Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Review of The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers

[This is cobbled together rather shamelessly from my comments in the Wikifray book club.]

Grade: A-

On a deserted highway in Nebraska, without apparent cause, a young man overturns his truck and nearly ends his life. His very survival is almost miraculous, but he doesn't escape trauma. The centers of his brain that navigate familiarity and facial recognition, and he finds himself under a delusion in which he can not identify his closest relationships. His sister particularly, who gives up the independent life she has worked for, he sees as an imposter. Powers spends the pages of this novel exploring how this condition is symptomatic of all our relationships, the many ways the brain forever creates the illusion of self and of the selves of others.

The text of this novel is presented unreliably through the two siblings, and to help show off all the homework he has done, Powers elevates a cognitive scientist to real character status. Doctor Weber is drawn to help the boy, Mark, and finds his famous life entwined with the handful of unremarkable midwesterners. Weber becomes a valuable tool for presenting background research and (perhaps a little too often) standing in as the author's own voice. Centered around Weber are a lot of self-conscious novelist's quips about presenting science as anecdote, the ethics of creating character, and that sort of thing. Given that Powers is so strongly given to circuitous musings on the mind and the environment, he does a good job of keeping it fresh, and an impressive job of keeping the mysteries of the story alive through the course of the novel. The tension between Mark and his sisister is surprisingly effective at sustainging the drama (I couldn't put the book down), and it helps that the writing is excellent, moving easily between humor (sitcom-like barbs, but smart) and deep existential dread. Powers certainly taps a nerve in asking how we know we're who we think we are.

Adding the knowedgable doctor to the cast is one of several of the author's indulgences, but Weber is a good vehicle to develop most of the books themes. Powers takes a lot of effort to point out that there's a continuum of conditions between psychological and physiological trauma (the character argues about this a lot), and also a continuum of experience between defective and healthy brains. All of the characters occupy some intermdiate position in the mental health universe (the existential universe too), with only the injured Mark obviously so.

Plot-wise, the novel catches itself up in the local water politics of suburban Nebraska. The novel takes place at a point on the Platte river where migrating cranes gather, all the more dramatically for the human encroachment. He establishes a good sense of place, getting deeply into the emptiness of the prairie and the ways it can infect character. I found his effort to establish a sense of historical place more troubled. Dropping 9/11 on anything is unearned pathos, and Powers didn't really do anything with it.

The author plays the migrating birds for all they're worth (Mark and his sister even share physical attributes with them) and finally, towards the end of the book, he pushes teh ecological significance of them together with his ideas on cognition. I found the conclusion of the novel satisfying, but the marriage of environmental and mental themes seemed to be a little forced. In all, I found glitches like these easier to endure than the indulgences, but both were minor prices for admission into a deeply clever and enjoyable read.

[You can also find a discussion of The Echo Maker here.]

Genre: ,

Monday, February 26, 2007

Green and Chemical Engineering

Chemical engineering is not a field traditionally filled with budding environmentalists. You can think of it as chemistry at scale, think town-sized plants, a maze of pipes, each as wide as a man is tall, with giant flywheeled valves and ladders and catwalks for access. Think fractionation towers, pressurized batch reactors, and a forest of boilers for on-site power and steam. It was a field that came of age under the protective arm of the petroleum industry: how do you refine the crude, and what do you do with it? Haber figured out how to fix nitrogen, but it took chemical engineers at BASF to crank a hundred million tons a year of oil and air back into the earth as artificial fertilizer. Chemists and brewers figured out distillation in the friggin dark ages, but it took chemical engineers to find ways to turn 5.5 billion barrels a year of crude oil into asphalt and methane and everything in between. It took an army of chemical engineers to work out and oversee the cracking of 70 million tons of those products into ethylene, the fundamental component of the plastics industry.

Chemical engineering scared me from plastics recycling as a viable career path, because there was (is?) simply no money in it. Even in the early nineties, I was informed that it's still scads cheaper to pipe and refine raw petroleum product to the production facility. For another class, I went and visited one such facility, the local version of GE plastics, and got to see their gigantic extruders and walk around the impressive dinosaur of a site.

I don't know a lot of people that went on to become members the hardhat and pocket protector crowd. My wife got closer than anyone I know to the traditional Chem E position, and her company screamed obsolescence to walk in the door (it was a depressing place). That big, big industry moved first south and then out, a job at an industry site was a lot less likely when I graduated than it was 50 years previous. Another reason for the decline of the plant engineer is computers. At that time of my college experience, computers were on the forefront of plant design efforts, and RPI, to their credit, was gung-ho about familiarizing students with computerized problem solving. Except that once the software is developed for any application, digital design gets pretty easy (not to mention boring) to pull off. All that thermo and transport and kinetics was useful, don't get me wrong, but more to develop a good engineer's bullshit sense. Although it's good to understand phase diagrams, I sure hope they don't teach the kids that silly graphical McCabe-Thiele analysis anymore.

