Things That Shouldn't Need Pointing Out

post by Alicorn · 2011-04-21T01:13:35.570Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 48 comments

Today I learned that you can toast marshmallows in the oven.

By "learned", I mean "I read a recipe which included as a step toasting marshmallows in the oven".  I didn't have to try it out to realize that this would obviously work.  It was plain as soon as I heard the idea.  And it shouldn't have needed pointing out.  I know how ovens work.  I am familiar with the marshmallow species of food.  I love roasted marshmallows while hating them in most other forms and often occurrently lament the difficulty of arranging open flames over which one may safely toast them.  I routinely try new things in the kitchen to get results I want.

And yet I read it, and was surprised.  And so were the people I reported this finding to.  It needed pointing out.

What other facts need pointing out, although they are plain on inspection?  What is the pattern behind these facts and a good way to find more?


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comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-21T01:28:02.666Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Facts that need pointing out, although they are plain on inspection" is a not-too-inaccurate paraphrase of the definition "class NP problems" in computer science. You aren't describing a failure of rationality, but a very basic limitation of knowledge generally: it's harder to solve a problem (how can I toast marshmallows in my studio) than to verify that a proposed solution works (put them in the oven).

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2011-04-23T21:36:20.647Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But this fun remark ignores the intended meaning...

comment by hwc · 2011-04-21T01:23:53.828Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's dangerous knowledge. It's kept secret for a reason. Now that you've let the cat out of the bag, campfires have lost some of their magical power.

Also, my family had a recipe for sweet potato casserole that included toasted marshmallows on top. But it was a special thing you could only cook Christmas and Thanksgiving.

comment by Alicorn · 2011-04-21T01:25:15.873Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, my family had a recipe sweet potato casserole that included toasted marshmallows on top. But it was a special thing you could only cook Christmas and Thanksgiving.

I was sort of thrown for a loop when I learned - at age twenty - that it is possible to buy cans of cranberry sauce even when it is not almost Thanksgiving.

comment by beriukay · 2011-04-21T09:16:40.178Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have had an unknown, but large, number of such reactions, where the smartest thing I could think to say was "you can MAKE !??!" Reading Lifehacker gave me that reaction dozens of times before I grew desensitized to the makeability of things. But seriously, you can MAKE dog treats?!!

comment by MartinB · 2011-04-21T01:42:42.181Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like to sign Christmas songs in the summer, while the amount of christmasy stuff during December is too much for me. January is a good time to stock up on price reduced sweets. What I mean to say: there is no need to limit the food you like to any particular time of the year.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-04-21T01:52:08.486Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My college living group used to go Christmas caroling in September, during rush week.

Mostly this was for the sheer WTF value, but we always picked up a few freshmen who decided that we were more interesting than whatever party they were at, which made it a fine rush event as well.

comment by Alicorn · 2011-04-21T01:45:48.276Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Except Cadbury creme eggs.

I like to buy flannel sheets in June.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2011-04-23T23:44:21.945Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Except Cadbury creme eggs.

Well, until they start making them in Christmas and Halloween and Independence Day varieties.

I kind of miss Peeps being special to Easter and candy corn being special to Halloween.

comment by Alicorn · 2011-04-23T23:56:29.919Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think Cadbury is unlikely to come out with Independence Day candy. They're a British company.

I lived in Scotland once and they sold Cadbury creme eggs year-round there, and I liked it that way.

comment by Owen_Richardson · 2011-04-23T23:13:53.002Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A large part of their magical power is not so much the set of known traditional campfire foods, but more the level of creativity they tend to induce after you run out of them, and start trying figure out how to roast pretty much every other food-like substance you brought with you or can find in the forest around you :P

comment by jwhendy · 2011-04-21T02:36:07.650Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My family makes that too! With apricots inside that have been soaked in Vermouth :)

comment by MrMind · 2011-04-21T08:46:47.787Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Learned blankness about the possible use of everyday appliances, besides the explicitely stated?

Now you're morally obliged to find 3 creative use for a freezer...

comment by MinibearRex · 2011-04-22T01:58:28.604Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
  1. In the event that you need to chill a small area/room and air conditioning, it is possible to rig a system using plastic tubing, a small fan, and some styrofoam blocks to pump cool air anywhere you like. I've done this with dry ice in a cooler, but a freezer should work fine.

