Wine Tasting, Empiricism, and Perception

Builds Upon: Photography, Transience, Memories
Neatness: The Religion of the Rectilinear

I had read about scientists fooling professional wine tasters by merely putting food coloring in the wine, by changing the labels on the bottles they were being served, by serving up the same wine in different bottles, or by telling them nothing at all about what they were drinking.  The scientists’ conclusion?:  Even the professionals are all frauds.  We are incapable of actually knowing what we’re eating or drinking.  Our perceptions are all hopelessly skewed by emotions, suggestion, and expectations. Therefore, we’re mostly wrong most of the time without strict methods of empirical observation.  Scientists have demonstrated yet again that they are the indisputable bookkeepers and accountants of a collective reality.

Yet science also tells us that the human nose has countless receptors that account for most of our sense of taste.  Researchers are amazed at the incredibly small number of particles per million we are capable of detecting.  Scientists and advertisers are especially intrigued to discover that our sense of smell has more immediate, visceral access to our brain than any other.  We are deeply influenced by smells without even consciously perceiving them.

When it comes to foods and scents:

The appeal or the very nature of a food changes relative to our mood, our circumstances, our bodily needs of the moment.

A stick of butter would taste very different on the first bite than on the last.

Thus butter indeed tastes different to me based on the state of my body and my mood.  Empirically I am wrong.  I have been ‘fooled’ by my senses.  It is the same stick of butter each time I take a bite from it.  If I were in any way rational, I would tell them after each bite that the stick of butter tasted and felt the same, even as I approached the point of wanting to vomit.  The scientists would celebrate another defeat for subjective perception and another victory for empirical observation.

I wonder if the outcome of these experiments means what the scientists think it means.

With wine, I imagine that one gets hints of different kinds of flavors depending on what it’s eaten with, how much wine has already been drank,  one’s mental state.  Whatever the body craves at the moment will taste far better than it usually would.  A wine will taste better or worse depending on one’s personal taste or on what wines one has had before.   I’m sure a cheap wine tastes as good as an expensive wine if one has had to go a year without any wine at all.  Many variables could affect the perception of the taste of wine.

I am very far from any kind of a wine tasting professional but I can readily say that I much prefer a Cabernet Sauvignon to a Merlot.  How on Earth could  I possibly have the gall to state any such preference if I ought not to be able to tell the difference between a white and a red?

To me, an affordable merlot tastes like a watered down cabernet.  The same oak and blackberries minus the cleansing dryness and full body.  A merlot is something of a blank slate that requires an artist to paint on it.  Paying more a higher price per bottle is almost necessary to get a good one.  It’s just not a good everyday table wine.  I think of it as the gateway wine beginners, appletini ladies, and light beer guys can tolerate.

All these detailed, emotionally charged opinions yet I admit I could be easily fooled in a taste test.  If I were blindfolded, I might not be able to tell the difference between a cab and a merlot.  I might taste one of the wines and wonder whether it was a lousy cab or a typical beginner’s merlot.  It could be either one.  Not only are there lots of wine varietals, there’s a huge amount of variation for each varietal.  Without something to go on, I just wouldn’t know.  Upon guessing the wrong one, the scientists would pull off my blindfold and say “HA HA!  Fooled you!  Your pathetic little senses can’t do nothing without strict empirical, quantitative, observations!”

However, science has found that especially when it comes to taste and smell, our limited conscious awareness of the experience is but the tip of the iceberg.   Scientific inquiry has already demonstrated that most of the impact of taste/smell is subconscious!  Can our judgments and preferences be said to be a complete flight of fancy if we are not fully consciously aware of the experience.

In an empirical, standardized mass reality, an inability to declare=falsifiability.  Thus we’re all frauds for preferring either white or red wine.  If you can’t produce the correct information on demand, you obviously don’t know it.

Yet most scientists probably couldn’t tell me what they had for dinner three months ago.  The same scientists would likely be flabbergasted if I suggested that if they could not remember eating anything for dinner on that day, clearly they had eaten nothing at all.  I would further explain that the idea of having eaten dinner that night is merely a comforting self-delusion and a product of their shoddy emotional brains.

