Sunday, May 27, 2012


Our second child, a son, was born recently. He has a Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia. Updates on his condition here.

Monday, November 14, 2011


I suppose I’m writing this out a (vain?) hope that this might help things to make more sense. That it might palliate my fears in some way, and maybe settle the sourness in my stomach. James Altucher, a blogger who I like, advocates a sort of radical honesty that I find attractive, and following his example, I want to use this blog not only as a mouthpiece for my esoteric ponderings on wine and philosophy, but for my other thoughts and feelings as well.

I find myself back at the crossroads. The one I left a few weeks ago, at the suggestion of a guide, to travel down a very particular road I hadn’t considered traversing before. Having never paid this road much attention, I found myself thinking a lot about it, and let myself get a little too attached to the possibility of reaching a rather attractive destination at the road’s end. It appeared to be everything I wanted: challenging, rewarding, and rather obscenely lucrative, assuming it worked out. And it was dropped into my lap (because of the blog!)—even better! But I’ve found the way immovably blocked (at least for now), at least until I find a way to clear it, or a detour opens up. Neither can happen overnight.

By way of rationalization, it was a long shot—not something I should have assigned as high a probability as I find I did. Ah, but hopes and dreams are not probabilities in the human heart, even in one as ambitiously rational as mine. And rejection never feels good, regardless of the extenuating circumstances. Turns out I lack a heart of machine-like functionality, despite possessing sincere admiration for Crocker’s Rules.

So I’m back at the crossroads. Staring at all these roads again. Roads that feel stale, roads I am sick of considering, that I now have to triple- and qualdruple-check for soundness and compatibility with my goals. Wait—what are my goals again?

What’s worse is that I find myself under more pressure this time. Ever-increasing pressure, as these weeks turn into months, as my wife’s belly continues to swell in inverse proportion to her energy level, and the potential of losing her (substantial) monthly contributions to our income becomes more real. I’m not sure whether this pressure will make my search for more profitable and fulfilling employment easier or harder*, but either way, I’ll have to figure out a new way of dealing with the leaden feeling in the pit of my stomach, and move on.

I hope my little allegory is clear enough to count as honest. I’m looking for a new job, just in case it wasn’t clear. I feel like I’m considering too many different options, none of which I find terribly compelling (at least for longer than a few weeks), and this recent foray toward a job was the furthest I’ve traveled in any one direction for quite some time. Now, back at square one, I feel paralyzed by pure possibility. Of course, it makes sense that nothing would tickle my fancy right on the other side of rejection, so instead of just feeling rejected, I feel rejected and hopeless. Uninspired. Worried. So I’m lying on the world’s couch, spilling my guts in metaphors, caring very little what you write on your notepad, hoping for some relief, some encouragement, and perhaps some clarity and inspiration. Anyone have any they can spare?

*After thinking about it a bit, if forced, I’d guess that the proportional graph between pressure and success (at least in my own life) looks like a big hump with a sharp spike up and then down again at the far end. That is to say, success correlates positively with pressure at first, then levels off and sinks as pressure increases. Finally, when the pressure builds enough into a sink-or-swim scenario, success spikes back up, then right back down when it becomes too much for anyone to bear while remaining psychologically intact.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Clarifications on the Subject of BioDynamic Farming

People say a lot of stuff about BioDynamics, and most of it not very carefully, that is to say, what is said tends to lack philosophical or logical rigor. I’m not going to link to anything or refute anyone in particular, but instead I’ll simply add my two cents on what I think is the real issue, the epistemology of the matter, or on what we can and cannot say about BioDynamic farming.

Briefly, by way of introduction, from Wikipedia, “Biodynamic agriculture is a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants and animals as a self-nourishing system without external inputs insofar as this is possible given the loss of nutrients due to the export of food.” More specifically, BD is a farming method that requires the use of various “preparations” during the farming and harvesting processes, most famously (and controversially) the burying of a cow’s horn at a depth of 40–60 cm below the ground in the autumn, which is left to decompose during the winter and recovered for use the following spring as an anti-fungal treatment for the vines. BD sprang from a series of lectures given by philosopher/intellectual entrepreneur Rudolf Steiner in 1924. Now, it seems relatively uncontroversial that Steiner himself was located somewhere on the spectrum between slightly loony and full-blown charlatan and fraudster, but hopefully no one is trying to commit a genetic fallacy here, so let’s put that consideration aside.

