Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
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Selection from Cites & Insights 11, Number 6: June/July 2011

My Back Pages

If I Don’t See the Difference…

…then nobody else does, or nobody else should, or nobody should pay extra for the difference. Or any of a number of similar arguments, expressed with comments like “why bother?” or “scientific” claims (such as results of surveys where a few hundred folks can’t reliably tell which of two wines, tasted blind, is more expensive).

Sometimes it’s a little stronger. Blake Carver, who in many ways I like and admire (otherwise, C&I wouldn’t be hosted at LISHost), gave this as his reason for posting a link that, at third hand, discussed such a survey—that is, 587 participants were only 50% successful in deciding which of two wines was more expensive—“oenophiles are all full of shit and it's all just subjective and people waste a stupid amount of time and money on spoiled grape juice.”

OK, that’s hyperbole on Blake’s part—or at least I think it is.

Here’s what I wrote about this, entirely off the cuff (it couldn’t have taken much more than half an hour), in a Walt at Random post, “Plonk and circumstance,” on April 18, 2011:

Lifehacker has a story entitled “Why It May Make Sense To Reach for the Cheaper Wine.” It references a BBC report based on blind taste tests among 587 people at the Edinburgh Science Festival, tests indicating that people were only about 50% successful in deciding which of two wines was more expensive, based only on the taste.

The BBC report has a misleading title–”Cheap wine ‘good as pricier bottles’ – blind taste test”–and a highly questionable concluding paragraph:

Lead researcher psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman said: “These are remarkable results. People were unable to tell expensive from inexpensive wines, and so in these times of financial hardship the message is clear – the inexpensive wines we tested tasted the same as their expensive counterparts.”

Without seeing the full study and what wines were involved, it’s impossible to provide a full critique, but right off the bat a couple of things should be obvious:

As stated, the test was not whether people could tell a difference in the taste of two wines. It was whether they could accurately say which one cost more. Those are entirely different things.

On the other hand, this paragraph is almost certainly correct–but also almost certainly blindingly obvious: “University of Hertfordshire researchers say their findings indicate many people may just be paying for a label.” Wow! Some people buy more expensive X because of the label, not the quality (or think that because X2 costs more than X1, it must be better). I can think of dozens, probably hundreds of values for X where that’s true; that it might be true of wine as well should come as no surprise.

There’s another related story at StackExchange, and I link to it not so much for the text as for the comments, which are relatively few and in some cases fairly interesting (even if the first one is flatly wrong–some of France’s most expensive and best-known wines are blends, as a fast response points out). Come to think of it, the third and fourth comments on the Lifehacker story–as I write this–are also worthwhile, if somewhat less formal. (Also the fifth and sixth if you expand the comments.)

I labeled the story and study “silly” in a Friendfeed thread. I did so because, at least as reported, the study doesn’t really lead anywhere.

Why? Because we should know this, and it’s true not only of wines but of many, perhaps most, products that engage subjective evaluation. It boils down to this:

Different people have different tastes and different sensitivity levels–and for many people, subjective response is based on more than a narrow objective reality.

I believe that’s exactly as it should be. I’m occasionally offended by reviews where I believe the reviewer is overstating objective differences because of subjective preferences that may have nothing to do with actual performance–thus, my occasional My Back Pages comments on some high-end stereo reviews.

Which is to say: There’s nothing wrong at all with a wealthy person paying $25,000 for an amplifier with badly substandard frequency response and low wattage because they like the way it looks, or they love the warm glow of tubes, or they like the maker, or they just like having a rare amplifier. I’m mildly offended by reviewers asserting that the $25,000 amplifier is Clearly Superior to a $500 amplifier, and worth every cent, when it appears from the article that they’re as much influenced by their friendship with the manufacturer as by the actual sound. Understanding that blind testing of audio products, as with many other products, is inherently flawed, I’ve always wondered what a “Radio Shack test” would yield–that is, a testing regimen in which the reviewer can take as much time as he or she wants, but the device being tested is encased in a cabinet that makes it indistinguishable from the cheapest device sold by Radio Shack.

The general case: Sensitivity and acuity

On one hand, it should be obvious that most of us aren’t terribly sensitive to differences in most areas of daily life, and that’s probably as it should be.

Would most beer drinkers–or, even worse, most non-beer drinkers–properly guess which was more expensive (or which was “better”) if served Brew 102 (if it still exists) or Fisher and, alongside, the most expensive beer of similar style in the world?

