Archive for How our brains work

When a “three star” rating fails to mean anything

We’re all accustomed to the “five star” rating system for movies and products. Most published reviewers use stars, or something similar, and we as consumers get to use them on Netflix and Amazon and other web services. Obviously a few stars can’t tell the whole story, or we wouldn’t add or read any longer written-out reviews; but there are a couple of cases where this type of rating system actually fails us completely.

It occurred to me while using Netflix streaming, and rating the shows I watched. These ratings would be totally inconsequential in life except for the fact that the Netflix computer system uses those ratings to make recommendations and give ratings for the movies I haven’t seen, based on what it thinks I will think of them! Even that might seem like a petty concern, until you think about how Google uses similar systems to shape and steer our search engine results, and about how deeply Google’s infrastructure has become embedded in our daily lives. What appears in a search, or in an Android-based app, can determine what we buy, what we study, who we believe, and even how we vote. Families and even nations get ripped apart by political and religious differences, and this gets exacerbated by the “facts” we believe and base our decisions on, which nowadays are often the facts we learned by searching the internet and reading the news and commentary sources delivered to us by search engine algorithms! The extreme cases are probably not spurred by a three-star rating directly, but when we base our trust on over-simplifications of highly complex subjects, we risk making some very bad choices.

I really enjoy some trashy or cheesy movies, where there’s no question that it’s a “bad movie”, but I might love it anyway. If a movie should get only one star for being a total turkey, but it should get five stars for how much I enjoyed it, what to do? On the flip side, I see many movies that fit the description of things I like generally, but they may be disappointing or even terrible in the specific case. Bollywood epics and science fiction are good examples—the category as a whole is charming and fun for me, but four out of five of the specific movies turn out to be awful dreck. If I give them a one or two star rating, Netflix will denigrate any other movies fitting a similar pattern. If I give them a high rating, to encourage delivery of similar content that I might happen to like better, it’s dishonest: how can I give four or five stars to something I didn’t enjoy at all? Plus, later on somebody may ask me my opinion of that movie, and I won’t remember whether I actually loved or hated it.

All that remains to us is a three-star rating. Everything gets three stars, average, I guess I liked it OK. And the master computer decides for me that everything else is average, OK, neither good nor bad. The world is reduced to grey and beige, a strip mall where all food tastes pretty much the same, and all clothes look pretty much the same, and one pop song sounds almost exactly like the last one. Who wants to live in that world?

For a long time I have held to the idea that everything in life is not black and white, but instead somewhere on a wide spectrum of shades of grey, and that view has plenty of value to it still. But now it occurs to me that the problem with “black and white” thinking is really that things in that worldview can only be black OR white, not black AND white. For every way we see a subject, there are almost certainly other aspects to it that are far different from the one we had already fixated on as “the truth”. We need to recognize that not only does every person, thought, and situation fit somewhere on a grand continuum between extremes, but they have many different qualities that may even seem -at first- to be contradictions.

We’d do well to keep this in mind the next time we find ourselves caught in an us-versus-them argument. Believing the other guy is nothing but a liberal, a conservative, Muslim, gay, or any other easy label, is like believing a three-star rating is the whole truth. There is probably a side of them that matches your own views more closely than you realize, more closely than any simplified star rating even ALLOWS us to realize. We lose sight of the broader truth of the other person’s humanity, their complexity, and the dreams we all share.

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The ESP MusicCord PRO, an audiophile power cord

You already know my bias here–obviously I’m going to say the ESP cord is a scam. But I honestly believe in testing things to determine the truth. If the results defy my prejudices and prove me wrong, I will always own up to it and give credit where credit is due.

A friend loaned me an ESP MusicCord PRO for testing. Rather than relying on my own ears, and opening up the possibility that somebody might say I was lying, or that the test wasn’t fair, instead I did a single-blind test on TalkBass, where everyone could decide for themselves what they were hearing. Here is the link to that test. I did a previous test that was also informative, but had many flaws in methodology so I nixed it; however the flaws did not change the validity of the results–they only pointed out the need for more stringent methods.

