Constructive paranoia

This short essay by Jared Diamond clarified something for me I sort of knew already:

This calculation illustrates the biggest single lesson that I’ve learned from 50 years of field work on the island of New Guinea: the importance of being attentive to hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently.

He opens with the example of falling in the shower—a low risk at any given time, but considering how many times you shower the overall risk is surprisingly high. The example is so familiar it doesn’t have much power, but he goes on to another that drove the point home for me:

I first became aware of the New Guineans’ attitude toward risk on a trip into a forest when I proposed pitching our tents under a tall and beautiful tree. To my surprise, my New Guinea friends absolutely refused. They explained that the tree was dead and might fall on us.

Yes, I had to agree, it was indeed dead. But I objected that it was so solid that it would be standing for many years. The New Guineans were unswayed, opting instead to sleep in the open without a tent.

I thought that their fears were greatly exaggerated, verging on paranoia. In the following years, though, I came to realize that every night that I camped in a New Guinea forest, I heard a tree falling. And when I did a frequency/risk calculation, I understood their point of view.

Consider: If you’re a New Guinean living in the forest, and if you adopt the bad habit of sleeping under dead trees whose odds of falling on you that particular night are only 1 in 1,000, you’ll be dead within a few years. In fact, my wife was nearly killed by a falling tree last year, and I’ve survived numerous nearly fatal situations in New Guinea.

Diamond calls the New Guinean attitude (which he also adopts) “constructive paranoia”, a wariness about casually incurring unnecessary risk. He describes it as hypervigilance, a habitual attitude that he doesn’t allow to veer into obsessiveness:

My hypervigilance doesn’t paralyze me or limit my life: I don’t skip my daily shower, I keep driving, and I keep going back to New Guinea. I enjoy all those dangerous things. But I try to think constantly like a New Guinean, and to keep the risks of accidents far below 1 in 1,000 each time.

As I wind down this life I find myself tweaking my practices in this way all the time. It doesn’t cost me much to take measures to help prevent a fall—e.g. I started wearing house shoes instead of socks in the house (and find that I actually prefer the extra stability, not to mention the warmth!)—but the cost to others if I fell badly could be enormous—so why not?

Just yesterday morning was a good example, when we had our first snow of the season the night before. It was only an inch or so, and the temperature was in the mid-20s, something that my northern readers will laugh at. But down here they aren’t so great about clearing the roads, and icy spots would be found here and there. If I had needed to go to a job or an important appointment I would have gone without worry. But all I needed to do was go to the gym, something I do every morning, and skipping a day wouldn’t hurt anything. Now, I’m a creature of habit, partly driven by the fear that breaking a chain out of laziness or such may be a slippery slope towards failure. So ten or twenty years ago I probably would have worried more that my wariness was just an excuse, and made the trip just to keep from indulging myself. But constructive paranoia is dominant in me now, and I didn’t think twice about not going. As proven by the fact that it was in the low teens this morning, very cold for here, and the van windows were iced enough to need 10-15 minutes of work—but it had been clear and sunny yesterday so the roads were fine, and I didn’t think twice about braving the cold, chipping off the ice, and driving to the gym.

Coffee Blends

Until today I sort of understood the concept of blending coffee to create something different—at least I knew there were blends I really liked, and took the producer’s word that it was possible to intentionally mix different varieties to create a particular taste. But I couldn’t imagine knowing enough about coffee flavors and how they might mix to do my own blending.

Instead, I’ve been roasting a single variety at a time and just adjusting the roast level to see what I like best. I knew that I liked mine on the darker side, but a bit of reading explained to me how the flavors change as the roast gets darker—flavors distinct to the variety are reduced, as well as acidity (not a good word for it, refers to the tanginess of the brew)—and so I started with batches that were lighter than I was used to buying, and thought about the differences. Tanginess was definitely more present, and it took a bit of adjusting to appreciate it, but I did. And as I edged the roast darker, I could taste it going away, with the other flavors I was more used to coming on board.

At the same time I was getting closer to a level I didn’t want to go past—the final stages of roasting can go pretty quickly, where adding 30 seconds can take you into black crackling smokiness (which some people like!)—so I was trying to figure out precisely when to stop based on look of the beans, smell of the exhaust, and time elapsed, trying to develop a roasting profile I could reliably repeat.

I usually do two half-pound batches in a session, which takes a little less than an hour. The two batches need to be timed differently to reach the same roast level, since the first batch heats the machine. This past Sunday I roasted the first batch, dumped it into a colander to cool, and saw that it was a little lighter than I wanted. And the second batch turned out a little darker than I wanted. So take the average, right? Mix them together and you’ll get the flavor you want.

Well, no. And I should have known this because I had read awhile back about a place that sells a Harlequin Roast, a “a combination of multiple roast points”. As they explain,

Do you wish you could enjoy the toasty richness of a medium-dark roast without losing the delicate sweetness of a lighter roast? With Harlequin Roast, you can have the best of both worlds.

That’s exactly what I had created. I added most of the second batch (which was a bit larger than the first) to the can holding the first batch, put on the lid and shook it up. Then I put the rest of the second, darker batch (a couple of servings worth) into a ziploc bag.

I generally let the coffee rest for two days before brewing it, so yesterday I brewed a cup from just the second, darker batch. Good, but yes, a little beyond what I wanted—and no acidity at all. And this morning I brewed a cup from the harlequin blend. And the flavor was of course not an average at all, but a mixture of both the dark roast fullness and bitterness together with the acidity of the lighter roast, with neither as overwhelming if I had brewed one batch or the other.

Looking at it now, it’s the most obvious thing in the world. But I didn’t really get it until I drank a cup of the blend I had created. And it inspires me to now go looking for single flavors that might be pleasant to add, creating a personal blend.

But not this year! It’s finally turned cold, and I do my roasting out in the unheated garage with the doors open, and I like it to be 60 degrees out or more while I’m sitting there. I could tough it out, or find an arrangement that was tolerable. But as I’ve said in the past I try not to be a slave to my preferences, even innocuous ones, and putting the roaster on the shelf for a few months while drinking storebought seems like a good opportunity to practice that. There are plenty of years of home roasted coffee to look forward to, and I think that first roasting on a nice spring day will bring its own sort of pleasure.