I suspect most people who don’t drink high-end Scotch wouldn’t be better than random chance at determining whether a $10 Scotch or a $250 Scotch was “better” or “more expensive” or even different–I don’t think I would be able to make those distinctions, and if I did, I might well prefer the simpler character of the cheap Scotch. (This may not be a fair comparison–it appears that the price differentials in the wine test were as small as 2:1, not 10:1…or in the case of sparkling wine, only 1.7:1. I suspect I couldn’t reliably tell you which of two sparkling wines, one costing $29 and one costing $46, the dollar equivalent of the stated £ prices, was the more expensive–that’s a price range in which I’d expect the wines to both be excellent with subtle differences. Given that our favorite sparkling wine, Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc, is in the $24-$27 range, I can comfortably state that I wouldn’t expect to reliably tell whether a $46 blanc de blanc was better or more expensive.)

It’s not just drink. Can you really tell me that most people could tell whether a pair of shoes cost $75 or $150 based on how comfortable or well-constructed they are? (Or, let’s say, a good pair of Rockports vs. a pair of designer shoes costing four times as much.) That most people could tell whether a painting is worth $10 or $200 based on nothing more than the image? That most people hearing a stereo costing $2,000 and one costing $1,000 can tell which is which or which costs more? (Especially if the only difference between the two is in either a digital frontend or the amplification…tell me that the average listener can tell which of a $12,000 CD player or a $200 CD player is more expensive, given only audible clues!)

The specific case: Price in wine is a complex proposition

That’s true in many other fields as well. If you think there’s a direct ratio between cost and either quality or “driving experience” in automobiles, I’d beg to differ. A VW Golf is a 50% better car than a Honda Fit? A BMW 750LI will give you three times the driving pleasure of an Acura TSX and 4.5 times the pleasure of a Hyundai Sonata? Really?

With wine–as with many other products–the price involves a whole bunch of things, all of which can affect worth for some consumers: Rarity (size of producer, size of production), complexity, time spent in production, deliberate marketing decisions…

There are lots of California red wines priced at $75/bottle and up because the tiny little wineries that make them have based their business plans on such high prices. I’m not likely to try any of them, and not worry about what I’m missing. In many cases, those pricey wines are also very high alcohol because that’s what Robert Parker and some other wine critics seem to like; if I was to taste one of these 14.5-15% $75 wines vs. a decently-made $12 wine with 13.5% alcohol, I’d probably prefer the “cheap” wine–and might even assume it was more expensive.

There’s a reason Two Buck Chuck is so popular. It’s not terrible wine. It’s simple wine without lots of pretension. That makes it preferable to more expensive wines for many buyers. I don’t buy it these days, but I don’t disdain it.

I do buy $4 Chardonnays at Trader Joe’s, and $5 Chardonnays and $6 Chardonnays. In general, I find them to be better values and better wines than quite a few $8-$12 name-brand Chardonnays, partly because they’re usually 12.5%-13% alcohol, partly because they’re well-made with no marketing budget. But we also picked up a $26 Chardonnay at a Livermore winery; it’s probably worth the money–but I’d rarely want to drink a bottle that expensive. I’ve certainly had $12 and $15 wines that simply didn’t taste as good as $4 wines–and I’ve tasted $30 and $40 wines that I wouldn’t serve on a bet.

There’s no accounting for tastes–and there’s very little accounting for taste sensitivity. That makes most studies of these sorts not terribly useful, except for those who want to convince themselves that there really aren’t any differences between different products. Sometimes, even that’s true–but not generally.

You love your high-end Cognac? Good for you. I simply wouldn’t appreciate the difference between it and E&J. I might or might not be able to tell the difference but I wouldn’t appreciate it. So, for me, it’s not worth the substantial extra cost. That’s partly because cognac and brandy don’t interest me (same with most booze, actually). It’s also partly because it’s not a sensitivity I’ve chosen to cultivate, and might not have even if I did so. Doesn’t mean there are no differences.

Oh, and as to cars? There’s a reason I’ve never owned anything but Honda Civics, and if that changes, it would change toward a Fit, not a Mercedes or Lamborghini…even if I won SuperLotto.

That’s the general case, and maybe it’s all there is to say. Here’s a recent example of what you could also call “leveling”—the assertion that, because some people or most people or, more particularly, the person speaking doesn’t hear or see or taste or appreciate a difference, therefore nobody does or should, or at least nobody should cater to that difference.