We Americans live for oil (love those cars, love that air conditioning). And on it (thank Herr Doctor Haber). But even if it's been another suspiciously mild winter, we've avoided living with it, at least if anyone's pointing it out. Our environmentalist sentiment is sufficiently advanced that our backyards have been cleared out, and our regulations sufficiently stringent, our chemical engineering talent sufficiently expensive, that plants got driven right out the door and overseas along with everything else. Even if chemical engineers enabled it--and we did--what got us into this mess was government-subsidized and corporate-delivered avarice (a fact of life, the basis of an economy, but incentivized in exactly the wrong directions). Can chemical engineering clean up the mess?

I like engineers better than environmentalists. That's not because I don't like environmentalism, but your average Movementarian has no sense of proportion or weighting, and even though I agree with them on almost every principle, greenies tend to be only slightly less shrill than your religiously motivated Luddite. Slate's recent green challenge with Treehugger was a case in point of prioritizing the insignificant and difficult to assail. Hipparchia recently noted the Environmental Working Group's web site, and I balked at the splash page decrying fluoridated water supplies. There may be dangers there, but the anti-fluoridation crowd are among the most annoying sorts of retards alive. (The toothless fuckers can't get off the front page of my local paper.) Never trust a damn thing any think tank ever says, kids.

Public health is one of those government functions that are justifiable under Keifus's Libertarian Lite Political Philosophy. The KLLPP also permits environmental regulations as a legitimate reach of the state, principally because the effects of ecological skulduggery span to other citizens than those who created the mess. The underfunded and peculiarly exempted Superfund law was a step in the right direction. (Whodathunk that it would take specific legislation to describe liability for pollution?) The Clean Water Act was another tool to provide government enforcement of environmental regulations. When my parents grew up, they could tell the time of the day by the color of the Naugatuck river. I didn't live through that (but you still shouldn't eat the fish), and for that I can thank the CWA.

Of course you don't find much Goodyear in the birthplace of NaugahydeTM these days, either. I doubt the regulation drove 'em out so much as the pursuit of cheap labor, but no doubt it contributed. But pollution is a global phenomenon, and the developing world* of is fighting mightily to require solutions sooner than later. Why aren't the engineers working on it?

Graduate research in chemical engineering occupies some nexus of chemistry, math, and physics (as does a lot of graduate chemistry). It's been a while since I considered myself a real engineer, veering a little too hard toward either of those first two poles. I first heard the term "green chemistry," I think, through the American Chemical Society, which began sponsoring an annual conference on the subject in 1997. Since then, I've seen it creep in here and there. Like the CWA, a lot of the push seems to be coming through the U.S. EPA. They publish a green engineering textbook, which seems to be more suggestion than requirement just now, but perpetually threatens to become more (maybe if the right government ever comes into session). The military and various government agencies take it seriously at any rate, and developing something "green" can be a good funding angle for federal-sponsored research.

I don't think there's been massive improvements in environmental legislation since the Reagan years, but the national consciousness seems to be lumbering a little more green. No doubt by necessity. It did take the Superfund law to get GE's pants sued off for crapping up the Hudson with pcbs, inspiring the terribly named Ecomagination (the dumbest thing since fungineering). Green engineering is a public relations tool, it pops up in trendy and scary fields (some of which embodies some truly laughable ideas of green chemistry by the way), and it even plagues the image-hungry and notoriously polluted China as the 2008 Olympics approach. It's an outside pretty face, but at least people feel it's becoming necessary.

Is it a powerful enough force to inspire a new generation of eager green engineers? The EPA keeps a stat sheet of some 90 or so Chem E departments that sponsor green programs, but that doesn't really give it a gauge as to the field's importance. I checked with my alma mater to find, to my disappointment, that greeniness is lumped in with environmental engineering (i.e., chemical engineering for dummies) and, even worse, with the science and technology studies** program (i.e., for those who can't do engineering at all). Looks like it's still more a guideline than a rule.

Can our new chemical engineers make environmentally friendly industrial processes? Can they reduce our agricultural demand for water and fertilizer? Can they save us from ourselves? They may need a bigger kick in the ass.

