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Hallo again to all.

The Anglican events in the Middle East this week caused us to recall two stories from long ago. We'll recount them as briefly as we can.

My lips to dog's earTowards the end of Harold Wilson's first term as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, we recall attending a lecture by the head of the Beverage Chemistry division of one of the world's largest liquor firms. This man was responsible for the formulation and quality control of many famous brands of alcoholic beverages, shipped and served all over the world. He told us that it was very important, after making the whisky or gin or strong ale or whatever it might be, to add small amounts of unpleasant chemicals to them. He explained:

'People have come to expect that if they spend a lot of money on a fifth of premium whiskey, and they drink a good bit of it on a Friday night, that they ought to feel terrible on Saturday morning. The most important part of my job is to see to it that just the right amount of fusel is added to the beverage so that their headache the next morning will meet their expectations. If we make our beverages too pure, too free of impurities, then our customers will feel cheated when they hardly have any headache at all the next morning, and they'll start to think that we're watering it down. They want their pain, so we add enough amyl alcohol to ensure that they get what they expect. The morning-after aches and pains are a key part of our brand identity.'

We were speechless, but, as you can tell, we remembered and internalized what the good chemist told us: people want what's familiar, even if it hurts them needlessly.

An old whiskey bottleDuring that same era, we were preparing to make a major purchase out of our household budget, a good-quality stereo music system. For half a century, every such music system was made with valves (called 'vacuum tubes' in North America). But transistors had come of age, and the market offered both 'solid state' systems (that were made entirely of transistors) and valve systems, that typically had no transistors at all. To make sure that we invested our money wisely, we did a lot of research and a lot of reading and talking to experts. What we found could only be called a religious argument, despite its being about electronic devices and not theology. One camp insisted that valve hi-fi systems were the essence of perfection, and that no transistorized device could ever possibly sound as good. Another camp insisted that the solid-state hi-fi systems introduced far less distortion into the music, and delivered a sound that people didn't at first recognize as being of 'higher quality'.

Arguments about the quality of hi-fi systems are very hard to win or lose, because each person hears what they hear, and all attempts to bring science into the mix by using sensitive instruments to measure what the amplifiers were doing was deemed irrelevant by the combatants. How can you prove or disprove the assertion 'that microphone cannot possibly hear the nuances that my ears can hear'? As the disagreement degenerated into entrenched name-calling, we remember one musician accusing a valve lover of believing that he had 'golden ears'.

One day a design engineer invented a device that you could connect to a solid-state hi-fi system to make it sound exactly like a valve system. People on both sides of the feud agreed that if you connected one of these things to a good transistor hi-fi amplifier, it sounded just like a good valve hi-fi amplifier. We thought that surely that would end the feud, but it didn't. One group said that this device removed distortion; the other group said that this device added distortion. Those who wanted to believe that valve-based hi-fi amplifiers were the One True Way simply continued to believe it, and those who believed that progress had been made and that the new devices were better continued to believe that.

Actual fact seems to have had no effect on belief, either in the case of the adulterated whiskey or in the case of the adulterated hi-fi amplifier. This was because decisions were made on the basis of how it made them feel, and not on what it actually was. People insisted on having what was familiar, and whether or not it was 'better', whatever that might mean, had nothing to do with it. I'll have the same headache I've always had, please, while I listen to the same kind of piano sound that I've always listened to.

See you next week. Same as always.

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Last updated: 22 June 2008

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