Thursday, February 28, 2013

Make demands of your intelligence

I was reading an article called "The Most Human Human" about a man who set out to win that award at the annual Loebner prize contest (which is a Turing test). I was struck by this passage:

One of my best friends was a barista in high school. Over the course of a day, she would make countless subtle adjustments to the espresso being made, to account for everything from the freshness of the beans to the temperature of the machine to the baronmetric pressure's effect on the steam volume, meanwhile manipulating the machine with an octopus's dexterity and bantering with all manner of customers on whatever topics came up. Then she went to college and landed her first "real" job: rigidly procedureal data entry. She thought back longingly to her barista days--when her job actually made demands of her intelligence.

It is interesting that many of what we as a society consider "real" jobs aren't intellectually stimulating in any way. Of course, many high-school jobs don't either (my high-school job at a grocery store certainly didn't, except being able to remember where stuff was in the store, which is actually a hindrance now since I expect every grocery store to have a similar organization and they most certainly don't). But there are many jobs that I think we're societally programmed to look down upon, barista would certainly qualify, that do require more humanity than many "good" white-collar, soul-crushing jobs.

I don't know much about baristas, but I think the comparison works pretty well for bartenders (I'm in bars a lot more often than I'm in cafes). Different kegs have different carbonation levels, and pouring a foamy one is different than pouring a flat one. I have a kegerator and lately have been getting Lagunitas kegs, which tend to be hilariously overcarbed. I was on my third keg before I figured out how to get a good pour consistently. And that's not factoring in style differences, which beers deserve a big fluffy head and which just want a ring of bubbles around the edge, and how to execute that given that particular keg's behavior.

Additionally, knowing how to match up what someone wants with what you have (at least in a good craft beer bar, this obviously doesn't work at a dive bar that has Bud Lite and PBR on tap) can be extremely complicated. I know a lot about beer and am pretty sure I would be terrible at that. And I'm sure that, having never done this professionally, there are many things I'm missing.

Anyway, just a line of thought that I found interesting, I don't really have any grander points.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why do you run?

I bike and take the train to work, and every day when I get off at my stop I see a woman run off the train and down the stairs. She's old, has to be in her fifties, possibly older. She's wearing a black leather jacket. She has really long, frazzled grey hair. Her shoes are not meant for running. And yet, she runs.

Well, running is being generous. It's more of a nervous, rapid walk. It's the kind of motion someone would make if they don't know how to run. Or, perhaps, if they feel that actually running, with the pumping of arms and swinging of legs, is unseemly given the circumstances. It's how you move when you're trying to beat that person with an overflowing cart to the register with no line (I mean, you only have 10 items and they are stocking up for five different apocalypses, you deserve to go first). Someone who moves this way has somewhere to be.

And yet, there are no connecting trains at my stop. There are some buses outside, sure, but these buses are in no hurry to be anywhere. They languidly laze about, never deigning to leave. No one can miss one of these buses. Where is there to run? I cannot see it.

Today she was on my car and disembarked before me. In her twitchy nervousness she was queued up at the door almost as soon as we left the previous station. I would be surprised if five people get off at this stop on a normal day, why line up so soon? The doors opened and she hurried to the escalator, hurried down the escalator (although not, it should be noted, as quickly as I do when there's no one in front of me, I am apparently in the 99th percentile of stair descending speed), and then hurried through the turnstiles.

I've seen this so many times before, but today I happened to glance back as I was riding away from the station to see the woman walking down the sidewalk. Walking. Perhaps she feels encumbered by the BART station, as though it were a weight bearing down on here, and she must be free of it. Perhaps she looked at her watch and realized "Oh, I'm not that late." Perhaps there is only so much hurrying a person can do in a short span.

I don't know why she runs. Maybe she doesn't either.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Rating, Beer, and Sports

I had a bit of a "Eureka!" moment this morning. I had SportsCenter on in the background while getting ready for work, and a segment about which college football teams were the most overrated/underrated. Those words, like "hype", have become something of a dogwhistle for me, indicating that the speaker doesn't understand what words mean. This is because, like "hype", 99% of the time someone uses them in the context of beer they're using them incorrectly.

