Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Inner Sense of Gender

I had a conversation with a probably-trans friend last night which they1 found helpful, so I thought it might be worth sharing my thoughts on the subject with a broader audience, as it’s a perspective that I don’t think is heard from often, and may be helpful as a point of reference for people who are wondering if they are “trans enough”.

I am cis. I’m reasonably sure of this. I have asked myself whether I was trans, concluded that I was not, and am pretty confident in this conclusion2. You don’t hear much about this sort of experience, because from the outside it looks like a total non-event, so I thought it would be helpful for me to elaborate on what it feels like from the inside.

Ozy Frantz coined a term a while back, Cis by Default3, which makes the point that a lot of cis people just don’t have anything that you might describe as an internally felt sense of gender. I think this is true and is a very useful observation, and for quite some time I thought it was an accurate description of how I felt. Since then, I’ve decided that there are details that it doesn’t quite capture accurately for me that are worth unpacking a bit further.

I think the distinguishing features of cis-vs-transness can be roughly captured by three important questions:

  1. What was your assigned gender at birth?
  2. What would you like your gender to be4?
  3. How much do you care about the above?

Being trans is essentially having very different answers to the first two questions and caring about it a great deal. I think the significance of the caring part is often missed, because the people who talk about this the most (both cis and trans) are often the ones who care about it the most.

This model is a bit simplistic, so some caveats before I go any further:

  • Gender/sex/etc constitute a very large bundle of roughly related parts. e.g. identity and presentation are different, and there are distinct gendered norms. People will rarely have the same answer to these questions for each of those aspects. That’s fine.
  • I encourage very broad interpretations of the questions. Definitely no assumption of binary gender implied. Also it’s perfectly OK for your preference to be to not have a gender at all (i.e. being agender).
  • Answers to these questions may change over time. The relevant period of time can be on an hourly basis for some people (e.g. genderfluidity).
  • “Oh gods I have no idea” is a perfectly legitimate answer to any or all of these.
  • “What would you like your gender to be?” is a slightly loaded phrasing, but I can’t think of a better one, so please let me emphasise here that I very strongly believe that your gender is whatever you choose or believe it to be.

You can think of the experience of this as breaking down into roughly four quadrants which get labelled as follows:

  1. Agree/Care – “Standard” Cis Experience
  2. Agree/Don’t Care – Cis by Default
  3. Disagree/Care – Trans
  4. Disagree/Don’t care – It Depends

I would consider myself to be in the “It Depends” quadrant. Someone in this category could reasonably choose to consider themselves cis or trans, depending on whatever seems important to them. For my part, I’ve chosen to consider myself cis – I don’t think I or other people would find it at all helpful for me to describe myself as trans, so I don’t, but other people in the same quadrant might make a different decision and that’s fine too. You could think of us as “ambiguously cis” (or, for people in this quadrant who have chosen to consider themselves trans, “ambiguously trans”) – there isn’t a particularly clear cut answer as to whether we count as cis or trans, so it mostly comes down to personal choice and social circumstance.

What does being ambiguously cis feel like? I don’t know. It depends. I can tell you what it feels like for me though: It’s not really that I mind being a man, I just wish someone had asked me first5.

If you wanted to simplify the vastly complex internal experience of human gender into a single number6, you might imagine that there is a percentile scale of 0-100 of “How much you would like to transition?” with 0% being “Under no circumstances would I choose my gender to differ from the one I was assigned at birth” and 100% being “Under no circumstances would I choose to live as my assigned gender at birth”, I’d rate myself somewhere in the 5-10% region.

Practically speaking, what this means is that if you dropped me into the Culture and gave me access to cheap and easy body modification technology and a society that was very encouraging of using it, I would absolutely experiment with different gender presentations, would give you pretty good odds that I would swap back and forth, and maybe slightly better than even odds that I would adopt a more feminine body plan as a default.

In the real world where transition is complicated and subject to social censure, it’s not even close to worth it for me, because my preferences here are really very mild. There are some circumstances7 where it reaches the heady heights of “I guess that would be nice”, but it’s really not a big deal for me. As a result I present as fairly generically masculine because it’s extremely easy for me to do so and not worth it for me to not do so.