These days, if you want to get “certified Biodynamic,” you get an organization called Demeter to come certify you and give you permission to use the label. They charge you for doing this, so Demeter has an economic incentive for keeping the philosophy of BD alive (a much belabored point by certain critics, most especially Stu Smith of the blog Biodynamics is a Hoax). Again, this particular point doesn’t concern me, since the existence of economic incentives can’t logically prove anything about BD, though I will say that people don’t generally start businesses that sell products they don’t believe in, so the “hoax” part seems a stretch to me.


While I can’t find any sort of statement on Demeter’s website about what exactly BioDynamic viticulture will change about a given agricultural environment, or any guarantees about increases in quality (the focus instead seems to be on overall environmental health and sustainability), I think it’s fair to assume that Demeter or any proponent of BD must assert that (at bare minimum):

BD1. The farming practices prescribed by Biodynamics’ ecological farming system directly contribute to greater vineyard health/vitality than non-BD vineyards and (therefore)

BD2. Biodynamics is directly responsible for the production of wines superior to those produced non-Biodynamically (or more precisely, better than would otherwise be produced on the site, all other things being equal).


And more importantly, how do we measure it? I take it that BD1 is easy to measure (could be as simple as the overall robustness of the plants), but the issues enclosed in BD2 are of course a hornet’s nest of debate and confusion. I fear that what makes a wine better or worse than another is an issue forever damned to the realm of the subjective. We know from innumerable examples that virtually no two critics can be made to agree across the board about which wines are better than others. There isn’t even any (non-anecdotal) evidence, so far as I know, that anyone can tell BD wines from non-BD wines (even winemakers themselves—see the recently released documentary Wine from Here). But nevertheless, something like BD2 is necessary, because unless this method creates better wines, why do it (perhaps with philosophical or ecological benefits creating additional motivations)? But with regards to whether it works, I take it that no scientific study has shown significant differences in plots farmed BioDynamically vs. those farmed organically. This does not mean that there won’t be a study showing just that, as science is not about proving anything, but rather about falsifying hypotheses, but nevertheless, there is no evidence that Biodynamics is efficacious relative to BD1, and, if BD2 follows from BD1, BD2 fails to be supported as well.


What we get to say about it depends on how we think about BD. I take it that there are two schools of thought here: first, there are those who think the scientific method applies to BD, that is acts through a series of naturalistic (read: empirically measurable) processes. In other words, you don’t think BD works because it allows the vine faeries to perform their grape-ripening magic. Rather, you think that all the forces at work seem to be physical forces, and are at least possibly knowable by human agents (they don’t have to be actually known in reality...obviously our scientific knowledge isn’t perfect). If you’re in this first camp, and you agree that what BD claims to do is unclear, and that good science has thus far failed to show that BD has positive effects, well, then you can’t say much about it. You can say that it needs to make a hypothesis and subject it to experimentation. In the second camp, there are those who think that the scientific method DOES NOT apply to BD (or cannot apply, or ought not to be applied). If you’re in this camp, then I’m not sure what exactly you think the efficacy of BD can be attributed to, but you’re probably inclined to appeal to the complexity of the interactions of all the forces in the vineyard as a sort of explanation. If so, please read that essay I just linked. It explains why appealing to complexity is not an explanation. Also, you can watch this video (starting at 1:19), which explains the “Special Pleading” fallacy, which is more or less the same thing. To me, this claim that it is even possible to understand BD at a fundamental level is very strange, and of the fideistic character that you find in much of religious belief. And just like advocating the existence of a non-empirical deity, it seems the burden of proof is on the proponent of BD to explain how her system works.

One way to respond would be to say that one doesn’t need to understand something to be able to recognize its effects, i.e. we can oftentimes see the good (or bad) a thing does without perfectly understanding how the effect is caused (it is in fact really important to keep these two things separate, the what-is-the-case, or “metaphysics,” from the what-we-know-about-it, or “epistemology”). However, this doesn’t do anything to demonstrate the essential and irreducible complexity of BD, and it seems relatively easy to undo the claim of irreducible complexity that this sort of BD proponent is advocating. We could run some simple experiments where BD grape-growing was practiced on a given plot of land, while on similar plots, the grape growing was carried out in a variety of different forms, all of them close to BD, but not quite. So for instance one plot might leave out the cow-horn preparation, while another might ignore the moon phases with regards to picking schedules, etc. Variations on the theme of BD would, with a large enough sample, give us data about the most effective and ineffective aspects of BD farming. If you’re like me, you find it intuitive that some of these changes would help, some would hurt, and overall most of the slight variations would garner extremely similar end results to the pure BD farming. If that’s the case, then there wouldn’t be any logical reason for supporting BD as an irreducibly effective farming method, and Steiner’s spell would be broken.