But, of course, in this context it absolutely fine. The preseason rankings just came out. No one has played a game, but teams have already been ranked according to expectations (and hype!). So of course someone can be overrated or underrated. Saying "Oklahoma is overrated" means that their final ranking will be lower than their current ranking. Same with "Oregon is underrated", that's a prediction that they will finish higher than their current placement. (Those were the talking head's picks, not mine.) And, crucially, this will be tested on the field. These teams will have to play games in order to earn their spot. My alma mater's coach has apparently said (paraphrasing) that preseason polls should be printed on toilet paper, because then they'd have a use. And he's right! Without playing any games it's an exercise in masturbation, driven by humanity's bizarre need to talk about the unknowable future. So it's clear what over/underrated means in this context, that a team won't win/lose as many games as their ranking says they should, and thus won't be ranked as high/low at the end of the season. Pointless prognostication, yes, but at least there's a clear meaning.

Now, when you say that a beer is overrated, what are you saying? The only rankings beers have are the cumulative review statistics on the review sites. Can those be wrong in any sense? I can't envision the case for this happening. All those reviews purport to do is measure what the community at large thinks of a beer. That's not something that can actually be wrong. And the rankings don't purport to tell you who is more likely to win beer judging competitions or anything like that (although they'd actually probably do a decent job on aggregate). Calling Westvleteren 12 "overrated" isn't the same thing as calling Oklahoma "overrated". Oklahoma could lose to Baylor or Iowa State or Texas. Westy 12 isn't going to be upset by Mortification or Pannepot. That doesn't make any sense! And it's not a prediction that the aggregate rating is going to go down with time, because there's no clear mechanism by which that could happen, and no clear timeline on which to judge. (And it tends not to happen, ratings are actually pretty constant through time, at least when I've looked at them.)

So what does the speaker mean? The only plausible interpretation is "I like this beer less/more than its review average would indicate." The only response to which is, "Congrats! Go review it and then shut up about it." That your tastes don't line up with a community as a whole isn't unexpected, surprising, or meaningful. As with the ridiculous overuse of "hype" in the beer scene, the use of "overrated" is clearly just an attempt to demean something. I mean, saying "Westy 12 is overrated" is clearly an insult to it and the people who like it, while "I enjoyed Westy 12 less than the aggregate scores would indicate that I should have" isn't. But when someone says the former, they really mean the latter! That's the only possible thing you can mean. (Unless, of course, you're actually claiming that there's a conspiracy to drive the ratings of something higher, which can certainly happen but is rare enough to not be worth talking about, especially not without any kind of actual statistical evidence.)

Like "hype", I'd love to see this carry-over from sports cease to be used in beer discourse. Like "hype", I'm fully aware that won't happen. Oh well.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Hyping Hype

One of my crusades recently in online beer communities has been against the word "hype". I'll discuss my rationale below, but if you're the impatient, TL;DR type, I'll summarize here:

1) It's being used incorrectly (this is actually fairly minor).
2) Using it that way corrodes discussion and inhibits clear thinking (major).

I'll explain.

Prescriptivist Poppycock

First, let's start with a dictionary definition. I loathe doing this because I think that, in general, any literate adult should be able to tell you roughly what a word means, but we may as well go to the "authorities". My favorite method is to use the google search "define:foo" which leads to these results:


  1. Extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion.
  2. A hypodermic needle or injection.

  1. Promote or publicize (a product or idea) intensively, often exaggerating its importance or benefits.
  2. Stimulate or excite (someone): "I was hyped up because I wanted to do well".
Now, it's clear that the meanings we're dealing with are both of the #1's (although you could sort of make a case for verb #2, I don't think it really makes sense in pretty much any context, and really needs to be followed by "up"). And both of those explicitly mention "publicity" or "promotion", as well as "extravagant", "intensive", or "exaggerating". It is completely clear that "dudes talking about a beer on a beer website" aren't meeting this definition. Saying your opinion of something, even in hyperbolic terms ("that was the best beer ever!") isn't promoting/publicizing something intensively, let alone extravagantly. Maybe you're exaggerating (although if it's your honest opinion then you're obviously not, by definition everyone has had a "best beer ever" so stating yours is just stating an opinion), but unless you're doing this repeatedly (to meet "intensive") then it's not hype.

So what does meet this definition? Well, typically any publicity push by a company will at least get close. Bud Lite or Dos Equis are obviously hyped. Even in the craft beer world it does happen. One could accuse Shelton Brothers of hyping Westvleteren 12 in advance of their shipment of it to the US later this year (I think that's debatable, but regardless, it's a reasonable case). ONCEMADE was absolutely hyped. At the time of the launch I said that it was a fantastic example of hype in the craft beer world. It was a product that wasn't really all that different from dozens of other products that had a big marketing push (publicity/promotion) using over-the-top (exaggerated) language, and it showed up all over the place in a short time span (intensive).

