Author Archives: Alex Zhu

How I doubled my enjoyment of delicious meals

I was once a very silly foodie.

I would venture to restaurants in eager anticipation of delicious food, only to absent-mindedly shove it down my mouth when it arrived. After seeing an empty plate in front of me and wondering disappointedly where all the food had gone, I would pay, leave, and promptly forget everything about the meal.

I eventually realized there were better ways for me to enjoy my food.

I’ve since come up with a set of tips and techniques to savor the delicous meals that come my way, and to recall the contents of every meal I’ve had worth remembering. While they may not be worth keeping in mind when you’re only eating for sustenance or as a backdrop for socializing, they’ll help make your gastronomic indulgences worth every penny.

Tips for savoring

A few things I’d recommend doing before highly anticipated meals:

  • Fast. You’ll enjoy the meal more and get to eat more on an empty stomach.
  • Leave an open schedule. If you’re constantly feeling rushed during a meal, you’ll enjoy it significantly less.

By default, we’re only conscious of our meals at their beginnings and ends. If our goal is to enjoy our meals as much as possible, it’s obviously better to be conscious of them the entire time. Some tips for doing so:

  • Put your electronics away. A ding from your phone will distract you when you’re savoring a bite. An open web browser will tempt your attention away from your food.
  • Close your eyes. You’re focusing on your food, not your surroundings.
  • Stop talking. Whenever I splurge on food, I impose a moratorium on conversation for some time after the dishes come out. I’m there for the food, not the conversation, which I can get over more pedestrian meals.
  • Pick things to focus on. Focusing on food is easier when there are specific things to look out for. A few things I try to notice:
    • The taste. How would I describe the taste? How does its actual taste compare with what I would imagine?
    • The texture. How would I describe the texture?
    • The ingredients. If I have a list of ingredients handy, I pick out each ingredient and see if I can taste it in each of my bites.

Some things I do over the course of a meal:

  • Take small bites. Moderate-sized bites have the same amount of taste as big bites, and leave me more time to enjoy a meal.
  • Ogle my food. Every now and then, I marvel at the little details of my next forkful of food and think about how great it would be in my mouth. The anticipation makes my next mouthful all the more glorious. (This is kind of like when I ogle a picture of food online, except I actually get to eat it.)
  • Take breaks when filling up. If I’m getting full, I don’t think it makes sense to stuff a dish down my throat just for the sake of finishing it. Instead, I’d either leave or ask my waiter to wait a while before serving the next course.

Finally, some tips for keeping a well-savored meal in your memory:

  • Quiz yourself on the taste. In between bites, look at your food and try to recall its taste. With the conjured taste in mind, bite into your food and compare it with the actual taste. (This is analogous to studying a vocabulary flashcard, except you’re pairing sights and tastes instead of words and definitions.)
  • Cycle through the different items on your dish while quizzing yourself. If you’re learning vocabulary flashcards, would you just pick flashcards to study at random? Or would you study each card for a bit, then cycle through them?
  • Take pictures of your food. An extremely simple way to ensure that none of your dishes fall into the abyss of forgotten memories. It’s also nice to be able to look through old food pictures like a hungry little kid flipping through a food magazine, with the difference that you know exactly what it was like to eat each of the foods.

I find that if I quiz myself on the taste of a dish, a picture of that dish will bring its taste to my mind. Thus, by combining the above three tips, I can remember the tastes of any food I choose.

Got your own tips for enjoying food? Share them in the comments!

Positive feedback is also really useful

I think one of the best ways to improve myself is to solicit criticisms from people I know well. For a while, I only valued criticism and didn’t seek out positive feedback. Asking for positive feedback never felt particularly valuable, and also felt socially inappropriate, since on some level it’s just me asking others to tell me how great I am.

