Monoculture Byproducts

Three and a half years ago, I remarked:

In the late nineteenth century an aphid-like insect, Phylloxera vastatrix, destroyed most of the world’s vineyards, leading to the little-known fact that most French wines today are actually grown from Texas grapevine stock. The company that knows where to get disease-resistant vine stock will be in demand.
Monoculture Considered Harmful, by John S. Quarterman, First Monday, volume 7, number 2 (February 2002),

Well, it turns out that back then, something else became in demand, as well:

In 1874, the French sipped 700,000 liters of the stuff; by the turn of the century, consumption had shot up to 36 million liters, driven in part by a phylloxera infestation that had devastated the wine-grape harvest.
The Mystery of the Green Menace by Brian Ashcraft, Wired, Issue 13.11, November 2005.

That something else, the Green Menace, was absinthe.

Everyone knows that absinthe rots the brain even faster than alcohol, and is much more addictive:

"It is truly madness in a bottle, and no habitual drinker can claim that he will not become a criminal," declared one politician. The anti-absinthe fervor climaxed in 1905, when Swiss farmer Jean Lanfray shot his pregnant wife and two daughters after downing two glasses. (Overlooked was what else Lanfray consumed that day: crème de menthe, cognac, seven glasses of wine, coffee with brandy, and another liter of wine.) By the end of World War I, the "green menace" was made illegal everywhere in western Europe except Spain. No reputable distillery still made it.

But what everybody knows isn’t always true.

Some absinthe may well have been toxic;  the modern absinthe expert in Ashcraft’s article, Ted Breaux,  says he recommends not drinking absinthe made like that that Van Gogh drank before he cut off he ear, because those ingredients would produce a toxic brew.

But in the nineteenth century there were no systematic analyses of the ingredients in such drinks. Ted Breaux has done such analyses, and it turns out that antique absinthes (which he occasionally found in the $300/bottle range) were not toxic; thujone, the toxic ingredient, was present only at about 5 parts per million. A food quality group working for the German government produced similar test results this year.

But the biggest vindication came at the Absinth des Jahres contest in 2004, for which expert judges sampled newly distilled absinthes from all over the world. A little-known candidate, Nouvelle-Orléans, garnered perfect scores and won a gold medal. "Without doubt, the release of Nouvelle-Orléans was a milestone in the history of modern absinthe," says Arthur Frayn, one of the judges. The distiller? Ted Breaux.

So a product once a favorite of artists from Oscar Wilde to Picasso for facilitating productivity suddenly surged to mass popularity when its monoculture competitor was destroyed by a bug, was then vilified in the press until it was made universally illegal, and is now making a comeback since it has been shown that its supposed toxicity was a matter of quality control and largely mythical.

Such odd side effects of monoculture!

Why does the first part of this story seem familiar if we substitute free software such as Linux for absinthe and Windows for wine? Even without stretching the analogy too far, it is clear that monoculture can have unexpected ramifications, especially when it fails. Monoculture is brittle, and is a big risk.