I hope that illustrates why calling something like, say, Pliny the Elder/Younger or Heady Topper (or most other craft beers) "hyped" is using the word incorrectly. There's no intense publicity, no exaggeration, no extravagance. There are just beer fans enjoying a beer and  talking about it. You might disagree, and you're free to (taste is subjective, after all), but their expressed enjoyment of something is not hype, it is praise.

(This is a tangent, but I wanted to include it. While it's not in the definitions I think a very important part of thinking about hype is asking, "Who benefits?" If I go on Beer Advocate and make a post about how Pliny is the best beer ever, there's no way in which I benefit. First, pretty much everyone on BA already knows about Pliny, I'm not actually spreading the word to anyone new. Second, even if I were, what do I gain? It's an off-the-shelf beer, already very well known, it won't trade any better. I also won't gain financially. If anything increased awareness will just make it harder for me to buy! The same is true of most beers that people consider "hyped". Really, when you're talking about BA or /r/beer the posts that could be hyping are the ones talking about a great new local place with hard-to-get stuff (think Funky Buddha), but even then it's probably just genuine praise, not an attempt to inflate trade values (although it could also be homerism, that's beyond my scope right now). I think that's something valuable to keep in mind, "Who benefits?")

Damaged Discourse

This is my real problem with the overuse of the word "hype".  What do I mean by it? I don't mean that people are using a word incorrectly and the English language is suffering (if she has survived the sling and arrows of the recent past, she'll continue doing just fine). What I mean is that calling something "hyped" is an accusation. The word has clear negative connotations. When people use it they are implying that something is not as good as its reputation, that its reputation is fluffed up by the hype. It's also accusing the people who have praised it of either being taken in by the hype (and thus being unsavvy saps) or of actively fueling the hype, and thus being pawns (or worse, hypers).

Lest you think I'm being paranoid or overly sensitive here, I'm not. I don't actually give two shits if someone accuses me of hyping something. If they do, I'll explain why I'm not, but I'm not particularly insulted by it. This isn't a personal quest because I'm just a Sally-sensitive. Those effects are real and they are poisonous to sensible discourse. It means that people are forced to defend not only their opinion of the thing, but also their motives for holding that opinion. It removes the benefit of the doubt. This is bad. Maintaining the benefit of the doubt and assuming good intentions are critical to having a reasonable, respectful discourse, especially over text, where tone and visual cues are missing.

That's my biggest problem with the over-use of the word hype. It creates a situation where accusations are flying, people are put on the defensive, motives are constantly questioned, and communication degrades.

What To Do

So, what would I like to replace the word "hype" with? Most of the time you can sub in "praise" without any issues. One use of "hype" where that doesn't work is the "hype train" effect, where beer forums (especially trading forums) are inundated with discussion (usually ISO/FT posts or discussion thereof) of the new beer. This is corrosive in the same way, implying that the beer (and those trading it) are not worth the attention. Honestly, I think that this should just vanish from our discourse. Human beings like trends, everyone knows this, beer is no exception. That the forums are populated by posts about a flavor of the month for a few days every few weeks isn't surprising in the least, nor is it bad in any meaningful way. Even though I earlier used the word "inundated" these posts are rarely the majority of posts on a board. It might be a bit hard to ignore, but it's not like there's nothing else going on. I'd like to see people accept this, move on, and bury the phrase "hype train".

Where Does This Come From?

One thing that I'd still like to discuss is why this use of "hype" is so prevalent. My belief is that it comes from sports discussions. The difference there is that because of the enormous media presence, things really are frequently hyped. Tim Tebow is hyped. RG3 is hyped. As much as the Stanford fan in me hates to say this, as of now Andrew Luck is hyped. It's true that these guys generate discussion on forums in the same way beer does (although on a much bigger scale for sports), but the presence of media actively fueling the fire is what sets sports discussion apart. Hype sells for them in a way it just doesn't for craft beer. Hype gets eyes on ESPN, readers on the various news websites, listeners on the radio. Those things bring advertising dollars. The hype machine directly benefits the people doing the hyping.

Since there's a pretty large overlap between people who are into sports and people who are into beer, the language translates. The problem is that when you have a lot of people talking about a beer, you're not in the same situation as when you have a lot of people talking about an athlete. In the latter case the media is driving the discussion, and they're doing it to get your attention and therefore money. In the former case it's just a bunch of dudes who are passionate about something. But the fact that they're so superficially similar (ie "Everyone's talking about Tim Tebow" and "Everyone's talking about Heady Topper") makes the comparison easy. But it's also lazy, and it's wrong.

