Vodka Illusions

Bill Deys recently wrote about a Business Week article stating that, in a blind taste test, all vodkas taste pretty much the same.

It was an informal test with a writer and a few friends. Without statistical analysis, it’s impossible to tell if the friends were guessing at an above-chance level or not (there was one correct guess about vodka brand during the trial, but who knows if it was based on taste or just a lucky guess). Still, the theory behind it makes sense; vodka is basically alcohol and water, without any oak barrels or extra ingredients being added, so differences would have to be subtle if they exist. And if people who claim to be able to distinguish one brand from another obviously can’t do so at all even in an informal test, differences can’t be as major as we’ve been lead to believe.

The implication here is that all vodkas are the same. Is that really true, though? I don’t think so. I’d argue that the appeal of a drink is about more than just the electrical signals going from our tongues and noses to our brains. It’s also about atmosphere, expectations about taste, preparation rituals, discussion of the drink with other people, etc. These factors are eliminated from a blind taste test, but present in real life. A blind test may reveal that vodkas are the same in the absence of knowledge about what brand is being drunk (drinken? drunken?), which is interesting information, but doesn’t exactly map onto real-life drinking situations.

In real life, the subjective experience of a drink is different depending on the brand. For some people, buying a $100 bottle of vodka, putting it in the freezer, garnishing it and mixing it with just the right amount of ice (or not) is more enjoyable than doing the same with a $20 bottle. Furthermore, it probably actually tastes better to them. It may be an “illusion” in the sense that the difference in taste is not purely based on receptors in the tongue and nose; but does it really matter if good taste signals are originating in the tongue or in the drinker’s own biased brain? No; a better taste is a better taste.


The problem, though, is if people knew that all vodkas were physically identical, they might have a harder time deceiving themselves into believing that “better” brands actually taste better. I guess that’s the difference between actual physical differences in taste and illusory differences; illusions can disappear as soon as one becomes aware of them. It’d be hard to enjoy a $100 bottle of vodka knowing that the stuff inside is the same as the stuff in the $20 bottle.

Luckily I’m not so into vodka after several pukey experiences with it, and I doubt the same lack of brand differences applies to more complex drinks like rum, scotch, wine, and beer. “Still”, a lot of the differences are probably all in our heads, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Here is a dog made of beer labels:

(from here.)

This is the 2nd post in an unintentional series of posts about the link between alcohol and psychology. See the 1st: Beer and Statistics.

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Good People

Let me share a story that raised my spirits today.

The last two weeks or so, when I’m out for a walk with Willow, there’s a certain bush she’s obsessed with. When we’re near it, she’ll sniff at it like crazy and refuse to move on. She’ll ask to go outside, then when we go out, immediately run to this bush instead of doing her business. I never saw anything special about it. But then, yesterday, as she did her usual sniffing at the bush, I saw a baby rabbit poke its head out from the other side. Willow loves baby things…she probably smelled it long before anyone saw it.

I also made a note to myself to make sure to walk on the side of the bush closest to the road from now on. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but if we scared a rabbit out onto the road and something happened, I don’t think I could live with myself. Roads are no place for baby animals.

Today, we saw the baby rabbit again and said hi. Further down the road, on the way to the Thames river, we were off in some brush, and Willow stopped as someone walked by on the sidewalk. It was an old man. Willow started waving at him with her front paws, and he waved back. I brought her over to see him, and they were both delighted to have met each other. Something about this guy caught Willow’s attention and she just had to see him.

I got to talking with him, and he told me that the reason he’d been down at the river was that he’d seen a mother duck and six baby ducks walking down his street. He knew they would have to cross several busy streets before reaching the river, so he followed them and stopped traffic on these streets, allowing them to cross safely, then walked them all the way to the water.

Isn’t that the sweetest, most touching thing ever?

No matter how crappy the world may seem sometimes, at least there are people like that man out there. People that dogs just know are good people, and that we should all aspire to be like.

Donate Your Useless HBC Rewards Points to The Humane Society

Willow is over today, which got me thinking about how to do nice stuff for dogs, so I went over to The London Humane Society‘s web site and discovered something awesome.

You can donate to The London Human Society with HBC Rewards points. To any individual person, these things are useless anyway. I’ve had my HBC card since long before it switched from being “Club Z”. Yet, in 10-15 years of occasional shopping at Zellers and hundreds of dollars spent on Mac makeup at The Bay (as gifts for girls of course….yes…gifts), here is the complete list of wonderful rewards I could obtain:

Yay?

So screw that. My points are useless to me. With lots of people donating their points to the Humane Society, though, they add up and can probably net some stuff that’s actually useful. Stuff that could improve or save an animal’s life. You can donate any percentage of points you want, and you can do it all online right here. If you’re not in London, you can donate to your local humane society. (I’m seeing mostly Canada on there, but you people in the US probably don’t know what the hell HBC is and stopped reading two paragraphs ago anyway).

Unfortunately, you can’t donate points already earned. To keep them from going to waste, then, I’d better order that magazine holder. It’d go good beside the toilet for some bathroom reading. I’ve never understood that, since I eat lots of fiber, but maybe guests would enjoy it, and the faux leather would certainly spruce up the bathroom’s style.

But seriously, dear blog (and Facebook) readers…though I hate being preachy, this is something that can do some good for virtually no effort.

Phenomenon

I watched this new show called Phenomenon on Wednesday. Basically, it’s American Idol with magicians (mentalists, to be specific). Criss Angel plays the part of Simon Cowell, and Uri Geller plays the part of Paula Abdul.

