Predicting If Dinner Will Be Good pt.1
Can you predict the future? According to SuperForecasting, those equipped with the right mindset and techniques can do a reasonably good job.
In fact I wolfed down the book because - even though the authors were quite explicit that this would not be the case - I remained convinced by its end I would be able to tell you anything that is going to happen in the next few years.
Unsurprisingly I have now reached the end and am immediately little more able to answer a question like Will the Tories still be in power in 2024? Or even more simple ones such as Will I be wearing matching socks tomorrow?
What I have learnt though are some techniques that can help us in thinking about such things.
I have also learnt that there is already an industry of fortune tellers, whose names carry far and wide and who command quite a price for their powers. They are called political pundits, and they appear in parliaments, White Houses and televisions the world over to provide predictions. We pay huge amounts of value to what they may say is about to happen to the economy, yet it turns out no-one is measuring how often they’re right. When Superforecasting analyses a handful of the best known, their record often appears to fall short.
In the 1968 global best seller The Population Bomb, Stanford Professor Paul R. Ehrlick wrote that nothing could prevent famines in which hundreds of millions of people would die throughout the 1970s, going on to say “by the year 2000 the United Kingdom will simply be a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people, of little or no concern to the other 5–7 billion people of a sick world.”
It’s tempting to dismiss this as having been entirely wrong, though it turns out the art of measuring predictions is ducedly complex. As Superforecasting spells out repeatedly, the future (and therefore how history shapes out) is uncertain. It could be that Ehrlick was largely correct and in the 1960s this outcome could have occurred, however the chance phenomena of the green agricultural revolution in the 1970s plus a huge decline in birth rates meant that we narrowly avoided it. In a parallel universe, we may all be dying of starvation.
A good forecaster therefore would have weighted all the factors that could lead to Ehrlick’s outcome and all those against, and give a percentage chance by which we can assess their prediction. Unfortunately though there is no redemption for Ehrlick here as he actually did do this exact thing; “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000, and give 10 to one that the life of the average Briton would be of a distinctly lower quality than it is today.”
How did he get so wrong? The book (and this post from one of the authors) would suggest that it’s because he’s a hedgehog. That’s not a Q-Anon style conspiracy to say he’s literally a hedgehog and that’s why he can’t make predictions, but instead it makes part of a metaphor for two types of thinkers. Those who define their world view using a single ideology (in Ehrlick’s case, anti-capitalism and anti-growth) are considered hedgehogs, where as those who incorporate differing views and calibrate them against what occurs in reality are instead foxes. Ehrlick was blinded by the ideals he was committed to, so couldn’t register the trends that were opposing it.
A hedgehog is more likely to pepper their speech with “moreover,” “furthermore” and declare things as “impossible” or “certain,” where as a fox will say “however,” “although” and “on the other hand.” A fox changes its views in light of the facts, while a hedgehog clings to its view in spite of them. Here is Ehrlick on 60 minutes this month at age 90, again predicting the apocalypse.
Why is he so popular then? Why did his book become a bestseller and his recent interview receive millions of viewers? Why is it that almost all of our popular pundits are hedgehogs, despite foxes being the ones who make better predictions?
This is because on one hand hedgehogs impose a narrative on the world (“everything works like this…”), which gives us reassurance and certainty - even if strangely it is certainty of total doom. Though on the other hand it is due to partisan affiliations, where we are looking for articulate experts to slamdunk the world with our tribe’s views. Sometimes I think politics is little more than a sports field, where the prominent thinkers are like super-strikers sent in to own the other club (though this itself is a hedgehog view). No-one wants a fox umming and erring in front of the penalty spot.
The food writing world is full of hedgehogs, and they are often in fact amongst my favourites. Nigel Slater’s recent ode to simple cooking A Cook’s Book is filled with pedantry on exactly how a meal should play out. Judy Rodgers (of The Zuni Cafe Cookbook) says there is only one way to cook omelettes and scrambled eggs, and spends five pages of dense text describing exactly how to realise them. Italy comprises of a whole nation of hedgehogs, who maintain that every sauce must pair with a specific shape of pasta, and the strictest doctrine of them all; when bread is rolled out into a circular disc, it must only be topped with tomato and mozzarella.
