What is Teaching?

Russ Roberts says:

Great teaching is more than passing on information. For that you can read a book or watch a video. A great teacher provokes and takes you on a journey of understanding. That requires grappling with the material and making it your own. Usually that means applying your knowledge to a problem you haven’t see before. At least that’s often the case in economics. I think Doug Lemov said it in his EconTalk episode — you haven’t taught it until they’ve learned it and learning is more than just hearing the facts or the answer to a problem.

This was the view I heard at UC Berkeley among faculty — when they weren’t complaining about teaching.

I disagree with this. The best teachers bring out what is inside their students. They provide the right environment so what is inside each student is expressed. How to do this will be different for each student, so you have to learn about them — not just generally, you have to learn about each one. (Or at least you have to grasp their diversity and allow for it.)

Learning is natural. Every student, in my experience, wants to learn something. What makes the situation much more difficult, is the false assumption that every student wants to learn the same thing or can be cajoled into learning the same thing. One of my Berkeley students said that in high school he had had a “great teacher” of philosophy, much like the teachers that Roberts praises. He had made philosophy so interesting that my student had originally majored in it. That had been a mistake, said my student.

I believe human nature has been shaped in many ways to make our economy work. Human economies center on trading. You make X, I make Y, we trade. If everyone made X, that would be bad economics. So we have been shaped to want to go in different occupational directions — you want to be an Xer, I want to be a Yer. This is deep inside us and impossible to change. When healthy students have trouble learning, I think the underlying problem is their teacher wants them to be an Xer (like the teacher) — but they want to be something else. A great teacher finds that something else.

Even the term great teacher is misleading, because it seems to imply that being a great teacher (= every student learns a lot) is difficult. I have found it’s easy, just as swimming with the current is easy. It requires a certain psychological ingenuity to fit this way of teaching into a system that doesn’t understand it. But after I figured out how to do it, it was so much easier than teaching the traditional way. I used to try to make all my students learn the same thing. That was really tiring — like swimming against the current. After class I’d be exhausted. Now I feel fine after class.

Nick Szabo is Satoshi Nakamoto, the Inventor of Bitcoin

There were many funny things about Leah Goodman’s claim in Newsweek that a California engineer invented bitcoin. One was her observation that he put two spaces after a period — just like the inventor of bitcoin. Another was her observation that his relatives said he was “brilliant”, without giving any examples. His brilliance had remained perfectly hidden — until now. A third was her conclusion that he was obsessed with secrecy and distrusted government — just like the inventor of bitcoin (according to her). Felix Salmon was quite wrong when he said there are some very strange coincidences and the pieces of her argument “fit elegantly together”. Actually, her argument is worthless from top to bottom. Salmon was right, however, when he said that the engineer’s English shows he couldn’t possibly have invented bitcoin. As Salmon says, Goodman ignored this itty-bitty problem.

Who is the inventor of bitcoin? I’m sure it’s Nick Szabo, a former law professor at George Washington University. This idea first surfaced a few months ago in an anonymous blog post based on textual analysis. Szabo used certain phrases in the original bitcoin description far more than a bunch of other possible candidates. That is real evidence. The hypothesis that Szabo is the inventor passes several other tests as well: Continue reading “Nick Szabo is Satoshi Nakamoto, the Inventor of Bitcoin”

Why Fashion Evolved

My theory of human evolution says that fashion (changing preferences for well-made goods) evolved so that artisans — the innovators of long ago — would not do the same thing over and over. In an excellent interview, music producer T Bone Burnett says something similar:

I don’t believe in crowdsourcing [for artists] because you’ll end up doing the same thing over and over again. People tend to want artists to do the same thing, and it is incumbent upon artists to do something that the audience doesn’t want — yet.

I’ve had a hard time finding interesting work by economists on the causes of innovation. It isn’t just institutional structures (“extractive” versus “inclusive”), as Acemoglu and Robinson say in Why Nations Fail. (Better title: One Reason Nations Fail.) An exception is Nathan Rosenberg, an emeritus professor at Stanford, for example this paper about aircraft design.




Mo Ibrahim: How I Became a Teacher

I met Mo Ibrahim, a high school teacher in New York, because of his Behind the Approval Matrix  blog, which I admired. I interviewed him about his I Got Uggs! blog. Recently he has become interested in finding out if my ideas about teaching can help him teach better. This is the first in a series of posts by him about that.

