Buying Spices

So, we watched this youtube video the other day on how to make “tuna” sliders out of unripe jackfruit (go – watch it – then come back and let’s talk). It really is an awesome recipe, and we’re nearly ready to make an attempt at it (it’s too hot, and we don’t have Old Bay Seasoning). That’s not what this post is about today, though.

Today, I want to talk about choice. Like, if you go to Amazon, and try to buy Old Bay Seasoning. Go ahead, go over there and drop it into the search box, then come back here and tell me how you found the experience. Did you locate what looked like the best deal? That would be the 24-ounce item that shows up first on the list. Do notice, though, that it is a “Fresh” item (so, you have to join some program or other in order to buy it) or an “add-on” item (which means you have to play grocery-cart bingo and put enough in your cart to actually get it delivered). Also notice that there are just about 100 different things from which to choose.

There’s a thing going on here that I think is important: I think that there is a payoff here on the part of Amazon in that you’re going to have to 1) join some program of theirs (which makes them money) or 2) add more things to your cart than you want to buy or 3) troll through literally 100+ items to figure out which one you can and should buy. I think that this level of product chaos is found in a few different places, and I suspect that there’s some degree of psychological testing going on here, to figure out what drives the most profit. Or perhaps this level of chaos actually accomplishes that, and this is simply the new normal when shopping on Amazon.

In my case, I decided that I really didn’t need the Old Bay and that I’d spend the couple dollars at the grocery store, rather than suffer through the buying process on Amazon. I emptied my cart (including the slippery add-on item which put itself on my “buy later” list, repeatedly) and went to buy the other things I wanted elsewhere. I’m sure I’ll use them for other dishes, and Amazon is perfectly prepared to drive a certain amount of business away in order to maximize revenue. They’re a store – that’s what they do.

This jumble of bad choices is what’s known as a dark pattern: something which drives the user to do something they do not want to do. Once you become familiar with dark patterns, you start to see them, and then start to look for them. In this case, I’m sure that I’ll continue to use Amazon. But I’m also sure that I’ll start paying attention and, if I find myself struggling to actually find the thing that I want, I’ll go elsewhere.

I ended up spending way more money than I’d intended to spend just then, but also bought a whole bunch of things that we needed: I went to the SF Herb Company’s culinary herbs page and simply went down the list, adding 1 of everything on there that we do use and have run out of. Those spices and a stop at the Asian market and we’re done. And some time today we’ll get our delivery and will have the joy of unboxing bulk spices! (below is a previous order)

SF Herb 1


Technology Hiring Practices and Diversity

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I would like to talk about hiring practices in the technology field, in particular as those have an impact upon who does and does not get hired to work in technology. This is important because the tech industry talks a lot about limiting racism and sexism in their hiring processes (they’re ignoring age bias for the moment), but then the tech industry also talks about systems designed for interviewing candidates which are designed to result in high rates of false negatives. By “false negatives” they mean that more good candidates will be told that they don’t meet the needs or the requirements of the position – that they will err on the side of not hiring.

There’s fairly solid mathematical reasoning for why hiring this way does not make sense (read the extensive and geeky discussion on Hacker News). So, we have to ask, Why maintain this type of a hiring process if it results in poor organizational outcomes? And, if they’re maintaining this in the face of poor outcomes, we must further ask, What outcomes does this system actually have and are those outcomes the real reason for maintaining this type of a system?

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I believe that this type of a system is designed to allow the bias (“culture”) of the organization to perpetuate. I believe that these hiring practices are designed to systemically discriminate, while pretending to be based upon merit. [side note: People are quite attached to the idea of meritocracy even in the face of proof that meritocracy actually results in worse outcomes for the organization (here’s a paper which proves that random promotions yield better organizational outcomes than merit-based promotions).]

When you design a system which yields false negatives, what you actually accomplish is to normalize the practice of making hiring decisions based upon gut feel and bias rather than upon objective criteria such as whether the applicant is really interested in the position or whether the applicant can do the job. That’s a big statement to make, but I think it’s proved out by the psychology.

