22 Jan 2013

Biodynamics and wine: marketing meets voodoo

It is a fact that wine is being increasingly produced (and sold) using the label "biodynamic". This trend is still very marginal on a wide scale, but it is getting increasing  coverage in some specialist media channels and wine outlets, ever since a few high-profile producers have adopted this approach to farming. Yet very few people have much idea about what this neologism means, despite the strong inference in contemporary wine marketing that it means "good", and at any rate "better" than simply organic. This is usually backed up by higher prices too, as the majority of biodynamic wine producers sell their wines at the top end of the price scale for their respective origins and types of wines. Labelling (and certifying) your wine as "biodynamic" seems to be a marketing trend that is rising. Of course there is more to this than a marketing tool, but it also just that. While most wine producers involved in this trend are perfectly sincere in their approach, I am a little suspicious that others have jumped on a bandwagon that gains them considerable adavantages here and there. But, above all, I feel that they, particularly the "believers" are misguided and suffering from illusions at various levels.

I am becoming increasingly sceptical of the postulate that "biodynamic" farming actually produces measurably better results than organic, of which it is anyway a subdivision. I have a number of reasons for my scepticism. Putting things bluntly, I would hold that the only difference between organic and biodynamic is a hefty dose of mumbo-jumbo derived from some quasi-religious form of blind faith in a few things that were said almost 100 years ago by a very dodgy esoteric philosopher named Rudoph Steiner (photo below).

It is also a fact that Steiner (1861-1925) never practiced agriculture himself, disapproved of alcoholic beverages, and held some very strange views, some of which would probably be condemned by current law in many countries. This is why I find it so odd that many practitioners, and, unhappily, a number of my journalist colleagues, flaunt his name around as if he were a reliable reference for anything. How can one take seriously someone who believed that children should not be taught foreign languages until the age of 12 or when they have "integrated their astral bodies", or that white women would have mulatto children if they read "negro litterature", or that the Aryan race is the superior one, or that certain insect pests are spontaneously created by “cosmic influences”, or that eating potatoes “is one of the factors that have made men and animals materialistic”? And the list of Steiner's loony ideas on all kinds of subjects just goes on and on!

A very well documented article by Douglass Smith and Jesus Barquin, called Biodynamics in the Wine Bottle was published in December 2007 on CSI, the web site of the Committee for Skeptical Enquiry. It does its best to be fair in its approach, and is very well documented and well worth reading. And I am somewhat appalled by the fact that so few of those who talk so freely about biodynamics have taken the trouble to read it or indeed any other critical looks at this quasi-religious and ritualized set of procedures that were laid down by an obvious nutcase who never actually farmed.

The only significant difference between organic farming and biodynamic farming is the use of various "preparations" that are sprayed on the vines having been diluted so much (and "dynamized", which simply means well-stirred) as to have any active substances reduced in intensity to below the level of a single molecule. One can think what one wants about homeopathy, but it has been shown many times that belief in its beneficial effects is the key element in any effectiveness it may have on some people, as otherwise a placebo obtains equally good (or poor) results.

Below I have quoted, in italics, a small part of the article from CSI, to illustrate the incredible (the word is inadequate) strangeness of some aspects of the biodynamic approach:

Steiner proposes his “preparations” in lectures four and five: various small constructions to be added to the field or compost at various times of the year, such as the burial of a cow’s horn filled with manure (now called Preparation 500) or filled with powdered quartz (Preparation 501), burial of yarrow flowers in a stag’s bladder (502), chamomile in a cow’s intestine (503), oak bark in the skull of a domestic animal (505), or dandelions in a “bovine mesentery” (506) (Steiner 2004, pp. 72-99).

Adding the preparations can be a labor-intensive process, especially since some preparations must be done in quantity, depending on the size of one’s fields. Farmers may well wonder: why go to all the effort? What sort of justification does Steiner provide? Let us take the case of Preparation 502. Yarrow is used because, “Its homeopathic sulphur-content . . . enables the yarrow to ray out its influences to a greater distance and through large masses.” As for why we should put it in a stag’s bladder, Steiner gets to the heart of his discussion here:

The bladder of the stag is connected . . . with the forces of the Cosmos. Nay, it is almost the image of the Cosmos. We thereby give the yarrow the power quite essentially to enhance the forces it already possesses, to combine the sulphur with the other substances. (Steiner 2004, p.93)
Why the concern about sulphur in particular? We are expected to remember that “the ethereal moves with the help of sulphur along paths of oxygen” and the like. In other words, sulphur is a key ingredient for receipt of ethereal forces. Or so the story goes. But, at any rate, we don't need to test the reader’s patience with a complete exegesis to make clear that Steiner has given no justification whatever for this practice. Indeed, Preparation 502 is actually one of the better examples, since many of his others are simply stated without the slightest attempt at explication or justification. But it is all of a piece: in the preface to the book of agricultural lectures, written by one of Steiner’s pupils, we find the surprising claim that “In 1923 Rudolf Steiner described for the first time how to make the bio-dynamic compost preparations, simply giving the recipe without any sort of explanation-just 'do this and then that'” (p. 5). Apparently the explanations, such as they were, came later.