That's the end of my rant about hype.

Friday, July 27, 2012


One thing that Paul Krugman says rather frequently is that he isn't particularly smart, but that he has the right model (here's a recent example). I think that this is a useful way to metathink, that is, think about thinking. Having some model of how the world works and applying that to problems is extremely useful.

What made me think of this today was a post on the Beer Advocate forums (I'm not going to bother to link it) where someone stated that he wished a brewery would put electrical tape around the cap of their growlers, because he's had them go flat on him. (For the unfamiliar, a growler is a large, usually 1/2 gallon, container of beer. It's typically sealed either with a screw cap or with a flip-top with a rubber gasket.)

Why did this make me think of models? The main reason is that the only way you could think that electrical tape would help make a gas-tight seal is if you have some truly bizarre conception of how the world works. First, it's terrible tape in general and doesn't stick very well to even a smooth, flat, dry surface. Second, when it does stick it's not even close to gas-tight at any reasonable pressure. Third, growlers are irregalar and frequently wet, making it even more useless since it's impossible to actually get it to stick across the gas's escape path.

The best part, to me, is when people think that electrical tape can prevent a leak. How would this even work? When you tape it there's some room between the tape and the growler, and the air in there is at atmospheric pressure. A leak can still develop, even if you actually made a perfect seal with the tape (which you didn't). If the tape is perfect it will contain the leak and stop it from losing too much liquid, but by that point most of the damage has been done anyway.

I believe that this obviously terrible idea persists because people have bad models and fundamentally misunderstand the way the world works, or they see other people do it and just don't question it. And I think that you can use the model view of the world to understand why people think weirdly.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Who am I anyway?

If I were a normal, sane person I would have started with this. Anywho, it's been a while, and it's somewhat likely that whoever's managed to find this blog (that I haven't told anyone about, for some reason) doesn't actually know what I do any more. I'm assuming anyone still on the RSS remembers vaguely who I am.

Surprisingly, instead of a Stanford student I'm an alumnus. I graduated in 2009 with a degree in Physics. I halfheartedly applied to grad schools, thinking that that's what Physics students DO, but I didn't really want to go. (At some point Bob Laughlin asked me if I intended to go to grad school, and told me that I clearly didn't want to. It was weird, I didn't realize that yet, and he didn't really seem like he'd be that perceptive. I guess after some number of years doing this a person will pick up the types that won't do well...)

Well I didn't get in anywhere, probably because I spent about 0 effort on essays, studying for GREs, or any of it. I wasn't actually all that disappointed, because thinking about doing grad school, about being poor forever, and about having to leave the bay area made me realize it was stupid.

The thing was, this was April 2009. Employment prospects, even in the bay area, were not that great. I signed up to counsel for a summer camp I had done before, figuring it would give me time to find a job (plus it was lots of fun). I spent a lot of time scouring job sites, but the only positions for physicists were as quants, an area which had, shall we say, contracted somewhat.

The funny thing was, the answer was in front of me the whole time. I had been working with a new alpha counting instrument, the UltraLo-1800, made by a company called XIA. It was a new product for them, we were beta testers, and so they'd need more hands for testing/production. The fit was basically perfect, so they hired me. I started a few weeks after the camp ended.

So since then I've worked at XIA. My official title is "Junior Staff Scientist" (although I'm sanguine that will be changing somewhat soon). I call myself a nuclear physicist to be somewhat humorous, radioactive decay instrumentation is nuclear physics, but not really what people expect by that. We're close to actually producing the counters for general sale, going on 3 years later (siiiiigh). I also do lots of other things, like mechanical design (somehow I walked in as the most experienced mechanical engineer there, what with the 2 semesters of CAD I took in high school). I've gotten much more proficient at scripting, mostly in Ruby. I'm still terrible, but a lot less terrible than before. Also various other things, you learn a lot about general "dealing with shit" when you have a full-time job as a scientist/engineer.

I can go into the actual physics of the UltraLo if anyone cares, maybe I'll do that at some point.

Some thoughts about beer reviewing

Go read this article about wine, then come back here.

All done? Good. I want to make a few points about beer reviewing here.

First, I have to say I don't think this actually applies neatly to beer. There really is a difference between Pliny the Elder and the average DIPA. One can pick Pliny out of a blind sample, I've done it. There are meaningful differences in taste there. Enjoyment, however, is much more complicated. In terms of enjoyment, there's very little separating Pliny from, say, Heady Topper, or Duet, or most of the "world-class" DIPAs. At that level (and, hell, even between levels) personal preferences are going to completely determine what you prefer. This point is so banal that it's actually tautological, but I think it gets forgotten entirely too often.

