurs. I used to think those words weren’t ableist at all, or maybe that ableism in that sense wasn’t bad. I have learned to think otherwise, mainly from this series of blog posts. Those posts highlight one important reason for avoiding certain words: it’s lazy language.

 “stupid” isn’t constructive. You’re not criticizing… you’re just denigrating. The other person can’t learn anything from being told that their idea is “stupid”. Like I said before… it’s lazy. It elucidates absolutely nothing.

Instead, you could be constructive. You could say “that’s a bad idea, and here’s why” or “I think you made a big mistake there. You should have done this, instead” or “I don’t know if I like that choice. Here’s a better one.” Explain why you don’t like whatever it is, instead of just calling it “stupid”.

Don’t have the time to go into specifics? It’s still better to just say something like “nah, that’s a bad idea” or “you know what? No. I’m against that” and move on than to say “that’s stupid”. Even when you’re using it against ideas or actions or such, there’s still splash damage.

Avoiding certain words forces you to be more articulate. To be more constructive in your criticism. To apply a growth mindset towards the outgroup.

(I am NOT saying that intelligence is a completely non-existent property. Some people are mentally impaired in ways that chronically prevent them from functioning normally, and it is harmful to think that this is not the case. I am saying that for most people, most of their usage of those words is inappropriate and harms their communication.)

Not only is there a practical advantage; using inherent properties of people as slurs is not so nice. I don’t feel welcome if I hear people use “gay” as a slur, so I should probably not use ableist language either.

Want to try this as well? Do read a list of alternative words like this one.  My favourite default replacements are:

  • Stupid -> willfully ignorant/frustrating/obnoxious/unfathomable
  • Crazy -> fascinating/amazing/extreme
  • Lame -> bad/awful/inadequate