Quality vs Taste

I’ve written about configuration spaces before. I plan to use the notion in some upcoming posts, so this seems like a good time for a refresher. (If you’re new to the idea, I recommend that you read at least the first post in the series. The third one might be a helpful read, too.)

Today I’ll talk about a configuration space where the axes consist of personal taste and objective quality. Which obviously implies there is such a thing as objective quality. I think there is, and I’ll try to make a case for it. (Certainly production quality offers objective metrics.)

Of course, as everyone knows, there is no accounting of personal taste.

That being the case, we’ll accept the simple fact that people have personal taste — they can either like something or dislike something, which gives us convenient respective positive and negative values. Likes or dislikes can be weak or strong, so those values (numbers) can be small or large.

People can also be indifferent to something, which, handily, is zero. All together that gives us exactly what we need for an axis.

Here it will be the X axis. It is entirely subjective. We like what we like and don’t like what we don’t like. (And don’t care about what we don’t care about.)

The Y axis is quality, which we take to be (at least somewhat) objective.

It involves such quantifiable things as originality, complexity, nuance, boldness, texture, beauty, engagement, universality, authenticity, and skill level. (To name a few.) There is a subjective aspect to these things (who is to say whether more or less complexity is better), but there are objective references as well.

There are fewer objective references for badness. Shows that are essentially voyeuristic, for example, might qualify. This obviously assumes voyeurism is bad, which might be arguable. But there are topics or ways of telling stories that most would define as objectively bad (on content grounds).

In any event, we end up with:

I haven’t mentioned what we’re judging the taste and quality of, but the example shows examples of one obvious domain: stories.

The idea is that for any given topic, there is a roughly objective quality to it, but whether people dislike or like it will vary considerably. So generally a given topic appears as a fuzzy horizontal cloud of dots (individual opinions).

For purposes of illustration, I’m assuming “Shakespeare” (by which I mean the stuff he wrote) is objectively good. That is certainly the general consensus. Some will find Shakespeare better than others, so it’s not a hard line — there’s some vertical volume to the cloud.

But what people think about Shakespeare is (literally) all over the map. Some dislike it for whatever reason, others love it. (We’d likely get slightly different clouds for each individual work of his. Some plays would get more likes.)

I’m equally assuming “Reality TV” is objectively bad, although again there is a spectrum of people who like it and dislike it. Many of our guilty pleasures probably fall on the objectively Bad side. Usually because they’re Bad for you.

In the middle of the space is a zone where something is neither good nor bad, and people really don’t care about it. (Note that both Shakespeare and Reality TV also have zones of “Don’t Care.”)


We would not expect to see something like this:

It’s almost incoherent if applied to a single topic. The implication is that people are all over the map in judging (supposedly objective) quality, but they’re largely unified in their personal opinion about it (in this case everyone likes it).

I’m not sure which is more incoherent, the idea of diverse judgements on quality or everyone having the same opinion of it.

I can think of things nearly everyone likes or dislikes, but not many. If we’re talking about stories, those are probably empty sets. You’d think maybe candy, pizza, or music, but there are people who don’t care for those. I think it’s pretty nearly impossible to find universal tastes.

(I couldn’t even come up with a pizza topping that would universally be despised.)

As I mentioned above, different works of Shakespeare might get different quality judgements, so where we might see vertical spread would be in the case of considering many different works.

Having them all be (in this case) works one likes is still weird. Given a spread of different works of different quality, we’d expect the space to look more like this:

Which, in 2D, is reminiscent of how opinions of Neapolitan ice cream are likely to be. (The difference in that configuration space is all three axes are degrees of how much someone likes something, from zero to 10. That space is entirely subjective opinion, so naturally it’s filled with diversity.)

§ §

The point that I really want to make here is that the regions we identify in configuration space are fuzzy. This is due to the distribution of many individual data points.

In some cases, the points come from one source making multiple judgements — for instance one person evaluating a lot of different books. That would likely generate a plot similar to the one directly above. That person’s liking and judgement of quality would vary by book.

In other cases, the points come from multiple sources considering a single topic, such as in the case of Shakespeare or Reality TV. In these cases we expect the distribution of points to be (much) more horizontal than vertical, as in the first plot.


This was a very simple configuration space — only two dimensions, so it’s easy to diagram and visualize.