I have a very rational friend who once amused himself by giving me a special test.  He moved the bookmark in the book I was reading forward a few pages while I was away and watched what happened when I returned.  I kept reading without realizing what he’d done.  He eventually told me what he’d done and I found myself feeling angry about his meddling.  “How can those pages matter,” he argued, “If you didn’t realize they weren’t missing it makes no difference whether or not they were there.”  At the time I felt a sense of stubborn indignation and did not know quite how to counter him.  Yet I could have asked him to tell me what happened on page 304 of his edition of ‘Fellowship of the Ring’.  He would not have been able to produce any details for me.  I could therefore have come to a couple of different conclusions.

-He’s a fraud and never actually read through the book.

-He must have accidentally skipped page 304.  Nothing important must have happened if he didn’t even realize he had missed it.

We find that it is the general, partially conscious, emotional information that is truly important to us.  My friend couldn’t recite for me the content from a single page of the book, but clearly he got something out of it.  It’s one of his favorite books.  He probably could have read and enjoyed the story just the same without a page 304.  Yet he would have lost something from the overall memory of having read that book.  The loss of one or even a few pages might be trivial, but every single page fleshes out the concept even if no individual page can be explicitly recalled to memory.

In many ways, the emotionally charged perception and memory is the hardest to access reliably through conscious inquiry or to articulate in its fullness to a scientific questioner.

Thus:  Have we all been proven frauds for preferring different kinds of wine over others?  OR is judging our perception only by empirical information immediately obtainable at the conscious level simply an approach ill-suited to gauging human perception and memory?

If a stick of butter tastes different after each bite, is it extraordinary to suppose that even a glass of wine could taste a little different after every sip?  As the state of the body changes, the state of perception must change.  Are the senses fooling themselves.  Not really.  They give us information relative to our needs and circumstances.  We’re living things subject to constant change, not static scientific instruments.

So naturally, if we’re called on to behave like scientific instruments, we’re going to fail.

Perhaps it is the very difficulty of applying order and categorization to the sense of taste/smell that has attracted the attention of strict empiricists.  Perhaps this fixation on demonstrating the ‘inaccuracy’ of human perception is a result of an inability to accept or understand the transient, entropic nature of the universe.

Photography, Transience, Memories

When one works with a camera, one is at the mercy of the lighting.  Arriving at a great place just moments too late can make all the difference.  The very best shots are available during the high contrast and long shadows at sunrise and sunset.  It is precisely under these conditions when light is fleeting and timing is critical.

Often I would be a little late to get one shot I wanted, only to have changing light conditions  reveal an even better opportunity.  Through many such experiences I came to realize that there was an infinity of good shots to be taken, every one unique.  Instead of snapping shots everywhere I only bothered to aim my lens at the very best opportunities.

In two months traveling through Europe I took well over a thousand pictures.  But my camera only held a thousand or so.  As my travels progressed I selected the best of the best until I had an elite archive.

Then somehow towards the end of my journeys, that camera disappeared for good.  I was truly upset for a couple of days afterwards.  All my work had been for nothing.  Over all that time shooting pictures, my skill had been getting progressively better.  In one event, all progress had been arrested, all gains annulled.

I still feel that loss to this day, but I learned a lot.

Before that camera disappeared I felt on one level that a moment not recorded was lost forever.   I believed that a moment taken away from specific recall was all but erased.  I wanted to see every little detail of everything I had experienced.

Yet the loss of that camera forced me to think about what was most important and of the nature of memories and experiences.

Even if I was deprived of the specific detailed, empirical record of an event, the general memory and its emotional impact remained with me.

This incident led me towards making the distinction between explicit linear factual recall and non-specific experiential recall.

That is:

-The ability to recall the exact date and time I last had meatloaf for dinner.  Memory of exactly how much meatloaf I ate.

versus

-My knowledge of the taste of meatloaf, its smell, its general appearance.  A concept distilled from all the times I’ve eaten meatloaf.  The emotions meatloaf evokes.

As I thought about it, I realized that I had been heavily influenced by living in a heavily empirical culture.  I had felt that losing my photographic record was like losing a major part of my travels.  I was disturbed by the prospect of not being able to account for every museum, every church I’d gone to and when I’d done it.  I didn’t want to lose the details of a place that my eyes would remember imperfectly.

Over the next couple of years, I had no camera and when I finally got another one, I hardly ever used it.  My attitude had changed.

