Letters to the Editors

By
The Million-Dollar Nose

As a part owner of a vineyard that is a member of the Union des Grands Crus, let me state how we perceive Robert Parker ("The Million-Dollar Nose," by William Langewiesche, December Atlantic). He, like everyone else who tastes wine, has his own particular style preferences. Within those preferences, however, he recognizes quality and character, without which no fine wine is worth drinking. He is consistent, which makes his evaluations important and constructive. My colleagues and I have been forced to recognize that we can make better wines than we are making at present. Robert Parker contributed to making us aware of this. He has caused us to invest in our vineyards and winery and also in viticultural and vinicultural practices. We believe that in spite of an appellation less prestigious than some others in the Haut Medoc, we can make wines of distinction and character that will ultimately gain Parker's approval. I use his evaluation of my wine to get my partners to agree to invest and make greater efforts to improve our wine. I would not be able to do this if I were not convinced of Parker's total honesty and objectivity. He is contributing to the improvement of the product not only in Bordeaux but also in other areas.

Peter M. F. Sichel
Managing Director,
Château Fourcas Hosten, Listrac-Medoc
New York, N.Y.


Because of experts like Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator, tens of thousands of acres of heritage varieties of wine grapes are being torn out throughout the world to be replaced by the "big three": Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay. The result of the "Parkerization" of wine here in America has been the emergence of a host of garagistes who no longer grow grapes but buy them like soybeans from vineyards hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Their wines are predictably thick and black, or thick and white. Any pretense of delicacy or complexity is gone in the pursuit of a 90+ from Parker or the Spectator. The true dark side of the wine industry is that these wines are the result of chemistry, not climate, of technology, not terroir. The idea that wine can be reduced to numbers has broken the bond between wine, landscape, and culture; it has brought us one step closer to a world where the places we live and the people we love are also chosen on the basis of numbers.

Gerard Bentryn
Bainbridge Island Vineyards
Bainbridge Island, Wash.


I take issue with William Langewiesche's remarks regarding the Master of Wine diploma. As a factual point, the exams leading to M.W. accreditation are not "based largely on the identification of obscure or antique wines"; they are essay exams on winemaking, grape growing, and the wine business, along with tastings of commercially available wines of various quality levels. And Langewiesche's characterization of M.W.s, implicit in his description of English writers' attitudes toward Parker, misrepresents holders of the M.W. by suggesting that they are largely embittered British wine critics. Of the 233 M.W.s alive today, forty-eight are not British, and fewer than half of those currently studying for the exams worldwide are British. Reflecting the international flavor of the group, an official North American branch of the M.W. organization is about to incorporate in the United States. Furthermore, many British wine critics are not M.W.s, and many of the British M.W.s are not wine critics.

Mary Ewing-Mulligan
New York, N.Y.


It is a pity that William Langewiesche fails to explore Robert Parker's largely persona non grata status in Burgundy, because it illustrates the critical importance of interpretive experience in evaluating wine. From his enthusiastic endorsement of the uneven 1983 vintage to his dismissal of the excellent 1993 vintage, Parker has missed the mark in Burgundy as unerringly as he has hit the mark in Bordeaux. At the root of Parker's misunderstanding is his failure to grasp the concept of terroir—that combination of distinctive vineyards and climate that determines grape qualities and accounts for the subtle differences in great Burgundies. In a world of internationalization and homogenization, the Burgundians resisted Parker's choice to measure all wines by the same standards—deep color, extraction, and power.

In addition, Langewiesche repeats the now widely accepted view that Parker scooped everybody on the greatness of the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. In fact three months earlier The New York Times reported on a group of Bordelaise chateaux owners who were touring the United States and touting the vintage.

When the great vintage arrived, Parker's numerical system guided even the most thick-headed to proper buying decisions. But over the next twenty years Parker's influence on the futures market grew to the point where Bordeaux chateaux competed with one another to produce Parker-friendly wines. As the wines grew more opaque, thicker, more powerful, and more dominated by sweet, spicy new oak, they lost their terroir, their "whereness." It has become increasingly difficult to identify their provenance as young wines.

Ironically, these same estates now fault Parker for praising the new-wave garagistes who completely scorn the idea of terroir. The estates that made their bête must now sleep with him.

Gregory Godels
Dave DeSimone
Pittsburgh, Pa.