Putting aside the massive doses of mumbo-jumbo which makes all this seem suspiciously like voodoo, the main problem with the assertion that biodynamics improve either plant or soil health is that there have hardly been any scientific tests done, at least with a totally valid protocol, to compare the results on a single plot of land, with the same grape and viticultural techniques used, between part of the plot farmed organically and part biodynamically. A Swiss test (Steiner's legacy is in Switzerland) published in 2002 was seriously flawed as to its scientific protocol. Washington State University conducted a scientific study that was published in 2000. This was conducted by John Reganold (who is also a biodynamic consultant, so presumably a "believer") and Lynne Carpenter-Biggs, and they said this "no differences were found between soils fertilized with biodynamic vs non-biodynamic compost". Another six-year study was published by the Washington State Laboratory in 2005 in a peer-review journal. The object was to compare organic to biodynamic farming of wine grapes: "No consistent significant differences were found between the biodynamically treated and untreated plots for any of the physical, chemical or biological parameters tested....analysis of yields showed no differences between treatments....there were no differences in yield, cluster count, cluster weight and berry weight." This would seem to show that the sole difference between organic and biodynamic treatment of a vineyard, namely the spraying of these "preparations", has no measurable effect on the vines. As to testing the differences in wines themselves, that is virtually impossible as there are so many other variables that come into play.

What also bothers me about the whole biodynamic attitide, apart from its very dubious green/brown origins, is its effective negation of science and any form of objective, experimental validation. The usual answer that I get from a biodynamist who manages to avoids too much mystification is "it works". What they have never really done properly is to explain why and how, and prove that there is any appreciable difference from normal organic farming that takes cares of the soil. I can fully understand how abandoning weedkillers and other heavy chemical treatments will, together with careful husbandry and time spent observing plant and soil life, gradually improve the vitality of both, bar any major catastrophe. But practices that include believing that a cow breathes in cosmic influences through its horns (and that this unusual performance can be in any way beneficial to the vine) should surely be given what they deserve at best: a good laugh. 

14 Jan 2013

Make love not war, and eat together: Bonobos show the way

Bonobo monkeys, or pan paniscus to give them the species its latin name, share with their larger cousins, the common chimpanzee, a considerable majority of their genes with us humans. In fact these two species are our closest remaining relatives on this planet. The behaviour patterns of the bonobo in its natural environment in the Congo basin have several interesting aspects, the best known of which being their almost constant fornication with almost any partner available. And, as a probable result, far lower levels of agressivity than the larger common chimpanzee, and an apparent absence of jealousy since partners, for both sexes, are multiple. It is clearly a case of "make love not war" with the bonobo. It is also said that bonobos tend to be matriarchal in their organisation and that the females use sexuality to control males. Humans do this too, in some cases!

But this rampant albeit rapid sexuality is not the only endearing aspect of the bonobos' behaviour. They are also capable of concern for each other, apart from those seen as potential sexual partners, and also prefer to share food rather than eat alone. The experiment conducted below shows this latter, perhaps more surprising aspect of their social conduct. Hitherto, many thought that only humans had this preference for sharing their food with others, even unknown strangers, to eating alone.

12 Jan 2013

The Black Box: Connelly at his very best

I believe that have written several times here already about the work of Michael Connelly, who has to be one of the very best crime writers currently working. I have just finished his latest published book, entitled The Black Box, and I consider it to be one of his best ever and certainly top of my favourites list of those that have Detective Hieronymous "Harry" Bosch as the hero.

Michael Connelly and one of the covers of his latest Harry Bosch story

Of course I will not tell the story of this book here, and of course I recommend it strongly to anyone who enjoys the genre. But there are some things to be said about this book that may speak more to those who have already read some of Connelly's 30-strong opus, which is mostly fictional and, as far as I know, entirely crime-based. 

On the credibility side is is to be noted that Connelly has a background as a crime reporting journalist in Los Angeles. He has used for many years now, and in the majority of his novels, a recurrent character (people call them "heros", but I don't like that word) known as Harry Bosch, but whose real first name is Heironymous (yes, like the painter).

Inevitably, the darkness of the painter Bosch's universe has a clear connection with the murky world and sinister scenes that a murder investigator like Detective Bosch has to deal with, in and around comtemporary California. But Harry Bosch, although often haunted, is not all about darkness.

