Wednesday, February 23, 2011

It All Depends on How You Phrase Your Question

- by Peter Bell, winemaker

I love looking stuff up on Google, mostly so I can learn something new, but also once in awhile for pure entertainment. Often things occur to me in the middle of the night that merit researching the next day. Two mornings ago, my burning desire was to research, of all things, the esterification of tartaric acid and the effects of that transformation on wine taste. Please don’t give up reading this blog post, because I'm not going to talk about what I learned.

Because I’m not a good typist, I really appreciate Google’s ‘Suggest’ algorithm. It’s pretty good at anticipating one’s intentions and filling the search box with helpful shortcuts.

This morning, I asked Google to direct me to sites that would give hints on today’s winery task: topping barrels. In reality, I know all I need to know about barrel topping, after 23 years of winemaking, so I opted to have a little fun instead of divining hard facts. I decided to ask my question in two manners: Lowbrow and Highbrow.

Lowbrow got to go first. I started to type, “What is up with evaporation losses?”

By the time I got the first four words typed, Google had given me the following suggestions:

What is up with the numbers on facebook
What is up with the new zodiac
What is up with the number thing on facebook
What is up with mormons and magnets

There you go – those are the four most popular questions being asked today by people whose use of the interrogative involves the phrase “What is up with…?”

When I finished typing in my whole question, I was given some sites to look at, but clearly none of them were going to guide me in my quest for barrel topping knowledge. So I decided to embark on Phase II: asking the same question in a more erudite, lofty way.

“How might one…” I typed.

Up came these top four suggestions:

How might one describe ernest hemingway
How might one treat myasthenia gravis
How might one protein differ from another
How might one treat poisoning from curare

Oh, yes! People who ask questions using a more elegant syntax are clearly not interested in zodiacs and Mormons. They have important literary, scientific and medical things on their minds!

I plowed ahead with my query:

“How might one more deeply understand the phenomenon of evaporation from wine barrels?”

Quick as a flash, Google put up the following ‘suggestion’:


So enough of that. Good call, Google, especially given that you're a purportedly dispassionate search engine. You are not the first to call me those things.

At this point Ben, my cellar assistant for the week, arrived, and it seemed appropriate to abandon this activity. We got right down to our task, and had all 29 of our Chardonnay barrels topped up by 10:30. Another 40 barrels of red wine soon followed. I love days like this, when we can go home with a palpable sense of accomplishment, and fall asleep anticipating the arrival in our brains of another thing to ask Google.

Music of the Day:
  • Smokey Robinson and the Miracles - Gold: "Shop Around"

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