I no longer see things this way. I now think positive feedback is very useful, for a couple of reasons:

  • Positive feedback counterbalances noisy negative feedback. If one person says they don’t really like the way you talk, you might think that’s an area you need to improve in, and divert a lot of energy to improving it. But if many more people actually love the way you talk—which you might never find out if you never ask—that energy would mostly be a waste.
  • Positive feedback reinforces what you’re doing well. If someone points out that I’m doing something well, I am both more conscious of it and more willing to do it in the future.
  • Positive feedback is great for bonding. Getting positive feedback makes me feel warm and fuzzy, and makes me feel closer with my friends. It also makes it more socially appropriate for me to give positive feedback, which leads my friends to feel warm and fuzzy and closer to me! What’s not to love here?

 

How to not be glued to your computer until 3 am, and actually get sleep

The Problem

It’s midnight. “Time for bed!” you tell yourself.

You would totally head off for bed, except you happen to be splat in the middle of an internet article. (Or cat video. Or League of Legends match. Or whatever). So you tell yourself you’ll sleep once you finish that article.

You finish it, and it’s still not that late. Great! Except you clicked a link while you were reading, and now you’ve got a new tab with an enticing new article in front of you, which you could wait until tomorrow to read… or that you could just read right now. (It’s not that late yet, after all!)

“Okay”, you think. “I’ll finish this article, and then I’ll go to sleep”. And you finish, but along the way you’ve opened two new articles, both of them imploring you to read them before you go snuggle in your sheets.

On and on this goes, until you check the time and holy crap it’s 3 am already??

There’s a fundamental problem here—leaving your computer and going to bed requires willpower, while continuing to read is just a matter of switching tabs and getting immediate gratification that your brain so adores. Every time you have to decide what to do, you’ll pick the path of least resistance, which will virtually always be to stay up reading.

A Solution

If we could make our path of least resistance be to get up and sleep, instead of continuing to stay up reading, our problem would be solved.

There’s actually a very simple way to make this happen: configure your computer to automatically hibernate at a fixed time each night.1 This way, the default path is for your computer to shut off, and for you to go to bed. Staying up to continue reading will require the conscious effort and inconvenience of turning your computer back on and waiting for it to reboot.

The beauty of this approach is that it doesn’t force you to do anything you really don’t want, yet always gets you making the correct decision. If you were only reading random internet articles, you probably wouldn’t have the motivation to turn your computer back on just to continue reading those articles. But if you were working on something important that does require you to stay up later, you only have to wait a minute or two before you can resume your task.

Implementation

For Windows, just follow the steps at this link, but ignore step 1, and under Program/script on the “Start a program” tab, enter “c:windowssystem32shutdown” (with no quotes), and under Add arguments (optional) add “/h” (also with no quotes).

I have nothing for Macs. If you have instructions for Macs, please leave a note in the comments.

For Linux, you do something with cron and pm-hibernate and something about admin rights for auto-scheduling a task that requires root privilege, whose details I’ve totally forgotten. If you can jog my memory here, I’d also appreciate if you could leave a comment.


1. For those unaware, hibernation is like making your computer go to sleep (like when you close your laptop), except your computer shuts off. When you reboot, everything that was previously in working memory—all your open programs, unsaved work, etc.—gets loaded back.)

Materialism vs experientialism is a wrong dichotomy

Common life advice: don’t take pleasure in material goods. Seek experiences instead.

I think this is a wrong dichotomy. Not a false dichotomy, but a dichotomy that fails to capture what really matters. The proper advice isn’t “seek experiences, eschew materials”, but “seek utility, eschew dick-measuring”.

There are basically two reasons why we might want material goods. First, it’s useful to us in some way, or gives us pleasure. A fast laptop lets us work faster. Nice speakers let us enjoy music more.

Second, we might derive personal worth from it. We might feel pride in owning the latest model of a laptop. We might feel jealous when we see someone with nicer speakers than us.

These are the exact same two reasons why we might seek experiences. A trip abroad can relieve stress and clear the mind, improving productivity, and a delicious meal can be extremely pleasurable and impart fantastic memories. On the flip side, we may feel a smug superiority from having visited more countries than someone, or a pang of jealousy on hearing that a friend’s best meal was more luxurious than our own.