  2. Take objects that need to be hidden, mix them into a casserole and freeze it. If anyone's going to the trouble to dethaw your casseroles to search for it, you are involved in something really insane.

  3. Chill some small hard object and shatter it with a hammer for entertainment value.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-04-22T02:02:03.535Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Chill some small hard object and shatter it with a hammer for entertainment value.

That last one seems to be a standard use to me. Is that just me?

comment by beriukay · 2011-04-28T09:50:34.492Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the spirit of trying to have 3, I shall try one:

  1. If you have wax stuck on something, put it in the freezer, preferably touching any frost buildup, for a few minutes. It breaks off nice and easy after that. Very useful in the lapidary world.
comment by Alicorn · 2011-04-22T02:20:56.258Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's standard use of liquid nitrogen, less so with conventional freezers.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-04-21T16:38:39.799Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you have n facts in your mind, that means you have n(n-1) pairwise combination of facts. That is a lot. Add in more facts necessary to generate an idea, and the number of combinations grows, well, combinatorially.

Once two facts have been raised to your attention, you can judge their combination trivially. The challenge is finding the right two facts, and that can easily be seen by noticing your search space.

How do you get better at searching through your search space for creative ideas? Well, ask creatives- that's what they do all the time. I've found A Whack on the Side of the Head mildly useful on that front, but don't know how it compares to other books.

comment by SilasBarta · 2011-04-21T15:27:56.973Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This general problem is why I want these signs: they call out the "shouldn't need pointing out" things in public establishments, all of which are severe impediments if you don't know them.

Of course, there is the opposite problem to worry about, of adding so many bits of advice that no one bothers reading the list, and then discounts its value, leading to people not posting these ...

comment by Nisan · 2011-04-22T02:48:46.994Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by Johnicholas · 2011-04-21T17:57:24.280Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Though the point Sewing-Machine made about NP-completeness is completely apt, one should not take NP-completeness as a sign to stop thinking; it's too prevalent.

The original question implicitly gave an argument something like: Alicorn has (various enumerated) good reasons to believe that "ways to cook marshmallows" is within her expertise. A straightforward query yielded only one way, requiring an open fire. Therefore, she can conclude that it is difficult or infeasible to cook marshmallows without an open fire.

I vaguely recall a quote something like "If an expert believes a thing is possible, they are very likely correct. However, if an expert believes a thing is impossible, they are very likely mistaken."

Possibly we can take this as a recipe for judging / weighing specific kinds of arguments. I think Douglas Walton calls this kind of argument "argument from position to know", and we could add a checklist for judging argument of this sort, something like: Is the claim universal over a combinatorially large domain? Does the expert have a reason, other than their expertise, for their belief? If not, discount the expert's belief as the expert is likely to be overconfident.

comment by Owen_Richardson · 2011-04-23T23:00:51.845Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The quote is from Arthur C. Clark:

"When a distinguished and elderly scientist says something is possible, he is almost certainly correct; when he says something is impossible he is very probably wrong."

Apparently he presented this as the first of three principles, the others being:

"The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little past them."

And the third is probably the most famous one:

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

comment by Johnicholas · 2011-04-24T14:35:40.144Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by Owen_Richardson · 2011-04-24T22:43:35.764Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for making me look it up. I thought it was Isaac Asimov for some reason!

comment by virtualAdept · 2011-04-21T20:01:40.024Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd be willing to bet that if you had at some point found yourself with an active (and at least moderately strong) desire to have a toasted marshmallow, you would have sought and found a way (oven, toaster, etc) to toast one in the kitchen... mostly because once upon a time, I found myself with a bag of marshmallows and some chocolate, and wanted s'mores, and decided since "toasting" to me at that time mostly meant "torching," a candle would suffice. And it did.

Toasting a marshmallow without a campfire wasn't a difficult problem; it was just one you didn't consciously try to solve. Maybe this marshmallow incident you've related is as simple as a recommendation for us to more actively identify little questions like that in our daily lives. If those questions can be converted to some form of desire ("I want X," or "I wish that X..."), it seems that we'd be more likely to see the simple-but-not-obvious solutions.