Tversky, Amos - Preference, Belief, and Similarity, ch. 24

We can evaluate this in terms of prospect theory and the framing effect, which pretty much describes the landscape of this decision. The framing effect plays a role here because the decision makers approach the interview having been told that it is better to mistakenly pass up a good candidate than it is to mistakenly hire a bad candidate. This framing puts the decision maker into the mindset of loss / risk aversion, which tends to be vastly more conservative than does a mindset of possible gains. When evaluating problems in a risk-averse or uncertain mindset, people attempt to reduce that risk or uncertainty however possible. In this mindset, hiring someone of the same general profile as oneself provides an immediate reduction in risk, so basically guarantees that candidates who are different (diverse) will be excluded.

This is not limited to the tech industry, by any means – I’m certain that these same problems are pervasive in other hiring systems. In tech, though, the big players have all made noises about diversity, and yet have maintained a system of hiring which continues to yield the same problematic hiring decisions. The tech industry is supposed to be the best and brightest – they certainly tell us that they are – yet it cannot seem to figure out how to hire women or blacks or Hispanics (or people aged over 35). This tells me that the noises made by tech are basic cover for not really wanting to solve the problem.

Tech companies are happy being pretty much white (and a few Asian) dudes and do not want to change. Tech companies want to mouth the right words about diversity, to maybe hire diversity officers, but they do not really have any interest in being diverse. They have designed hiring systems which are systematically discriminatory, but subtly so, which is problematic because it is the systemic problems which are hardest to fight.

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I’m sure some of my reasoning in here isn’t as thorough as it could be. I don’t think that my reasoning is wrong, though – I think that the hiring systems of big tech companies essentially guarantee a lack of diversity, and that the companies are either uniformly ignorant of this or are happy for it to remain this way. Before you think that they’re ignorant of this, think about where psychology graduates go if they don’t become professors (hint: big technology companies, which is why everything tech is designed to be addictive).

Glasgow Botanical Gardens – Happy Birthday!

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Glasgow Botanic Gardens is turning 200 years old! It certainly looks like they had a fabulous day for it (their Twitter feed has some video and pictures). On a day like today is supposed to be here in California, we’d probably not have visited the Botanics, as they tend to be much warmer inside than out. In Glasgow’s fog and dreich, though, we’ve loved being inside, looking at all the flowers and statuary.

Enjoy your weekend!

-D & T

No to Seattle

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Well, Seattle isn’t in the cards for the moment. So, D will continue mixing and matching his work from a few different clients here in the Bay Area and we’ll see what else turns up. It could be that we’re just going to end up staying around here, but we’ll see. This job search is more about finding the right place than about finding just any place, and we have the luxury of not having to rush, so we can be a bit choosier than we’ve been in the past.

-D & T

Seathl City

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Seathl is a more approximate spelling of the Duwamish/Suquamish tribal chief’s name.

Seattle has changed a great deal since we were last there for more than a stop at the airport – which was about in 2000, when we were sponsors for a class of Seniors who are now approaching their (mid?) thirties and have kids of their own (sheesh). The picture above is from out the window of our very posh (fireplace, footstool, comfy robes, views, and teddy bear, natch) waterfront hotel, where we saw varying sizes of ferries crossing the Puget Sound every half hour or so, and two cruise ships pull up for servicing – which allowed us then to see a close inspection of the external portholes by burly men on mechanical lifts, and what we assume must have been an inspection of luggage and passenger areas by a gentleman from the DEA and their his chipper, tail-wagging drug sniffer dog.

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Seattle is sometimes… so very Seattle-y, to those visiting. Moreso than our last visit, we noted the man buns, manly beards, and the plaid, oh, the plaid. Also, the ├╝ber-woodsy, hyper-folksy, log-cabinesqueness of the place was not lost on us (What. Is. With. The. Antlers.).Seattle 12 An epic winter has produced more greenery than usual, to the extent that it’s growing out of the tops of buildings, which reminded us a great deal of Glasgow. T. was most amused at the Seattle-ness of being at the posh hotel restaurant and being served, instead of cedar plank salmon, cedar plank tofu and roasted vegetables. (It was okay.) D. was most amused by the Seattle-ness of the canine cavalcade parading past at the big tech company. Pet friendly workplaces, doggy daycare and coffee shops are all over the city, along with microbreweries and [electric] bike shops. Phrases like “Fur Baby” were tossed around … Both childless and petfree, we felt a little left out. (But, not enough to actually get one of either.) We noted that while Northern California at least keeps its bona fides as a place more easily full of health foodies (there were both a surfeit the of spandexed and lots of pastries and doughnuts on offer all over), we did chuckle that every second car was a hybrid, and certainly every Lyft car was, so well done, Pacific Northwest for that.