Three dimensional spaces (such as the Neapolitan ice cream one) are nearly as easy. But when the configuration space has lots of axes (as with Baskin & Robbins 31 Flavors) it’s much harder to visualize the space.

Some configuration spaces have a much larger number of dimensions (in a few cases, infinitely many). Not hundreds or thousands, but millions or billions. (All we can really do with such spaces is treat points as long lists of numbers.)

But simpler spaces that can be visualized, including a few more than three dimensions which we can intuit from 2D and 3D, can be helpful mental tools for thinking about something.

For instance, in this case, making it visually clear that taste and quality are orthogonal concepts  — they are independent of each other.

But configurations spaces are also useful in dealing with complex, fuzzy concepts. We can understand such as clouds of points in a configuration space. That’ll be important in the next post.


Stay safe, my friends! Wear your masks — COVID-19 is airborne!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

14 responses to “Quality vs Taste

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I find Shakespeare mostly incomprehensible, and consequently uninteresting. (Although when well acted, I can usually pick up the gist of what’s happening.)

    It probably won’t surprise you that I don’t think there’s any objective quality. Unless of course we define “quality” as what receives high average scores in a survey of people with certain credentials.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Although when well acted, I can usually pick up the gist of what’s happening.”

      It can be amazing how much this matters. One thing that I think made Romeo + Juliet (1996) just an Eh! version of the play was that the actors had no feel for Shakespeare’s language. They were just parroting the dialog.

      Contrast that with Kenneth Branagh’s version of Hamlet (also 1996). I find it spellbinding because Branagh (who also directed) has Shakespearean training. The movie is four hours long — it includes the entire text, which is rare — and I still find it mesmerizing. We performed Hamlet in our high school, and I’m pretty familiar with it, and I still got new insights from that film.

      So it totally makes the difference. In the Branagh film, what they’re saying makes sense.

      “Unless of course we define ‘quality’ as what receives high average scores in a survey of people with certain credentials.”

      Exactly so. Quality is generally defined on a consensus of people who know the field.

      With some things, like production values, it’s obvious. Bad camera framing, bad lighting, visible microphones, obvious makeup or prosthetics (think Zaphod’s second head in the BBC HHGttG TV series).

      Bad production values are a bit different from low production values. The former are essentially mistakes — things that should have been done better. Low production values have to do with budget. They can be overlooked with the story, acting, or other key aspects are of high quality. Two very good examples: Clerks (1994) and El Mariachi (1992). Both seriously shoestring budgets (especially the latter), because they were debut films by unknowns, but something shines through that catapulted both filmmakers into their careers.

      So definitely quality is a tricky proposition. (That’s kind of the topic of the next post.)

      But exactly as you say, it’s knowledgeable experienced people who create a consensus of what quality means in a given field. That’s exactly why the horizontal green areas aren’t lines, but clouds. Even experts will vary in their judgement.

      (Keep in mind this isn’t meant to be a definitive breakdown of Shakespeare, Reality TV, or even notions of quality. The main point is the configuration space metaphor and the idea of fuzzy areas within them.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Oh, I know the post was really about the configuration space thing. I just had nothing intelligent to say about that. 🙂 (Not that I’d consider the remarks I did make all that intelligent.)

        Interesting on the distinction between bad and low production values. I’d never heard the difference before, but it makes sense. There is a different feel to something made with low budget, but still with care, versus something slipshod. I think of the old Doctor Who episodes, which I still find watchable, because although the production values are low, they stories and acting are good. (Or at least they seem good to me.)

        BTW, I experimented with subscribing to this thread via the Reader, hoping I’d get an email. Didn’t work. Not sure what subscribing to a thread in the Reader means. (With this comment, I’ll now be subscribed in the traditional manner.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Classic Who is an excellent example. For that matter, so is TOS. One reason I like smaller movies is they like the popular view of the “unattractive person” — someone who has to use intelligence or charm to get ahead. The only chance small budget movies have to stand out is to be really good. They also don’t have to live up to what a big budget demands — metaphorically they don’t have to spend so much energy looking good.

        By “subscribing […] via the Reader” you mean? (I’m not sure the Reader has email options. I’ve been referring to whether a post shows up in the Conversations view.)

        I’m under the impression clicking Like or making a Comment causes that post to show up in Conversations. (At least, I thought I’d observed that behavior. I’ve long thought commenting does it. Recently it seemed just liking a post also did it. I’ll try to remember to test that with someone.

