Reluctant Executive 

As a child, I had a small book about the presidents of the United States. Each page was dedicated to a single president, with a portrait, a short biography, and a representative quotation. I was most interested in the quotations.

Of course, some of the quotations were merely political sound bites:

Harry S. Truman: “The buck stops here.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Ronald Wilson Reagan: “Tear down this wall!”

However, many of the quotations (particularly those of early presidents) expressed a certain amount of dread about holding the office:

Thomas Jefferson: “No man will ever carry out of the presidency the reputation which carried him into it.”
Martin Van Buren: “As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”
James Knox Polk: “I am heartily rejoiced that my term is so near its close.”
William Howard Taft: “I am trying to do the best I can with this administration until the time shall come for me to turn it over to somebody else. ”

I was struck, even at a young age, by the way that many of the early presidents regarded the office as a terrible duty. Just by comparing the quotations, it seemed clear to me that the founders thought of the presidency as a personal sacrifice, while modern politicians sought office for personal advancement. I was, to be sure, a skeptical lad.

In my more mature reflections, however, I am still inclined to think that early presidential candidates had more pure motives than modern politicians. In part, that conclusion relies on the assessment that there is simply much more power in the oval office these days, and therefore more incentive for bad people to seek the office.

But perhaps the rhetoric has just changed, or perhaps I am just falling into nostalgia for a time that never really existed. At any rate, Presidents Day Weekend seems like a good time to give some thought to how the office of the president and the men who have held it have changed over time. So crack a beer and ponder why our society has given such immense power and influence to that office. An important question given Dwight David Eisenhower’s assessment that “any man who wants to be president is either an egomaniac or crazy.”

Hop Hog IPA

Beer of the week: Hop Hog IPA – Lancaster, Pennsylvania has some serious American political history cred. It was the national capital for one day in 1777, as Congress retreated from British occupied Philadelphia. Lancaster was home to president James Buchanan and congressman Thaddeus Stevens. It is also the national headquarters for the Constitution Party. But most relevant for our purposes, Lancaster is home to the Lancaster Brewing Company. Hop Hog is LBC’s orangish, slightly cloudy IPA. As the photo shows, Hop Hog’s fluffy head leaves very nice lacing on the glass. There are hints of fruit (pineapple, perhaps) in the aroma and aftertaste. This is one of my favorite IPAs.

Reading for the week: Grover Cleveland’s Second Inaugural Address – Inaugural addresses are a window into the political history of our nation. From James Buchanan’s discussion on slavery in the territories, to Barack Obama’s reaction to the late financial crisis, inaugural addresses highlight the political questions of the day and the campaign promises that propelled the candidates into the White House. In Cleveland’s second address, his conservative and pro-business positions sound familiar even today, but his stance on Native Americans seems badly dated.

Question for the week: Is Presidents Day really about all of the past presidents, or is it actually just for Washington and Lincoln, whose birthdays fall near it?


Tomato, Fruit or Vegetable?

Identify the correct statement:

A. Tomatoes are fruits.
B. Tomatoes are vegetables.
C. Tomatoes are berries.
D. All of the above.

The key to this question is the key to most questions: first agree on definitions. If the terms are not adequately defined, then there is no real hope of reaching a consensus on the right answer.

So what is a fruit? In the botanical sense, a fruit is the structure that bears the seeds of a flowering plant. In the culinary sense, a fruit is a sweet plant part. Culinary fruits are usually botanical fruits, but it is not always true that botanical fruits are culinary fruits. For example, apples, cucumbers, acorns, and pumpkins contain the seeds of their respective plants, and are therefore botanical fruits. But of those, only apples are usually considered to be culinary fruits because they are sweet and fleshy. Likewise, tomatoes have seeds, so they are botanical fruits. However, they are not considered culinary fruits because they are generally not prepared the way that sweet fruits are. So answer A. is correct, so long as the broader definition is used.

