Friday, October 13, 2017

"It came out a long time ago" doesn't make spoilers ok

Just a quick rant.  I've often heard spoilers being justified on things that came out a long time ago, because they came out a long time ago.  But there are just so many tv shows, books, movies, games, etc that have been released over the years.  Even if you only count the classics.  There's so many that for any one work, no matter how old, there's always going to be many people who would like to have had experienced it but who haven't yet.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Tropes in fictional TV and movies that damage societal views

I enjoy watching fictional TV shows and movies, but I know that like anything, they have positive and negative effects.  On the negative side, they often present a distorted view of reality, and I think some of these have quite a negative effect on society.

Grief is overt

Most of the times when a fictional TV show or movie shows grief, the person is clearly distraught.  You can see the sadness or deep loss in them.

But grief doesn't work like that.  There's no one way it effects people.  People don't necessarily appear sad.  They can, at the times you might see them, even seem a bit happy or light-hearted.

I think that TV shows and movies have taught the public to expect grief to be like how they portray it.  The average person surely sees many more depictions of grief on the screen than they do in real-life.
When the reality of grief comes up against the perception that grief is overt, the people are seen as callous or just not grieving like they should be.  In the cases like of parents whose children have gone missing, it can lead to suspicion of them and witch hunts. 

related: Small-Screen Grief: 10 TV Shows That Got It Right | tv tropes: Five Stages of Grief

Attractiveness correlates with character

Attractive people are good, ugly or unusual-looking people are bad.

This one is fairly obvious, but the trope seems so pervasive that surely it has to have a big influence on how people are perceived in the real-world.  To rewind a bit, that perception of people probably has an innate basis, but even still, having it reinforced so much in media can surely only make it worse.

related: tv tropes: Beauty Equals Goodness | tv tropes: Evil Makes You Ugly

Straw Vulcan

The Straw Vulcan is a straw-man portrayal of intelligence, named after the Star Trek character Spok, who is of the highly-logical Vulcan race.  The term comes from tv tropes.

In the Straw Vulcan, intelligence and rationality are equated with rigidity and narrowness in the way the person thinks, and an inability to make use of intuition or perceive emotional realities. 

Sheldon, in the Big Bang theory, is another full embodiment of this.

It's a pervasive trope in media, and I suspect it has done a lot of harm to our society.  I suspect it has fueled a lot of anti-intellectualism, and has done a lot to make intelligence seem unattractive and uncool, which I think in turn has pushed a lot of people away from striving to be smart.

Gladly, there does seem to have been a fairly recent trend to present intelligence in a more positive light, though it doesn't seem like there's been much of an attempt to kill the Straw Vulcan. 

Individual agency is the cause of good and bad things

This one can be summarised as "good guys and bad guys".  Bad things happen because a bad person its doing it with bad intent.  The good guy does something to make things better.  A person seeing this play out again and again as they're growing up are, I think, going to get a pretty distorted view of how the world works.

Our societies are complex systems.  There are aggregate effects.  Anything that institutions do to try and address issues will always be imperfect means with unintended consequences.  There are structural causes to what happen.  All of these things mean that major problems usually aren't caused by individuals, and are often not caused by ill-intent.  And that also means that solutions often aren't what you'd equate with "doing good".  They might be making changes to the physical or policy infrastructure that society runs on.  They might be technology changes.

In the picture painted by the many many hours of fictional TV shows and movies we are exposed to in our lives, these impersonal causes basically don't exist.


Here's a list of various other ways fictional accounts distort reality.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Beef and Pork mince, Olive, and Raisin Taco filling recipe (Tacos de picadillo)

This recipe is adapted from "Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales: Flavors from the Griddles, Pots, and Streetside Kitchens of Mexico" by Roberto Santibanez with JJ Goode.