I had transitioned to simply enjoying each new location that I went to without worrying about pictures and memories.  As a result I felt much more relaxed and in the moment as I explored.  I felt liberated.  “Didn’t you take any pictures?” I was asked.  “No.” I replied with a shrug.  Keeping facts lined up in our declarative memory is a lot of work.  Allowing preconscious impressions to seep into my mind required no work at all.  Retaining the gist, sensation, and emotion of an experience is automatic.  It is strongest when I’m free to focus on the emotional  The impulse to put it all in order and retain information with precision was causing me to compromise my experiences.  At times, I was working when I should have been playing, seeing extraordinary things through a lens instead of my own eyes.  At the extreme, the capture of images associated with an experience was approaching the experience itself in importance.

Yet the image is a pale light impression that fails even to capture the perspective of human vision.  It imperfectly retains but one of our senses from the past.  Upon this realization I pondered that the photo itself is not much.  Its value must come from the things it can do.

A photo:

-Can evoke all the other senses from memory whenever it is looked at.

The memories of the experience evoked by a photo are already there.  The photo just helps bring it all into the conscious mind at once in a cohesive package.   It seemed to me then that photography doesn’t even succeed at being a record of the past.  It’s mostly just a reference point for the non-linear, non-declarative, sub-conscious memory.

-Serves as ‘proof’ to show to other people.

This I think is the big reason I was on my vacation constantly taking photos.  Most of us want to show others where we’ve been and what we’ve seen.  I was working, in part, to impress others even at the expense of my own experience.

Losing that camera invited me to explore a new avenue of thought:

I reflected on the nature of memory based on the lessons I had learned:

I can’t remember every time I’ve drank water, but I know the taste of water and have a general idea of how its taste can vary.  Every time I’ve ever drank water has contributed to my overall impression of the experience.   Each iteration of this mundane act piles up like autumn leaves upon a forest floor.  In truth, no time I’ve ever drank water has ever been lost.  Everything I’ve ever done leaves an impression on my mind.  Only the barest sliver of my experience can be explicitly recalled to the conscious mind, rationalized, categorized, dated, and sorted.

I now have more of an expectation that experience will take care of itself.  After a hiatus of a few years I’ve finally started using my camera on trips again.  I finally felt ready.  Now the sense of duty, urgency, and hurry that I felt when trying to get good photos is mostly gone.

First, I learned to accept the passing of the light.  To not be upset whenever I lost the opportunity for a great shot.

I was forced to be completely aware of the transience of this world.  I knew that the shadows would never again fall in exactly the same extraordinary way.  It was a limited offer.  One time only!  Faced with this reality, the continuation of photography forced me to accept and eventually to embrace this fundamental condition.   This type of thinking extended into the rest of life.  The desire to fix something in time could never be fulfilled. I shrugged off mishaps that would have caused others to look back with bitterness and regret.  Even the prospect of death seemed so much smaller than it once had.

I came to realize why:

-Those at peace with disorder are relaxed, lazy, content, unambitious.

-Those who are driven to order the universe are invariably uptight, busy, neurotic, consumed by ambition.

Second, after losing the camera, I learned to value the primacy of overall impressions over exacting precision and intuition over direct cognition.  Precision is of only so much use when the universe is chaotic and shifting.  The rules lie in the fluctuating patterns.  The human mind clearly does not function as a boolean machine.  Our mind absorbs experience very well, but it does not seem to use a file cabinet.  In any case, our limited capacity to file is not what makes information important to us.  A piece of information with a high level of impact stays with us more intensely than something more recent and trivial.  The passage of time wears down memories, but I would suppose we perceive the major events of our lives like distant mountain peaks when we look back.  Time seems to wear down the far mountains with imperceptible slowness while it clears away a nearby expanse of rolling sand dunes within a  few weeks.  Our perception of time is distorted and non-linear, thus we go through life pretending we’re all walking the same line through time.

This made me think of studies that have shown the fallibility of human perception and memory…

Poverty Is Expensive

Living from paycheck to paycheck is its own greatest expense.

Living in a persistent state of urgency forces one to opt for the most expensive, least efficient options.

This form of poverty does not just apply to those who we usually consider poor.  Those with trappings of middle class or even luxury frequently live in a similar state of desperation.

