The Unnecessity of Choice


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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83 Responses

  1. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I spent yesterday binge listening to the Chernobyl podcast. One thing that was remarked on was that recreating the material life of the late USSR was easy because there wasn’t a lot of variety. They didn’t need to figure out what helmets the miners flown into Chernobyl wore because there was only one type of miner helmet throughout the USSR. Likewise, a town in Lithuania could easily double in as Pripyat because there was standard blue print for every town.

    To anti-materialists and ecologists, the amount of choice offered by the capitalist marketplace seems decadent and useful. I remember Sanders getting mocked for some comment on why do you need so many varieties of deodorant. To them, a product does what it is supposed to do and most of the differences are illusory. Whether or not this is true is beyond the point. People like choices and they idea of having only one type of raspberry jam ends up being a deeply frustrating experience even if there really isn’t much of a difference between raspberry jam a and raspberry jam b. Or use coffee as a better example. I pay for gourmet beans and there are slight differences in taste between different estates, roasts, countries of origins, and blends but not as much as the marketers would have you believe. Yet, I’d be really pissed if there was only three varieties of coffee beans available.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Eastern Europeans talk about how the Soviet Bloc had fashions, but not for the same reason as the West. They wore what the factories were producing. One year all the women would be dyeing their hair blonde, and the next year red, and then auburn, and so on, based on what the manager of the hair-dye plant decided to make that year.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to George Turner says:

        Taschen has a very interesting Coffee Table book called the East German Handbook. It basically shows what everyday life was like in East Germany through the goods and services offered to their citizens while noting that much of these goods were just theoretically on offer. One of the really interesting things is that East German clothing and hairstyles were always in line with what was considered normal in the West.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to George Turner says:

        Even though the actual economics and products always turned out to be rubbish, there were some very interesting debates about consumer products in communist countries. To many of the Western communists, being able to provide what we would consider a lower middle to middle class consumer lifestyle was part and parcel of socialism as they understood. You mainly saw this in the West, especially in East Germany, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. Other Communists, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Hoxa’s Albania being the most notorious of them really emphasized the anti-bourgeois aspects of Marxism and wanted none of this. In China, they attempted to totally get rid of the idea of fashion. Everybody would wear the same outfit.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to LeeEsq says:

      . People like choices and they idea of having only one type of raspberry jam ends up being a deeply frustrating experience even if there really isn’t much of a difference between raspberry jam a and raspberry jam b.

      I think this elides an important point. Brand proliferation isn’t there because we like it – it’s there because it is advantageous to the companies that are in a position to decide whether to deploy brand proliferation or not.

      If there are 2 kinds of raspberry jam in the store, an upstart competitor that launches a 3rd kind of raspberry jam gets the same share of the attention budget of someone who’s standing in the jam aisle of the grocery store, as the two big jam companies. If there are 16 kinds of raspberry jam, all different brands manufactured by two companies, some of which could be exact same jam but one comes in a big cylindrical jar with an “economy” look to the label and the other comes in a small bulb-shaped jar with “artisanal” curlicued label design – well then, upstart jam company will only have the resources to launch a 17th brand, do they only get 1/8 as much of the attention budget as the big companies with 8 brands each on the shelf.

      If I didn’t pay attention, I might think I had a choice of about a dozen cellular phone providers – in fact I have a choice of three providers, each of which has an average of about four brandings of their service.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to dragonfrog says:

        The cell phone thing is interesting. We have four (soon to be three) national networks. Beneath those four is quite a bit of competition, using those networks. Three are owned by one of the networks (AT&T has Cricket, T-Mobile has MetroPCS, and Sprint has Boost for now) and the rest aren’t. I sometimes wonder if we’d be better off if most of the mobile business were the independent brands relying on national networks. But from what I understand 90% is signed with one of the big four. The competition may seem fake because they use the same networks, but before we had it all the plans are gold-plated and now you can scale much more according to your usage (using the exact same AT&T-branded phone!) in a way you couldn’t before.

        But anyway, getting back to the point, one of the bigger examples of brand proliferation is cars. Each model existing in multiple places under multiple names. They’ve been cutting down on that, though. The value-added from this seems kind of dubious, but I know someone who swears by Lexus because they have been wind-noise dampening systems they don’t put on the Toyotas. So maybe I’m oblivious to the distinctions.

