Thursday, July 24, 2008


I've written a few wine reviews attributing flinty or chalky "minerals" in wines to the soil in which they are grown, but the scientist in me has always puzzled over how the grapes do that.

The answer is, quite simply, that they don't. Weather, soil chemistry, and soil structure, of course do play a role in gene expression and thus in the sensory qualities of wine, but the idea that the vines slurp up aroma-of-rock and excrete it in grapes is pure fancy.

Randall Graham a winemaker at Bonny Doon, reportedly experimented with adding rock to wine the way some add oak chips. Results were somewhat amusing, with the rocks buffering the pH and drastically altering both the taste and mouthfeel.

Harold McGee and Daniel Patterson, writing in the New York Times magazine attribute terroir more to the local winemaking traditions than to the soil. I find the argument rather convincing, that it is the winemaker and not the dirt that is steely or chalky, but I'm not as completely sold on it as Patterson and McGee. Yes, the grapes are not expressing the taste of the dirt, but topography, rainfall, soil structure, and composition play more than minimal roles in determining character. Some of the lesser-known "cult" wineries and upstarts will bring out pours of unblended wine from different vineyards to more enthusiastic tasters.

I recall a very proud owner-operator in Livermore giving me a sip of this and a sip of that (supposedly vinified the same way), then pouring three Zinfandels blended largely from the vineyards. All Zin, and all quite different. Granted, they could be from different clones; I didn't think to ask.

Terroir is still a mystery. What is genetic, what is environmental, and what is winemaker has yet to be pinned down. Even the question of what we mean by "minerals" in the wine--it isn't a higher salt concentration!--remains unanswered. Some might like the mystery to remain, but as for me, these investigations enhance my enjoyment.

Three negatives in a row.

My July posts consist of two hits and a link to a hit. Next post will be "positive", I promise!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

'CLS' to farmers: "To a gas chamber, go!"

As Whittaker Chambers said of Ayn Rand in his famous (and hilarious) review of Atlas Shrugged, I dislike much of what 'CLS' the anonymous (by request) 'blogger at Classically Liberal dislikes, quite as heartily as he does.

Nonetheless, much as I didn't have the stomach for Atlas Shrugged's painfully bad dialogue and Saturday-morning cartoon moral landscape, never finishing the book and having no desire to do so, I'm finding that, although I promoted CLS's 'blog back when it was getting started, his recent posts' moralistic turn makes my eyes cross and my brain hurt. Ordinarily speaking I have no trouble reading those with whom I disagree, but when the modesty of a true intellectual is set aside in favor of the cheap certainty of an ideologue, it becomes difficult to not dismiss the passage literally by reflex. The eyes--my eyes, anyway--have a tendency, on finding that a writer hasn't thought things through, has no intention of thinking things through, and doesn't even appreciate that the matter at hand is of sufficient subtlety to require being thought through, to skip to the next sentence or paragraph, as if not to spend more time processing an author's mistake than the author spent writing it.

So it is with a recent post about the effects of a change in ethanol blending mandates, wherein farmers who planted their crops expecting mandates to continue as is at least until the end of the season are treated much as the sociology professors, schoolteachers, and playwrights (etc.) who perished in the Taggart Tunnel. To quote:
One farmer said: “We bought fertilizer and corn seed, decide our crop mix on the basis of ethanol being where it was. To change the mandate in the middle of our growing season, that’s really not right.” He apparently never worried if the mandate was right in the first place.

I would like to be able to attribute the post to the casual libertarian's (usually somewhat willful) lack of appreciation for stickiness, but CLS goes on to accuse the quoted farmer and many others of theft and looting and to actually gloat over the farmers' losses.

Bailing out people who benefited from previous government policies is not libertarian. Their failure, if anything is a bit of justice. It returns some of the booty that they stole back to the productive economy.

CLS has perhaps forgotten that he and nearly everyone else is a beneficiary of government policies, as he lives and does business under rule of law. This does not make him a thief unless all men are thieves. If the law should change in a way to hurt his livelihood, as he is not profiting from slavery or some other malum in se conduct, I would want the change to be done in such a way as to smooth the transition.

