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Follow the Orange Blob Road

12 Jul

When we were in D.C. a couple of months ago, my boyfriend and I spent a lovely afternoon wandering aimlessly. But then we wanted dinner. And so we pulled out our phones, opened Google Maps and looked for the orange blobs.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Take a peek at this map. The orange blobs are how Google designates commercial corridors with restaurants and stores. I don’t know exactly how their algorithm works, but seems like the blobs call out the most densely commercial parts of a specific neighborhood. In this screenshot of northern San Francisco, the the big orange block around stretching east from Fillmore Street marks the commercial heart of a neighborhood called Cow Hollow. That’s where you’ll find the most restaurants and shops (and an absurd number of salons, too). Meanwhile, the blob over on Columbus marks the commercial heart of North Beach.

Orange blobs

In Google Mapland, orange blobs seem to be shorthand for “there’s something worth investigating over here.” As a tourist, the blobs are pretty helpful: they steer you to areas where you’re likely to find what somewhere to eat, shop, relax, etc. The blobs are practical.

But could those blobs also lead us astray? See that stretch of orange that’s south of the “Union Street” marker, toward the middle of my screenshot? That’s Polk Street, the main commercial corridor of San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood. But there are also a lot of restaurants on Hyde, just a couple blocks over. Hyde has beautiful scenery, great local restaurants and oodles of SF charm. So why isn’t that block orange? Are people missing out on Hyde Street’s wonders, just because their map doesn’t call it out?

And check out where Polk Street meets Pacific. There are businesses on those blocks, so I wonder why they’re not “important” enough to warrant the orange treatment. Does that mean those businesses are less valuable for some reason? Will those businesses get less traffic over time since they’re not marked on the map? And why did that one taco joint get a label? This is literally just a map of the area…I hadn’t searched for tacos!

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These kinds of tools are incredibly helpful as we navigate the world around us. But they also give us a curated view of what “matters” in a neighborhood—and sometimes I wonder about the longterm cultural impact. In the longterm, will we limit our experiences to things called out on “top 10 lists,” marked on maps, etc.?

Think about it this way: if you only go to top-rated restaurants and only hit up the parts of town labeled on a map, you’re not actually optimizing for personal taste. You’re optimizing for convenience, easy decisions and probably some element of social cache. You could claim that technology is helping you find the best of the best…but how do you know? Maybe just a couple blocks from that orange blob, there’s a business you’d love if only you strolled by and gave it a chance.

But I Don’t Like That

11 Jun

Do you ever look at the personalized recommendations you get online and wonder where the algorithm went wrong? Maybe Netflix suggested movies you think you’d never watch, or Pandora suggested a playlist that feels totally off the rails. And you think to yourself: but I don’t like that kind of thing. Why would they suggest this?

Well…there’s usually a reason. But sometimes you can’t spot it. Websites and apps suggest content based on previous actions. Sometimes they mess up and use the wrong signals to assume interest. Maybe you watched Bring It On to wax nostalgic with a junior high friend, but don’t actually want to see other movies from that time period or genre.

But what if sometimes you’re the one who’s wrong?

I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Tom Vanderbilt called You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice. Vanderbilt sets out to explain how we develop our tastes, how psychology affects preference and how the modern age of never-ending-content and recommendation engines could change all of that. He cites an impressively broad mix of experts, from developers to academic researchers to philosophers.

One of the core claims is that we know less about our tastes than we think we do. We want to believe there’s logic to what we like, but can’t truly explain all of our preferences. That’s because too many factors play into our choices, from social norms to preconceived biases to generalizations. For example: maybe you love Justin Bieber, but you’d never say so in public because you think people might judge you. Or maybe you hate opera but pretend to like it, because you think that makes you sound cultured.

Turns out, we sort of stink at describing why we like what we like. But data is the great revealer. Companies like Spotify and Netflix know what you actually like based on your consumption patterns. You may say you love foreign films, but you’ve only watched one in the last five years. Meanwhile, you swear you hate chick flicks, but watch five a week. You can say whatever you want to your friends…but Netflix knows what’s up.

Sometimes, you’re explicitly trying to save face or establish expertise. But sometimes you don’t even realize the gap between what you say you like, and what you actually like. Sophisticated data programs can spot patterns we can’t discern on our own. Netflix has a classifications system that’s way more granular than typical genres, finding detailed connections between the types of things you tend to watch, and what you might want to see next. So even if you don’t always spot a connection between what you think you like, and what they recommend—it’s probably there. Try listening to one of Spotify’s curated playlists without looking at the screen. You’ll find you like songs that fall into genres you think you hate, and you hate songs that fall into genres you think you like. You’re actually more likely to find content that suits your tastes when you ignore the labels.