Given this, I don’t think it’s in any way useful for me to identify as trans, but someone with essentially the same preferences as me who cared a lot more about them probably should think about identifying as trans.

Someone who cares exactly the same amount as me might still reasonably consider themselves trans if they were in different circumstances. I don’t know what those would be – I can’t really think of any plausible circumstances under which I would, but that doesn’t imply anything about what other people should do.

If you are in any way unsure about your position in this quadrant, there is a useful concept that I got from a post by Kelsey Piper a while back. Although I’m not the target audience, the point generalises very well and I still it found very helpful:

I have now talked with multiple bi women who’ve said ‘sometimes when I have a crush on a girl I get really worried I’m a Fake Bi and not really attracted to women and therefore I won’t ever get to kiss her.’

And I know orientation and labels and so on are complicated but I think there should be a rule that if you are sometimes scared you’re not bi which would be bad because it means you can’t kiss girls, you are totally and categorically allowed to kiss the girls

The generalisation is this: If you are worried that you are not (label) and that that would be bad because it would mean that you don’t get to (do the thing that label people get to do), I think there should be a rule that you are totally and categorically allowed to (do the thing).

I suggested “Disagree/Care” as the intrinsic definition of transness, but a useful extrinsic definition of “being trans enough” is if it would be helpful for you to view yourself as trans.

If you find yourself worried about not being trans because if you’re not you wouldn’t be able to do all these things that would make your life better, I think that you are totally and categorically allowed to do the thing that makes your life better. If you feel that life makes much more sense when you view yourself as trans, or you really hope you’re trans because that would mean you get to transition (in whatever sense of “transition” is helpful to you), that is a pretty big hint that you are not in the “It Depends” quadrant and that you are trans enough to count. The trans umbrella is large and it definitely has room for you.

This is essentially a variant on the model I proposed in “On Not Quite Fitting” – Binary identity labels don’t actually describe real categories, they describe complex cost-benefit analyses where each individual must decide whether something is worth it to them or not. I think this model is particularly important in the case of gender because both the benefits and, sadly, the costs are quite high for many potentially trans people.

I am not the person to give you advice on how to navigate that cost-benefit trade-off, as it contains a lot of trans specific experiences I don’t share, but feel free to use me as a reference point if you need convincing that you’re trans enough: If you care about your gender significantly more than I care about mine, it’s probably a subject you would find worth exploring.

Equally, I am definitely not someone you need permission from, but if you would find my permission helpful then you have it: Do the thing that makes your life better. If you’re worried if you count, you do.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

Two types of viewpoint

Epistemic Status: Framing

Let me tell you about two words. The words are “relip” and “thamagar”1. I’ve found that they’re actually very helpful words to have, and there really don’t seem to be any good alternatives for their meaning, so I thought I would share them more broadly.

I’ll define them for you in a moment, but first I want to tell you how they are used.

They’re adjectives, and more or less opposed – something that is more relip is generally less thamagar, and vice versa. It’s entirely possible for something to be neither relip or thamagar, and the same thing can be both relip and thamagar in different ways.

A thamagar viewpoint can’t see the wood for the trees. A relip one can’t see the leaves for the tree. When you work in your area of expertise, your viewpoint is thamagar. When you explain it to someone unfamiliar with it, you try to give them a relip view.

The way you look at the ingroup is usually thamagar, and the way you look at the outgroup is usually relip. Combinatorics is thamagar, category theory is relip. Writing a poem requires you to be thamagar, teaching someone requires you to be relip.

When you view something as intrinsically complex, you are being thamagar in your view, when you view it as intrinsically simple you are being relip.

Property-based tests are relip, example-based tests are thamagar.

A relip viewpoint abstracts, a thamagar viewpoint treats everything as unique.

Telling a joke is thamagar, telling a story is relip.

Importantly, there is no moral component to these words. Both relip and thamagar are good, and everyone adopts viewpoints of each type all the time, even towards a single subject. Some people will have a strong preference for one or the other (I’m very much a relip sort of person), but it is impossible to get anything done without both.

The usage is genuinely more important than the definition, but to attempt a definition:

A view or an approach is relip if it unifies many things together based on a small set of features, abstracting and simplifying them based on common patterns.

