Delicious Unity

A reader of this blog, if he were paying close attention, might have observed certain inconsistencies in the photographs. I have moved around quite a bit over the last few years, but the pictures (and the beer reviews that go with them) have lagged behind. For example, I mentioned recently that I was headed for Europe. Yet all of my subsequent posts have clearly included photographs from the same locations as before I left. What, you may wonder, is that all about?

For the most part, the issue is that it takes me much less time to drink a beer than to write something that I think is worth posting. Even more time consuming is finding and reading things worth writing about. As a result, there is almost never any temporal unity in one of these blog posts. The beer is usually consumed and reviewed weeks ahead of time and only later paired with a reading. For this post, however, the stars have aligned; I have just re-read the reading of the week while sipping the beer of the week. As I write, the level of the beer in the glass gets lower and lower.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that I write the beer reviews separately from the rest. These blog posts have a few distinct parts that are largely separable. Somebody told me that she enjoys the body of my blog posts, but doesn’t care about the beer reviews. Other people, if the search engine statistics can be trusted, come here primarily for information about the beers. Rarely, people will engage me in conversation focusing on the question of the week. And judging by the page hits, just about nobody looks at the weekly readings. But there is a certain unity about this blog.

Like all things, this blog is made of practically infinite parts. Each section, each picture, even each word has endless possible interpretations and meanings. I am not claiming that my writing is particularly deep. I mean only that language is so complex and so versatile, and that the mind is so flexible, that reading a sentence is like stepping into a river: it is never the same twice. But language (and this blog and everything else in the world) is at its best when all of the parts come together in such a way that the whole comes into view. A line of a poem is not just a series of individual words, it is a complete phrase. The Bengali author and artist Rabindranath Tagor observed that we don’t see the forces working to keep our planet in orbit, or the chemical bonds that make two hydrogen atoms join one oxygen atom, or the innumerable cells that make up a living being. What we see is “the dancing ring of seasons; the elusive play of lights and shadows, of wind and water; the many-coloured wings of erratic life flitting between birth and death.”

So what do I do? I drink delicious beer; I read amazing works of poetry and prose; I write down my thoughts and post them for the world to see. I think that all of these actions have their own value, but I see real beauty in the unity of them all. This blog is about beer and philosophy and conversation, and I have never felt more sure that those three things make a wonderful whole.



Beer of the week: Yuengling Summer Wheat – I have personally failed in my mission to finish the summer beers before drinking autumn beers. A while ago I had a pumpkin beer from Harpoon Brewing Co. and just recently I had a Sam Adams Oktoberfest. But for the blog, there are still summer beers to be had. There is some dispute about whether Sam Adams (Boston Beer Company) or D. G. Yuengling is the largest American-owned brewery. However, Sam Adams brews sixty or so beers and Yuengling only makes about six. This Summer Wheat is the first seasonal beer I’ve had from Yuengling. It is not as cloudy as most unfiltered wheat beers. The aroma is of yeast and banana. There is a distinct flavor of banana bread in this beer, but it avoids the excessive sweetness that many wheat beers have. This is definitely good enough that I will be sure to try any other seasonals that Yuengling comes out with.

Reading of the week: Creative Unity by Rabindranath Tagore, Chapter One, Part I – Very reminiscent of Plato, Tagore explores the infinite and unity and applies the idea that unity is the only source of beauty. Illness, ugliness, and tragedy are simply what we perceive when unity is disrupted. Simply eating (and presumably drinking beer) is base because it is only filling a solitary need or desire, “but when brought under the ideal of social fellowship, it is regulated and made ornamental; it is changed into a daily festivity of life.”

Question of the week: Tagore claims that a water vessel as a water vessel has to justify its own existence by being well suited to its task. A beautiful water vessel as a work of art, however, doesn’t need to explain itself. Is he saying that utility is not a kind of beauty? Isn’t usefulness proof that the vessel has a place in the unity?

Miracles, Schmiracles!

I went to Catholic primary and secondary school. Being a non-Catholic and something of a free-thinker, I occasionally caused my Religion teachers grief.

