Dangerous Moon

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Buy stuff, kill monsters, win gold

Salome - Aubrey Beardsley
I have wanted to write a little essay for some time but I just haven't been able to get it together. You see, I am mentally and physically exhausted and I feel like my life is only held together at present with a little tape and bits of bailing wire.

Now I can do this two ways, I can go to the library and find my source books and give you exact quotations and foot notes or I can just throw it all at the wall from memory and see what sticks.

(suitable moment of pause…)

I think that we are going with the latter. Fabulous and acclaimed author Ann Patchett once remarked at a lecture that I attended that an author should do no research until a book is half completed and I see a bit of truth in that.

So I am winging it. This will be somewhat circuitous and disjointed. Please bear with me.

I have been involved in the buying and selling of fine art and antiques since the late 1970's. I have made my principal living at this vocation since the mid 1990's. I have been through booms and busts and have seen tastes change and stay the same, every possible permutation imaginable.

And I have noticed a few things.

When people come into the gallery (assuming that it is suitable for guests and that the door is unlocked) I have seen something strange over the years. They rarely look at what is on the walls. They are usually much more interested in what is packed away in the office or lurking behind a closed door.

I have pondered this behavior at length and now think that I know why people act this way. Hunting for strange and exotic items must scratch some early atavistic hunter gatherer itch. Some of us are, unfortunately or not, attracted to the rare, hidden and arcane.

I started reading and researching this phenomenon and it led me to B.F. Skinner's work and the science of behavioral psychology. Behavioral psych tells us that there are several types of rewards, constant, progressive and intermittent being the principal three that we will discuss today.

To understand a constant reward let's imagine a lab chimp who pushes a lever and has a Kool menthol fall down the chute every time. For some reason, being constantly rewarded is a bore.

That is why some wealthy people get a little crazy with so many options to pleasure themselves. Nothing satiates the itch after a while if you always get what you want.

The second reward type we will discuss, progressive, is when the payout (and sometimes the work requirement) gets larger as you go along. Although this is a very powerful reward, people in progressive reward scenarios are said to get quickly desensitized and burned out. I am not exactly sure why and will have to do some further research on the matter.

The most powerful reward, apparently, is the intermittent reward, the reward that is sometimes granted and often never appears at all. An essentially random reward. You never know if and when you will get that hit. Intermittent reward psychology is the basis for gambling and for much of our addictive behavior.

If I went out looking for paintings and found one every day, it wouldn't be very fun after a while. But not knowing which rock to turn over and when I will win that prize, that is a truly enchanting proposition and what drives my business, seller and customer alike. The good old intermittent reward.

So let's look at the business. If one wants something, anything, lets say for illustrative purposes a Miro lithograph, all one has to do these days is ask google or ebay.

1413 results today on Ebay. I could easily buy one, maybe even a real one but how fun is that? The reward is too easily obtained now. I don't get to separate myself from my comrades and have no chance to reinforce my superior discriminatory faculties and powers of discernment. It is now a constant reward and not an intermittent one, hence not very much fun. Hunter gatherers engaged in these pursuits have a command imperative to obtain the unobtainable. Ebay is like shooting boring ducks.

And understand the most important axiom; it is never about the material and always about the chase.

So how do some people who deal in the rare and arcane counter the data revolution, our current time when every auction result is public information and where markets have been effectively destroyed by seller/end user strategies like ebay and the auction houses?

Data flattens out markets, both in a financial and a fun sense. Art becomes a commodity like carrots and potatoes, strictly for the muggles. The data revolution has made life courser in many respects, you don't need me to tell you.

One thing that I have done, perhaps unconsciously, is to become more hidden and perhaps less approachable and accessible. Sounds counterproductive, doesn't it? Not necessarily the most logical strategy but a way to remodel my wares and paradigm into an intermittent reward. Skinner called this sort of modification shaping.

Because you see, my customers require big payoffs. They can't win all the time, there is no psychic benefit in that. See what happened to Mexican silver a few years ago? A lot more of it suddenly showed up than anyone knew existed and a market that was predicated on rare became less so.

Fakes entered the equation and some trust was lost. But basically there was no more payout for the rare breed who both had to have the best stuff but also wanted few others to share his or her bounty.