        FWIW, The post you just posted shows up in Conversations for me, but I already visited the post page, clicked Like, and made a Comment, so that’s what I’d expect. I’ll try to remember to use the Reader next time.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        TOS is definitely a good example. And it contrasts pretty starkly with a contemporary: Lost in Space. The first season is marginally watchable, but I couldn’t watch the second or third seasons. Even the first season, the stories just aren’t anywhere near the quality in Star Trek.

        On the Reader, yeah, I had just noticed the “Follow Conversation” link in the upper right corner of the comment section in the reader. It was green for other posts I had followed via the website, so I figured clicking it would generate the same functionality. It didn’t appear to.

        And like you said, posts I’ve commented on already come up in the Conversations stream when there’s new activity. I just don’t live enough in the Reader for that to work for me. Oh well.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ha, yes, Lost in Space was goofy family fare. I had a just preteen crush on Judy — my second major actress crush (Samantha on Bewitched (8 years, 64-72) was the first.)

        I saw all that in real time back in the 1960s. For a post I might someday write, I drew a timeline chart just so I could see how those shows fit into my own timeline. TOS (3 years, 66-69) actually comes just after the preteen arc of my life. LiS (3 years, 65-68) is a good comparison — a three-year show that ran just one year ahead of TOS.

        (So, for me, already a serious SF fan through Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, etc, TOS was a welcome breath of air after a season of LiS (which, as you say, was the better season). Even as a kid I found the show pretty wack, but I had this thing for Judy, and I kinda liked the robot.)

        On my chart, Gilligan’s Island (3 years, 64-67) is another three-year show that started the year before LiS. The Man From UNCLE (4 years, 64-68) also started that year. Another was I Dream of Jeannie (5 years, 1965-1970). But as far as childhood crushes on actresses, Petticoat Junction (7 years, 1963-1970) is the actual earliest. I tend to forget I had a major crush on Meredith MacRae back then (although she didn’t show up until 1966).

        There was also Emma Peal on The Avengers (6 years, 1961-1969), but I’m not sure I saw those in real time. Not the first seasons, anyway.

        I ramble, but it’s interesting seeing how those puzzle pieces fit into my past.

        That “Follow Conversation” link is handy for dropping an old post out of view if a conversation suddenly starts on it again (and it’s not something of interest). (I hadn’t realized it was available on the “Followed Sites” list of posts. That’s kinda cool!)

        Did clicking it make it show up in Conversations? It’s that it didn’t send you an email?

        The “Followed Sites” page has a [Manage] button at the top. The Settings link for each site does have a switch you can turn on “Email me new comments” but that would apply to the entire site, I’d think. (Given it’s a mode you prefer, maybe that’s an option?)

        I’ve gotten to the point I using the Reader Conversations to reply to comments on other blogs. It gets around the “no reply link” issue and lets one reply directly to any comment. I sometimes use the Reader Followed Sites to read and create first comments, but I’m more prone to visit the blog’s webpage to read (and make that first comment).

        I use the old fashioned Admin Comments to reply to comments on my own blog, since that’s the only place I can use style tags or “banned” HTML tags. (To create a new comment on my own blog I go to the post’s page as I would any other post.)

        WordPress is a bit of a hodge-podge sometimes. (I really do need to check out that block editor.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I watched most of those shows (TOS, LiS, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie) in the early 70s as after school TV when they were in syndication. In my timeline, they were in the 5-8 year old experiences.

        I actually liked LiS more than TOS back then. I think I’ve mentioned before that my crush was more on Penny, but it’s usual for me to prefer the brunettes.

        It’s hard to say if clicking “Follow Conversation” made it show up in the Conversations tab because I also commented. Maybe if all I’d done was “Follow Conversation” and there had been other comments, it might have made the thread show up. But I definitely didn’t get any emails until I came to the site and click the “Notify me of new comments via email” checkmark.

        Yeah, following all comments on any blog but my own is just too much. Like you, I need the ability to unfollow threads I’m no longer participating in. I already manage that to some extent with mail rules, but some blogs are so frenetic that they swamp even my overflow folder, so I typically just unfollow a high volume thread once I’m done with it.