A view or an approach is thamagar if it is deeply concerned with its context and connections, focusing heavily on how it fits in and interacts with everything around it.

You could call them “abstracted” and “situated” viewpoints if you liked, though I think that would be a bit too relip of you and I’d prefer to be more thamagar in this instance.

Even when you know a subject very well, it can be very helpful to take a step back and adopt a relip approach to it. Even when you are learning a subject for the first time, it can be helpful to imagine what a thamagar view of it might be like and to think of yourself as moving towards it. Getting yourself stuck in one or the other view is usually less effective than switching between the two.

One useful thing to do when you get stuck (which you should be doing) is to ask yourself whether you’re currently being too thamagar (in which you take a step back and try to abstract the problem, understanding its key features) or too relip (in which case you focus on the actual problem without its broader context and ask if you are trying to solve a harder more general problem than you need to). Often the viewpoint switch will be enough to unlock the problem for you

This is a large part of why I find having these words useful: It allows me to be more explicit about that process. Which, in case you were wondering, is an extremely relip way of going about it.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

How do you nurture your imagination?

Epistemic Status: Reverse engineered from my brain. I’m pretty sure this is how it works in general, but your mileage may vary.

Stephanie Hurlburt asked this question (“How do you nurture your imagination?”) on Twitter. I thought it was a great question and gave a bunch of answers, but I thought it would be worth on expanding further on the point.

What do I mean by nurturing your imagination?

Nurturing your imagination is mostly achieved as the result of two things:

  1. Nurturing yourself, by ensuring that you have the room and the support you need to thrive.
  2. Developing the skill of having ideas that you find interesting.

Most people’s answers seemed to me to be focused on the former. This is all very well, and it’s certainly a thing worth doing in and of itself, but without the latter it probably won’t do anything for your imagination, so I’m going to focus on the latter.

First let me spell out some things that are not included in this. It’s not the skill of having good ideas. That’s practicality. It’s also not the skill of having ideas that other people fine interesting. That’s taste.

Practicality and taste are both fine skills that it is very valuable to develop. I strongly encourage you to do so. I also strongly encourage you to treat them with caution while working on developing your imagination. They combine very well with imagination, and are a great guide to it, but when your senses of practicality and taste tell you that your ideas are not going to work or are going to bore other people, take a step back and say “OK, that’s fine, but lets see what happens anyway shall we?”

If it turns out those senses were right all along, that’s fine. Your goal here is explicitly to do things that you find interesting, so it’s OK if they don’t work out as long as you’ve learned something in the process.

How do you find interesting things?

A necessary precursor to being able to have ideas you find interesting is the ability to find things interesting.

If you do not have this ability, that’s not a lack of imagination, it’s much more likely to be fairly severe depression. No, seriously, it’s a symptom. I would very strongly encourage you to see someone about it if you’re not already, and I’m afraid I don’t have any very good advice for you beyond that.

Assuming that’s not you, pick anything that you find interesting and would like to work on. Some examples of things I personally find interesting:

Most of the advice in this piece comes from application to one or more of these.

One particular skill that is particularly useful here is to notice when you find things interesting, and start actively recording that. I use a mix of Twitter, my notebook blog, and a physical journal for recording things I find interesting.

What are ideas for?

In order to understand how to get better at having ideas, it’s helpful to understand why we want to have ideas at all. This may seem like a weird question to ask, but it’s actually quite an important one because most people are confused about the answer.

There are two big common misconceptions about ideas. The first is that they are the most important thing, and the second is that they are the least important thing. Both of these are badly wrong, but the truth is not so much in the middle as off to one side.

There’s a fantastic essay by Neil Gaiman that I’m going to completely disagree with in the next section called “Where do you get your ideas?“. I recommend reading it, but to quote the relevant bit to this section:

The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.

This is spot on. An idea on its own does nothing. Execution and actually doing the hard work are the most important thing in any creative endeavour.

Right up until the point where you get stuck, at which point the idea becomes everything. Ideas are the smallest part, but sometimes the smallest part is crucial.

And this, ultimately, is the main point of ideas: Ideas enable you to do the work.