Enough for 24 tacos


  • olive or vegetable oil, 3 tbsp
  • white onions, diced, 2 cups
  • salt, 2 tsp
  • garlic cloves, 3, finely chopped
  • ripe tomatoes, 1kg (2 1/4 lb), cored and chopped
  • dried bay leaves, 2
  • dried thyme, 1/2 tsp
  • sugar, 1 tsp
  • apple cider vinegar, 2 tsp
  • beef mince, 450g (1 lb)
  • pork mince, 450g (1 lb)
  • ground black pepper
  • pimento-stuff manzanilla olives, 1/2 cup, halved (or sliced, if large)
  • raisins, 1/4 cup
  • pickled jalapeno chilies, finely chopped, 3 tbsp - including a little of their liquid
  • capers, drained, 1 tbsp
  • slivered almonds, 1/4 cup
  • chopped coriander, 1/4 cup
  • flat leaf parsley, chopped, 2 tbsp
  • fresh spearmint, chopped, 2 tbsp
  • for serving

  • Heat oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat.
  • Add the onions and a generous pinch of salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.
  • Add the garlic, cook for a minute, then add the tomatoes, bay leaves, thyme, sugar, vinegar, and 1 tsp of the salt.
  • Let the mixture come to a boil, then lower the heat to maintain a vigorous simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until almost all the liquid has evaporated, about 45 minutes.
  • Transfer the mixture to a bowl.
  • Wipe out the pot, set it over high heat, and when it's hot, add the beef and pork mince without any oil.
  • Season with black pepper and 3/4 tsp of salt.
  • Cook, stirring and breaking up the meat, until it is cooked through, then add the oilves, raisins, pickled jalapenos, and capers.
  • Cook until the liquid from the meat has evaporated, about 5 minutes.
  • Add the tomato mixture and lower the heat to medium.
  • Cover and cook until the flavours have melded, about 5 minutes, then stir in the almonds and herbs.
  • Serve alongside warm corn tortillas and top with sliced canned pickled jalapeno chilies, crumbled queso fresco, and slices of avocado.

Also a good filling for tortas, enchiladas, chilies rellenos, or for on top of rice.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Roasted Poblanos and Cream taco filling recipe

This recipe is adapted from "Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales: Flavors from the Griddles, Pots, and Streetside Kitchens of Mexico" by Roberto Santibanez with JJ Goode.

 Enough for 8 tacos

  • poblano chilies, 570g (1.25lb - ~3 large)
    • substitution: green capsicums + 1 jalapeno chilli
  • olive or vegetable oil, 1 tbsp
  • white onion, 1/2 medium, thinly sliced into half-moons
  • salt, 1/2 tsp
  • black pepper, 1/8 tsp
  • garlic, 1 clove, finely chopped
  • mexican crema, 1/2 cup
    • subsitution: creme fraiche
  • epazote leaves, 1 tbsp, finely chopped
    • substitution: dried Mexican (or european) oregano, 1/2 tsp
  • for serving

  • Roast then prepare the poblanos
    • Turn two stove-top burners to high and roast the poblano chilies (or capsicums and jalapeno) on the racks of the burners (or directly on the element of an electric stove), turning frequently with tongs, until they are blistered and charred all over, 4 to 6 minutes.
      • or, grill them under a hot element, turning them once they're blacked on one side, till they're blackened all over
    • Put the poblanos in a bowl and cover with a plate to sweat for 15 to 20 minutes.
    • Rub off the skin from the roasted poblanos with a paper towel or your fingers (do not run the poblanos under water)
    • Cut the chilies open lengthwise.
    • Cut out the stems, seed pods, and veins, and lay the chilies flat.
    • Wipe the chilies clean of seeds, discard the seeds, and slice the chilies into long 1/4-inch-thick strips
  • Fry onions
    • Heat the oil in a medium pan over a medium heat until the oil shimmers, then add the onion, 1/4 tsp of the salt, and the pepper, and cook until the onion is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
  • Add garlic then poblanos
    • Add the garlic, cook for a minute.
    • Then add the poblanos along with the remaining 1/4 tsp of salt.
    • Cook for 3 minutes or so.
  • Add crema and epazote
    • Then add the crema (or creme fraiche) and epazote (or oregano).
  • Simmer
    • Let it come to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the crema thickens slightly and coats the poblanos, about 3 minutes.
    • Season to taste with salt.
Serve alongside 8 warm corn tortillas, and top with crumbled queso fresco and (optionally) a fried chili salsa or smoky tomato salsa.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Bourbon chicken recipe

This recipe is adapted from the one found on the Tide and Thyme blog.

It creates a rich, caramelised sauce.  Very tasty. 