        As far as food products go, you run into a situation where a single (or three) companies own everything, but their products do vary. So the entire cereal industry is two or three companies, and the entire potato chips is 1 and a few smaller players, but those companies release a lot of different products. Cases where you see *the same* product with different labeling are house brands. I recently discovered Food Lion and Walmart evidently have the same pop tart alternative, each labeled differently.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to dragonfrog says:

        I used to search out different brands of Vienna sausages. I had Armour, Libby’s, Prairie Belt, Hormel, Swift, Bryan, Goya, and several other brands. I haven’t yet tried PureFoods, El Rancho, Grace, Excelsior, Iberia, LaFe, Virginia, Argentina (both are brands), or Vienna Beef (of Chicago). They are made around the world, so the number of individual manufacturers is staggering, each with their own special recipe, and most manufacturers making a wide variety, such as low-fat, low-sodium, and varying mixes of chicken, pork, turkey, and beef. Some include more organ meats than others. Prairie Belt includes lots of tasty pancreas.

        Who would want to live in a world that didn’t have dozens and dozens of different varieties of Vienna sausages?

        But one thing plagues me. On Armour Vienna sausages, the nutrition label, approved by the highest levels of government, says “Amount per serving: 4.” “Servings per container: About 2.” I’ve searched and searched for that eighth Vienna sausage in the Vienna sausage can, and I just can’t find it. Does a government official think 7/4 = 2, or do they think that consumers won’t except the fact that there are only 1.75 servings in a can, or do they assume that people who eat Vienna sausages are too dumb to understand fractions and decimals?Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I think there is an argument between different types of plum vs. different types of deoderant. Plus the companies learn to differentiate based on strength needs, scents, skin types, etc.

      The billion dollar question is how much are we deceiving ourselves or not. I’ve seen articles that state there is no difference in sound quality from a Stradvarius to a modern sounding violin. This is based on using science. I’m sure that lots of big names in classical music will say that science is wrong until they are blue in the face. Likewise, I can tell the difference in sound quality between my really expensive speakers and Amazon echo but if you were to ask me vinyl v. CD, I would say no such difference.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Modern science also says that if you pay over twenty to twenty five dollars for a bottle of wine, you are a sucker. I think that there was a difference in quality in the past because our knowledge of how to make different things was less exact. Making a good bottle of wine or really great sounding violin really was an art back then. Now that we have studied things and have modern technology to help, not so much. Its really hard to create a wine or beer that is totally undrinkable these days. Probably the same with musical instruments or anything else.Report

        • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to LeeEsq says:

          “Its really hard to create a wine or beer that is totally undrinkable these days.”

          Lite beer rises to the challenge.Report

        • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to LeeEsq says:

          Your formulation is all wrong…you could reasonably say that $25 can get you very good, sometimes even excellent wines…but spending more than $25 is both necessary and justified to get superlative wines. That you might spend $25 on a wine not worth $25 is also very possible… the trick is knowing the difference.Report

          • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to Marchmaine says:

            And pray tell, how much are you selling this one trick?

            Pro-tip: Don’t develop a taste for superlative alcohols.Report

            • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to PD Shaw says:

              Free. The trick is to drink a lot of wine, mostly “bad” wine. The single most liberating thing I ever learned while selling wine is that there’s always another bottle; never let the cork get in the way of drinking a “bad” wine.

              If you are a person who can categorize your preference between white and red, don’t spend more than $15 a bottle. If you can categorize your preference between Pinot Noir, Cabernet, and Syrah, don’t spend more than $25 per bottle. If you can categorize your preference for Pinot Noir between Central Coast, Carneros, Oregon, Willamette Valley, Burgundy, Beaune, Cote du Nuits, New Zealand and elsewhere, then when you spend more than $25 you know that you’re spending for access and not a linear progression of quality… which doesn’t mean that the wine isn’t better (sorry for the double negative), just that if you don’t know why its different, it won’t be sufficiently different to you to justify the access price.

