War Horses

One hundred years ago today was the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign during The First World War. Over the course of 8 months, a whole lot of Australians and New Zealanders (as well as Englishmen, Irishmen, Indians, Canadians, Frenchmen, and Turks) died in this ill-fated and ultimately meaningless military campaign. Many years before, Banjo Paterson, Australia’s finest poet, had written a poem entitled El Mahdi to the Australian Troops that severely censured Australian military involvement on the other side of the globe. Why should these men leave their home, “fair Australia, freest of the free,” to kill and be killed in the name of the British Empire?

I have a copy of Paterson’s complete works and used to read from it every night before bed. I read chronologically, and since he was extremely prolific, I never did make it as far as the First World War. Consequently, this ANZAC Day the Beer & Trembling reading is one that is unrelated to war and death and empire. This week’s reading is an adventure poem about wrangling wild horses: The Man from Snowy River.

I have never wrangled wild horses myself, but I have gotten pretty close to some. Years ago, I went camping on Assateague Island with some friends. Assateague is quite famous for its feral horse population. It is unclear whether the horses swam ashore from some ancient ship wreck, or whether colonists simply released horses on the island. Either way, now they run free and will occasionally walk right up to a camp fire in search of marshmallows. A horse did, in fact, walk right up to us at our campfire and we got yelled at by a park ranger who assumed that we had intentionally lured it to us.

Among our camping provisions, we packed lemonade and Miller High Life. During the day we mixed the two for a refreshing shandy. When evening fell, the lemonade was eschewed in favor of straight beer. A couple at the next campsite came over and introduced themselves. They seemed friendly enough, but then the man made the most insane critique of beer that I have ever heard:

“You guys are drinking High Life, huh? I’ll stick with Miller Lite; High Life has too much of a heavy lager flavor.”

I’d been drinking all day, so this fired me right up. High Life? Too much flavor? Really? After he returned to his own campsite, I was still incredulous; I had to be talked down. “Forget it, Jake. He’s just a Philistine.”

In the intervening years, I have come to regard that gentleman’s opinion as more and more valid. I do not mean to say that his opinion was correct, only that I have sort of mellowed to the idea that people can legitimately think whatever inane thing they want. I try to keep my mind ordered and live a rational, reasonable life. If others choose to believe inanities or hold absurd opinions, that only makes the world more interesting and puts my own intellectual flaws into perspective. There is no point in getting upset because somebody else is unsophisticated or believes something that I do not. 

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Beer of the Week: Miller High Life – “Heavy lager flavor,” huh? To be fair to our camp-out neighbor, the flavor of this beer (“heavy lager” or otherwise) is pretty bad. It smells of cheap grain and tastes, um, not good. However, there is one really interesting thing about High Life. If poured aggressively, this crystal-clear, straw colored beer has a thick, foamy head. It even leaves some substantial lacing on the glass. Given time, the lacing dries out and forms a delicate, solid, dry foam. I don’t know if this ever happens with other beers, but I have never seen it before. Interesting though it may be, I rather suspect that this actually shows something undesirable about the beer.

Reading of the Week: The Man from Snowy River by Banjo Paterson – As evidence of Banjo Paterson’s preeminence in Australian poetry, I submit the Australian $10 note. Pictured on the $10 note is a young Paterson as well as the entire text of this poem. Coincidentally, one of the characters in this poem appeared in an earlier Paterson poem that has already been a reading on this blog: Clancy of the Overflow.

Question of the Week: Among my favorite works by Paterson were his war correspondences from the Second Boer War in South Africa. I was quite impressed with his willingness to sympathize with the Boers and portray them positively even as they were engaged in killing Australians. Is war really sustainable if the enemy is regarded as fully human? Or, to put it another way, does supporting war require the dehumanization of enemy?


Le Début et la Fin du Monde

As the days get sunnier and warmer, I am reminded of a classic urban legend:

A woman went shopping for groceries. After she finished at the grocery store, she placed her purchases on the back seat of her car in the parking lot. She had a few more errands to run, so she left the groceries in the car while she went about her business. When she returned and entered the car, which had been warmed considerably by the midday sun, she heard a loud BANG and suffered a blow to the back of the head. She reached back to feel the point of impact and found find a gooey mass. Naturally she started to panic. With both hands she attempted to hold her brains in place and screamed for help. When other shoppers came to see what was wrong, she said that she had been shot in the head and that her brains were exposed. Upon closer examination, her brains were safely in place, but she was desperately pressing warm biscuit dough into her hair. Apparently, the heat in the car had caused a tube of biscuit dough to pop, splattering its contents on the woman. One of the “rescuers” told her, “Ma’am, you will be alright. You’ve been shot by the Pillsbury Doughboy.”

