Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Mature Philosophy!

GP Libations No. 3: Aging Spirits

 A PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION: Given a choice between the Mona Lisa and an identical copy thereof, which would you prefer? Understandably, albeit perhaps illogically, most of us would select the original. In a similar vein, we prefer a fine spirit that has actually been aged a quarter-century over one that merely tastes as though it has been.
For generations, aging has improved, not lessened, the attractiveness of brown spirits. The oak barrels in which they’re stored transmute them, making them richer and smoother. Cognacs, dependent on judicious balancing of different years, are stuck with “VSOP” and other subjective designations to indicate their age. Whiskeys, though, stick to clearly defined rules and straightforward numbers. The general consensus: Older is better.
Well, maybe. Accepted industry wisdom used to be that anything that spent more than 25 years in a cask would be undrinkable. Then cellar masters at The Macallan discovered a cask that had been hiding in the back of a cold, damp warehouse for 53 years. It was, they discovered, very, very good. What’s more, collectors were eager to pay a premium for it. As such, Appleton has just introduced a 50-year-old at $5,000 a bottle. Island rum producers, meanwhile, have introduced a truth-in-labeling regulation that will require bottlers to list the youngest rum therein. Authenticity costs.
Other companies have been somewhat more cavalier about age — particularly those from the Spanish Main, who claimed anything up to 20-plus years. Havana Club, for example, has told me its ages are uno medio — an average. The rum producers’ labeling law seems to have shamed some of the Hispanic bottlers: Many of them still use numbers, but without “years” or “aged for” alongside.
I’m a firm believer in authenticity, so I can now stop denouncing consumer fraud and admit that these spirits are as good as, and often better than, those that are simply stored in barrels for a long time. The rums, for example, are made according to the solera method, in which the cellar master decants the rum into different barrels and blends it with different ages. It’s labor-intensive, but not especially time-consuming.
As ever, it all comes down to the consumer. You can purchase a spirit whose authentic age is listed on the bottle, but whose quality might not live up to its billing. Or you can seek out those that have benefited from true artistry and therefore hit all the notes of an aged spirit despite being relatively young. You need not wait decades to enjoy a superb spirit — and you can spend the extra time philosophizing as you sip.  - IW
[Opening photo + The Macallan Bottle photographs via The Macallan + The Macallan Masters of Photography photos by Albert Watson + Cognac photos via Sig
Posted on October 29th, 2012

Monday, November 26, 2012

Paper toiletries shaping the modern world.

Speculator Column IR Magazine, November 2012
A measure of madness in modern systems
 Ian Williams

Finance has units and premises that make even astrology appear ultra-scientific


We sometimes find, on further investigation, that what we thought was solidly based science is based on foundations of jello. Take the metric system used in all our physics, chemistry, biology and cosmology: it was based on a false premise – that the earth is spherical and fixed in its dimensions.

Back in the day, methodical French scientists measured the distance from the pole to the equator, based on the angles of the sun at midday, and divided it by 10 million. Et voila, messieurs! Le mètre!

In fact, the earth is not spherical and it changes shape and size over the seasons; but this misconception is the basis of the whole system, along with the seconds and minutes derived from equally spurious certainty about the regularity of the calendar.

Similarly, most of the world’s railways use a gauge measuring four feet eight and a half inches, allegedly based on five Roman feet; it’s the width of the gates in Hadrian’s Wall in the UK and thus of the standard wagon in the north east of England, where George Stephenson built the first rail lines.

A foot is of course the length of that flat bit at the end of the leg. So now Chinese high-speed trains whoosh along at hundreds of kilo-meters an hour on tracks built to accommodate a Roman chariot, using units originally pegged to a legionnaire’s boot size.

In finance, however, we have units and premises that make the cubit, the scruple and even astrology appear ultra-scientific. Governments, banks and chief executives prognosticate on, for example, the business cycle – compared with which the spherical nature of the earth is as regular as a ball bearing.

Think of the natural rate of interest, currently being ignored by central banks across the world. Think of the ‘natural rate of unemployment’, altered according to year and geography. Or think of the good old efficient market theory, blown up more often than a Nevada nuclear test site.

This brings me to my developing tableware stationery theory of everything. Much of our computer hardware is apparently based upon the five and a quarter inch floppy disk, itself the brainchild of a crack design team in a bar using a folded paper napkin to illustrate its desired drive dimensions.