But these experiments haven’t been done, and I don’t see anyone lining up to perform them. So here’s the bottom line. You can’t claim BD is the solution to a fundamentally complicated problem. Or that it itself is irreducibly complex (could this be demonstrated? I’m not sure “irreducibly complex” has a scientific definition). At least, not if you want to be considered rational. What you can say is that BD seems to do x, y, and z (and enumerate and articulate these phenomena), and conduct a scientifically sound experiment to see if your hypothesis (BD) is really best explanation.

Whether BD works remains to be shown, and this is the point I want to stress: it can be shown. Neither grape growing nor wine making are fundamentally complicated things. They are reducible to a finite number of possible influences. If we don’t perfectly understand the influences, well, so much the worse for us, but if the scientific progress of the last 200 years has shown us ANYTHING, it’s been that mysteries don’t stay mysterious for too long once science gets its teeth into them. So, seriously, you mystery mongers, have a little faith.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What Does Terroir Taste Like?

In this article, Jaime Goode asks an interesting question: what does Terroir taste like? Seems to me there’s a simple answer: it doesn’t taste like anything. Or rather, it doesn’t taste like anything else. Every terroir, if it exists, is by definition unique, and so if a wine possesses terroir, it will not taste like any other wine with terroir (it could conceivably taste like a “manipulated” wine, if the manipulators are good enough at mimicking the taste of the original terroir wine (I don’t think they are yet, but given a perfect understanding of chemistry it’s possible), or if they’ve matched it by accident, I suppose.) I think this provides an explanation for the answer to his second question of the article, which is essentially “can people blind taste terroir?” (answer: not really, at least given some recent anecdotal evidence). Because if terroir doesn’t taste of anything in particular, then unless you’re really familiar with a particular terroir, you won’t be able to spot it. Though, you could conceivably get really good at tasting “manipulated” wines, i.e. know what all the tricks of the trade do to the taste of wines, and then apophatically (i.e. by process of elimination...can I use theological terminology in this forum? Perhaps there’s a better word that this, but I don’t know what it is.) spot the terroir wines.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Brain Food Week of 22nd

1. We think we see more of people’s character than they think we do. And they think the same about us.

2. They should show this at movie theatres right before the previews. Though it may still be too subtle for some people.

3. Us poor introverts.

4. Today I found out about a really cool website.

5. Turns out learners/viewers don’t like indirect language: they like being told what is going on, or alternatively what conclusions to draw. I’ve always enjoyed having spoilers before seeing films, so this makes sense to me. I’ve also always hated the Socratic method (that is to say, the “read-my-mind” method of teaching), so I like it from that perspective as well. The latter is obviously the more important, as this is great to know from a pedagogical standpoint: this teaches us to not let students infer. Instead, be explicit about the conclusion, and work backwards to make sense of it.

6. This is a GREAT article I just found about Philosophy as a discipline. Or really, how it really ought to be done. I am nearly in 100% agreement. Worth your time. So is studying philosophy, which is where the author and I may differ. Logic, in particular, has probably been the most influential subject to ever hit my brain.

7. I really liked The Omnivore’s Dilemma. This article talks a bit about the shortcomings of Pollan’s pithy philosophy“Eat food. Not a lot. Mostly plants.”

8. Good older essay at Less Wrong about the first experiment every conducted. It’s probably good that we don’t execute scientists whose hypotheses get disproved, right?

9. I am slowly learning Bayesian epistemology. I’m not naturally good at math and statistics, so it’s an uphill battle, but a rewarding one. Here’s an interesting lecture at Google by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, author of "The Theory That Would Not Die,” a history of Baye’s Theorem. Interesting stuff.

10. Great article at Philosophy News on the subject “What is Philosophy.” Forward this to all your friends.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Brain Food 8/12/11

Slow week, I guess.

1. A blog post from a guy I just discovered, Ben Casnocha, on the “stability/stimulation tradeoff,” i.e. the either/or situation people find themselves in with regards to careers-do I pick the stable one, or the stimulating one? This is a dilemma that’s hitting me especially hard as I try to figure out what to do with my life.

2. Good article about the things you get to know about someone with years of marriage.

3. Mega Purple is a bummer. I’m not even a real “natural wine” freak, but this stuff is just makeup that doesn’t really help. I vote for the mandatory full disclosure of ingredients on wine labels.

4. Canned Tuna or canned Salmon? Easy. Salmon. Here’s why.

Monday, August 8, 2011

I Get It Now. Burgundy is Sexy.

Ok, ok, I get it now. Burgundy is sexy as hell.

