body shots of 180-proof ideas

Tuesday, November 25, 2003  

I am nothing more than a Googling monkey

Just wanted to give a quick shout out to Google and its impressiveness. In preparing to write that previous post about the study showing people underestimating their actions, I had no idea where to find any article about the study. [This was, obviously, before I remembered that I had already written about it months ago.] I couldn't really even remember what the study was about. So I Googled 'hit' 'child' and 'harder'. First thing that comes up was the Reuters article via the UCSF website on exactly the right study. Why remember anything.

posted by soma | Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Monday, November 24, 2003  

The Rashomon Effect

I'm reading this interesting book called The Hungry Gene by Ellen Ruppel Shell, which is about the biological causes of obesity. The subtitle of the book is actually 'The inside story of the obesity industry'. Either that's really misleading or the second half of the book is pretty different than the first, which hasn't really gotten into the industry yet.

One part of the book triggered and helped coalesce a good thought I had before. In the book there are two scientists who had a fight over a discovery, and now the two of them can't agree on which one of them first suggested working together. Each one swears it was his idea.

My hypothesis is that it's very possible that neither is lying. I have watched tons of sporting events where you see the guys on each team arguing vociferously for the call to go in their own favor. I've come to believe that often, they all believe what they're saying. Each of the guys who would benefit from a 'safe' call thinks he was safe, and each of the guys who would benefit from an 'out' call thinks he's out. It seems to me that just knowing what you want to happen will significantly affect how you perceive will happen.

This theory started to take a more definite shape when I saw an article a while ago about a study that showed that people consistently underestimate the physical significance of force they are applying. The researchers say it's because you mentally filter out actions you are responsible for, because it's less interesting to your brain. [Hm. Just found out that I cited this same study in July, but only because it explained why you can't tickle yourself. Couldn't this also partly explain why sex is better than masturbation?]

I don't know if this consistent underestimation of self-inflicted contact is related to my theory about preference affecting perception. Maybe not. But I think that may be part of it. One might call this the Rashomon Effect. If you don't know, Rashomon is one of the better movies of all time. It's about an alleged rape, but you only see the story as told from different, very subjective perspectives. Very powerful, very insightful.

posted by soma | Monday, November 24, 2003



Time for my weekly post! [Ugh. Not happy with that fact.]

Yesterday I saw the show Trumbo, about a Hollywood screenwriter blacklisted during the Red Scare. Richard Dreyfuss ably played Dalton Trumbo, while some other shmoe not so ably played Christopher Trumbo, his son, who wrote the play. Well, the younger chap is credited with writing the play, but the credit really belongs to the father, who wrote all of the letters and speeches which, when recited by Dreyfuss, take up 95% of the show. [Thankfully -- he seems to be a bit better wordsmith than the son. Perhaps Chris should've played himself and gotten someone else to write his lines. Just a thought.]

In any case, it was a quite interesting piece, and particularly topical. Dreyfuss was wearing one of those American flag pins that people seem fond of wearing in this age when we're trying to finally crush a couple intransigent parts of the world into submission. He made a speech afterward about how this play was very important, and we viewers should indoctrinate our associates into hating America, because it's going the way of the crooked ol' Roman Empire with that Asscock asshole covering tits and purloining freedoms. [That's my bad-mood paraphrasing; don't blame the poor actor for my ill humor.] I, personally, think that we've already crossed the Rubicon. I mean that in about the most literal way possible: I think the American republic has taken the irreversible first leap toward being some sick, depraved, decaying superpower. Historians will look back at the Bush years like we look at Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon, the Real Crossing of the Rubicon, which marked the end of the republic and beginning of the empire.

posted by soma | Monday, November 24, 2003

Monday, November 17, 2003  

Labeling hypocrisy

OhmiGod I just thought of the biggest, most annoying hypocrisy ever. One potential weakness to the modern political school called 'liberalism' is that it can, at times, verge on arrogant preachiness, particularly when it gets to criticize somewhat aesthetic consumer choices -- you shouldn't drive an SUV, or shop at Blockbuster, or buy guns, etc.