Understanding this is crucial for working on the ability to have interesting ideas, because it points to a crucial feature: You can only work on the ability to have ideas through a process of doing things (an activity that can consist of just sitting down and thinking real hard if you like, but it’s helpful to have something external that pushes back on you. At the very least try to explain it to someone else by writing about it).

Where do ideas come from?

Neil Gaiman’s answer to “Where do you get your ideas?” is “I make them up. Out of my head”.

I would file this under “true but unhelpful”. It’s like answering “Where does bread come from?” with “the oven”. Yes, bread does come from an oven, but the explanation is missing one or two quite important precursor steps and won’t help you much if you want to make your own bread. The interesting fact is not that the bread came from the oven, but how the bread got to the point of being in the oven in the first place.

(I don’t think Neil Gaiman would really disagree with me on this. A lot of what I’m saying in this section is alluded to in his piece too)

Where do ideas come from? They come from the adjacent possible. This is a concept that originally came from biologist Stuart Kauffman and was popularised in the context of ideas by Steven Johnson in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From” (which I haven’t actually read yet, though I’ve ordered a copy while writing this post and have read his “The Genius of the Tinkerer“, an essay adapted from it).

The adjacent possible is pretty much what it sounds like – the set of things that are currently possible when starting from what you already have.

Ideas build on existing knowledge, one step at a time. Einstein may have had an ah ha moment that lead to the theory of special relativity, and certainly his ability to do so was a testament to his intelligence and imagination, but a person in every way physically and intellectually identical to Einstein but born two thousand years earlier could never possibly have hoped to do it, because Einstein had two thousand years worth of ideas to build on and our hypothetical ur-Einstein did not.

The path from ur-Einstein to Einstein never strayed out of the adjacent possible, but each time humanity added to its collective knowledge the adjacent possible grew with it, and two thousand years of small, incremental steps took us from the point where even the paper that “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” was published on would have been a bold technological revolution, to the point where the concept of special relativity itself was part of the adjacent possible.

You probably won’t manage two thousand years of innovation all on your own, but the set of ideas you can have works much the same way, albeit on a smaller scale.

Your personal adjacent possible consists of roughly three things:

  1. Variations of things you already know (what happens if I do the thing but change this bit?).
  2. Previously untried combinations of things you already know.
  3. Things that you can find out from other people!

The third of course doesn’t really fall under the heading of “imagination”, but I think you’d be surprised how many “highly imaginative” people are just really good at asking the right people the right questions, and in cases where you actually need the ideas rather than are trying to work on the ability to generate them yourself, it’s often by far the best approach.

It’s also a great precursor for the other two. The reason all of this matters is as follows: If ideas come from the adjacent possible, and the adjacent possible accessible to you on your own is nothing but variation and recombination of things you already know, you can only have interesting ideas if you already know interesting things. You can get there the hard way if you want – starting from the basics and working outwards – but the more you learn the larger the scope of your own personal adjacent possible, and the more interesting things it will contain.

Personally I find the following are by far the most reliable ways of expanding the scope of the adjacent possible for me:

  1. Reading interesting books.
  2. Talking to interesting people.

Explaining the interesting books to the interesting people is often particularly effective.

How do you get ideas?

SpaceThe adjacent possible is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to spacethe adjacent possible.”

Douglas Adams, The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (lightly edited)

Ideas come from the adjacent possible, as we just established – you take something you know, you vary it, or you combine it with something else you know, and you’ve got a new idea. Easy, right?

The problem with this is as a strategy for generating interesting ideas is twofold:

  1. There are a lot of potential ideas reachable this way.
  2. Almost all of the them are boring.

It’s important to ensure that your adjacent possible contains interesting things, but regardless of how many interesting things it contains, most things it contains will be tedious garbage. That’s no indictment on you or your knowledge base, that’s just how the numbers pan out.

What you need is a way to navigate your way through the adjacent possible to find those interesting ideas.

How do you do that?

Well, let me start by telling you what doesn’t work: Sitting down and trying to come up with an idea.

Coming up with an idea for the sake of coming up with an idea is hard and pointless, because ideas don’t do anything on their own. Instead, you come up with ideas by starting with something that needs an idea.

As per earlier, ideas are there to get you unstuck, so the way to come up with interesting ideas is to get stuck. Find a problem or a question that you think is interesting and you’re not sure how to solve, and try to solve it. If you succeed, try something harder – either vary the problem to make it harder if you still find it interesting, or try something new.