We all know somebody like that, those of us in the business anyway. All of the big payoffs and obsessive types need intermittent rewards. If I had to deal with merely those of us that are sane and psychologically balanced, I would be quickly broke.

Another example is caucasian rugs. 19th century, vegetable dyed, tribal flatweaves from the Caucasus regions used to command very hefty sums in the many thousands of dollars. Collectors loved them for their design and craftsmanship.

Well, when the Soviet Union broke up, many more of these rugs found their way to market than anyone had assumed existed and they are now selling at a fraction of their former price. Still great weavings but suddenly no interest. Markets and market prices are firmly tied to availability and rarity.

What drives people to wake up in the middle of the night on Sundays and drive to their nearest flea market for their hunter gatherer fix? Beats me, beyond my pay grade. But it is certainly a strong impulse that deserves further study.
 And it is possible that the predilection that some of us have for hunter gathering is embedded deep in our genetic makeup - MIT Technology Review. Early crux, do we farm or pillage?
Now to the topic of compulsion loops. From a video gaming company primer on creating dopamine charged loops guaranteed to ensnare the errant gamer. These loops are really ghastly, cocaine to cake to porn. A real bear trap.

 Compulsion Loop: A habitual, designed chain of activities that will be repeated to gain a neurochemical reward: a feeling of pleasure and/or a relief from pain.
There are three key notions to understand comprising this definition:
Habitual: The purpose of the loop is to create a long lasting and constantly repeated habit
Designed Chain of Activities: The compulsion loops should consist of a set of specifically designed activities within each step in the chain
Neurochemical Reward: Compulsion loop theorists believe that human free will does not exist and that the creation of habitual behaviors can be instituted and programmed.

These compulsion loops are ugly. We need to recognize them and try to stay out of them. Similar to getting hooked on a facebook or internet hyperdrive link that takes you farther and farther out from your location and somehow spins you into space for perpetuity.

I have several friends addicted to cortisol and adrenaline, and instead of ever coming down their lives are engineered to stay up. Forever. Not good for mental or physical health. As Mike Tyson once so aptly put it, "You can win the rat race but you're still a fucking rat." Stay tuned. More behavioral psych and game theory to come.

And lastly re: our friends in genus rodentia, scientists can now turn icky mouse memory into happy mouse memory using light, according to a study in Nature published on Wednesday.

I have been reading some interesting books. A book on Thermopylae, the fall of Sparta by Paul Cartledge. While the Spartan women were excoriated, by no less a figure than Aristotle, as being sybarites, the men were consummate warriors who fought to the death.

When the Spartan man let down his considerable tresses, it meant he was preparing for the last battle. A fantastic book, the story of King Leonides, 300 b.c.e. and one of the most remarkable fighting forces in history.

Another book that I enjoyed this summer was Charles Duhigg's The power of habit, why we do what we do in Life and Business. Duhigg studied at Yale and Harvard before becoming a journalist and is a very interesting read.

In this book he breaks down the science of memory and habit formation, introduces us to the brain's interesting ganglia corpus  (a somewhat primordial organ that performs a lot of what would be time consuming autonomic responses) and shows how many successful advertising campaigns were launched by creating an element in a product that caused a human craving.

He sort of picks up where Dan Ariely left off in his  Predictably Irrational book. I recommend both of them. We humans are, if nothing else, easily manipulated. We like to pick the prescribed default, as Ariely explains. Practically guaranteed.

Which brings us to my last topic for the day, toothpaste. Duhigg has a great section about the invention of pepsodent. The inventor couldn't get anywhere until he introduced a discordant taste element that had absolutely nothing to do with clean teeth; a craving, soon no toothpaste could be sold that lacked that specific flavor.

He expounds on shampoo, must have a shampoo that lathers, even though lathering serves no function in the cleaning of hair. Remarkable book really.

So back to toothpaste. Read the other day that Crest was in hot water when it was discovered that certain Crest toothpaste products contained little blue plastic pellets that are ingested, specifically formulated from a plastic called polyethylene 8.