        Most of my commenting is done on the sites. (I’m typing this one on yours.) I do use the Edit link on my own site once the reply link goes away so I can keep replying. It puts me in the new admin interface, which is usually okay. The issue I have with both the new and old admin interfaces is it’s hard to see the thread structure, so I sometimes end up flicking between multiple browser tabs. But if I do want to reply to a comment I can’t on the site, I will go into the Conversations tab.

        As you said, a hodgepodge. I really wish WP would just fix the commenting system.

        I’m still not using the block editor either. I did look at it again on my test blog, just to see how old posts come up. Still not digging it, but I’ll probably get used to it once they force the issue.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        My cousin was into Penny. (As a kid I tended to hang out with adults, so even my crushes were often on women notably older than me. I kind of remember having a thing for my kindergarten teacher.)

        I just tried clicking “Follow Conversation” on a recent post on a blog I follow. I hadn’t (and didn’t) even read the post (let alone comment). It took a refresh, but the post’s comments now show up in the Conversations view.

        But I don’t see any way to turn on emails, other than for the whole site. I did used to do that for the main sites I followed, but since I started using the Reader more, I don’t bother.

        With lesser-visited sites, or Sabine Hossenfelder’s site, which isn’t WP, I (try to remember to) click the ‘send emails’ box. I will give credit to blogspot (Sabine’s platform) — their checkbox doesn’t require submitting a comment, it works on its own. One can just subscribe or unsubscribe.

        I do it eventually on her posts because the comments keep coming long after I’ve lost interest. And I know what you mean about lots of emails. I generally only get them from her site if I was moved to comment (rare), so it’s not really a problem. If I used immediate email notifications about comments on lots of active blogs, that would be a lot to deal with.

        I know what you mean about thread structure, too. Sometimes I have to click “View Post” to check out exactly where I am replying in that structure.

        I got an email from WP about the new block editor. It sounds like the classic editor remains available from the classic admin, and there’s something about a classic editor block in the new one that makes it like the old one. I really do have to check it out…

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Sabine’s is one of the blogs that if I do comment on, I don’t stay subscribed for too long. Just too much volume. But there are a few regular bloggers who occasionally have really popular posts where I have to do the same thing.

        I got that email too a few weeks ago. It implied the classic editor was sticking around. Then that WP blog post dropped making it sound like the classic editor itself was going away. My current plan is to continue using classic until a post comes up where a feature from the block editor would be handy (like a table) or WP takes classic away, whichever happens first.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        That’s pretty much my plan, too.

        (I’ve put a fair number of tables in posts by hand using the HTML side of the editor. But I create them off-line and test them on my laptop’s local webserver until I get the styles right. Then I just paste them into the editor. I don’t recommend it, but I’ve been hacking out HTML since the early 1990s, so it’s almost second nature.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I tried putting a table into a post once, but it seemed fragile, with the WP editor always in danger of eating it. I decided if I ever did it, I would do what you did, code it somewhere else and paste it in just prior to hitting Publish. In general, it seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

        But there have been a few posts where a table would have been very handy.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’ve found any HTML can be fragile if the editor doesn’t see what it expects. You may know this; it uses XHTML. So elements with no closing tag (such as IMG) have to have that slash at the end just like XML does:

            <img … />

        Which HTML just ignores. And, of course, as with XML, the editor won’t forgive missing end tags. Anything it doesn’t like, and it removes the offending tags.

        For a while not that long ago it was randomly, for no reason I could see, corrupting UL and OL elements. It would suddenly decide a bunch of LI elements needed to be nested inside a sub-list. That happened intermittently for a period and then went away. Hasn’t happened since. I bug in the parser, I assume.

        With tables I’m sure to include the TBODY element around the rows, and all TR and TD elements need to be properly nested and terminated. And I use a THEAD element for any column header. So far I haven’t had WP eat my tables. I’m pasting in from a known good copy if they do, so I have a backup, but I’ve only ever needed it for my own mistakes.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        My mistake was trying to hand code the table in the editor. There’s no way I’m going to build something that complex without making errors, which usually can be checked by looking at the displayed result (or using a good development editor).

        Ah well. We’ll see what the block editor does with it. With any luck it’ll be usable functionality. That editor is going to take getting used to though.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ugh, yeah, no syntax highlighting? That would make it tough!

        (I have a programmer’s text editor that “knows” about a lot of languages, so it’s a lot easier.)

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