Vanderbilt’s book was on my mind as I read this article about Pippa Middleton’s wedding. I almost didn’t click, because the headline talked about her wedding dress—and I didn’t think I cared. But then I figured, why not? Dresses are pretty and it’s fun to learn about them. Clicccck.

I’m glad I took the bait, because the article was more commentary than couture. It talked about how the NYT decided on its coverage for Pippa’s wedding. This paragraph made me laugh pretty hard:

NYTimes coverage

People dissed the NYT for their wedding coverage, those wedding articles actually performed really well. Of course, it’s possible there were different audiences clicking the wedding content and complaining about it. But that’s not very likely, given how media works these days. It’s just that people didn’t want to believe they were interested in wedding content. They wanted to believe they had higher class tastes than wedding fodder…even as they secretly clicked to learn more.

Creepy? Yes, of course. But also pretty helpful, in my opinion. Wouldn’t you rather have data help you find things you’ll like, rather than wading through things you hate?

Into the Memory Box

16 Apr

When I walked into my childhood bedroom a couple of months ago, I found a plastic box sitting on my desk. The box held a scattered assortment of things my mom had found around the house: souvenirs from family trips, commemorative pins, jewelry I used to wear as a kid.

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Many of the things in that box felt pleasantly relevant today. A bracelet from my first trip to Paris, when I fell in love with the city and the language. The baton necklace isn’t something I’d actually wear today, but I still proudly call myself a baton twirler—and even taught a baton class at work last week. The cable car necklace, a souvenir from a family trip to San Francisco, is even more special now that I’ve lived in SF for 5 years.

But then we get to the gold necklace on the left, the one that looks like half a heart. That’s part of a classic friendship necklace, the kind that’s broken in two to symbolize everlasting friendship. Except…I have no idea who had the other half.

There’s something funny about that. At some point in time, I considered someone important enough to split a friendship necklace with them, declaring our everlasting friendship. And yet here we are, probably 20 years later, and I haven’t a clue who had the other half.

To be fair, those things weren’t exclusive relationships. I split friendship necklaces and bracelets with many people over the years…often at the same time. This necklace wasn’t like a written decree to ONLY be best friends with that one person, despite what “best” technically implies. I had several “best” friends, some “bester than others.” Even as a (word obsessed) kid, I found the fact that you could have more than 1 “best” friend a tad confusing. But I called lots of people my best friend back then.

So back to our mystery: who had the other half? My life swirled around over the years from school to school, hobby to hobby. I can think of many candidates for the other half, but nothing’s confirmed. Odds are that I’m not close to that person anymore, since my world changed so much over the years, and mostly shifted away from people I knew as a kid.

When I was really young, I accepted that friendships broke, and you moved on. You switched classes or changed levels at ballet or moved, and that’s just how things went. But as I got older, I resisted the idea of friendships that end. These days, I’m terrible at letting go of friendships. I hate the fact that someone who mattered so incredibly much to you at one point in life, could matter very little later on. It hurts to think about people who defined certain years of my memories, but no longer pop up in my world today. It pains me when someone drifts away, and I feel so incredibly bad when I’m the one who drifts away, too.  I want to keep all the people I like close, in my life, as much as I can.

But that’s just not how life works. I’ve gotten a little better over the years at accepting this truth about friendship: not all friendships last forever. The right people will stay in your life, and both sides have to put in effort and energy and care for that to happen. You have to invest in the relationships that mean the most and work the best. And you have to accept that sometimes, you’re just not someone else’s “friend priority” when they do their own round of investing and working and prioritizing.

I still treasure memories of people who meant something in the past, even if they’re not around now. I’m grateful for whoever had the other half of this necklace, because even if I can’t place who it is, I know they must have been important to me at a particular time in my life. I’m grateful that back then, they meant enough to me for us to declare ourselves BFFs, believing we’d be there for each other through thick and thin. Even if that didn’t last, maybe the true purpose of the necklace was the support it gave us at the time. Sometimes you just don’t end up BFFs, despite buying jewelry about it. Still, it’s nice to know that at some point, I felt so strongly about someone being meaningful that we should wear symbols of that friendship. And it’s nice to know that when I was young and needed that friendship, someone was there for me to wear the matching half.

It’s Ok to Quit

5 Mar

I’ve wanted to learn how to knit since I was in high school. A friend started to teach me our senior year, but we never made it past the first few steps. For years, knitting was a “someday” hobby. Someday I’d learn, when I had the time, and when I had the chance. I held onto my needles and yarn and partially knitted scarf, planning to finish it whenever I could.

I got my chance this January, after years of anticipation. A friend invited me to join her knitting class, and I jumped on the class. I showed up to the first class so excited to finally learn how to finish that scarf.

And then, after all that time: I din’t like it! I enjoyed creating something, and that my effort produced something tangible right in my hands. But I didn’t like the process. I didn’t get sucked in and lose track of time. I didn’t find it relaxing. Practicing felt like a chore, rather than a hobby I’d choose to do for fun.