Ideally though, you won’t succeed. You will get stuck. Now stay there, because this is the point where ideas happen. You have a specific, concrete, problem that you are trying to solve, which vastly narrows down the area of the adjacent possible that you need to consider, and any idea you come up with to solve it will by definition be interesting because it helps you either solve or better understand an interesting problem.

I can heartily recommend this post by math with bad drawings talking to Andrew Wiles about this state if you want to learn more about being stuck, but broadly speaking my recommendations for once you’re in this state are:

  • Think of problems like it that you have solved. Why won’t the solutions you used then work? Can you modify them somehow?
  • Can you reduce it to a previously solved problem?
  • Once you’ve sunk a few hours into it, take a step back. Don’t force yourself to solve the problem now, but let a certain amount of background processing happen. Sleep on it, go for a walk, take a shower, etc.

Where do you find problems?

It’s helpful for this to have a good source of problems you find interesting. A lack of problems to tackle is definitely not something I experience (send help, please), and it will depend a lot on what you find interesting, so I’m maybe not the best person to answer this.

Some people find it useful to have seed problems, such as writing prompts or using exercises from mathematics textbooks. I don’t do this, although honestly I probably should

There are a few things that are reliable generators of problems in general:

  1. The idea of the adjacent possible applies to problems as well as solutions. Vary old problems to get new ones – e.g. can you solve this without the thing you used to solve this previously, can you explain your solution to a four year old, can you explain it in a tweet?
  2. When you’ve figured out a clever new trick or idea, “What can I apply this to?” is itself an interesting problem that is worth spending some time on.

How do you get better at this?

So coming up with interesting ideas is as “simple” as combining the following:

  1. Knowing interesting things to get you started.
  2. Working on hard interesting problems.

The former is “easy” – you just read lots about things you find interesting and talk to lots of people about it. I’m sure you have lots of free time in which to do this (you probably don’t, but unfortunately there’s not much that you can substitute for it other than do the same things but more slowly).

How do you get better at the latter?

Fortunately, there is a fully general system for getting better at things:

Find things that you can already do that are like the things that you can’t do. Analyse what the difference is, and then try variations where you change one thing about them to make them more like the thing you can’t do. Work on those variations until they are no longer hard.

There are absolutely interesting problems you know how to solve, you just have to remember that they’re interesting – it’s very easy to dismiss something you know how to do already as boring because you know how to do it, but once upon a time you learned how to do it, and that’s probably because it was interesting to you. Start there. Make the problems harder until you don’t know how to do them.

If that doesn’t work for you, learn something new. A different area of maths, a new poetic form. Try writing under a pseudonym with a different style from your own.

Whatever you end up trying, making sure it’s something you have fun doing. It’s OK to be frustrated, but you shouldn’t be bored, and it shouldn’t be painful. If you have to force yourself to do it, try something else instead.

After all, the key feature of this is to think of things you find interesting. If you’re not enjoying doing so, why even bother?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

You should be stockpiling food for Brexit

Intended Audience: People in the UK. If you are not in the UK this post is probably useless to you, though I suppose might be of academic interest.

Also this post assumes you have a reasonable degree of financial buffer to the point where spending a few hundred pounds now rather than later is not a great hardship (it does not assume that this is a small amount of money for you, only that you have it in savings and can move when you spend it around).

Epistemic Status: Fairly confident that you need to do this. Less confident in the specifics of my advice except in the sense that I am confident that following my advice will be dramatically better than doing nothing.

Attention Conservation Notice: If you’re already sold on stockpiling for Brexit, here’s the Amazon ideas list I put together based on my own planning. It’s fairly imperfect, but it’s better than doing nothing.

We’re now getting uncomfortably close to Brexit day. I do not know what is going to happen. I am hoping that there will be some only moderately awful resolution to it, but I am not optimistic on this front.

At any rate, even if we’re being optimistic, it is not implausible that we will crash out of the EU with no deal. Say, low single digit percentage chance. If that happens, the supply chain is going to be a mess for some months. Things will become substantially inconvenient to obtain – much of our supply chain is arranged on a just in time basis, in ways that are intimately dependent on international supplies, and with comparatively little warehousing in this country relative to demand.

