Against connoisseurship Well,as promised,

Found at: zaibatsu.circumlunar.space:70/~solderpunk/phlog/against-connoisseurship.txt

Against connoisseurship

Well, as promised, here is my contribution to the ongoing thread about coffee
preparation.  I will actually start out with some quick coffee-related content
before devolving into the main "attraction".

Firstly, Australia (and New Zealand) are very unusual places from a coffee
perspective, because in that part of the world instant coffee, i.e. the stuff
you make by just adding hot water to freeze-dried granules of stuff vaguely
derived from actual coffee beans via some industrial process in the distant
past, is supremely normal.  This stuff exists in the rest of the world, but it
is held in very low esteem and seems to be considered something you would only
drink while camping or in some other dire emergency when "real coffee" was not
practical.  In contrast, in ANZAC land, if you visit someones home and they
offer you "coffee", unless there is some explicit statement to the contrary,
this is what they are talking about.  This is what most people consume every day
at home, this is the stuff that most workplaces have available freely in the
staff kitchen.  This is most people's first exposure to coffee and plenty of
people who profess to "love coffee" mean that they drink 6 cups of this stuff
per day.  This was how I lived until I moved overseas for the first time.  I
really am not sure why this is.  It's not like we don't know any better, you can
get great espresso drinks from cafes, and you can buy all the gadgets you need
to make better stuff at home, there is just some psychological barrier, I guess,
where fancy real coffee inside the home is an excess which marks you out as a
coffee fanatic.  Possibly this is changing as a new generation grows up in a
world that worships commercialised artisanship, but certainly I (and I presume
Cat) grew up in a firmly Nescafe world.

Speaking of psychological bariers, somebody who wrote about careful home coffee
preparation discussed heating water in the microwave, until it was hot but not
boiling.  I know that doing so is perfectly normal in the US, but I thought some
might find it interesting to know that, in contrast to instant coffee being
perfectly normal, to an Australian mind the notion of heating or, even wose,
*boiling* water in a microwave is unspeakably weird.  If you put me in a fully
equipped modern kitchen and asked me to boil water, using the microwave is the
absolute last thing I would try, only after finding out that every other device
in that kitchen that could conceivably be turned to the task of boiling water
was irreplably faulty.  I'm not really sure why this is the case, obviously the
microwave *works* perfectly well, it just seems very odd to use it instead of
say, a kettle, which is explicitly designed for the job.

Anyway, right, onto coffee.  I like coffee, a lot, and I drink a lot of it.  I
have liberated myself from the instant coffee culture of my upbringing, but not
elevated myself to anything fancy.  For the last few years I have variously used
either a French press or, more often, one of those paper-filter-drip-machine
things (I don't even know what these are called) which are the normal home
coffee solution in the US and, it seems, the Nordic lands.  I rarely grind my
own beans these days, and even when I used to, I never ground them immediately
before brewing, rather I'd grind them in a batch which would would last several
days.  I am well aware that none fo the above is anything close to optimal for
someone who "really" enjoys coffee.

Before the current coffee thread even kicked off (or, at least, I recollect this
hapening before the coffee thread kicked off, but I could be misremembering), I
was reading back through sparcipx's old phlog posts and came across this
post[1] about making coffee, and something about the whole thing appealed to me
deeply and I considerd - not, at all, for the first time - "upping my coffee
game".  I am not, at all, immune to the allure of learning all about the details
relating to bean types and grinding methods and so on that I am currently
totally ignorant of.  I like learning stuff, I like understanding stuff.  But
ultimately I didn't follow up on that, and I still don't think I am going to,
because I have been slowly developing a stance of pricipled oppositition, or at
least resistance, to connoisseurship.  And that is what this phlog post is
actually about.

(yep, 70 lines in and we're about to enter the main topic!)

I promised to write about this because this philosophy has been developing in me
slowly for many years, and I got excited when I saw an opportunity to finally
sit down and form it into words.  To some extent, my enthusiasm for this has
been deflated somewhat after I exchanged a few quick toots with sparcipx about
this on Mastodon and he declared that, as a former connoisseur of various
things, he now "finds "connoisseur" is synonymous with "fussy"".  Part of me
wonders what else there could be to say, and whether I should leave it at that.
But let's try to unpack things a bit more.

I have come to view connoisseurship as the *deliberate cultivation* of
fussiness.  If you are somebody who enjoys coffee, or cigars, or fine wine or
spirits or whatever, it is extremely unlikely that your first experience of
these things was an instance of "the good stuff".  And yet, despite this, you
still became a consumer of coffee, whisky, whatever.  Which suggests that you
found the entry level stuff sufficiently pleasant to not think "this isn't for
me".  Which means embarking on the quest for connoissuership is literally about
training your brain your derive less pleasure than you currently do from stuff
which is affordable, convenient to make/prepare and easy to find, and instead
training it to prefer more exotic, difficult, expensive things.  It is a kind
of deliberate maladaptation to one's environment.