I took a pre-recorded bass track, and ran it through a tube amp with a post-power-section line out, and then recorded the resulting output. I powered the tube amp with the MusicCord, and with a flimsy cheapo 18 AWG cord of the same length. I recorded one track with one of the cords, as a “control”; then I recorded two more tracks, one with each of the two power cords, for comparison. Absolutely no post-processing was done to the tracks. Then I posted them with the simple question “which track, A or B, sounds like the control?” Since the source material was identical, any audible difference could be directly attributed to the power cord swap. If a majority of people could tell that one track was “more like” the control than the other, then that would suggest there was merit to the idea that the power cord could have an effect on the sound.

The result, predictably, was that there is no evidence of any audible effect from the cable. Just as many people “got it right” as “got it wrong”, and 80% said they could not hear a difference at all. And more to the point, ESP claims the difference is obvious, like night and day. Their video “proving” the effect has a dramatically audible difference. But in my test there is absolutely NOT a clear or night-and-day difference. Even the people that thought there was a difference admitted that it was a barely audible distinction, and that the perception vanished after one or two more listens to the tracks.

So even if we were to cling to the few people that “got it right”, and ignore the statistical evidence outweighing them, we would still have to question whether ESP’s “proof” was created in a legitimate, unbiased manner. Actually we know it wasn’t, because the musician visibly plays more enthusiastically when using the MusicCord, and this changes the tone, the dynamics, and the amplitude. He also begins playing lower notes at the point where he says how much fuller the lows sound. So their “proof”, their demonstration, is in fact a lie. A cynical, predatory, calculated lie, with no other purpose than to extract your money.

It’s exactly like the pills and potions that promise a larger “manhood” or a cure for baldness. They proliferate until the Feds get enough complaints about individual brands to investigate and shut them down. So far, there have not been enough complaints about these fraudulent power cord advertisements. And unfortunately, there is no way to prove that a person doesn’t hear an improvement! So as long as the only thing the cable-makers claim is that their cords “sound better”, there is really nothing the regulatory agencies can do about it.

It’s worth noting too that the $160 ESP is actually one of the cheapest audiophile power cords out there. Some of their competitors cost ten times as much, no exaggeration! Each one of those companies has customers, too–and those customers develop such belief in the product that they will not only swear they hear the difference, they will even evangelize other audiophiles to buy the cables too. This frees the vendor from even having to make their own fraudulent advertisements! The suckers do the dirty work for them.

For your continued amusement, here is another TB thread on the same subject. And here is an article about a double-blind (ABX) test on a MUCH more expensive power cord.

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Product endorsements versus the truth

Whenever you find yourself in a technical discussion about whether a given “miracle” product actually does what it claims, WITHOUT EXCEPTION there will be at least one person who says “Mick Bigtime endorses it, and Mick is world-famous for his artistic accomplishments, so obviously the product must do what it claims.” Some of the more realistic-minded people in that category will say “whether it does or doesn’t do exactly what is claimed on a technical level, Mick likes it and therefore it does something good, and that’s all I need to know.”

There are so many things wrong with those lines of reasoning that it makes my head explode.

First, there are a lot of other reasons why an artist may endorse something. Sometimes they just like the reinforcement it gives to their famous status. Sometimes they like getting a discount on their favorite brand or getting backline support. But the main, most important reason is that they are just as prone as anyone else to being fooled by psychological factors that make any of us hear things non-objectively. Being famous does not give anyone the power to defeat their own brains.

Being a successful musician does not automatically give someone an engineering education on how their equipment is designed internally. It does not mean they understand the real reasons why a device will seem to work a certain way. When they talk about the science behind the gear, nearly always they are just parroting what they were told by the people that sell the goods. The “defenders of the faith” will say they don’t need to know why something works the way it does–they just trust that if a sucessful artist likes it, then it works, and that’s all that matters. But when the artist has bought a bill of sale, bought into the claims of a manufacturer without really understanding, and allowed themselves to be fooled, then the faithful are sucked in with them, like debris in the undertow.