That isn’t to say there would be no food. This isn’t a full on zombie apocalypse scenario. However, in this scenario we have to start planning on the assumption that you will go to the shops to get a thing and that thing won’t be there. This is very different from the world of easy abundance we currently live in where it’s considered a national crisis when it becomes a bit hard to find courgettes.

Another scenario is to consider is that if things get unpleasant, we’ll have a situation reminscient of the London riots – it’s not that you can’t leave the house, you’d just maybe… rather not1.

Additionally, even if things go less badly, transport and import logistics will become more complicated and more expensive, increasing the cost of food significantly.

Set against this is the fact that the cost of preparing for these scenarios is low, and in fact has something of a curb cut effect in that doing so actually makes your life somewhat easier – it’s useful to have a supply of staples available so that you don’t run out of things mid recipe, or for evenings where you can’t be bothered to go shopping, or many other things. It’s also typically cheaper to buy in bulk.

As a result, stockpiling a certain amount of food and other supplies is of relatively negligible cost if you can afford to pay more up front, and of extremely high benefit in a fairly plausible and imminent scenario. If you can do it, you should do it.

What to Stockpile

My general recommendation for food is to pick things that are high energy density, last well, and are tasty, but also to mostly buy things that you’ll happily get through in the hopefully more likely scenario that everything is mostly OK.

It’s also worth doing things like stocking up on frozen food as part of your normal shop (both veggies and meat that is suitable for home freezing if you eat meat), if you have the freezer capacity. The power will probably stay on, or at least be reliable enough that you can just keep your freezer shut when it’s off, and frozen is a great substitute or supplement for fresh food. I use a lot of it even during normal times and I can highly recommend it. You can and should also buy large bags of vegetables that store well – e.g. onions and potatoes will keep for a very long time if you have a cool, dry, place to store them.

Now would also be a good time to update your food storage options if they’re not already good – good tupperware, containers for dry food, etc. will make a large difference to how usable shopping in bulk is, and being able to store food once you’ve cooked it helps deal with an erratic food supply.

The need to stockpile doesn’t just apply to food: I think general household items items where you tend to get through them slowly are especially worth stockpiling. e.g. Soap (in all its forms) is also worth buying in bulk.

Definitely stock up on toilet paper. It’s one of those things that is currently trivial to obtain, and would be a literal pain in the ass to run out of. Apparently ours is mostly imported, or at least the raw materials of it are, and there isn’t a lot of local storage of it due to how bulky it is2, so it’s worth making sure you don’t run out.

It’s also very worth getting a buffer of any medicines you find essential (useful tip: The USA will happily sell you bottles of 1000 pills of ibuprofen. They’re great. If you’re visiting there or know anyone who is, bring some back. While you’re there, pick up some Naproxen, because we’ve got a national shortage even pre Brexit). If you have periods, ensuring you have an adequate supply of whatever you use to manage those is similarly important (I had overlooked this point until a friend reminded me of it). If you happen to get some of your regularly used medications from the internet now would be a very good time to put in an order. If you have prescriptions that need refilling, it might be worth talking to your GP about getting an extra month’s supply. Whether or not this works is a bit hit and miss unfortunately – if you have restricted or dangerous drugs, or an uncooperative GP, it might be an option. I don’t have any good advice at that point, sorry.

Birth control, condoms, etc. are also worth stocking up on. A lot of people have lives that assume easy access to these things, and it’s worth buffering against that not being the case.

Toiletries in general are worth making sure you have a decent buffer of – it’s really annoying to be out of tooth paste, and can have a disproportionately large impact on your mental and physical well being for how easy it is to safeguard against.

It’s also good to have spares of things that are likely to break. Extra USB cables, bike inner tubes, a spare can opener (although I tend to just buy ring pull cans) etc.

I’ve put together an Amazon idea list for this if you want a decent starting point based on my own planning.

Note that this does use my affiliate link – feel free to change it over to Smile if you want to give money to someone who isn’t me instead.

