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Swing and A Miss

August 24, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

How do algorithms know which options are right for you? They are purportedly a mathematical calculation based on personal tastes, previous preferences and your own interaction. I will use examples from Pandora and Netflix to express my meaning, but really, I could broaden this discussion to any number of entities. Also, I am using a very broad understanding of algorithms for this general discussion.

Recently, the song “Pachelbel Meets U2” popped onto my classical channel. Regardless of the song’s merits, however, I was immediately annoyed. I wanted this channel to be purely classical. For me, U2’s “With or Without You” came through so strongly that I could not focus on Pachelbel and it totally distracted me. I explain this only because it demonstrates taste’s incredible caprice. I like U2, I like Pachelbel, I like instrumentals of contemporary music, so, really, isn’t this just an example of me being picky? And I answer, yes! Of course, but isn’t that what taste is?! All I know is that I gave this song a thumbs down on my classical channel, for no really good reason. Sorry, Pandora, that was a swing and a miss.

My favorite category on Netflix is “Because You Watched.” This category bases suggestions off of something that you recently watched. These selections are not restricted to genre. In fact, they almost defy genre. Sometimes it links by actor, or comments by other viewers. And Netflix has nothing to lose with this process. The more content they recommend, the better for them. In fact, all of the companies that invest in complex algorithms have everything to gain. And consumers react by giving them data that they need to run the algorithms. If Pandora throws in instrumentals to my classical, and I vote thumbs-down, then Pandora responds with another selection. It also simultaneously removes this song (and perhaps some song group) from my category.

Broadly defined by Merriam-Webster, algorithms are a “procedure for solving a mathematical problem in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation.” Could that also be a definition of taste? There are many reasons that I might remove something from a playlist. Here are only a handful:

1] I don’t like the song

2] it doesn’t fit my current mood

3] I like it, but it is outside of the station’s intended purpose

4] I don’t like U2 and/or Pachelbel

5] I don’t like mixing genres

6] I don’t like remakes

7] I don’t like pianos or guitars

So, how does any mathematical equation break this nonsense down into bits of actionable information? How could an algorithm match infinite experience? Netflix and Pandora answer this by including other people’s recommendations. So, perhaps you gave a thumbs up to a movie that happened to be in the science fiction genre. Instead of recommending only sci-fi movies, Netflix will populate a handful of sci-fi and also some random films based on what other people liked. So, if another person liked the sci-fi movie you just watched, you will probably see a recommendation that has nothing to do with science fiction. And this seemingly random selection comes from other people’s tastes. Netflix, Pandora and others gain a lot by incorporating this feature. The more you interact, the more accurately they recommend, but also the more user-specific data they gain, which reinforces the whole system.

Does this type of system function differently than, say, radio in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when top Billboard hits drove the radio songs that we all heard? Radio offered choice mainly by genre: country, Spanish, pop, etc. Though they did compile data, it pales in comparison to the amount of data that is available by these new devices. Radio offered music and we listened or not. I never thought twice about how many times I heard the Eagles or Michael Jackson on the radio. But now, I wonder why my Pandora Spanish station continues to play songs by Latin artists in English. Why are the ads in English, whereas my friends’ ads are in Spanish? I wonder if my behavior prompts Pandora to believe that English is my first language.

As we invite these devices into our homes and lives, it is worth truly thinking about taste. (Per a previous post, taste according to Merriam-Webster is: “a] critical judgment, discernment, or appreciation b] manner or aesthetic quality indicative of such discernment or appreciation.”) Why does Pandora (or any service) recommend something to you specifically? What do they know about you and are they making the critical judgments for you? I do not ask this because I am worried about some cyber conspiracy (although I’m sure there is data to support that too). But rather, I am worried about how taste interacts with culture. How individualized is the Pandora community and does it in any way reflect community as we currently define it?

With constantly changing technology, I wonder if something is being mistakenly hidden, missed or suppressed. I go back to the idea that Pandora thinks my first language is English, though I have given no data to support this. The algorithm seems to be making critical judgments about me, not just my music.