              The original observation is correct (to an extent) about the *floor* of quality of wine being vastly improved by science and standardized industrial practices. This is great for all of us. That wines can wildly exceed the floor is also true.

              p.s. Sorry for the late reply, was in NW Spain drinking mostly “bad” local wines for $10 Euro… but thought the question worth a response.

              p.p.s. Scare quotes for “bad” wines in the sense that most wines are “bad” that is, perfectly drinkable exemplars of a particular fruit from a particular place… and for most of us most of the time, this is a “great” thing.

              p.p.p.s. Another topic: a friend of mine (still in the business) were discussing was how “science” was zeroing in on the “perfection” of certain expressions of fruit – i.e. THE essence of Cabernet Sauvignon – such that we’ve noticed a deterioration of the complexity of Expensive wines, especially from NAPA. Indisputably the Fruit is magnificent, the wines, however are quite a bit less interesting so I (we) are experiencing this as a degradation of NAPA quality even as prices continue to climb. But, as I note, a different topic entirely.Report

      • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Strad vs. modern: This might be the study you are thinking of. FWIW, I find it persuasive:

      • The funny thing is that at least in the early days there usually was some difference between vinyl and CD. For vinyl, the signal is run through an RIAA equalization filter before recording, then through an inverse filter on playback. Not all filters — and the inverse filters in particular — were created equal. They could drift over time as the discrete component values changed. And some vendors thought they knew better, so tinkered with the inverse filter. One common thing was to roll off the very high frequencies more sharply.

        One of the common observations was that vinyl sounded “warmer”. Typically that meant that the inverse filter was rolling off the high frequencies, which in turn covered up the fact that the power amplifier wasn’t very good at high frequencies. The vinyl wasn’t more accurate — but the kind of distortion that was introduced wasn’t objectionable.

        Tube v. transistor arguments usually fall along the same line: which introduced distortions are less objectionable.Report

  2. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Okay, for the Chernobyl podcast I’m not really sure if they were talking about miners or minors. It could have been both based on the comments and the point would stand regardless. In the United States, there were different varieties of design for kid’s safety gear when going bike riding. The basic function of each was the same and differences were mainly cosmetic. An anti-materialist would say that you don’t need a hundred varieties of bike helmets for kids because the goal is just to protect their heads. A materialist would say that kids and parents use the different designs to express personality. There is a great scene in the Good Omens show where the one girl of the group, Pippen, is really angry that her parents got her such a girly bike.Report

  3. Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

    Eh? In-season fresh fruits are totally objectively better than year-round versions. We just had about three weeks of local strawberries. I would buy them from the farm where they had been picked earlier that day. For three glorious weeks I and my family inhaled strawberries. Sadly, this moment has passed. I can still buy strawberries, but they will have been grown somewhere else: not as fresh, and/or a variety bred for durability rather than flavor.

    Now if he means a hypothetical world where strawberries always are in season, that is a different discussion. Would I eat more strawberries than I do now? Of course I would. This is strawberries we are talking about! But would I eat them at the same prodigious rate as I do under the current regime. Of course not. I would kill myself.Report

    • I guess Krugman’s question is whether you would enjoy the strawberries as much year around at a sustainable rate rather than an annual splurge.

      We do the strawberry thing, too. But I think that’s kind of an exception. Or rather the quality differential is exacerbated by the total freshness. Not sure how much difference there is at Aldi’s or wherever between seasons. Presumably some, but not as much.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Will Truman says:

        The strawberries we get at the grocery store (usually Driscoll’s brand) are noticeably better in late May and June. I don’t know if they source them from different places when they are actually in season verses greenhouses when they are not, but they are one of the few truly seasonal products we seek out.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

          Most likely they come from the Southern Hemisphere and are shipped up.Report

          • Avatar George Turner in reply to Saul Degraw says:

            In a way, all strawberries come from the Southern Hemisphere. The commercial strawberry is a cross between the small, bland North American wild strawberry and a different wild one from South America.