In contrast, the more pro-business, laissez-faire, libertarian-type folks say that consumers should be perfectly free to choose whatever they want, and their opinion is better for them than anyone else's. If people buy crappy food from McDonald's [along with their wonderful McJobs] and become overweight, that's really their own business. Efforts to tell people what's good for them by taxing or regulating certain unliked products is a mild form of what libertarians call 'social engineering'. The National Review and Reason have both put forward cogent criticisms of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nannying think tank and particularly clear example of liberal preaching.

I am increasingly sympathetic to this libertarian point. I've not gone very far in this direction, but some of it does make sense to me. Telling people what to do and even how to think is mostly a losing fight.

But without getting too far into this debate, I'll point out the hypocrisy. Right now, there is no mandatory labeling for GMO foods anywhere in the US. This lack of mandatory labeling is sort of bizarre, considering that every poll ever taken on this matter shows that a huge majority of people would rather have GMO foods labeled in their markets, both super- and economic.

So what is stopping mandatory-labeling from happening? A huge push from food megacorps. Oregon almost passed an initiative that would have required labeling but Big Food buried the prop with a last-second flood of cash and a dodgy, controversial study claiming that the measure would have jacked up food prices all across the state. The same forces keep labeling from being adopted nationally.

So where's the big libertarian/business push to put all trust in the consumer and just give them all the information possible? Well, obviously business doesn't give a shit about consistency or free markets, except inasmuch as they can use these buzzwords to win particular debates [but not others]. Just as with free trade rhetoric, companies and governments use philosophy as a weapon, not a search for truth. Reason and other intellectual libertarians may support consumers' right to know, but without the oomph from big business, it won't go too far.

posted by soma | Monday, November 17, 2003


Color -- Rules of the dance

Another good example from this weekend, in regard to politicians' relationships with their campaign contributors: 'You gotta dance with them what brung you.' Sad but true.

posted by soma | Monday, November 17, 2003


Color -- Looking down the barrel of the press

At a long meeting this weekend, someone, referring to taking on the media, said, 'Don't get into an argument with the guy who buys ink by the barrel.'

Great saying, but we were talking about this in close proximity to the California recall election, and Arnold's big spat with the LATimes doesn't seem to have cost him anything. [Maybe the quote needs to be updated to reflect the supremacy of the guy who hires talk-show hosts by the bushel. Or something.]

posted by soma | Monday, November 17, 2003


McD's bitching -- a Kroc of shit

McDonald's is complaining about the Merriam-Webster dictionary's addition of McJob, meaning dead-end drudgery. They say it's a slap in the face to thousands of employees, and possibly a violation of the company's trademark on 'McJobs', a decade-old program to give employment to disabled folks.

Fortunately, M-W is not backing down. Then again, why the hell would they? They put the thing on the shortlist of new words, evidently so that journalists could write stories about it. The attention from McConformity is already bringing additional attention to the word and Merriam-Webster. ['Gosh, did we do that? Okay, well, I guess we don't really mind all those press mentions.'] The Boston Globe Ideas section discusses why McD and some other corporate nasties find their own lexicons turned against them.

Still, it does give one pause, that McD evidently thought they could affect this issue in their favor by making noise about it. Disney recently coaxed Congress to extend copyright law [again!] so as to prevent Mickey from falling into the evil hands of the public domain. Perhaps Ronald [McDonald] will somehow figure out how to buy off Noah [Webster].

[Hey, Ronald, why not team together with Phil Knight and Michael Eisner and just buy all the friggin' dictionaries? Control the words -> control the language -> control how people think. Why not make it official that 'McJob' means 'a golden arch to opportunity!']

posted by soma | Monday, November 17, 2003

Saturday, November 15, 2003  

Personalized earfoolery

So I figure that Nirotek, the company that makes the one-speaker surround-sound system, has some very complicated algorithm that translates conventional waveforms designed to go to five farflung speakers into direction-specific waveforms coming from one speaker unit located in one place. Pretty great.