One such occasion was the result of a multiple choice test question:

Jesus came especially for ____________.
A. the poor
B. the rich
C. the Jews
D. none of the above

I answered D. none of the above. I’d always heard that Jesus came to save everybody.*  The answer that my teacher wanted was A. the poor. The Catholics have a doctrine called “the option for the poor”. My teacher knew the phrase, if not its origin or meaning. As a result, I was unable to get partial credit for my answer, even though I could explain why my answer was the right one. I could even explain how answer C was also correct. In the Book of Matthew, Jesus says specifically that he came for the Jews and refers to gentiles as dogs:

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.

Another religion class run-in occurred when one of my teachers learned that there is a bush that produces volatile oils. In the summer, in hot climes, the oils sometimes ignite and burn away without damaging the bush. My teacher proudly proclaimed that this was surely the type of thing that happened in the story of Moses and the burning bush. This was proof that the Moses story is real!

I pointed out, however, that if the burning bush is explained rationally, it loses all of its meaning. In the Bible, the burning bush is a miracle, not a horticultural oddity. If the story is about a guy witnessing an interesting plant doing what interesting plants occasionally do, who cares? For the Moses story to have an impact, the burning bush has to be a miraculous.

I’ve seen this same thing done with the crossing of the Red Sea and the Seven Plagues. Some people take these explanations as proof that the Biblical accounts are real. But explaining the miracles does not make the story more believable, it only makes the story less meaningful.



Beer of the Week: Long Trail Belgian White – Although there is technically a few weeks of summer left, this sure feels like the end. There are still summer beers to be had though. Light, refreshing wheat beers are a popular summer choice. This unfiltered wheat beer is much like most other wheat beers I’ve reviewed: cloudy, sweet, citrusy. But there is something about the flavor that I can’t quite put my finger on. I think that the coriander that Long Trail uses imparts an earthy finish that I does not work for me.  Overall, I don’t think I like this beer very much.

Reading of the week: Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Joseph Priestley - This letter, from the author of the Declaration of Independence to the man who discovered oxygen is, predictably, very interesting. The topic, however, is not politics or science; it is religion. In the letter, Jefferson outlines a project to compare the moral teachings of Jesus to those of ancient philosophers. In so doing, he would leave out any miracles or divinity and view Jesus as a philosopher rather than a messiah.

Question of the week: Questions of divinity and miracles aside, how do the teachings of Jesus hold up when compared with the teachings of ancient philosophers?

*One Lutheran pastor I knew held a particularly interesting (and thoroughly heterodox) belief: Jesus died for the forgiveness of all sins, even those not confessed or repented. The logical conclusion is that all people are saved. And, what’s more, salvation cannot be lost or avoided. There is nobody in hell because God has forgiven all sin, even the most vile or obstinate.

Stranger Danger

Tomorrow, I fly to Iceland. From Iceland, I fly to Norway. From Norway, I sail for Denmark. After that, I make my way overland for the Czech Republic. I will be, in the words of Moses, “a stranger in a strange land.” What adventures lie ahead, I do not know. But I am sure of lovely company and good beer. What more can one ask for?

Well, one thing that could be asked for is security in one’s person and possessions. I suspect that I will be fairly safe. The countries that I will be visiting have significantly more homogeneous populations than the United States, and it has long been known that homogeneous populations tend to have lower crime rates than more mixed populations. But why should this be? In the past, I lived as an ethnic minority within a highly homogeneous society, but that didn’t turn me into a criminal or into a victim. I certainly felt that I benefited from the low crime rates, but if the crime rates were low because of the homogeneity, one would expect my very presence to affect the crime rates. I don’t see how that could be.

In his poem The Stranger, Rudyard Kipling suggests that the problem with mixed societies is that there is no understanding across the races. The narrator prefers “The men of [his] own stock, Bitter bad they may be.” Even a bad countryman is better than a stranger because one thinks like and understands his fellows. They may cheat and tell lies, but they are the same lies. But a stranger can’t be read; can’t be understood; can’t be trusted. Presumably, he can’t be sympathized with either. As a result, it doesn’t feel as bad to wrong him.