I went to college at Chicago State University, a commuter school in Chicago. I started in the late 1980s. I considered a career as a teacher when I was there, but changed my mind after I visited the education department and learned about the student teaching requirement, which seemed like a drag. Later I visited the premed office. Mostly I studied biology and graduated with a degree in Independent Studies. By graduation, I had been accepted at University of Illinois School of Medicine, in Chicago.

I started there in 1995. The summer before I enrolled, I had been verbally promised a whopping three scholarships. One was from my State Representative, the other two from a non-profit organization that helps African-Americans get into medical school.  I did get the scholarship from the State of Illinois, which covered my tuition. However, I never got the other scholarships, which meant that my living expenses weren’t covered. Between the time of the verbal promise and my enrollment, the organization had started a policy of only giving scholarships to students in the second and later years of medical school. Too many African-American students dropped out in the first year; the foundation reasoned it was wasting its money.

At the medical school’s financial aid office, I was informed that my only option was to take out a loan. This was something I had sworn I would never do. I’m Muslim; interest-based loans are against Islamic law. Despite being told that it was virtually impossible to be a medical student and work, I got a job during the graveyard shift at a seedy hotel on the North Side. I avoided drinking coffee to stay awake because I didn’t want to go to the bathroom and compete with the rats for a stall. Without coffee, I fell asleep. I was only there a week. A tenant who owed the hotel over $1,000 moved out while I was asleep. I was immediately fired. Three months later, I withdrew from medical school. I couldn’t afford it.

My first real job after medical school was in the medical records office at St. Francis Hospital. A co-worker was taking a computer repair class at a community center and suggested that I join him. I didn’t take the class, but I purchased a used computer, some computer repair books, and studied for the A+ Certified Computer Repair Technician exam. I passed the exam on the first attempt and got a job making five times what I was making at the hospital. I did computer repair and network engineering for five years. Unfortunately, the work seemed to be drying up. I started at $100/hour but after five years was making $9/hour. Toward the end of the five years, my wife and I took a vacation in New York City. In the subway, I noticed an advertisement for the New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF) Program. I liked the idea of being a teacher because of the job stability and the idea of giving back to the minority community. NYCTF automatically puts you in an “underprivileged” school. The deadline for applying to the program was quickly approaching and I filled in the online application as soon as I returned to Chicago.

I was invited back to New York for an interview. After I taught a sample lesson and did group and one-on-one interviews, I was accepted into the 2004 NYCTF program. That summer I enrolled in a Master’s degree program in in Education at the City College of New York. I also got a job teaching at an underprivileged high school near Columbus Circle. Ten years later, I am still trying to determine the best way to teach my students.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Aaron Blaisdell and Peter Lewis.

The Willat Effect With Gin

The Willat Effect — named for Carl Willat, whose limoncello comparison tasting made me notice it — may happen when you experience two similar versions of one thing close together. (For example, sip one limoncello and then sip another.) The differences between them  become clearer, of course. The Willat Effect is the less obvious hedonic change: suddenly the differences matter. Suddenly one version is more pleasant, the other less pleasant.  The hedonic changes are large enough to change how I spend money (I buy the better version more, the worse version less).  I believe this effect turns people into connoisseurs.

I recently noticed the Willat Effect with gin. As part of a project to buy every type of not-too-expensive alcohol in a nearby liquor store, I bought a bottle of Bombay Sapphire London Dry Gin. I neither like nor dislike gin,  it was just something they sold I hadn’t tried.  It was medium-priced (about $20). I liked it okay.

I returned to the liquor store. This time I bought two brands of London dry gin: Tanqueray (about $20) and Greenall’s Special (about $15). At home I tasted them side by side. The Tanqueray was much better, I noticed right away. It was softer, more rounded, and had floral overtones absent from the Greenall’s. Where was the Bombay Sapphire gin on these dimensions? Did it have floral overtones? I had no idea. Now I was curious. One close comparison shifted my buying habits in two ways: (a)  I want to make more of these comparisons. I want to try every brand of gin in the liquor store to see if the cheaper brands tasted worse. (b) Apart from these comparisons,  I will never buy inferior gin again.