So, I quit.To be fair, I quit earlier than I would have liked. I had to miss class 3, which made class 4 pointless. But regardless, I just knew I wasn’t going to keep it up. Some might say I gave up too soon,  or that I’d like it more once I got the hang of it. But you know what? I simply didn’t like it. And that’s ok.

We don’t have to like everything we try. We don’t have to be good at everything we try. It’s 100% normal, in fact, to dislike some of the things we try, and to be bad at them. I think it’s human nature to want to excel at everything, to be a person of many talents. And it’s also human nature to beat yourself up a bit when you’re not good at something or don’t enjoy it. But sometimes, hobbies aren’t a good fit for your skills or your needs, and then it’s time to move on. There are too many amazing things this world to spend time on hobbies you don’t like.

It seems like it should be a letdown that after all these years, I don’t even like the hobby I’d been dreaming about. In reality, it felt like a tidy ending to a longtime dream. Telling myself that it’s ok to dislike something and it’s ok to quit actually felt really good. It was a nice reminder to focus my time and energy on the things I really like, rather than trying to make every little thing work.

Of course, the urge to try new hobbies won’t end here. I have plenty of hobbies already, from writing this blog to baking my way through every recipe possible. Still, there’s something so enticing about trying something new and entering a whole new world of possibilities. I doubt I’ll ever get sick of trying new things–just don’t expect me to like all of them!

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Don’t Walk and Eat

27 Nov

When I was in Japan a couple months ago, most mornings started at a local bakery. Every morning we’d stop by a different place to pick up pastries and coffee to fuel our day’s adventures. Naturally, we got more than 1 pastry a day: after all, we wanted to try as many local specialties as we could. From melon buns to red bean rolls to taro danishes, we nibbled our way through a whole new realm of baked goods.

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That green pastry is a melon roll, and it was divine.

Japanese neighborhood bakeries are “self-service,” with pastries laid out buffet-style. You walk around with tongs and a tray to pick your bounty, then an employee rings you up. You can opt to dine-in, or take away. We always opted for takeaway since we had a jam-packed itinerary and wanted to jump right into sightseeing.

But, our desire to hustle created a bit of a cultural conundrum. See, on Day 2, our chosen bakery laid down some rules for us. They had this sign posted right by the tongs and trays, specifically to school hurried tourists like us.

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We giggled at first. After all, it felt a bit silly that the bakery was trying to monitor how we’d consume their baked goods. So they didn’t want us to stand directly in front of their door? Well, ok, I guess that could look tacky to passerby. But why did they care if we ate while walking? How would that impact the bakery at all?

We assumed the sign was trying to steer us away from cultural gaffes. While eating and walking is a popular combo in the grand ‘ol USA, that’s not the case worldwide. When I studied abroad in France, my professor gave us a long list of tips to “blend in.” One tip was exactly what this sign forbade: don’t eat and walk. She was so right! I rarely saw locals eating and walking when I was in France, or when I studied in Spain later on.

So that does that make Americans heathens? Or are we simply different? Who’s to say which way is “right” and which way is “wrong?” When we’re abroad, is it automatically disrespectful to do what we do at home? And on top of all that: is it this bakery’s business to tell us how to act?

I like to think that the bakery was simply looking out for us, like my French professor, and counseling us on how to blend in (or, really, how to stand out less). It’s not like we were about to get ticketed for eating pastries in the streets. But, they were guiding us to act like locals do, perhaps to save us embarrassment, perhaps to save the locals disdain. We did notice that the streets were impeccable in Kyoto, and could imagine the bakery wanting to inspire respect for their beautiful public space.

It’s so hard to respect local customs when you travel, because you can’t know all the rules off the top of your head. Without context, this sign just sounds a tad judgmental. But there are so many little things about cultures that vary around the world. It’s so easy to offend someone simply because you don’t have the right context. And in that sense, I think this bakery was just trying to help us get by.

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Another morning find. This store didn’t lecture us about how to eat, but maybe they just never thought to do it 🙂

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Inside a high-end grocery store.

Much Ado About Toast

20 Nov

Midway through a recent flight, my seatmate turned and asked where I live. When I answered that I live in San Francisco, she started on a rant about SF’s fixation with high-end toast. Turns out: my seatmate makes her own bread, her own preserves, etc. So my usual “pricey toast is ok because you wouldn’t really make this kind of toast at home” argument didn’t work. Instead, she proposed that everyone should produce their own food. But that perspective doesn’t take into account the realities of how most people eat. Most people aren’t milling their own grains or making their own jams. They’re buying what’s easy to find, affordable to purchase and simple to use.