UPDATE: a very good post by Claude Scales on related matters can be found here.

UPDATE 2: another relevant discussion on Unqualified Offerings started by Thoreau here, discussing libertarianism in the face of externalities.


* I don't like this label for China and India.
** one professor of which once gave me some early writing encouragement. Don't know whether to love or hate him for it.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Get Your Crying Towel

Isonomist, an acquaintance from Slate's Fray discussion group (and certainly one of its better faces) has recently lost her son to leukemia.

He wrote a blog during his final hospital stay. Find it here.

Anything I can say about how terrible a tragedy this is is an understatement, but do see about her nonprofit, and do wish Iso well.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Foodie Central I: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain Reviewed

My journey to the kitchens of America begins in their seamy commercial underbelly. Chef cum author cum personality Anthony Bourdain writes a 300-page rant of a memoir of the pretty-good professional kitchen, complete with drugs, sex, cursing, alcohol, and what I came in for, the food.

The blessing and the curse of this book is, really, Anthony Bourdain. Maybe it's worse that I've seen him brooding on television a handful of times, a lanky bag of hung-over looking scowls. He describes himself as a mouthy punk at heart, a guy who learned workplace survival skills the way a teenager learns life lessons in an S. E. Hinton novel. His formative point as a cook, if you can call it that, is young Bourdain showing up for his first real gig, armed with the proverbial little knowledge, with a ton of smug in each of his 1974 vintage lapels alone. He goes on for another 250 pages about the colorful path down to humility and then back up, breaking the punk attitude and then owning it. The obnoxiousness is not something you miss. It never stops shining through even in the writing. But you have to give the man credit for self-recognition.

I enjoyed the kitchen scenes, and he captured the organized chaos, and the quick-fire mental organization, the commitment (he answered my question once and for all why chefs smoke), the loyalty. The scandalously delivered background sections were great too (why your food doesn't taste like his, revealing the dirty secrets of re-used bread and Monday fish specials). But the fundamental misdirection of Kitchen Confidential is that Bourdain isn't just a cook, he's a writer too. He's not half-bad at the job (for some reason, I've got a soft spot for self-deprecating wiseasses), but the writer in him can't hold back on the whole life's journey bit. He can't resist the urge to make a story out of it all, a rough tale of sin and redemption, but he fails to hit all the notes with the force that he's swinging for them. Love of food: check, but needed more of that, really. A bullshitter lets the coke and the booze get the better of him for a while as he chases a string of failures: yes, but okay already, and okay already. Rock bottom epiphanizing: it's not missing. Back to that basic foodie goodness and the balancing of the life: yeah yeah, now tell me more about the food in Tokyo.

I don't know how much I buy it all, really. I mean, I don't doubt that cooking, like any not-too-visible trade, attracts some rough practitioners, who are forgiven their sleaziness or extralegality for capability. I can't imagine your typical construction site has a significantly different cast of characters, nor your typical body shop. I even recognize some of these assholes from summers in the part-time dungeons. I don't doubt Bourdain's anecdotal veracity, but by his own admission, he's drawn to certain work environments, and, habitually, drags along the same talent from place to place to create them. But I also don't doubt that other people run a tighter ship. Hell, I know people who do.

...and the chefs are still stressed.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Myths of Summer

[This is a little bit of a Pierce Penniless pastiche. (I warned him.) Also has corn snobbery.]

In winter, summer is a myth; a report, a rumor, not to be believed. John Crowley, in Little, Big

I'm looking out over my scraggly excuse for a rose hedge in my front yard. It forms half a rectangle, twenty paces by ten maybe, brown twigs poking up through the snow like skeletal and desiccated hands. The make their obscene gestures, reminding me that I didn't prune them back in the fall like I'm fairly certain I should have. (It wasn't entirely my fault. Winter didn't make up its mind to visit until the end of January or so. I got tired of waiting and moved on.) The roses don't do well there, as, indeed, nothing does. Even spraying them every few weeks for the aphids and fungus doesn't prevent them from accruing a blackish skim that kills them from the ground up. The bushes, if you can call them that, valiantly put new shoots and leaves at the tips of their stems, while all is death beneath, and by late summer they end up tree-like, a couple of pallid blossoms and a few miserable bits of green struggling on the top of a skinny, wasted frame. They'll spend the dog days mocking my failure as a gardener, as, in fact, they do right now as they poke out of their snowy grave.

