Archive for January, 2012

spicy dish

Loving strange food or: how I learned to stop being picky and love food

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Like most Americans, I used to hold some self-evident beliefs about food:

The three dogmas of the food phobiac:

  1. There are foods I “like” and foods I “dislike” and I ought to stick to the things that I like.
  2. The better something tastes, the more unhealthy it must be and vice versa.  You must choose between a long life of disgusting food or indulge yourself and die early.
  3. There is a value hierarchy for all the edible parts of any animal. For example, top sirloin is the ideal for beef.  There’s a similar value hierarchy for animals themselves. Decisions about which animal and which part of the animal to eat are therefore a simple cost/benefit equation.

Two things completely changed by attitude on food: getting married, and moving to China.

The psychology of taste

Our perception of taste is closely associated with our memories of things such as the taste of past meals, our emotional states, and sensory associations with similar foods.  We come to associate foods with sensory reactions based on many factors such as familiarity, the quality of most meals, the people we were with, etc.  By dissociating taste as such from negative experiences we can learn to appreciate food for its inherent taste, without emotional baggage.  We can learn to prefer the taste of healthy foods by the same process.

Sensory integration therapy for food phobiacs

The first step to fixing food phobias is to recognize the problem: it’s not OK to exclude foods because of food sensitivities.  All the “most hated” American foods are delicious when prepared properly. Having recognized the problem, here is the program that worked for me:

The strategy is to gradually introduce foods in different settings, gradually building exposure and positive associations with certain foods.  For example, when my wife learned that I hated zucchini, she gradually introduced it into my diet starting with small amounts balanced by other flavors, and growing to having zucchini be the dominate ingredient.   Here is what she cooked:

  1. Stuffed peppers with zucchini and sausage
  2. Potato and zucchini frittata
  3. Roasted vegetable meatloaf with zucchini
  4. Grated zucchini topped with marinara
  5. Lasagna with zucchini noodles
  6. Zucchini gratin
  7. Zucchini latkes
  8. Zucchini fried in butter with onions
  9. Parmesan crusted fried zucchini

The same program was used for eggplant, brussel sprouts, avocados, cabbage, and okra.  Once I learned to appreciate food for its taste and texture of foods rather than negative associations and new textures, it was no longer necessary to disguise the ingredients.   When I have a negative reaction to something, I isolate the components of the food (source, flavor, smell, texture) and think about which aspect I reacted to. Oftentimes I react to negative memories and associations and not the food itself. Consciously understanding that a negative reaction has no rational basis is often enough to overcome it.

The importance of ceremony

The ceremonial aspect of dining is very important when learning to appreciate food.  If you merely try to inhale as many calories as quickly as possible, any unusual tastes will be an unpleasant distraction.  A proper sit-down meal is required to take the time to really analyze the taste of foods and form new positive sensory-conceptual associations to replace the old negative ones.

 A cosmopolitan attitude to dining

One of the main differences between the Chinese diet and the Western diet is that the entire animal is considered edible. Whereas Americans stuff everything other than “choice” cuts into burgers, sausages, and McNuggets, the Chinese proudly consume the head, claws, organs, and other miscellaneous parts of animals as delicacies. This is not because they’re poorer – the head and feet are the most expensive parts of the animal. Neither do they restrict themselves to a few “blessed” animals – the entire animal kingdom is on the menu.

The difference is that of the food elitist versus that of the food connoisseur. The elitist believes that only a narrow socially accepted list of foods is good enough for him. The connoisseur is an explorer, who uses his palate as the universe-expanding sensory organ it was meant to be.  The elitist lives within the small dietary-social circle he was born into. The connoisseur traverses the biological and cultural realms.

The approach I now take to eating new things now is exploratory one. Instead of responding with “like” or “dislike” I try to understand the flavor components and texture of food. I appreciate meals from many perspectives – sensory, anatomical, social, and historical, to fully integrate it with my worldview.

Note: I have found that  adopting a Paleo diet enhances flavor discrimination. For example, a carrot is actually quite sweet and delicious to eat raw, but a typical carb-addict wouldn’t know it.

None of this is to claim attitude alone will make everything taste good. Meals must be prepared skillfully to taste good. The notion I want to dispel is that taste is either genetic or set by undecipherable psychological factors we cannot affect. Human culture has a rich history of many culinary traditions and we ought to learn to appreciate them without emotional baggage or provincial bias.

wot

The Bill of Rights versus the "War on Terror"

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The purpose of the Bill of Rights is to make a fundamental and clear statement about the rights of man. They are fundamental because all Congressional acts are subservient to them and clear because, unlike the complex legal code, the basic rights were intended to be known by all.

Having lived through war, the Founders recognized that during war, it is necessary to suspend the normal function of law, as “law” is a concept that is only possible in civil society. But they also recognized the danger of allowing any exception that would lead to the violation of rights. So, they provided strict limits: the President is the Commander in Chief, but he may only act with the consent of Congress, and that consent expires after two years. Furthermore, Congress has the power to issue letters of Marque and Reprisal, which authorizes specific individuals to attack specific groups and bring them to admiralty courts. In both cases, enemies were to be explicitly identified by Congress and enjoyed the protection of the rules of war.

