Saturday, May 28, 2005

Chardonnay Snobbery

If I had better career advice in my youth I might have dropped out of economics and opted for making a living by tasting wine. Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher do that for The Wall Street Journal. Imagine that. They’re paid to drink.

Their April 29 “Tastings” said, “If you were planning g to head to the wine store tonight to pick up a bottle of American Chardonnay under $20, we have one word of advice: Don’t.” After more than 50 inexpensive chardonnays, and found only four worth drinking -- St. Francis, Clos du Bois, J. Lohr and Rutherford (in that order).

I haven’t tried Rutherford but the other three are fine. Clos du Bois was my January pick as the top party wine, because it comes in a 1.5 liter size for $16. But that price is so far under $20 it makes me wonder what other wines Gaiter and Brecher tasted. They mentioned being disappointed by Bogle (which does a better job with Merlot), but that too is only about $8. J. Lohr is about $9. Perhaps they should have spent, say, $13-14 before deciding only four U.S. chardonnays under $20 are worth drinking.

It may be true that many Americans are too stuck on chardonnay, but it is not true that you can’t buy a very good bottle for less than $20. Here are a few readily available chards with WS (Wine Spectator) ratings above 90 – the bottom edge of outstanding. Some years may be better than others, and prices are approximate:

Chateau Souverain WS91 $14
St. Clement WS91 $15
Chateau St. Michelle “Indian Wells” WS90 $18
Sebastiani WS 90 $13
Villa Mt. St. Eden WS90 $13

Here is one I like from South Africa:
Glen Carlou (So. Africa) WS91 $14

And one from New Zealand:
Allan Scott (New Zealand) WS 90 $14

If Gaiter and Brecher tried any of those and didn’t like them, or if they haven’t tried them at all, then they’re not wine experts.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Christianity Today Still on the Baylor Beat

Michael S. Hamilton has done a nice job of reframing the controversy at Baylor and discussing where the combination of Christian character and the university might be going.

It's good to see Christianity Today is still pursuing the Baylor story. Check it out here.

Thomas Madden on Kingdom of Heaven

Watching Kingdom of Heaven, one gets the uneasy feeling that the characters sound, act, and think far too much like people of our own time. And is it rather dull much of the time. I would suggest that this is by no means a mere coincidence.

Any historical drama, of course, will reflect ideas and attitudes of the period in which it is written, often to great advantage. However, this is an aspect that must not be overdone, lest the historical anachronisms undermine the effect of the drama, at least for those who have some knowledge of the relevant history.

This is particularly true of Kingdom of Heaven. Director Ridley Scott presents a story line that speaks well to contemporary issues, but in doing so, he and his screenwriter have had to distort the history of the time well beyond recognition or even plausibility. It's a pity, because Scott is a talented filmmaker who typically makes a commendable effort to understand and express his characters' motivations. Kingdom of Heaven, however, has a certain emotional distance to it, attributable in good part, I think, to the unreal nature of the situation. As the distinguished historian Thomas Madden notes in today's issue of National Review Online,

"As a matter of plot logic, one might reasonably wonder why all of these Crusaders wearing crosses on their breasts and marching off to hopeless battles care so little for Christianity? When preparing for the defense of Jerusalem, Balian proclaims that it is not the stones that matter, but the people living in the city. In order to save the people’s lives he threatens to destroy all of the Christian and Muslim holy sites, 'everything,' he says, 'that drives men mad.' Yet if he is only concerned with defending people, why has Balian come all the way to Jerusalem to do it? Aren’t there plenty of people in France who need defending? The truth is that Scott’s Balian has it exactly wrong. It is the stones, the buildings, the city that mattered above all else. Medieval Christians saw Jerusalem as a precious relic sanctified by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The people were there to glorify God and defend His Holy City. The real Balian, faced with the inevitable conquest of Jerusalem, threatened to destroy the Dome of the Rock if Saladin did not abandon his plan to massacre the Christian inhabitants. That plan is airbrushed out of the movie. Indeed, the good and noble Saladin of this movie lets all of the citizens depart with a hearty, good-natured smile on his face. The real Saladin required them to pay a ransom. Those that could not — and there were thousands — were sold into slavery."