These plastic bullets are not biodegradable, they don't dissolve in solvent and hygienists are reporting that they are seeing more and more of them embedded in patients gums, even resulting in canker sores. Proctor and Gamble says not to worry you get more of the dangerous chemical in soy milk.

I heard anecdotally that Crest also said, so what, humans already ingest a lot of plastic. We do? I wrote a few years ago about the problems with phthalates and other plastics that wreaked havoc on the endocrine system and in some cases, changed the sex of fish. I don't think I get a vote but I am going to bet that plastic ingestion is not a good thing. And don't think that you are home free is you don't see polyethylene on the box. They don't list it.

And these microbeads are ending up in high concentrations in our rivers.

Here is a list of crest products that contain plastic:

Crest 3D White Radiant Mint
Crest Pro-Health For Me
Crest 3D White Arctic Fresh
Crest 3D White Enamel Renewal
Crest 3D White Luxe Glamorous White
Crest Sensitivity Treatment and Protection
Crest Complete Multi-Benefit Whitening Plus Deep Clean
Crest 3D White Luxe Lustrous Shine
Crest Extra White Plus Scope Outlast
Crest SensiRelief Maximum Strength Whitening Plus Scope
Crest Pro-Health Sensitive + Enamel Shield
Crest Pro-Health Clinical Gum Protection
Crest Pro-Health For Life for ages 50+
Crest Complete Multi-Benefit Extra White+ Crystal Clean Anti-Bac
Crest Be Adventurous Mint Chocolate Trek
Crest Be Dynamic Lime Spearmint Zest
Crest Be Inspired Vanilla Mint Spark
Crest Pro-Health Healthy Fresh
Crest Pro-Health Smooth Mint

But hey, I know what you are thinking. I'm home free. I use Colgate. Not so fast. Ever hear of Triclosan? This chemical has been linked to all sorts of diseases and problems including fetal bone malformation and cancer. The FDA suggests that it is not currently known to be harmful to humans. Mayo Clinic thinks that you might want to use something else. Read more about Triclosan here.

Now as a person who has fought various forms of cancer for now decades, I must tell you that I choose to live a life as free from poison, pesticide and toxic substances as possible. And I don't trust scientists who work for big multinationals, don't ask me why not. I think I am going back to baking soda.

As I learned recently from Freedom Feens' Michael Dean, the hero must have a recovery in the third act. We shall see.


Linda said...

This discourse was from memory and not notes? You are in the wrong business. Should be in the genius (or at least VERY smart) business. I'm blown away.

Anonymous said...

Good blog Dawg. Quite interesting about the Antique biz psychology. I heard about humungous waves out there; nice to see some shots. Cool wildlife photos that your friend has taken, especially coyote/bobcat. Found some nice artifacts up the street yesterday; going to Pecos area Saturday. Kinda like your antique article...gotta have my fix. Always a payoff, even if I come away empty handed-good exercise, great scenery and the possibility of being attacked by a mt. lion or bear for added excitement !


Anonymous said...

Hey Robert, Beautifully written, with wonderful descriptive phrasing tongue in cheek and great vocab. Loved your piece on the Beverly Hills Cops. Oooops! Another state sanctioned debacle.


Anonymous said...

thanks man- i love your take on the art dealing scene-its a jungle and the old days are over- makes me wonder how we did it before the net-I ENJOY YOUR THOUGHTS-

Anonymous said...

R- I like your essay, and I agree fully with "the people" when I go to a show (poster or otherwise) I am much more interested in what may be walking in the door than what is already laid out to peruse. Part of the reason may be that if it is available/or has been to the public than it can't be that worthwhile. (Or someone else would have snatched it up already)



Ellen said...

Wow Robert--I'm massively impressed with your article. Once I started reading it I couldn't stop until I finished . I could certainly go on and on about the depth of your thought process, but I think what I will say is that I appreciate your response to my question about the time you must spend waiting to get those beautiful bird shots. I totally get how well that works for you, and I suspect that it goes a long way to keeping you sane. Your talent obviously goes well beyond your camera I appreciate you sharing your article, it certainly had my mind going in several directions at once as I pondered, related, enjoyed. Thanks.

Blue Heron said...

Thanks for your comment Ellen. Appreciate the response, sorry so many of the links are dead, eight years old now.