Last summer, the sickly rectangle of roses enclosed a little garden patch. There was little choice about the location. Not only was it boxed in by these poor stunted plants, it's the only place in our yard that gets very much sun. Five years past saw a new homeowner cheerfully turning over withered grass, pulling nasty, viney weeds from between the roses, raking out stones, and working in vintage manure (donated by my mother from a state away) by the 5-gallon pail into the sand and road salt that comprises my fill. Visions of wholesome veggie goodness danced in my avaricious little head, and I plotted quiet revolution against the cardboard-flavored South American oppressors that held the hated supermarkets in their sway.

It was obligation too. Boy Keifus grew up with this stuff, and the torch had, with the purchase of a home and a dinky parcel of land, been passed to the next generation. That boyhood garden began in my mother's back yard, thanks to her generally granola sort of integrity, but it didn't take long to spread from there. The backyard supplied vegetables for a couple of years as my mom toiled over it. She had a tan and a figure that maddened my friends' mothers ("she's so thin," they'd natter as I did my best to tune it out) and calves as thick as a boy's thigh. It was, of course, from the endless bending to pull weeds, to cultivate, to hill and to harvest. This should have told me something, probably. But her house is full of plants too, and her thumbs are so green, her indoor plants constantly outgrow their window pots, trailing lush runners from ceiling to floor. Half a dozen spider and pothos children have suffered ignoble fates under my own care. This should have told me something too.

The single back yard patch certainly was too small for my mother. Satellite gardens sprouted up for asparagus (along with obnoxious poled yellow 'bag-a-bugs' to fight the brand new Japanese beetle grubs and the moles that chewed asparagus roots in search for them), and ones along the foundation of our little house for herbs and flowers. Under the porch, buckets of manure tea from the neighbor's farm fermented until they were ready for the next season, and in the summertime, everywhere was the tangy smell of vegetable matter and the aroma of freshly turned, enriched black earth.

But the yard was only so big, and a gang of boys were constantly tearing through it. The farm up the street was (is) a dairy farm, with cowfields nestled in the biggish space between two residential streets, widening in the middle like an eye, bordered by rows of houses like lashes. Forty or fifty back yards overlook the green space filled with a little pond, electric-fenced squares, and endless cow patties. Some of the lots were empty though, and these were included in the farm property, as access points to the roads, I guess. One of these was across the street from my house and was basically unused. Over the years, Mom befriended the family up the street (they had horses back in the day, which may have broken the ice, and kids my age--bad influences--to play with). After a particularly acrimonious divorce, we still kept on with the crusty old farmer and his (too) young sons. I suspect this was partly for the garden access, but there was also fresh whole milk gathered every morning, and good bulk deals on just-butchered beef and pork. It was awesome.

Mom and the farmer reached some agreement in which she "developed" and gardened in the lot across the street. Picture now horizontal rows of onions, peppers, tomatoes, and several vertical rows of peas (that I'd be coerced into shelling every June). Neatly hilled potatoes, with little olive jars of kerosene at the end, filled with the ballooned and stinking corpses of hand-picked beetles. It ended up producing more than could be eaten in a season, and that's when the canning and freezing started. A few rows of corn on the end of the plot turned into a dozen, and before long, the tall green stalks took up half the across-the-street garden. Mom convinced the guy to open up a couple more of his cow acres to corn, and July and August soon turned into sixty days of maizelicious gluttony. Every year, new varieties were attempted and their maturations were staggered just so, to keep us fed until September with all of the hottest, sweetest, and riskiest new breeds. She sold bushels of the stuff, sharing revenues with the property owner, and they evidently broke close enough to even to get new seed every year. I remember trucking the stuff around the neighborhood in a wagon, knocking on doors, peddling dozen and half-dozen bags.

How we lorded it with the corn! Some customers complained about the size of the ears, to which my mom would retort that the taste was incomparable (and it was). Of course, even the savvy buyers were getting screwed, because you weren't really eating corn unless it was in the pot within thirty seconds of getting picked. We'd scoff at the naïve purveyors of antiquated 'butter and sugar' varieties at the local farmer's market (yup, I got drug to those too). "Better than 'Silver Queen,'" Mom had the audacity to paint on a sign at one of these, as we sat across from someone else selling the allegedly inferior strain.

"It's good. I guess. But it's nothing like 'Country Gentleman.'" This from my grandfather, recalling the old days. I loved the guy, but there's no denying he was exactly that sort of prick. One year, my mother grew a stand of his treasured Country Gentleman, and paired it surreptitiously with a few ears on a plate for him.

"Which one did you like better, Dad," she asked sweetly.