But is that really so? Don’t people make a special effort to understand the stranger? Or, probably more relevant to minority crime rates, doesn’t the stranger make an effort to understand the rest of the population?

Unfortunately, all of these questions only prove that I don’t understand the stranger either. Only for me, the stranger is not necessarily the xenos, or foreigner. The stranger is anybody who does not have a keen interest in understanding the foreigner.


Beer of the week: Stranger American Pale Ale – Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing Company has a great reputation. Stranger APA is a good example of why. It pours with a nice fluffy head and has hints of apricot in the smell and taste. The beer is quite smooth and the good malt body is backed up with a bit of citrusy hops. The bottle says to expect “spicy rye”, but I don’t think I noticed any rye in the flavor. Not that that is not a problem; I think the beer is very good anyway.

Reading of the week: The Stranger by Rudyard Kipling – A comprehensive study of Kipling on race could be very interesting. The narrator of Gunga Din acknowledged that the “black-faced” Din was a better man than he. The narrator of The Stranger, however, would not associate with Din no matter how good a man he was: “Let the corn be all one sheaf— And the grapes be all one vine, Ere our children’s teeth are set on edge — By bitter bread and wine.”

Question of the week: Kipling’s stranger is not of the narrator’s “stock”. Does that mean from the same family? The same neighborhood? Town? Country? Continent? As an Englishman, Kipling himself was probably descended from Angles, Saxons, and Normans, all of whom were strangers in that land at one time.

I Remember

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

- Shakespeare, Sonnet #18

Every day since I heard about the death of Robin Williams, I have typed in the same internet search terms: “TCM Remembers Robin Williams”. I am disappointed every time to find that the video I am looking for has not been posted. (And don’t think that I am not giving TCM enough time to put a video together; the videos for James Garner and Lauren Bacall were each released only two days after their respective deaths.)

If you are not familiar with the video series by Turner Classic Movies “TCM Remembers”, you should probably check it out. Every year, TCM makes a montage of the actors, actresses, directors and so forth who have passed away in that year. Particularly big stars get their own individual videos. I am a little worried that TCM does not consider Robin Williams’ work to be adequately “classic” to merit a personal video. (Heath Ledger and Corey Haim were both included in the respective annual videos for the years that they died, but neither got an individual tribute.) Still, I hope that they make one for Robin.

While waiting for the Williams tribute to be released, I have watched many earlier TCM Remembers videos. One that particularly stood out to me was the video for Shirley Temple. Shirley’s video is so striking because her most famous work was done at such a young age. In the montage of her work, she is mostly a child and never passes her early twenties. This makes quite a stark contrast with the video for Mickey Rooney.  Like Shirley, Mickey’s peak popularity was as a child star. However, Mickey never left show business, so his video includes scenes of him as an old man.

Although Shirley’s life on film ended just barely after she reached drinking age, the real-world Shirley Temple Black lived to be 85 years old. Over three quarters of her life was after she retired from making movies. Shirley failed to get elected to Congress, but served as ambassador to Czechoslovakia and to Ghana and held a few other appointed positions. But she will live on now only in her films. No matter how long she lived after the cameras stopped rolling, or what she went on to do with her life, she will always be the cute child singing “The Good Ship Lollypop”. For as long as people watch her films, Shirley Temple will be a precocious little girl. Like the object of Shakespeare’s Sonet 18 her “eternal summer shall not fade.”



Beer of the week: Blue Moon Blackberry Tart Ale – Although I would like for the “eternal summer” of beer to never fade, many brewers have already released their autumn seasonal beers. I am in no rush to end this summer, though, so I am sticking with summer beers for a while. This particular summer ale is a very pretty beer. The head fades quickly, but while it is there, this beautiful reddish beer is quite a sight. There is certainly some tart berry aroma, as well as a hit of vanilla. The rich malt flavor leads, but the berry really shows up in the aftertaste. I almost wish there were more hops to speak of, but I am not sure how the bitter hops would work with the tart blackberry. Overall, I rather like this beer and impressed at the restraint it takes not to go overboard with the sweetness (as so many fruit beers do.)

