Appreciating the Best

This past Friday, I went with the Zanbato team up to San Francisco for a sendoff dinner for Mark, who will be headed off to Africa. Partying isn’t quite my domain, much less heading up to the city to do it. The real lure for me to see Mark off instead of just being extra-nice to him on his last day at the office was the opportunity to go to Tony’s Pizza Napolenta. Tony himself is a world champion pizza dough tosser several times over, and Tony’s Pizza is among the contenders for the best pizza in the country. They have different ovens for different styles of pizza, get their ingredients from the most authentic sources, and feature the Neapolitan pizza, the pinnacle of pizza-ness for the pizza connoisseur.

It was good. With a large party, we got 6 different types of pizzas and got to sample some of each. Our order included Neapolitan pizza (Margherita), New York pizza, St. Louis Pizza, California pizza (“Fear & Loathing”), classic Italian pizza (“Cal Italia”), and the “original pie with cheese”. The styles were unmistakably different, and I liked some better than others. My favorites ended up being the simplest pizzas, which is somewhat surprising given my usual preference for loading up American, delivery-style pizza with every possible topping. Having never had a Neapolitan pizza before, however, I now wonder whether I was appreciating the “country’s best” or the “Neapolitan” part of it.

It’s natural for us to seek out the best, most acclaimed in everything that we can get, assuming the opportunity cost is small. I would rather see “The Producers” on Broadway instead of by the local high school drama club. I would rather drive a 2010 Camry instead of a 2005 Camry. I would rather eat at the 4-star Thai restaurant instead of the 3-star Thai restaurant. In all of these cases, there appears to be a better choice by general consensus. Even more, I don’t know if I would really know the difference in any of these cases.

In any domain, general or specific, there’s a learning curve to the details, and many subtleties are only learned through experience. Over time, whether through explicit or implicit learning, we gradually acquaint ourselves with the domain, and that opens us up to a different kind of experience. Even so, we often are attracted to things beyond our understanding at the time. Let me give a few examples in different circumstances of what I mean.

Last year I went to a public lecture by Terence Tao. He’s a Fields Medal winner and therefore one of the most talented mathematicians today. His lecture happened to be about the history of our understanding of the universe, which was very interesting, but frankly had nothing to do with his professional career (he admitted that it was just a side interest for him). Although the content was very interesting, it didn’t take a foremost mathematician to give the lecture, and yet, I’m certain I have missed many other opportunities for similar material by someone far less prominent. He actually also gave a separate lecture to the math department, where he explored ideas within his specialty: there’s no way I would’ve been able to make anything of that.

I have also gone to see the San Francisco Symphony on a few occasions, which I am able to appreciate slightly more from my musical history from high school. On those trips, I would gone both with long-time classical music buffs as well as very non-musical people. For them, it was an enjoyable experience with some exciting, not obviously flawed music. It was fun. For myself, I could hear the things that went well and not so well for the performers and could appreciate the talent of a professional orchestra above my high school orchestra. I’m not sure that everyone could’ve made that distinction.

I play racquetball fairly regularly, and I have also tried to introduce the game to many of my friends. I have my own racquet, which is fairly good: it doesn’t vibrate too much when I hit the ball, and it can deliver a pretty good amount of power. Although I’m happy to lend it to others to others to use, it doesn’t really help inexperienced players to even up the game. Without the skills learned through extensive play, the racquet performs roughly as well as much cheaper loaners that they can get from the gym.

At this point, I’ve gotten fairly far from my original point about pizza, but I think it’s a curious paradox about how we orient ourselves to these situations of inexperience. On the one hand, it inevitably leads us to preferences beyond our understanding to appreciate, but that itself a product of our reliance on others in situations that we don’t understand. Put more concretely, I can figure out what are the better Chinese restaurants around without someone else telling me: with a stomach large enough, I can find out for myself, eventually. I do, however, need someone to tell me what the best sushi place in town is, because of and despite my ability to tell a difference.

So what does it matter? I can think of a few upsides to this confusing situation. First, we can be attracted to new things because of the prominence of the best. I was excited to hear that “Avenue Q” was being performed at the Orpheum up in San Francisco and probably wouldn’t have been about Palo Alto High School doing the same. Add that as one more step in slowly learning about the world of theater. Second, it overcomes more pragmatic concerns about the breadth of discovery, even for the knowledgeable. Although I could play every computer role-playing game released in the past 10 years to find out which is the best, I can rely on reviews to find out which are the best ones to actually spend my limited time on. Finally, it gives recognition to excellence in a field, presumably by those who understand it.

Bringing a lot of rambling thoughts back to pizza, I wonder whether I’ve ruined Neapolitan pizzas for myself forever by having one of the best in the country first. Were I to know notice the difference, I won’t ever be able to find anything as good anywhere else. I hope that instead, I gorge my way through many more pizzas to come, enjoying each as I slowly develop the sense to appreciate the delicious subtleties that I can’t miss for having never experienced them.

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