The foxes of the culinary world instead care less about any particular aesthetic and simply ask; does it taste good? Ottolenghi’s books are full of the simple and the experimental, David Chang likes to make a pizza with mapo tofu as topping and Nigella Lawson’s best recipe in Cook Eat Repeat is an Indian mash up of fish fingers. As she puts it, “if I’d ever thought I’d bring out a book with a fish finger recipe it, I’d have been fairly certain the answer would be no. Thank goodness we live and learn.” A fox if there ever was one (in every sense).
One question then arises, if Nigella and Ottolenghi are foxes then why are they arguably more prominent than the hedgehogs? One explanation could be that dinner is a far less tribal territory than politics (at least in England, maybe foxy food writers are less common in Italy). Another explanation is that we are actually examining the outputs of food writers (was the recipe tasty? Do I want to eat it?), while we are blithely ignoring if the pundits are ever correct. A final explanation (probably the most likely) is that this ropey extrapolation of Superforecasting metaphor onto the world of food doesn’t make any sense, and in fact none of these writers are even hedgehogs or foxes.
Ignoring the latter possibility, I’ll continue that it’s to the hedgehog I go for most recipes. They are the authorities in their field, and they provide reassurance when I want to travel a particular road. Though it the fox that I skim to make sure that all that guidance is taken with a pinch of salt, to remember that fish fingers are delicious, and that just because bread is circular, it doesn’t suddenly mean it won’t taste good with any of the myriad things you usually eat with bread.
In next week’s entry we will dig into the actual techniques for successful prediction with the intent to answer one of the most important questions any day presents; will my dinner be good? This post serves only as a primer for those lessons, reminding us to leave our ideologies at the door when we wish to comprehend reality.
Fish Finger Katsudon
Katsudon is from Japan, a nation of culinary foxes, recipe importers and adapters. They often have an appreciation for what could easily be scorned elsewhere, in this case the unique texture of a once crunchy texture becoming soggy with broth - allowing those open spaces in the crisp outside to fill with tasty liquids.
This recipe cheats on a few levels, but remember cheating has multiple definitions. One is to “avoid (something undesirable) by luck or skill,” and is most fitting as we have avoided undesirable faffing and ended up with excellent results (through great ingenuity no less).
We use fish fingers to avoid the procuring of fresh ingredients and use dashi powder to avoid the costs (both time and money) of preparing fresh dashi. Not only is dashi powder stock immediate, its goodness is exalted even by the master Shizuo Tsuji in his tribute to purity, Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. I will admit that the same work also stresses to never eat frozen fish, however we don’t all live by the Tokyo Tsujiki fish market mate.
The recipe for katsudon is adapted from The Wok, which comes highly recommended from this food writer. The dish becomes a store cupboard staple if you keep dashi powder in the cupboard and fish fingers in the freezer.
Ingredients (for two or three)
8-10 Fish fingers
4 eggs, beaten
1 onion sliced
2 spring onions
Dashi powder sachet mixed into 1 cup water
2 tablespoons sake/rice-wine (optional)
2 tablespoons mirin (optional)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Cook the fish fingers as the pack instructs or as you do usually (I usually fry on both sides on a cast iron skillet for ~5 minutes on medium heat with a dot of butter).
In the meantime, combine the dashi ingredients in a pan and bring to a simmer over medium heat in a medium sized skillet. Add the onions and simmer until a little tender, roughly five minutes. Add the fish fingers and cook another minute, then pour in the eggs around the fingers, put on a lid and cook for 1 minute if you like the eggs very soft, or two to three if you like them more set.
Fill bowls with cooked rice, and slide a portion of the broth, fish fingers and egg on top of each bowl. Sprinkle with spring onions and serve.
What a great deal. A dish that is at once clever, simple and homie, superb for these cold evenings; an abstract of a book I can now tick off my reading list; a thought for the day that grants me an elevated perspective on my inablity to hold strongly to a viewpoint on the modern world.; an AI illustration. Bravo.