Reading of the week: Sonnet #18 by William Shakespeare – This poem preserves the beauty of its object particularly well, if only because of who wrote it. So long as there are people to read it, Shakespeare’s work will be read. Could Shakespeare have had any idea how popular his works would be hundreds of years on?

Question for the week: Have you done anything that will last after you are dead and gone? Will your summer fade?

Neil Tyson v. Copernicus

Neil deGrasse Tyson, for those who do not know, is the host of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. He is also a very popular author and scientist. Oh, and the people of the internet love the guy.

Two Tyson posts have appeared repeatedly on my newsfeed on The Facebook recently. The first is a quote from Mr. Tyson:

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether you believe it or not.”

This is a good soundbite, but what does it mean? At a glance, it seems to set science up as a foil to religion: unlike religion, science isn’t about belief, it is about fact. But no religion, to my knowledge, actually claims that the source of divinity is belief in divinity. Any god that gets his power from the belief of people isn’t much of a god. Any Muslim could say “the ascension of the Prophet is true whether you believe it or not.” Any Christian could say, “the divinity of Christ is true whether you believe it or not.” Neither of those claims is less (or more) compelling than Tyson’s because nobody says that belief creates truth.

Tyson’s real point is that belief (or, more properly, faith)  has nothing to do with science. That should be accurate. But truth doesn’t have anything to do with science either. Modern science is not the pursuit of truth, it is the pursuit of repeatable results. Science isn’t a belief system, it is a method. If repeatable results should lead to real truth there must be an intermediate step: philosophy.

Which brings me to the other Tyson post that has blown up on The Facebook. An author from The Week called Tyson a philistine because Tyson said in an interview that philosophical questions get in the way of scientific progress.

To some extent, Tyson is right. Questions about what “the meaning of meaning is” do not lead to scientific discovery. This is because scientific progress and philosophy have a very complex relationship. In terms of method and discovery, science does not require or even leave room for philosophical questions. If it is just about the experiment at hand, philosophy can only get in the way. But the big picture requires philosophy to understand what to make of new discoveries. And what the broader goal of the scientific project is. And even where the limits of scientific method lie.

Whether Tyson actually believes that science is actually opposed to religion or philosophy, I cannot say; all I have seen of his work is out-of-context quotations. But to those people who think that is what Tyson is teaching and that he is right, I advise a review of history:

Nicolas Copernicus, in the introduction to his treatise On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, quoted both the Psalmist and Plato in addition to Plutarch and Ptolemy. (He obviously had a thing for “P” names.) Tyson is an astrophysicist and would no doubt hold up Copernicus as one of the greatest fathers of astronomy. If not the greatest father of astronomy. But Copernicus was not single-minded in his pursuit of repeatable results. To be sure, one of his goals was the very practical aim of creating an accurate calender, but he also sought things that scientific method can not yield by itself: personal growth, appreciation of beauty, understanding of divinity. Science is a tool, not an end in itself. And it is certainly not a substitute for religion or philosophy.



Beer of the week: Tyskie Gronie – Copernicus is probably the best known Polish thinker. (Although Marie Curie is quite popular in these parts.) Tyskie is probably the best known Polish beer. This photo makes it look straw colored and hazy, but Tyskie Gronie is actually golden and perfectly clear. The beer is very carbonated and has a very faint aroma, with hints of grain and cider. The head is white and fluffy but fades quickly. The taste is fairly standard for a big brewery European lager. I would, and probably will, drink Tyskie again. But it is mostly just a session beer.

Reading of the week: On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres by Nicolas Copernicus – Copernicus probably had a number of reasons for including a philosophical and religious introduction to his revolutionary (sorry) treatise. Although I suspect that he really did believe what he wrote, it was probably also a sort of defense against censure by civil and religious authorities.

Question of the week: Why has the “natural philosopher” split into the “scientist” and the “philosopher”? Can’t a natural philosopher exist today?

I’ve written literally a hundred B & T blog posts.

The statement “I drank a hundred beers last night!” is hyperbole; a simple exaggeration. Hyperbole admits of degrees. “I drank fifteen beers,” or “I drank a hundred beers,” or “I drank a thousand beers,” can all mean the same thing: “I drank many beers.” The difference is simply the level of the hyperbole. It is clear that the more of an exaggeration there is, the stronger the impression the statement creates.

