The Willat Effect: Side-by-Side Comparisons Create Connoisseurs

About ten years ago, while visiting my friend Carl Willat, he presented me with five versions of connoisseurs were important in human evolution because they helped support skilled artisans. Our design preference for repeated elements (e.g., wallpaper, textiles) evolved so that we would put similar things side by side. Continue reading “The Willat Effect: Side-by-Side Comparisons Create Connoisseurs”

Unofficial Beer Tasting Winner: Uncommon Brewers

Last night I went to a beer tasting in San Francisco. I didn’t taste all the beers but of the 15-odd I did taste the best were by Uncommon Brewers — especially their Siamese Twin (“the floral notes of lemongrass and sharper bite of kaffir lime blend with the deep malt”) and Baltic Porter (“whole licorice root and star anise”).

Five or six years ago I went to a sake-tasting event in San Francisco called “The Joy of Sake”. About 140 sakes. In a few hours I became such a sake connoisseur that the sake I could afford  — and used to buy regularly — I now despised. The only sake I now liked was so expensive ($80/bottle) that I never bought another bottle of sake.


Amy Winehouse and Nassim Taleb

Will Amy Winehouse — who won five Grammys last night — help or hurt the music industry? A few years ago, I went to a tasting event called The Joy of Sake. There were about 100 of the best sakes from Japan. A pre-event talk for retailers discussed the decline of sake in Japan. (Soju is cool; sake is old-fashioned.) That was the reason for the show. I loved tasting 30-odd high-quality sakes but the overall effect on me was the opposite of what the promoters wanted. I quickly became a connoisseur. I no longer liked the cheap stuff — ugh! But the stuff I did like was too expensive. I stopped buying sake.

Before last night I had heard of Amy Winehouse and I had heard Rehab, but hadn’t put the two together. Her Grammy performance blew me away. I watched a bunch of YouTubes of her. Back at the Grammys, I listened to an orchestra play Rhapsody in Blue. I used to like it; now it sounded awful. I listened to a few more group performances; they too sounded bad. Just as The Joy of Sake had made me no longer enjoy cheap sake, listening to a lot of Amy Winehouse had made me no longer enjoy “average” music — music where several individual performances are combined.

I thought of The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb. Taleb defined Mediocristan as situations where no one datum can have a big effect on the result. The average height of 100 people, for example. In Extremistan, by contrast, a single datum can make a big difference. The average wealth of 100 people, for example — one person can have much more money than the other 99 put together. Orchestras are Mediocristan, I realized; individual singers are Extremistan. In art, emotional impact is everything. Extremistan allows really big impact; Mediocristan does not. Maybe this is why classical music is dying.

I felt like throwing away half my CDs. I could use the space. Thanks, Amy!

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