To wit, “iTunes may upgrade to 24-bit files, but why bother?”—appearing some time in March 2011 on ars technica. (I do wish at would run actual publication dates, not stuff like “Last updated about a month ago). The story’s by Chris Foresman, and here’s the lead:

In the age of highly compressed music files playing on iPods and even lower-quality Pandora streams playing on iPhones, some artists, music producers, and others in the music industry are apparently pushing for iTunes and other digital download services to adopt higher-fidelity 24-bit files. But while a small niche of audiophiles might appreciate the move, it seems unlikely that the necessary sea change in hardware and software will happen in order to support such a move, nor do we see consumers flocking to 24-bit files in order to make it economically viable.

The last sentence there is at least partly nonsense: Hardware and software to handle 24-bit, 96kHz downloads and digital music already exists, and there appears to be enough of a market for it to support more devices in the marketplace. “Economically viable” is a tricky term—to some commentators, anything short of a billion-dollar marketplace isn’t economically viable, while to lots of small businessfolk, a million dollars a year would be enormous success.

Fortunately, in the real world, there’s room for both—which makes me wonder why Foresman seems to feel the higher resolution should be suppressed. The next paragraph is a little silly, in that it mentions the wider dynamic range possible with 24-bit samples but fails to note the much larger problem: Most contemporary music has its dynamic range compressed to nearly nothing. Similarly, while some people play music in highly-compressed form, it’s pretty clear that millions of people have happily migrated to less-compressed or uncompressed music as player capacities have risen. “In an age of” is one of those “I’m about to make an unsupportable generalization” headers: This is, in fact, an age of 24/96 music, highly-compressed music, the growth of vinyl, and all stations in between. Isn’t that kind of diversity and choice what we’re supposed to get in a “digital age”?

I wonder about this statement: “The difference between an uncompressed 24-bit/96kHz recording master and a 256kbps, 16-bit/44.1kHz iTunes Plus track is great indeed…” If that’s true, why shouldn’t high-end music-lovers have the choice? For me, for most music, the difference between a 320k MP3 track that began as a 16/44 CD track and the CD track itself isn’t clearly audible—but that’s for me, for most music. I wouldn’t be in the market for 24/96 recordings. I’m not the potential customer.

The story goes on to describe all the components that would need to downsample 24/96 recordings to play them, which is irrelevant unless someone’s trying to get Apple to stop selling 256K MP3 downloads. When the story goes on to say “The case could be made that 24-bit audio files would sound better, assuming consumers could (or would) get access to hardware capable of playing it,” it’s confusing mass-market issues with reality. Consumers can and do gain access to hardware capable of playing 24/96 streams. That’s like saying that expensive wine and better-than-Coors beer shouldn’t exist because 90% of consumers won’t pay for them and wouldn’t appreciate the difference. Or, for that matter, that no restaurant selling burgers that cost three times as much as Big Macs could possibly survive, since 90% of customers won’t care about the difference.

The final paragraph says: “For the vast majority of listeners—many of which are satisfied with low-bit rate streams from the likes of Pandora—a transition to 24-bit audio would be superfluous.” I’m sure that’s true. It’s also meaningless.

As to actual availability…as far as I know, every Mac OS and Windows computer can store big files and can transmit data fast enough to handle 24/96 streams. Some onboard DACs (digital/analog converters) might not support 24/96, but an external DAC connected to a USB 2.0 port will work just fine, and such devices are readily available. So: Strike 1: Damn near every music lover with a personal computer has hardware and software that can handle 24/96 music, with at most one relatively inexpensive addition. (And, until that addition is handy, the media software on both platforms automatically downconverts the higher-quality streams.). Strike 2: Everybody who owns a Blu-ray Disc player owns a device capable of playing back 24/96 (and 24/192) sound; it’s part of the specifications.

The key here: There is a market for higher quality, and it’s a legitimate market. Denouncing the market only makes sense from a leveling perspective—the idea that if everybody doesn’t get it or want it, then it shouldn’t exist. And that doesn’t help anybody. Personally, I’m 99% certain that my aging ears (which could probably use aids) couldn’t tell the difference between what I listen to now and 24/96 streams. So? So I wouldn’t buy the higher resolution—but I sure wouldn’t tell other people that it’s wrong for them to do so. Can the “average consumer” hear the difference? That doesn’t matter.

We don’t have one car model suitable for the average driver. We don’t have one hamburger suitable for the average palate. Trader Joe’s doesn’t just sell Two Buck Chuck, even though it may be their most appropriate wine for many drinkers. Life shouldn’t be about average.

Asynchrony is Bad?

I haven’t yet consigned Nick Carr to the “shooting fish in a barrel” category; he frequently thinks well, even as he makes big bucks from oversimplified and overgeneralized notions. “The eternal conference call,” from way back on October 12, 2009 at Rough Type, may fall into the latter category.

