Monthly Archives: November 2008

I overrate expensive wine and I will not apologize

A recent study shows that most people rate wine as tastier if it has a fancy label. Jonah Lehrer, from his forthcoming book How We Decide, writes:

Twenty people sampled five Cabernet Sauvignons that were distinguished solely by their retail price, with bottles ranging from $5 to $90. Although the people were told that all five wines were different, the scientists weren’t telling the truth: there were only three different wines. This meant that the same wines would often reappear, but with different price labels. For example, the first wine offered during the tasting – it was a cheap bottle of Californian Cabernet – was labeled both as a $5 wine (it’s actual retail price) and as a $45 dollar wine, a 900 percent markup…. Not surprisingly, the subjects consistently reported that the more expensive wines tasted better. They preferred the $90 bottle to the $10 bottle, and thought the $45 Cabernet was far superior to the $5 plonk.

Of course, the wine preferences of the subjects were clearly nonsensical. Instead of acting like rational agents – getting the most utility for the lowest possible price – they were choosing to spend more money for an identical product.

I think the wine preferences of the subjects were clearly not nonsensical. Maybe an unlabelled $40 bottle of wine tastes no better than a $5 unlabelled bottle of wine. But that’s why people don’t buy unlabelled bottles of wine! The utility of the wine you drink isn’t contained in the molecules striking your tongue and your nose; you’re enjoying the possession of something people have agreed to value. When you travel three hours to eat the best barbecue in Texas, the long drive and the long wait are part of what you’re paying for. If you think that’s nonsensical, you’ve got problems with people’s behavior that go way past their selections from the wine list.

Note also: subjects with an expertise in wine did recognize, and prefer, the pricier wines. So consider the following experiment: give a heterogeneous group of readers a selection of novels by Tom Clancy and F. Scott Fitzgerald, with the covers torn off. You might find that the 14-year-olds in the group rated the two groups of novels equally, while those with an expertise in literature preferred the Fitzgerald, even without the identification. Now suppose one of the 14-year-olds, with knowledge of these results, was offered the choice of a book by TC or a book by FSF for twice the price. And let’s say this 14-year-old reasons, “The experiment suggests I’ll like these books equally; but my teachers and my parents say that Fitzgerald is great literature and Tom Clancy is trash, so maybe I’d better take their word for it and try the Fitzgerald.” Is the teenager’s behavior clearly nonsensical?

Or maybe the example of JT Leroy is a little less scale-thumby. People are less interested in his books now that we know the author isn’t who he claimed to be — isn’t even, in fact, a he. Same books, same sentences. Is that nonsensical?

By the way, I’m not really imputing to Lehrer the view he asserts in his book: in an earlier blog post on a similar study, he writes

What these experiments neatly demonstrate is that the taste of a wine, like the taste of everything, is not merely the sum of our inputs, and cannot be solved in a bottom-up fashion. It cannot be deduced by beginning with our simplest sensations and extrapolating upwards. When we taste a wine, we aren’t simply tasting the wine. This is because what we experience is not what we sense.

which seems to me much more correct.

The wine experiment reminded me of GMU economist Robin Hanson‘s blog, Overcoming Bias. I think I’ll write a bit more about this in a later post, but I’ll close with this question: do Robin Hanson and like-thinking economists think it’s rational to believe wine tastes better if you know it’s expensive?

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Tom Leinster on entropy, diversity, and cardinality

You might want to consider reading the n-category cafe even if you don’t know what an n-category is — even if, antique as this view may be, you don’t care what an n-category is!

For instance, it’s the best place to read about the curious case of M. El Naschie, who’s published 322 of his own papers in the journal he edits for Elsevier.

More substantively: Tom Leinster has a beautiful pair of posts (part I, part II) about varying notions of “diversity” in population biology, and a way to capture all these notions as special cases of a general mathematical construction.

Drastic oversimplification: you might start by defining the diversity of an island beetle population to be the number of different species of beetles living there. But that misses something — a population with three equinumerous beetle species is more diverse than one where a single dominant species accounts for 98% of the beetles, with the remainder split evenly between the other two species. Part I of Leinster’s post is devoted to various measures that capture this behavior. In particular, he’ll explain why on the former island the effective number of species is 3 (just as you’d expect) while on the latter the “number” of species is not 3, but about 1.12 — in other words, the second island is very close to having just one kind of beetle.

In part II, Leinster discusses what happens when you take into account that some pairs of species are more similar than others.

Continue reading

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Fair Harvard holds sway

Yale went into their 125th meeting with Harvard boasting the stingiest defense in the NCAA, allowing just 10.6 points per game. And the defense did their part, holding Harvard to 10 points — but Harvard was even better, shutting Yale’s offense down completely for a 10-0 victory and another Ivy title.

It was the 40th anniversary of Harvard’s most famous Game victory, the 1968 “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29” game, the subject of a well-reviewed documentary playing now in cities where old Crimson and Elis cluster.