We may argue about how practical these principles are and how earnestly they were followed from the start, but it is worth considering how they are routinely violated in the so-called “war on terror” going on today:

There is no war: “Terror” is an emotion, not a group of people. Therefore, no actual “war” and no actual “victory” (which requires clearly identified parties) is possible. This makes a congressional declaration of war impossible.  While Congress makes occasional statements in support of the executive office, they are Constitutionally meaningless.

There is no enemy: The Constitution provides for Letters of Marque and Reprisal in cases where a war is not possible or desirable. But there is no enemy in the “war on terror.” “Al Qaeda” is a quasi-mythical entity which has more existence as an entity in the minds of those who hate/fear and/or admire it than as a physical organization of material command and support. Most of its “followers” are non-violent. Many more advocate violence (not admirable but not an act of war) than practice it. Many of those killed as “terrorists” have only some vague emotional bond with its ideology, others none at all. Certainly there is no physical network in which all such persons can be proven to be involved.

Killings are extra-judicial:

 

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NSF

On government-funded science

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When tax dollars rather than private investment directs research, political ideology by scientific amateurs (politicians) determines which direction the research heads. The inevitable result is that political connections determines who gets research funds, while the unpopular and risky yet more ultimately world-changing prospects are ignored.

For example, AIDS kills very few Americans versus heart disease or cancer, yet gets significantly higher research funds than the two major killers. The majority of government research funds is directed toward better ways to kill (via the Defense Dept) and heal (via the NIH) people. Yet the government-funded research is good at neither, since breakthroughs consistently come from private search, which composes over 60% of science funding in the developed world.

What standard are politicians supposed to use to decide which scientific and medical projects show the most promise? Popularity is not a suitable standard, since popular scientists are the champions of the big discoveries of the past, not the future. Unfortunately, when your one’s own investment money is not at stake, the only remaining standard to guide research dollars is political pull, which is exactly what happens with government-funded science.

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democracy

On "Special Interests"

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It is truism today that “special interests” are to blame for economic problems and corruption. But “special interests” are only a symptom, not the cause of the disease.

In a populist democracy with a mixed economy, every group that participates in the political system is a “special interest”, with the incentive and the power to use the political system to extract benefits for its members at the at the expense of everyone else. Corporations, unions, disease-awareness organizations, “minority” groups, and anyone who organizes around a common cause has the power believes that their fate or cause is more legitimate, important, and “special” than that of everyone else.

The welfare and regulatory systems are the primary means to coercively redistribute property and confer monopoly benefits to various groups. In a mixed economy, everyone is constantly on the defensive against organized groups extracting benefits from him, and on the offensive attempting to use the coercive power of the state to extract benefits from others. Interventionism creates a vicious cycle hardly unique to corporations: first a lobby tries to extract special privileges from some politically neutral group, the group hires lobbyists to defend itself, and ends up using the influence it has gained to extract privileges at the expense of another neutral group, which must defend itself in turn.

The existence of “special interests” is just a symptom of the disease: the growth of government power to a degree that allows those in power to violate our rights and steal our property for the benefits of their constituents. Populist “maverick” politicians who claim that they will “fight special interests” and “change the culture in Washington” are just attempting to subvert the power of the state to favor their particular constituency. Campaign finance regulations are just monopoly privileges created by the political élite to hide corruption from the public and make it more difficult for those without political connections and money to get elected and in order to defend themselves or join in the looting.

The only solution to the problems caused by interventionism is to end interventionism – to separate government and economy. Take away the power of the government, and you will remove both the incentive and the power of the “special interests.” As long as governments try to control people and businesses with laws that go beyond the protection of property rights, the “special interests” will have the incentive to control governments.

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220px-UsuryDurer

On Usury

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Charging interest is essential to guiding the investment process, which cannot be sustained by charity even it were forthcoming due to the economic calculation problem. (In other words, interest rates are required to direct investments to their most productive use.) Interest-driven investment is essential to economic growth, and therefore to the very existence of industrial civilization. If charging interest were outlawed, industrial societies would quickly collapse due to the inability to efficiently allocate savings.

Loan-sharking (charging high interest rates backed up by the threat of violence) reflects the fact that the loans are being given to creditors with a high risk of default. The need for violence is due to the failure of governments to see this fact, or to adequately enforce the loan contracts (such as with overly lax bankruptcy laws), rather than any immorality inherent in moneylenders. There is no such thing as a single “just” interest rate because interest rates in a free market move towards an equilibrium determined by the time-preferences of individual debtors and lenders.

See Also

pollution

On Environmental Pollution

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Pollution is a byproduct of production, which is a byproduct of civilization. Life without civilization would to the death of the vast majority people on earth, and life without production means certain death for all men. The proper balance between death from lack of production and death from excess pollution should be determined by an objective judicial process which conclusively proves cause and effect.

If a court can make a definitive causal connection between an injured party and a party responsible for a pollutant, it should demand compensation of harms. If it cannot find a responsible party guilty, but punishes an innocent party, it punishes man for his nature as a productive, industrial being and thus makes human life impossible.

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