A New Way to Be Mad

I was mesmerized by Carl Elliott's article "A New Way to Be Mad" (December Atlantic), but a repeated inaccuracy troubled me. That otherwise healthy people, for whatever reason, are electing to have their limbs cut off is sensational news to most of us, and would make us read the article in fascination. But Elliott need not force erotic elements that may or may not attach to the condition. His assertion that "the suffix -philia ... places these conditions in the group of psychosexual disorders called paraphilias" does not necessarily follow. The suffix can represent an erotic attraction, as in pedophilia or necrophilia, but it can also denote a tendency toward something that is completely unerotic. A hemophiliac has a tendency to bleed, and thrombophilia is a tendency to get blood clots. Maybe an apotemnophiliac is just a person with a tendency toward amputation. Elliott's etymology reminds me of a former student of mine, who, by reading the parts of the word individually, identified a thrombophiliac as "a person who is in love with somebody who has a blood clot."

Lisa B. Hughes
Clinton, N.Y.


Carl Elliott asks, "Why would anyone want an arm or a leg cut off?" In a story told in Ireland, a prison inmate asks the warden to have his arm cut off. The warden obliges. A few weeks later the inmate asks to have his other arm cut off. The warden obliges. Then the inmate asks to have a leg cut off. The warden responds, "I'm on to you. You want to get out of prison."

Ralph Slovenko
Detroit, Mich.


I am consistently baffled by the medical profession's need to classify psychological disorders based on symptomatology, as if taxonomy were a method by which we in the field of mental health could somehow better understand the nature of a person's intrapsychic structure, how the self is psychically organized. My impression of apotemnophilia is that it seems to be a rather unusual set of symptoms, but it is not a unique disorder. The further I read, the more Carl Elliott appeared to be describing garden-variety personality pathology with an extreme presentation of primitive defense mechanisms. Borderline personality disorder sometimes includes a behavioral symptom—well known to any psychologist who has treated patients with the diagnosis—of self-mutilation.

In my clinical experience patients who cut themselves do so not merely because, as the media often report, they need to feel something and the pain of their cutting helps them to reconnect with their split-off affect, but primarily because they feel helpless and out of control, and self-mutilating behaviors ameliorate those emotions by creating a sense of autonomy and power, a sense of self. If I discover that a patient has been self-mutilating, I become less concerned with diagnostic nomenclature and more concerned with the defenses the patient is using; this gives me far more information about the patient's self than does a formal diagnosis based on a symptom set.

I speculate that Elliott's patients have "always felt this way," as far back as they can remember, because of the developmental course of personality pathology, which, by its very definition, is set in place before the age of about four. The more severe the pathology, the earlier in life and the more critical the damage done to the self. I am wondering if apotemnophilia is not in essence simply a bizarre manifestation of a highly undeveloped and fragile self, a symbolic expression of affect that is disavowed and must be "cut off" because the effect on the core self is too much to bear.

Cynthia L. Ashley
LaSalle, Ill.


The Physics of Gridlock

I read "The Physics of Gridlock," by Stephen Budiansky (December Atlantic), with some interest. I have been following applications of dynamical systems theory since my days as a mathematics graduate student at Berkeley. The article was generally credible.

However, I was puzzled that Budiansky ascribed national characteristics to the apparent controversy over the application of the theory to traffic patterns, calling Germans theoretical and Americans more practical, with a tendency to address problems head on and to resist a creative, nonlinear approach. This is puzzling because virtually all of the important work in dynamical systems theory and its applications has been done by Americans (Smale, Kaufman, Wolfram, and others).

Budiansky simply uncovered the difference between physicists, in this case German, and engineers, in this case American. Not surprisingly, the physicists are more theoretical.

Murray Cantor
Cambridge, Mass.


Perhaps gas-flow physics is mimicked and chaos will be better understood in the future from a theoretical standpoint as science marches on, but in the meantime, traffic congestion has readily identifiable causes. Perhaps the Germans are seeing chaos legitimately, because our engineers and legislators are not doing anything to break up randomness in our traffic-flow system. God (chaos) takes care of us.

Strong factors contributing to highway gridlock include poor attention to highway-intersection design and construction; driving rules that are intended to make our roads safer but that are relatively meaningless; stop signals that retard traffic flow and whose effects spill onto our interstate highway system; drivers who are incompetent, inattentive, or recalcitrant, and who refuse to keep up with traffic because of fear of getting a ticket, talking on a cell phone, age, and so forth. Such drivers force eighteen-wheelers into the center and left lanes of multi-lane highways, and block all traffic behind them, forming traffic-congestion waves. This is the factor most neglected by traffic engineers and legislators.