The old man was a crafty bastard, but not in matters like these. He never played much defense. He told her the truth. It was one for the annals: my mother got my granddad to concede, to disavow a treasured tidbit of his past. To this day, my aunt calls us a family of corn snobs.

I never had ambitions for maize in my own pathetic experiment, but I thought it might be nice to have some fresh tomatoes and stuff. The first year, the tomatoes did OK, but the squash had a similar disease as the roses, excepting that the black death swarmed up the vines faster than they could grow. We got maybe three peppers. By the second year, the nasty fungus had infected the tomatoes too, and everything else basically didn't grow or died before it bore fruit, choked in teeming crabgrass. Last summer, we planted some potatoes--Mom's potatoes--late in the year next to the usual failures. As the tomatoes and beans and whatnot succumbed without fruit, we strewed grass seed over them (which also grows poorly there), but somehow the damn potatoes flourished, and late in the fall, we enjoyed them.

Under the snow, there's two bare rows of dirt amid the new grass, where the potatoes were harvested late. Come the revolution, maybe I'll seed my yard with spuds, but until then, it's back to the withered grass that we inherited when we first moved in. It's no secret: the soil is beyond poor, and there is simply not enough sun. It doesn't stop me from feeling like a failure, letting down the family somehow.

My yard is actually nice in the spring. There are many hearty perennials waiting under the frozen ground to poke their shoots out in a month or two, and to bloom in the warm season. But now all I can see is the dead tips of the roses. Summer can hardly be believed.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Jesus Is Just All Right With Me

[For Archaeopteryx or anyone else it may be "new" to. This was written in 2004, embarrassingly vintage swill here, and not edited all that much. Also, here's why I like Robert Charles Wilson. --K]

Animal a rare event in the Universe. Cherished for it's rarity...When primates learned the trick of consciousness, of neurons talking to neurons the way planets talk to planets, making consciousness out of quantum events, there was nothing to get in the way of our evolution...

"Why do people worship gods, Tam?"

Because we're descended from them, Zoe thought. We're their crippled mute offspring, in all our millions.
--Robert Charles Wilson, Bios
A man said to the universe: "Sir, I exist!" "However," replied the universe, "The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation
--Stephen Crane

The question 'what makes us special?' has been around so long as we have been special enough to ask it. Indeed, as more is learned about animal sapience, many of the sacred demarcations of humanity vanish or blur, from tool use to symbolic communication and even speech. The only thing that seems to separate mankind definitively from animals is that at some point in our development, we have been reflective enough to ask what's it all about, and that introspection somehow stuck. We peep over the cusp of consciousness: a handful fewer neurons and the human race is back to monosyllabic grunting and hurling feces at our simian brothers. We do not know what the highest level of sentience in the universe may be, but it's safe to say that we people represent the bare minimum.

And we have every reason to be bitter about it. On one end of the belief spectrum, we are unlucky enough to be have evolved sufficient intelligence to imagine and fear (and collectively, create) our demise while sufficiently primitive to prevent rising above this knowledge and fear. The more faithful believe we have been created by some loving deity, but if this is so, we have evidently been left to our own devices, for surely no god speaks to us directly today. It's tough to forgive a creator who holds us responsible for the nature he placed in us. If God has an ineffible plan, it involves some pretty tough love. Should a superintelligence exist, it's much more likely that we are, ant-like, simply beneath its notice, and we read its will with all the comprehension of human behavior that the ant gathers from a foot suddenly placed in its path. (It is even possible that we are unknowing components of a larger consciousness. Why the fuck not.)

I've called the Judeo-Christian tradition, "as good as any," but in truth, it's better than some. I like, for one thing, the basic Christian code (regardless of actual practice) of humility, charity, forgiveness, and meditatively seeking the kingdom of God. I'll happily interpret it as a highly individualist faith too. I do have a tough time digesting the proscriptions and prescriptions of the overzealous faithful interpreting 2000 year-old politics through more constrained (and often lesser) minds than my own. Even if the bible was inspired by god, it has still been channeled by the corrupt, inefficient minds of men, and they don't make grains of salt big enough.

Blind faith is for suckers, and it seems violate the central lesson of Christianity at that. Buying for now into the Eden myth, it is a desire to be like God (that is, the "sin" of thinking) that makes us so miserable, but this sentience has a reward too, that we may become more than beasts, and perhaps more than that. (But probably not.) Unquestioning acceptance puts us right back on par with the animals, and although this may be return to Eden, it forsakes our responsibility and capacity as marginally better beings. It is like seeking to be intellectually unborn, and you know, fuck that.