I’ve heard some endorsing artists say “I get paid for the quality and sensitivity of my hearing, so I know that what I heard is real”. The thing is, that artist only knows what they heard–they typically don’t know why they heard it. And this is important because when they (as endorsers) go around saying they heard such-and-such a tonal effect from some great product, they influence other people to buy that item, even though those other people will probably not get the same results! Or more importantly, they may be able to get the exact same results without spending so much money.

For example, my favorite axe to grind, instrument cables. If a certain cable is claimed to have “deeper lows and smooth warmth”, odds are it had higher capacitance relative to whatever other cable it was being compared with. If it is claimed to have “bright sparkling highs and fast transient detail”, odds are it had lower capacitance. If it’s a $200 cable and Mick Bigtime endorses it, then Joe Consumer will think he has to spend that kind of money to get those tones. But instead he could just shop for cables by paying attention to their capacitance, and get ones higher or lower according to taste, for normal working-man’s prices.

Of course there are cases where it’s all in the imagination, as with boutique power cords. There are no excuses there, no matter how famous the endorser, no matter how good their ears–any difference they heard with a super-exensive IEC cord was strictly imaginary. Same goes for high-end HDMI cables, and other digital cables. People who endorse imaginary things, and the people who spent big bucks based on those endorsements, need a serious freaking wake-up call.

That’s where science comes in, and that’s why it is seriously worth your time to pay attention when somebody who has no financial stake in the product makes an effort to explain factually HOW the product does or doesn’t work. It’s not a case of “lab nerds listening with their calculators instead of their ears” as some kind of enemy to “real musicians who know what they hear”. In fact those so-called nerds are trying to help the musician get better results for less money! Once you have learned some science behind the products, you are not so dependent on the hyped sales pitch from the vendor; and you won’t be fooled by the misleading appeal of a famous person’s endorsement.

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Anarchists, community, and food

In the earlier years of my life I decided I was an anarchist.  I celebrated anything that suggested the end of conformist society, the destruction of government, and the death of capitalism.  My highest goal was to wake the TV-hypnotized consumer zombies up out of their status-quo stupor.

Naturally, to a young idealist, the ends justify the means—to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs.  If a few feelings got hurt, or property got damaged, it meant nothing as long as I snapped somebody out of their quotidian assumptions for just a moment, or even better if I struck a symbolic blow against the imperialist corporate machine.  This way of life was encouraged by books like The Monkey Wrench Gang, and visible displays by groups such as Earth First or Greenpeace.

As I got older, I started to notice that many of these actions attacked the wrong enemy.  I first noticed it in myself—I’d rail against some perceived evil, only to find out that I had missed several important facts, seen only one facet of the true situation, and made myself look like an ass, without achieving any of my intended goals.  Once I became aware of this problem, I realized it was going on all around me—most of the angry young men and women out there were striking out blindly at anything that resembled their conception of the enemy, without regard for whether the attack actually helped their cause at all, and without regard for any resulting negative impact on the community in the area.

I struggled with this dilemma for several years.  Finally, in the mid-1990’s, I saw something that changed my perspective altogether.  I lived in Eugene Oregon at the time, in a northern neighborhood that was associated with lower incomes, minorities, and residents who had been there for a very long time (as opposed to the more affluent, all-white, and transient population nearer to the university).  In this neighborhood we had only one grocery store, a health-food co-op.  As in most such stores, the goods were organic, gourmet, and priced higher than what you’d find at a large chain grocery.  The local “Black Army” anarchists, all of them white kids from middle-class families, decided that this co-op was the center and symbol of gentrification in the area; that gentrification was inherently evil; and that the best thing they could do for the neighborhood would be to attack the grocery.  They threw rocks through the windows, pelted store employees with paint and eggs, keyed their cars, spraypainted slogans on the walls, and left notes with actual death threats.  This went on for the entire year that I lived in that neighborhood.