I assume this algorithm is based on some kind of average ear/average head kind of model. Wouldn't it be dope if you could get a personal algorithm based on your individual head? You could go to their shop, get mics stuck in your ears, listen to a bunch of sounds coming from mobile speakers. You'd leave the place with your own personal algorithm and, more importantly, a pair of headphones and one speaker unit specifically designed to give you perfect surround sound.

'Course, it may be that differences between heads is really small, not worth all this effort. But it'd be cool.

posted by soma | Saturday, November 15, 2003



In college, I took a class in which I learned about this particular practice called binaural recording where 'they' put microphones inside the ears of fairly detailed, simulated human heads. What the mics measure is how sound waves arriving at the hearing part of the ear are affected by the material properties of the head and earlobe.

To illustrate the power of this effect, think of this: How do your ears tell the difference between sound coming from your left and sound coming from your right? Well, you might say, your ears can pay careful attention to when the sound arrives at each ear. If that's the case, then how do your ears tell the difference between sound coming from above and sound coming from behind ? No timing difference if the source of sound is equidistant from each ear. So what's behind this?

I guess I gave it away all ready, no? The sound waves don't just go into the sensory part of the ear unperturbed -- they rattle around in the head and through the earlobe, sounding distinctly differently depending on how they enter. At an early age, your brain learns to coordinate the source of sound with how it actually 'sounds' once it reaches the ear. So these experimenters who put mics in the fake heads are testing how sounds actually sound within the ear canal, and recording the results. Informed by those recordings, they can play sound back through headphones and fool people into thinking the sounds are coming from above, in front, or wherever else.

So far, this has only worked using headphones. But now this company called Nirotek is selling a single speaker unit that they say can confer this location-specific sound accurately. Basically, it's getting surround sound all in one speaker. [Coulda just posted that one sentence and saved a lot of words, I guess.] Pretty damn amazing, if you ask me. I thought binaural recording was the coolest thing ever when I first heard about it. Still think I was right, although I forgot about it for a while. Anybody want to donate one of these speakers to thinkness? [Only $800! come on, generous readers!]

posted by soma | Saturday, November 15, 2003

Friday, November 14, 2003  

Pastime politics

Mickey Kaus brings up an interesting comparison of the presidential election to game 7 of the American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Red Sox. The important point here, if you're not a baseball fan, is that Pedro Martinez -- an all-time great pitcher in his 30's, a couple years past his prime -- was pitching in this deciding game, with a lead, as he started to tire in the 7th inning. Boston's manager, Grady Little, stuck with his best pitcher even though he was getting tired because he's the ace and that's his job. Pedro got smacked around in the 8th inning and the Red Sox lost. Everybody said Little's non-move was a series-costing gaffe [I agree, and at the time thought he was crazy].

Kaus says that the Democrats could sell the 2004 election as this pivotal decision, where Bush plays Pedro, the Democratic candidate plays the relief pitcher, and the American electorate plays Grady Little. Bush, this storyline claims, did a good job in the bulk of his term by passing education reform and tax cuts, and by winning two wars. Now shit's starting to go bad in Iraq. So pull Bush now before things get really ugly, and things could be preserved.

But, Kaus points out, Howard Kurtz says that Jim Jordan [Kerry's recently fired campaign manager] was Pedro. He wasn't cutting the mustard anymore, so he got yanked.

One reader says that Kerry is Pedro. He was doing well early, but he doesn't have It any more, and he should step out of the way to make room for Dean, who has the oomph to get the job done.

Another reader says Gephardt is Pedro. There's no explanation for this, but I take it that he represents the ossified part of the Democratic party -- the paleoliberal Dukakis-Mondale wing that has lost all of those landslide presidential elections.