The metaphor at the center of Christianity that I still find appealing is this: Jesus, it's said, came down as an incarnation of god, basically to live life as one of us poor benighted bastards for a time. The uncomprehended universe--call it god--may have little regard for humans in general, but it's very comforting to think, maybe without even believing it, that cold infinite nature once gave a damn about us. In perhaps my favorite throwaway apology for Christianity,
Some say he was not a human being at all...but the thought, tangible to us, of some vast intelligence to whom our actuality is no more real than the paper theaters of the toy sellers...[H]e had the power to reconcile the universe with humanity, and humanity with the universe, ending the old breach.
--Gene Wolfe, The Claw of the Conciliator

Is it bullshit? Maybe. Probably. But I get the appeal.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Something I Never Imagined I'd Say

"I sure am excited about that mandolin."

Still nekkid, and not even sanded yet (she'll be tobacco dark when done).

Here's the fingerboard.

Still can't play the thing worth a damn.

(but getting less bad all the time)

UPDATE: Other than being observed on the same trip, this is not related to the post below. Dad's making the mandolin. Old friend's got the new baby.

Random Thoughts on Man Time

[Visited a friend yesterday who just had his first baby.]

1. It turns out that I still enjoy cigars, good ones anyway. That's not encouraging.

2. Those earmuffs and gloves I keep in my car...good idea.

3. Does it, in fact, get better than this? Well, yeah. But not too often. (Or did you mean for you? Yeah new dad, it's up there.)

4. I slept fine.

5. Beautiful. Honest. She looks just like you. (And not at all like a little raisin.)

6. A dozen years from now, you may have your gigantic home paid off and a pile of savings besides, but I'll be just getting my house to myself. We'll call it a wash.

7. "Uncle Keifus." Not related at all, but I think it works.

8. They're cute when they're little. Did you know they grow up to be big kids? Oh man, she's grabbing my finger!

9. Time spent cajoling, corralling, arranging, camping out, driving, and getting furlough: about forty-eight hours. Beers and cigars and cribbage: about three hours.

10. Floor to ceiling plastic clutter? Excuse me a minute. Hahahahahahahahahahaha. Ok, all better. No, wait...

11. I can hold her before I go, right? Okay, that's enough.

12. Congratulations, dude.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Five More Thoughts (Uncomfortable Self-Awareness Ed.)

[psst! hey! Look over there on the right. Click on "keifus writes!" it'll take you to the front page. I've been at this, really I have!]

Five thoughts culled and concatenated from correspondence with my bloggy buds. Blame the usual suspects among those for stirring up my thoughts. Blame the outside world for being generous enough to coincide with them.

1. Coincidence
Do you believe in memes, ideas that propagate through information media as organically as a virus? Me, not so much, but I do think we're pretty well hardwired to look for them. We're built to draw parallels and make connections and explain external events. It was a handy evolutionary trick for our under-muscled and under-sensoried primitive selves to apply cause-and-effect narratives to keep ourselves fed on the jungles and savannahs, but it's also led to a lot of bullshit over the years--some of it pleasing (and even illuminating in its way), and some of it deadly serious (with similar possibility of enlightenment).

To our jaded modern-day reasoning selves, coincidence has gotten a bad rap. Think about the word: it's constructed to mean, "happening at the same time." I like this straightforward definition better than the usual one meaning "unlikely." I can distinctly remember my tenth grade English teacher going on about the latter definition as being essential to literature. "Random shit happens," he'd say (not in those words), "just like in real life, and the beauty's in drawing out the consequences." He didn't formulate that quite correctly, however. Just like in real life, stuff happens in literature at the same time, on the same stage. But in fiction (and non-fiction too), the writer employs the gigantic conceit that both causations and correlations are real for those events, and arrogantly maps thom on to a narrative of his or her own design.

Events happen and there are causes, yes, but narrative is always applied after the fact. We retroactively select the remembered details of the past that are best aligned with the current story. Memes are fiction. Hell, they're less than that, proto-fiction maybe, more like after-the-fact themes than bred-in-the-brain genes.

2. Noticing
One theme to the human story I've been picking up on in the past few weeks is what draws people to one another. Certainly it's followed me around various bloggy conversations lately. What makes us notice each other, either in this virtual space or out there in the physical? What makes us pick one another out of the crowd?

I miss the poster Splendid IREny being around. She is, in my estimation, brilliant at feeling out the subtle spaces that separate individual people from the rest of the world. In one of her last posts on Slate's Fray, she described herself as noticing some guy, and him noticing the noticing and so on, back and forth.* That captivated me because (assuming I'm nost just retroactively applying a pleasing narrative) I've begun some of my more powerful friendships that way.

