R.I.P. Summer 2014

Well, it is October already. I fought the end of summer all through September, but there is just no way around it; autumn is definitely upon us. School is well under way for those of us who measure years from September to May than from January to January. The air is decidedly colder than it was just days ago. And the weather is looking more and more frightful.

Of course there are upsides to autumn. There are beautiful leaves and fresh apples. There are brisk walks in the cool breeze. And of course, there are seasonal beers.

Cooler weather also gives us an excuse to stay in all day and read. Autumn is made for devouring books (and pumpkin pie.) So put on a sweater, crack open a beer and a book, and just be glad it is not winter yet!

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Beer of the week: Southern Tier Harvest Ale – This beautiful beer has a fluffy white head that leaves some very nice lacing on the glass. The aroma has slight hints of toffee under the strong smell of hops. The flavor is definitely rich and malty, but it is also very strongly hopped. This beer is not as bitter as most American IPAs, but it still has some bite to it. It also is 6.7% alcohol, which probably contributes to that. This beer is sheer quality; very good stuff.

Reading of the week: The Rape of the Lock, by Alexander Pope – The title seems a bit dark for such a light-hearted fantasy. In this canto, Pope describes flirtation as a battle in the style of Homer or Virgil. “As bold Sir Plume had drawn Clarissa down, Chloe stept in, and kill’d him with a Frown; She smil’d to see the doughty Hero slain, But at her Smile, the Beau reviv’d again.” And all this over a stolen lock of hair!

Question of the week: With harvest ales, pumpkin beers, and Oktoberfest beers, is autumn not the very best season for beer?


Necessarily Evil?

Government is by its very nature violent. Consider what happens if you do not obey government dictates, even if your disobedience is non-violent itself: a man with a gun will come to your house. Consider the so-called “no knock raid“: if you are suspected of disobeying the government, they may simply break in to your house in the night and kill anybody who, startled and terrified, puts up any resistance to these unidentified, armed intruders.

But the same is true of all government action, not just law enforcement. Does the government run a school? Well you had better pay your school taxes or a man with a gun will come to your door. Your children had better attend or a man with a gun will come to your door.  As Ludwig von Mises observed, “Whatever a government does it is ultimately supported by the actions of armed constables.”

Max Weber wrote that the state is the organization that holds a monopoly on legitimate use of force. But this begs the question. The force is only “legitimate” because it is being exercised by the state. It would be more accurate to say that the state is the organization that has a monopoly on violence.

But for all its violence, it appears that government is necessary. Thomas Paine wrote that “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” Mises went further: “it is not an evil, but a means, the only means available to make peaceful human coexistence possible.” Without government (consolidated force), there can be no freedom because each individual is at the mercy of any stronger individual who comes along. “If we take into account the fact that, as human nature is, there can neither be civilization nor peace without the functioning of the government apparatus of violent action, we may call government the most beneficial human institution. “

Even so, the government does not deal in freedom; it deals in violence. “It is the opposite of liberty. It is beating, imprisoning, hanging.” Only by strictly limiting and circumscribing the sphere in which the government is allowed to operate can freedom exist. A government that touches every facet of life is one that controls every facet of life. This is because government, regardless of intentions, can only touch violently.

Slyfox 113 Photo credit dad

Sly Fox Route 113 IPA – The name of this beer has two origins. The first and most obvious is Pennsylvania Route 113 (a highway built and maintained with funds collected from the local population with the threat of force,) which passes by the Sly Fox Brewhouse. But the beer is also named for its level of bitterness, measuring 113 International Bitterness Units. I rather enjoy this local, amber colored beer. There is a hint of caramel in the aroma and the full malt body of the beer is backed nicely by peppery hops.

Reading for the Week: Liberty and Property by Ludwig von Mises – In this section of a lecture delivered at Princeton University, Mises defends free markets as the only source of prosperity and freedom. A government that controls the markets is one that does not allow any freedom and can never advance society. After all, “there is no record of an industrial innovation contrived and put into practice by bureaucrats.”

Question for the week: Mises’ personal motto (seen in part on the above beer glass) was “Tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito”, which means something like “Do not give in to evil, but proceed boldly against it.” In this week’s reading Mises says that government is not an evil at all, but he also says that government is nothing but “beating, imprisoning, hanging.” So if beating, imprisoning, and hanging are not evil, what is?


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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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?


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