Madden acknowledges that Scott has repeatedly said that Kingdom of Heaven is “not a documentary” but a “story based on history.” As Madden notes, however, the use of history has its limits, and to turn a real-life story of the Crusades into a call for religious tolerance requires too much distortion to allow the film's characters and their choices to remain credible. In removing much of what motivated the real-life characters on which the film was so loosely based, the film flattens the characters and their choices into highly artificial constructs subservient to an all too banal moral, however fine that idea might be. That is destructive to art, and I would suggest that it is what makes it a far less interesting and enjoyable film on an aesthetic level than it could have been.

Madden's critique includes much detail on the real story behind the characters in Scott's film. Read it here.

Insisting on Academic Freedom

Baylor University briefly made a foray into the world of Intelligent Design when it hired William Dembski to begin a center investigating the subject in the late '90's. He was an extraordinarily well-published double Ph.D. who promised to make ID an interesting topic of research and conversation. Baylor's biology faculty subsequently crushed Dembski's center (not exactly the usual tolerance of dissent we hear so much about) and he served out his contract in isolation.

Later on Baylor hired Francis Beckwith, a philosopher, and Walter Bradley, a mechanical engineer, to positions in other departments. Beckwith had argued ID could permissibly be taught in public schools (but not required) and Bradley pursued ID (from the cosmological angle) as a sideline to his primary work. Their hires attracted conspiracy theorizing from Barbara Forrest and Glenn Branch in Academe. To Academe's credit, they published Beckwith's and Bradley's responses. Here they are:

Intelligent Design

TO THE EDITOR:
Barbara Forrest and Glenn Branch misleadingly depict my appointment at Baylor and my academic work on intelligent design in the January-February issue. They falsely imply that I was sought after by the Baylor administration and hired autocratically as part of some conspiracy to turn Baylor into an academic enclave for intelligent design. Until my on-campus interview in February 2003, I had never met or spoken to a Baylor administrator. That interview occurred while I was on the faculty at Princeton as a James Madison Fellow, five months after I had applied for the Baylor post in response to a national advertisement.

The authors state that twenty-nine descendants of my department's namesake (J.M. Dawson) requested that Baylor remove me from my post. They don't mention the support for me from my provost, department chair, department colleagues, and numerous professors from around the world, some of whom disagree with my views. One of them, Kent Greenawalt of Columbia Law School, was so aghast at the Dawsons' use of a quote of his to hurt my appointment that he wrote a letter to my chair condemning it.

I argue that it is constitutionally permissible to teach intelligent design in public schools, which is the conclusion of the thesis I wrote in 2001 as part of my M.J.S. degree at the Washington University School of Law. It was published as a book in 2003, and various portions of it appeared in articles in Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, San Diego Law Review, and Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, and Public Policy. I'm not an intelligent design advocate, and I don't think it should be required in public schools. I do think, however, that some intelligent design arguments raise important questions about philosophical materialism and the nature of science that should be taken seriously and may indeed have a place for discussion in public school classrooms. Academic liberty knows no metaphysical litmus test, whether it's religious or irreligious, or proposed by Jerry Falwell or Barbara Forrest.

Although I stand by my work on intelligent design and public education, it is only a recent interest of mine. I had already established myself with scores of articles and many books in the areas of ethics, religion, and politics. In fact, my monograph on abortion is cited several times in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on that subject.

In my opinion, Forrest and Branch are blacklisters whose witch-hunt tactics should be shunned, and not published, by Academe.

FRANCIS J. BECKWITH
Associate Director, J. M. Dawson Institute for Church-State StudiesBaylor University

TO THE EDITOR:

I am writing in response to the article in the January-February issue by Forrest and Branch. In this article, my hiring at Baylor University is portrayed as being part of a grand conspiracy by the administration to pursue a secret intelligent design agenda, casting aspersions on my academic qualifications and on the administration's integrity. What is particularly galling is that the authors never bothered to contact me or my department head or dean to inquire about this matter.

Why was I hired at Baylor? Maybe it was because I am very academically qualified to help build an outstanding graduate program in engineering that will be synergistic with our under-graduate program. During my eight years at the Colorado School of Mines and twenty-four years at Texas A&M University, I published 140 refereed articles and book chapters, secured $4.5 million in external research funding, served as department head at TAMU, and received five local and one national research awards and two teaching awards. I am an elected fellow of the American Society for Materials and the American Scientific Affiliation.

During my interview at Baylor University, there was no discussion of my work in intelligent design. I spent most of my time in the School of Engineering, giving a seminar and visiting with all of the school's professors. I was told that the recommendation of my hiring was supported unanimously by the faculty in the school. The focus of my work since joining the school has been to begin to develop excellent master's programs and secure external funding to support them, which I have done.