Those early moments are interesting, like some brief instant of alignment or congruence (or anti-congruence, even) that drifts into our attention by whatever random fluctuations of consciousness that are the noise on our trajectories through life. Certainly this sensation is a function of our conscious brains, our ghost selves, something imagined thanks to the quirky and ineffible neural stimuli zapping around in there. Probably it's a matter of projecting our imagined spirits onto the occasional places they seem to fit. The cues in "real" life, I suppose are different than those in the virtual universe, more sensory, less cerebral. I'm finding it very cool to recognize people based almost only on their words.

But from whatever source, that's just a spark, and you need some feedback to turn that notice into an acquaintance. There's a feedback mechanism, the noticing and the noticing of the noticing, tentative contacts made and reinforced, the amplitude increasing. We're like objects that drift into one another's orbit, we may accelerate and crash, fly or drift apart along adjusted paths, or revolve pretty stably for awhile. It's dynamic of course, and even circling billiard balls are impossibly complex if you throw enough of them in, but we can always look back and trace the trajectories.

What kinds of people draw me in? Often enough it's the people moving at about my funny pace, in a similarly confused or independent arc relative to rest of the masses.

3. Looks
I avoided the word "attraction" up above. Although it is apt enough if I'm going with awful physics metaphors, it has too may animal connotations for what I was trying to describe there. "Attractive" is something different from attraction: it's just an acknowledgement, a description bordering on the impartial.

They say that sevens marry sevens, threes end up with threes and so forth. My wife says she married up on the attractiveness scale, and, of course, I say the same thing. My friends are, for the most part, in a similar stratum of attractiveness as myself (though admittedly I've improved this past year, and they're losing their hair a lot faster than I am**), which is to say we're not bad-looking people, but unlikely to end up on a billboard anytime soon.

There's a great swath of humanity of middling appearance, made up of us all-parts-in-the-right-place types within a standard deviation or two of a healthy size, attractive to those people who happen to like those things, and who are comfortable ignoring those things. I like to think that attractiveness is a mutable thing anyway. I like to think that I find people more attractive because I like them, and not the other way around.

But maybe I made those friends in the first place because we already found ourselves relegated to the same social sphere, given those opportunities to find congruences because most people in the teeming throng have already categorized us based on our looks.

4. Appearances
For the morning thing, I had been running around the track for a month or two because the pool had gotten too crowded, and because the change was nice. I got to the grunt-n-mumble point of social interaction, suitable for people you always see, but don't (care to) know. But my knee got sore with the running, and so it was back in the drink. Seeya, strangers.

So I'm there doing some pre pool-party hoisting or lugging of something or other, and one of the morning track people, a woman I actually tended to notice there, comes up and starts talking to me. I'd picked her out as a serious and graceful runner, kind of a pleasure to watch, if I were to let myself watch.

"Hey, is that you swimming there now?" she asks.

"Um, yeah."

"You swim well. Are you training for a triathalon?"

"Uhh nooo...but thanks." I explain about the knee, grinning a little, maybe blushing even, and hop back on the rack at the first opportunity.

Likely, she was training for something and after seeing me huffing at the two activities, she thought I might have the same pursuits. I think it was innocuous (and if it was only mostly innocuous, then I admit to enjoying a little flattery), but that didn't stop the Angriest-Looking Dude in the Gym (another person I've had a tendency to notice ...and recoil from--perhaps he's an archtypical rival) from stomping over to her afterwards and starting a conversation himself, glowering all the while like he owned her. And it didn't stop my wife from getting pissy when I told her about it that night. (That sucked.)

Even though I love heckling, I don't enjoy small talk, and it takes me a while to get comfortable with most people. I give away a lot of tells when I'm meeting strangers, really showcasing that early discomfort (downcast eyes, rapid speech). Flattering myself, I blame a surfeit of imagination for this, my hyper brain always putting together scenarios with humiliating consequences. When I was younger, it made it tough to meet women. Nowadays I'm mostly beyond embarrassment in that department (but get me around people with greatly superior talents in areas I pursue...), but there's a lot of very real negative reinforcement if I act suspiciously around the gentler sex. (Which of course makes me act more awkwardly, and, well, you know). I think I was a cad not to return the compliment in the gym--that woman is a good runner, and it would be interesting to know what a training-for-something regimen involves. A real gentleman may have even helped her avoid the protective ministrations of Angry Dude.