The reason that I wanted you to read that post was because it touches on a lot of the reasons that I loathe beer rankings, and especially beer judging at events (such as the World Beer Cup). Fair warning, this post is going to be loooong. I've been wanting to write this for a long time, and now that I have a stupid blog again I have a place for it.

My problem with beer judging takes three forms, which I call Platonic Forms, Begging the Question, and Significance. I'll go over each in detail, then talk a bit about ranking in Objectification.

Platonic Forms

The idea of Platonic forms is that there exists a perfect "form" of certain qualities, such as Justice or Beauty. They don't materially exist, and can never be achieved per se, but they can be contemplated, and they are what one strives for in their realm (so when building a state you want to be as close to the form of Justice as possible). I'm butchering this a bit, but it doesn't really matter here. My point is that beer judging does the same thing, except without the admission that the form doesn't exist. Judging is done to a style, usually BJCP, meaning that beer is judged to some definition that a bunch of dudes in some room somewhere agree on.

The fact that this makes the whole endeavor pointless should be pretty obvious. Even if you can get enough people to agree on styles (which you actually can't, as anyone who has ever tried to talk about this with other opinionated people will know) you're left with a bunch of boundaries drawn on continua. It's the same problem that taxonomy has, except stupider because it doesn't matter for anything. You end up with a bunch of dudes arguing over where to place a thing while the thing itself just keeps on doing what it does.

So from the beginning the very idea is inane. Rating a beer as best to style isn't useful, it's arbitrary and pointless. (Of course, rating at all is arbitrary and pointless, but judging acts like it's not.)

Begging the Question

As a scientist this bothers me more. At its core doing an experiment is simply asking a question and figuring out the best way to get the answer. Ideally you want to design it such that minor changes in experimental design don't affect things much. So if I'm trying to figure out how much radioactivity is in a sample, if I count it for N hours or N+1 hours (or even 2N hours) I should get the same answer. If the answer you get is highly dependent on the input parameters, then it's clear that you have a bad experimental design or are asking a bad question.

As you likely guessed, beer judging has bad experimental design. The number of judges is small enough that changing out individuals can affect results, it's unclear how careful a given judging session is with sampling order (which can clearly affect things, palate fatigue is real), and the scoring system is completely arbitrary. It's the last thing that I'm most clearly referring to with "begging the question", because the conclusion assumes its premises. That is, they're not asking "what is the best beer of these options?" but rather "Which of the beers in this list is ranked the highest according to these judges and this formula?" And the answer to that is always "The one that's ranked highest according to these judges and this formula." If you change the formula, change the judges, change the order, change the snacks they ate beforehand, change who-knows-what-else, you can change the results.

Once again, this makes the whole thing arbitrary and pointless.


This also irks me as a scientist, no one in the beer judging/ranking world seems to understand statistical uncertainty. I don't think that BJCP competitions release their raw numbers, but based on the much larger samples at BA or RB it's pretty likely that the actual results are "we can't tell any of these apart". For instance, right now the BA #1 beer in the world, Pliny the Younger, is within one "pDev" of the #100 beer, Alpine's Great. It's not completely clear to me that pDev is the proper tool for this, but I'm lazy and it purports to be a measure of the variance so I'm using it. This is likely only a one-sigma measurement, too, meaning even if you want only a 95% CI the numbers are even bigger.

At least with BA/RB they provide this number so any intelligent person can see it and say "Oh, well knowing nothing but this score I can say that I would like these about the same." Which is true! BA also has very broad score ranges, which are really what you should look at. (That is, all "A" beers are pretty much the same as each other, all "B" beers are pretty much the same as each other, but there should be a real drop between A and B.) But with judging they award medals to the winners! Winners that likely aren't even close to being actually different from each other!

This alone makes the whole thing look like it's designed and run by morons, but combined with the rest you really have to wonder if the people at the BJCP have even thought about the pointlessness of this endeavor.


This is really my main problem with the whole thing, which is that it's trying to make the subjective into something objective. For whatever reason people love debating the undebatable, and beer ratings/competitions are simply a manifestation of that in the beer community. This is all well and good if you take it only as a frivolity, something to be laughed at, or something to debate while drunk. But some people seem to really care, to think that there's meaning behind the medals, behind the lists. There's not. It's all masturbation. Again, that's fine, but you can't do it too often and it's unseemly in public.

This is entirely too many words for the obviously banal statement "Beer judging/rankings are retarded." But there you go.