This story is a rather amusing little farce, but it says something important about sensory perception and the disconnect between our personal experience and external stimuli. The lady in the story felt warm dough on her head, but her senses did not convey to her mind the reality of the situation. The sense of touch, even when functioning properly, never totally captures the nature of the thing touched.

Descartes used a similar, although far less amusing story to make this very point. A soldier returning from the field feels a sharp pain in his side and thinks that he has suffered a wound that he did not notice in the heat of battle. Upon closer inspection, however, a strap on his armor simply became twisted, causing a buckle to dig into his side. If senses accurately and fully conveyed the nature of stimuli, then the soldier would have known immediately that the pain in his side was caused by the buckle.

To be fair, our senses are pretty trustworthy most of the time and we combine all sorts of additional context and sensory input to determine what is really going on. We are constantly and effortlessly making judgments based on our perceptions and that frees up our limited brainpower to work on more complicated questions. Questions such as what beer to drink.

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Beer of the week: Fin du Monde – French-Canadian brewery Unibroue makes some very well regarded beers. Fin du Monde is probably their best known brew, a Belgian-style tripel. It smells of yeast and cider. The body is remarkably smooth and the taste is outstanding. There are hints of pepper and the considerable alcohol content (9%) makes itself known at the end. The aftertaste is similar to that of a dry cider, encouraging sip after sip.

Reading of the week: Le Monde by Rene Descarts – Although Descartes apparently intended to write a complete philosophy of the world, his work was never completed. Instead the title Le Monde (“The World”) was attached after his death to the first part of that project, Treatise on Light.

Question of the week: Humans are extremely visual, and our trust in sight as a reliable source of information is evident in the idiom “seeing is believing.” But we have all experienced optical illusions, so we know that sight cannot always be trusted. Descartes writes that “Of all our senses, touch is the one considered least deceptive and the most secure.” Is he right? Which sense most reliably presents our mind with the reality of the outside world?


On the Liberty to Have Happy Hours

In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it is illegal for bars offer special prices on alcohol. There are no “Happy Hours”. There are no “beer of the night” deals. Never can a patron purchase a wristband that entitles them to an indefinite number of drinks. Nominally, this statutory ban on non-uniform pricing is intended to reduce the incidence of drunk driving. In reality, however, it smacks of good old fashioned Puritanical objection to enjoyment.

The only effect that the law may reasonably be considered to have on drunk driving is that it may reduce drunkenness by making alcohol more expensive. The law does not mean that a patron may not drink 6 beers immediately after work; it only means that doing so must be as expensive as drinking 6 beers at any other time of the day. Likewise, the law does not prevent a bar from selling a beer at a very low price; it only requires that the same beer always be sold for that price. Since drunk driving was already illegal when Massachusetts passed this legislation in the mid 1980’s, it is clear that this law serves a different purpose. Keeping the price of alcohol artificially high (and therefore discouraging drinking) is not only the direct result of the law, but it is also the law’s true intent.

John Stuart Mill railed against this sort of “social rights” legislation. The right of society to be free of the dangers inherent in drunk driving is not a valid reason to prohibit bars from soliciting patronage by offering discounts. If the problem is drunk driving, penalize drunk driving; don’t penalize the admittedly free and unobjectionable choice of merchants and customers to agree to a bargain.

To be fair, Mill tip-toed around this particular sort of problem. He objected to blanket prohibition on purely individualistic grounds. He acknowledged that although the consumption of alcohol is a personal right, the sale of alcohol is a “social act” and therefore (implicitly) more rightly subjected to social regulation. However, this distinction carries little weight in the current context. In the first place, I contend that the freedom of contract is improperly interfered with in the instant case. The right of merchants to offer sale prices is an inherent extension of their property rights. The right to sell beer (to persons of age and subject to other regulation) includes the right to set a price. Additionally, the this law serves the exact purpose objected to by Mill: to limit the amount consumed by individuals. True, the law does not specifically prohibit excessive drinking, but that is the only practical effect that could be hoped for.

The law against happy hour pricing relies on an “unlimited right in the public not only to prohibit by law everything which it thinks wrong, but in order to get at what it thinks wrong, to prohibit any number of things which it admits to be innocent.” And that, as Mill would say, is a noxious philosophy.

