February 2005
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Month February 2005

Recent and Interesting Wines

I’ve had several interesting wines lately, at several events. My friend Bryan was in town last week, so a group of us went to Cafe Campagne, pretty much my home-away-from-home and the scene of many a wine dinner. Starting with a 96 Brocard Les Clos Chablis from my cellar (good, creamy, less crisp and minerally on the palate than I like), we followed with a superb 1985 Verset Cornas (wine of the night), a 1988 Tempier Bandol Migoua, and a 1983 Beaucastel (in fine shape). The Tempier was excellent but understated, and really should have been drunk by itself instead of in the brash company of the Cornas and Chateauneuf. Dsc00273_1 The wine is in no danger of being too mature, and can be held awhile longer in good storage. The 1983 Beaucastel, on the other hand, seems to be getting fairly mature and will need to be drunk at some point — the incredible 1981 is already fading and is no longer at its heights. If you have 1983, make sure you drink them before they begin to fade.

Saturday night, with a long-standing group of friends, we tried a number of wines, but the highlights were a Cristom 1996 Pinot Marjorie Vineyard, a Barnard-Griffin Syrah port, and oddly enough, a fascinating Cognac made by expatriate Norwegians that was slightly spicier and sweeter than Hennessy. 

Yesterday, a couple of us kicked back for a Sunday afternoon tasting. Just the highlights. The Zilliken Saarburger Rausch 2003 Spatlese is super tasty, sweet and spritzy, but also flabby and lacking in acidity and definition. A beautiful Fevre 2002 Chablis Clos was a tad oaky on the palate but otherwise incredibly crisp with good minerality. Normally I don’t buy the more expensive Fevre Chablis because he uses new oak, but I do buy the basic AOC Chablis for everyday wine and it’s a terrific bargain. In the reds category, I brought the Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet 2002, which was good basic Burgundy for $35 retail, but lacking in the substance you’d want to let it age. My friend Vinny brought an absolutely terrific bottle of Joguet Chinon 2002 Cuvee de la Cure. Along with the Chave (see below) this was my wine of the day. The Texier 2000 Hermitage smelled a bit like Chave, which made sense given that Chave apparently sold Texier some juice or grapes that year. This was followed by a spectacular 1980 Chave Hermitage from Marc, who’d never tried the vintage. The wine was definitely mature but had a delicate, spicy nose with a hint of coffee but still plenty of character. A wonderful way to end the tasting. A few more wines were lurking in the interstices, but these are my personal highlights.

(yes, the picture is the 1988 Tempier La Louffe, but I didn’t have a picture of the Migoua bottle.  Bonus points if you know La Louffe or have any you’d like to sell)

Road to Reality

Roadtoreality I just received Sir Roger Penrose’s new book, The Road to Reality from Amazon. This long-awaited book purports to be, as the subtitle says, "A complete guide to the laws of the universe." That’s a bit of an exaggeration, since it’s really about physics and the associated math needed to represent it, but I guess we’ll forgive Penrose a bit of reductionism. And including chemistry or biology would have been a bit much anyhow — the tome weighs in at 1100 pages just with physics and math.

The first 16 chapters (!) cover the mathematical background of modern physics, from Euclid through symmetry groups and calculus on manifolds.  The remainder of the book starts at space-time and moves through modern physics, hitting cosmology on the way and ending up at string and twistor theory. 

I can’t wait to start reading.  I have a feeling that when I do, my progress on the 50 Book Challenge will slow down a bit, so I think I’ll finish several of the current "in progress" stack before cracking it again. 

Book #8: The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100 by Robert William Fogel

Catching up a bit now. Book #8 was a small but terrific book by Robert William Fogel, who documents the truly meteoric rise in human life expectancy from 1700 to the present, and projects these trends through the 21st century. Fogel shared the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1993 with Douglass North, for renewing research into economic history by introducing quantitative methods and economic theory to explain institutional change.

Escape from Hunger and Premature Death documents the rapidity and extent of the changes that have occurred since the Industrial Revolution in the basic quality of human life (as measured by nutritional adequacy, life expectancy, and morphological statistics). The data do more than simply document this revolutionary change, however. Given that much of the increase in life expectancy in the United States is actually a 20th century phenomenon, which accelerates throughout the century, it’s easy to appreciate why we now face hard choices about how to structure social safety nets. These are choices which previous generations didn’t face in quite the same way, since the full effects of improved nutrition, control over infectious disease, and improved health care (especially in childhood) had not yet made themselves felt.