  • chicken thighs, ~900g, cut into bite-size pieces
  • olive oil, 2 tbsp
  • garlic cloves, 4, minced
  • ginger (ground or fresh), 1 tsp
  • red chilli flakes, 1 tsp
  • apple juice, 1/4 cup
  • light brown sugar, 1/2 cup + 2 tbsp
    • dark brown sugar will also work fine
  • tomato sauce (ketchup), 1/4 cup
  • cider vinegar, 2 tbsp
  • water, 1/3 cup
  • bourbon, 1/3 cup
  • low-sodium soy sauce, 1/2 cup
    • if you've got regular soy sauce, use a bit less
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • white or brown rice
  • fresh coriander, for garnish

Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large frying pan.
Add chicken pieces and cook until nicely browned.
Remove chicken to a plate and set aside.

Add remaining ingredients to pan, and whisk to combine.
Return chicken to pan and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes or until sauce is reduced somewhat and thick.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve over white or brown rice.
Garnish with roughly chopped fresh coriander.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Hainanese Chicken Rice recipe

I have fond memories of having this dish in Singapore and Malaysia, and this recipe works really well.

I've adapted it from Tastemade's recipe (which I originally saw through facebook).


  • Skin-on chicken thighs, 2
    • It's important to use thighs with the skin on.  The fat from it will better flavour the rice, and it provides a nice texture.  If you can't get skin-on thighs, you can use skin-on chicken marylands and remove the leg and bones from it.
  • Jasmine rice, 300 grams
  • Water, 370ml
  • Spring onions, 10cm piece
    • 'spring onions' seems to mean different things in different places -- I mean the green and white cylindrical ones that don't have the bulbs on the ends.
  • Seasonings for chicken
    • Fresh ginger, 15 grams, thinly sliced
    • Soy sauce, 1 tbsp
    • Powdered chicken stock, 2 tsp
    • Oil, 1 tsp
    • Salt, 1 tsp
  • For garnish
    • Fresh coriander
    • Fried onions
      • the ones you can buy in jars or packets from asian grocers or the asian section of some supermarkets.  They look like this.  Not essential, so don't worry if you can't get them.
  • For soy-oyster-honey sauce
    • Soy sauce, 1 tbsp
    • Oyster sauce, 1 tbsp
    • Honey, 1 tsp
  • For chili-fishsauce-lemon sauce
    • Sweet chili sauce, 2 tbsp
    • Fish sauce, 1 tbsp
    • Lemon juice, 1 tbsp
  • For ginger-fishsauce-seasame sauce
    • Fresh ginger, 2 tsp, grated
    • Spring onions, 1 tbsp, minced
    • Fish sauce, 1 tbsp
    • Sesame oil, 1 tbsp
    • Sugar, 1 tbsp
...if you want to save a bit of time and effort, you could make only one or even none of these sauces.  The dish by itself is quite flavoursome.

Wash the rice.
In a large pan, combine the rice, water and the seasonings for the chicken (ginger, soy sauce, chicken stock, oil, salt).
Give it a quick mix so ingredients are well combined.
Place the chicken thighs (skin down) on top, then the spring onion piece on top of that.

Cover and cook over high heat until boiling.
Turn down the heat to low and cook for 12 minutes.
Turn off the heat and let it sit covered for 10 more minutes.
(Check the chicken and rice are adequately cooked - cook longer if necessary).

Slice the chicken into 1 cm pieces and set aside.
Discard the spring onion stalk and mix the rice to combine the flavors.

To make the sauces, simply combine the respective ingredients into three separate bowls and mix well.

Put a mound of chicken rice onto a platter and place cut chicken on top.

Serve with the sauces along with some fresh coriander and fried onions.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Improving the spread of truth in the information ecosystem, and more applied cases of reasoning errors

We live in a big 'information ecosystem'.  This includes means for storing and communicating information, such as email, web-sites, the mobile phone networks, mass media like tv and radio, and libraries.  These enable us to store information in a kind of common pool that others can access.  They enable us to discover and learn new information.  Schools, universities and other institutions also play a big part of the information ecosystem.
There are finer-grained or more specific elements, too.  Regarding the web, there are technologies such as the HTML, and the links it is based on, and search engines.  There are sites like Reddit, Facebook, Google News and Wikipedia.  There are all the ways we can express data, information and knowledge, whether in relational databases, to different mathematical formalisms, and many others.

Also part of this ecosystem is the actual information content.  The information in today's ecosystem is much different, and expanded, compared to what it contained 500 years ago.  There are also institutions and practices such as the scientific method.

This description has just scratched the surface of all the elements and factors that play a role in the information ecosystem.