The Willat Effect happens only if the two things being compared are neither too similar nor too dissimilar. Perhaps differently-priced versions of London dry gin are roughly the right distance apart and are a convenient way to demonstrate the effect. It’s easy to get different versions of London dry gin.

The effect interests me because it is (a) practical (a source of enjoyment), (b) a subtle comment on intellectuals (who complain about our “consumerist” society) and economics (I look forward to an economist’s explanation of connoisseurship), and (c) it supports my theory of human evolution, which says connoisseurs came to exist because they promote technological innovation. Connoisseurs make it easier for the most skilled craftsmen — the ones most likely to innovate — to make a living.



Hobbyist Science vs. Professional Science vs. Personal Science

In a TED talk, Paula Scher, a graphic designer, told how a hobby of painting maps turned into something like a job.

I was up in my country house, and for some reason, I began painting these very big, very involved, laborious, complicated maps . . . They would take me about six months initially, but then I started getting faster at it. Here’s the United States. Every single city of the United States is on here. . . . One of my favorites was this painting I did of Florida after the 2000 election that has the election results rolling around in the water. . . . Somebody . . . saw the paintings and recommended them to a gallery, and I had a first show about two-and-a-half years ago, and I showed these paintings that I’m showing you now. . . . They sold quickly, and became rather popular. . . . The gallery wanted me to have another show in two years, which meant that I really had to paint these paintings much faster than I had ever done them. . . . I was no longer at play. I was actually in this solemn landscape of fulfilling an expectation for a show, which is not where I started.

A hobby turned into a job. This has happened countless times — I believe all jobs started as hobbies.

One hobby that turned into a job is science. The first scientists were hobbyists — for example, Darwin and Mendel. The success of hobbyist scientists led to the creation of full-time jobs that included doing science — professors of science at universities. When science became a job, something was gained (professionals had more time per day, money, training, institutional support, collegial support, and prestige than hobbyists) and something was lost (professionals had less freedom than hobbyists). Professionals could do many things hobbyists could not, but the reverse was also true: hobbyists could do many things professionals could not. For example, they could work on a question for ten years without publishing anything (Mendel, Darwin) and entertain highly heretical ideas (Darwin). Professionals needed steady output and dared not offend, for fear of losing their job.

to improve my brain function and blood sugar. Just combining the freedom of hobbyists with the resources of professionals, personal science would probably be a big improvement. Adding better motivation suggests that personal science is even more likely to improve our lives by learning what professional scientists haven’t learned. The combination of professional science and personal science will be far more powerful (= more useful) than professional science alone.

I’ve seen this in my own life, over and over, and I predict it will eventually be true for everyone. Learning how to control one’s own health — how to sleep well, for example — is non-trivial knowledge.

Occupational Specialization as Far Back as the Bronze Age

Linear B is an ancient form of Greek, used around 1500 BC (the Bronze Age) in Mycenean Greece. Stuff written in Linear B gives us one of our oldest views of human life and can reveal things that other ways of looking at the past (e.g., bones, genes, tools, pottery) cannot. At the end of The Riddle of the Labyrinth (2013) by Margalit Fox, a book about how Linear B was deciphered, is a section about what the deciphered tablets turned out to say.

One thing they revealed is considerable occupational specialization. According to Fox  (pp. 273-5),

Mycenaeans plied a range of trades. Many tablets reveal the names of occupations . . . metalsmiths . . . textile work . . . tanners . . . leatherworkers . . . priests and priestesses . . . soldiers, rowers, and archers . . . swordmakers and bowmakers, chariot makers and chariot-wheel repairmen . . . goldsmiths and perfumers . . . woodcutters, carpenters, shipbuilders and net makers; fire kindlers and bath attendants; heralds, hunters, herdsmen, and beekeepers. . . . bronzesmiths.

Occupational specialization is at the center of my theory of human evolution. The decipherment of Linear B showed that it has existed as far back as we can see. Today there is an enormous amount of occupational specialization, but it also flourished when accumulated knowledge was much less.