            Blueberries are also quite interesting. We’ve eaten blueberries for thousands of years, but most were quite small and the plant was not amenable to normal agriculture. Finally in the 20’s or 30’s an American went to great effort to figure out how to grow blueberries (which require a really acidic, well drained soil), and then had people across the eastern US send him the biggest berries they’d found. Crossing all those finally resulted in the wonderful modern strawberries, and those are grown as a huge commercial crop all around the world, even throughout the old Soviet Bloc and Iran.Report

            • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to George Turner says:

              Strawberries were positively tiny until the 18th century.Report

            • Avatar North in reply to George Turner says:

              It does bear noting, however, that the wild tiny blueberries are exquisitely better tasting than the large commercial bush versions. Like a hundred times better tasting. But oh heavens the work to pick them!Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to North says:

                I don’t notice such things, but I have very consistently heard that of all the berries where there is a difference in how they’re grown, it makes the most difference with blueberries.Report

              • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Will Truman says:

                I once went on a hike in, um…, northeast Pennsylvania? It’s been a while. In any case, one section of the trail went past wild blueberry bushes. We grabbed handfuls as we went by. They were indeed amazing.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

                I’ve not encountered wild ones that grew tall enough to grab as you go by. In Nova Scotia wild blueberries grow in formations much like heather.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Will Truman says:

                Perhaps that is true. The tiny low-bush blueberries I am thinking of mostly grow in fallow pastures that the owners burn every couple of years on acidic clay heavy drumlins in Nova Scotia. Sweet like honey but not cloying; exquisite in flavor either raw or cooked; about a fifth the size of a commercial blueberry but a thousand times the flavor.
                It is possible I’m also biased by having grown up in a place where blueberries grow wild.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to North says:

                I don’t know, the deer who wander past my yard don’t seem to mind the work of picking them. Of course, the bastards never give me any after they are done…Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Even a commercial blueberry tastes delightful; it’s just that the wild ones taste a thousand times better. You could take the berries back by shooting those deer and eating em though.Report

              • Avatar George Turner in reply to North says:

                This subthread is making me want some Icelandic or Scandinavian blueberry soup!Report

              • Avatar North in reply to George Turner says:

                Your comment now has reminded me that I want to try such a soup very badly. Minnesota is Scandinavian in heritage, surely some place here serves it. To google!Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Will Truman says:

        You can get a lot of fruits and veggies year round in major metro areas because of global supply chains and better transportation. The berries I can get at my Farmer’s Market now are much better than the berries I can get from Whole Foods in December. Plus they use different varities which do have different tastes. One valid critique of corporate farming is that they did destroy variety.Report

    • Avatar Pinky in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      Krugman is talking about the option of having the same product available year-round.Report

    • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      I guess the main issue is fresh strawberries are a superior good. If given a choice, you would pick the fresh strawberry to consume, unless the price was too high.

      I think the underlying point is that the satisfaction someone receives from consuming each additional unit of strawberries declines, perhaps imperceptibly over time, and perhaps more gradually with fresh strawberries than non-fresh. And one of the ways we notice this is at some point you don’t eat the next strawberry, you either push away from the table or eat something different. The existence of a variety of choices means that the consumer is able to maximize marginal utility.Report

  4. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    I started playing disc golf last year and have become pretty obsessed with it. One of the things that has presented a challenge to focusing on my skills alone is the way that discs are produced. There are roughly 4 major companies and they all produce very similar discs but they fly just a little bit different. So a disc from Innova with a flight rating of 11-4-0-3 could potentially perform differently than a disc with a flight rating of 11-4-0-3 from Discraft. Because of this variability it’s easy to keep searching for the perfect disc instead of just learning to throw what you have well. That is where less choice might be a net good. Lots of hobbies work this way, and while I like my choices, sometimes they become excuses as well. (There might also be a corollary here with Millennials and job-hopping).Report

    • When I was young and poor, I bought the golf clubs I could afford and learned to hit them.

      I remember the first time I was shopping for golf clubs after I had had a real job for a few years. I went to a specialty shop with a pro and told him my price range. Then spent an hour hitting 4-irons to narrow the choice. Then an hour hitting a range of irons for each of the models in the final group. All through I kept going back to one particular model, which I eventually purchased. The pro said that it was surprisingly common for people to find a set of irons out of dozens of models where they said, “These were made for me.”Report

  5. Avatar Jaybird says:

    When I was a kid (in the 70’s) there were still seasons. You couldn’t get corn-on-the-cob in February. You want corn? Make a Jolly Green Giant joke and get a can of corn from the pantry.