All the wine nerds love Burgundy. ALL of them. But until recently, I didn’t. It had just never really done it for me. But in trying to follow my own advice from Things A Wine Newbie Should Do, I went to a Burgundy tasting the other day with my buddy Jonathan (wine tastings are no fun solo). The wines were all Becky Wasserman (the legend) selections, and it turns out there IS IN FACT a difference between New World Pinot Noir (had it...not that exciting...even the expensive stuff), and (even more expensive) Grand Cru Burgundy (hadn’t had it...turns out, it's pretty fantastic).

Overall, my impressions were really positive. Some really fantastic wines, though very few values. Interestingly, a lot of them were sort of “late finishing” wines. Like they don’t have much or any power on the attack, and then they would explode on the midpalate and finish. I’m not sure what causes this, but it’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve only recently put my finger on, and if know anything else about it let me know. In any case, I find that I prefer wines that grab me at the beginning rather than the end. Perhaps it’s because I don’t like surprises. My winemaker uncle has described wines of this sort (up front wines, that hit you right away) as “slutty” (though, probably what he also means is that they lack depth and complexity post-attack...and these wines didn’t lack for complexity). So that's kinda fun.

Anyway, to the wines. We tasted 7 whites first. All white Burgundy is made from the Chardonnay grape, for the uninitiated. Good wines all, ranging in price from about $30 to $120. But because we all know price and quality (especially as a subjective thing) do not correlate very strictly, the most expensive (‘09 Jean-Noel Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru ‘Les Caillerets’) was definitely not my favorite. Instead, the second most expensive was. The $110 ‘09 JP Fichet Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru ‘Referts.’ I actually didn't like the Jean-Noel much at all, or at least, it was not what I was expecting, because it was much lighter than the surrounding wines. But it’s obviously fallacious to equate quality with high viscosity, and I wonder if the sort of “Parker effect” is in part or whole the cause of that link in my mind...that “better” (higher scored) wines are the thicker ones. It usually seems to be the case.* Had some other good learning experiences - most importantly, I put a name to a particular flavor that I get in fruity, acidic Chardonnay. Gummi Bear! It's totally yellow or white gummi bear! Go get some gummi bears, you'll see. Actually, knowing the flavors of a bunch of different candies (yes, with artificial fruit flavoring) is a great way to prepare yourself for tasting wine, since those aromas and tastes often show up in wine. For example.

But I knew that I liked white Burgundy. It was the reds that were the real eye-opening experience. Good overall, and the barnyard was under control (not a fan of the poop). My favorites were the 2008 Digioia-Royer Chambolle-Musigny VV ($65) and the 2008 Camille Giroud Corton ‘Le Rognet’ Grand Cru ($95). The two really expensive wines ($198 and $180) were both good, especially the 2008 Cecile Tremblay Chapelle-Chambertin Grand Cru. Pity they’re so expensive, because unless someone else is buying, I'll never get to drink them at home. And that’s really in essence my problem with Burgundy. It’s hard for me to get really excited about these wines, because most of them I simply cannot afford. In fact, most of them I would not purchase if they were HALF their listed prices, and at their current way. There were maybe two wines at the tasting that I would buy, out of 20, and both were under 30 bucks.

But all in all a great learning experience, and fun to get to taste $1300 worth of wine for a small fraction of the cost.

Ok, wrapping up, OH YES. ATTENTION SINGLE LADIES! Wine tastings are a GREAT place to meet men! Not only is the crowd 75% male, but they’re automatically men of (at least some) taste, (at least some) sophistication, and (very likely) vocation (i.e. they have jobs...cause wine (esp. Burgundy) costs some serious cash money bling bling).

Finally, I learned something from Jonathan, that Teetoalism was actually named like "Tea total-er" in, the total stimulants we consume are tea and only tea. Apparently the pledge of the first teetotal society was "We agree to abstain from all liquors of an intoxicating quality whether ale, porter, wine or ardent spirits, except as medicine." I actually think I can get on board with that, allowing a someone loose definition of "medicine." Also, you should check out that Wikipedia link because it contains a list of famous teetotalers, like Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Billy Connolly(!), Natalie Portman, and Bruce Willis. Some real surprises. Poor lambs...don’t know what they’re missing**

*There are several cases of the Robert Mondavi chard (a big, oaky monster of a wine) beating out the world-renouned Raveneau Chablis (a delicate, elegant, and apparently quite enchanting wine) in blind tastings with both American and French tasters who would be quicker to praise the Raveneau if they had known what the glasses contained.

**Obviously, abstaining from alcohol if you’re an alcoholic is different, and very possibly the cause of the teetotalism of some of the people on this list. It goes without saying (but this is for the public, so I’m saying it) that they have my full support.