The materialism/experientialism dichotomy paints materialism as intrinsically bad and experientialism as intrinsically good. Neither is true. Materialism just tends to associate with dick-measuring, which is generally bad, while experientialism tends to associate with pleasure, which is generally good.

These associations are not universal, though. As a personal example, I noticed one day that I was hoarding “cool experiences”—places traveled, restaurants sampled, activities tried—in much the same way people hoard material possessions. I found myself taking pride in being able to tell cooler stories than the people around me. At times it was almost like I was purchasing invisible badges saying “I’ve experienced XYZ! Have you?”

This isn’t materialism, but it’s totally still a form of dick-measuring.

“I just want you to be happy!”

Why do we give gifts to loved ones? Because we care that they’re happy, and our gifts make them happy. Pretty straightforward, right?

I used to think so. But then I noticed a caveat—it’s not how happy a loved one is that matters, but how happy we make them. If all we really care about is their happiness, why is it so much more heartwarming to watch a friend unwrap a present when it’s given by us and not somebody else? If our friend is equally happy, shouldn’t we feel equally good?

Untangling Free Will

I think I finally understand free will. I’d like to share my thoughts.

I won’t be making any definitive, be-all-end-all claims about free will here—I think the words “choice” and “free will” and “compatibilism” mean different enough things to different people to render any such attempt fruitless. Instead, I’ll focus on addressing common confusions surrounding free will. Through personal experience and many discussions, I’ve found that most such confusions can be phrased in one of three ways:

  1. How can I make any real choices, if any choice I make is already fixed in the future?
  2. If the future is fixed, how could any of my actions possibly change it? If I can’t change the future, then how could I be said to have control over it?
  3. How can I be said to be the source of the actions I make, if my actions ultimately result from atoms abiding by the laws of physics?

I will address each of these questions in this post.

How can I make any real choices, if any choice I make is already fixed in the future?

This question is confusing because we have two similar, but subtly different notions of possibility. In one sense, something can happen if it doesn’t violate the laws of physics for it to happen. In a deterministic universe, where the laws of physics completely determine all future possible states of the universe, saying something can happen is the same as saying it actually will happen.1

In another sense, we say that someone can perform an action if, should they genuinely try to do it, they will succeed in doing so.2, 3 In this sense, I can jump an inch in the air, but I can’t jump 10 feet in the air—if I try to jump an inch in the air, I’ll succeed, but no matter how hard I try I will not jump 10 feet in the air.

I’ll refer to the first sense as “canp” (p for “physical”) and the second as “cana” (a for “ability”).

We can illustrate the distinction in the two senses by considering a chess program trying to pick its next move. If the program is following a deterministic algorithm, its move will have been determined by the algorithm beforehand, so it canp not pick a move different from the one it will make. At the same time, when it’s trying to decide on a move, there are clearly a number of moves it cana take (namely, all of the legal moves—these are the moves it would successfully make if it decided to).

It happens that “cana” is the sense of “can” we almost universally refer to when talking about ability. When we say “Billy can run a 4-minute mile!” we mean that if he eats his pasta and warms up and runs a mile while someone times him, he’ll clock under 4 minutes—that is, if he tries to run a 4-minute mile he’ll succeed. We don’t mean to say that there is some possible future state of the universe in which he does run a 4-minute mile.

Let’s return to the original question: How can any of my choices be real, if any choice I make is already fixed in the future? A choice only feels real if we have multiple different possibilities to choose from. But if our choice is fixed in the future, that means we can only choose one possibility. The question can thus be rephrased: When I am making a choice, how can I have multiple different possibilities to choose from, when there is only one possibility I can choose? And now it’s clear why this question is confusing—it seems to ask how a direct logical contradiction could be possible!