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Beer of the week: Samuel Adams Double Agent IPL – Among the beers that Bay Staters can never drink at a discount is this local brew.  The idea behind Double Agent is apparently “what if a lager were hopped as strongly as an IPA?” The smell is much like most American IPAs. The hops aroma is strong and sweet and floral with strong citrus notes. The taste has just a hint of vanilla and plenty of floral hops and the bitterness of grapefruit rind. The beer may be a bit lighter and crisper than most IPAs, but I would never have guessed that this was actually a lager. It really is a delicious beer, but don’t expect anything but an IPA.

Reading of the week: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill – The fourth chapter of this essay is dedicated to the relationship between personal freedom and societal duty. “Though society is not founded on a contract, and though no good purpose is answered by inventing a contract in order to deduce social obligations from it, every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest.”

Question of the week: Mill starts this week’s reading with three questions: “WHAT, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? Where does the authority of society begin? How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society?”


Government Built to Last

In The Gettysburg Address Lincoln expressed the American “resolve… that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Much more revolutionary than the idea that a government can be “of the people, by the people, for the people” is the idea that such a government (or, indeed, any government) can exist in perpetuity. The historian Tacitus, who principally recorded the transition from the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, had reason to be skeptical on that point.

“All nations and cities are ruled by the people, the nobility, or by one man. A constitution, formed by selection out of these elements, it is easy to commend but not to produce; or, if it is produced, it cannot be lasting.” This does not sound good for the United States. The United States Constitution was indeed difficult to produce. If Tacitus is correct, then it cannot last. Despite his unequivocal language, the very fact that Tacitus bothered to write The Annals seems to show some optimism.

Tacitus did not write about the degradation of the Republic because he found it particularly interesting. In fact, he was “everywhere confronted by a wearisome monotony in [the] subject matter.” He wrote about political corruption under the first emperors because such a study is instructive “to distinguish right from wrong or what is sound from what is hurtful”. And if Tacitus really believed that his histories could be instructive, what else might he have hoped for? Perhaps he hoped that with adequate instruction, men might not only be able to produce a good governmental constitution, but they might actually succeed in making it last.

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Beer of the Week: NightTime Ale – Since winter decided to perform an encore, I am still drinking winter ales. NightTime is exceedingly dark and has a fluffy, light brown head. If poured aggressively there is even some cascading in the foam. Of course the cascading is not as impressive as with nitrogenated beers such as Guinness Draught., but it is still pretty neat. The aroma is of over-ripe guava, pineapple, and earthy hops. The beer is very, very smooth and it tastes strongly of piney hops. This is a very strong beer, both in alcohol content (7.9%) and in flavor. As the packaging says, this beer is “not for the lunch crowd.”

Reading for the Week: The Annals by Tacitus, Book 6, Paragraphs 33-35 – The first of these three paragraphs is a commentary on why the author has undertaken the work itself and of the importance of recording history. The other two paragraphs present the forced suicide of Cremutius, another Roman historian. Cremutius was accused of treason for the way he portrayed Caesar’s killers in his writings. As he left the Senate, he said, “To every man posterity gives his due honour, and, if a fatal sentence hangs over me, there will be those who will remember me as well as Cassius and Brutus.”

Question for the Week: Can anything created by man endure forever? Let alone a particular government.


“Something Specific”

Today, I gave 31 cents to a beggar. He asked for 50 cents, but all I had was 31. He said that he intended to purchase a can of Miller Genuine Draft. “Sometimes” he informed me, “you just get a craving for something specific.”

I am not bragging about giving such a small amount of money toward an arguably questionable cause. But it reminded me of a brief interaction with a former teacher several years ago. When she asked what I was up to, I replied that I was engaged in “constant self-improvement.” The answer was only mostly a joke.

It is remarkably easy to be a better man tomorrow than I was today, if I put my mind to it. Today I gave 31 cents to a guy who was down on his luck and wanted a cold beer. Tomorrow, I could cut a check to a much less dubious charity such as 2 Seconds or Less, that works with African schools to build nutritional gardens for student lunches. Or something like that. But being better tomorrow than today doesn’t have to be in the form of charity.