I've got to tell you, I'm thrilled that I know as many women as I do through these pages. Would any of you have ever picked me out of a crowd? You probably wouldn't have gotten past the stammer.

5. Daily Affirmation
I look a lot better than I used to, but I still don't think most people's minds would leap to "triathlete" after gazing at an enspeedoed Keifus. But I was elated at the idea.

"You should just know when you're good, Keifus, you shouldn't need to be told!" Which is the rub, you see. I've got an idea of how good I am (and how good I'm not), but I hear way too much about the shit I do wrong. And it's usually hard to see how trying to improve changes a damn thing in my life (though it sure does make me more defiant).

So when that positive cue comes, I eat it up. But I fear its addictive qualities. I fear it'll turn me into a pewling asshole. I fear that it's made me troll for it on occasions. I'm afraid it'll go to my head. Many prophesies are self-fulfilling, of course...or is that just another narrative conceit?


* Hope he was all that, SI, if you're reading.
** neener neener!

Friday, February 02, 2007

Think It's Easy Getting Cheese in a Can?

Some thoughts on food science:

I wrote an aborted reply* to this article on Slate earlier today. Unlike as is usual there, the headline "survival of the yummiest," is a better thesis than Dan Engber’s articulate but rambling commentary on Michael Pollan’s strikingly dumb article in NYT magazine. They both share the qualitative point that we’re evolved (or designed) to eat plants and run around a lot. Pollan’s happy with the truism and condemns two decades of nutritional science. Engber’s OK with people doing research to find out the details of why that is. (Good for you, Dan.)

I think both of these people miss how food science has been developed, namely to maximize profit. Nutritional science can explain food interactions and relationships with human health, but the body’s a complicated system, and these explanations have been hijacked or hidden by the food producer's R&D as is convenient. There’s not the same sort of money for that thing, especially since you can make money by lying. If eating real food is as old humanity, hawking false curatives is at least as old as civilization.

I’m not doing research here (though I’m drawing a little on some ancient classwork), but I see food science as having been enormously successful in a number of ways:

-Satisfaction Optimization
Imagine the chemical engineering that goes into a McDonald’s french fry. You have the fry scent piped into that thing; you have your extra-crispifying coating; you have that oily burst calibrated just so; the optimum salt, the optimum sugar. You even have perfectly ergonomic paper fry caddies.

You can take the Pollan route and say that, sure, fat and sugar sells, dude, but don’t doubt that those components have been reduced, dissected, and reassembled in Ronald’s dark laboratory for optimum addictive potential, flavor, and a short arc of satisfaction that will get more fries in your hands as quickly as possible.

-Quality Control
Don’t underestimate how difficult it is to get the same product on your plate every single time. If you’re thirsty enough to pop a can of Bud, think how amazing it is that these twelve ounces of fizzy yellow stuff are completely indistinguishable from the last 96 or so. Brewing is a bitch--there are a million minor side reactions that will create off (or just different) flavors or colors, and all must be carefully controlled to get the exact same calculated frisson in every can.

This is especially true with paler beer. I think one reason American pilsener took off as a preferred beer style, at least in those early post-Prohibition days when beer was surfacing as the country’s choice hooch, is because it was challenging to brew, and it represented the apogee of the craft. (Later, it surely succeeded due to marketing and the fact that rice is cheaper than barley.) I’ve read long papers on industrial brewing science. It’s an enormous field. (Well, it was once. Pretty mature by now, I imagine)

-Shelf Life
My local NPR affiliate did a segment last month on Asian grocery chains and why they’re so immensely cheaper than the Safeway. Short answer: it’s because they sell ripe product. Asian people tend to buy and cook on the same day, so they can get away with that. For the more typical American habits, those peaches would go bad by the time they were dug out of the fridge.

Preservation of food is a modern science. We’ve got six decades of it under our belts by now to show you how keeping the food fresh-looking is way more important than keeping it healthy. Producers will make the most money if the stuff can sit more or less indefinitely on the supermarket shelves, just looking pretty, until it’s finally sold. That’s why we have nitrites, BHT, and those fucking cardboard tomatoes from the other side of the goddamn world. It doesn't have to be edible. It just has to look edible.

So did our tastes evolve? Yeah, but it wasn't nutritional Darwinism, it was marketing Darwinism. Perpetuation not of the fittest, but of the tastiest, hte most consistent, the longest-lived. Food science is driven by the free market. You expect health science to keep up with that? Especially since in order to sell something as intangible as health, you only need ever need to fake it.

*because really, what’s the point? (Also, I was busy)