But to say that no alternative choice is possible is to say that no other choice canp be made, while to say that we have the ability to choose is to say that we cana make choices. And there’s nothing contradictory about saying, I cana choose from multiple different possibilities even when there is only one possibility I canp choose. That’s how it is for chess programs, at least! Once we delineate the separate senses of “can” appearing in the question, the apparent contradiction vanishes.

Fundamentally, it’s the same sort of contradiction in “The more cheese, the more holes; the more holes, the less cheese.” It just gets taken a lot more seriously.

If the future is fixed, how could any of my actions possibly change it? If I can’t change the future, then how could I be said to have control over it?

Your actions don’t change the future, but they do determine it, and when you are responsible for determining the future, you have control over your future.

Consider the following scenario. A student is pondering whether to study for her test tomorrow. She knows that if she studies, she will get an A, and that if she doesn’t, she will get an F. Suddenly, God appears from the heavens, tells her that he saw into the future, and gives her a transparent glass case with a folded sheet of paper inside, with her future grade written on it. He then tells her that the case will only open after the test.

The student reasons that since her grade on the test is already fixed (it’s written on that slip of paper already, after all!) she can’t change her grade, so there’s no point in studying. Feeling smug about philosophizing her way out of studying, she parties all night, gets an F, opens the case, and finds an F on the sheet of paper. She shrugs. “Guess it was always an F, nothing I could’ve done about it!”

There’s something off about her reasoning. She couldhave studied, in which case she’d have gotten an A, and the grade written on the paper would always have been an A.4 It is only because she chose not to study that the grade on the paper had always been an F.

As the contents of the paper never changed, the student never changed her future by deciding whether to study. But her future did depend on her actions. In other words, even though she couldn’t change the future, she still had control over it.

If my actions result from atoms abiding by the laws of physics, how can I be said to be the source of the actions I make?

I am the source of the actions I make because I am the atoms resulting in my actions.

How can it be said that my hand opened a bottle of water, when it was really just my fingers and palm? How can it be said that I read a message from my friend, when all he sent me were a bunch of pen marks on a sheet of paper? How can it be said that I picked up my food with a fork, when all I used was really just a bunch of atoms?

It can be said because my hand is my fingers and my palm; because the message is the pen marks on the sheet of paper; because the fork is just a bunch of atoms. I, likewise, am the atoms and chemical processes in my brain responsible for everything that I do.

To see this another way, suppose that a bunch of crazy scientists implant a bunch of electrodes in my brain that make me always desire cherry pie over apple pie. Certainly, whenever I choose cherry pie over apple pie, the scientists are responsible for my decision to eat the cherry pie. But this does not mean I am not responsible for my decision as well! The electrodes are a part of my brain, a part of of my decision-making process, a part of who I am. I ate the pie because I wanted to—the fact that the electrodes caused me to want the pie is irrelevant.


1. If our universe is deterministic, then any state of the universe determines all possible future states of the universe, so to reach a configuration of the universe not among these possible future states we’d need to violate the laws of physics.
2. It would be more technically correct to say that an observer with all relevant information would predict the agent would successfully cause the outcome, in a universe in which they do try. If someone is in a prison cell and really desires to leave, we probably wouldn’t say she had the ability to leave if her warden unexpectedly happened to come by at some point and let her walk out. On the other hand, if she knew the warden were coming along, we would say she had the ability to leave (whenever the warden came along).

3. With cana, we are considering what would happen in a hypothetical world which is logically valid to reason about, even if such a world cannot be reached from the laws of physics. There may be some concern that it is logical nonsense to talk about physically impossible worlds. I think it still makes sense to talk about them, as logical structures. For example, in the universe of Super Mario Bros., there may be certain states of the game that are unreachable no matter how hard the player tries to play (say, walking through a wall). But it still makes sense to talk about what the game would look like when such an impossible state is reached, e.g., if someone hacks the game and places Mario straight into a wall.

4. “Could” in the sense of ability, not physical possibility.