The more you see the centrality of occupational specialization to human nature, the more you will see how modern schooling malnourishes almost everyone who undergoes it — which is almost everyone. Human nature takes people at one place and time — such as Mycenaean Greece — and pushes them to become adults who do all sorts of different things (woodcutter, herald, beekeeper . . . ). It takes people who start off the same or almost the same — same place, same food, same weather, similar genes — and creates diversity among them. Modern education tries to do the opposite: Take a diverse set of students and make them the same. One example is No Child Left Behind. Another is that in almost every college class, all students are given the same material, the same assignments, and graded on the same one-dimensional scale. We don’t need everyone to be the same; in fact, we need exactly the opposite. The more diverse we are, the sooner we will find solutions to pressing problems, because they will be attacked in many different ways.

Consistent- versus Inconsistent-Handed Predicts Better than Right- versus Left-Handed

At Berkeley, Andrew Gelman and I taught a freshman seminar about left-handedness. Half the students were left-handed. We did two fascinating studies with them that found that left-handers tend to have left-handed friends. I kick myself for not publishing those results, which I bring up in conversation again and again.

After the class ended I got a call from a journalist who was writing an article about ridiculous classes. I told him the left-handedness class had value as a way of introducing methodological issues but all I cared about was that his article be accurate. He decided not to include our class in his examples.

Stephen Christman, who got his Ph.D. from Berkeley (and did quirky interesting stuff even as a graduate student), and two colleagues have now published a paper that is a considerable step forward in the understanding of handedness. They argue that what really matters is not direction of handedness but the consistency of it. The terms left-handed and right-handed hide a confounding. Right-handers almost all have very consistent handedness (they do everything with the right hand). In contrast, left-handers much more often have inconsistent handedness: they do some things with the left hand, some with the right. I am a good example. I write with my right hand, bat and throw left-handed, play tennis left-handed, ping-pong right-handed. In fact, I am right-wristed and left-armed. When something involves wrist movement (writing, ping-pong) I use my right hand. When something involves arm movement (batting, throwing a ball, tennis), I use my left hand. Right-handers are much more similar to each other than left-handers.

Christman and his co-authors point to two things: 1. When you can get enough subjects to unconfound the two variables, it turns out that consistency of handedness is what makes the difference. Consistent left-handers resemble consistent right-handers.  2. Consistency of handedness predicts many things. Inconsistent-handers are less authoritarian than consistent-handers. They show more of a placebo effect. They have better memory for paragraphs. And on and on — about 20 differences. It isn’t easy to say what all these differences have in common but maybe inconsistent-handers are more flexible in their beliefs. (Which would explain the friendship findings in our handedness class.)

I think about these differences as another example of how every economy needs diversity and our brains have been shaped to provide it, one idea underlying my theory of human evolution. Presidents of the United States are left-handed much more than the general population. For example, Obama is left-handed. The difference between Presidents and everyone else is overwhelming and must mean something. Yet left-handers die younger. I would say that in any group of people you need a certain fraction, not necessarily large, to be open-minded and realistic. That describes inconsistent-handers (who are usually left-handed). These people make good leaders because they will respond to changing conditions. People who are not open-minded make good followers. Just as important as realism is cooperation, ability to work together toward a common goal.


Taobao’s Double Eleven: World’s Biggest eHoliday

Do the heads of eBay and Amazon know about the Chinese shopping site Taobao (like eBay without auctions)? If so, why don’t they imitate it? Maybe they can’t match its bigger selection (e.g., food, detergent) and better prices, but they could imitate the better seller feedback and instant communication (chat boxes) with sellers.

In my theory of human evolution I propose that we have ceremonies, rituals, and festivals (and associated holidays) because they caused trading that would otherwise not have taken place. Ceremonies and so forth increased the demand for certain goods — gifts and high-end clothes, for example. These goods are important economically far out of proportion to their volume or monetary value or daily use because they increase innovation. They help the most skilled artisans– the ones most likely to innovate — make a living.

The leaders of Taobao understand this function of festivals/holiday and have put it to use: They have created new festivals/holidays. The biggest is Double Eleven (November 11), which started five years ago. On Double Eleven, a large fraction of taobao merchants have discounts, big (50%) and small (5%). Sales have grown each year and this year reached about $3 billion, according to one site. According to a Chinese friend, the sales were about $10 billion. CyberMonday (about $1 billion in 2011) is far behind

I have never read about this function of ceremonies, festivals, etc., in any economics book or paper. Double Eleven shows their economic force. This neglect is an example of what I consider the biggest problem with modern economics: lack of attention to and lack of understanding of innovation.