Yes, all of this stuff is a [Grady?] little hokey. You can twist it how you want. But that is sort of what I like about it. Much of the interest of sports, like politics, and also the key to writing about either of those fields, is constructing a compelling storyline. Whoever can tell the best story will have the last word. So drawing comparisons between the abstract elements of these various stories is enlightening. I can't yet say I know which one is right, of course, but ask me in 1 year and I'll tell ya.

posted by soma | Friday, November 14, 2003

Monday, November 10, 2003  

Color -- homosexual dilettantism

According to this article on how society has viewed homosexuality, Voltaire once experimented with homosexual sex, just to see what it was like. When his devoted-homosexual partner entreated him to repeat the experiment -- surely for the sake of science -- Voltaire turned him down, saying, 'Once, a philosopher; twice, a sodomite.'

posted by soma | Monday, November 10, 2003

Wednesday, November 05, 2003   'Mami iii

Ohmigod I just realized something: One time I ate some cream cheese that I suddenly thought had lox in it. I investigated and found out it was sundried tomato. All of these articles about umami talk about how aging, curing, smoking, and drying increases the umami levels of foods. Both fish and tomato are known to be high in umami. I suspect I confused the flavors because smoked salmon and dried tomato are both very high in umami. Yum.

posted by soma | Wednesday, November 05, 2003

  Mo' mami

My interest in umami wouldn't be an obsession if it stopped there [see previous post]. There's so much more to the story.

First of all, I suspect that umami is of particular importance to vegetarians. As a pretty long-time veggie, I think I've noticed that I often crave savory foods, in a way that I didn't used to. Lots of folks have suggested that umami is connected with protein, because a major elicitor of the umami flavor is amino acids, which make up proteins. That company that sells fermented fish ['makes food taste better... seriously'] says umami pleases your 'protein tooth', the same way sugar pleases your sweet tooth. It seems to make sense that people would like sugar, a good source of energy; salt, an essential mineral; and protein, a necessary building block and component of almost everything in the body. Similarly, intense sour and bitter flavors are used to repel people from acidic or alkali materials, which can be bad for you.

So vegetarians should be especially in tune with their umami cravings, I hypothesize, because they don't eat meat, which is extremely high in protein. Vegetarians may need to eat more, smaller doses of protein so as to keep their bodies working optimally.

The other question this raises in my mind is why Japanese has had a word for this but no one in the Western world seems to even be able to describe it. Why is that? They've been fermenting fish in the Mediterranean for thousands of years, but no umami there. Idonno. Let me know if you find out.

I also suspect that Westerners have trouble distinguishing the flavor of umami because they are generally unfamiliar with the word. Once you know about umami -- and in Japan that happens when you're very young -- you will then start to put certain flavors into that category. Without knowing the word, you probably just figure things out with the four flavors, and/or attribute it to aroma, which is a much more complex sense. Not that you do any of this consciously, really, but people unaware of the bin called umami would probably file that taste under salty, sweet, or just 'different', in the sense that things taste different when they smell different. [Supposedly, apples and onions taste so similar that you can't really them apart if you are holding your nose and eliminating aromatic differences.]

Just an interesting point about how language can govern your perception and interpretation.

posted by soma | Wednesday, November 05, 2003

  Gimme umami

I'm obsessed with umami. What is umami, you ask? Why, it is the world's most newly discovered flavor! You know how there's salty, sweet, bitter, and sour? There's also umami. Umami was identified as a flavor by brilliant East Asian chefs about 1200 years ago. In 1907, This fella named Kikunae Ikeda found that the amino acid glutamate was plentiful in umami-esque foods, and a compound called monosodium glutamate very effectively conveyed it.

Umami is a hard flavor to describe. Ikeda found the flavor in 'asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat'. World Wide Words' Weird Words section says it's been described as 'savoury, essence, pungent, deliciousness, and meaty.' A panel of expert food editors said they preferred the taste of broth made with MSG to broth made with regular table salt; they identified the MSG broth as 'rich,' 'well-rounded,' 'savory,' 'full-bodied,' 'brothy,' and 'more chicken-like.'

For a while, umami was generally disregarded by Westerners, not put in the pantheon of the basic flavors. Recently, however, neuroscientists found a umami receptor on the tongue, and since then, the idea of umami as the fifth flavor has quickly picked up currency. Companies sell food based on its umami content. [Check the slogan: 'Fermented fish makes food taste better... seriously.'] Gourmands praise the flavor while restaurateurs open shrines to it.

Now scientists have found out a lot more about umami receptors. They found the exact proteins on the tongues of mice that are entirely responsible for the triggering of the umami flavor. Yum.

posted by soma | Wednesday, November 05, 2003

the chronic