What is a vegetable? Again, there are broader and narrower definitions. A vegetable may be any edible part of a plant. Or it may be a culinary vegetable: leaves, stems, roots, or some of the less sweet botanical fruits. Nuts, for example, clearly fit into the first definition, but may not fit into the second. The same can be said of grains. So tomatoes are definitely vegetables under the broader definition, and also under the culinary definition.

What is a berry? You’ve guessed it, there are multiple definitions. The colloquial definition is a small, fleshy fruit that is usually sweet. This includes strawberries, blackberries, mulberries, and cherries. But none of those fruits fit within the botanical definition of a berry. Botanically speaking, berries are fleshy fruits that do not have stones that are produced from the single ovary of a single flower. So blueberries, elderberries and grapes are botanical fruits. But so are pumpkins, bananas and, indeed, tomatoes. So although they are not berries in the common sense of the word, C. is a correct answer if the question is about the botanical definition.

Ultimately, the question is more “what definitions are being used?” than “what is a tomato?” People often argue at length about things that are no less trivial than the categorization of tomatoes. And frequently the source of their disagreements are at the definitional level. One of the great flaws of language is that no matter how many words we have, they are all but poor representations of ideas. Try to focus on agreeing on definitions before jumping into an argument where you are likely to be talking right past each other.

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Beer of the week: Shiner Ruby Redbird – Grapefruit is considered a “modified berry” because, unlike most berries, it has a tough skin and internal segments. Ginger is either a spice or a vegetable, depending on what definition is used. And both are ingredients in this beer. Ruby Redbird was originally a summer seasonal. However, it is now available year-round. It pours with a fluffy head that fades quickly. Ginger dominates the smell and the aftertaste. There is a hint of citrus at first, but the ginger is so strong that everything else is really secondary. That’s not a bad thing, mind. As long as you are ok with ginger flavored beer, this is a very tasty and refreshing option.

Reading of the week: How I Edited an Agricultural Paper by Mark Twain – Like the narrator of this great short story, I don’t really know much about agriculture. (But at least I know that turnips don’t grow on trees.) This story is very funny, but it also ends with a great critique of newspaper editors that is equally applicable in a digital age where everybody, no matter how ill-informed, can spread his opinion to the masses.

Question of the week: Is baseball a sport? Or, more accurately, is there any reasonable definition of “sport” that excludes baseball?


Art Head

“It must be great to be able to do things—artistic things, I mean, like composing.”

This sentiment, although not in my own words, is one that I’ve expressed time and again. What must it feel like to have some discernible artistic talent? To be able to reach out to others through a medium – be it paint or music or computer code – and communicate something on a level higher (or lower?) than the “merely” rational?

Art, like most things, appears to be cyclical. This blog started five years ago tomorrow, and we are right back to where we started. What is art? To quote Oscar Wilde (again), “art is quite useless.” So this blog might be art after all.

Gumballhead

Beer of the week: Gumballhead – The folks over at Three Floyds Brewing are certainly artists, and Gumballhead is their delightful wheat ale. It is a pretty, hazy, golden brew. The smell is dominated by aromatic hops. The body of the beer is very light and smooth. Overall, this is a really delicious beer. Like, really good.

Reading of the week: The Man Upstairs by P.G. Wodehouse – If such an impossible decision had to be made, I might conclude that Wodehouse is my very favorite author. Much of his writing is uproariously funny, and all of it is sharp. And all without being lewd or crude. (Not that I object to scatological or sexual humor, but the fact that Wodehouse can get along so well without it is very impressive.) This short story of a young composer and the painters who have studios in the same building reminds me somewhat of the work of Roald Dahl.

Question of the week: What is art, anyway?


The Insanity of Regulation

Near the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson found himself in a tight spot financially. He had spent the previous 60 years or so in the public service as President, Vice-President, Governor, Ambassador, Regent of the University of Virginia, etc. These various services to his country and state kept him, so he claimed, from properly attending to his own affairs. As a result, he ended up deep in debt.