Assorted Links

  • Olive oil and the Willat Effect. “You can read about great olive oils, and their vast superiority over bad oils, all you want. . . . But until you try first-rate olive oil for yourself – actually put the good stuff in your mouth, and compare that experience to the bad stuff you’ve eaten in the past – you won’t really get it. . . . . Once you taste fine olive oils and their low-class imitations [side by side], though, you start to care.”
  • Petraeus Affair: The journalism of what we don’t know.
  • Tucker Max on book publishing. Disruptive innovation for popular authors.
  • Animal self-medication. Sick animals eat differently than healthy animals.

Thanks to Alex Blackwood.

The Power of the Willat Effect: Rinsed versus Unrinsed Tea

During my last visit to New York I bought a new black tea. I started drinking it a few weeks ago. I brewed it various ways (different amounts of tea, different steeping times, etc.) but had a hard time telling which way was best. This morning I decided I would learn how to  brew it by making paired comparisons (two cups of tea made the same way at the same time except for one difference). The fascinating thing, as I’ve said, about these side-by-side comparisons is that they produce hedonic changes. They change how much you like this or that. I call this the Willat Effect after my friend Carl Willat who caused me to notice it.

This morning I made two cups of the new tea. The two cups were brewed the same except in one case I “rinsed” the tea before brewing. Rinsing means I poured a bit of hot water on it and quickly got rid of the hot water. Rinsing tea removes from the final product whatever is transferred from the tea to the hot water in the first few seconds. In China, rinsing tea is common; in the United States, very rare.

I tasted the two cups (rinsed and unrinsed) side by side. The rinsed tea tasted much better. The unrinsed tea had something weird about it. Ugh, I thought, I can’t drink this. I threw out the unrinsed tea. Over the previous few weeks, I had happily drunk the new tea unrinsed many times. Now I found it repulsive.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Adam Clemens.

Medieval Metallurgy, the Evolution of Decoration, and the Shangri-La Diet

A new BBC series Metalworks! is about the history of British metal working. My theory of human evolution says that decoration — more precisely, our enjoyment of it — evolved because it helped the most skilled craftsmen make a living. Long ago, technology evolved via massive amounts of trial and error, which required subsidy since payoff (discovery with practical value) was so infrequent. It was much easier to discover/learn how to make something that looked better than something that worked better, but the two sorts of discoveries were correlated: trial and error produces both.

The episode on ironwork (The Blacksmith’s Tale) makes explicit how desire for decoration made it easier for the most skilled iron workers to make a living:

[Expert, at 16:50:] “I think decoration entirely depends on the amount of money the patron wanted to spend on that particular object.” [Narrator:] By the end of the 15th Century, wealthy patrons, such as the Church and monarchy, were hand-picking known craftsmen at the top of their game to match a commission’s requirements. When King Edward IV commissioned the Cornish smith John Tresillion to make these Gothic gates at Windsor in 1497, he did so with good reason. . . . [Expert:] “No blacksmith, ordinary blacksmith who was used to making horseshoes, could dream of working to this standard of perfection.”

Quality of decoration is easy to see. It doesn’t matter but it correlates with something that does matter — amount of trial and error (more trial and error, more innovation). We reward decoration to increase innovation.

The Shangri-La Diet derives from a theory of weight control that emphasizes smell-calorie learning. Smell-calorie learning evolved for the same logical reason. Smells don’t actually matter for health. But they are easy to notice and they correlate with things that do matter for health, such as calories. Via smell-calorie learning we learn the correlations. After that the foods that smell best are the ones that contain more calories.

Carl Willat Suffers From the Willat Effect

Carl Willat, for whom the Willat Effect is named, wrote to me:

I had two cartons of half and half in the fridge, neither had reached its expiration date but one was three days newer. I wondered if I could taste the difference between them, and I found that I could. Neither was sour, but one tasted fresher. I made a batch of vanilla ice cream out of each of them, figuring that together with the other ingredients I was adding (vanilla, egg yolks, cream, salt and sugar) the difference in taste would be less noticeable. After putting both mixtures through the ice cream freezer I tasted them [side by side] and one tasted a lot better. I gave a friend of mine a spoonful of each and she immediately noticed the difference. She correctly identified the good one and described it as tasting fresher and lighter. I can’t bear to eat the less good batch and I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t want to give it away for fear someone will think it representative of what my ice cream tastes like. I’m sure in the past I’ve made plenty of ice cream of this same quality that I and everyone else thought was perfectly acceptable, even delicious.