Aspects of this complex character's life emerge gradually as one reads, in the many novels that revolve around him, through the stages of Bosch's professional life as a cop, then as a private eye, before he goes back into the police force. His latest phase is that of a "cold case" investigator, re-opening unsolved cases years after the crimes were perpetrated, with the help of current forensic techniques to obtain evidence that will help solve them and provide some form of belated justice to the victims of the crimes. Because Bosch clearly deals with nemesis. The ending sentences of The Black Box show this very clearly. Bosch is talking to the brother of the victim of a murder that dates back 20 years, having taken place during the riots that tore up part of Los Angeles in 1992. A murder which had nothing to do with this violent reation to the acquittal of the police beaters of Rodney King, but everything to do with the arrogance and cynicism of a bunch of former soldiers in the first Gulf war. In these final sentences, Bosch is talking over the telephone to the brother of the murdered woman in Denmark. The brother talks first:

"I have waited twenty years for this phone call...and all this time I thought it would go away. I knew I would always be sad for my sister. But I thought the other would go way."
"What is the other, Henrik?" Though he knew the answer.
"Anger...I am still angry, Detective Bosch."
Bosch nodded. He looked down at his desk, at the photos of all the victims under the glass top. Cases and faces. His eyes moved from the photo of Anneke Jespersen to some of the others. The ones he had not yet spoken for.
"So am I, Henrik", he said. "So am I".

Nemesis, Bosch is motivated by nemesis. At times, this involves his dark side, but also his push for a form of justice as much as his will for revenge, as indeed the story of the Black Box reveals, and at times the divider can be narrow. Connelly not only masters the plot and the supense, he also seems tp show, by small glimpses, parts of himself as well as the tender side to his Bosch character. Harry loves his daughter who now lives with him and says she wants to become part of the police force. But she also has her classic adolescent difficulties with her parent (or the other way around). Bosch is a jazz fan with a major soft spot for Art Pepper. And so on. Nothing is simple, but the plot goes on.

You should read Connelly, and not just one of his books. This one took things to another level for me.

Read on... 


4 Jan 2013

Sebastian Faulks: A Possible Life

How do you select the books that you choose to buy and/or to read? I suppose that I use a mixture of good past experience with that authour, interest in the subject matter (for non-fiction essentially), rcommendations by friends and acquaintances whose opinons I respect, recommendations by librarians (same respect required), and, quite often, good reviews in newspapers or magazines. It was one of the latter that pushed me to buy, during a recent trip to London, the latest book by Sebastian Faulks, an apparently well-known British writer but of whom I must confess that I had never heard. On the strength of what I have just finished reading, I have clearly been missing something, and fully intend to get hold of another of his books whenever I can.

the man (right) and his latest book cover

A Possible Life, which was published in 2012, is not a classical novel in the sense that the five stories it contains are separate and differ both in their setting (time and space) and nature. Faulks also subtly varies his style for each story, enhancing their individual character. Yet one is clearly induced, by their being grouped together, but also by three short lines added on the back cover, to imagine and sense links between them. And the links are those of life, of humanity, and perhaps just a shade of what some might term mysticism, although this is neither a word nor a concept to which I hold many candles.

Here are these lines from the rear jacket cover, and I am curious to know whether they are the publisher's or the author's idea, since they do not appear in the book itself, merely on the jacket:

Every atom links us
Every feeling binds us
Every thought connects us  

I will not tell the stories or anything about them here in case one of you out there might want to read this book and have the full effect of discovery that is, at least to me, so much of the pleasure of reading. I will however give you the titles to the five parts of this book, as I think thay provide some useful clues as to the author's intentions:

Part I). A different man
Part II). The second sister
Part III). Everything can be explained
Part IV). A door into heaven
Part V). You next time

For me the strongest parts by far were I, III and V, although all five parts have their strengths. Part V would stand alone as a novella in its own right, with its 100 odd pages. Faulks has the capacity of placing you in different situations at and different periods, of getting involved with (or not, but for reasons that make you think) his characters, and for telling stories well. I am looking forward to reading some more of his work.

so, read on...

2 Jan 2013

The photography of Frantisek Drtikol


I first became acquainted with the work of the Czechoslovakian photographer Frantisek Drtikol in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, during a visit to that fine city a couple of years ago. It impressed me sufficiently to prompt me to purchase a monography of his photographs. He was born in 1883 and died, in Prague, in 1961. Drtikol's photography was advanced for the time, and often experimental in the techniques used, as well as being clearly linked to contemporary art movements, both in terms of composition and themes: symbolism, cubism and futurism for instance. Strong use of shadows also show links with films of the time, and particularly the work of Fritz Lang. The use of cut-outs towards the end of his photgraphic career marked a transit stage to a period when he abandoned photography for painting. The female body and the portrait were recurrent subjects, as well as mythological compositions during the symbolist period. 

His work, at least his public work, was renowned during his lifetime and earned him commissions for many portraits. He also won awards and publised two books of his work :
  • "Les nus de Drtikol" (1929)
  • Žena ve světle (Woman in the Light)

I think I will be looking out for copies of these books. Here are a few samples of his photographs, which I have deliberately mixed as far as their periods go, but I have placed the portraits first.