It would seem, however, that in CLS's newly twisted moral landscape, those who respond to price signals that happen to be perturbed by government policies with which one does not agree are "stealing" and their profits are "booty". Forget that the ethanol mandate, however poorly thought out, had a legitimate purpose, that being moving toward carbon neutrality. (I don't think it's relevant here that CLS dismisses the work of climatologists for reasons that amount to "just because".) Forget that that purpose is not mystically erased if farmers happened to have lobbied for the mandate's passage. It is the duty of everyone to not only anticipate all possible changes in the law, but also to pretend, as actors in the marketplace, that the law does not exist if CLS does not think it should exist. To do otherwise is to be a thief, to steal, to not participate in the "productive economy".

CLS claims that to advocate for bailouts and smoothed transitions is not libertarian. Apparently his bookstore didn't carry Epstein's Takings and the passage, largely by libertarians, of regulatory takings laws in Oregon and Arizona eluded him while he was out of the country. I'm not saying that changing what is essentially a crop-use mandate mid-season is a takings, but it does sit on a continuum with regulatory takings, and I can see how one could argue that it is. I suspect that despite his stance on this particular matter, CLS would like for the filthy polluting pigs or those profiting from habitat destruction to be compensated when sensible environmental regluations are passed. (Life is full of shades-of-grey, of naturally diffuse "drop in the ocean" harms, and the like; that's one of the reasons we have markets.)

Why, in CLS's mind, should bailouts and smoothed transitions not occur? It puts us on a slippery slope to socialism. Ridiculous! Moving on to something with at least a semblance of merit, we find that CLS argues that the government should not "bail out" those negatively affected by a change in its policies lest it subsidize everyone all the time. Reductio ad absurdum has its uses, but this isn't one. The claim that laws can either be changed on an abrupt timescale and without compensation to those harmed, irrespective of the consequences, or all businesses must be subsidized forever whenever the law changes is sloppy. The quoted farmer himself presents middle ground, written right between the lines. When crops are in the field is not the time to change policy. Therefore, a fair transition would be to lower, or better still, to end the mandates on a timetable such that next year's crop mix is determined based on a market in which there is no ethanol blending mandate.

I'd say that I don't understand how this could have eluded CLS, but that would be a lie. I understand how it eluded him. The peculiar self-lobotomy of the moralist or ideologue creates a mental "blind spot" that nearly always obscures the middle ground.

The extremes are ruled out, yes. Keeping the subsidy for all time is fairly clearly wrong, and cutting it off immediately, mid-season, is just as bad albeit for different reasons. Considering Man as a member of society, an actor in the marketplace, and a limited being, CLS's policy prescription is faulty. Perhaps, pace Chambers, this is to be expected: we should not "place much confidence in the diagnosis of a doctor who supposes that the Hippocratic Oath is a kind of curse."

The more interesting questions remain:
  1. How can we best, given the moral and practical concerns surrounding the matter, eliminate the ethanol blending mandate?
  2. What policy can better satisfy its legitimate purposes?

These are questions of the sort to which ideologues and moralists do not have answers. That is my accusation and in many ways their boast.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Joe Horn, Texas, Alan Korwin give Castle Doctrine a bad name

UPDATE: Korwin ain't so bad.

A runaway jury in Texas refused to indict Joe Horn ("I'm gonna kill 'em!...Move, yer dead!") on any criminal charges whatsoever related to his murder of two men burglarizing his neighbor's home. Grand jury proceedings in Texas are sealed, so we do not and likely will never know the reasoning, but the matter is already being linked in the popular press (one example) to Castle Doctrine laws removing the duty to retreat during a criminal invasion of one's home or business, no doubt in part because Horn himself mentioned the change in the law to the 911 operator.

