Sunday, April 27, 2008


Whining About Wine and Champagne

I've written a lot about categorization and naming because they are not just important concerns in document engineering but also in "making sense of the world" more generally. I've discussed these issues as they apply to lobsters, planets, prescription drugs, airport security screening, and other equally diverse subjects precisely because they are such fundamental and ubiquitous concerns. And today I get to write about categorization and naming for wine and champagne, prompted by a story in the 27 April 2008 New York Times titled "Produced in Champagne, but what do you call it?."

The point of today's story is that a village in Switzerland called "Champagne" that has been around for about 1200 years is being beat up by France and the European Union and not allowed to use its name for any of its agricultural products, including wine. So it can't label wine it makes as "wine from Champagne" now, even though even though until 2005 this was allowed.

And there is especially no way that a winemaker from Champagne in Switzerland can call sparkling wine "Champagne," i.e., it can't call any wine "Champagne from Champagne." According to French law, you can only use this name for sparkling wine if you follow a precisely specified production method using grapes from a precisely specified part of the "Champagne Region" about a hundred miles east of Paris.

But this so-called "region" didn't seem like a region to me, because I usually use that word to mean some kind of contiguous geographical area, perhaps defined by explicit features like rivers or mountains or borders. Instead, the "Champagne Region" is defined by enumeration, and it consists of 319 communes (municipalities) in numerous disconnected areas. Being on this list really matters, because CR-designated land is worth 200x as much as adjacent land that is not as lucky to have the CR-label.

So perhaps isn't surprising that there is lots of pressure to expand the size of the Champagne Region, and another New York Times article ("A Tempest in a Champagne Flute" on 27 December 2007) describes the intrigue around a secret plan to add another 40 communes to the lucky CR club. Now I admit that I don't understand all the criteria being applied to decide who wins and who loses, which according to the NY Times are:

Champagne's history, geography, geology, agronomy and an obscure field called phytosociology, the study of plant communities.

Nevertheless, it is a little amusing to imagine that if the debate were really about following the rules or applying scientific principles to the definition of the Champagne Region, wouldn't it be possible that some of the 319 currently lucky communes might be found out as pretenders and kicked out of the CR club? But that doesn't seem to be happening, and the club is getting bigger because global demand for sparkling wine is growing and France's market share is declining. (If you really care about this issue, read Tom Stevenson's Champagne's €6 billion expansion) to see how what's really going on).

Let me end this story about wine naming and categorization with two things closer to home. First, I knew a little bit about the naming rules for champagne because I've visited the Schramsberg Winery in Calistoga California, which bills itself as "America's First House of Sparkling Wine." They don't call what they make "champagne," but they make a point of telling you that they follow the traditional "méthode champenoise" for making it; i.e., "we make it exactly like they do back in France where they call it champagne, so draw your own conclusions." So they want to get you to call it champagne without calling it that themselves.

Finally, in that same Napa Valley town of Calistoga there is another labeling fight going on that involves wine of the regular, non-sparkling variety. There was a story the first week of April in the San Francisco Chronicle ( "Overhaul of labeling rules stirs up wine wars") about a dispute over regional labeling of wines by the origin of their grapes. A famous upscale winery in Calistoga called Chateau Montelena petitioned the federal government to create a Calistoga "American Viticultural Area." However, a less upscale winery called Calistoga Cellars whose grapes aren't exclusively from Calistoga would then be forced to change its name, even though it is located in the town of Calistoga.

I'm not going to take a clear position on this California dispute, because I've been to Chateau Montelena (it is a gorgeous winery, with Japanese water gardens etc. well worth a visit) and like their wine, and I don't want to get on their "watch list" and banned from their tasting room and winery. But we seem to be creating these AVA categories pretty rapidly and capriciously, and even if the Calistoga AVA is created, I don't see why the use of a term like Calistoga to mean "grapes from here" has retroactive priority over the use of the term to mean "our company is from here," especially if Calistoga Cellars makes no false claims about the origin of its grapes. Seems like they are getting the Swiss treatment, and like the village of Champagne, they're getting it from the French, or at least from a winery with a French name.

-Bob Glushko

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Document Engineering for Microfinance in Developing Countries

While I read some papers for my course, ICTD (Information and Communication Technology for Development) reading seminar, I thought of the roles of document engineering for microfinance in developing countries. Microfinance is the provision of financial services, including credit, loans, savings and insurance, to poor and disadvantaged members of society. This has emerged as one of the most effective methods of financial development and poverty alleviation.

For this microfinance, I could find two possible challenges that document engineering could address:

- first, much of microfinance in India is built upon the grassroots group. Individual members in this group deposit money into a common fund, which is in turn lent to other members at a mutually agreed interest rate. This group sometimes forms larger structures by linking with other groups to form a federation to finance much bigger money. Each person, each group, and federation have their own set of complicated ledgers and forms to store and manage financial transactions. However, there are redundant and unnecessary data formats. So, there have been inefficiency in maintaining overlapping documents to exchange information among difference groups, and form a federation. Therefore, there is room for improving this problem by standardizing documents and data format.

- second, there are information asymmetries between groups who are and are not accessible to village banks. Members with easy access can invest in different types of projects with greater returns to scale, which in turn exacerbates polarization even between poor groups. Therefore, equal access to information does really matter. In terms of document engineering, the sharing of information with clear rules and updated news could help eliminate the information asymmetries.

ICTD aims at developing the third world using information and communication technology. So, I think there could be a variety of scenarios, which document engineering can play a role for, as in those two examples of the microfinance.

-Luke Rhee

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Thursday, April 10, 2008


Paving (only part of) the Cow Path

I've been teaching process analysis and design in my Document Engineering course at UC Berkeley and I gave my annual admonition against "not paving the cow paths." I'm not sure where this expression comes from, but it is widely used to mean "don't just automate the AS-IS model" and is almost always meant to be a derogatory comment.

…with one exception: I've heard people in the "microformats" club use the cow paths phrase with pride when they create little languages that do nothing more than codify ordinary practice…

But I think that not paving cow paths is essential advice because even though there is usually some benefit to automating previously manual processes, the largest ROI often comes from new business models that were not possible without the automation.

This week I used two case studies to emphasize this point about needing to come up with "TO-BE" models. One was about Intel's use of RosettaNet to increase the efficiency of its component supply chain. The second was about a European supermarket chain's plans for RFID to enable demand-driven consolidation and shipment and replenishment.

So I note with was some amusement that my wife (also a Berkeley professor) recently received some email "Remittance Advice" from the UC Berkeley Disbursements Office, telling her that she was getting an electronic deposit to our checking account as a reimbursement for some expenses. The campus made a big push a few months ago to encourage everyone to sign up for direct deposits with the promise that it would speed up reimbursements, and who could argue with that? But they didn't do anything on the front end of the process, and there is still no way to submit reimbursement requests electronically. So my wife submitted expenses on paper back in November, and for four months they worked their way along the cow path until they finally reached the paving in the disbursement office. What's the point?

The next time I mention cow paths in a lecture I'll emphasize that if all you can do is pave the cow path, at least pave all of it.

-Bob Glushko

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