Over the course of working in a research lab at first part-time in undergrad, and now as a full-time grad student, I've run into a lot of little mental connections like that that tend to make me want to slap myself when I hear them, so I've started to make it a game to notice when something's unreasonably difficult, finicky, or irritating and, try to change something about it rather than just grumbling quietly to myself.

(One good example: re-papering bench space where ethidium bromide is used. Gloves are mandatory when handling EtBr-contaminated material. Labeling tape sticks to latex gloves like CRAZY, making it difficult to tape the bench paper down. It's almost embarrassing how long it took me to think of just wetting the fingertips of my gloves a bit to keep the tape from sticking to them.)

comment by MinibearRex · 2011-04-22T01:33:42.280Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My experience with roasting marshmallows using candles is that the compounds in the wax tend to give the marshmallows a bad flavor. This may just be because of the candles I tried, but in general I had success with pushing down the toaster and roasting the marshmallow on a stick over the slots.

comment by Alicorn · 2011-04-21T20:19:09.443Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was actually aware that candles were an acceptable facsimile, but I don't like playing with fire if I can avoid it.

comment by virtualAdept · 2011-04-22T00:42:18.068Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fair enough - I tend to look for excuses to play with fire, so it seemed like the perfect solution to me. I think the oven probably does a better job of it, though.

Upshot of this: I now desire marshmallows.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2011-04-23T23:57:04.782Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

FYI, you have a roommate who doesn't share this aversion. :)

comment by Giles · 2011-04-25T23:40:22.512Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

1). Everyone knows about Santa who fills a stocking with gifts for you, right? I don't ever remember believing in Santa but for many years I believed that my parents were standing there by my bed literally stuffing the stocking with gifts while I slept. It needed pointing out that they had another stocking ready filled which they just swapped.

Subsequent investigation proved that not all parents realise this either.

2). The laundry machines in my apartment block require a dollar and three quarters to operate. Right now the bank is shut and I have a lot of quarters in the coin jar but am out of loonies (Canadian dollar coins). I did manage to work out on my own that I could pay the entire price in quarters and the machine would accept it, but it took me a while.

[EDIT: 3). It did need pointing out that the coin jar concept also works quite well for subway tokens.]

comment by Gray · 2011-04-21T04:12:40.078Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I see where you're going with this, but to be more analytical than you intended, the answer to one of your questions is hypostatic abstraction. It's an immediate (and therefore deductive) logical inference that, in this case, goes like this:

  1. You can toast marshmallows with an open flame.
  2. There is some means/power/virtue/relationship by which you can toasts marshmallows with an open flame.

This relationship inferred is called the hypostatic object. It's a deductive inference, so if it seems like this hasn't actually added any information, you're right. But it is often a useful inference in that it brings out the hypostatic object which is latent in proposition (1) above, but isn't itself (yet) an object of thought. In this case, obviously, the hypostatic object is to be identified with heat. A lot of our scientific concepts were once nothing more than hypostatic objects: think of electrons (the whatever that produces electricity) and photons (the whatever that produces light); eventually more is learned about these objects, so that saying something like "electrons are responsible for electricity" is no longer tautological.

The point being, when you were associating roasting marshmallows with an open flame, you were thinking too concrete. So how do we stop and think about these daily, ordinary things, at a more abstract level? I don't know. There are probably all sorts of things like that which I'm hardly aware of. Maybe I should just go through a brainstorming sessions about ordinary things and try to think at a more abstract level.

comment by Alicorn · 2011-04-21T04:15:17.868Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not all heating methods would satisfactorily toast marshmallows. The microwave makes them blow up and boiling them would dissolve them. So merely being consciously aware that heat is involved in the roasting wouldn't be enough to make me think that not only one specific type of heat would do.

comment by Gray · 2011-04-21T04:28:14.704Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's a good point, which means that heat is too general to function as the hypostatic object. I would guess that it's a particular way in which heat is applied. The heat has to be applied to the surface, and it has to be transmitted through the air. And, at least relative the reflexes of the cook, the temperature can't be too high.