Let me be very clear that I have done and will continue to do work in the areas of intelligent design, cosmology, and the origin of life. However, it is a blatant lie to pretend that my hiring was in any way connected to this extracurricular interest of mine as a "member of the Wedge," whatever that means. I am a fellow of the Discovery Institute in recognition of my work in the origin of life, not as a functionary in some fantasy conspiracy theory. This McCarthyism by Forrest and Branch has no place in the academy or in a publication by the AAUP, which is supposed to be a champion of academic freedom.

WALTER BRADLEY
(Engineering)Baylor University

Thursday, May 26, 2005

They Must Be Drinking Ethanol

The press provides us with two more bits of evidence that the ethanol lobby has stopped courting gullible reporters with three-martini lunches and moved up to chugging pints of pure ethanol.

The first item is a prudently unsigned Associated Press story in The Washington Times May 26 which spoke of the ethanol industry “lobbying blitz arguing that 8 billion gallons of ethanol would replace 2 billion barrels of crude oil.”

There are 42 barrels in a gallon of crude oil, so you’d need 84 billion gallons of ethanol – not 8 billion -- to replace 2 billion barrels of crude.

Besides, the 8 billion gallons of ethanol cannot be produced from corn or sugar (the only sources politicians favor) without wasting a lot of petroleum. It requires petroleum to fuel farm machinery, to produce fertilizer and insecticide, and to transport both the corn and ethanol by diesel truck or train (because ethanol won’t flow through pipelines as oil and gas do).

The second evidence of ethanol poisoning is “Stirrings in the corn fields” from The Economist, May 14. This piece claims Midwestern U.S. drivers can save money by using 85 percent ethanol (E85), because the price near cornfields “is only 10 cents or so from being cheaper than standard gasoline even if there were no subsidies” (of 51 to 71 cents a gallon).

Even if prices of E85 and gasoline were identical, however, E85 would nonetheless be 30 percent more expensive because cars using gasoline get 30 percent more miles per gallon than those using E85. The government estimates, at www. fueleconomy gov, that a Mercedes Benz C320 gets 26 mpg on the highway with gasoline, for example, but only 19 mpg with E85. If gasoline were $2 a gallon, E85 would have to sell for about $1.40 to compete on a cents-per-mile basis. Incidentally, the much larger and more powerful E-series diesel Mercedes (E320 CDI) is rated at 37 mpg on the highway –nearly twice as fuel-frugal as the smaller C320 using E85.

The U.S. political impulse to produce more ethanol from corn cannot be justified on economic grounds, though tax-financed subsidies are always described as a brilliant idea by those receiving them.



More On Torture

My esteeemed friends Tlaloc and James F. Elliott seem to believe that the U.S. government encourages or at a minimum accepts the torture of prisoners, whether military or not. There have been several investigations and courts martial delving into this issue, and as best as I---a lowly scholar---can tell, no evidence supports that assertion. To quote Andrew Sullivan---an honest and smart guy, but also a man who seems to have been driven insane by the gay marriage issue---is to avoid the issue of actual evidence actually confirmed. Is there an operationally useful definition of torture, other than a Potter Stewart adaptation? No doubt some (isolated) examples of behavior that we would agree qualifies have been perpetrated by some U.S. personnel. Under the conditions of war and pressures to obtain information, it is impossible that such outcomes would fail to be observed. That does not constitute a U.S. policy of torture. And the idea that such behavior is widespread among U.S. personnel is preposterous; that is why reports of such are newsworthy.

The rendition policy, under which certain detainees are sent to Egypt and the like for questioning, is the real problem with U.S. policy, for reasons simultaneously moral, political, and practical. War is hell and ugly things happen; that does not mean that orders to do so, whether explicit or implicit, came from on high.

American Idle

This year’s big loser on American Idol was Lisa de Moraes, the condescendingly snobbish Washington Post TV columnist. She calls Carrie Underwood “the hoedown queen” and ridicules her for a “total lack of understanding of the lyrics of almost any song.” To justify the latter remark, Ms. de Moraes had previously taken Carrie to task for failing to adequately explain these perfectly unambiguous lyrics of McArthur Park: “Someone left the cake out in the rain I don't think that I can take it 'Cause it took so long to bake it. And I'll never have that recipe again.”