I also finished Fogel’s book with renewed sense of the true gap between the poorest regions of the world and the industrialized West — the gap between us is increasingly not “quantitative”, in the sense that they simply have “less” of what we have; instead, continued dire poverty in many regions of the world has resulted in a bimodal population, where rich industrialized countries have serious biomedical advantages over poor regions. The increasingly “qualitative” nature of this gap makes it all the more urgent to listen to folks like Amartya Sen and determine how we can steer a “middle path” where economic globalization can help these regions without destroying the economies of the West and triggering serious economic conflicts within the western democracies.

On the relations between voting, democracy, and liberal society

Just a pointer to a recent post at Progressive Commons, where I discuss why election reform is necessary, but not sufficient, to guarantee the continuing health of our democratic system.

Book #7: Two Faces of Liberalism, by John Gray

I’m catching up on a couple of books I finished earlier in the month — my ability to read is outstripping my ability to write. Or the chair by the window is more comfortable than my desk. One of these is probably the reason I’m lagging in writing about books.

Gray’s book Two Faces of Liberalism refers to the major split in liberal thinking between Enlightenment rationalism and consequent "univeralism" among liberals, and the notion that liberalism must treat all ways of life equally. Levy, Galston, and others have referred to this distinction as one of "autonomy" versus "diversity." Gray’s book can be summarized as an argument for the latter by presenting the contradictions in the former view of liberalism. But his claims go further — that liberal pluralists such as Will Kymlicka and even, it seems, Gray’s hero Isaiah Berlin, don’t go far enough — that "toleration" among different ways of life still contains the seed of the idea that those who "tolerate" still believe in the universal superiority of a single way of life. Gray’s book is an extended argument that even toleration doesn’t capture the very real conflicts that occur between groups, cultures, and ways of life. And thus, the liberal "utopia" is one of modus vivendi, Gray’s Hobbesian term for a tactical agreement between individuals which facilitates the peaceful co-existence of different ways of life.

I suspect that prior to reading Rorty, and internalizing his strain of pragmatism, I’d have been more impressed by Gray. As it was, I spent much of the book thinking that Gray was trying valiantly to carve out a differentiated territory between Rawlsian notions of fairness, the pluralistic liberalism of folks like Berlin, Kymlicka, and Kukathas, and a post-Darwinian notion that no particular way of life is privileged. And in this sense, I was disappointed that the argument wasn’t more original. That said, Two Faces was a valuable read. Gray describes how various notions of the good life, rival freedoms, and competing ways of life work both within individuals and societies. Most valuable, perhaps, is his insistence on the multiplicity of each individual — that we can each hold rival notions of good and proper action, participate in multiple ways of life, and even value freedoms which are mutually exclusive. Liberal theorists who stress rational argument and universal principles would do well to keep in mind Gray’s point about the diversity inherent within single individuals, because it suggests that we do need to think carefully about how to meld our notions of a shared civic "good life" with the realization that conflicts of interest, values, and rival liberties will always be with us.

50 Book Challenge #6: Anatomy of Fascism by Robert Paxton

Paxton’s analysis of fascism was a pretty amazing read. He takes as his central problem the difficulty of precisely defining “fascism,” given the great diversity among the movements bearing that label. Anatomy of Fascism (AoF) is then an extended essay aimed at understanding what fascism is by understanding the diverse ways in which ultra-right wing, popular nationalist movements crystallize, (very) occasionally gain power, and then either moderate (Mussolini) or radicalize (Nazi Germany) while in power.

Paxton’s focus on variability is the key to the present-day value in AoF. If fascism could possibly gain power in a modern democratic state, we should not expect it to look precisely like fascisms of the past, or to resemble the fantasies of marginalized “neo-legacy” fascist groups of the current day. Neither America nor any European country is likely to be overtaken by today’s neo-Nazi fringe, simply because the intervening 60 years have created a strong antipathy to the outward symbols and modalities of 1930’s fascist movements. Paxton’s achievement is to articulate the underlying elements that fascisms of the past have held in common, as a way of understanding the potential pathways that future fascisms — here or elsewhere — could take, and under what circumstances.

If you read one book on fascism this year, I know the temptation will be to read Philip Roth’s Plot Against America, but I’d recommend Paxton instead. It’s that good. More on this subject in the near future, and probably over at Progressive Commons.