The fascinating part is “can’t bear to eat the less good batch”. Same thing with me and tea: In the last half year or so, I’ve made hundreds of side-by-side comparisons of tea. I now throw away cups of tea I don’t like. I never used to do that.

The Willat Effect: More Consequences

A month ago I bought three identical tea pots to compare tea side by side. I hoped to take advantage of the Willat Effect (side-by-side comparisons create connoisseurs) to become a tea connoisseur.

It worked. Side-by-side tea comparisons are fun, easy, and have taught me a lot. When I drink tea I notice more and like it more. I do about three comparisons per day. I blogged about the first results here. The most useful idea about these comparisons came from Carl Willat himself: Compare the same tea brewed differently (e.g., different amounts of tea, different brewing times, different water temperatures). Most of my comparisons vary amount of tea or brewing time.

These many  comparisons have had several effects: Continue reading “The Willat Effect: More Consequences”

Even More About The Willat Effect

I have had tea daily for the last ten years, ever since I discovered the Shangri-La Diet. A few weeks ago, I started doing side-by-side comparisons of similar teas or the same tea prepared two ways (e.g., different brewing times). Would the Willat Effect make me a tea connoisseur?

Since then I have done at least one side-by-side comparison every day. It’s almost as easy as making an ordinary cup of tea and a lot more fun. These comparisons have taught me more about tea preparation than the previous ten years. I’ve learned:

1. The black tea I have (an Earl-Grey variant) tastes better when brewed for 3.5 minutes than 4.0 minutes.

2. The black tea tastes better when I use 1.5 grams of tea than when I use 2.0 grams of tea. (After starting these comparisons, I bought a scale for weighing tea.)

3. One of the green teas I have tastes better when “rinsed” for 30 seconds before brewing 1 minute than when simply brewed for 1 minute. In China, this preference (rinse green tea before brewing) is common. I was reminded of it by this comment and Paul Jaminet’s post about tea. Black tea is different, as I noted earlier.

4. I have a caffeine-free tea blend called Choco Late made of cacao husks, vanilla, and rooibos. The package says brew 5 minutes. Which is nonsense. It tastes better (fuller, more rounded) when brewed 30 minutes than when brewed 15 minutes. (I’ve noticed the same thing with caffeine-free chai blends. Enormous brewing times, like 60 minutes, produce much better results than short times.)

5. My most interesting discovery is when I brew Choco Late for 30 minutes it tastes so good I no longer want to sweeten it. It is pleasant enough already and sweetness would distract from the complexity, fullness, and slight bitterness. (At first I wrote “lovely complexity, fullness …”) I was shocked when I noticed this. It has never happened before.

This tea-selling website mentions the Willat Effect under the heading “Do you want to be a tea connoisseur?” I hope this means the idea will spread among the fancy-food community. They have a lot to gain from better understanding of how to make people connoisseurs. Many times I have asked people in that community what makes someone a connoisseur? The usual answer is education. In my case, Willat-Effect comparisons (side-by-side comparisons of similar teas) were far more powerful than reading about tea, drinking a variety of teas, going on tea tours, going to ordinary tea tastings (where you taste a wide range of teas), and talking about tea with experts. I have been to five or six Fancy Food Shows and have visited thousands of booths. Exactly one booth offered side-by-side comparisons of similar products. It was their product made with and without a special ingredient.

Willat-Effect comparisons are mini-science. They aren’t quantitative but they include three other things central to science: 1. Close comparisons. This is the essence of experimentation. 2. You don’t know the answer. 3. You care about the answer.

More About The Willat Effect

The Willat Effect is the hedonic change produced by side-by-side comparisons of similar products — for example, two green teas. It happens in seconds: Suddenly the differences matter more. Some versions become more pleasant, other versions less pleasant.  I first noticed it with limoncello that my friend Carl Willat offered me. Here are some reactions to my recent post about it: Continue reading “More About The Willat Effect”

Willat Effect Experiments With Tea

The Willat Effect is the hedonic change caused by side-by-side comparison of similar things. Your hedonic response to the things compared (e.g., two or more dark chocolates) expands in both directions. The “better” things become more pleasant and the “worse” things become less pleasant. In my experience, it’s a big change, easy to notice.