Carr talks about early email and this: “The great thing about email, everyone said and everyone believed, was that it was an asynchronous communications medium.” No, I’m not objecting to the nonsensical “everyone said and everyone believed” (did even 2% of the population ever say “the great thing about email is that it’s an asynchronous communications medium”? Yeah, right…). I could, but objecting to every nonsensical “everybody” Carr uses really would be shooting fish in a barrel—he’s a Pundit, so he does this as naturally as breathing. Anyway, it had to do with email’s advantage over the telephone and the apparently-negative consequence that email “dramatically reduced the transaction costs of personal communications.” Translated from PunditSpeak, you don’t have to think as much before sending an email as you would before calling them. Which, if you’re a dramatist, leads to “email hell.” Ah, but here’s the kicker:

Turns out, we were mistaken about email all along. Asynchrony was never actually a good thing. It was simply an artifact of a paucity of bandwidth.

Where, now, well…he quotes Jessica Vascellaro from the Wall Street Journal:

We all still use email, of course. But email was better suited to the way we used to use the Internet—logging off and on, checking our messages in bursts. Now, we are always connected, whether we are sitting at a desk or on a mobile phone. The always-on connection, in turn, has created a host of new ways to communicate that are much faster than email, and more fun. Why wait for a response to an email when you get a quicker answer over instant messaging? [Email] seems boring compared to services like Google Wave.

There’s Oscar Brown Jr. in my head again, “What you mean we…” since I’m not always connected and neither are loads of other people sane enough to turn off both their computer and their smartphone at least some of the time.

Is Carr suggesting that this overgeneralization is nonsense? Of course not. Here’s his take:

The flaw of synchronous communication has been repackaged as the boon of realtime communication. Asynchrony, once our friend, is now our enemy. The transaction costs of interpersonal communication have fallen below zero: It costs more to leave the stream than to stay in it. The approaching Wave promises us the best of both worlds: the realtime immediacy of the phone call with the easy broadcasting capacity of email. Which is also, as we'll no doubt come to discover, the worst of both worlds. Welcome to the conference call that never ends. Welcome to Wave hell.

While those last two sentences could be reasonable, the post as a whole assumes that “we” all are and should be online and interruptible all the time. Fortunately, as to Wave hell, well, just not going to happen.

In this case, the first comment (by Steven Chabot) nails it, after noting that Carr’s hyperbole can be amusing: “While pundits during the supposed time of ‘email hell’ were praising asynchrony over synchrony, actual people were using whatever medium suited them best… The problem with hyperbole, used by those pundits who see Google Wave as the end of email, is that reality is much more nuanced and multifaceted than that…”

I do love the final comment of John Koetsier, an early Wave invitee who invited other folks and then waited…and waited…: “It's the conference call that never starts!”

Ignorance or Bias?

That’s the question that comes to mind when I read “news” coverage as woefully ignorant as Home Theater’s March 2011 piece on Redbox and its possible plans to introduce monthly rental plans that combine a few DVD rentals with unlimited streaming. The survey asked Redbox customers “whether they’d like a monthly plan that costs $3.95 for unlimited streaming plus four DVD rentals.” Well, sure—why wouldn’t they, given that you’d pay $4.00 just for the four DVD rentals? It’s the next sentence that earns a mention here: “Compare that with Netflix, which charges $27.99 per month for unlimited streaming with four DVDs, or $7.99 per month for streaming with no discs.”

If this was, say, Car & Driver or even the Wall Street Journal, I’d say it was just a stupid comparison, since Netflix’ $27.99 plan includes mailing and return postage for as many DVDs as you want, four at a time—and I’d expect someone at that level to be going through at least 16 DVDs a month. But this is Home Theater’s turf, which makes the comparison seem pretty peculiar: Can Mark Fleischmann, a supposed expert in home entertainment, not understand this? Or is he just anti-Netflix?

Deathwatch for the Mouse

Some titles are so self-parodying that I should probably just get out of the way, such as this one from a Wired Magazine piece (February 2010): “Steven Levy on the Desktop Mouse and Its Inevitable Extinction.” I mean… we have Steven Levy. We have him using his own name as part of an article title. We have “inevitable” and “extinction”—and all this WiredWorld goodness in just one article title.

He tells us “mouses have all been pretty much the same.” (The illustration is of a one-button mouse, and of course all mice are one-button.) And since “more and more of us” use laptops instead of desktops, “the mouse has become an endangered species.” You or I might note that not all of us have shifted to laptops—and that some of us (I raise my hand) use a notebook computer but continue to use a mouse.

