• In defense of sandwich photos

    I’ve seen a lot of internet arguments where someone referenced the xkcd comic below. It’s always rubbed me the wrong way, and one day I opened a blank file to articulate why, so now you get this close-reading.

    xkcd #915, in which a character argues that wine has no more depth than completely random
things

    [Note that this comic was written in 2011, long before Biden was president. If you’d like, you can substitute a mostly-inconsequential public figure of your choice.]

    Are the views expressed by second stick figure the same as Randall’s? I think it’s highly likely: the guy in the white hat is usually written to have bad opinions, and he expresses his point in the snobbiest possible way. Plus it would fit with this later comic). So for convenience, I’ll assume the comic’s thesis is that opinions on wine are mostly pointless.

    Before we proceed, I should make three things clear about my thoughts on taste:

    • While price and quality can be correlated in some regimes, equating the two is paranoid posturing at best and rank classism at worst.
    • Furthermore, quality is not objective, and different people can and should enjoy different things.
    • If you happen to be a nerd about something inconsequential, “how do you stand [inferior thing]” is generally the worst way to share it.

    Alright, with that out of the way, let’s move on:

    This comic is usually trotted out as an argument against thinking too carefully about the contents of your glass. It’s the “let people enjoy things” of food and drink. It promises to stand up to snobbery, but replaces it with smarm. So as someone who enjoys tasting new wines (and new coffees, and new beers, and new burgers), I should reject it, much like caring about negative reviews should compel people to reject “let people enjoy things”. Right?

    Well, here’s the thing: I think Randall’s point is basically valid. If I spent even a week staring at photos of Joe Biden eating a sandwich, of course I’d notice things about them and start to develop opinions. And the thought process I use to figure out why I like something is similar for wine, fonts, landscapes—anything subjective, really. It’s all just drawing boundaries in a large parameter space (though it’s a bit less true for art, which is made with the goal of communicating something).

    This leaves us at an impasse. Either we can admit that caring about details is pointless and stick to surface-level impressions, or we can twist ourselves into ad hoc rhetorical knots to justify why the things we care about are truly special and worthy of our evaluation. What should we choose?

    …The correct choice is to take a step back, and admit that arguing about Biden sandwich photos would be fucking awesome.

    Imagine if you had strong opinions on Joe Biden sandwich photos, and what’s more, that this were a normal thing in American society. Every week or two, a White House photographer posts a new sandwich frame, and the internet erupts with hot takes about the lighting, or the choice of mustard, or why everything’s been going downhill since the ciabatta era. You find a gem from the archives and text it to your friend, who agrees with your assessment and thanks you for the recommendation. You get to have an opinion on whether the Lettuce-Pattern Tie of ‘15 was clever or just gauche, and you occasionally attend dinner parties where people are interested in what that opinion is.

    The only difference between sandwich photos in this imagined world, and wine, beer, or coffee in our current one, is that the latter three are Schelling points. Being the only person to care about something is, let’s face it, kind of excruciating, so the natural choice is something which presents a low barrier to finding other opinionated people.

    Wait, is that why so many guys are obsessed with sports? I think I get it now.

    Coffee is a perfect example of this. Most American adults drink it every day, and while only a small minority ever become coffee nerds, “a small minority” of Americans is still millions of people. Any sufficiently large city has at least one coffee shop with a knowledgeable staff, and for the especially curious, every variable that goes into a cup is meticulously documented online. You’d have a hard time finding a better thing to nerd out about. Wine is similar, but with more cultural cachet—and hey, it gets you drunk!

    The internet has decreased the barrier somewhat, which is why we see so many niche fandoms popping up—if you want examples, scroll through /r/HobbyDrama.

    Fans of Paul Fussel might argue that strong opinions on inconsequential things are symptomatic of an upper-middle-class status anxiety which seeks to centers conversations around anything but ideas. This may be true for some, but if the your conversation isn’t jumping between beverages, politics, and god-knows-what-else, you’re clearly drinking with the wrong people.

    So yes, let people enjoy things. But encourage them to articulate why they enjoy things, or why they don’t. Listen to them. Argue with them. Experiencing another mind’s perspective on a subtle distinction might be the best feeling there is.

  • This blog is now live (for real)!

    I created this site a few years ago with the intent of starting a blog. Life got in the way (probably for the best, as the web is now spared the insufferable thoughts of me-as-an-undergrad), and three years later I’m going to try again.

    I promise to start posting for real before the end of the month, lest I fall into the trap of only blogging about why I don’t blog more. But for this post, I’ll limit myself to an introduction.

    Why am I doing this, anyway?

    We are gathered here today because:

    • Men would rather start a blog than go to therapy.
    • I’m an insufferable hipster and blogging is finally retro.
    • My opinions are too “real” for the rest of the internet, and goddammit, people need to hear them!

    Okay, maybe there isn’t a singular reason.

    What am I going to write about?

    Everything. That said, I expect most of my posts will be centered around:

    Book reviews

    A subset of books I’ve read in the past couple years, which I plan to review at some point:

    • Jane Jacobs – The Death and Life of Great American Cities
    • Thomas Kuhn – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
    • Carmen Maria Machado – Her Body and Other Parties

    Some books I’m currently reading, planning on reading, or planning on re-reading, and which I may or may not end up reviewing:

    • Susanna Clarke – Piranesi
    • Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky – Manufacturing Consent
    • Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire
    • Steven Weinberg – The Quantum Theory of Fields

    Physics

    My day job is as a physics PhD student, so naturally, I’ll spend some time writing about physics.

    I wouldn’t call this a “science outreach” blog, in that I’m not interested in discussing physics non-mathematically. Science writing, when you can’t use terms like “orthogonal” or “isomorphic” or “to leading order”, is an entirely different skill that I’m not very good at (plenty of other people are very good at it; go read Quanta). But when possible, I’ll try to keep things accessible to undergrads, technically minded non-physicists, and precocious high schoolers.

    If I had to point to a gold standard for the technical-but-still-conversational type of science writing I’d like to do, it would be these three posts by Scott Aaronson. When I write about science, it’ll be with the conscious goal of imitating his style.

    Programming

    I sometimes hack random projects together in my spare time. Several will be showcased here. Stay tuned.

    Politics & Philosophy

    I expect political posts will comprise a minority of my writing here, and rank punditry will comprise an even smaller minority of that.

    This is not because my political views aren’t important, or because I believe in being “civil” or “apolitical”. It’s because I rarely feel like I have anything to add. Although all writing is to some extent political, most overtly political writing is bad, and the handful who can do it well are more talented than I am.

    That said, if I think of a particularly sharp argument or a useful framing, I won’t hesitate to sound off.

    What else?

    Earlier, when I said there wasn’t a single reason for starting this blog, perhaps I was being more pithy than honest. If there is a reason, it’s the memory of a time before I used social media, before everything was about centralization and doomscrolling and reply guys, when the internet seemed to present boundless possibility, when it was a place that people could share things they loved…

    …and the vain hope that maybe it could be that way again.

    If you’ll permit me a further extension of this embarrassing measure of sincerity, then in the spirit of sharing things we love, I’d like to close with a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

    Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
    Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
    And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
    To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
    At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
    In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
    Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
    From dusty bondage into luminous air.
    O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
    When first the shaft into his vision shone
    Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
    Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
    Who, though once only and then but far away,
    Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

  • Hello, everyone!

    This blog is officially live! I started it to showcase various projects I’ve made, idle trains of thought, book reviews, and whatever else I decide to post here.