Sunday, August 1, 2010

Inexperience is ignorance?

1. Fascinating article from the NYT last month about "unknown unknowns" and the enormous blind spots that shape our daily decisions. David Dunning offers as an example the average Scrabble player, who "has no idea how miserably he fails with almost every turn, how many possible words or optimal plays slip by unnoticed." Errol Morris, who wrote the piece, totally misses the point in a way that exactly illustrates the point, saying, "I don’t think that Scrabble provides an example of the unknown unknowns. An unknown unknown is not something like the word 'ctenoid.'" But what most Scrabble players don't realize is that the highest-scoring move is frequently not the biggest word, but a play involving multiple shorter words (all the better if multiple words make use of a single special square). (I think this is the best reason to read and read widely if you want to be a better writer -- weak poets, for example, often don't realize all the different things a poem can do, but model their work, consciously or not, after a small set of archetypal poems.)

2. My latest column is up: "The Smell of Money":
So what, exactly, does paying more get you? As with wine, watches, shoes, and anything else available at both bargain and luxury price points, cost correlates with quality to a degree only. At a certain point, quality seems to level off while the cost curve can climb almost indefinitely. (A $100 champagne is not twice as enjoyable as a $50 champagne.) To an extent, paying more for your perfume may buy you better-quality, more natural-smelling ingredients (though not necessarily all-natural materials); a higher concentration of perfume, giving you better lasting power; and a more interesting or unusual scent, since high-end perfumes are more likely to be composed by talented individuals (versus teams that must answer to focus groups). You also get the signaling effect of the prestigious brand and the placebo effect of having laid out more cash.
B.T. Dubbs, that whorey photo at the end is Kim Kardashian, not moi.

SOTD: Diptique L'Ombre dans L'Eau


  1. I wish you hadn't made that clarification, because it makes me LOL, as the kids say, to imagine somebody reading your column, getting to the end, and thinking that's your picture. Yep, just your friendly perfume expert. And here's my crack.

    (And, yes, I know that the clarification was a joke. But if only.)

  2. I'm convinced John placed it below my bio, rather than next to the KK review, to encourage misunderstandings.

  3. this scrabble player is definitely aware of the strategy of shorter words. after all, an "e" in a big word is worth the same as an "e" in a small word.

  4. You can always spot an amateur by the waste of an S.

  5. Really interesting link. I am not sure that these unknown unknowns are so groundbreaking. If you get to the point in life where you are humble enough to know that you can't know everything them you know that there is far more you don't know than what you do know. However, we generally live and work in semi-closed environments, we are not continually in competition with perfection.
    I think that the internet has been an enormous benefit in this way. If you are interested in a particular area (e.g. I am interested in languages and linguistics) and you write on it you can get comments and criticisms from a much bigger group of (specialist) readers than you would have gotten if you were writing in a regional newspaper or fanzine years ago. Network effects help to unearth a lot of new knowledge.
    On your perfume review, those fragrances seemed very expensive. I would want to be guaranteed a lot of happiness to pay those prices (and I recognized Kim straight away because we have Keeping up with the Kardashians on E Channel). I guess that it's different for guys but I wear a really cheap aftershave most of the time and an expensive (for me) one on special occasions. However, besides my wife, what people think about my smell will have to go into the 'known unknown'category.

  6. I've started to think about the cost of perfume on a per-wear basis rather than as an absolute cost. I think nothing of spending $10 on a glass of wine that I will enjoy only once, but even a $200 bottle of perfume will supply many days of wear, each costing far less than $10 -- and a day wearing a wonderful perfume is at least as enjoyable as a glass of wine. That said, I have never and probably will never spend $200 on a bottle of perfume. When you drop, say, $40 on a bottle, the cost per wear is almost trivial.

  7. I get where you are coming from. On those terms the pleasure that you get from wearing a certain scent often could be a lot more valuable than other, more ephemeral, pleasures. I like your use of the alcohol equivalence measure. All of the beers I really did not need in dodgy bars when I should have already gone home could have bought a lot of scent ;-)

  8. Scrabble is one of the many games that I think I have only won like twice, and yet have somehow convinced myself that I'm good at.