That’s when I stopped calling myself an anarchist.  Those kids were harassing and destroying the only grocery store in the neighborhood, and why?  So they could stop gentrification?  That wasn’t going to work. Even if the co-op closed its doors and a more blue-collar grocery opened in its place, affluent people that had planned to buy houses there would still do so!  Gentrification wasn’t the fault of the grocery, and killing the grocery wasn’t even remotely a solution.  How would the neighborhood have improved, or was it just supposed to be worse?  These kids would not have been satisfied anyway because they’d have to bike all the way across town to get their vegan chocolate, kombucha, and organic sliced seitan.  Did they plan to leave the neighborhood themselves, to be nearer to the groceries they wanted?  Or was it just important to ensure that nobody in the neighborhood could have anything good, that even the poorer people would not have access to organic vegetables?  Or was it all just because the food in the co-op was expensive, and the anarchists believed everything should be cheap or free, regardless of the cost to manufacture and distribute?

I’ve seen many, many similar instances since then.  At the G-20 summit in Seattle not so long ago, a friend of mine joined the demonstrations.  He posted a video of anarchists clashing with the police, and wrote “F*** you, Obama, I’m done with you!”  I’m not saying Obama is so perfect, but what did he have to do with the fight between Seattle police and anarchist demonstrators?  Would any other president, whether Republican, Green, or independent, have refused to host the G-20?  Would any other president have refused to keep the attending world leaders safe from attacks?  Basically my friend, and everyone else wearing a black bandanna, was wildly angry and frustrated—and that’s understandable!  But nothing constructive came out of the attacks, the clashes with police, or him saying he’s “done with” Obama.  It was all a misdirected blast of emotion, and a waste of resources.

Just a few weeks ago, in my neighborhood, one of my favorite restaurants shut down.  One of the reasons cited by the owner/chef was the constant harassment, graffitti, and property damage from local anarchists that charged him with gentrification.  Again, who benefited here?  Is the neighborhood better off with one less restaurant?  Did the attacks on the restaurant stop local gentrification?  Not even slightly!  Did anyone who was considering buying a home in the area, or starting a business there, stop and think to themselves “hey, that restaurant closed down, maybe I should invest my money elsewhere?”  NO!  In fact another bourgeoise restaurant took over the location right away.  The attacks, the graffitti, they achieved nothing.  Nothing constructive, anyway.  Nothing that improved the quality of life in the neighborhood.  Nothing that helped the lower-income residents.  Nothing that has anything to do with the espoused ideals of the anarchist kids.

Now, we get to the trickiest part, which is where you ask me “so what should we do instead?”  That’s a genuinely very tough problem.  Voting helps a little, but is not very satisfying, and the “good guy” politicians usually turn out to be just as bad as the previous crooks.  “Voting with your dollars” is very effective, if you have a lot of dollars—the problem is that most of us don’t have enough money to make much of an impact.  Bumper stickers and window signs are pathetically ineffectual.  Demonstrating in the streets is a good outlet, as long as there’s no violence to person or property—and I say that not out of some adherence to Ghandi or Dr. King, but rather to call out the utter pointlessness of such misdirected violence, and the sad mistake of hurting people who are not really the enemy.

The enemy is thoughtless consumerism.  Without thoughtless consumerism, the corporations have no power.  Without thoughtless consumerism, the difference between classes is reduced, which in turn reduces the impact of gentrification.  Without thoughtless consumerism, there would be no war for oil.