The food contents of that list are heavily biased towards things that are staples for my diet because I know which ones are good – I think these are all great things to have and I’d recommend them, but I’d also recommend stocking up on anything that you consider to be staples. Pasta, flour, etc. are all worth getting in large quantities if those are things you eat (I can’t eat wheat), as are things like sauces, jams, etc. It may also be worth getting powdered milk, but I don’t know what to recommend on that front. It’s also worth making sure you stock up on any spices that you use regularly and are running low on – they’re almost all imported and being able to make food tasty.

Some of the other items on the list are more suggestions for you to substitute your own version of it. e.g there’s gin on the list, because if this goes as badly as I expect then I’m really going to need a drink, but if you don’t like gin you should feel free to substitute your own spirits of choice. Similarly, the brands of toiletries on there are my own preferred ones. Yours may be diffferent.

Are you feeling lucky?

The basic logic of stockpiling for Brexit is that low but non-negligible probability but high consequence events are worth doing reasonable things to hedge against. I think stockpiling food, medicines, and anything you would normally regularly use, is a no brainer. Beyond that, it depends a bit on what you mean by “non-negligible probability”, “reasonable things”, and “high consequence”, and as a result you have to decide what your appetite for risk is, and what scenarios you could easily weather out without doing much preparation.

The outside scenarios all hinge on reliability of water, power, and internet, and other services that are essential for day to day life. Many of these may be disrupted due to shortages, import delays, and essential personnel either deciding to or being forced to leave. I think major issues with any of these are significantly less likely than problems with the food supply, but I don’t actually know enough to gauge how unlikely they are, and feel like it’s worth at least investing a little bit of effort into considering the problem.

There are a few mildly paranoid items on the Amazon list that are only useful in these scenarios. You may or may not want them depending on how you feel about risk and what your budget is.

I think water is probably worth preparing for a bit, which is why there are water purification tablets on the list. You probably won’t need water purification tablets. However the water supply chain actually involves a lot of chemical treatment that may be in short supply post-Brexit, so again it’s not totally implausible, and they’re incredibly cheap, last forever, and take up basically no room3. Set against this, not having access to clean drinking water is incredibly bad. The purification tablets seem like a safe bet to me.

The first aid kit and USB lantern are probably not necessary for Brexit per se, but they’re both compact and very useful to have around the house anyway. The power bank is useful to have in general and there are plausible-ish scenarios where you might have working mobile phone signal but erratic access power (e.g. if you have to travel).

The multivitamins are almost certainly useless (multivitamins definitely don’t work if your diet is adequate, and I’m not very clear how well they work if it’s not), but if there’s a shortage of fresh food I’m certainly going to start taking them.

The maps… well, I’m not going to claim that in 2019 it’s remotely useful to have a physical map given that Google maps exists, but knowing where things are is an incredibly important piece of information, and while I’m not expecting internet access to go down, I will feel more comfortable knowing that I can find my way around if it does.

Another thing that is probably not necessary but is of negligible cost and may be very valuable if things go poorly is cash. Cash is likely to be of use even if everything falls apart. I don’t really expect card payments to stop working, but there’s almost no downsides to just making sure you have say £100-200 available in cash instead of in your bank account as long as you have somewhere that is remotely safe to keep it.

An example of something that I’ve decided doesn’t match my risk profile is whether it’s worth getting a camping stove or similar. I just have no use case for one outside of Brexit and don’t think it’s worth the cost and space given that – I have a barbeque and I’ll stock up on fuel for that a bit, and much of the food I’ve got prepared can be eaten raw in a pinch (the rice and beans being the main ones that can’t). If you are otherwise inclined towards having a small camping stove and have been thinking about getting one, now would probably be a good time, and if you have one then it would be worth stocking up on some extra fuel. In general, if you like camping there are a bunch of other things it might make sense to get – e.g. a water filtration system, a solar powered phone charger. I’m not currently planning to get these things because they’d be a pure loss for me in the more likely scenario that things just go a bit badly.

When, How, How Much

When should you do all this? Now. If not now, certainly before the beginning of March.

We are getting extremely close to the point where it would be too late, and there will be a lot of panic buying at the last minute unless things get resolved much sooner than I expect. Buying now ensures that you will have things in plenty of time, and that when people panic buy the supplies available will have had time to adjust to demand. It helps you and others.