    Now? I think that there is only one seasonal food anymore: Pumpkin Pie. It’s really only available between October and January. (Sure, you can buy frozen. But that’s like eating corn-from-a-can.)

    My joy at eating that first piece of pumpkin pie at the Thanksgiving table is usually a flood of all sorts of memories and associations that probably wouldn’t be there if I had access to a pumpkin pie right now.

    That said, I don’t see why this is a setup for “Imagine how much happier you’d be if everything was like that!”, though. There are so very many things it could also be a setup for.

    “We bathe in unimaginable abundance and wealth and not even King Louie the Umpty-Umped could imagine eating fresh strawberries in February” is another thing we could use it as a setup for.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Jaybird says:

      There are more seasonal foods here than the allocation of store shelf space suggests.

      You can buy things that are theoretically nectarines all year round. There are only edible nectarines for a few months in the summer. The rest of the year, there are nectarine-shaped and coloured balls of paste, so bad that if you take a bite, you not only throw the rest of the ball in the compost, you don’t even chew and swallow the bite you just took.

      Other fruits and vegetables have mostly less stark differences between the real food and the off-season shelf space filler, and the change comes in more gradually. Nectarines are like a light switch though – one week I bring home wonderful juicy fragrant nectarines, the next week I get a bag of apparent nectarines and they’re inedible paste things, and I know we won’t be eating nectarines again until next June.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Jaybird says:

      I generally only eat corn in the summer months because the corn you can get then is so much sweeter and better than the corn during the rest of the year.

      FWIW, a lot of European royalty did have hothouses so they could get summer fruits and veggies in the winter at least from the 1600s onwards.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

      There are still seasonal fruits and vegetables but they tend to be the lesson common ones. The big popular ones you can get all year round for the most part. One thing that I’ve noticed is a big difference between Whole Foods on the West Coast and Whole Foods on the East Coast is that the West Coast whole foods pays more attention to seasons in terms of what they have on sale than the East Coast wholefoods.Report

  6. Avatar George Turner says:

    The desire for out-of-season foods drove much of the technological development of the Western food industry, and that spread around the world. Canning, flash freezing, refrigerated shipping, relatively high speed transport, hybridized crops that were heat or frost tolerant. That’s all there to deliver what should be out-of-season produce to stores year round. Almost all commonplace, widely available local food is rare and exotic food somewhere else, which means a huge profit margin for those who can exploit the opportunity.

    In contrast, in a planned, logical economy, there are cabbages, turnips, and beets, and people line up for them.Report

  7. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    “you’ll like this better if you can’t get it”

    ah, the BDSM school of economics

    i guess that’s where findomming comes fromReport

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to DensityDuck says:

      Well, his point is valid in terms of rarity value of things like Babe Ruth Rookie cards, but somehow it gets lost when it’s used to justify Soviet-style food shortages.Report

  8. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    George Turner actually puts his finger on it.

    Talking about whether consumer choice is good or bad without mentioning its tradeoff benefits and costs ends up in sort of an airless vacuum filled by unexamined moral priors.

    The technological advancements which allow an orange to be grown in Australia and eaten in Minneapolis have their own costs and benefits.
    How much of the damage done to the environment is the result? How much embedded energy is in that orange?

    How does the global supply chain from raw materials to finished consumption, affect our politics, economic structures and sense of well being?

    Its often easy to let these discussions become sort of a binary choice between abstention and decadent indifference. Maybe its better to think of how much choice is really worth the costs, and not let ourselves just assume that more choice is automatically a good thing.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      It’s also true that the existence of choices does not mean that the overall number of choices has increased. Maybe I can get tomatoes in Alaska in February, but it’s the exact same tomato–down to the genes–that I’ll get in Idaho or Texas or Virginia. Meanwhile, any local tomato farms have gone out of business because they couldn’t afford to sell them as cheap as a national concern that made up the underpricing elsewhere. So I can get tomatoes when I normally wouldn’t…but I better like the tomatoes I get, because there aren’t any others available.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      The “buy local” idea is not so simple when looked at a bit deeper. Often it makes more sense to ship food long distances instead of taking drastic measures to try to grow the particular food locally. In one region, the crop might naturally grows like weeds and the fruit practically falls into buckets, whereas somewhere else they had to drain the wetlands or build a series of dams, kill off the local wildlife, spray the area with every herbicide and insecticide known to man, change the soil pH, install heaters and grow lights, and then build a giant refrigerated warehouse and build a coal plant to power it.

