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Thursday, January 10, 2008 -- 9:31 pm

Reading some of Feynman's Lectures on Physics lately, I was struck by his (as always) apt comment on the relationship between math and physics: to paraphrase from memory, that math doesn't govern physical behavior, but, as a logical construct, instead only supplies a more or less detailed predictive model for it. This is somehow at once obvious and counterintuitive -- obvious because, pace the electrical engineers, notions like imaginary numbers seem little better than convenient fictions; and counterintuitive because it's hard to imagine a world that didn't follow the rules of math as we know it. Of course, such a world might well not be intelligible at all, in which case intelligent life would never have evolved to be perplexed at it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008 -- 9:28 pm

The arbitrary divisions and classifications that different cultures impose on the same continuum of experience are interesting. In the West, we have Isaac Newton's seven-colored rainbow (I assume I'm not alone in having always been suspicious of indigo), the seven notes of the diatonic scale and twelve notes of the chromatic scale (pernicious to those of us interested in indigenous partitions of the octave), and four flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter. It's hardly surprising that different cultures group flavors into different numbers and types of categories, but I spotted some interesting parallels and differences between Indian and Korean cuisine while leafing through some cookbooks.

Indian food maintains that every meal needs six component flavors to be properly balanced and to promote good health: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. "Pungent" refers to flavors such as onion, pepper (presumably black), and garlic. "Astringent" refers to potatos, apples, betelnut leaf, most green vegetables, and foods containing tannin, because they tend to absorb water and fat.

Korean food, on the other hand, demands harmony between six component flavors of sour, sweet, hot, salty, bitter, and nutty.

So all three traditions value sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Indian cuisine singles out "pungent" and "astringent" for emphasis, while Korean cuisine singles out "hot" and "nutty". I find this peculiar because Korean food definitely values garlic, while Indian food definitely values heat. (I suppose it's possible, as well, that my presumption is incorrect and my source was lumping chili peppers together with onions and garlic -- a peculair equation.) So is official flavor terminology in a particular culture as arbitrary as the partitioning of the rainbow?