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Month January 2006

Quilceda Creek vertical tasting (1/21/06)

Sorry I haven’t written much lately. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a friend visiting for part of the time and I’ve been super-busy with the new job for the rest of the time. My upcoming post on Fukuyama and stage-schemes of historical progress is coming along slowly — somehow I allowed myself to fall for the oldest excuse in the book: “I’ll just read a couple more references before writing the next section and it’ll be better.”

For now, I’ll have to content myself with writing up our vertical tasting of Quilceda Creek cabernet. Last Saturday, we held a long-planned tasting of these cabernets — the best in Washington State, in my opinion. Between my friend Wayland Wasserman and I, we had QC in the cellar from 1987 through 1997 (except 1994 for some reason), and a bottle of 2000. Harriet Wasserman hosted the event, cooked a terrific dinner of beef braised in port, wild rice, bread pudding, and others brought salads and side dishes. I kicked things off with my first olive tapenade of 2006 and James and Kate brought an extensive cheese selection.

The wines were in great condition. One wine, the 1991, was probably very slightly corked. Not enough to destroy the palate, but enough that you’d occasionally get a whiff of cardboard. The 2000 was simply too young to evaluate, except that it seemed a bit overripe for my tastes. Overall, I don’t think any of these wines are mature yet. Even the 1987 was still fairly “adolescent,” with only a hint of old-wine spice. The 1988 and 1989 were still quite unevolved and tannic, though the 1988 had a hint of tobacco after about half an hour in the glass.

Among the 17 of us at dinner, the 1993 was the unanimous favorite — a dead ringer for an adolescent Graves. Pipe tobacco, herbal notes, graphite, and sweet juicy fruit. For me, the 1990 was next, with incredible balance but still very youthful (the next day, during the Seahawks playoff game, a different group retasted this alongside the 1990 Reserve and there’s no contest — the Reserve is a phenomenal wine and the regular merely very good). Finally, the 1996 and 1995 both terrific wines as well. The 1996 in particular, with its high proportion of cabernet franc, has a very different nose but will be a beautiful wine. Probably the least favorite wine of the night was 1992, which seemed thin and plummy, but without a lot of complexity.

A few of these wines (1991, 1993, the younger ones) I’ll have more chances to taste out of the cellar, but sadly this was the last of my 1980’s vintages. Probably should have held them another 5 years before drinking, which is what I’d recommend for anyone who has well-stored bottles.

More on Charles Taylor and the causes behind the “success” of the Western world

From an historical and political perspective, I also found Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries very interesting.  His central aim, of course, is to identify those "deep" elements of "modernity" which represent the core elements around which "multiple modernities" cluster and ramify.  As noted in my previous post (which may have been less than intelligible for readers who haven’t been talking with me for years about culture and evolution — and all five of you know who you are!), this is one of the most attractive parts of Taylor’s argument to me. 

Taylor’s notion is that societies feel "modern" to us once they begin to have three basal elements:  a notion of the economy as a first-level concept (in Taylor and Polanyi’s terminology – "disembedded") separate from "society" or "us as a people", a notion of a public sphere of discourse as privileged and separate from either politics or the household, and a notion of "popular sovereignty" which provides legitmacy only to forms of governance that (theoretically) derive from the consent of the governed.  Given these basal elements, England began to be "modern" in this sense in the late seventeenth through the eighteenth centuries, giving rise to the United States as the first "from scratch" modern nation.  By contrast, Spain and Portugal (as I’ve written before on EP) continued to lack the robust public sphere and popular sovereignty which would have helped them "catch up" in terms of economic and social development.

Which brings up an important point about the comparative success or "fitness" of the so-called "modern" societies, starting in the seventeenth and leading up to the early twentieth centuries.  It has become something of an orthodoxy that "democracy" and "capitalism" were the major factors in creating the primacy of the most "modern" of societies clustered around the Atlantic rim.  Certainly this has been the view of American economic conservatives in the tradition of Milton Friedman, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union and most "communist" autocracies in 1989 it became the orthodoxy of former-leftists-turned-neoconservatives, leading to poorly theorized but spectacular pronouncements like Francis Fukuyama’s "End of History" thesis.  But if we were to approach the subject without the self-congratulation, without the destructive reification of categories like "democracy" and "markets" into meaningless slogans — in short, if we were to approach understanding our success as if we were studying a colony of, say, particularly successful ants rather than ourselves, to what would we really attribute our success?  How would we go about determining the factors which led directly to this success, as opposed to those factors which are merely correlated with our success, as against those factors which are actively detrimental to that success but are not strong enough to stop our momentum? 

One place to start is to note how Taylor’s schematic dovetails nicely with accounts of Western economic success like North and Thomas’s classic The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History.  Taken together, these accounts suggest that Taylor’s modern "imaginary" provided the cultural and intellectual framework within which politics could alter long-standing notions of economic relations towards a now-familiar concept of "property rights."  The latter — in essence, a legalistic rather than moral notion of economic "ownership" — is the factor which generates sustained growth in economic activity by the late seventeenth century, which leads to the accelerated spread of the control of selected Western nations over larger areas in the 18th and 19th centuries, which leads to the spread and near-ubiquity of the Western "social imaginary" by the late twentieth century.  Landes makes a similiar point in his fascinating The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, essentially crediting the successful spread of Western hegemony to property rights and what Taylor calls the "public sphere" element of the social imaginary.