Stores are not the enemy.  They do not cause thoughtless consumerism.  Do not attack individual stores.  Police are not the enemy.  They are hired by the community specifically to protect against attacks on personal property.  If you don’t attack other people’s property, the police will not bother you.  Construction crews and logging crews are not the enemy.  Without construction, there is no place to manufacture sliced savory seitan.  Without logging, you don’t get toilet paper.  Of course, there are much better alternatives to traditional logging, such as carefully-managed farms of quick-growing trees, or better yet high-yield fiber sources such as ragweed, hemp, or bamboo.  But will spiking a tree encourage the development of those more efficient and ecological alternatives?  NO!  It will only cause harm, and it won’t even protect the tree beyond the short duration of the attack.  So do not attack construction sites or loggers.

The very best things you can do are:

  • Educate consumers, and direct your diatribes and demonstrations toward showing people a better way to live and provide goods for their families.  Make it a positive thing, demonstrating how life can be better for all of us, rather than just spitting negativity around.
  • Put all of your resources toward developing both the goods and the consumer market for sustainable materials.  The paper industry will not switch to high-yield non-tree fibers for pulp until they can see profits from it.  So make it profitable!  Promote the goods, promote the sustainable methods, get a science degree and develop newer and better pulp systems that increase efficiency without ravaging the old growth woods.  Greater efficiency equals greater profit.  Yes, there are people and companies doing this today, but not enough of them–and possibly, not yet including you!  Take a look at your own actions and decide.

And most importantly, if you are wearing a black bandanna and throwing bricks or scrawling graffitti, you are not part of the solution.  Taking food away from people is not any way to improve a neighborhood.  If you think keying the windows of a restaurant is going to make life better for anyone, please ask yourself exactly how that’s supposed to make sense.  Try to think of something constructive to do, that will actually make life tangibly better for the lower-income people in your area.  If housing costs are getting too high, go volunteer with Habitat For Humanity, or start a mortgage-payment relief fund, or open a tool library and offer help with renovating lower-income homes.  If the local organic grocery is too expensive, start your own organic grocery that is cheaper.

Go ahead!  What’s stopping you?

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Conspiracy theories: why they are so compelling

Many of you will have encountered people who are very focused on one or more conspiracy theories.  These people are convinced that their particular subject should get more critical attention, and they will devote a lot of energy to arguing, defending, or promoting their issue.  Sometimes they will even become convinced that they know the facts and that doubters are simply ignorant of those facts.

Why is this so?  What causes otherwise bright and rational people to obsess on the second shooter on the grassy knoll, government cover-ups of alien contact, secret ruling cabals, Jewish bankers, fluoride in tap water, and similar dark conspiracies about which only a few brave souls know the real truth?

I have been reading, observing, and interacting with conspiracy believers for about 20 years now, and I have distilled what I see as the common denominator that explains all of them.  Put briefly, it’s dissociation (see Wiki article).  This is a psychological phenomenon wherein people find the world around them too difficult to manage, so they unconsciously create a new world that they can deal with.  It can spring from a wide range of triggers, for example: a trauma such as childhood abuse or the loss of a loved one; a chemical imbalance in the brain; social conditioning from peers; or even a lifetime of ordinary frustrations.

The new world created is essentially just like the old world, but with a new feature that the dissociating person will obsess on.  For illustration, think of Don Quixote “tilting at windmills”.  In this story, he imagined that windmills were giant monsters, so he attacked them violently, hoping—and fully intending—to save the world from these monsters.  He knew in his heart that it was the right thing to do, and he also felt that if he succeeded it would prove his worth to the woman he loved.

Life is horrifying, life is difficult.  If we thought too much about the atrocities that occur every day, every minute, the pain would be too much to bear.  In America, every two minutes on average, someone is raped.  The figures for rape and mutilation in war-torn regions of the world are far more horrifying than that.  Every day in the news we hear of some new outrage of military violence, or some new flare-up of bitter feuds that have gone on for centuries.  Boys as young as 11 or 12 are forcibly recruited into tribal armies, and brainwashed into soulless killers who will behead, disembowl, rape, and machine-gun their own families and villages of innocent strangers.  Politicians lie to us constantly, and the government really does cover up its misdeeds, sometimes even on a very large scale.  Corporations grow ever more stupefyingly immense and powerful, to the point that they seem as inscrutable and unstoppable as a volcano god.