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Of course it rained during the four days we were there, but there was also a lot of wind and sea and sun. A charming, sprawling green mess of fauna and water, all beauty and art and earnest hipsters, fifty dozen Starbucks stores, loiterers, dog walkers and …traffic. D. was invited to come over for grueling interview (those six hour ‘invitations’ from big companies are a doozy) but T. was looking forward to meeting a blog-friend in person with whom she’d only ever corresponded…. and had the laughable coincidence of dining two nights with her friend, whose husband works for the company with which D was interviewing! Seattle is huge, but the tech world is teensy, in some ways.

Still a great deal up in the air, but it was a nice break from the ordinary.

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Meanwhile, God bless those hipsters.

-D & T

“Oh… that’s why.”

Rarely in life do we get the reasons why behind the way things go. At least, rarely do we get them this clearly. This is a circumstance D was assured, as he interviewed, “never” happened.

We were embarrassed, honestly, when this job – for which we gave away furniture and for which we were halfway packed to leave – didn’t turn out. It shook our faith in our own good sense, for one thing. What did we miss, and how? we kept asking ourselves.

And now we have, if not the answer, AN answer.

Don’t Open Things!

Dear Everybody: don’t open things you weren’t expecting to receive. This includes links to google docs and not just attachments. Why? There’s a particularly nasty type of attack going around that tries to pretend it’s someone you know sending you something via email. If you weren’t expecting something from that person, why don’t you pick up the phone and ask them if they sent it?

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If it’s as suspicious as the picture above, double-check before you click. Thank you.


Fact Checking

OK, folks, please bear with me as I go on a bit of a rant about statistics and using data to basically lie (and end with a rant about why this might be happening).

I had been reading an article entitled Young White America Is Haunted by a Crisis of Despair and happened upon a graph. It wasn’t a remarkable graph, except something about it just didn’t make sense to me, and then I looked at the axis (which runs from 12% through 32%) and I began to question the data.

People put things on a truncated axis like this when they want to emphasize the data more than it actually warrants. OK. So, we can go through and type this into Excel and make up a bit of a graph to show us what it looks like on a more accurate axis.

OK, that lets us see the data a bit better (i.e., that there’s not much of a difference between Pennsylvania and the rest of the USA). But it still doesn’t tell us anything – I mean, there must be a reason the writer is all het up about whatever’s happening in Pennsylvania, right? So, let’s slap a trend line on things and see where they’re going – let’s put a 3-year moving average on both the US and Pennsylvania’s percentages and see if they’re radically different from one another.

OK, so, that one shows us the raw numbers as dotted lines and the moving average as solid lines. Yes, it does look as if Pennsylvania seems to be edging up. But this is weird, really, because we really don’t understand what we’re looking at: we’re looking at an arbitrary slice of the population (ages 25-34) across 16 years. So … what does this really tell us? Well, without knowing how the other age bands behave, we won’t know anything at all. So, let’s go see what the Kaiser Foundation tells us about that. Kaiser Foundation data pretty much says that, yes, this age range for Pennsylvania does, indeed, overdose on opioids more often … but it also says that ages 35 and above overdose on opioids far less frequently than the US population (which could be saying that people in Pennsylvania overdose earlier than the rest of the country, but at about the same rate).

So, is Pennsylvania doing worse than the rest of the country? Well, Kaiser will let us troll through the data, so let’s see if we can put together a chart to tell us just that. If we ask for non-age data (e.g. by going to Opioid Overdose Deaths by Gender and removing Gender) then we see something that paints a different picture entirely.

Looking at the data without including age as a factor, Pennsylvania has historically been a pretty decent place to be, in that their opioid overdose deaths have tended to be several percentage points lower than the national average. This has stopped being true as of last year … except that how do we know that there’s a trend, rather than this just being noise?

Also, there’s one thing that’s missing from all of this analysis: how do we know that it has anything whatsoever to do with race? Because, really, we haven’t had anything that shows race at all in here, and when I try to ask Kaiser about their data by Race / Ethnicity I get some interesting results … in that I get a handful of data that is “NSD: Not sufficient data. Data supressed to ensure confidentiality.” Try it yourself and see what you can make of it.