How can you fit it all? I’ve included plastic storage boxes in the Amazon list. They’re great and very stackable. I have a stack of them in my bedroom, and you can fit a lot of stuff in a surprisingly small space that way. It’s not super convenient for regular access, but for this use case that’s fine. I also have a bunch of cans under my bed

How much? I could probably feed myself for about three months on what I have alone, although I’d be a bit bored of it by then. I think this is a reasonable amount, but more generally I think you should stockpile as much as you feasibly can.

Don’t make your life substantially worse by doing so – stay within reasonable financial and storage budgets – but beyond that there’s really no such thing as too much as long as it’s food that will keep for a while (at least six months, ideally a year). Even if it’s more than you personally need, there will always be others around you who have not stockpiled – either because they could not afford to, or because they gambled and lost. If you can afford to stockpile, I think there’s a certain moral obligation to help those around you who can’t, which makes it very hard to have too much.

The “worst case” scenario for stockpiling too much is that we end up deciding that Brexit is a silly idea and stay in the EU after all, at which point this is all entirely unneccessary. I wish I could say that I thought this was likely, but it sure would be nice. In that unlikely scenario I recommend we all throw giant no-Brexit parties to reduce our stockpiled food supplies down to more manageable levels


Does this whole post sound overly paranoid? It would have to me a few months ago, but unfortunately now I’m feeling it’s just sensibly cautious. If anything I’m starting to feeling that not stockpiling when you could be is a bit reckless.

With any luck, we’ll look back on it in a few months and go “Ha ha remember when we thought prepping was necessary? I’m glad we were wrong.”, but that will be an incorrect conclusion: As I outlined in this post, the reason to stockpile is not that we expect it to be necessary, but because the cost of doing so and being wrong is much lower than the cost of not doing so and being right, and the chances of needing to are probably low but definitely not negligible. This is not a plan to make because we expect to need it (that plan would be much more in depth), but one to hedge against an outside possibility.

Even so, the fact that it has come to this is a national embarassment and a tragedy, and I am so far beyond angry about it that I’ve wrapped around into numb.

I can’t do anything about that. but I can plan for and manage how the situation affects me and those around me. You can do the same, and I would highly recommend that you do.

Further Reading

Here are some other people’s suggestions if you want to hear other people saying broadly similar things and/or get recipe suggestions:

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

Conferences Should Publish Menus

When organising conferences and other events, you often end up feeding people. This is a surprisingly fraught endeavour, but one that can be made less so with this one entirely sensible trick: Publish a menu in advance, ideally with an ingredients list.

Doing so gives people a much better understanding of whether they’re going to be able to eat anything at your event1, or whether they need to bring their own food.

People are complicated to feed. Many of us have dietary requirements of varying degrees of specificity, and many of those requirements are borderline incompatible. As a result, trying to cater for everyone’s preferences in a large group of people is legitimately hard.

People with complicated dietary requirements are used to this, but the ambiguity is a source of considerable annoyance – it’s fine bringing your own food, but it would be nice to know if you have to bring your own food. Having this information in advance is very life improving, and is significantly lower effort for venues to provide than trying to cater for everyone would be.

In addition, there is a significant curb cut effect – even people who are well catered for will find this information life improving, because they will spend less time hunting for the one or two things they can eat, and will have a better idea of what to expect in advance – this will significantly cut down on wait times and generally improve the dining experience.

You should do this even if you think you are doing a very good job of catering for a wide variety of dietary requirements, because the reality of the range of possible dietary requirements is inevitably much larger than you think it is. e.g. I can’t eat raw onion, lamb, or broccoli, and I bet those are not things you have taken into account in your planning. By publishing information about what food you are providing, you allow people who are experts in their own dietary requirements to make that judgement.

This does not, of course, mean that once you have published these menus your obligations are done. Most people are not that hard to cater for, and yet are still reliably badly served. There is definitely low hanging fruit that it is worth any event of a sufficient size (say 20+ people) catering for by default – e.g. providing a vegan and gluten free option (a more specific example of low hanging fruit is to serve actual fruit in breaks as well as just pastries) is not that hard and will help a lot of people – but even if you decide not to do that you can still publish the menu and at least make that visible to the people it affects.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .