(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Psychology

“Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, craving, and identity”*…

From the cover of sci-fi magazine If, May 1960

Your correspondent is heading several time zones away, so (Roughly) Daily will be on hiatus for a week. Meantime…

Kelly Alexander on the very real way in which we are not only what we eat, but also what we imagine eating…

Despite the faux social science of trend reports, I have always been interested in the flavours that exert a hold on our collective hearts and minds. I’m especially intrigued by how the foods we seem to fetishise in the present – the artisanal, the local, the small-batch – are never the ones we seem to associate with the tantalising prospect of ‘the future’.

How do we know what will be delicious in the future? It depends on who ‘we’ are. For Baby Boomers who didn’t grow up on a diet of Dune-style scenarios of competing for resources on a depleted planet, it was TV dinners, angel whips and Tang – the instant powdered orange drink that became a hit after NASA included it on John Glenn’s Mercury spaceflight in 1962. That same year, The Jetsons – an animated show chronicling the life and times of a family in 2062 – premiered on US television. In one episode, mom Jane ‘makes’ breakfast for son Elroy using an iPad-like device. She orders ‘the usual’: milk, cereal (‘crunchy or silent?’ Jane asks Elroy, before pre-emptively selecting ‘silent’), bacon, and one soft-boiled egg, all of which is instantly beamed to the table…

For many students in my Food Studies courses at the University of North Carolina, the ‘future delicious’ conjures readymade meal ‘solutions’ that eliminate not just the need for cooks but the need for meals. This includes Soylent, the synthesised baby formula-like smoothies, or the food substitutes slugged by software engineers coding at their desks. It includes power bars and Red Bulls to provide energy and sustenance without the fuss of a dinner table (an antiquated ceremony that takes too long). Also, meal kits that allow buyers to play at cooking by mixing a few things that arrive pre-packaged, sorted and portioned; and Impossible Burgers, a product designed to mimic the visceral and textural experience of eating red meat – down to realistic drips of ‘blood’ (beet juice enhanced with genetically modified yeast), and named to remind us that no Baby Boomer thought such a product was even possible.

Such logic makes the feminist anthropologist Donna Haraway wary. It betrays, she writes, ‘a comic faith in technofixes’ that ‘will somehow come to the rescue of its naughty but very clever children.’ To Haraway’s point, the future delicious tends to value the technological component of its manufacture over the actual food substrate, sidestepping what the material culture expert Bernie Herman described to me as ‘the fraught and negotiated concept of delicious’…

More tastiness at: “What our fantasies about futuristic food say about us,” from @howamericaeats in @aeonmag.

See also: “The perfect meal in a pill?

How do science fiction authors imagine the food of the future? Works conceived between 1896 and 1973 addressed standardised consumers, alienated by a capitalist society in pursuit of profitability. Were these works prophecy or metaphor?

* Jonathan Safran Foer

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As we dig in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1955 that Nathan’s Famous, on Coney Island, sold it’s one-millionth hot dog. The restaurant (which has, of course, grown into both a chain and a retail brand) had been founded by Nathan Handwerker in 1916.

Nathan, eating one of his own

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 6, 2022 at 1:00 am

“I used to measure the skies, now I measure the shadows of Earth”*…

From ancient Egyptian cubits to fitness tracker apps, humankind has long been seeking ever more ways to measure the world – and ourselves…

The discipline of measurement developed for millennia… Around 6,000 years ago, the first standardised units were deployed in river valley civilisations such as ancient Egypt, where the cubit was defined by the length of the human arm, from elbow to the tip of the middle finger, and used to measure out the dimensions of the pyramids. In the Middle Ages, the task of regulating measurement to facilitate trade was both privilege and burden for rulers: a means of exercising power over their subjects, but a trigger for unrest if neglected. As the centuries passed, units multiplied, and in 18th-century France there were said to be some 250,000 variant units in use, leading to the revolutionary demand: “One king, one law, one weight and one measure.”

It was this abundance of measures that led to the creation of the metric system by French savants. A unit like the metre – defined originally as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole – was intended not only to simplify metrology, but also to embody political ideals. Its value and authority were derived not from royal bodies, but scientific calculation, and were thus, supposedly, equal and accessible to all. Then as today, units of measurement are designed to create uniformity across time, space and culture; to enable control at a distance and ensure trust between strangers. What has changed since the time of the pyramids is that now they often span the whole globe.

Despite their abundance, international standards like those mandated by NIST and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) are mostly invisible in our lives. Where measurement does intrude is via bureaucracies of various stripes, particularly in education and the workplace. It’s in school that we are first exposed to the harsh lessons of quantification – where we are sorted by grade and rank and number, and told that these are the measures by which our future success will be gauged…

A fascinating survey of the history of measurement, and a consideration of its consequences: “Made to measure: why we can’t stop quantifying our lives,” from James Vincent (@jjvincent) in @guardian, an excerpt from his new book Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement.

And for a look at what it takes to perfect one of the most fundamental of those measures, see Jeremy Bernstein‘s “The Kilogram.”

* “I used to measure the skies, now I measure the shadows of Earth. Although my mind was sky-bound, the shadow of my body lies here.” – Epitaph Johannes Kepler composed for himself a few months before he died

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As we get out the gauge, we might send thoughtfully-wagered birthday greetings Blaise Pascal; he was born on this date in 1623.  A French mathematician, physicist, theologian, and inventor (e.g.,the first digital calculator, the barometer, the hydraulic press, and the syringe), his commitment to empiricism (“experiments are the true teachers which one must follow in physics”) pitted him against his contemporary René “cogito, ergo sum” Descartes– and was foundational in the acceleration of the scientific/rationalist commitment to measurement…

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Happy Juneteenth!

“Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth”*…

Gerardo Dottori, Explosion of Red on Green, 1910, oil on canvas. London, Tate Modern. [source]

A crop of new books attempts to explain the allure of conspiracy theories and the power of belief; Trevor Quirk considers them…

For the millions who were enraged, disgusted, and shocked by the Capitol riots of January 6, the enduring object of skepticism has been not so much the lie that provoked the riots but the believers themselves. A year out, and book publishers confirmed this, releasing titles that addressed the question still addling public consciousness: How can people believe this shit? A minority of rioters at the Capitol had nefarious intentions rooted in authentic ideology, but most of them conveyed no purpose other than to announce to the world that they believed — specifically, that the 2020 election was hijacked through an international conspiracy — and that nothing could sway their confidence. This belief possessed them, not the other way around.

At first, I’d found the riots both terrifying and darkly hilarious, but those sentiments were soon overwon by a strange exasperation that has persisted ever since. It’s a feeling that has robbed me of my capacity to laugh at conspiracy theories — QAnon, chemtrails, lizardmen, whatever — and the people who espouse them. My exasperation is for lack of an explanation. I see Trump’s most devoted hellion, rampaging down the halls of power like a grade schooler after the bell, and I need to know the hidden causes of his dopey rebellion. To account for our new menagerie of conspiracy theories, I told myself, would be to reclaim the world from entropy, to snap experience neatly to the grid once again. I would use recent books as the basis for my account of conspiracy theories in the age of the internet. From their pages I would extract insights and errors like newspaper clippings, pin the marginal, bizarre, and seemingly irrelevant details to the corkboard of my mind, where I could spy eerie resonances, draw unseen connections. At last, I could reveal that our epistemic bedlam is as a Twombly canvas — messy but decipherable…

Learn with @trevorquirk: “Out There,” in @GuernicaMag.

* Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

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As we tangle with truth, we might send rigorous birthday greetings to Gustav Bergmann; he was born on this date in 1906. A philosopher, he was a member of the Vienna Circle, a a group of philosophers and scientists drawn from the natural and social sciences, logic and mathematics, whose values were rooted in the ideals of the Enlightenment. Their approach, logical positivism, an attempt to use logic to make philosophy “scientific,” has had immense influence on 20th-century philosophy, especially on the philosophy of science and analytic philosophy… even if it has not, in fact, eliminated the issues explored above.

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We might also send birthday greetings in the form of logical and semantic puzzles both to the precocious protagonist of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and to her inspiration, Alice Liddell; they were “born” on this date in 1852.