In other Harvard fandom news, the pre-Game pep rally, featuring a concert by mashup-act Girl Talk, was shut down by Harvard police when the crowd pressed too closely into the vicinity of the performer. I’ve never felt more old and out of touch than I did at Girl Talk’s show at UW. I thought he was boring and drab, especially after the magnificence of Man Man, his opening act. But clearly there’s something about what he’s doing that causes people really to want to press their sweaty selves against his laptop, in numbers as large as possible.

If you, like me, aren’t in a city where “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29” is showing, you can watch the highlights of the game on YouTube:

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CJ’s first joke

CJ and I went shopping today, a couple of hours before the Wisconsin-Cal Poly game. There were red-shirted crowds tailgating on every exposed piece of asphalt. “When the people are wearing red and white it means they like the Badgers and they’re going to the football game,” I explained.

At the next stop sign, CJ said, “The stop sign is red and white, so it can go to the football game!”

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RIP Out of Town News

Harvard Square landmark newsstand to close. I often browsed there, never bought anything. Apparently, a lot of people were like me.

The closing inspired this list.

Defunct Harvard Square businesses worthy of mourning:

  • Out of Town News.
  • Elsie’s. A long-time sandwich institution. They made a hell of a roast beef sandwich, heavy on the Russian dressing. Replaced by a dire “wrap” restaurant my freshman year, 1990, when “wrap” was the new “sandwich.”
  • Nick’s Beef and Beer House. Usually known as “Nick’s Eef and E Ho” thanks to the management’s disinclination to replace missing letters on the marquee. The greasy cheeseburgers here were about as good as the ones at the much closer Charlie’s Kitchen (which is to say, very good) but much, much cheaper.
  • Wordsworth. Always thought of as second fiddle to Harvard Book Store, but I probably bought more books here overall. HaBoSto put stuff on the front table that was going to be in New York Review of Books; Wordsworth was more likely to promote whatever first novel the guys at the desk liked. Their spin-off children’s bookstore, Curious George, is magnificent and still doing a vigorous business at the heart of the Square.
  • Campo de’ Fiori. First-rate Roman-style square pizza in the heavily travelled corridor through Holyoke Center. There was usually a line. That these guys somehow went under is the surest sign I’ve seen that the fundamentals of our economy are unsound.
  • C’est Bon. Lebanese convenience store that made a wonderful dolmades sandwich — my take-out meal of choice whenever I was rushing to catch the T.

Defunct Harvard Square businesses not worthy of mourning:

  • The Tasty. Foul all-night diner with no redeeming qualities. I once saw someone pour a bottle of ketchup on semi-notable ice skater Nicole Bobek here.
  • Cafe Avventura. Upstairs in the Garage; named for the intestinal adventure enjoyed by all who patronized it. Also known as “Three-plate pizza” (for the number of plates one greasy slice could soak through in the time it took to eat the other) and “Bad pizza” (no explanation necessary.)
  • The Crimson Sports Grille. Noxious.
  • The Wursthaus and The Skewers. Controversial picks! I liked both places, and I think they’re generally warmly remembered. But when I de-gauze my memories, I seem to recall that the Wursthaus was satisfyingly caloric but dark and cheerless, and that the Skewers was a mediocre Middle Eastern sandwich shop that didn’t measure up to C’est Bon.

Current business that would truly be terrible to lose:

  • It’s actually a short list. Mr. Bartley’s, obviously, still serving the best hamburgers in the United States after almost 50 years. The Brattle Theatre. Maybe Schoenhof’s. Maybe the Million Year Picnic.

Feel free to add to the lists in comments — there’s no wikipedia page for “closed Harvard square businesses” so I’m sure I’ve missed a lot.

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Bayes, Sober, dice, intelligent design

I’m teaching Bayes’ theorem this week in my discrete math course, and that reminds me of an interesting puzzle related to the “argument by design” for God’s existence. The argument goes something like this: the probability that the universe would, by pure chance, have the physical constants “fine-tuned” in such a way as to allow intelligent life is spectacularly small. The probability that God would create the universe in this way, though, seems pretty high. So, according to Bayes, whatever prior degree of belief we might have in the existence of God should be much amplified by the fact that the universe is so hospitable to human life.

Objection to this argument: if the physical constants of the universe weren’t fine-tuned to permit our existence, we wouldn’t be here to notice! So the observation that the constants are fine-tuned carries no information, and shouldn’t be allowed to affect our beliefs.

Objection to the objection: Then suppose you were blindfolded in front of a firing squad, you hear twenty shots ring out, and you find yourself alive and unharmed. Quite naturally, you’re drawn to the conclusion that the firing squad must have missed you on purpose. Now a philosopher wanders by and objects: “But if you’d been killed, you wouldn’t be here to make that observation, so the fact that you survived carries no information and shouldn’t affect your beliefs about the intentions of the firing squad!”

At this point your confidence in philosophers would be shaken.

