Oct 29, 2008

where does the flavour go?

not long ago, on a cold late morning close to lunch, i made a bowl of whole-grain udon dressed with a vast quantity of chopped cilantro and fresh garlic and a trace amount of mirin. i forked up a clump and, instead of a taste explosion, discovered a blandness remarkable in its profundity. i cannot be sure but blame the whole grain flour nonetheless; it has its place, just not in my noodles.

not that this is the first time.

years ago now, returning from an epic journey to the wind river range of wyoming, alan, dan, and i stopped at an eat'n park in PA, just off I-80. is the eat'n park supposed to be a place where you can eat and park, or is it perhaps an eating park? this same question distracted me enough throughout my meal on that dreary morning that when my attention re-focused on my plate, I found it empty of t-bone, even though I had no recollection at all of the savour of flame-grilled blood and protein. interest piqued by this wholly unremarkable meal, i visited the restaurant's website and learned that the eat'n park is "an institution," but found no information about the meaning and provenance of its name. i also never figured out how they drain all flavor from 12-ounce t-bone steaks. perhaps they sell it by the bottle, like liquid smoke or realemon.

where does the flavour go? it is a mystery.

an unusual compliment

so, i'm trying to get this project off the ground.

Max: youre a little model-happy2:16 PM me: hey?

Max: im reading your document carefully
me: oh ok
Max: its um modelicious
2:17 PM me: i was trying to convince an originator

Oct 28, 2008

discovering topology

a nice new idea for a game, even though i don't play online games ever.

outside at this very moment

you know what's really spectacular? when the skies are the grey of galvanised metal and it has just rained. at this time of year when the leaves on the sugar maples are between green and burnt orange, their trunks become a dark brown-black and they look like paintings of themselves.

Oct 22, 2008

a great idea

this is a great idea even if aaron says it's not as data-intensive as i think it is.

Oct 19, 2008

ann cooper and polycausality

i like to say that everything is polycausal. one example, obviously, is food. in 2005, we ran a tutorial in the biology department here (bio95hfy, no longer offered) on biology, agriculture, conservation, and ecology. one of the core ideas of the class was how the patterns of human food-consumption are multiply-determined: culture, location, transportation, genetics, industry, among many other factors, influence what we choose to eat.

for north america, there may be no more important influence than agricultural subsidies. direct subsidies to the agricultural industry, in the form of payments made to farmers or purchases of commodity crops like corn and milk, have averaged $19 billion a year for the last 5 years. EWG maintains a database of the distribution of american agricultural subsidies (here is their 2007 database) which is interesting to poke around in. they've also done some analysis on the concentration of the subsidies, and estimate that the top 20% of subsidy recipients under the farm bill absorb 84% of the funds (based on distributions from 2003-2005). more than a third of the subsidies go to feed grains--including corn. these subsidies corn-growing economically feasible in the US (though obviously not fully) accounts for the presence of high fructose corn syrup and corn-derived ingredients in large swathes of commercially-produced food.

in addition, there are slews of indirect subsidies to agriculture that distort how we eat. oil, gas, and coal subsidies make synthetic pesticides and fertilizers derived from oil or manufactured in energy-intensive processes (such as the haber-bosch process for fixing nitrogen) cheaper than they otherwise would be (or should be) and thus increase the rate at which we use them. the subsidised federal interstate system makes it cheaper to transport food from across the country than it otherwise would be (or should be).

(this article about the food complex is not bad either.)

which is all a long, winding way of explaining how it is that school districts in many parts of the country are able to feed children on a food ingredient budget of just a few dollars a day per child: much of the raw material (meat, milk, corn-based products) comes either from federal crop purchase programs or is inexpensive by federal subsidy, and is implicitly subsidised by cheap transportation and cost of production. the food is cheap (cheaper than it should be) and so it makes economic sense to use it even though it's crummy. ann cooper, executive chef of the berkeley public school system, is trying her best to make it make economic sense to use good food and cook it well (she's not the only one; sCool Food in santa barbara is approaching it from an institutional perspective as well). burkhardt bilger wrote a detailed feature on her work in the new yorker (in the sept. 4, 2006 issue; only the abstract is online). but you can get a sense of what she does in her TED presentation:

* alice waters and josh viertel, new president of slow food america, were just here this week. their panel was facilitated by, of all people, homi bhabha. he didn't seem to have much background on the interconnections between food, culture, and the machinery of production that exists here and in the rest of the world. he cited repeatedly, in fact exclusively, from last week's new york times magazine.

Oct 16, 2008


the workmanship of risk is the kind of work in which serendipity can make itself visible. one of the major characters of the workmanship of risk is the cumulative, irreversible trajectory of the work. a mistake made at any point in the work irretrievably affects everything up to that point and cannot be undone (hence the risk). "fixing a mistake" is frequently thought of as "undoing the mistake," but it can be a process of either undoing or of habilitation. undoing is the more certain mode and the mode of strong path determinism, but it leads to no final product that is more than was initially envisaged.

habilitation (making the mistake part of the work) only becomes likely where undoing is not possible -- the linear progress of the workmanship of risk is thus the element that opens the work to new and unexpected developments. horace walpole, who may be credited (if we believe wikipedia) with introducing the concept of serendipity to the english language, called it "accidental sagacity -- for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for, comes under this description": the elements of grace* and stochasticity in the habilitation of mistakes.