      One shortcut to getting an inkling of what was involved in growing the food is price, which has to include the costs of the land, the modifications to it, the costs of all the soil amendments and crop treatments, and finally the storage and transportation costs. But price isn’t completely reliable indicator, since it would hide low cost farm labor hacking down the Brazilian rain forest and penalize wonderful nearby farmland that happens to be in an area where suburban sprawl is jacking up real estate prices. However, it does save consumers the trouble of having to act like the eco-conscious couple on Portlandia, who went to a local organic restaurant, asked too many questions about the menu, decided to visit the farm where the chicken was raised to learn about its history, and ended up joining a polygamist cult.

      More consumer information is good, but it runs into limits because as Milton Friedman famously lectured, nobody can actually understand what it takes to make a pencil. If we can’t understand all that went into making the pencil, we certainly can’t understand all that it took to make the bag of Bertolli’s chicken Florentine.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to George Turner says:

        Yes, it does become very complicated, especially when we factor in the political impact of the global supply chain.

        What would our policy towards China be, or Mexico, were it not for the massive web of trade between us?

        How does the lucrative benefit of having cheap tee shirts cause us to turn our eyes away from the slave labor that produced it?Report

        • Avatar George Turner in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          Hopefully we won’t import much food from China, especially given their constant scandals about lead and arsenic. One day I was in my local high-end butcher shop browsing odd and overpriced meats like emu and bison. I came across a box of frog legs imported from China.

          I thought to myself “If our super-healthy organic free-range frogs eat flies, what do Chinese frogs probably eat, and what does that flying pest feed on?” I imagined a waste containment pond in an industrial wasteland, next to a run-down sausage factory surrounded by mounds of rotting rat and cat carcasses that were crawling with bugs, and I opted not to make the purchase.

          In contrast, I bought frog legs from New Zealand because when two Kiwi flies alight on an organic cattail in a bucolic sheep pasture, one says to the other “Oh, ‘ello there ma’am! Nice flyin’ weather, idn’t it!” and she replies “Yes, God save the Queen, it is a wonderful day to be a fly! I can just stretch my wings in the soft breeze and soak up some of that beautiful New Zealand sunshine.”

          I say this as someone who used to go frog gigging on our local mountain-top-removal strip mines, which have to install abatement ponds for the mining runoff, making them a great place to bag some big ones, despite the coal dust, mud, and leaked diesel and transmission fluids. So my standards obviously can’t be very high, but real Chinese food, from China, will stay off my menu to the extent that I can avoid it.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      Slightly connected to that – the focus on “food miles” is enlightening in the abstract, but often counterproductive if one tries to directly apply it.

      That is – if I do the easy thing and get all my groceries at the store on the way home from work, I am buying food grown on a variety of continents, moved around by train and ship and semi truck to reach the store, then driving barely further than I would have if I hadn’t diverted a block to stop at the grocery store.

      If I decide to minimize food miles by getting my groceries at the farmer’s market, I’m getting food grown within a hundred kilometres or less, then transported in small trucks to the market, then transported in a private car for a drive of a couple kilometres that was solely dedicated to that grocery shopping trip.

      If I want to minimize the litres of fuel burned in transportation per kilogram of food, I should just buy the pears that came all the way from Mexico in a semi trailer, because then I don’t have to move a one-tonne car six kilometres to get half a dozen pears to my kitchen.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to dragonfrog says:

        That depends, do you have a Prius, or a Leaf?

