I Have a Big Head

That, at least, is the first thing you might conclude from my Bloggingheads debut, in which my half of the screen is almost completely filled by my head. I was on with Felix Salmon, who was gracious and charming as usual. If you read this blog and Felix’s blog, a lot of the ground we covered might seem familiar.

At the end, however, I did press Felix on the subject of wine, which is one of his favorites. Felix has written that who wins a blind taste test is essentially random, even with reputed wine experts doing the tasting, and he has verified this independently through his own blind tasting parties. Yet he says nevertheless that in an ordinary context, it is perfectly rational to enjoy an expensive wine more than a cheap wine, since you are not tasting blind; you are tasting with full knowledge of what you are drinking. I asked him why his knowledge of the empirical studies didn’t undermine the pleasure he got from drinking “good” wine. You can listen to his answer. The line I didn’t think of in time to use is that’s it’s like getting a placebo effect from a drug when you know it’s a placebo.

By James Kwak

24 responses to “I Have a Big Head

  1. The line I didn’t think of in time to use is that’s it’s like getting a placebo effect from a drug when you know it’s a placebo.

    That could sum up a core point of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

    Just because we intellectually know that we are primates, and that all our art, philosophy, and spirituality are just sublimations of basic animal imperatives, that rationality is a superstructure of irrationality, that altruism arises out of egoism, and that religion is fabricated to meet psychological needs, does not mean we need to devalue all these things, the way loutish materialists assume.

    There’s the middle way between deifying ourselves and cynically gutterizing ourselves. We can intellectually understand yet still emotionally and aesthetically appreciate and even feel.

    N meant for his whole philosophy to be a living, breathing exemplar of that.

  2. You’re both very likeable characters, but where was the conflict? Drama, thunder and swordclash? Next time rip of your headset, throw it to the floor and storm off. Huge optics!

    Stray thought for Felix the Salmon. Let’s say he orders an expensive bottle of wine at a restaurant. Tries a little and it’s on the vinegar side. Does he then mention it to the sommelier? I’ve never sent back a bottle of expensive wine. What happens at this point? Does the sommelier taste it on the spot and automatically agree, or have they been known to disagree? As more and more expensive restaurants begin to take shortcuts to bolster margins (Kobe beef my foot) one would expect the sommelier to begin to disagree more and more.

  3. D. Christopher Leonard

    One might note that what makes homo sapiens sapiens distinctive is its capacity to construct culture and then naturalize its own construction. To say that culture is ‘made’ (i.e. fictive) is not to say that it is ‘inauthentic’ but we are (or at least capable) of recognizing that we make the webs of significance in which we live (paraphrasing Weber). Nietzche’s problem was that having ‘seen through’ 19th century bourgeois culture, he asserted that nothing is authentic (as Dostoevski’s general says in the Idiot, ‘if god is dead, how can I be a general?). It may be more productive to remember Leslie White’s quip that an ape couldn’t tell the difference between holy water and the normal stuff – because chemically, there isn’t any. But for the faithful, the difference is of utmost significance.
    Vis a vis wine tasting (and wine is like holy water for us secular humanists), it’s quite true that people cannot regularly distinguish plonk from Bandol in a blind tasting. But that misses the point. When one remembers that exquisite dinner in Menton, soup d’poissons and the Bandol that went with it, it makes all the difference in the world.

  4. I sent a glass of wine back once. The bottle had obviously been open to long, because it tasted strongly of vinegar. The bartender tasted it and agreed, and seemed fine with opening a new bottle.

    But the problem was not subtle, and I too have failed blind wine tastings. Have done well with gin tastings, though.

  5. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair:

    ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his expensive hobby depends on not understanding it.’

    If the purpose of accumulating wealth is for your enjoyment later, then one can hardly fault Felix for finding more enjoyment when parting with a greater part of his wealth. I feel that is the distinguishing characteristic of “luxury goods”. The price you had to pay to acquire them directly translates into your enjoyment.

  6. “The line I didn’t think of in time to use is that’s it’s like getting a placebo effect from a drug when you know it’s a placebo”

    how about in reverence to the price and the presumably elegant way of serving it, you alert all your sensual faculties whereupon in a tasting you always know that you will have to come up with something sensible and rational i.e. you are multitasking. In my book trying to evaluate something in a maybe competitive situation is not conducive to keeping the senses on high alert.

    I once was hit by a wine consumed in a first big gulp thought to be a country wine which it was only it was the viners wine for home consumption – despite all the lack of ceremony and despite my knowing or guessing nothing that I had been served anything else than our normal local stuff I gasped with surprise and pleasure and only then found out

    the stuff was to labour intensive to make for the market …

  7. I skip the wine for today and go to the financial sector issue.

    I saw two quite bright likable young men who are well on the road of gaining a good and balanced understanding of financial regulations and of what happened; and making many interesting comments. Hopefully one day, before they become baby-boomers, they will start to address the issue of the need for society of risk-taking, especially as a counterweight for that prevailing wish of being able to avert risk.

    That said I heard a very good comment on an issue I have written a lot about in my homeland and that is making sure we produce some very safe investments, for “widows and orphans”. For instance sectors that can provide super-safe investments like regulated electricity distribution companies, should always be financed by widow and orphans instead of making it risky by imposing unnecessary high financial leverages. Let’s keep our risk-taking to where it is really needed. Look at what happened…. mortgages to houses in the US… something that should be so safe is bringing down the world… while we the risky climate change problem is left unattended.