His solution was to sell some of his property to pay off his creditors. However, the land was very valuable and the market was very depressed, so he feared that there would be nobody willing to pay full price. As an alternative to traditional sale, he proposed a lottery. By putting up the property as the prize of a lottery, he believed that he stood a better chance of receiving full value for the land. The only problem was the the Commonwealth of Virginia regulates all lotteries, so Jefferson would need special dispensation from the legislature. So he made an appeal, recounting all of his services to state and country and waxing philosophical about the moral implications of gambling.

Jefferson starts this appeal by acknowledging that “chance” is merely the name given to causes that we do not or cannot know. “If we know the cause [of a thing], we do not call it chance; but if we do not know it, we say it was produced by chance.” So every human endeavor includes some element of chance. He calls the farmer “the greatest of all gamblers” because the farmer risks his rent, his seeds, and his labor on a crop that may fail because of things beyond his control. And because all human action is a gamble to some extent, gambling cannot be immoral per se. So far, so good.

But then Jefferson holds in opposition those games of chance that are not productive in the way that insurance or capital investment are. (I briefly observe that games of chance are productive in the form of entertainment, which can be hard to measure but clearly has value.) He writes of “cards, dice, billiards, &c.” as games “which produce nothing, and endanger the well-being of the individuals engaged in them.” And he lauds the state’s suppression of these games for the sake of those who would be injured by playing and losing. Here, I think, Jefferson busts.

Jefferson acknowledges that there is a natural right to gamble. This, I take it, is based on two considerations: first, as discussed above, gambling is not immoral per se, but is merely another term for the risks that all of us take in each of our daily actions; and second, that the natural right to property necessarily includes the right to dispose of it by sale, gift, or game of chance. (A previous post on this blog discusses the curious relationship between Jefferson’s and Locke’s notions of the natural right to property.) So once gambling is acknowledged as a natural right, how can its prohibition be justified?

The justification is by way of analogy. The analogy drawn by Jefferson is between degenerate gambling and “insanity, infancy, imbecility, &c.” If a gambling addiction is a sort of madness, then the state is right to prohibit gambling for the protection of the addicts. But even if we agree that a gambling addiction is akin to a mental handicap – which is at least debatable – the analogy is somewhat unfair. Why should all table games be banned for the protection of the fraction of the population that suffers from a gambling addiction? If we do not allow children or the mentally ill to drive cars by virtue of their infancy or insanity, that does not mean that we would authorize the state to ban cars outright. And if cars are too modern a concept, then consider an example of what children and the insane could not do in Jefferson’s day: neither group was capable of entering into legally binding contracts. Yet Jefferson would not have advocated the notion that the enforcement of all contracts should be banned for the sake of the children and the insane. Rather, the intervention of the state should be limited to protecting the narrow subset of individuals while interfering as little as possible with the rights of everybody else.

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Beer of the week: Wieselburger Gold – Jefferson may have found himself short on gold, but who isn’t? If the name “Gold” is used to describe the color this Austrian beer, the name is not very apt. This brew is much more pale than anything that I would call gold. If the name refers to the quality of the beer, they still come up a bit short; this is a bronze medal beer, silver at best. What little head there is dissipates quickly, and there is hardly an aroma to speak of. However, the flavor is not without its charms. There is a bit of malt sweetness up front, and a floral, hoppy finish that leaves the mouth feeling dry, always encouraging the next sip.

Reading for the week: Thoughts on Lotteries by Thomas Jefferson – There is more to dislike about this appeal than the weak analogy between gamblers and the insane. Notably, Jefferson discusses his own political career at length and argues that he should be entitled to exceptional treatment by the legislature on those grounds.

Question for the week: Is there a formula for what percent of the population is impacted before rightful actions should be banned?


Tesla’s Spirit

My grandmother felt a very real connection to her Pennsylvania-Dutch roots. Her great-great-etc.-grandfather came to these shores from the old world, and his son fought in the American Revolution. My grandmother was born, educated, married, and died in Pennsylvania. That’s not to say that she wasn’t worldly. She left her part of the state to attend Gettysburg College, one of the two Lutheran colleges in the state that admitted women. She travelled to India, Hawaii, Hong Kong, and more. But she stayed firmly connected to her ethnic roots in a way that I haven’t.