In today’s column, Ms. de Moraes is appalled that “more than 500 million votes were cast Tuesday night for Underwood and Bice. I think that’ more votes than the president got.” Well, 500 million would be nearly ten times as many votes as the president got (59.7 million) and nearly twice large at the entire U.S. population (272 million). As was clearly explained, the 500 million figure referred to the total votes cast for the whole season.

Since Ms. Moraes lacks even the grade-school knowledge to realize it is impossible to collect half a billion U.S. votes, I wonder how well she could explain, say, the lyrics of McArthur Park.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Bottum Line on U.S. Political Divides

In his article "The New Fusionism," in the current edition of First Things, Joseph Bottum considers the great variety of positions that now go under the rubric of conservatism, and notes a "curious fact":

"Those who believe the murderousness of abortion to be the fundamental moral issue of our times and those who see the forceful defeat of global, anti-Western Islamicism as the most pressing political concern we facepro-life social conservatives and the foreign-policy neoconservatives, in other words—seem to be increasingly voting together, meeting together, and thinking together. If you want to advance the pro-life cause, you will quickly find yourself seated beside those who support an activist, interventionist, and moralist foreign policy for the United States. And, conversely, if you are serious about the war on terror, you will soon discover that you are mingling with those fighting against abortion."

While acknowledging that there is no obvious direct connection between the two issues, Bottum identifies an underlying commonality of purpose that seems a very plausible explanation of why the positions against abortion and for preemptive U.S. actions in the international arena have come together in recent years:

". . . at the level of political theory, there’s a reasonable connection between what we do at home and what we do abroad—or, at least, between the attitudes that cause us to enact certain domestic agendas and the attitudes that drive our foreign policy. A nation that cannot summon the political will to ban even one particularly gruesome form of abortion is unlikely to persevere in the grueling work of building international democracy simply because it seems the moral thing to do. And a nation that cannot bring itself to believe its founding ideals are true for others will probably prove unable to hold those ideals for itself.

"The abolition of abortion and the active advance of democracy have more in common, I believe, than is usually thought. But even if they are utterly separate philosophically, this much is true: They both require reversing the failure of nerve that has lingered in America since at least the 1970s, and success in one may well feed success in the other.

"The goal in either case is to restore confidence in—well, what, exactly? Not our own infallible rightness, surely. But neither can we live any longer with the notion of our own infallible wrongness. We need to restore belief in the possibility of being right. . . .

"In the new fusionism of the pro-life social conservatives and the foreign-policy neoconservatives, a number of traditional issues seem, if not to have disappeared, then at least to have gotten muted along the way."

There is much more to Dr. Bottum's argument, and I highly recommend it as a provocative and well-reasoned look at current political alliances.

As Lions and Lambs Together

Let us, as the green eyeshade types would put it, take inventory. Sentences both run-on and nonsensical. Applause for forced sodomization. Not in the running in the make-them-forget- George-Carlin derby. The Iraqi nation as secular until Uncle Sam came along. On the sauce. A failure to grasp the horrible actions of the NKVD, oops, the U.S. military prison personnel. A failure to spell "publically" correctly. Mr. or Dr?: Only his hairdresser knows for sure. Did I miss anything?

So much calumny; so little time. That was not a run-on sentence, however long, but rather a common literary technique, and we at the Reform Club expect our clientele to display the same high standards in reading that we offer in writing. The musing about Saddam's transformation into Maddam reflects no endorsement of prison rape on my part---is it too much to expect readers to be serious rather than steeped in the asinine dogmas of political correctitude---but instead would be poetic justice given what Saddam's henchmen used to do to his prisoners. Or have the memories of the saintly Uday and Qusay evaporated quite so quickly? I will leave George Carlin to fend for himself. Lest our esteemed readers forget, Saddam inserted a Koranic saying onto the Iraqi flag only a few years ago in an effort to ingratiate himself with the Wahhabi purists. Or perhaps Saddam merely was revealing himself as deeply spiritual. The U.S. military prison guards as torturers? Oh, please; anyone who believes that is a fool who knows nothing about torture. (Hint: Discomfort, embarrassment, and cultural insensitivity do not qualify.) By the way the Abu Ghraib photos were released during the course of a U.S. Army investigation, begun well before the issue hit the NY Times. "Publically" or "publicly"? Zycher's hairdresser knows that one for sure, and she's from Iran. A fabulous economist? Is there such a creature? Well, in the brave new world of embryonic cloning, anything is possible. Which is precisely the problem.

And now, my fellow Americans, back to work.

