Saturday, December 20, 2008

Adulterated tastes

I prefer wine red and dry, vodka straight, steak almost bleeding with barely  any salt and pepper, beer dark and strong, coffee with no cream or sugar,  and oatmeal without any added flavors. These are merely personal preferences and there's nothing significant about anyone else disagreeing, but sometimes I wonder what the varying motivations are.

  1. Fusion can be good. Having a latte just isn't the same as drinking coffee and then milk.
  2. Some mixes are overtly functional. Mixed drinks become more popular during prohibition as a method for masking low quality liquor, and to this day college students can drink cheap alcohol thanks to coke and orange juice. Bloody Marys are a lot easier to hold down the morning after than even high quality vodka, plus they're a healthier breakfast!  Low-quality coffee, at an office or gas station (but hopefully not in a coffee drinker's own kitchen),   purchased merely for the caffiene can be improved by adding cream or sugar.
  3. Signalling something about oneself in a way that isn't pleasant for its own sake may be facilitated by something along the lines of the previous point. Somebody with no particular interest in steak, may still want to order a steak because of the connotations that go along with it. Cooking it and covering it with steak sauce until the flavor and texture distinct to the steak are lost removes all of the potential downside. Due to some cultural taboos relating to drugs, even legal ones, someone with a caffiene addiction who doesn't enjoy the taste of coffee may continue to consume it and mask its taste, rather than take caffiene pills. 
This line of inquiry isn't limited to foods and beverages, those are just the easiest groups to write about. 

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What I have been reading

After reading All on Fire  and The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement I have become more interested in how ideas are disseminated. To that end, I have begun rereading Bloom's translation of The Republic. Just the preface reminds me that I want to reread The Closing of the American Mind, as well as Paradoxes of Education in a Republic. Maybe I'll be able to figure out something about the nature of blogging while I'm at it.

To anybody lucky enough to have lived in the south, I recommend a subscription to Southern Cultures. Every issue is distinct, enjoyable, and informative. The latest issue is about native americans. Among other things, the first essay deals with the absence of native americans from most perspectives on the south. 

I'm participating in this book bomb for The Founders' Second Ammendment. However, this is only a coincidence; I'm buying the book today because I have just now found out about it. Generally speaking I don't care to participate in this sort of gimmick. That mild caveat aside, I do hope that this book will offer me new ideas regarding the civic virtue of good citizens having proficiency with firearms. My investment of time and money has to be justified to myself somehow.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

To all a Good Night!

I'm sure it'll be resolved by the time I wake up, but this is the best news CNN could have given me on my way to bed. No link, no article, this is just the headline.
Auto bailout dies in Senate after compromise talks fail

Monday, December 8, 2008

Liberal Arts education, and AI

This journal article about Great Books sparked a conversation about the value of the Western canon to higher education which found me alone on the defense, and most of the elite college grads sitting around the lunch table unfamiliar with the concept.

We had some commentary about the value of cultural context, specialization, and vocational studies. In hindsight, I think the question got bogged down with assumptions about both universities and students. 
  1. Universities currently offer all sorts of classes, and students should be taking those classes because at some margin they are all worthwhile (even an otherwise bad class with few students will become attractive for some students who are particularly benefited by direct interaction with professors). So it's hard to make a case for one class versus another.
  2. The students were represented by anecdotes, or by vague assumptions about what young people want to study.
These are my alternatives, which I only came up with after the fact, for facilitating the discussion about the study of a canon as part of a liberal arts education.
  1. Regardless of the varying levels of merit across current curriculums, this question is about designing a new university by allocating resources to a new set of departments(if any), professors, and courses. Covering everything, even if it is desirable for an undergraduate institution, is not a valid or relevant solution. 
  2. There's something peculiarly difficult about discussing what people ought to be studying. It makes things easier, for me anyway, to think about artificial intelligence instead. Let's say somebody else had built an AI, and I was trying to train it to be able to engage in conversation on a wide range of topics, hold gainful employment (while telecommuting, of course), and in general be able to interact successfully with the world. My resources for teaching the AI would be limited by its design to a few hundred hours of lectures, a few hundred books, periodic questions to guide study of the material, and feedback about how well the AI was able to apply knowledge when tested. Information for the AI would be selected according to how efficiently it maximized the objectives. To the extent that the canon is related to itself, studying parts of it will increase the payoff of studying other parts of it. What is Dante without his cultural and historical context? Likewise, to the extent that the canon has developed as a part of Western Civilization, being familiar with it will facilitate interactions with political, religious, and intellectual phenomenons such as democracy, monotheism, and the scientific method, respectively. Merely developing critical reasoning by studying Mayan basket weaving, or feminist literary theory, even at the doctoral level, will fail to have the same payoffs. While there may be some value to studying any random topic, value is not maximized by randomness given time constraints which only allow a tiny fraction of human knowledge to be studied.
There's an element of critical mass involved. Anything's worth studying if everybody woth socializing and doing business with is also interested in it. However, lacking an alternative, even a neglected canon serves this purpose.

The idea for reasoning about learning by imagining artificial intelligence was derived from Overcoming Bias.



Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Survey Says

A national poll suggests that six in 10 Americans oppose using taxpayer money to help the ailing major U.S. auto companies.

I am fully confident the bailout will pass anyway, just as the financial bailout did.

However, seeing these surveys gives me some faint hope that Rahm "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste" Emanuel, Hank Paulson, Barney "I think we have to recognize the reality that we don't have a choice now of debating whether this is a good or a bad thing" Frank, and their ilk will not be allowed to keep glorifying themseles until they bring our polity to a catastrophic end.

To be clear, Congress should not necessarily vote the way surveys indicate. Our government is not a direct democracy, and rightly so. Rather, I'm plesantly shocked that the majority of Americans oppose bailing out their auto makers. 

Monday, December 1, 2008

I miss Tanta

Tanta, a co-blogger at Calculated Risk, died Sunday. The internet will be a poorer place without her. There will be many times in the future, I'm sure, when I'll want to have her perspective. I can only hope I've been able to adopt her mode of thinking well enough to help me make sense of the world.

After leaving her job due to illness, Tanta took up blogging. I'm grateful for everything she taught me about the mortgage industry, and I'm grateful for how entertaining she made it. Even though she used a pseudonym and wrote about arcane financial details, her literary ability allowed her personality and morality to come through to her readers. She had a special insight about, and knack for, this new medium of blogging, and she'll be remembered for it. 


Tanta's comment, following her own post about reverse mortgages, hurt me in a good way.
My employer could get me to sign off on some megamillion dollar trade that risked taking the bank down with my head up and my shoulders squared. The next day I'd be backed into the corner of my cubicle, brandishing a red pen, crying out that those bastards could have my labor, they could have my dignity, they could have my soul, but they weren't taking my active voice. I dangle modifiers for no one.