Makes you wonder if a marshmallow can be toasted with a hair dryer :D

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-21T05:50:18.290Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Makes you wonder if a marshmallow can be toasted with a hair dryer :D

Challenge accepted; if I get my hands on both materials, I'll do it this weekend. I don't know if I can take a video, though, so my word may have to be trusted when I answer.

Update: Comment here

comment by MrMind · 2011-04-21T08:39:06.722Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I suspect a plain hair dryer can't produce that much heat, however a hot air gun should work neatly (I used routinely a Bosch PHG 600-3 and I want to point out that you can seriously burn yourself if you don't properly handle it).

comment by mutterc · 2011-04-22T01:39:34.833Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Alton Brown, in a recent Good Eats episode, went through the several ways to toast bread for croutons:

  • oven broiler / toaster oven
  • grill
  • heat gun
  • blowtorch (of the kind used to solder copper pipes, available cheaply at hardware stores)

I've seen him recommend heat guns on other occasions so I bet it would work just fine.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-21T07:39:00.984Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know if I can take a video

Have you considered getting a smartphone (soon to be known as a "phone")?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-04-21T13:44:35.573Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Considered? Yes. Decided it was a good idea? Not on my current undergraduate non-budget.

comment by jwhendy · 2011-04-21T14:47:43.281Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A wife can be equally restrictive :)

Edit: just noticed the down vote. Not sure why -- a wife can be restrictive in that I'd like a smart phone and she doesn't want me to have one.

comment by beriukay · 2011-04-21T09:13:28.378Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't forget the kiln. My metal smithing instructor made some killer peeps (I normally dislike peeps) in a kiln.

comment by jwhendy · 2011-04-21T14:48:26.115Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would dislike peeps, too, if they were the killer kind.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-05-05T05:06:20.777Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Marshmallow Update (sorry for the lateness):

I tried with a relatively weaker hairdryer and, while it didn't toast brown, the marshmallow did have a outside, crispier layer with a gooey inside, and tasted very good. I'll be trying with a stronger hair dryer on Friday, seeing if browning is possible.

comment by Baughn · 2013-01-15T16:50:25.765Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Blow up

Okay, now I've got to try that. My microwave oven will be messy, and it will be your fault.

comment by Cayenne · 2011-04-25T03:28:36.069Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that it's an artifact of how we store information, and it seems strongest in things that we rote memorize or only ever do within a particular context. I've been trying to 'train' myself out of this kind of thinking for a long time now, and I don't really consider it training since it's actually fairly fun to do.

The main way I do this is to look for things that are simple, and try to think of them in weird or interesting intersections with other simple things. Seeming simple is I think one of the marks of this kind of storage. So, try to play more with your environment, even if it is just mentally?

edit - Try to apply mental models to things that they're not normally used for too, and always try to be lazy! also edit for clarity, oops.

Edit - please disregard this post

comment by nazgulnarsil · 2011-04-21T23:42:53.153Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

bacon can be cooked in an oven. I never knew this until recently, I had always fried it. much less messy/time consuming.

comment by AdeleneDawner · 2011-04-24T00:20:57.990Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It also comes out pretty well when microwaved for 2-3 minutes between paper towels. (2 paper towels on top, 2 on bottom; use less time for non-crunchy bacon; sucking on bacon-grease-infused paper towels is probably bad for your health.)

comment by Zetetic · 2011-04-22T14:11:30.517Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm. This sort of goes well with the idea that propagation is hard. When a mathematics student is first studying a subject, they tend to start off with a very specific view of each new skill they pick up. Only with time and experience does one propagate the skill throughout other domains of knowledge and come to use it in the real world, saying "Hey, I bet if they altered the shape of the packaging here they would save money! I can do the optimization problem in my head, why didn't they think of that?"

comment by afeller08 · 2012-10-24T23:04:16.406Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Given that I spend a lot of time programming computers and that I occasionally brainstorm my programs through flow-charts, I was shocked, upon realizing that flow-charts can easily be formalized as something Turing complete, by how long it took me to realize this. (Generalized: If I am able to regularly use a particular abstraction as a proxy for another abstraction, it makes sense to ask the question, "Are these two ideas equivalent?")