I didn’t make the bed today. I didn’t wash the dishes immediately after lunch. There are hundreds and thousands of ways that I could have lived today better. The key is recognizing these shortcomings and making the effort to be a better man tomorrow. So tomorrow I will make the bed and I will do the dishes as soon as I finish my meals. And if a man asks me for change so that he can by a can of beer, I will offer to buy him a pint myself. Something better than MGD. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Beer of the week: Miller Fortune – Well this is no MGD, that’s for sure. Supposedly, Miller designed this beer to try to capture some market share back from liquor companies that have been targeting “millennials”. Hence the higher than usual alcohol (6.9%) and the suggestion that the beer to be served in a rocks glass. The overall idea is to make a classier beer. If I were in charge, I’d have made “taste” a priority, but what do I know? Fortune comes in a fancy black glass bottle and pours a pretty, crystal clear, amber color. After that, things go down hill. The smell is unpleasant and reminds me of ice beer, which may be related to the higher alcohol content. Aside from the taste of corn, I am also reminded of cheap malt liquor. (I suppose that “cheap malt liquor” is redundant.) It certainly has more flavor than I would usually expect from anything marketed under the Miller name, but in this case I don’t think that is a good thing. There is a very slight upside; the use of the rocks glass supposedly lets the beer warm in the drinker’s hand. As the beer warms, there appears a slight hint of caramel at the end of each sip. It doesn’t make the beer to good by any means, but it does show some complexity. At least they deserve some credit for trying, right?

Reading of the week: Some Fruits of Solitude: Censoriousness by William Penn – A problem with self-improvement is that it can be difficult to see one’s own faults for what they are. “And nothing shews our Weakness more than to be so sharp-sighted at spying other Men’s Faults, and so purblind about our own.” Penn suggests being more charitable is a good place to start self-improvement because it gives us a more sympathetic view of the faults of others.

Question of the week: How can you be better today than you were yesterday?


They who hesitates is lost.

In the English language, we have gendered pronouns. Masculine: he, him, his. Feminine: she, her, hers. When discussing unidentified individuals, the traditional approach has been to use masculine pronouns. For example: “He who hesitates is lost.”

Recently, in terms of the development of the English language, there has been a push to change this practice in an attempt to be more inclusive of women. After all, females make up about half of the population and she who hesitates is equally lost. One approach to this problem is the use of the “singular they”. This is particularly common in the possessive. For example: “whoever said that I am spiteful better watch their back.” However, there is a lot of push-back against using the plural pronoun as a neuter singular. For one thing, it sounds queer to many people because it does not make grammatical sense to simply substitute a plural word in place of a singular one. Another strategy is to simply use the feminine pronouns rather than the masculine. This is generally effective, but can seem affected. It seems particularly affected when the context would clearly apply to a man far more often than to a woman. For example: “the perpetrator of a brutal multiple homicide can be held liable for emotional injuries she causes to the families of her victims,” or “one should make sure that she has applied Just For Men™ hair dye evenly throughout her mustache.” (Note that a woman certainly could commit brutal homicides or dye her mustache, but these acts are more likely those of a man.)

I am a bit of a traditionalist. I try to avoid the singular they entirely. I prefer the use of the masculine pronouns for unidentified individuals because it just sounds more natural to me. Of course, I will use the feminine where context clearly makes the individual more likely a woman. For example: “when choosing a brassiere, one should make sure that the elastic does not dig into her skin.” (Again, a man could purchase a bra for his own personal use, but the advice clearly applies more to women.)

The point of this post is not to engage in an argument about the changing role of women in society. I am not writing to claim that it is not important to encourage women to enter academic or professional fields that have traditionally been male dominated. Interest in mathematics, science, engineering, and all sorts of valuable studies should be fostered in all students who show an interest or talent in them, regardless of sex. My purpose in this post is simply to advise that choosing pronouns for the purpose of being inclusive should be secondary to choosing pronouns to make the author sound like he knows how the English language works.

I read a published court decision today that sacrificed clarity and general quality in an apparent attempt to be gender-inclusive. A federal judge, a person whose entire livelihood relies on his ability to clearly explain rules, reasoning, and conclusions, proposed this three-factor test to determine whether an attorney may disclose confidential information to prevent a future crime:

“First, how much information did the attorney possess suggesting that a crime was going to be committed before he disclosed? Relatedly, how much investigation did the attorney conduct to inform herself of the circumstances and resolve any doubts she may have had? Third, how convinced was the attorney that their client was going to commit a crime (for example, did he believe beyond a reasonable doubt?)?” (Emphasis added.)

In three sentences about a single hypothetical attorney whose conduct is being evaluated, the judge used two masculine pronouns, two feminine pronouns, and the singular they. These word choices did not change the meaning of the paragraph, but it did make the whole thing unnecessarily complex. The last sentence is particularly bad. It refers to “their client” and then asks what “he believe[d]”.  The judge is asking about what the attorney believed, but it appears that he is asking what the client believed. Clarity has been sacrificed for… what? What real value did the judge add to this paragraph by indiscriminately bouncing from pronoun to pronoun?