In a world like this, the only way to survive is to shut it out, to not allow the horror and atrocity to affect us too much.  We feel impotent, helpless, overwhelmed.  We seek out the things that we can control, and cling to those as our life raft in a stormy ocean.  We take up an involving hobby or area of study, we get caught up in power struggles at work, we cling devotedly to a dietary regimen, we join church groups.  Even our political views nearly always spring from this process—we all believe that the political stance each of us takes is the most rational, but since everyone believes that, clearly we are just picking our own personal definition of “rational”.  I could write a whole chapter just on dietary obsessions such as veganism, candidiasis, organics, and raw foods.  For most of us, most of the time, these devotions don’t do any significant harm, especially not compared to the far worse things going on in the world.

Unfortunately, these focus issues can get out of control.  They can expand out to affect your relationships with other people; they can cause intense stress to the point of triggering real physical ailments; they can make us vote for harmful legislation; they can empty your bank account; and they can become clinically-diagnosable disorders.

Part of the appeal is that, by and large, nobody can prove that what you believe isn’t real.  Nobody can prove that you were not abducted by aliens.  Nobody can prove that Oswald acted alone.  Nobody can prove the absence of secret power-mongers and puppet-masters.  Nobody can prove that you don’t feel better with your dietary regimen.  And, my favorite, nobody can prove that you don’t hear a significant improvement in audio quality when using audiophile-marketed power outlets, cable risers, USB cords, or even Beltist notes in red ink in the freezer (read and be amazed).

So now we have a situation where a belief or a concern successfully distracts you from the actual horrors that surround us every day, and nobody can prove that you’re wrong.  It gives us a sense of purpose and identity, and possibly even heroic martyr status.  Is it any wonder that this situation is far preferable to one where you have to contend with overwhelming things you can’t understand or control, such as endless war, mounting debt, or an absence of love in your life?  Now with a new focus in your sights, created by you or your peers, you can set to work on managing the one thing in life that is within your control—because it exists inside you.

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Belief, coercion, and the desire to be good

Over on a bass forum that I’m sadly addicted to, there was a big scandal a year or so ago: an already-controversial person ripped several people off, quite publicly, after collecting hundreds of dollars for a “charity”.  An unpleasant reminder of that scandal popped up just the other day, and somebody asked me “if this guy was already known to be a bully and a liar, then why did people send him money?”  I realized this story was a great opportunity to talk about the power of coercion, and people’s willingness—even eagerness—to believe in something good.

In essence, we are all looking for some structure we can cling to when life seems unstable.  Our beliefs give us that structure, they help us shape our world and make sense of it.  We also have a very primal desire to be loved or respected.  If we are given an opportunity to buy in to something that makes us feel more secure, or feel better about ourselves, we will do it. A good salesman (or other manipulator) is an artist at taking advantage of that fact—they will bait, bully, and charm anyone they can into “buying” belief in something, by leveraging our most basic human desires.

In the case of that one charity thief on the forum, many people were willing to ignore his known character flaws and send him money because of several factors:

  • our desire to “be a good person who does the right thing”, either selflessly or for the “warm fuzzy feeling” it gives us;
  • our desire to be perceived as good by our peers;
  • our tendency to go along with the crowd (known as groupthink, mob mentality, jumping on the bandwagon, cultural norms, etc.);
  • our vulnerability to being bullied into agreement.

Everyone has all of those qualities to some degree, some more than others.  Even very skeptical people can get caught up in groupthink with other skeptics, and tend to seek each others’ approval (just like any other group).  Even a very strong-willed person may choose to go along with an authority’s position if their job or family is in jeopardy.  The salesperson, scammer, politician, and preacher all count on these tendencies.

