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Arguing About Tastes

Before I talk about tastes, I want to present two scenarios that I think are very similar which others don’t notice.

1. Rightish/conservative types criticize the idea of cultural appropriation as stupid, unfair, and a regressive concept. What’s wrong with a white guy opening a Thai restaurant?

2. The same rightish/conservative types love to shit on “hipsters” as posers, wanna-bes; characterize “hipsters” as people that just put on music/looks to be cool without really understanding the history. It sounds a lot like cultural appropriation… If one is confused by my portrayal. Sit down calmly and try to explicate why you or others hate hipsters. Be honest. I don’t think it’s very different than how I portray it.

There are many aspects to taste. One of the central issues is reference points. Elites, critics, educators, and others implicitly argue that if people had different reference points they would appreciate elite tastes more. Let me unpack this idea with a story.

When I first met my wife Robin, we would eat at various Chinese/Vietnamese restaurants that she liked. I thought the food at these places was pretty awful. In my reference point formulation, Robin had a very low/basic reference point in regards to Chinese food. She consumed a very narrow subset of Chinese food. My claim is that if she were to eat Chinese food every day with other Chinese people and was exposed to the depth or broadness of the cuisine; her reference point would move, and she would feel the same way as I initially did. Without much overt coaxing, this is what played out in our lives. Robin’s taste in Chinese food is pretty close to mine. A lot of arguing about taste is, “If you only had as much experience and knowledge as me, then you would be closer to my position”

Obviously, this isn’t always true (preferences still matter) and it’s truer in some domains than others. I would say… people are generally more open to food than to different types of music for example. Music preferences seem majorly determined during youth (I have a story for this); music is more tribal and less open as a taste category. Anyways, a lot of food arguments are basically about reference points. I tell people that Americans have extremely bad taste and what I mean is that they have relatively low reference points compared to other people in the world. This may be news to many Americans, but go to any European country and ask them what they think of American food. Most educated Asians have similar condescending attitudes.

Now, in this reference point argument… there are some people who are more right than others. It is true that everyone self-deceives and would think that if people just understood their tastes like they did with their experience; then we would move to their position. Still, some people are more right… With regards to Chinese food in particular, I have many data points from my own life that indicate I am correct; I and other Chinese people have the superior reference point. People generally move in our direction; we don’t move in their direction with experience. In music… I claim higher reference points will not shift opinions that much on Classical/Jazz, but will shift rap or electronic music preferences.

A deeper point I would like to make though is… people generally think preferences are more fixed than they are. People are also too certain/too sure of their own position in tastes; food is an area where higher reference points will generally change people’s attitudes/behavior.

If you buy my reference point framework… let’s evaluate the two scenarios I first presented: cultural appropriation vs. hatred of hipsters

I will concede that there is some underlying truth to both propositions. I am automatically skeptical when a white guy opens a Vietnamese restaurant. I don’t care if he does do it… but my natural inclination is that it won’t be very good. Again, I could be wrong. My stereotype is that I have a high reference point, he has a low reference point. And most leftists that use the cultural appropriation argument are generally higher reference point types; they are open and know more about cultural things. They find it offensive that someone would just put something on without much respect/knowledge. This may be wrongheaded on some level.

On the other hand, let’s look at rightish types’ arguments against hipsters and actually a lot of what they think about art, music, movies, food, etc. Rightish types are low reference point people in all of those domains…

Some people are more right than others.

Here is some scattered anecdotal stuff, the biggest difference between left/right people in the five factor model of personality is in openness. Leftish types are much more open than rightish types. If you look into the subdivisions of openness and where the biggest differences lie; they are need for structure and need for cognitive closure. Leftists score low on those measures. Right leaning people generally hate abstract art and complex art (there are studies on this). Extrapolate to other complex and ambiguous fields.

In the stereotype accuracy literature; minorities’ stereotypes of majority groups are more accurate than majority groups’ stereotypes of minorities. The majority group will have accurate stereotypes of the minority group, but they tend to be more extreme. Pretty obvious, but minority groups tend to know a lot about the majority group whereas the opposite is not true. Don’t think of white/black; think of white/Vietnamese. One group knows almost nothing about the other on average.

Does being authentic often imply you are a conformist?

I had a thought today about the relationship between “authenticity” and conformity.

First of all, there are many margins of “authenticity”; generally I think the standard view is that the poorer you are/more hardships you face = the more authentic you are and also that the more truthful/honest (inability to be affected by others) you are the more authentic you are. Another margin is that your authenticity is decided largely by your experience as a youth. Jay-z is authentic because he’s from Marcy projects; even though he’s been one of the richest media moguls since his early 20s. A person who is say the son of a wealthy industrialist, but fell on hard times is still defined by his experience as a spoiled teenager. In other words, he can’t truly relate to someone who grew up poor.