To read more posts about about taste, try these.

Taste defined in art and music

Taste according to Gibbon and Brillat-Savarin

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How to Cook a Wolf

June 15, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“A wise man always eats well.” - Chinese proverb

MFK Fisher (a friend and contemporary of Julia Child) first published How to Cook a Wolf in 1942 in the midst of World War II. The book deals with domestic stresses during war time, especially those related to food rations. The essays deal with economic purchasing and energy savings, but also how to enjoy what little you have. Throughout the book, she talks about wisdom and joy and satisfaction. Each chapter is sprinkled with nostalgia, stories and recipes. The fascinating portion of this book, for me, is the way in which she writes about the interaction of food with taste, culture, habit, and perhaps, even love. Since times of war make it impossible to adhere to many of the structures of peace time, it is easy to abandon decency. For Fisher, the temptation to give up is strong, something she refers to as the “wolf” at the door. Instead of giving into depression, despair and frustration, she asks that we cast aside the wolf by staring him straight in the eye and enjoy what we have. Food, she claims, is one of our greatest traditions and that simple fact should never be forgotten. In fact, she recalls reading recipes as if they were pieces of classical literature or oral traditions handed down with pride and artifice.

What follows are a number of quotes from Fisher’s book on the ways in which foods make us feel good, whole, satisfied or comforted. The book comes at a time following great sacrifice and sadness as a whole country. Fisher claims that even in times of war, “since we must eat to live, we might as well do it with both grace and gusto.” In other words, whether on a tight budget, a dietary constraint or simply making a family meal, choose the foods wisely and enjoy it well. She would ask that we take pride in what and how we eat. This simple action enables us to maintain a piece of humanity, even in times that cause such great divides.

She writes:

“Close your eyes to the headlines and your ears to the sirens and the threatenings of high explosives, and read instead the sweet nostalgic measures of these recipes, impossible yet fond.”

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“Yes, it is crazy, to sit savoring such impossibilities, while headlines yell at you and the wolf whuffs through the keyhole. Yet now and then it cannot harm you, thus to enjoy a short respite from reality. And if by chance you can indeed find some anchovies, or a thick slice of rare beef and some brandy, or a bowl of pink curled shrimps, you are doubly blessed, to possess in this troubled life both the capacity and the wherewithal to forget it for a time.”

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“Use as many fresh things as you can, always, and then trust to luck and your blackout cupboard and what you have decided, inside yourself, about the dignity of man.”

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She quotes Brillat-Savarin, who wrote, “The destiny of nations depends upon what and how they eat”.

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Fisher elaborates on Brillat-Savarin’s sentiment with an anecdote about Walter Scott. She writes:

“Once when young Walter Scott, who later wrote so many exciting books, was exceptionally hungry and said happily, ‘Oh, what a fine soup! Is it not a fine soup, dear Papa?,’ his father immediately poured a pint of cold water into what was already a pretty thin broth, if the usual family menu was any sample. Mr. Scott did it, he said, to drown the devil.

“For too many nice ordinary little Americans the devil has been drowned, so that all their lives afterwards they what is set before them, without thought, without comment, and, worst of all, without interest. The result is that our cuisine is often expensively repetitive: we eat what and how and when our parents ate, without thought of natural hungers.

“It is not enough to make a child hungry; if he is moderately healthy he will have all the requisites of a normal pig or puppy or plant-aphis, and will eat when he is allowed to, without thought. The important thing, to make him not a pig or puppy, nor even a delicate green insect, is to let him eat from the beginning with thought.

“Let him choose his foods, not what he likes as such, but for what goes with something else, in taste and in texture and in general gastronomic excitement. It is not wicked sensuality, as Walter Scott’s father would have thought, for a little boy to prefer buttered toast with spinach for supper and a cinnamon bun with milk for lunch. It is the beginning of a sensitive and thoughtful system of deliberate choice, which as he grows will grow too, so that increasingly he will be able to choose for himself and to weight values, not only sensual but spiritual.”

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