And it was on yet another table napkin that Arthur Laffer drew the famous curve that confirmed the already strong opinion of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld that tax increases were a bad thing.

Those Roman legionnaires used to socialize in communal latrines and shoot the breeze. Imagine if their habit had persisted, along with the non-metric foot, into the modern age – would such discussions have led to computer drives modeled on a roll of toilet tissue?

Would the Laffer Curve achieve its apotheosis as a Möbius strip with no beginning and no end so that instead of taxing businesses, governments just kept giving them money? Or is that what actually happened?

But the Romans used sponges, not tissue, so our economic theories could have ended up pretty much as they are now: formless, soggy and messy, although infinitely recyclable, just like most of our financial nostrums. After all, no one ever discarded a good theory just because it failed.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Race is on (the agenda!)

by Ian Williams
Tribune UK Friday, November 2nd, 2012
I have seen the future – and it stinks. In fact, I have seen it several times over and its twin pillars are the rapid onset of amnesia and mendacity on the part of candidates, which is reaching its apotheosis in the 2012 American presidential election. The first time I saw it was Liverpool Liberals’ “pavement politics” in the 1960s, where David Alton and his chums realised that the purpose of elections was, well, to get yourself elected. Standing on principle was contra-indicated. My next clear manifestation was seeing Bill Clinton at work, radiating concern and empathy with the poor and underprivileged even as he began the continuing task of dismantling the New Deal. Even while John Smith was still leader of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair came over to New York to see what Clinton was doing and: “Lo! They saw that it was good.”  New York Labour Party members remonstrated that Clinton had no principles and would sell his grandmother to win votes. Blair replied: “But he wins elections.”
And so to now. Barack Obama has his faults – many – but Mitt Romney deserves the President’s apt coining of “Romnesia” to describe his acrobatics. It is part of the American political tradition to tell each separate audience what they want to hear, but more sophisticated politicians are “economical” in the breadth of their stated positions. They only tell segmented groups what they want to hear to avoid contradicting themselves, and use sweeping platitudes for larger audiences.
Romney epitomised that with his speech to mega-rich ultra-conservative donors in Florida denouncing 47 per cent of the voters as tax-guzzling drones. No one is accusing Romney, who thinks that Iran is landlocked and connected to Syria, of sophistication. But it is amazing to consider how many of those 47 per cent will vote for him, and for tax breaks for those who are much richer than they are.
Underneath it all is the sound of the dog whistle. When John Sununu, former New Hampshire Governor, attributed Colin Powell’s support for Obama to their shared race, it could have been a mis-speaking – like Romney’s 47 per cent, a thought in the minds of the campaign, but best not expressed publicly. However, cynics might see it as a cunning attempt to make race an issue – not least since Sununu, of Cuban Arab but Christian origins, has previously suggested that Obama is not really an American. Opinion polls suggest that 40 per cent of whites support Obama, but that drops to less than 20 per cent of whites in the former Confederacy. Even in the rest of the country, a significant percentage of whites could be motivated to vote for anyone against a black candidate. Evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics who – with some justification – consider Mormons to be a non-Christian cult are prepared to overlook Romney’s actual faith and vote for him. But then lots of them think that Obama is a non-Christian Muslim anyway.
It is a dangerous strategy. It might well bring out the white racist vote, but it might also motivate the minorities and the progressive fringe, which have not always been so enthusiastic about the President’s record, to turn out for Obama. The Republicans have been preparing for that contingency with a farrago of claims of widespread voting fraud, for which they have initiated voter identification laws in many states. Although the few proven cases of fraud tend to involve Republicans, laws demanding voter ID target the poor, the old and minorities, who are less likely to have driving licenses, for example.
To complicate matters, at the time of writing, a combination of one of the worst tropical hurricanes to hit the north-eastern states, running into an Arctic storm system from the north, promises huge disruption and devastation to millions of people. It is perhaps symbolic of the  detachment of American politics from reality that there is almost no discussion of climate change in the election or in connection with the monster storm. With such tight margins, the disruption to election arrangements in the Obama leaning north-east and the effect on public confidence of the government’s responses could be significant. Obama is likely to be efficient, but less likely to score in the public relations war against an opposition that would happily blame the storm on his socialist policies. This election is so close and local administrations so partisan that it might well be decided in the Supreme Court again – with predictable results.