So those thoughts are kind of a primer. In music, the idea of wiggers and that white people who like rap music are posers has always really bothered me. This also applies to other groups like Asians. I grew up in the 90s when this idea was in full effect and it’s exemplified in a litany of movies, tv shows, and music videos. Think Jamie Kennedy. Implicit in the idea of wiggers is that white people should objectively like rock music first and foremost and that they would only like something like rap in a touristy semi-fake way. Rockism. In other words, you are white and you are supposed to like rock. That is your authentic self as a white person. I’m making this number up, but let’s say in the 90s you are that 5% of white persons that likes rap; society labels you a poser. You are pretending to like something you really don’t understand. Which led me to a thought that a big part of authenticity is what the average person in “your” group is supposed to like. You will be more authentic if you conform to what those in your group are supposed to like.

Here is a puzzle that I think makes my point clearer. I often find that it is inauthentic when people have very heavy accents. Unlike most, I think wow they are trying really hard to talk different. Yet, in society we often view those with the heaviest accents as the most authentic people from their group or area. Holding other things equal, those in the south with a heavier southern drawl are viewed as more authentic. People with a cockney accent are viewed as more authentic than someone without a cockney accent. Irish people with a heavy Irish accent are viewed as a more authentic Irish person. I view accents as kind of conforming the way you talk with what people in your area or tribe are supposed to talk like. People become more authentic by conforming to what is expected of them on a group level. Kind of disturbing. Maybe there is some human nature/genetics explanation for some speech patterns and that all Irish people talk a certain way, but I find that very hard to believe. When you visit a big multinational corporation in Ireland and a similar one in America; they basically speak the same robotic non accenty English (I’ve heard this referred to as Citibank English). Anyways, that’s my thought and I know there is more to authenticity than that. But, being authentic because you are acting how you are supposed to act is disturbing to me.

Depreciation,Nostalgia and Personal Freedom

I want to talk about this last Freakonomics podcast, about how Japanese homes are disposable.

It presented some crazy data I was unaware of… the insane depreciation rate in Japan for homes and also for cars and other goods…

“It turns out that half of all homes in Japan are demolished within 38 years — compared to 100 years in the U.S. There is virtually no market for pre-owned homes in Japan, and 60 percent of all homes were built after 1980. In Yoshida’s estimation, while land continues to hold value, physical homes become worthless within 30 years. Other studies have shown this to happen in as little as 15 years.”

Listening to the podcast made me go down a road of thinking about the concept of nostalgia…

“The economic incentives to build a house that will one day be resold don’t exist in Japan because of housing depreciation. And this means that a client is free to build a house according to their own personal preferences and their own idiosyncrasies.”

My thought after listening to the podcast is that…
Nostalgia in a sense is antithetical to “true” personal freedom. If you want to build anything you want or create anything you want; the idea that something in the past is very valuable will limit you in many ways. It’s kind of a tradeoff in that the more you value the classics or greats, the less innovative or original you yourself will be.

“The houses that are built today exceed the quality of just about any other country in the world, at least for timber buildings. And so there’s really no reason that they should drop in value and be demolished.”

The podcast goes on to give specific reasons for the high depreciation rate in Japan such as WWII and earthquakes, but I do not find those that plausible as that should not affect cars and other goods. Also, I’ve always advanced my idea that Asians are less nostalgic or less nature-worshippy than Europeans by the strange fact that the majority of super cities (population > 20 mil.) are in places like Asia or South America and I don’t think there are any in Europe and maybe one in the United States. So my inclination is that it is culture or a preference based explanation. The Japanese are really different. I know Japan has a higher depreciation rate than even other Asian countries, but I would guess that maybe Asians as a whole have a higher depreciation rate than others. When I think about it anecdotally; it seems right to me.

Buddhism: The Organized Religion for Atheists

I’ve been thinking about China lately and to me one of the most singular aspects of Chinese civilization compared with other developed civilizations is the relative unimportance of religion throughout its history. In fact, if you take the broad sweep of Chinese history the must influential system of belief is without a doubt Confucianism. There are some Westerners/history teachers who consider Confucianism a religion, but it seems a misrepresentation and a broad use of the term “religion”. I don’t have much new to say on this debate so I’ll just quote the wiki on Confucianism.

Confucianism is definitively non-theistic. Confucianism is humanistic, and does not involve a belief in the supernatural or in a personal god. On spirituality, Confucius said to Chi Lu, one of his students, that “You are not yet able to serve men, how can you serve spirits?” Attributes that are seen as religious—such as ancestor worship, ritual, and sacrifice—were advocated by Confucius as necessary for social harmony; however, these attributes can be traced to the traditional non-Confucian Chinese beliefs of Chinese folk religion, and are also practiced by Daoists and Chinese Buddhists. Scholars recognize that classification ultimately depends on how one defines religion. Using stricter definitions of religion, Confucianism has been described as a moral science or philosophy.