        Kidding aside, your point stands, calculating those costs is difficult to do on the fly. I’m sure someone could build an App to do it for me, but unless the algorithms were open source, I’d always wonder if they costs weren’t be influenced by the author’s politics or personal economics.Report

      • fillyjonk fillyjonk in reply to dragonfrog says:

        I’d also note this presupposes the person in question has the free time when the farmer’s market is open, and a willingness to experiment with fluctuating availability of foods (and no serious food sensitivities/allergies, so that, for example, they can eat strawberries when they are the most abundant and cheap fruit without having to worry – as one of my friends does – about getting a skin rash from them)

        I’d have a much less diverse (and less healthful) diet if I limited my foods to things grown within 100 km of me or whatever – there’d be SOME fruit in the summer (except in bad years when we have drought) and there’d probably be tomatoes in the summer, and dry beans, and beef and eggs and chickens….and catfish, I guess, if I liked catfish….but neither wheat nor rice grow well here, and corn can be iffy, so three major grains would not be available as staples…

        Another thought on the “choice thing” with the “just how many varieties of deodorant do we need?” Well, the typical women’s deodorants give me a rash; I have to buy an “all-natural” kind (at the hippie foods store) or go without. Or put up with a rash. Or use baking soda, which is not great as a deodorant and gets all over my clothes. Sometimes more choice is better because everyone is a little different…Report

  9. Avatar CJColucci says:

    One of my minor quibbles with the world is having to develop and express preferences I don’t have. I don’t want to go to the mental effort of choosing between a paper receipt, an e-mail receipt, or whatever the third option is. I’m perfectly happy to take whatever form you want to give me. Just don’t bother me about it.Report

  10. Avatar Aaron David says:

    One important aspect of this is Will thoughts about the 100 to get one phenomenon for those who are a bit picky. This is the backbone of competition, which causes the cream to rise above the churn. At one time there were over one hundred automakers in the United States. That this dropped to the three we have now is the miracle of selection. And this has happened with other industries such as cast iron pots (still available), guns, tools and what have you.

    If we look at the number of apps we see that there are a plethora of variations on every theme, and this is good. In time they will either fail or rise up the ladder in regard of users. Wills example of calendar apps makes this apparent.

    Fruit, for most people most of the time, just being there is good enough. But, when you want something special you can go to a farmers market, a fruit stand or grow your own for the freshest and localist of varieties. If you want something that isn’t grown in your area, the mere fact that you can get it at all speaks to the powers of another commercial wonder, logistics.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Aaron David says:

      One caveat is that automaking requires huge capital investments, as does really large software projects (that aren’t open source), whereas writing things like calendar aps is like growing tomatoes in your garden. There will always be a plentiful supply of niche aps because their are no barriers to market entry and no real costs to putting something out there as a hobby.

      The barriers to entry winnowed down the car and aircraft manufacturers, but turned the photography industry from a Mathew Brady level of domination into tens of millions of independent folks posting cat pictures on the Internet.Report

      • Avatar Aaron David in reply to George Turner says:

        Almost all of those auto manufacturers started off as a carriage builder. And there was one in every town. Then, they started to make horseless carriages, which became cars and so on. Apps may be as easy to build as growing tomatoes, but you still need to start somewhere. And in the end, as they are moving along and building up and becoming more intuitive, they may be the ones who actually create AI.

        Or Cthulu…Report

  11. Avatar Jaybird says:

    This study always makes me laugh.

    Pour a glass of wine for someone.
    If you tell someone to try this $4 glass of wine, they’ll take a sip and then shrug.
    If you tell someone to try this $35 glass of wine, they’ll tell you that it has notes of blackberry, bacon fat, and smoke and, seriously, it’s really good. It’d probably go well with a sharp cheese and multi-grain bread.

    Same glass of wine.

    You’d think that there’d be a way for the social engineers to figure this out in such a way that could get us rubes to be happier with our chocolate ration increasing to 20 grams.Report

    • Avatar jason in reply to Jaybird says:

      As long as you tug on your ear and say this, “Citrus, passion fruit, just the faintest soupcon of asparagus, and, like, a nutty Edam cheese.” you’re good.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

      I have a book about classical music from the 40s that explains how to listen to atonal music: “It might sound random, but is it all the same randomness, or can you hear patterns or progressions?” You know that if you played that guy modem line noise and told him it was avant-garde music, he’d write thousands of words analyzing it.Report

    • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Jaybird says:

      Clicked through to the study itself:

      “Participants were recruited via flyer advertisement for an fMRI experiment investigating how participants would evaluate wines under different conditions.”