That last query brings up another problem in the article: the article says that the deaths of a particular age range and ethnic group are different from the same age range for different ethnic groups … but that data doesn’t appear to be readily available, nor does any of the data out there seem to support that, nor does any of this appear to be beyond the range of statistical noise.

Now, what happens if we ask for numbers rather than percentages?

The top line is the total US number, keep in mind. But, yes, there does appear to be a wee problem there in Pennsylvania among white people. Of course, we don’t know how many black or Hispanic people there are in Pennsylvania, so we can’t say what percentage is affected by “the opioid epidemic,” and this is particularly true because when you look at the trend of Pennsylvania it kind of seems like it’s rising very slowly, whereas there’s a jump beginning at 2013 for the national average. So, does Pennsylvania have a problem? We just cannot say. (We also haven’t looked at when the stronger variants of opioids came onto the market, but do know that those are having some effect, as people encounter drugs which are stronger than expected.)

The other thing to point out: we’re talking about some pretty small numbers all along. I’m sorry, but 27,000 white people dying in a year, out of a total population of 320 million people, just doesn’t seem like a huge thing to talk about, to be honest. I mean, sure, it’s a tragedy for the families involved. But how about the 614,348 people who died from heart disease in the same year? The 591,699 who died of cancer? The 147,101 who died of respiratory disease? Or 136,053 from accidents, 133,033 from strokes, 93,541 from alzheimer’s, 76,488 from diabetes, 55,227 from influenza, 48,146 from kidney disease, and 42,773 from suicide?

In case you missed it in those numbers (all of which are significantly greater than the number of opioid deaths): 55,227 Americans died from the flu last year, which is nearly twice the number who died from opioids.

All of this leads me to wonder: why do we place such importance upon this particular narrative? Why is it important to tell the story that poor white people who didn’t get college degrees are getting into heroin? Why are we, as a nation, accepting articles like this one, which are barely supportable by the statistics, and which are looking at a problem which, on the face of it, doesn’t seem to be a significant problem when compared to other things? (As an example: give everybody a flu shot and you’ve likely saved as many as overdose on opioids.)

I would like to have full access to the data set, to see if I can slice it and come up with something compelling about Pennsylvania White People, but I just can’t see it in the available data. What I do see is a story being told without the data to support it, and I wonder why it’s an important story to the nation, at this time.

My answer to that question? We’ve seen that the war on drugs does not work, and this is a narrative which can be accepted (by White People) as a reason to change our national strategy. Spinning the story this way, though, ignores the generations of minorities who have been incarcerated for drug offenses. It lets White People continue to think that mass incarceration of minorities for drug crimes was OK. Making “the opioid epidemic” about Poor Whites allows a change in drug policy without addressing racial injustice.


No Recipes for Mexican-Like Food

Peppers for the Pot 2

Beyond having delayed our fermentation, most recently we had also stopped making batches of food in any sort of quantity, because batches have to be divided and stored in the fridge or freezer, and this is not your best move, when you think you’re moving house. So, this week found us reversing our attempt to live solely out of the cabinets and freezer. Shopping had to be done, bread needed to be baked (which isn’t all that interesting to photograph any more – it’s bread, it gets thrown together, there’s no recipe, etc.), and ironically, furniture had to be moved to close up the gaps of what we’d given away – more on that later. We also needed to replenish staples like pinto beans (which D. picked up at the Mexican market when he picked up all those peppers). Like many Californians, we almost always have beans on hand, so as to make our versions of Mexican food.

As with many “home” foods, there’s no real recipe for beans: 4 cups of beans, a handful of the hottest peppers you can find (in this case, 5 habañeros and 3 Scotch Bonnets, nearly the last from last year’s garden), and a good couple tablespoons of minced garlic. Enough water to keep them covered, cook in a slow cooker for maybe 8 hours, et voila.

Baked Burritos

Similarly, there’s no real recipe for baked burritos: mix 2 cups of beans with your meat-like product of choice and some green enchilada sauce and cook most of the moisture out, wrap this in tortillas (with some cheese if you feel like it), cover with more of that enchilada sauce, bake for 45 minutes, top with some guacamole and plain yogurt. If our fermented salsa were done, we’d have used some of the paste form in making the filling for the burritos (it’s also good for soups and Thai food), and would have dressed the top with some of the sriracha-like form. Alas, we’ve still got a week and a few days to wait.

Is it time for lunch yet? It seems like it’s time for lunch. Happy rainy, stormy Friday to you.

-D & T