From earliest childhood we are shaped by our parents and their beliefs.  We receive their cultural identity, their religion, and their ideas about how the world works, to such an extent that any differing beliefs may seem “obviously” wrong to us.  This is why physical or emotional abusiveness can be passed from generation to generation—we do what we are accustomed to, and under stress we will usually revert to these early-foundational behaviors and beliefs.  But in spite of all that indoctrination, if you look closely you will see that we believe what we choose to believe.  The adult child of an abusive or alcoholic parent can choose to break that pattern.  An adult can choose to convert to a new religion, or choose (often unconsciously) to practice only the part of their faith that they are comfortable with.  Your political views may seem to you to be based on logic and common sense, but if that was true then every sane person would have the same political views.  In reality it was your choice to go along with someone else’s ideas—you decided to “buy in”.

It could be anything: jobs, abortion, race, consumer goods, you name it—it always comes down to what a person chooses to believe and invest themselves in. The more they invest themselves, the more committed they are to the issue. And the more tempting the bait, the more people are willing to invest.  When that one thief set up his charity, his bait for the cause was so tempting that it didn’t even seem like bait—because he played on all of the vulnerabilities named earlier.  We all want to “do good” and “feel good”, and we want to believe that this time everything is OK.  Everyone responds to different bait though, and sometimes we see the manipulations and pitfalls in time to not get caught in them.

Of course there are real charities too, ones that deserve donations; the trick is figuring out which ones are legit.  Similarly it is reasonable to believe in certain laws of physics, because you can objectively determine their legitimacy, without having to feel good about them.  When in doubt, in any circumstance, ask yourself if your thoughts are being swayed by the human desire to believe in something good.

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Vintage gear: the cons and cons

Wait, isn’t it supposed to be “the pros and cons”?  Well, it’s true that there are lots of pros out to con you.

We’ve all seen and heard endless claims about how older instruments and gear are better; nobody makes ’em like they used to; the originals are the only ones worth having; and of course vintage mojo is the source of sweet tone.   Sometimes those things are true, in specific instances, but not true to nearly the extent that so many people would lead you to believe.

Some older gear is simply old.  Equipment gets beat up over time with use, and electronic components will commonly expire and drift out of their ideal operating range.  This can cause older electronic gear to perform and sound quite differently than it did when it was new, to an unpredictable extent.  Capacitors are one common victim of old age–you will hear repair techs talking about a “cap job” pretty often when refurbishing older gear, and this just means replacing all the capacitors, especially the electrolytics.  When somebody says their old preamp or EQ for sale is just like the ones the Beatles used at Abbey Road Studios, you have to wonder: did it sound different for them when it was operationally new?  Remember that vintage gear was new back in the old days, and probably did not have all the quirks, mechanical hiccups, noise, or distortion that such an item may have 50 years later.

So when you see a piece of gear or an instrument being advertised as vintage, just replace the word “vintage” with “old” in your mind, for a quick reality check as to whether the item will be sure to give you the tone or performance that is claimed.

I’ve only recently realized what an issue this could be in my compressor reviews, as many of the comps (especially rack units) were old, well-used, and probably out of spec.  Is the MXR Dual Limiter really as bad as I said, or was it just that the one I happened to buy was decrepit?  I’ve been told by a former Aphex engineer that the Dominator 720 was designed to be totally free of coloration or distortion, yet the two I bought had terrible tone and distortion, even though one of them looked like it was in “mint” condition.  Should I buy a third one, brand new, just to find out the truth?  One of my internet acquaintances bought an Aphex 651 that was unused old stock, still sealed in its original box, and it’s giving him all kinds of trouble–even though it could be sold as “new”.  Sure it had never been used, but it still got old.