    That said what most stayed with me of the debate was the question… if these young professionals have already reached this far… should we not have the right to expect at least as much and more wisdom from our regulators?

  8. Per,
    do I get it, if I translate it for my personal memory into “we” wanted products with “widows and orphans” safety but buccaneer profits/returns i.e. eat the cake and keep it?

  9. Thanks James. You have a big head in the right way.

    Now photographer would say you were simply too close to the camera lens which would still be OK if it were a wide angle lens.

  10. But N did not say things are not authentic just because we recognize their “human, all too human” origins.

    He said the opposite – that we can still appreciate them on a deeper level even as we intellectually understand their real nature. That understanding and psychological/emotional/spiritual tone coloring do not have to be mutually exclusive.

    He considered it characteristic of shallow fanaticism to say, for example, that if we recognize that the Enlightenment was wrong, that reason has limits, then we must immediately devalue reason to uselessness.

    No, we can still value and fruitfully use reason, we only need to be aware of its limits.

    To give an example of intellect and spirit not having to exclude one another, when I eat a tomato or cucumber from my garden, although I intellectually understand that they’re probably not more tasty than what I could get fresh at a farmers’ market, still, because they’re my vegetables, they still taste better to me.

  11. Sort of. Can you think of a more safer sector where widows and orphans could invest to receive a small but totally safe return than an electrical distribution company? Well not any longer, financial engineers substituted for electrical engineers and short-circuit these companies into highly speculative affairs attracting high yield searching moneys, and that we electricity consumers now have to pay for in our utility bill.

  12. And while the widows and orphans have to go looking for AAAs in California

  13. Much more civilized than my last experience with alcohol. There is a mexican restaurant near where we live — oldest in our part of town — which declined to the point that they sold it for a song. We were there just before it was sold. We ordered margaritas. I noticed that there was very little to no tequila at all in mine. I told the waiter. A few minutes later the manager/bartender stomped over to our table, huffing and puffing with a bottle in each hand and began to pour from both into my glass. While it was overflowing, he was yelling “IS THIS ENOUGH?? IS THIS ENOUGH??”

  14. Why California? Because of our delightful electrical system?

  15. No anything with an AAA was as good as gold!!!

  16. How timely. USA Today (known tool of the vino-industrial complex) has partnered with an online wine merchant and sent out a press release.


    (Via the site that shall not be mentioned)

  17. I wonder if wine tasting makes any sense at all.

    In visual perception experiments it is well documented that the same color appears to be different depending on neighboring colors.

    Similarly, the same wine might taste different depending on what food you’re having with it. One could hypothesize that taste buds are chemically affected by food.

    In a tasting situation, your appreciation of wine B might be skewed by wine A you’ve had just before. You could try to clean your palate with water or whatever but that might not be enough. Taste buds could have some “memory”.

  18. I think you are quite right there
    – for example I have never managed to sample more than one perfume at a time and wine is as much perfume as it is taste

    in the Rhineland you are asked to “neutralize” your taste buds with dry bread. Also I have been told again and again by hosts that the art of the host is to get you drunk as fast as possible on the inexpensive wines – you taste from country up to exquisite – and as tastings are done before dinner!!! even the cautious tasters are affected – yes there are spitting bowls but who likes to spit in front of his business partners – the by now very hungry and tipsy ones are very willing to place orders and quite often they may get good even if slightly overpriced stuff

    maybe you do it in more refined ways but in decadent old Europe those unimpressive looking hosts can turn it into quite something – I especially remember a withered old lady with unruly hair and a well-worn apron …

  19. D. Christopher Leonard

    I stand corrected, my intent was to emphasize the made character of culture (and, hence, that rationality always operates from a priori assumptions not subject to reason). But N. also saw in the will to power a human capacity pervading all ‘cultural’ projects (the end product of that theme is Foucault, the consummate nihilist).

  20. james’s big head a must see! The sight of it added a unique dimension to the subject matter…especially juxtaposed, as it was, to Felix’s rather narrow small head. Not the highlight of my day, but right UP there! :-)

  21. This piece prompts me to write about wine. A number of years ago, I strove to become a bit of the minor wine expert. I had a friend who was what Rober Parker would call a “wine snob.” She thought that finding a bottle of good wine for less than $30 was impossible, and knew that I knew that. One evening over dinner, I opened a bottle of Parker’s $10 special, and pour her a glass. She raved about it, using the usual descriptors that wine snob prefer in the case of a real “find.” Later when I showed her the sales slip, the joke was revealed, and the blush (not on the wine) was substantial. Parker always said the the best wine is the wine each of us favors, because everyone’s taste buds and other olefactory senses are different. I take lots of cheap risks these days, and have found some substantially good stull for cheap.

  22. Actually, the original video I sent them (this is done with webcams) was much wider and my head was not so big – at least I don’t think it was. So it was edited like that.

    Or, maybe what happened is that I shot it in 4:3 (wider than tall), and my head looked fine because of all the extra space to each side. But when they cropped off the sides (to make it 2:3, so it could be combined with Felix) then my head started to look too big.

  23. I finally saw the video today, and it was quite good. You are sitting too close to the camera :)