I think about the circumstances of pre-modern China which consisted of a mostly illiterate population, largely agrarian, extreme poverty, wanton violence, and a semi-Malthusian state of affairs with not much growth on the horizon. If societies must have organized religion because people are credulous, uneducated, and do truly live awful lives where even a story that it will all be better when you die gives solace then I argue Buddhism is a great choice. It is the best choice if most of the ruling class/educated are pretty much atheists already. My thesis is basically if you had a society full of atheists and they were forced to choose a religion for the rest of their people or “co-sign” then that religion would be something like Buddhism.

Some pros of Buddhism are its innate non-violence and a non-proselytizing nature. Perhaps sects of Buddhism have been adapted for semi-violent goals such as Shaolin Monks or Zen Buddhism by Samurai warriors. I must say I am ignorant of some Buddhist history, but I do not recall any war ever being fought because of Buddhism. I also do not recall any religions being persecuted by Buddhists for adhering to that religion (Religions were persecuted by “Buddhists”; use nuance here.). Also, when I think of Buddhism’s spread to other countries in East Asia; the story is always that someone from Japan visited China and brought Buddhism back. It’s never that Buddhist emissaries from China spread Buddhism to Korea. It also seems to me that Buddhism was relatively less influential in the politics of China than the Catholic Church was in Europe. Buddhism just does not hold as large or as important part of Chinese history as other religions did to their respective countries. To me this stems from the tenets of the religion. It is not really a religion about worshipping a god or about salvation/sin. It is more internal and is not concerned with others; perhaps libertarian in a sense. It is also very adaptable/amenable to other systems of thought such as Confucianism, folk religions, and even Christianity.

Now the reason why I say the Chinese rulers or people chose Buddhism is because of the many religions that have passed through China with very little impact. Almost all of the world’s large religions have passed through and none have taken hold the way Buddhism has (especially during the Yuan dynasty); maybe it’s just cultural. I’d like to think it’s because the Chinese people knew better. There have also been multiple folk religions in Chinese history; I would include Daoism in here, but these were smaller or local and have always taken a backseat to Buddhism. Now, it is true some parts of China are muslim and some parts would later become Christian (this is much later in Chinese history), but these were relatively small compared with Buddhism. And Buddhism had perhaps a first mover advantage (I find this a weak argument as Daoism predates Buddhism and Korea is a counterexample of Buddhism losing ground to Christianity/Catholicism). If there is such a thing as a marketplace of religion; I argue the Chinese people chose Buddhism.

When I was growing up with relatives that were in some sense Buddhist; I noticed that when they did all the ritualistic things like burning incense, praying, burning money, or going to temple it was drastically different than Americans. The main difference is that most of my relatives or other people I saw didn’t really believe in what they were doing. They did those things ritualistically, but they never believed that when they burned money for their relatives that actual money was going to go to them in the after life. At least not in the same way that a Christian actually believes that Jesus Christ was resurrected. When I talked to regular “Buddhists” I found that almost none of them really believed in the supernatural aspects of it. Perhaps it is similar to secular Jews. The most striking example of the Buddhists not really believing aspect to me is how I can’t think of a single child of these Buddhists being a Buddhist themselves. In America, in my personal experience I have barely met any Chinese/Japanese/Korean second-generation Buddhists if not zero (I think this is also true for a few other religions, Hinduism). When Buddhists leave China, their children are inevitably not Buddhist or at least just perform ritualistic things. I read a post online awhile back that I can’t find anymore, but it said that in America the majority of Buddhists are non-Asian and I think the percentage of Chinese Buddhists was shockingly low because of the following generations being almost entirely non-Buddhist.

So to sum it all up; the two systems of thought that dominated Chinese history were Confucianism and Buddhism and both lacked religious fervor. China seems like the place in the world where religion had the least impact of any society. Am I wrong?

If not, I’d like to give a high five to my Chinese ancestors; you were the only ones.

Various musings, mostly economics

Haven’t posted in awhile because of school plus kids. Just wanted to write down a few thoughts floating around in my head. I’m prefacing this post with the caveat that I’m a semi-amateur at economics so let me know where I’m wrong.

1. It’s always bothered me how conformist say Apple consumers tend to be or as I’m realizing currently, how libertarians can also be extremely conformist (especially on margins they deem unimportant like art/music/clothes/taking drugs/fun). I’ve also posted this on Twitter and Facebook; here’s my thought.