Nikola Tesla is another example of somebody strongly attached to his own cultural identity, even when physically separated from it. Tesla was a Serbian, but he was born and raised in what is now Croatia. His education took him to Vienna and to Prague, and his work took him to France and the United States. In fact, it doesn’t appear that he spent much (or any) time at all in Serbia proper. Still, his entire life, Tesla regarded himself as a Serbian. He founded the Serbian Culture Club at his university in Austria, he memorized and translated Serbian poetry, and is now regarded as a national hero in Serbia (and namesake of the largest airport in the country.) So why is his Serbian connection so strong despite never living in Serbia?

For one thing, Tesla strongly believed in a unified Balkan Peninsula. “The fact is,” he wrote, “that all Yugoslavs-Serbians, Slavonians, Bosnians, Herzegovinians, Dalmations, Montenagrins, Croatians and Slovenes – are of the same race, speak the same language and have common national ideals and traditions.” (It seems that the Serbo-Croatian language has fractured along political boundaries, but Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin remain mutually intelligible.) This belief in a shared identity helps elucidate how somebody born in Croatia would see no incongruity in asserting his own Serbian-ness.

Another determining factor in Tesla’s connection to his Serbian identity was his education. His mother memorized and recited Serbian epic poetry. And in that poetry, he found the same sort of grand feats and noble traits that draw people to the ancient and proud identities of Sparta or Rome. “For in Milosh [Obilich, hero of the Battle of Kosovo,] we see both Leonidas and Mucius, and, more than this, a martyr, for he does not die an easy death on the battle-field like the Greek, but pays for his daring deed with a death of fearful torture. It is not astonishing that the poetry of a nation capable of producing such heroes should be pervaded with a spirit of nobility and chivalry.” It is the poetry, with all of the history and ideality it contains, that kept Tesla a Serbian, first and foremost. In many ways, that is far more important than geography or blood.


Beer of the week: Spirit Tesla – This week’s beer, named for the man himself, is intertwined with these questions of identity and national pride. The idea to name this beer after Tesla apparently came from an American importer keen to capitalize on the popularity of the inventor. (In some circles, Tesla is something of an obsession.) In Serbia, the same beer is sold under the brewery’s trade name, Valjevsko. Whatever it is called, this is a decent Euro lager. There is not much head to speak of, and it is perhaps a bit on the sweet side, but I like that it is a solid malty offering. Unlike so many cheep lagers, this one has some flavor.

Reading of the week: Zmai Iovan Iovanovich – The Chief Servian Poet of To-Day by Nikola Tesla – The love of Serbian poetry that Tesla inherited from his mother stayed with him his whole life. In fact, he assisted in translating a fair bit into English.

Question of the week – Do you associate more with where you are from or where your ancestors are from? And even if those are the same, do you consider yourself primarily of your town, region, nation, or continent?


Bowling for Blue Ribbons

Bowling is an excellent sport. Like most of my preferred sports, it is a recreational option for the young and the old alike, it goes well with beer, and is very social.

In fact, the routine of the game creates a very interesting social dynamic. Conversation during a round of bowling naturally diverges and converges as each participant steps away from the others to take his or her turn. With three players, this occasionally results in three distinct conversations being carried on throughout the game, one between each pair of bowlers. This constantly shifting one-on-one aspect can be really fun.

With a larger group, the dynamics change less with each player stepping away. Nonetheless, the conversation still shifts markedly. In my experience, it helps to ensure that everybody stays involved because the group conversation is less easy for one person to dominate. It also forces couples to interact with the rest of the group by being separated by each one’s turns. This is even true if one of the party is not bowling. In fact, one of my favorite trips to the lanes involved an infant who was passed from hand to hand as each new bowler stood up.

“Nice pick-up! Here, have a baby!”