The level of exaggeration can be increased in other ways than simply increasing the number, however. One way to accomplish this is simply to assert that the number is not an exaggeration at all. What creates a stronger impression of drinking a lot of beers: asserting that I drank “a hundred beers”, or asserting that, “no, seriously, it was an entire hundred”? It is clear that an exaggeration that is presented as fact is a bigger exaggeration than one acknowledged to stretch the truth.

Although this is sure to ruffle the feathers of some uptight pedants, the natural conclusion of this analysis is that the use of the word “literally” within an exaggeration is not only perfectly acceptable, but actually creates a stronger impression. Compare:

“I drank a hundred beers last night!”
“I drank literally a hundred beers last night!”

The second of those two sentences presents a greater exaggeration because of the assertion that it is actually not an exaggeration at all; “I honestly did drink that many beers.”

Opponents to this use of “literally” complain that the word literally means “actually; in fact”. To use it hyperbolically doesn’t make sense because I did not actually drink a hundred beers. Well of course I didn’t actually drink a hundred beers. That is the very nature of an exaggeration. They might as well complain about the use of “a hundred”? Hundred has a fixed meaning of “100; one more than 99″. But there is no complaint that using “a hundred” to mean anything less than 99 doesn’t make sense; I did not drink a hundred beers. The people who object to using the word “literally” in hyperbole are either objecting to hyperbole on the whole or are being inconsistent. Either way, they are stifling creative expression.

Note: Some of the objection to using “literally” in this way is simply reactionary. Some people have taken to using that word as a filler. These people just throw the word into their speech in the way that others throw in “like” or “uh”, without adding any meaning to their sentences. This is clearly a waste of a good word and is worth opposing. But when the word “literally” is used with purpose to create a stronger impression, I see absolutely nothing wrong with that.


Beer of the Week: Big Flats 1901 – As far as I can tell, Big Flats is the house brand for Walgreens pharmacy. The “Light” version is literally the cheapest beer in Chicago, at two and a half dollars per six-pack (before taxes.) At such a low price, there will always be a market for this stuff. In addition to being cheep, a large scale taste test determined that Big Flats tastes better than Budweiser. Faint praise, to be sure, but regular Bud drinkers might consider making the switch for the taste if not for the savings. The first glass I had shocked me because I’d never before had a beer that tasted so much of corn. It was like a tortilla in a glass. It lacked anything by way of a hops presence to balance the cheap grain flavor, so all that remained in the aftertaste was that somewhat insipid corn taste. The tortilla flavor inspired me to pour my second Big Flats 1901 the same way I would pour a cheap Mexican beer. With a pinch of salt and a lime wedge, this beer actually becomes a reasonable choice, especially on a warm day. The lime dominates the flavor and I’d be very surprised if most people could tell this beer apart from a Corona served the same way. It really isn’t bad with lime and salt, but limes are expensive; it’s probably smarter to just pay more for a better beer.

Reading of the Week: Proslogium by St. Anselm of Canterbury – If we accept Anselm’s definition of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” we are led to the conclusion that God must exist. A greatest conceivable being that is not real is not as great as a greatest conceivable being that is real. Therefore, the God that is not believed in is not actually a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, which goes against the postulated definition. This is very similar to my argument for the use of the word “literally” in exaggeration: an exaggeration that is asserted to be the truth is a greater exaggeration than one that is acknowledged to be a false statement of fact. (This also serves as a great illustration of the fact that in a debate, one ought never concede the other side’s first point.)

Question of the Week: I think that in terms of exaggerated quantities, I have shown that “literally” can reasonably be used as an intensifier. Does the argument extend to other forms of figurative speech? (Eg. “This is literally the biggest beer there has ever been,” or “I drank so much beer that I might literally explode.”) I suspect that the answer is yes.

The Cloudy Medium

As I mentioned before, I am something of a linguistic anarchist. The English language does not have rules in the way that geometry or French does; there are only stylistic choices. Don’t misunderstand me, some choices make the speaker sound uneducated or even stupid. I positively bristle at people saying “Bill and I” when they mean “Bill and me”. But I suspect that the source of this problem is actually pedantic and ill-informed educators who brow-beat children for ever saying “Bill and me”, even when that is the more appropriate expression.