A nice story, and interestingly one that does not rely on the absolute "moral" superiority of democracy, capitalism, or any other "ism" to explain the eventual dominance of Western societies.  The real question, if we trying to be accurate rather than self-congratulatory, is how we test such notions?  Answering that question brings us back to the subject matter of the last couple of posts, and to the work of folks like Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis, Joshua Epstein, Robert Axtell, and my friend and colleague, Carl Lipo, bridging the natural and social sciences in both theory and method.  I’m hoping this post explains a bit more about why and how I’ve been interested lately in Taylor’s work, and how that dovetails with me playing around again with simulation models of economic and social actors. 

Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries and Cultural Transmission Theory

Ken’s
comment to an earlier post reminded me that I haven’t yet made good on my
promise to talk about Charles Taylor’s book, Modern
Social Imaginaries
. I approached
the book because I’m interested in the concept of a "social
imaginary," which Taylor describes as:

"the ways people imagine their
social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between
them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper
normative notions and images that underlie these expectations." (page
23).

Taylor’s
definition sounded an awful lot like the vague notion that anthropologists call
"culture," at least old-school anthropologists and instructors
teaching intro classes. It seems to me,
however, that Taylor doesn’t really mean to include most of those clauses in
his real concept of an imaginary — instead, the last clause of the above
definition comes closest as an intentional definition of the concept he
describes extensionally through narrative. Taylor is really getting a distinction between conceptual levels of
cultural and social phenomena: some
notions and concepts and metaphors are more "core" or "paradigmatic"
than others, and the deeper ones last longer and serve almost as a
"landscape" upon which the more fleeting and transient of our
cultural expressions evolve. Taylor’s
use of the term really doesn’t get more precise than this, which makes the book
both an interesting read because of its expansive narrative of intellectual
history, and frustrating if one is approaching the concept (as I did) from an
analytic and scientific perspective.

Notes on Repast.NET agent-based simulation

Recently I’ve been getting acquainted with the .NET version of Repast, an agent-based simulation (ABS) toolkit.  Repast has much in common with the older Swarm system, which Carl Lipo and I used to do much of our previous simulation work (e.g., Ingenta reference).  Repast provides a slightly higher-level and "complete" set of APIs for creating and managing ABS, and does so in a variety of "modern" languages (e.g., Java, Python, .NET C# and VB).  Not that ObjectiveC wasn’t interesting, but it’s lower level than really necessary for the type of work we’re doing:  in writing simulations, I really don’t need to worry about pointers and memory management. 

Given its relative youth, I was surprised how smoothly I was able to get started with Repast.NET inside Visual Studio.  Although the templates were designed for VS2003, and have not been updated or fixed for VS2005, it was relatively simple to take SugarScape and create a template project from it, even adding a unit testing subproject to help ensure the validity and correctness of the simulation.  Given the new capabilities of Visual Studio 2005 Team Edition, I used the VS-style unit testing framework, but one could just as easily use the nUnit framework and the TestDriven.NET plugin (and I’d likely do so for code I’d plan to release as open-source, given that the high priced Team Edition is unlikely to see much use in academic circles). 

In future posts, I’m going to examine what I consider to be the shortcomings of our previous simulation work, examine the theoretical and epistemological basis for doing serious social science with ABS, and discuss my near-term goals in rewriting a new simulation test bed for cultural transmission phenomena.  This is a bit different than my usual fare here on Extended Phenotype, but it’s time to get this work back underway.

50 Book Challenge Wrapup and Best of 2005

Well, the 50 Book Challenge is over for 2005, and here are some final stats.  During the year, I did read a number of books which I thought were either too short or too cheesy to count towards my challenge; all of these "discounted" books were fiction.  For the challenge itself, I read 65 books.  I discounted 9 books, for a total of 74 books for the year.  Not too bad. 

Here are some final stats on the books themselves:

Total Fiction (Challenge/Total):   30 / 39

Total Non-fiction (Challenge/Total):  35 / 35

Here’s how non-fiction broke down into categories (a book can belong to multiple categories):

Biology/Natural History 5
Law/Political Science 19
Philosophy 8
History 18
Other Non-Fiction 3

I’m pretty happy with my reading list for the year, although I’d have imagined I’d read more biology and more literature.  Most of my fiction was on the lighter side, and I suspect that the biology counts are skewed because I did read a fair amount of biology in the form of journal articles.  In fact, I’m guessing that my non-fiction reading was a lot more balanced if you include journal articles. 

What were my top books of the year?  I’m not going to try to rank them, but here’s the top 10 books I read last year:

Richard Rorty, "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity"

Richard Rorty, "Achieving Our Country : Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America"

John Banville, "The Untouchable"

Akhil Amar, "America’s Constitution : A Biography"

Charles Taylor, "Modern Social Imaginaries (Public Planet)"

Charles Stross, "Accelerando"

Michael Sandel, "Democracy’s Discontent : America in Search of a Public Philosophy"

Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle:

"Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 1)"

"The Confusion (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 2)"

"The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 3)"

What does 2006 hold for my reading list?  Like Will Baude, I am looking forward to a year without feeling forced to write about every book I read (although I didn’t hold to this rule and did read 9 books I just didn’t count towards my total).  Also like Will, I read fewer books in 2005 than I had in 2004.  I’m pretty sure the reason for this has little to do with the Challenge and more to do with a series of difficult personal and family events. 

In 2006 I resolve to read about the same mix (percentage-wise) of fiction and non-fiction, but the fiction will (hopefully) be better quality.  I hope to read more biology/anthropology in 2006, although given that books are often out-of-date, I expect journal articles to continue as primary in that field.  I also resolve to read more economics and particularly economic history.  I expect law-related books to taper off a bit, mostly because I have less of a backlog now of older stuff and will expect to read mostly newly published works and journal articles.  I resolve to read more empirical political and social science; 2005 was a philosophy and theory-heavy year and it’s time for more balance.