And, of course, you can do things with trackpads that you can’t do with mice (or at least that Levy doesn’t think you can do), like scrolling through documents (which I do with the scrollwheel on my mouse) or “tab between open applications.” He notes a wonderful new $69 Apple mouse that might “revivify the flagging fortunes of the species” for a while ($69? For a mouse? Really? Ah, but it’s Apple, so it’s Insanely Great. In fact, most of this article is actually a typical Levy swoon over anything from the Magic Mind of Steve Jobs.)

The Apple “Magic Mouse” is touch sensitive, so it does things Levy “cannot live without”—“the finger slide that scrolls the page up, down, or sideways.” Hyperbole, much? “Stat! Levy’s unable to do a finger slide, and he’ll die any minute now!” But even that isn’t the point. Nope, it’s this, from the omniscient Levy so it must be true:

Ultimately, we’re going to be doing our pointing without devices—either by touching surfaces directly or gesturing air-guitar style as cameras interpret our movements… Or we’ll just bark orders at voice-recognition-enabled machines. Either way, no amount of legerdemain will stop the computer mouse’s inevitable scuttle down the long tail of oblivion.

Remember, we’re not talking declining market share. Nope, it’s oblivion. We all will point without devices or talk to our computers. “Down. Not that far; up a bit. Now right…no, left a little.” How could I have lived with clumsy old, slow, mice?

Internet Fads

When is something a fad and when is it a lasting part of the internet? That’s always a tough call. Id’ like to say this Tremendous News piece, “5 Signs You’re Part Of An Internet Fad,” posted February 17, 2010, makes it clearer—but it doesn’t really. For one thing, even lasting parts can fade away. (Remember AOL? Remember AltaVista? For that matter, remember MySpace—still being used by millions of people?)

It’s a fun read, though, starting with the lead sentence: “Nobody wants to believe that they’re part of a fad.” And the writer notes that Facebook and Twitter could be fads. (Don’t believe it? Were you ever on Orkut? How about SecondLife?)

The Internet is about right now.

Right now we want to read short electrical messages from Ashton Kutcher. Right now we want to view tagged photos of chicks who rejected us but still allowed us to add them to Facebook. Right now we want to play Mafia Wars.


Some of us are just assholes.

But whatever we want right now, changes tomorrow. Think about the fallen Internet heroes of yesterday.

The days when Yahoo was the shit.



Here are the Five Signs, without the commentary:

1.        People are way too into it.

2.       People are scared when something else comes out.

3.       The spam surprises you with its creativity.

4.      It’s called a “game-changer.”

5.       It becomes corporate.

No further comment. Note that this is appearing in My Back Pages, not in Trends & Quick Takes—although I also had it tagged for possible use in a Perspective on Social Networks and Balance. I think it mostly belongs here in the cheap seats.

Those People are Everywhere!

Here’s a fun one, even if it is over a year old, and I’m certainly not criticizing the post in this case. It’s by Chris Barton at Fair Trade Photographer, posted March 5, 2010, entitled “Microstock: why would a reputable company do this to themselves?”

Barton was looking at a company website, thinking about giving them some business, and saw a picture of five people (three women, two men, standing in a V formation). It made him “cringe involuntarily”:

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, this one has a lot to say. It says microstock. It says perfect-people perfect-world lowest-common-denominator cookie-cutter pile-them-high sell-them-cheap image.

Why? Well…next there’s 123 Greetings “Corporate Info,” with the samfe five people in the same pose. And aixonix, a German consulting firm…with what surely appear to be exactly the same people in the same pose (but cropped top and bottom). And FeTEL, some Asian company. And the Business Gold Club. And more.

Think Barton’s “just poking fun at the short-sightedness of companies using cheap microstock images to represent their… well, image”? The next one is BusinessImage, “A Marketing & Design Group, and right over About Us are…the same five people in the same pose. As is true for “About Us” on the FinanceMe! site. There are more—including one from Targetti Poulsen explicitly labeled “OUR PEOPLE” (which leads Barton to wonder “why would I trust anything else that Targetti Poulsen have to say?”

There are more, including the same folks on the website Barton calls “this month’s prize for dodgiest domain name,” namely

Oh c’mon. You’ve seen it. Not that you’d ever get anything like two or three different library professional books using the same (or nearly the same) cover image composed of book spines and a notebook cover. Nah. That could never happen.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 11, Number 6, Whole # 141, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford.

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