But English is not unique in this regard. Even languages that have strict rules are still subject to different interpretations because all language is equivocal. In The Federalist No. 37, James Madison wrote that “no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas.” Even if English is more unique than other languages, questions of style are found in every one.

Did you notice my use of “more unique”? Did you scoff at my word choice? I picked that word because it is a pet of pedants. Time and again pedants point out that the word “unique” means “one of a kind”, so it cannot admit of degrees. Either something is unique or not; there is no more or less uniqueness. I contend, however, that the word unique is just as equivocal as any other word and that it may very well admit of degrees.

Take, for example, a six-pack of beer. For the sake of convenience, we will imagine 8 ounce cans of Coors Light. (Such a thing exists, I’m told.) There are no visible markings to tell one from the other. It would be absolutely reasonable to say that not one of these beers is unique. They are not one of a kind; each is just like the others. They are probably even just like thousands or tens of thousands or more. Each beer is not unique.

That is, until we look closer. In 8 ounces of water, there about 7.5×10^24 molecules. That number is mind-bendingly large. Of course, there is no mechanism capable of measuring water to the molecule, so any measure of 8 ounces is bound to vary in total molecules. The odds of any two of our hypothetical beers having exactly the same number of molecules is practically zero. Furthermore, beer is not pure water (mercifully.) Beer also contains alcohol, dissolved carbon-dioxide, yeast, unfermented sugars, minerals, and so forth. Each beer is certain to have slightly different amounts of each of these. Even if the difference is immeasurable with common tools, we know that such variation must exist. Oh, and the cans themselves are different. Sure, they all look the same, but there is no way that the aluminium is totally free from impurities. Each can surely has slight, even unobservable differences. When viewed this way, each beer is unique.

So each beer is not unique and each beer is unique. We haven’t violated the law of non-contradiction, the word unique is simply equivocal. The fact is that we do not always mean the same thing when we say that something is unique. As a result, we totally understand the idea that something can be more or less unique. If we swap one of our hypothetical Silver Bullets with a can of Miller Lite, it makes perfect sense to us to say that the Miller is very unique with respect to the others cans. We could also say that because most people couldn’t tell a Miller Lite from a Coors light if it were not for the branding, the Miller Lite is not unique among the 5 Coors Light cans. It’s all about perspective.

All that said, I don’t use the word unique with comparatives. I prefer the common understanding that the word does not admit of degrees. That doesn’t mean that the use of comparative uniqueness is wrong, only that I think that it sounds bad. It is a question of style, and saying “very unique” is the linguistic equivalent of wearing socks with sandals; one person may find it comfortable, but others may be justified in assuming that he is an idiot.


Beer of the Week: Whitewater Wheat IPA – For a long time, I avoided beers in the Samuel Adams line. The Boston Beer Company makes so many different beers (over a hundred according to BeerAdvocate) that I’ve always thought they spread themselves a bit too thin. I like trying new things, but sometimes it is best to just focus on what you are good at. However, when I reviewed their flagship beer I was reminded of how they got so big in the first place, so I’ve decided to try some of Sam Adams’ more experimental stuff. This beer is a wheat IPA, a style that I’ve never been impressed with. It is cloudy and light with a foamy head, like a wheat beer ought to be, but has an aroma of piney hops. It is actually pretty refreshing despite being quite flavorful. The hops and traditional wheat beer spices leave a pleasant lingering tingle on the back of the tongue. This isn’t my new favorite, but it is promising enough that I’ll keep trying different Sam Adams beers.

Reading for the Week: The Federalist No. 37 (Excerpt) – Madison, recognizing that language is necessarily equivocal and imperfect, wrote that “When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” Samuel Adams may have been an Antifederalist, but his cloudy beer nicely reflects that cloudy nature of human language.

Question for the week: Do you have an English language “rule” that you would like to defend? Or a common (mis)usage that you’d like to rail against? Feel free to comment.


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