First of all, I loved the show. It’s all done live (supposedly), which gives it a realistic feeling that you don’t get with a lot of modern magic on TV (e.g., Mindfreak or David Blaine’s specials). The guy with the nailgun was particularly intense; you know he probably won’t screw it up, but just knowing there’s a small chance he’ll puncture his brain on live television is enough to keep it interesting. The bear trap guy was less impressive. Dude, you didn’t even hide the fact that you switched the trap. And are you in pain or not? At least keep your act consistent.

But there is a degree of confusion in this show that sorta pisses me off. On one hand, there’s Uri Geller there, who claims to have “real” psychic abilities. In the introductions to the contestants, some of them told stories about sensing the death of a loved one, or whatever. The show seems to foster the belief that these people really do read minds.

On the other hand, Criss Angel is there. I think Criss Angel is awesome. If you watch carefully, you see that his approach is actually quite skeptical. On his show, he sometimes reveals how he did his tricks. He refers to his feats as “illusions” or “demonstrations”, and never claims to have any supernatural abilities. I think this was epitomized in one episode of Mindfreak, when he spent the entire episode putting on a seance and freaking people out by having them see and feel ghosts. At the very end of the show, he said something like “so do you believe in ghosts now? I don’t.” Nice. On Phenomenon, these people are illusionists; what they do is amazing, but not supernatural. They can make it look like they are reading minds, but they are not. It’s awe-inspiring in a similar manner to really good special effects in a movie. You almost believe it’s real, but you know it’s not.

Phenomenon can’t decide if it’s trying to amaze us by tricking us into thinking it’s real, or by showing us really good performances by people who we know are trying to trick us. Now, you know I’m not one to completely dismiss psychic phenomena. There’s something to them, and they’re worth researching scientifically. But nobody in their right mind is going to believe that flawless mindreading is going to happen on a reality show (nor any other silly game). I’d be more impressed if the show was up front about that.

My guess is that Uri Geller prevents it. He wants people to believe that stage magic is a genuine demonstration of psychic abilities, so that his own stage magic thrives. The dude does some impressive stuff, but come on, he can’t really bend spoons with his mind. Again, with him, I’d be more impressed if he didn’t put on the whole “everything I do is because I’m actually psychic” act. He did a demonstration of his “abilities” live on the show, by having the audience choose a symbol (one of the five Zener card symbols) that he had sealed in an envelope. It just barely worked out – and hey Uri, any chance you always pick the star in demonstrations like this? How about randomly selecting the symbol next time?

Anyway, like I said, loved the show, but I do wish it wouldn’t perpetuate the myth that stage mentalism and “real” paranormal phenomena are the same, or even related. I have a long standing interest in both, but they are completely separate things.

Bonus fact: Uri Geller designed the logo for *N Sync. It must have taken all his psychic energy to conjure up a star to put in front of the band’s name. Oh hey! Maybe it’s related to the fact that most people out of any randomly selected group will choose a star over other symbols. Well played, Uri.

Capital Idea


I was reading a charming little article at New Scientist, called “How Does it Feel to Die?”, and came across the following passage:

Despite the public boasting of several prominent executioners in late 19th-century Britain, a 1992 analysis of the remains of 34 prisoners found that in only about half of cases was the cause of death wholly or partly due to spinal trauma. Just one-fifth showed the classic “hangman’s fracture” between the second and third cervical vertebrae. The others died in part from asphyxiation.

Michael Spence, an anthropologist at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, has found similar results in US victims. He concluded, however, that even if asphyxiation played a role, the trauma of the drop would have rapidly rendered all of them unconscious. “What the hangmen were looking for was quick cessation of activity,” he says. “And they knew enough about their craft to ensure that happened. The thing they feared most was decapitation.”

I’m so proud of my school. If it weren’t for this fine Western scholar, we’d all lie awake at night worrying about whether hanging victims were conscious while they were strangled to death.

Hanging ain’t so bad after all. Crime, here I come.

Location Location Location

I started up Google Earth for the first time in a while today. The newest addition is the ability to see what space looks like from any location on Earth, which is pretty cool. So of course, the first place I go to is our new house. The space stuff was boss, but I made an even better discovery:

We’re two minutes away from a clown school! Why the hell am I going to boring old real school?

Also note that London’s representation on Google Earth still isn’t the greatest. It’s a blurry mess, and I didn’t have to censor my road because it’s not even labeled. Come on, I want 3D models of nearby buildings so that I never have to leave the house again.

Stephen King’s Richard Bachman’s “New” Novel

I saw this book in Chapters the other day, and my eye was drawn to Stephen King’s name. Of course, this is exactly what the publishers wanted my eye to do, because everyone knows who Stephen King is, but fewer know Richard Bachman. The funny thing is, the book’s only author is Bachman, whose name you may be able to make out in tiny letters at the top. It’s only the forward that is written by King

Since when does the writer of the forward get a bigger font than the writer of the novel?

Granted, it would be less forgivable if King and Bachman were not the same person, nullifying any confusion about who wrote the book. Still, weird.

I was also surprised to see King putting out another book so soon after his last one. But it turns out that this was written in the 70s as one of the original “Bachman books”, then never released. King only rewrote Blaze recently, in addition to writing like 5 other novels from scratch. He can write books faster than I can read them.

I can’t imagine the time, motivation, and willpower it would take to write 2 or 3 novels in a year. Actually, scratch that; if I was being paid millions of dollars to live in a fancy house in Maine, and all I had to do was spooge my fantasies into a keyboard all day every day, it would take zero willpower. I’d drop everything and do that in a heartbeat. No, scratch that; in a hamster’s heartbeat.

A hamster’s heart beats over 450 times per minute!

And it’s spelled hamster, not hampster. Where does everyone get that P?

Oh, hey, maybe I should go study for my big set of exams coming up in 2 weeks instead of procrastinating by looking up animal heart rates. Unless anyone wants to offer me a novel deal for enough cash to take a few years off of school and write? I haven’t really written anything before, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out. Anyone?