Monday, January 25, 2010

Bialys, burritos and screwed up thinking

Browsing some blogs today, I came across something new to me, the bialy, and an interesting article in Wired magazine, "Accept defeat: the neuroscience of screwing up", thanks to Ageless Marketing.

I've been thinking about wanting to make something new in the way of bread, the bialy sounds like an interesting challenge. In reading some of the stuff on the web about bialys, there seems to be a lot of attention being paid to authenticity, the real bialy. Myself, having never tasted a real bialy, don't presume to reconstruct one authentically. But it sounds like an interesting idea, a small flatbread with a fried onion centre.

When I was young and married, I attempted to reconstruct the burrito. I'd never heard of a burrito, but my husband grew up in southern California and had fond memories of trading his peanut-butter-and-jelly lunch sandwiches for his Latino classmates' lunch burritos. He loved burritos. He tried to explain to me what a burrito was, and I tried to reconstruct it from his description. At the time we lived in a log cabin back of beyond with extremely limited financial resources, no electricity and no running water.

I'd had Indian food, I knew what a chapati was, and his description of the flour tortilla sounded like a chapati to me and I thought I could reconstruct that, more or less. Refried beans, how hard can that be? But salsa? I'd never heard of salsa, and his description of a kind of spicy tomato sauce translated in my head to ketchup and tabasco. Thus was born my recipe for burritos: an unyeasted flatbread rolled thin with a rolling pin and baked at high heat on a cast aluminum griddle, a dollop of kidney beans cooked, mashed and then fried in bacon fat to a soft but not runny consistency, topped with grated cheddar, fine chopped onion, chopped tomato, lettuce, and lots of ketchup and tabasco to taste.

If my husband found them odd he never said anything, we happily ate lots of them and so did our kids. I have photos of my first as a toddler with refried beans and ketchup smeared all over his face and hands (we withheld the tabasco on his burrito).

To this day I prefer ketchup and tabasco over salsa, and apparently so do my kids. When my daughter-in-law serves burritos, she always sets the ketchup bottle by my son's plate. So I am not particularly hung up on authenticity, anyone who can substitute ketchup for salsa is clearly not a purist. If I make a bialy, it'll be of the ketchup-and-tabasco variety.

The other article, about how science is really done, just makes complete sense to me, having spent a period of my life studying biology and working in a biology lab. Also how naivete and skepticism actually work to solve scientific puzzles. In the article, there was one particularly intriguing scenario about two labs faced with the same puzzle, and how they approached the problem.

One lab was full of experts on the particular area of science being studied (in this case the bacterium E. coli), and the other was full of people with a variety of backgrounds, very few or none of them experts in E. coli. The problem was that the filters being used in the experiment were getting clogged with protein matter, thus preventing the experiment from proceeding properly. The E. coli experts spent a lot of time methodically trying various fixes over a period of several weeks until they eventually got the filters working properly. The other more diverse lab discussed the problem amongst themselves and by the end of a single meeting came up with an effective solution. The first part of the meeting was seemingly unproductive, a lot of fumbling around trying to pinpoint the problem to everyone's satisfaction. But once that was done it took all of 10 minutes to come up with the working solution.

Experts in a narrow field (such as everything there is to know about E. coli) know a lot about a little, and develop a highly specialized language to discuss it among themselves. A language few others could understand. Put a bunch of experts in a variety of fields in a meeting together and they are force to speak English in order to be understood by each other. They must resort to metaphor and analogy to explain their points. And if some of those present are not experts at all, then everything must be explained in simple terms. This leaves the whole group wide open to lateral thinking, thinking outside of the box. Assumptions based on a narrow field of expertise just get trampled by too many non-experts. The diverse perspectives brought to bear on a single problem and the creative language used to describe the problem opened up possibilities that were simply unavailable to a group of people sharing a single perspective and a single, very precise language to describe the problem.

We believe in experts, people who are trained to understand a single subject absolutely thoroughly, but therein is our creative downfall. Narrow fields of expertise impose blinkers, blinkers shield out the unexpected and improbable. Skeptics and intellectual outsiders are often wrong and misguided, but they are also responsible for astounding breakthroughs, because they attack or bypass the blinkers.

Some have commented on how the best science is practiced by young scientists, that as scientists age they lose their edge. I don't think it is so much a matter of losing edge as it is of becoming mired in expert assumptions. Those who are new to the field retain naivete that lets them think and act beyond scientific assumptions, and those who are new to a field are most often young.


Barbara Anne said...


I once read that an expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less!

Can't say that I'd like ketchup on my burrito, but I love your bravery and willingness to try - especially when you were out in the boonies.

Annie, you're a wonder I and suppose you always have been!


Wisewebwoman said...

Once you sort out the Bialy, plse post the recipe, sans ketchup, I've rarely been a user of ketchup unless the fries are pitiful.

I agree with your specialization thesis, James Lovelock recently bemoaned that there are no more overall scientific minds or medical minds, every one is a specialist, he's one of the few (he's in his nineties) that gets the big picture.


20th Century Woman said...

In my scientist life I often got into trouble for "speculating". I never was able to think about any problem without doing some speculating -- supposing it is this, or perhaps it might be that. I guess that's why I never amounted to much as a scientist.