One is:

-Forced to buy in micro-quantities and convenience portions

Making large, judicious purchases is the best way to maximize bang for buck.  Buying in small individually packaged portions is the least efficient way to make purchases.  This is just what the poor must do.  Living from day to day, week to week, they don’t have the luxury of buying outside the moment.  They  must pay the highest possible prices for each item.

-Forced to pay off interest

What is interest but the purchase of money one doesn’t actually have?

The greater the lack of money, the greater the lack of it costs.

In a state of poverty, even the slightest of mishaps forces one to rely on the purchase of non-existent cash.  It might make tomorrow even more difficult to survive, but what does it matter if one has to get through today first?

-Forced to constantly replace or repair low quality merchandise

Purchasing for the day means paying more in the long run as a whole collection of shoddy merchandise constantly breaks down and expires.

The expenses incurred by a steady stream of emergency driven purchases preclude ever getting ahead.

-Forced to pay for health care that wouldn’t have been necessary without the poor nutrition, lack of time for exercise, and chronic stress inflicted by poverty.

With no means of tending to one’s wellbeing and living in a state of powerlessness, one ends up faced with enormous expenses wealthier persons can avoid through healthier more fulfilling lifestyles.  Just one collapse in health can create yet another set of expenses for hospital bills or prescription medications.  The cost of poverty rises that much higher.

-Forced to deal entirely in steadily inflating liquid assets.

Economies are kept burning through steady increase in the money supply.  The value of liquid assets has nowhere to go but down in the long run.  New minimum wages are set only when they can no longer possibly be avoided.  Largely static wages for low end jobs spend years declining in purchasing power until an already tight situation becomes untenable.

-Deprived of Free Capital and Time To Invest

The immediate needs of survival preclude the accumulation of any additional assets whatsoever.  Investments, acquisition of new skills become impossible.  The money necessary to get money is never available.

The Hidden Costs of Material Possessions

When wealth is beyond the subsistence level, humans accumulate possessions.  Each possession acquired has a market value that tells us it is worth something.

One cannot go to a store and buy an item of negative or neutral value.  Every item we can buy has a positive value that represents the good it will contribute to our lives.  Every value on the price tags is the cost of acquiring a possession.  There will never be a price tag that adds all the hidden costs poorly chosen possessions can bring into our lives.

Vendors naturally want us to be surrounded by all the wonderful things we can buy.  Pay up and its ours.   It’s up to the buyer to realize that acquisition is not necessarily in one’s best interest and each additional possession must be chosen wisely.

There are many factors to take into account beyond the price tag when looking at the store shelf:

-Takes up space

If we have possessions, we need some place to store them.  If not in a residence, in a rented storage unit.  Either a residence or a storage unit are expenses we must pay when we own more things than we can carry.  All possessions that occupy space are thus subject to this ‘tax’ on ownership.  If we added the costs of storage to the original price of a good, the number on the tag would likely be radically changed.

-Maintaining a residence

If one needs a residence large enough to store possessions, how much time, effort, and money does it cost to keep the residence in working order?

-Maintenance costs of a purchase

Does it need to be repaired, tuned, patched, primped, polished, scrubbed, dusted?  Does one need to pay a specialist to come in and take care of it?  If not, how much time does it take to do all these things oneself.  Even if dusting a single item takes very little time, what if one has many items that need to be dusted.  How much precious time in a year do these possessions collectively suck up in rote maintenance tasks.  What could one have been doing instead?

-Costs money to move it

Not only do possessions occupy space, they have to be moved to another space whenever there is a change in residency or even in the configuration of the residence.  The result is additional time and trouble added to the true price of each item.

-Ties one down to a single location

It is very difficult to be flexible or mobile if one has a residence full of material possessions.  Moving one’s base of operations becomes an extremely unpleasant, time consuming, expensive operation.  Once again, the actual monetary cost of each possession rises each time it is moved from one residence to another.

-Makes the owner a target/vulnerable to loss

If you have something worth stealing, you must sacrifice a certain peace of mind and perpetually worry about someone taking it all away.  It gives dangerous strangers an incentive to approach you or your residence, putting one in danger.  Furthermore, any number of accidents or mishaps including a fire could result in the destruction of one’s possessions.  Is the worry and the increased vulnerability worth the benefits derived?

-Does it break? Is buying new ones periodically cheaper than investing in a high quality one.