Of course, it's not impossible in principle to learn to appreciate finer
versions of things while retaining the ability to enjoy simpler instances, but I
think in practice this is very hard to achieve, and quite often once you "learn
better", you start to think of something you previously thought of as totally
adequate as being "undrinkable", and I think that's actually a great injury to
do one's self.  I guess this is a form of "ignorance is bliss".  If you think
your current supermarket coffee made with tap water is perfectly good, why would
you want to learn otherwise?

One could make some kind of appeal to the inherent value of "truth" here.  I
don't mean to suggest that coffee made with distilled water doesn't at all taste
better than tap water coffee, it seems entirely plausible to me that it does.
And I might even be somewhat receptive to this appeal to the beauty of truth.
My objection to this is the second big body of thought I have on connoisureship,
this one developed primarily in the context of audiophile gear, although I think
it applies very widely indeed to just about any experience which relies
primarily upon discerning use of one of the "five senses".

I completely believe that there are ways to make coffee which genuinely result
in a better tasting product than "the normal way", but I am deeply skeptical
that the process by which mainstream coffee connoisureship seeks that out is any
kind of reliable instrument for discovering those ways.

The problem here comes from the interaction of economics - that certain
companess making coffee related equipment have a financial incentive for people
to believe that X is "the best", or at least "better than Y", and that many of
the venues by which discussion about serious coffee drinking is conveyed are
dependent upon sponsorship or advertising money from those companies for their
continued existence - and human psychology - that nobody, regardless of how
practised they are, actually hears or sees or tasts "just" what their ears or
eyes or tastebuds detect, but that the subjective experience of drinking coffee
is something that your brain *constructs* based on that sensory input *and* on
its expectations.  This is a very well established result in experimental
psychology and it has very well studied consequences for things like wine
tasting.  It has been shown many times that expert wine judges will rate cheap
or expensive wines lower or higher when they know what they are drinking than
when they do blind tastings of the very same wine.  In addition to our
experiences being coloured by our a prior expectations, our memory of these
kinds of sensory perceptions are extremely unreliable, as memories are in large
part reconstructions which, again, take into account ideas or expectations we
have picked up after the fact.  All of which is to say that if you make a cup of
coffee using tap water one morning, then spend the day reading lots of really
enthusiastic articles by trustworthy seeming experts about how using bottled
water will make it better, so you buy some and expectantly make a coffee with
it the next morning, and then try to compare how it tastes to how you remember
yesterday's coffee tasting, it is practical a foregone conclusion that you will
enjoy it more regardless of the physical reality.

It's relatively well known that these sorts of processes have spun out of
control in the audiophile world, resulting in a million dollar market selling
absolute, complete and utter hogswash.  People like to make fun of audio
enthusiasts for this.  And rightly so, but I see no reason whatsoever to think
there is anything special about audio, and I imagine most realms concerned with
"really appreciating" any kind of sbujective, transient sensory experience have
worked out in precisely the same way.  Probably about half of the received
wisdom on how to make the best possible cup of coffee is true, and half of it is
complete crap that people believe because they read about it first and so their
brain convinced them they could taste the difference even if they actually
wouldn't if they ever did a properly controlled double blind test.

Given a choice between happy "ignorance" or an elevated experience based on
"truth" which is 50% nonsense perpetuated by the commercial interests of big
businesses, I think I will often opt for the ignorance.  And by "ignorance" here
I don't mean complete and total ignorance.  I'm not suggesting literally all
coffee tastes the same and you should forever drink the very first kind of
coffee you ever try.  By all means, you should do some exploration and find
out what you like.  But once you find something that you like, you should
cherish that contentment rather than trying to fix what isn't broken by chasing
after ever-diminishing returns.

My standard disclaimer applies, that all of this sounds horribly judgemental and
preachy but I don't actually mean to make any of you feel bad about anything you
are doing.  When I do these rants, I am describing what I believe and how I
aspire to live, not a state of being I have actually achieved.  A lot of this
rambling is deeply informed by my own experiences.  I really enjoy whisky, but I
regret having learned as much about it as I have and having spent so much time
reading reviews, because I feel it has destroyed my ability to just enjoy the
stuff without overanalysing it, and it has definitely left me with prejudices
that I don't actually want.  I actively don't want to end up that way about
coffee, I just want to enjoy it.

As is typical for me, this has been verbose and rambly and frankly pretty
crappy, so I'll link to some vaguely related stuff written by better writers
than me for those who are really interested.  One is an article called "The
Wrost"[2] by Moxie Marlinspike (who created a popular piece of "privacy"
software which is fundamentally dependent upon Google, so take everything he
says with a grain of salt), which argues for actively choosing the worst
products that fill some need, and another is an article on subjectivism vs
objectivism in high end audio gear[3] by an anonymous and now strangely vanished
guru known as Northwest AV Guy.

[1] gopher://sdf.org:70/0/users/sparcipx/phlog/February_2018/02-07-18
[2] https://moxie.org/blog/the-worst/
[3] https://nwavguy.blogspot.com/2011/05/subjective-vs-objective-debate.html