Shifting gear, you can look at properties of the information ecosystem as a whole or specific parts of it (e.g. television).  How quickly do they enable information to be transmitted?  How cheaply?  How well do they preserve information over time?  Who is able to add information into the ecosystem, and how many people can that added information reach? And so on.

One of my interests concerns the following -- how do the elements of the ecosystem effect the spread of truths and falsehoods?  And what can we do to help the spread of truths, and hinder the spread of falsehoods?  Not that we could, of course, prevent falsehoods.  But what can we do to reduce the degree to which they spread and continue to be propagated among the population?

There are many potential factors that play a role.  To give one or two examples, how does the media being run as a business effect things, given that this makes it biased towards content that will help pay the bills?  And regarding what could help improve things, I'd think for example that lowering the barriers to accessing information will, in the longer-term, have a positive effect.

I'm interested in how we can design tools and infrastructure to help improve the spread of truths and reduce the spread of falsehoods in the information ecosystem.

Some examples of initiatives in this space:

  • Hypothesis - annotation of content on the web
  • - "the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.
  • PolitiFact - political fact-checking site which "rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials"
  • This article by Thomas Baekdal on how journalistic practice should change to address the increasingly misinformed public.
  • ...and you could argue that tools that help provide access to information such as Wikipedia or the Internet, while not designed just for this purpose, are important parts of addressing the issue.

I wrote earlier about an idea that also fits into what I'm talking about: a web-site providing an authoritative source about current scientific opinion.  I think that'd be really useful for linking to in discussions and arguments on the net.

Here's another idea.

Alongside lists of logical fallacies and lists of heuristics and biases, I think there's room for documentation of some more applied kinds of mistaken reasoning and justification.  These are errors that might be reduced to logical fallacies or heuristics/biases, but are associated with more specific kinds of reasoning.

Here's an example.  A government might propose increasing the tax on cigarettes as a means to address the associated health issues.  Regardless of whether you think such measures are effective or not, the point of them is to reduce the amount of people smoking in the medium or longer-term.  Yet, so often in discussions about it you'll hear people argue against it on the grounds that it's not going to stop people from smoking, as if it was an all or nothing matter.

Again, I'll point out that regardless of whether such a tax is effective for reducing smoking, that is at least its intention, and arguments of the kinds that I mentioned simply get that intention wrong.  It's a common pattern that occurs whenever there's any talk of a measure to reduce some thing or activity that is seen (by at least some people) as harmful.

Treating reduction as a matter of outright prevention is an example of these kinds of 'more applied' mistaken reasoning or justification.  I'm not sure if there's this specific case has been given a name or not, but if it has it doesn't seem to be very well known.  The same goes for this class of more applied kinds of reasoning errors.

In any case, I think it would be useful to have a name both for the class, and for the specific instances, and to have a web-site that documents them.  That way people could link to them in online discussions where they're pertinent.  There could be a page for each of these errors, listing real-world examples - such as when measures were proposed that people said wouldn't stop X, but in fact did turn out to reduce the amount of X over time.  The examples would be providing evidence that the reasoning is in fact erroneous.

The idea would be to make the site as comprehensive as possible, so that it could become a 'one-stop shop' and gain enough attention that people would actually refer to it practice. 

Some other examples of these kinds of more applied errors.  A person has made a claim from their personal experience that X was the case.   This claim is disputed, and others argue for its validity on the ground of "why would they lie about or make up X?".  There are many documented cases of where people have done just that, so this argument by itself doesn't hold up.  Being able to point someone to a big list of such cases could help in getting them to accept that point.

As mentioned earlier, it might be true that underlying these errors are kinds of fallacies or biases, but the point here is not to get at the most fundamental causes of the problems, but to have a resource that maps more directly into the kinds of errors that occur in practice.  Such a resource could be more useful to link to in practice.

In addition to a site that documents these applied errors, there could be sites devoted to particular disputed topics (global warming, for example), that look at how such errors appear in discussions of these topics.  Because such topics are political, I think it'd be very important to make these discussions of them totally separate from the basic documentation of the applied errors.  There could be multiple sites/pages devoted to each topic, as there are likely to be different takes on the applied errors that come up in discussions of them.


(if anyone who knows that my PhD is on understanding the nature of information happens to read this, what I'm doing isn't related to the topic of this post. It's concerned more with the fundamentals of what information is and how a system can understand the meaning of the information.).