I discovered the Willat Effect when my friend Carl Willat offered me five different limoncellos side by side. Knowing that he likes it, his friends had given them to him. Perhaps three were homemade, two store-bought. I’d had plenty of limoncello before that, but always one version at a time. Within seconds of tasting the five versions side by side, I came to like two of them (with more complex flavors) more than the rest. One or two of them I started to dislike. When you put two similar things next to each other, of course you see their differences more clearly. What’s impressive is the hedonic change.

The Willat Effect supports my ideas about human evolution because it pushes people toward connoisseurship. (I predict it won’t occur with animals.) The fact that repeating elements are found in so many decorating schemes and patterns meant to be pretty (e.g., wallpapers, textile patterns, rugs, choreography) suggests that we get pleasure from putting similar things side by side — the very state that produces the Willat Effect. According to my theory of human evolution, connoisseurship evolved because it created demand for hard-to-make goods, which helped the most skilled artisans make a living. Carl’s limoncello tasting made me a mini-connoisseur of limoncello. I started buying it much more often and  bought more expensive brands, thus helping the best limoncello makers make a living. Connoisseurs turn surplus into innovation by giving the most skilled artisans more time and freedom to innovate.

Does the Willat Effect have practical value? Could it improve my life? Recently I decided to see if it could make me a green tea connoisseur. Ever since I discovered the Shangri-La Diet (calories without smell), I’d been drinking tea (smell without calories) almost daily but I was no connoisseur. Nor had I done many side-by-side comparisons. At home, I had always made one cup at a time.

In Beijing, where I am now, I can easily buy many green teas. I got three identical tea pots (SAMA SAG-08) and three cheap green teas. I drink tea every morning. Instead of brewing one pot, I started making two or three pots at the same time and comparing the results. I compared different teas and the same tea brewed different lengths of time (Carl’s idea).

I’ve been doing this about two weeks. The results so far:

1. The cheapest tea became undrinkable. I decided to never buy it again and not to drink the  rest of my purchase. I will use it for kombucha. Two of the three teas cost about twice the cheapest one. After a few side by side comparisons I liked the more expensive ones considerably more than the cheaper one. The two more expensive ones cost about the same but, weirdly, I liked the one that cost (slightly) more a little better than the one that cost less. (Tea is sold in bulk with no packaging or branding so the price I pay is closely related to what the grower was paid. The buyers taste it and decide what it’s worth.)

2. I decided to infuse the tea leaves only once. (Usual practice is to infuse green tea two or more times.)  The quality of later infusions was too low, I decided. Before this, I had found second and later infusions had been acceptable.

The Willat Effect is working, in other words. After a decade of drinking tea, my practices suddenly changed.  I will buy different teas and brew them differently. I will spend a lot more per cup since (a) each cup will require fresh tea, (b) I won’t buy the cheapest tea, and (c) I have become far more interested in green tea, partly because each cup tastes better, partly because I am curious if more expensive varieties taste better. When I bought the three varieties I have now I didn’t bother to learn their names; I identified them by price. In the future I will learn the names.

To get the Willat Effect, the things being compared must be quite similar. For example, comparing green tea with black tea does nothing. I have learned a methodological lesson: That tea is a great medium for studying this not only because it’s cheap but also because you can easily get similar tasting teas by brewing the same tea different lengths of time. I haven’t yet tried different water temperatures but that too might work.

I have done similar things before. I bought several versions of orange marmalade, did side-by-side tastings, and indeed became an orange marmalade connoisseur. After that I bought only expensive versions. After a few side-by-side comparisons of cheese that included expensive cheeses, I stopped buying cheap cheese. You could say I am still an orange marmalade and cheese connoisseur but this has no effect on my current life. Because I avoid sugar, I don’t eat orange marmalade. Because of all the butter I eat, I rarely eat cheese. My budding green tea connoisseurship, however, is making a  difference because I drink tea every day.

My posts about human evolution.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Tim Lundeen, J.C. and Ben Casnocha.