PBR

Beer of the week: Pabst Blue Ribbon – Let’s be honest, this beer is not very good. No head retention, smells like cheap grain. Tastes like, well, cheap beer. That said, I am certainly not above downing a few pitchers of the stuff at the bowling alley or throwing back a few PBRs on a warm day. It’s just bland; that’s the worst thing about it. It most certainly could be worse.

Reading of the week: Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving – The evening that Rip Van Winkle spent with the mysterious Dutchmen was full of drinking and bowling. However, the drink in the story is Dutch gin. At least PBR doesn’t leave me passed out in the woods for a couple decades.

Question of the week: Are there better social games than bowling?


You are free to do as I please.

Imagine that you live in Vermont and want to be a beer brewer. You don’t only want to be a brewer, you need to be a brewer. It is your calling. You find that there are a lot of options. You could apply for work at The Alchemist Brewing Company. You could apply for work at Hill Farmstead. Or Fiddlehead Brewing Company. Or Long Trail. You could seek work at any of the dozens of breweries in the state. Or you could start your own. To be sure, there are legal and logistical hurdles to starting a brewery. There are some licensing and regulatory issues. But in a state with more breweries per capita than any other, it can’t be too hard.

Now imagine that you live in Taiwan in the 1990’s and you want to be a beer brewer. You don’t only want to be a brewer, you need to be a brewer. You could apply for work at the Monopoly Bureau of the Taiwan Governor’s Office, makers of Taiwan’s only beer: the cleverly named “Taiwan Beer.” And if you did not get the job, you have to give up on your dream. Opening your own brewery is not an option. As the name clearly states: there is a state monopoly on beer production in Taiwan.

These two contrasting scenarios illustrate a necessary defect in centralized economies. Vermont, which is a relatively free market, produces some of the very best beers in the world and provides entrepreneurs with the opportunity to follow their dreams. The result is an excellent environment for both brewers and consumers. Taiwan, on the other hand, produces decidedly mediocre beer. And until 2002, the state run brewery was the only game in town. The result was a stifling of creativity for brewers and a lack of choice for consumers.

Dedicated socialist H. G. Wells wrote in his New World Order that collectivism requires a declaration of human rights. “The more socialisation proceeds and the more directive authority is concentrated, the more necessary is an efficient protection of individuals from the impatience of well-meaning or narrow-minded or ruthless officials and indeed from all the possible abuses of advantage that are inevitable under such circumstances to our still childishly wicked breed.” And he is certainly right that the more power the government has, the more dangerous it is to individuals. (Although his solution of “compose a declaration of rights” is, in my opinion, a poor second to the solution of “just don’t give that much power to the government.”)

Wells’ proposed declaration of rights includes economic freedom. “That he [anyone] may engage freely in any lawful occupation, earning such pay as the need for his work and the increment it makes to the common welfare may justify. That he is entitled to paid employment and to a free choice whenever there is any variety of employment open to him. He may suggest employment for himself and have his claim publicly considered, accepted or dismissed.”

But the Taiwan example shows how hollow this freedom is. In a totally centralized economy, there really is no space for the individual to suggest his own employment. The question of which occupations are “lawful” and “open to” the individual is totally loaded. It is the government itself that decides whether the occupations are lawful or open to any given person. Wells may as well have written “he may engage freely in any occupation that the government gives him permission to.” As long as the power is given to the government to make all economic decisions, there is no freedom at all.

Sip of Sunshine

Beer of the week: Sip of Sunshine IPA – Lawson’s Finest Liquids is yet another wonderful Vermont brewery. And Sip of Sunshine sure is a treat. This beer is honey-colored and has a decent head. The aroma is bright and fruity. The taste has lots of tropical fruit and citrus notes from the hops and the sweetness of the malt balances it all very nicely. There is a reason that this beer is very sought after; it is delicious.

Reading of the week: The New World Order by H.G. Wells, Chapter: 10 Declaration of the Rights of Men – I think that the above criticism of Wells is valid, if not original. However, this reading does include a number of very good ideas that cannot be as easily discounted.

Question of the week: Is there anywhere in the world that is better for beer right now than Vermont?