I have driven extensively on American, British, and German roads, and I'm surprised that our federal Department of Transportation has not adopted the traffic roundabout—ubiquitous in the United Kingdom—as a major means of dealing with getting on and off freeways and with our major city-street and secondary-road intersections. Traffic moving under human brain control can deal with roundabout intersections better and more safely than with intersections regulated by robot traffic signals operated by clocks and pavement sensors, where we often see traffic stopped in all four directions for tens of seconds while drivers stare at each other waiting for the idiot light to change. As pointed out in your article, once traffic stops, it is hard to get it going and up to speed again. The British, by and large, have the best system, and other European countries are moving toward it.

Neil Letts
Hawthorne, Fla.


The Kept University

I write in regard to "The Kept University" (March, 2000, Atlantic), in which Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn allege that "the New School for Social Research"—which has changed its name to New School University—"now hires unemployed Ph.D.s to design online courses, pays them a flat fee, and then requires them to sign away copyright so that the school can assign the course as they see fit."

The substance of this allegation is simply and completely untrue.

Of the more than 1,500 courses that have been offered through New School University's distance-learning program since its inception, in 1994, none has ever been taught by anyone other than the instructor who designed the course. All our courses are taught in a highly interactive environment by the university's regular faculty (some with graduate teaching assistants), and all faculty members are paid to teach every time, at the same rate that they are paid to teach the course on campus. With few exceptions all online courses are simply additional sections of the same course—taught by the same instructor and covering the same material—as on campus. Our online classes enroll an average of ten students, with a cap of eighteen. Instructors are provided with free training, all the tools and technology required, and a tremendous amount of staff support in developing and offering their courses.

Stephen J. Anspacher
New School University
New York, N.Y.


Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn reply:
Our source was Lora Taub, a former online instructor at the New School, whose story was chronicled in
The Industry Standard in 1998. Taub reports that during a two-year period when she worked as a faculty member at the New School's online university, she taught exclusively online, never in a regular classroom. In the spring of 1998, Taub says, her classes were abruptly terminated, but when Taub requested that the New School grant her access to her course materials from its online archives, in part to prevent them from being assigned to other instructors without her consent, the university did not respond. Taub does not believe that her contract specified who held the rights to the courses she developed (even though copyright traditionally resides with the faculty member), and indeed, copies of the university's current contracts for online courses make no reference to course ownership, which in Taub's case had the effect of leaving the university in control.

Taub is hardly alone in fearing that schools may reuse online courses after the professors who designed them depart. The American Association of University Professors in 1999 published a statement affirming that faculty members should be allowed to "exercise control over the future use and distribution" of electronic courses, since distance learning makes it possible that "syllabus, lectures, examinations, and other course materials may be copied or recorded and reused without the teacher's presence."

Stephen Anspacher recently told us that online instructors—who include "independent contractors" and "part-time" faculty members, according to the university's contracts—are paid a flat fee of $2,000 to $5,000 per course, far less than full-time professors receive at his and most other universities. Mr. Anspacher says that none of the New School's online classes "has ever been taught by anyone other than the instructor who designed the course," but the best way to secure that commitment would be for the university to adopt a policy whereby professors generally retain the copyright to online course content—which some schools, Columbia among them, have recently done.


Advice & Consent

Jeanne Schinto ("Obscure Objects of Lapsed Desire," December Atlantic) raises a thoughtful and disturbing point in her excellent article. It seems that a lot of the art collected by individuals and institutions is doomed to rot in storage, not because it isn't good art but because the artists are obscure. I hope, though, that not too many people take her up on her suggestion of "recycling" or "ceremonially incinerating" unwanted art. Remember the case of El Greco, who was all but forgotten for nearly 300 years after his death. When he was rediscovered, in the twentieth century, collectors descended on his home town of Toledo to buy up his paintings. The prices they offered seem scandalously low today, but the owners of those family heirlooms were more than willing to part with them.

Artists come in and out of fashion like hemlines and lapels. Future generations may wonder what we saw in Jean-Michel Basquiat and Eric Fischl, and may bid astronomically on the works of Jo Hopper and Friedel Dzubas, appalled that the Whitney discarded some of Jo Hopper's work, even if it was "unworthy." Art that was once hot and goes out of fashion is also worth hanging on to. Consider the case of William Bouguereau. Rich and famous in his prime, he was despised and ridiculed even before his death, nearly a century ago, and is only now enjoying a revival. Love him or hate him, but please don't "recycle" him.

Tom Quinn
Spokane, Wash.


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/03/letters-to-the-editors/376393/