Elliot Sober handles this version of the argument by design, along with many others, and their corresponding objections and counter-objections, in a very thorough and clearly-written paper (.pdf file). So rather than try to unravel this knot in a blog post, I’ll give you one more puzzle.
Suppose you roll a die 20 times and get


A person sitting next to you now pipes up and says, “Well, there you have it, very strong evidence of the existence of God.”

You: “How so?”

Person: “Any God I can conceive of would certainly have arranged for those dice to fall 6-4-1-5-1-2-1-3-3-1-6-2-4-1-5-1-3-2-4-5. So the probability of that outcome, conditional on God’s existence, is 1, while the probability conditional on God’s nonexistence is 6^(-20). So you and I both have to drastically increase our degree of belief that God exists.”

How similar is this to the argument by design for God’s existence? To the firing squad argument that the shooters must have missed on purpose? Which of the three arguments are right and which are wrong?

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Paragraphs: Zadie Smith and Raymond Chandler

As mentioned, I’m reading Zadie Smith’s first novelWhite Teeth; it’s excellent, though I liked On Beauty better. But nothing in On Beauty really approaches the sustained uproariousness of the Chalfen section of White Teeth, which I’ve just now gotten to. The Chalfens are an idealized secular-liberal “modern” British family of the 1980s, a sort of updated version of the family Jane wishes herself half-into at the end of Half Magic. Through a bit of business involving a mishandled joint, the two working-class teens at the center of the book end up spending every Tuesday afternoon in the Chalfens’ enthusiastic company.

Oh, to have the pitch control to write this:

“You’ll stay for dinner, won’t you?” pleaded Joyce. “Oscar really wants you to stay. Oscar loves having strangers in the house, he finds it really stimulating. Especially brown strangers! Don’t you, Oscar?”

“No, I don’t,” confided Oscar, spitting in Irie’s ear. “I hate brown strangers.”

“He finds brown strangers really stimulating,” whispered Joyce.

Also, via MetaFilter commenter George_Spiggott, Raymond Chandler in 1953 does his impression of science fiction:

“I checked out with K 19 on Aldebaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Brylls ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was ice cold against the rust-colored mountains. The Brylls shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.”


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Reader survey: what is the great American nerd novel?

This year’s Pulitzer winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a candidate; it begins with an epigraph from Galactus, and there’s hardly a page without a nod to Marvel Comics, Tolkien, or Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Like the many Spanish words and phrases, the nerd content isn’t translated. The Spanish you can usually work out from context — but if you’re a little shaky on the Witch-king of Angmar, or what it means to have an 18 charisma, or if you’re familiar with the Watcher’s role monitoring the timestreams from the Blue Area of the Moon but forgot that his given name is Uatu, you’re going to miss a lot.

Austin Grossman‘s Soon I Will Be Invincible, subject of this blog’s inaugural post, is in the running too — it’s not really a book about nerds, like Oscar Wao, but a book which inhabits a nerdy genre, the brooding supervillain autobio, and makes an honest novel out if it.

I don’t think the answer has to has anything to do with SF — one can engage with the soul of the nerd without raising the topic of hit points or Darkseid. Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is devoted to the nerd’s characteristically fervent attention to minutiae (in this case, the minutiae belong to a fantasically detailed baseball simulation played with dice.) And probably no one has ever treated the toxic fury of the nerd gaze, directed at the jock, as well as Frederick Exley did in the USC sections of A Fan’s Notes.

You could also give extra points for novels especially beloved by nerds — who wins in that case, Neal Stephenson? When I was a young nerd it would have been Douglas Adams by parsecs and maybe that’s still true.

More nominations in comments, please!

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Yesterday afternoon I was out in front of the math department with a colleague of mine when a student approached us, distraught, actually near tears. He was in his pajamas.

“ARE YOU PROFESSORS?” he asked us.

We allowed as how we were.


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If you had a brother, would he like cheese?

My mom pointed out that Elliot Sober did not, in fact, write the “If you had a brother, would he like potato pancakes?” joke. She says she heard it as a child from my great-grandfather. And it’s older than that: one version of the joke appears in the 1858 comedy Our American Cousin (most famous nowadays as the last play Abraham Lincoln ever saw.) The comic engine of Our American Cousin is the upper-class twit Lord Dundreary, who brought the house down with business of this nature:

Dun What do they keep in pigeon houses? Oh! pigeons, to be sure;
they couldn’t keep donkeys up there, could they? That’s the dairy,
I suppothe?

Geo Yes, my lord.

Dun What do they keep in dairies?

Geo Eggs, milk, butter and cheese.

Dun What’s the name of that animal with a head on it? No,
I don’t mean that, all animals have heads. I mean those animals
with something growing out of their heads.

Geo A cow?

Dun A cow growing out of his head?

Geo No, no, horns.

Dun A cow! well, that accounts for the milk and butter;
but I don’t see the eggs; cows don’t give eggs; then there’s the cheese–
do you like cheese?

Geo No, my lord.

Dun Does your brother like cheese?

Geo I have no brother. I’m so delicate.

Dun She’s so delicate, she hasn’t got a brother. Well,
if you had a brother do you think he’d like cheese?

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