Orange Milkshake to Tesla – First Principles Mental Model

When you are new to cooking without some expert guidance it can be intimidating. My initial challenge was how much salt to add. Once my friend recounted an incident when his roommate gave him an Orange milkshake!!! If you feel a shock or horror that means you know some cooking. In general, we don’t add milk to citrus fruit, unless we want to make paneer. The citrus fruits have acids and that makes milk (a fat & protein emulsion) curdle. You may wonder when we jumped into the chemistry or physics lab with a milkshake in hand 😀.

Let us leave the chemistry lab and try to make some Boondi laddus – South Indian style. I made it for this Diwali, it came out well and most of my friends appreciated it. As I was making sugar syrup, I was fully focused – almost in a “Flow” moment. Because, if you cook the sugar syrup a few minutes more or less, the entire effort you put in will go waste. You have to hit the “single thread” consistency mark.

When you try to learn cooking, your mom, grandma, or anyone whom you consider an expert might have pointed out things like – don’t add tamarind to sambar before the vegetable is cooked; don’t boil the curry after adding coconut milk, etc. These instructions, rather warnings may contain some “First Principles” – i.e., the assumptions & principle which can’t be derived from others. Ashok Krish uncovers the science behind cooking in his new book “Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking”. The Frist principles apply not just to cooking, but to any domain whether it is software or mechanical engineering or automation or electric car manufacturing. Here is an example from Shane Parrish’ Farnum Street on Elon Musk applying this to the “expensive lithium-ion battery” problem when he started Tesla.

“historically, it costs $600 per kilowatt-hour. And so it’s not going to be much better than that in the future. … So the first principles would be, … what are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents? … It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, and some polymers for separation, and a steel can. So, break that down on a material basis; if we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost? Oh, jeez, it’s … $80 per kilowatt-hour. So, clearly, you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.”

Once you understand the First Principles, you can create and conduct experiments in a playful manner – How about A/B testing of cooking recipes? Listen to Ashok’s discussion with Amit Verma about his book and many interesting topics like note-taking systems, writing, etc. As I was listening to it, as part of my research for this post, I didn’t notice an hour has passed. I suggest you set aside a decent bit of time for this (unless you listen to podcasts @ 3X speed like Ashok Krish).

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