Groups who are non-conformist relative to the general population (Scientologists, skaters, “punks”, Apple consumers) or to what they consider out-groups have extremely high in-group conformity. And I think it’s almost a literal tradeoff. The more you think you are different from the average person (parents, middle America, etc.), the more you will conform unquestionably with those like-minded; maybe even more-so than the average person is a conformist on issues like football or crime. Now this is a general statement. There are definitely outliers, but I’m talking about the average non-conformist.

2. In economics classes it has always bothered me when we talk about utility functions and preferences. The classic examples are apples and oranges or something like guns and butter where a consumer prefers more of one good over the other and the consumer can rank these things. But, when I think about the real world and especially with my background of being Chinese-American from the SGV (feeling a bit like an alien would feel about American culture) it just strikes me how a huge majority of my preferences are not even preferences for most Americans. One thing to note is that I’m not really talking about how some people’s goods can be bads to other people (country music, ballet, horror movies, etc.)

I’m interested in how 50% of my preferences aren’t even known things to say someone in Kentucky. Now I know this can be handled with classical utility theory, but what I am trying to get at is… In real life the difference between people of different cultures isn’t that Americans prefer 6 bananas over 4 carrots, whereas Japanese prefer 5 carrots over 3 bananas; it’s that I prefer Wong Kar-Wai movies, Karaoke, and Hainan Chicken to someone else’s preference for Hockey, dirt-bike racing, and MMA. Many of people’s preferences aren’t even ranked or known by other people. In class when we talk about preferences though it’s always like this guy prefers more oranges than this other guy who prefers more apples. All I am saying is life isn’t really like that. I prefer things which aren’t even in other people’s utility functions and that is the norm.

3. Finally, it also bothers me when teachers talk about different types of non-monetary costs such as transaction costs, time costs, opportunity costs, etc. and fail to highlight the vast magnitudes of these things. When I hear professors talk about time costs/opportunity costs for example it might cost one person twenty percent more to do an activity because he makes more money and his time is more valuable. But, when I think of things in life these cost differences can be gargantuan.

What got me thinking about this; after high school I worked as tech support at EarthLink and dealt with people of varying skill levels. There are regular things in life for example setting up a twitter account, that would take my grandfather half a day to setup and more time to even understand. My grandfather could also pay someone say $50 to set it up for him and teach him how to use it whereas it would take me 5 minutes and no money. The same can be said for something like an oil change; a mechanic can do it for $5 in 10 minutes by himself whereas say someone else would have to wait an hour at Jiffy Lube and pay $50. A vast amount of things in life between people with different skills and different wages are like this. And it makes a huge difference in all those non-monetary costs; it is not a small 20% difference in many cases. The magnitudes are important and money doesn’t smooth all these things out.

4. I’ve been reading a history book on Taiwan, Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan, and thought this passage on P. 92 was interesting and about things I was unaware of.

“For most of their centuries of existence the triads have been seen primarily as Chinese nationalist organizations, usually dedicated to restoration of the Ming dynasty. Their criminal activities have often had a Robin Hood revolutionary flare. It is only in the last century that triads have become exclusively criminal gangs. Both Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek were triad members. Chiang, indeed, started his career as a hit man for the Green Gang, which controlled drug trafficking in Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s.”

The movie Shanghai Triad might have been referencing KMT and Chiang Kai-Shek. Also, eerily similar to Stalin and the original Bolsheviks.

Pop Culture Thoughts

Spoiler: I just watched the last Homeland and I really hope they are not going down the 24 route of blaming everything on some convoluted EWG (Evil White Guy) plot. If I know anything about writing tells; I would guess that Dar Adal or Senator Lockhart are behind the CIA terrorist bombing to reform the system or shock the populace into action. I hope I’m wrong.

I just listened to the new Sky Ferreira album and I like some songs, but it was kind of surprising how sugary pop it was. Some tracks I swear if I didn’t know that Sky Ferreira was indie I could imagine being told they were Katy Perry songs.

I read that terrible review from the Washington Post about the new Arcade Fire album. It sounded to me like when I hear jocks make fun of hipsters/artists and how pretentious they are; all the while not really understanding anything. Or when nerds boil down sports to some very technical aspects and miss the whole story or emotions. Anyways there were some lyrics for some of the songs on Reflektor that I really enjoyed and I thought had some contemplative truth to them. Excerpt from Here Comes the Night Time(about Haiti)…

Say, heaven’s a place
Yeah, heaven’s a place and they know where it is
Do you know where it is?
It’s behind the gate, they won’t let you in
When they hear the beat, coming from the street, they lock the door
If there’s no music up in heaven, then what’s it for?

Now the preachers they talk
If you’re looking for Hell, just try looking inside
Here comes the night time, the night time
Here comes the night time, the night time
Here comes the night time, the night time
Here comes the night time, the night time