* on which, also see lawrence weschler's idea of grace. the event in which a mistake is transformed, habilitated is a combination of chance and preparation: "There is all that preparation -- preparation for receptivity -- and then there is something else beyond that, which is gratis, for free."

Oct 13, 2008

praxis, transcendence

Pride in craftsmanship is well explained by saying that to labor is to pray, for conscientious effort to realize an ideal is a kind of fidelity. The craftsman of old did not hurry, because the perfect takes no account of time and shoddy work is a reproach to character. But character itself is an expression of self-control, which does not come of taking the easiest way. Where character forbids self-indulgence, transcendence still hovers around.
richard weaver, ideas have consequences.

it's always difficult to explain why doing something well requires no more and no less than the right amount of time. like faith, any explanation of craft -- in writing, in research, in the making of things -- ends up depending on a kind of intuition that defies reduction. the concept of species-being in marx's humanist writings captures some element of it: free labour in an elevated conception, the activity of free humans that reproduces them as a species because unforced. i read it as activity governed not by the exogenous demands of hunger, shelter, etc, but only by imperatives endogenous to the individual psyche, the internal moral economy. where the motivation is internal, character is the determinant of work and self-control, and is therefore the genesis of, and the standard for, a craft sensibility. saying that craftsmen in days past did not hurry seems a facile oversimplification -- in every age, people sought to work to the standard demanded by internal moral economies developed through individual and social histories. the craftsmen have always been those with strict internal arbiters; there may have been more in the past, or conditions may have favoured their work then, but the craft spirit is with us now as it was with us then. the greeks had a useful work for the act of craft: praxis.

Oct 7, 2008

informational graphics

this is quite good. (ironic)

gilbert and george

bending it:

Oct 6, 2008

power in the north

this week, we read from various writers on inequality in power. (and also from marx's capital and the grundrisse, but of those two densities let no more be said.) rhetorical imperatives seem to drive at least most of the classical social theorists to propose strongly monocausal explanations for phenomena like class and inequality, even though that kind of explanation is singularly unconvincing under the least scrutiny. having read for weeks about how there is an ineluctability to the rise of the proletariat, it's refreshing to read mills and see acknowledgment that there are conditions under which agency gives rise to major change.
The power elite are not solitary rulers. Advisers and consultants, spokesmen and opinion-makers are often the captains of their higher thought and decision. ... When knowledgeable journalists tell us that 'events, not men, shape the big decisions,' they are echoing the theory of history as Fortune, Chance, Fate, or the work of The Unseen Hand. For 'events' is merely a modern word for these older ideas, all of which separate men from history-making, because all of them lead us to believe that history goes on behind men's backs. History is drift with no mastery; within it there is action but no deed; history is mere happening and the event intended by no one. The course of events in our time depends more on a series of human decisions than on any inevitable fate. The sociological meaning of 'fate' is simply this: that, when the decisions are innumerable and each one is of small consequence, all of them add up in a way no man intended -- to history as fate. But not all epochs are equally fateful. As the circle of those who decide is narrowed, as the means of decision are centralized and the consequences of decisions become enormous, then the course of great events often rests upon the decisions of determinable circles. This does not necessarily mean that the same circle of men follow through from one event to another in such a way that all of history is merely their plot. The power of the elite does not necessarily mean that history is not also shaped by a series of small decisions, none of which are thought out. It does not mean that a hundred small arrangements and compromises and adaptations may not be built into the going policy and the living event. The idea of the power elite implies nothing about the process of decision-making as such: it is an attempt to delimit the social areas within which that process, whatever its character, goes on.
c. wright mills, the power elite

mills proposes to identify the social areas within which the power elite emerge, but i'm much more interested in figuring out their morphology, the signals that identify their presence. this is interesting because i've always contended that the US has an elite that's hidden in plain sight -- the result of a country founded on a deep-rooted belief in equality of individual and opportunity. as in many other countries that have bought into the western intellectual tradition of means-ends rationality and of equal opportunity, virtue and normative value has attached itself to what we become, not what we are. where then does the morphology of elitism hide? i spent some time writing about one place where i thought it might go.

others, of course, have located signals in the construction of the canon of general knowledge, which is general only in creating a distinction between those who have it and those who don't. e.h. gombrich has a great essay on the topic called "the tradition of general knowledge." systems of education and egalitarian access frequently are walled around by barriers that are difficult to see.
Even when academic degrees, scientific training, special aptitudes as tested by examinations and competitions, open the way to public office, there is no eliminating that special advantage in favor of certain individuals which the French call the advantage of positions déjà prises. In actual fact, though examinations and competitions may theoretically be open to all, the majority never have the resources of meeting the expense of long preparation, and many others are without the connections and kindships that set an individual promptly on the right road, enabling him to avoid the gropings and blunders that are inevitable when one enters an unfamiliar environment without any guidance or support.
gaetano mosca, the ruling class

Oct 5, 2008

faith in darwin's restored

they are just down the street, so are convenient for lunch on those days when i have so many seminars that i end up in william james all day slumped on the fifth-floor couches. they were in a downward spiral the last few times i was there, but maybe they have reversed the curse. the restoration sandwiches:
  1. roast turkey, arugula, cheddar, and honey mustard sandwich on a crunch roll
  2. softly-scrambled eggs, bacon, and avocado on toasted 7-grain