This is such an interesting time in American food culture. Still, we’ve seen some big shifts in mainstream food over the past few years. You can see which trends are going mainstream by looking at grocery store shelves. What you see at places like Target or Safeway reflects what most Americans have access to. Even the largest food companies are putting out products that emphasize “fewer negatives” or “more benefits.” That shift toward “better for you” products is a pretty significant change to the way people eat every single day.

Remember when Marilyn Hagerty made internet waves with her review of Olive Garden? Lots of people laughed at her review of such an “everyday place.” But couldn’t one argue that everyday meals are the most important? They may not provide our most treasured memories, but they do make up the bulk of what we eat. I love to follow food trends and read about new restaurants, but I think it’s equally important to understand what’s happening in mainstream food culture. America’s food culture is largely defined by what goes onto people’s dining room tables, and not just what happens on chef challenge shows.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, try planning a week of meals with products you wouldn’t typically buy. More expensive, less expensive, healthier, less healthy–makes no matter. Sometimes it’s just good to shake up your frame of reference and try to imagine a different day-to-day life. Try to imagine the everyday meals of someone not like you. What would they eat? What would their priorities be? What could you learn from them?

What’s Spaghetti?

30 Oct

I got into a debate about spaghetti the other day.

You might assume I got into a debate about the right type of herbs for the sauce, or how long to cook the noodles. But no: I got into a debate about spaghetti itself. What it even is, at its most basic level.

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From Kawaling Pinoy

It started with a dish called Filipino Spaghetti. This dish includes hot dogs and banana ketchup, adding up to a sort of sweet, sort of savory dish. I’d never had it before, and quite liked it. But then, my dining companion and I got to talking about spaghetti. He wasn’t a fan of Filipino Spaghetti, and said he prefers “Italian spaghetti” with a richer tomato sauce and savory herbs. Which is totally fine: to each their own. Still, we started wondering what makes spaghetti, well, spaghetti. Is it about the shape of the noodle ? The way it’s served? Who makes it?

Technically, “spaghetti” refers to a type of noodle. But when we hear the phrase “spaghetti,” we have specific associations of what that dish should look like. Same goes for most foods, really. What guacamole should be, what fried rice should look like, what ketchup should taste like. These ideas come from our individual food histories: what we’ve experienced so far and what we believe to be true about different foods. Coming up with a standard definition really isn’t that simple, though. There may be traditional ways to prepare foods, but who’s to say what the “right” way is, especially when variations persist across cultures? Where’s the line between “authentic” and “variation” and “reinterpretation?”

Defining dishes has been a hot topic lately because of chefs’ new takes on traditional foods. Recently I saw a discussion about paella that was altered so much, Spaniards didn’t think it should be called “paella.” I also saw a conversation about tacos that shouldn’t be called tacos, since their fillings were so non-traditional. I’ve seen people declare certain dishes a “mockery” of regional cuisine because of ingredient tweaks or technique changes.

When does something become a mockery, rather than a twist on a classic? Where is that line between “creative interpretation” and “offensive bastardization?”

Honestly, it’s sort of hard to tell. Something like Filipino Spaghetti is, in fact, authentic to a specific culture. It is an adaptation that happened over time due to local contexts and local ingredients. This is true with most foods we eat today: few look like the original dish that our ancestors would have consumed centuries ago. Earlier this year, I read a fantastic book called “The Language of Food,” which digs into the linguistic roots of popular dishes to explain how those dishes evolved over time. Most things we eat today morphed over centuries of human migration, crop changes and cultural nuances. Did you know the origins of ketchup are a fish sauce created in 17th century China? That ketchup looked and tasted nothing like our ketchup today. If a restaurant served you that take on ketchup, would you protest it wasn’t ketchup? Or should we rename our beloved tomato sauce something else, instead?

In my opinion, Filipino Spaghetti is equally spaghetti-like to something smothered in marinara. But what about when it comes to more liberal takes on traditional dishes?

And that’s where it starts to get murky. There is a difference between creativity, and disrespect. I often think that switching around ingredients shows creativity, not insult.  I’ll gladly eat your Korean BBQ tacos and your butternut squash paella. But I do think there is a line to watch about respect, about mocking an authentic dish, about claiming authenticity. Which brings us back to the original question: when is paella not paella? Is it about some proportion of ingredients that got swapped out? Is it about who makes it?

Personally, I am satisfied with someone modifying the name of a dish to express that it’s been altered. “Butternut squash paella” or “soppressata kugel” are just fine by me. But I hope that chefs always respect the origins of the cuisine they’re adapting, and that they call it an adaptation rather than trying to claim authenticity or superiority. What ruffles my personal feathers is when chefs get snobby about how they’re “improving” a dish by using different ingredients or techniques–implying that the original dish was not sufficient on its own.

It’s a gray area, to be sure, because lots of people do get offended when they see their traditional dishes “re-interpreted.” But given how much food changes over time, I think respectful creativity is a delicious addition to our menus.

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