Perhaps there are some people who would not have been distracted or confused by the judge’s word choice. Maybe the fact that I don’t like the way he writes says more about me than it does about him. But his job is to write, and he could have conveyed his thoughts more clearly by picking a gender and sticking with it. This paragraph makes his work look sloppy. If his writing is sloppy, people might assume that his reasoning is sloppy as well. And for a judge, that consideration should easily outweigh any desire to make everybody feel included.

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Beer of the Week: Genesee Cream Ale – The first time I ever had this beer, I purchased it because it was the cheapest available option. If I recall correctly, before taxes it was less than 50¢ per can. Despite the name, “cream ales” do not contain any dairy products. (Unlike milk stouts, which are brewed with lactose for extra sweetness.) I actually find it to be very palatable. It does have a certain smoothness and nice body for a cheap, mass-produced beer, and at a price that is hard to beat.

Reading for the Week: At a Vacation Exercise in the College, Part Latin, Part English by John Milton – It is a significant understatement to say that Milton knew how to use language well. The excerpt of this address by he made while he was yet a student is a testament to the power of the English language in the right hands. After delivering an oration in Latin, Milton changes to English poetry and announces that it is the English language that is best equipped to attire the deepest and choicest thoughts.

Question for the Week: Do you think that the use of feminine pronouns when talking about unidentified individuals sounds affected? Is that a good enough reason not to do it?


You Bet

Supposedly, the single greatest invention in casino gambling (from the point of view of the casino owners) is the board next to the roulette table that displays the results of the last several spins. Potential players will see, for example, that the last 10 spins have all been black, and they will think, “The odds of 11 straight black spins is quite low! It is more than usually likely that the next spin will be red!” Or, in short, “Red is due!”

But red is not due. The odds of any given spin of a roulette wheel are the same as every other spin. Each individual spin of the wheel is completely independent of each other. So although it is true that the odds of 11 straight black spins is quite low, the odds of the eleventh spin are not at all affected by the 10 that preceded it. The board does not lie, but it does present information that makes it easy for people to lie to themselves.

There have been suggestions that television and the internet have a similar effect on people. The new media grants us access to unimaginable quantities of information; more than we could ever really process. But, as in the casino, more information does not necessarily mean more understanding. In fact, extraneous information can make it harder to think clearly about what is really going on. And often, the information that is thrust upon us by the house (even when it is not untrue) is the kind of information that is really designed to obscure the way we think about what is actually important.

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Beer of the week: Shock Top Choc’ Top – This week is something of a three-for-one deal. This is the first layered beer drink to be reviewed on this site. It is a combination of Shock Top Belgian White and their winter seasonal, Chocolate Wheat. So first, I tried the component beers:

Shock Top Belgian White – This wheat beer is cloudy and slightly orange colored. According to the bottle, it is brewed with citrus peals and coriander, but I couldn’t really taste the coriander. There is, however, a definite aroma of orange. I was surprised to find that the brewers showed some restraint in not overdoing the orange sweetness. Unfortunately, that is partly because there really is very little flavor at all. The beer is smooth and refreshing, but decidedly bland. Since this beer is unfiltered, at the bottom of my glass I had a little extra sediment that did add a bit of pleasant yeastiness, a little hint of how close this beer gets to being good instead of just ok.

Shock Top Chocolate Wheat – This very dark wheat beer pours with a creamy tan head, which unfortunately dissipates quickly. Vanilla and coffee dominate the aroma. Notes of chocolate and coffee blend with the vanilla to make this taste more like a piece of cake than like beer. I couldn’t drink this often, but as the Preacher says, “A time to every purpose under heaven.”

Choc’ Top (Shock Top Belgian White layered on top of Shock Top Chocolate Wheat) – I was positively tickled with how nicely the beers layered and how pretty the drink looked. Early on, the Belgian White’s flavor dominates, naturally, with just hints of vanilla and chocolate slipping in at the finish. By the end, there is mostly only the darker beer left, though the sweetness is not quite as pronounced as the Chocolate Wheat alone. Overall, I like it. It looks so good that I am willing to forgive the fact that it really is a bit too sweet. I just think of it as a desert beer.

Reading of the week: Jim Smily and His Jumping Frog by Mark Twain – The titular character of this story (also known as The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County) is a compulsive gambler. He’d bet on anything: “if there was a dog-fight, he’d bet on it; if there was a cat-fight, he’d bet on it; if there was a chicken-fight, he’d bet on it; why if there was two birds setting on a fence, he would bet you which one would fly first”. But he met his match when he tried to introduce a wringer into a frog jumping contest.

Question of the week: Does the player get any advantage from knowing the result of previous spins of the wheel, or is that information strictly extraneous?


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