Buying the cheapest, flimsiest version possible can lead to long term greater expenditures.  On the other hand, one need not be concerned about the cheap or disposable version getting lost or broken.  It’s sometimes worth it for increased mobility and peace of mind.

-Adds to Distraction/Confusion

Each material possession occupies an area in space that could be occupied by another.  Which single possession gives us the highest payoff when it occupies a given area?  What losses do we suffer by choosing sub-optimal items to occupy a given space?

Each sub-optimal item is a distraction that makes each valuable item more difficult to find, access, and use.  Beyond an economical number, possessions tend to pile up, obstructing and hiding one another.  The collective value of one’s possessions starts to go downward.  The returns of acquisition start to diminish.  Each additional possession becomes more difficult to  keep track of than the last.  Tracking each item takes up mental space we could be using for other things.  The more items, the more ways these items could interact, compromise, or hide one another.  Thus, the increase in energy and thought required to keep our possessions in order is going to increase geometrically rather than in a linear fashion.  Thus, sub-optimal possessions actually obstruct our ability to derive benefits from our most useful possessions on both the physical and mental levels.

-Opportunity cost

Is a good the single best thing one could be buying?  What opportunities is one losing by choosing to acquire?  Another, better possession is usually the least of one’s worries.  How much personal freedom does one lose by making it necessary to work in order to pay for one’s purchases?  Even if a possession would be nice to own, surely it must be truly wonderful or indispensable to be worth a measure of time and freedom.

When these factors are considered:

Do we own our possessions or do they own us?

Are we living for ourselves and the people who matter to us or the things we buy?

How much time do I NOT spend supporting pre-existing purchases and straining to be able to make new ones that create still more liability and obligation?

The Absolute Value of Material Goods

“You get what you pay for.” says the old adage.

More money= more quality/utility

Yet this is a vast simplification:

-A good can be overpriced relative to the larger market

-A good might not be necessary regardless of cost

-A good might not be useful regardless of cost

-A good might not be desirable

-The price of a good and the possession of a good might cause more trouble than it’s worth.

-Social prestige might be a major factor in a purchase.  Thus one pays a premium price for good that is far more elaborate than necessary even it is functionally inferior to a lower cost alternative or altogether unnecessary.

What do we really get when we pay?  What does the amount we pay mean?  What is this amount derived from?

We get a numerical value relative to the demand for a good.  A price is just a result of our desires in aggregate.

What one person pays has little to do with whatever benefit or detriment a single person derives from a good.

Thus there is need for every person who uses money to assess the absolute value of a good.

A figure that relates to the average potential customer is of little help.  One must consider their own situation, not that of others if they are to pursue their own best interests.  Thus an absolute value is the opposite of  a market price emergent from a collective average.  Absolute value = the value of a good to a single individual.  I call it absolute because it is the real value.  If one desperately needs a good, we pay the collective value for its purchase.  If we don’t need it at all, we still pay the collective value.

Thus focusing on absolute value leads us maximize the utility of each purchase relative to our individual situation.  It also leads us to avoid purchases that are of secondary, minimal, or detrimental utility relative to our actual lives.

Let us say there is a person with a wallet with $100 wandering around the desert about to die of thirst.  This person comes to a small shop.   Inside the shop there are two items for sale.

One is a huge jug of water for $1.  The other is an umbrella holder made to look like a hollowed out elephant’s foot for $100.

The cost of these items must:

-Include production costs plus a profit margin for the merchant and suppliers

-Be equal to the value emergent from aggregate demand

If the person stranded in the desert were to reason in terms of market value, the umbrella holder is a hundred times more valuable than the water.  There could not be a moment’s hesitation.  The person dying from thirst would buy the umbrella holder.

If this same person were to reason in terms of absolute value, the water would be worth all money available.  It would be worth obtaining through non-monetary means such as theft.  The umbrella holder would have a negative value because:

-Its purchase would deprive the person of water.

-It would serve no function

-It would be a burden

However, the thirsty person would be happy to pay just one dollar for the water and maximize the utility of their situation.

If the shopkeeper offered a jug of super-rare spring water for $100 the person would decline this offer and purchase the regular water instead.  It would provide the exact same utility for 1/100 the price.  It would also leave the person with left over money to purchase more water.

Thus a person reasoning by absolute value takes advantage of the market wherever possible while avoiding less optimal purchases altogether.