Some people have had great experiences with vintage gear.  Their favorite items might be old, but were well-maintained over the years, or were refurbished recently.  Or they just got lucky.  You might get lucky too, but you may have to buy an awful lot of duds before you find the good stuff.  If you see (for example) a vintage guitar in really good condition, you have to ask yourself “why didn’t it get played much?”  Even the great instrument companies turned out plenty of not-so-good units, even during their glory days.  That’s a natural side-effect of using natural (highly variable) materials like wood, and of course human error in the assembly.  As a result, there are lots of vintage guitars out there which are in surprisingly good condition, because nobody wanted to play them–they sucked.  70’s Fender basses are a classic example: for many years people avoided them because they were thought to be much lower quality than the early 60’s stuff; but when the frenzy of vintage guitar buying hit its peak in the late 90’s and early 00’s, and prices skyrocketed for 60’s guitars, both buyers and sellers started looking at stuff from the 70’s as a plentiful and more affordable source of “vintage mojo” for sale.  Sure, there were certainly some gems from the 70’s production; but you’ve got to realize that the only real selling point today for a typical 70’s Fender bass is that it’s old.

So does “old wood” really sound better, after aging and playing in smoky bars over the years?  Maybe, sometimes.  Wood and metal do both change on a molecular level over time, and under vibrational stress, so there is legitimate science behind the claim.  However, the actual audible results are not at all predictable.  Maybe a certain piece of wood sounds better when it has aged, but maybe worse or maybe the same.  No guarantee, and no way to know without trying the instrument yourself and hearing whether you like it.

Naturally we consumers want to buy mojo that will make us sound better and look cooler.  And naturally a seller wants to unload their merchandise on anyone they can convince to buy it.  This creates a “perfect storm” of fools parted with their money.  Sellers will say all the right things to make you believe that magical fat sweet tone will be yours, if you just buy their classic vintage gear.  And we suck it up.

It’s the same axe I always grind: “Use your own ears, and don’t believe the hype”.  And realize that any old gear you buy may need some work to be brought back into spec, for proper performance.

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Don’t believe everything you think.

It’s easy to get caught up in an internet argument.  There’s that cartoon of a woman telling her husband “honey, it’s late, come to bed” and he replies “not yet–somebody is wrong on the internet!”  So by all means enjoy the debate, as I do, but for god’s sake use some critical thinking skills, people.

Critical thinking is not about criticizing the other person, and it is not about looking for cracks in the other person’s argument.  It is about studying a question from all sides, and remembering the parable of the blind men describing an elephant:

Too often I run into people whose sole mode of thinking is to try to shoot down and dismiss the other person, without actually considering what they said.  Ask yourself “why does that person think the way they do–could they be right about some aspect of what they’re saying, or does it make sense if you look at it from their perspective?”  Look for the intention behind the words, and try to piece together a larger picture of what is being discussed.  It does not help your position at all if you just sit there and shoot at things you don’t understand.

Furthermore, what is the benefit of sniping at the other person anyway?  Honestly, this is a mistake I make sometimes. When you put someone down, you will never convince them they are wrong that way, and you also will never convince anyone else that you are right.  It just makes you look like an asshole.  Seriously, if you don’t have a constructive response for them, then stop typing.  There is no point in continuing a discussion if the people involved do not come to an agreement or mutual understanding of each others’ positions.  Another way-too-common asshole move is when a person tries to cut down the other guy by aggressively picking at superficial details while ignoring the substance, the meaning of their message.  Speaking of which…

Let’s talk about logical fallacies.  For those of you who are not familiar with this concept, here is an article: The basic premise is that there are some very, very common ways that people try to “win” arguments, that are not valid because they do not stand up to logical inspection.  Whenever you are about to post a comment “at” someone, stop and ask yourself whether your response fits one of the descriptions of a logical fallacy.  On the other hand, do not assume that just because you disagree with someone, they are committing a logical fallacy.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone yell “logical fallacy” when in fact they were just -again- picking at some minor detail, and committing a fallacy of their own.

I’ll have to add considerably to this post over time, but I needed to get some part of it out now.  In essence, just because you think something does not make it a universal truth, so don’t act like it is one when debating with other people.

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