This despite Horn's actions (even according to the law's author) not falling under castle doctrine protection. The letter of the law is clear: the Castle Doctrine bill creates a presumption that a person breaking into one's home or business is there to cause, primarily or incidentially, bodily harm, and clarifies (as the Supreme Court affirmed for Federal case law, way back in 1895) that there is no duty to retreat.

What it does not do is allow a man, in a fit of stupid machismo or for any other reason, on witnessing a crime in which others are not in iminent danger, to load his firearm, shout "Move yer dead!", seek out trouble, and shoot the culprits in the back. The Castle Doctrine only applies if trouble comes to the shooter! Nevertheless, that the Castle Doctrine gives semi-literate rubes like Horn or W.C. Frosch even the idea that they have a right to shoot people not invading their homes or businesses--in Frosch's case, a kid cutting across his lawn--will make it all the more difficult to get Castle bills passed in states which impose a statutory duty to retreat.

Alan Korwin, publisher of Gun Laws of the United States, isn't making the situation any better. From his 17 July 2007 "Page Nine" e-newsletter:

News reports generally failed to mention that the two dead criminals, caught red-handed burglarizing Horn's neighbor's house, were in the country illegally. News media policy is to ignore or avoid the illegal immigration aspects of crimes when possible, because they believe it might expose a stereotype, create a stereotype, or is not important, though nearly everyone who reads their tripe believes it is very important. Reasons for the difference in opinion are unclear.

Texas has robust "Castle Doctrine" laws protecting homeowners and the innocent, and making things tough on home invaders even if they aren't illegal aliens committing crimes here. Horn said on tape that he knew of those laws, and the officer on the other end of the line acknowledged the laws were in place, but tried in many ways to convince Horn to do absolutely nothing and let the burglars rob his neighbor.

Korwin may publish books on the law, but he's no lawyer, and it shows. That Hown knows of the Castle Doctrine law does not justify--legally or morally--his actions when the Castle Doctrine simply does not apply. Yet nevertheless Korwin is taken, popularly, to be an authority on firearms law. His invocation of the Castle Doctrine will make it more difficult, at the margin, for us to get these laws passed elsewhere.

As will, of course, his stressing of the burglars' immigration status. To imply that their status is a mitigating factor for Horn is vile, moreover, even a half-wit understands that Horn could not have possibly known the burglars were unlawfully in the country when he shot them in the back. To answer Korwin's question, the reason newsmen didn't report the burglars' immigration status is because, legally, it doesn't matter, and morally, it doesn't matter. That "illegals have no rights" is a right-wing myth, the product of Mugabe-like or Hitler-like imaginations. "If you shoot someone in the back, and it turns out that they don't have a government permission slip, that makes it OK." The press, better educated than the plebs, understand that immigration is irrelevant and have no obligation to report on it simply because morons and bigots think it's important.

Korwin is reminding me in some ways of Jack "Pal" Smurch from Thurber's classic The Greatest Man In The World. What kind of self-respecting, thoughtful human being thinks immigration status of the victim is relevant to the question of whether or not someone should be indicted for murder? The same sort of childish lout who writes of a "lamestream media" and who believes Oregon Petition hype about anthropogenic global warming. Flying around the world didn't make Smurch anything but the boor he was, and likewise publishing success hasn't transformed Korwin into Eugene Volokh or Dave Hardy. A boor can become successful in business, he can be dressed up in a suit, given awards, receive ass-kissing admiration from better men, but he remains a boor. Class doesn't follow success.

Lack of class has hurt the pro-RKBA movement in the past and, at the margin, will continue to hurt it. Unfortunately, there's no good way to even induce the classless to clean up.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Best. 'Blog Smackdown. Ever.

What Megan McArdle had to say about University of Chicago humanities faculty's letter protesting the creation of the Milton Friedman Institute:

...their assessment of the effects of the "neoliberal global order" is forehead slapping, head shaking, did-they-really-say that? stupid. I haven't heard such transparently wishful claptrap since my fifteen-year-old boyfriend tried to convince me that sex provided unparalleled aerobic exercise.

Speaking as an aspiring academic, it's about damn time the stupids are called stupid. More and harder, please!