      Screening via phone interview (1 week before fMRI scanning)
      “During the phone interviews participants were screened for common fMRI exclusion criteria. We also screened out wine experts and participants who did not like to taste wines or had dietary restrictions preventing them from doing so.”

      No definition of what an “expert” might be.

      Which is just to say that this is a Marketing study and not a study about wine… and that’s ok… see my comments above. The psychological aspect of marketing wines, price points, access (stores vs. chains. vs. restaurants vs. approved restaurants) is a VERY big part of moving wines and brands at the wholesale level.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Marchmaine says:

        Yeah, that’s what I also noticed about the study; it turns out that if you ask people who don’t know shit about wine how wine tastes, they’ll say it all tastes the same!Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Marchmaine says:

        I know what *I* might consider an expert to be… but I also suspect that they would have considered me an “expert”.

        I mean, on one level, I was a sommelier at a French Bistro. On another, I was a young twenty-something wearing a tie explaining to people that they should get the red kind of wine to drink with the beef bourguignon but, if they ordered the chicken, they should drink the white kind of wine. Pink wine with dessert. (Which, let’s face it, isn’t even “easy mode” but “tutorial mode”.)

        On the gripping hand, I am an enthusiastic amateur.

        That said: I’ve seen variants of the pricey=good/cheap=pedestrian phenomenon. We swim in them.Report

        • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Jaybird says:

          Which just illustrates what thing we’re trying to understand… I’d say your self-described profile would be the absolute minimum if we wanted to look at how price/marketing influenced perceptions of wine. But, if you think your profile might be the lower bounds of disqualification of the study… then yeah, I’d say (and did say) that it is purely a marketing review without regard for wine quality — which is further supported by the fact that they state all the wines were $14, which is the current sweet spot for “perfectly acceptable” wine.

          I guess the other thing I’d point out is that among wine folk there’s an obsession for finding the under-valued wine… the wine that hasn’t been “discovered” so that we can enjoy the superior quality without paying the access price. It’s the opposite of wine snobbery… its recognizing that cheap wines can be excellent until their reputation (either at a regional or individual producer) level are recognized.

          In fact, I’d say that’s 90% of the enthusiastic amateur game is moving out of the safe zone and into the wide world of “bad” wine looking for “gems” before everyone bids up the price.Report

          • “I’d recommend the very expensive wine because my tip is figured as a percentage.”Report

            • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Mike Schilling says:

              True… when asking advice, provide a price point. First survey the list… don’t ask for a $30 bottle if they all start at $80 🙂 … but there’s nothing wrong with saying that you were thinking of Wine Type X from Region Y (If you care) for around $100 (or whatever). I’ve also had success asking for their “sleeper” pick for around $XX … decent places get tired of serving Cakebread Chard night after night… I’ve even had Sommelier’s *lower* the price of a bottle to meet my price point (not often, but more than once) for a wine they are excited about but find it hard to move (i.e. not Cakebread Chard).Report

              • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Marchmaine says:

                I drink cheap boxed wine, and am delighted that my palate doesn’t know the difference.

                I used to smoke cigars, and was able to distinguish a good one from a cheap one.

                What I discovered was similar to the study, that price has a great deal to do with people’s perceptions of quality.

                Price, and maybe marketing buzz and presentation.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Marchmaine says:

            This Muscadet is a perfectly serviceable bottle of wine at 9%.

            This Australian Shiraz, however, is 15.5%.Report

      • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Marchmaine says:

        “No definition of what an “expert” might be.”

        An expert in this field is either an oenologist or a viticulturist. Anything else is a fancy word for salesman.Report

        • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Aaron David says:

          Heh, no. I know plenty of viticulturists… their expertise in the finished product are as varied as the average person… some don’t even much like wine. Oenologist, sure… if we are building a list of people to include/exclude from a study about the characteristics of finished wine let them be on the list… but it certainly wouldn’t end there. And probably right after Oenologist would be all the folks who make a living selling wine… from the fanciest down to JB’s self-deprecating description. That is, if we’re building a list.Report