Carl Groves Interview

Carl Groves, composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist for the excellent musical group Salem Hill, spoke recently with the Victory e-zine about the band and its latest project. Carl is an intelligent and thoughtful chap, and the interview, though brief, provides some insights into his fertile mind. Carl talks about the band's previous albums and progress on their current production, and also tells us what his favorite albums are. (It's a very interesting list.) His comments on the band's forthcoming album, reportedly "epic-filled," are quite tantalizing, as they suggest an interesting new musical emphasis.

An excerpt:

"Victory: Will the sound contine to progress as in your latest releases (BE, Not Everyone's Gold) or will it be back to the 'roots' like your earliest albums?

"Carl: Actually, I think 'Be' is fairly stripped down, certainly compared to 'NEG', 'TRoM' or even 'Catatonia.' This album . . . at least so far . . . has taken on a completely different personality to anything we've done. Although lyrically and instrumentally we're doing what we've always done, there's actually more of a jazz quality to this album. I've been playing a lot more piano outside the band and that has influenced the sound in that the three songs I've written or contributed music for are quite piano-centered. It's quite the contrast to our last one as 'Be' is so guitar-centered. But piano has always been my favorite instrument so I'm not terribly upset by it's prominence on this new album. This album is also the most symphonic album we've done as each song has quite a bit of development and color changes throughout. However, to summarize, I would say that the jazziness of the album has been the most surprising, even to us!"

I agree with Carl's assessment of BE as relatively stripped-down, and it appears that the band has made a good decision in progressing again toward a slightly different sound. I think that going any further into the heavy guitar texture that tended to drive BE would reduce the satisfying complexity of the group's music. I certainly look forward to the next release.

Baseless Charges

There will be no shortage of commentary on the "deal" to avert the showdown on the Nuclear Option to proscribe the filibuster, including many conservatives laughing hollowly at the Democrat commitment to refrain from using it except in "extraordinary circumstances".

My comment will be brief: when will those lunkhead Republicans get it? The medium is the message; their base needed the show of strength more than they needed the issue itself resolved.

Even if the deal works out well (unlikely), the Republicans are huge losers, although anyone can see from their sound bites that they are totally clueless. Well, hopefully, "G-d will protect the gullible" (Psalms 116:6).

Monday, May 23, 2005

On The Sauce

In response to the Honorable James F. Elliott, who asks whether I am "on the sauce": Well, no. But after viewing Saddam in his undies, I wish I were. By the way, in the newish tradition (or fad) of heartfelt American women offering themselves in holy matrimony to tattooed guys serving lengthy terms in the local hoosegow, I wonder if the aforementioned photos of Saddam might inspire some gay guy to offer his hand, or something anyway, to Saddam? Even better: Upon conviction, let us show our humanity and forswear the gallows for Saddam, opting instead for some serious time at a randomly-chosen correctional institute right here in the good old U. S. of A. El Presidente-of-the-Islamic-Republic-of-Iraq-for-Life will go in Saddam, and he'll come out Maddam. Justice is poetic indeed.

Oh the Humanity

Let's see here: There is no end to the horror. We've gone from the U.S. getting bogged down in a quagmire during the brutal Afghan winter to the U.S. causing 250,000 casualties among Iraqi civilians to the U.S. causing 1,000,000 civilian refugees to the U.S. causing a civil war to the U.S. torturing non-POWs by taking unflattering/embarrassing/humiliating photos of them to the U.S. flushing a Koran down the pipes to the U.S. taking photos of His Majesty Saddam in his undies. Pretty soon "torture" will be the lack of super-soft toilet tissue and the use of naughty words and cigarette smoking in full view of Iraqi kids under 21. The mass graves? That's old news. And the mainstream journalists---ignorant, stupid, lazy, dishonest, biased, and arrogant---just cannot fathom why anyone would pay attention to a bunch of lazy loudmouths writing commentary in their pajamas. Any photos of them? I hope not: That would be torture.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

In Search Of Linguistic Ex-cellence

Lately we have tried to use our modest pulpit here as a perch from which to issue small corrections to published media.

The object is not to practice one-upmanship and cry "Gotcha!", but to appeal to a future generation of scribblers to be more careful in spelling and usage.

Today's culprit is Matt Drudge, who is running a headline: Bush Extols Graduates To Embrace Values.

There is nothing wrong with extolling (i.e. praising) graduates. But one suspects that the intended word was 'Exhorts'.