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“You fix what you can fix and you let the rest go”*…

Humans are natural problem solvers; still, sometimes no amount of thoughtfulness, hard work, or understanding will transform an intractable problem into a resolvable one. But, as Alex Berezow argues, we must accept this harsh reality to have peace in our lives…

Though our species name is Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”), perhaps a better one would be Homo problematis solvendis (“problem solving man”). If there’s a mountain, we’ll climb it; if there’s a moon, we’ll fly to it; if there’s a disease, we’ll cure it. Our species’ success in science and technology has even given rise to scientism, the naïve and arrogant belief that science alone is the only legitimate source of knowledge and that any problem — no matter how great — will one day be solved by science.

It is easy to see why many people believe that. We are taught from a young age that the trickiest homework can be solved through diligent study; the toughest sporting competitions can be dominated through training; and the complexities of interpersonal relationships can be settled through understanding and compromise. All of this conspires to create in each of us a false sense that no problem is too big to tackle. Yet, the unfortunate reality is that, sometimes, no amount of thoughtfulness, hard work, or understanding will transform an intractable problem into a resolvable one. Indeed, some problems really have no solution…

Berezow goes on to unpack three examples: the Riemann hypothesis, the problem of aging and cancer, and willful ignorance. Then he urges us to understand them as a metaphor…

As we grow older, we slowly come to the realization that there is very little in our lives that we actually can control. We didn’t control who our parents were, where we were born, our genetic gifts (or lack thereof), or the sort of upbringing we received. We can’t control our spouses or our children, let alone politicians. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we can barely control our own thoughts and feelings. It should not surprise us, therefore, that the world contains unsolvable problems. I would go so far as to posit that there may be more unsolvable problems than solvable ones.

So, if there’s any moral lesson to learn from the aforementioned “unsolvable problems,” let it be that they serve as a metaphor for the greater truth that we control far less than we think we do, and that we must become comfortable with that discomforting fact. How? Perhaps the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr could help:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Or perhaps this cheekier version will suffice:

Give me coffee to change the things I can
And wine to accept the things I cannot.

The very concept of a “problem with no solution” goes against human nature, but they’re everywhere– and we need to find ways to relate to them: “Problems with no solution: From math to politics, some things humans cannot solve,” from @AlexBerezow @bigthink.

* Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

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As we ruminate on resolution, we might we might send bright birthday greetings to Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen; he was born on this date in 1811. A chemist, he observed– with a prototype spectroscope that he created– that each element emits a light of characteristic wavelength (thus founding the field of spectrum analysis) and used his insight to discover two new elements, caesium and rubidium.

But Bunsen is probably best remembered for his creation of the Bunsen burner, a gas burner with a non-luminous flame that does not interfere with the colored flame given off by the test material–ubiquitous in labs around the world. Indeed, today is (Inter)National Bunsen Burner Day.

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“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child”*…

There’s history… and then there’s deep history. C. Patrick Doncaster, a professor of ecology at Southampton University has created “Timeline of the human Condition- Milestones in Evolution and History.” Starting with the Big Bang (13.8 billion years ago) it marks significant events in Earth’s development, the evolution of life, and the development of human culture (science/technology, economics, politics, and art) all the way up to 2021.

It concludes with a trio of handy analogies…

Following the big bang 13.8 billion years ago, time passed two-thirds of the way to the present before the formation of the Sun 4.57 billion years ago. Rescaled to a calendar year, starting with the big bang at 00:00:00 on 1 January, the Sun forms on 1 September, the Earth on 2 September, earliest signs of life appear on 13 September, earliest true mammals on 26 December, and humans just 2 hours before year’s end. For a year that starts with the earliest true mammals, the dinosaurs go extinct on 17 August, earliest primates appear on 9 September, and humans at dawn of 25 December. For a year that starts with the earliest humans, our own species appears on 19 November, the first built constructions on 8 December, and agricultural farming begins at midday on 29 December.

Timeline of the Human Condition- Milestones in Evolution and History.” (via @Recomendo6)

See also: “How We Make Sense of Time.”

* Marcus Tullius Cicero

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As we prize perspective, we might spare a thought for James Hiram Bedford; he died on this date in 1967. A psychologist who wrote several books on occupational counseling, he is best remembered as the first person whose body was cryopreserved after legal death. He remains preserved at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona.

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