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?


Penmen: First Class

Last week, the reading was a poem by Charles Bukowski. Aside from Martin Luther King, Jr., Bukowski is the most contemporary author to be featured here. For the most part, the readings on this blog are classics: Homer, Aristotle, Bacon, Poe.  The Bukowski reading certainly did not seem out of place, but it raised the question: what is a classic?

The 19th century literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve informs us that the word “classic” as applied to literature is derived directly from the word for social class. A writer of classics, therefore, is an author from a status above the plebeian wordsmiths, the literary hoi polloi. Traditionally, this meant the great authors whose works survived from age to age: “an old author canonised by admiration.” The Greek and Roman works that were still available in the middle ages were practically classics simply by virtue of their age and origin. But it takes more than time to make a classic.

In Sainte-Beuve’s opinion, the term “instant classic” (if that phrase had existed in the mid 1800’s) would not be an oxymoron. It is not the age of writing that makes it classic, but the quality. A commonly cited synonym for “classic” is “timeless”, and the word timeless really does capture what makes a work stand out among the ever-increasing catalog of human thought. The work of Charles Bukowski certainly may be considered classic, since despite its newness, it captures something eternal about the human condition and something that is true for all readers, in all times.

So what is a classic? Writes Sainte’Beuve: “A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.”

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Beer of the week: Yuengling Lager – I consider Yuengling Lager to be an American classic. Known simply as “lager” throughout much of Pennsylvania, this beer is the flagship product of America’s oldest brewery. Yuengling is also neck-and-neck with the Boston Brewing Company for largest American-owned brewer.  Yuengling Lager is darker and somewhat (though not much) more flavorful than most other mass-produced lagers. It smells and tastes of cheap grain, but for what it is, Yuengling is a decent value. It may actually be a classic because of how long it has been around; Yuengling is partially flavored by nostalgia.

Reading of the week: What is a Classic? by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve – At the end of this essay, Sainte-Beuve imagines a great “temple of taste” with alcoves for all of the world’s classic authors. In the beginning, however, he describes the history of the term and tries to establish his own meaning.

Question of the week: Sainte-Beuve suggests that he may not be able to answer the question adequately, but may guide his readers to answer it for themselves: what is a classic?


Beer Is All There Is

This blog is all about drinking and reading in moderation. The reading is done for entertainment and edification. The beer is consumed for flavor and to expand the palate. (Figuratively speaking, of course. When I was young my orthodontist fitted me with a palate expander, and that was sufficiently painful to dissuade me from ever seeking to literally expand my palate any further.) But of course, drinking and reading can be done in excess.

On occasion, both I and the narrator of the poem Beer have over indulged to the point where others were prompted to ask, “what the hell have you done to yourself?” In my case, however, overindulgence has never been to cope with loss or out of despair. When I drink too much, it is because I am enjoying myself so much that I don’t want to stop. In the poem, on the other hand, “rivers and seas of beer” are consumed because of lost love: because the phone doesn’t ring and the sound of that woman’s footsteps never come.

I count among my many blessings the fact that I am not a depressed drinker. Beer is good, fun, and wholesome. Why should anybody waste good beer on feeling bad? Hell, why waste any beer on feeling bad. A drink after a rough day or after some bad news can do a lot of good, but getting hammered drunk out of sadness just appeals to me not.

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Beer of the week: Coors Banquet Beer – I don’t know what beer Bukowski preferred, but I found a photo of him with an empty Coors six-pack holder. Also, this Coors Original came in commemorative throwback packaging that replicates the sort of bottle that Bukowski might have ashed his cigarettes into. The beer pours clear and golden, with a white, fluffy head. There is not much aroma to speak of. The flavor is fairly bland, lead primarily by cheap grain. There is actually a bit of nostalgia about this beer. This is what beer used to taste like in the USA. My, how far we’ve come.

Reading of the week: Beer by Charles Bukowski – Woman, writes Bukowski, “lives seven and one half years longer than the male, and she drinks very little beer because she knows its bad for the figure.” But that is not the only advantage woman has over man; she also goes out and dances rather than staying home and trying to drink away her feelings.

Question of the week: Heavy drinking certainly causes a number of problems, but can it ever significantly help with others?


Seriously, he looks like a cartoon vulture.

Happy Friday the 13th! Today I will focus on one of the spookiest, creepiest poets of all time: Charles Baudelaire. His poems are dark as Guinness stout and chilling as… a simile about cold beers.

When I first read the works of Charles Baudelaire, I was none too impressed. Had he been an American teen in the early years of this millennium, Baudelaire would have been a goth kid with whiny LiveJournal. Everything is corpses and skulls with that guy. “Nobody likes me,” his poems lament, “but that is because my soul is a that of a beautiful poet and everybody else is a dick.” (By the way, I am only half making this stuff up. His poem The Albatross compares the poet to a majestic bird that is mocked when it condescends to land among normal men.)

But Baudelaire was more than just a whinging kid with macabre tastes. Perhaps his greatest contribution to literature was his translation of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. (Which sheds some additional light on his morbid sensibilities.) It seems that Poe was more or less forgotten in the United States in the generation after his death. Luckily, Baudelaire translated Poe into French and popularized his works. The so-called Decadent Movement spread across Europe, to England, and across the Atlantic, and it brought Poe back into vogue with it.

Of course, Baudelaire’s own work is not without value. I particularly like his poem Get Drunk. The ceaseless crushing gears of time are unbearable unless one gets drunk. “Get drunk! Stay Drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue, on whatever you want.” Find something that intoxicates you, something that alters your perception of time. And if you should wake up with a hang-over on the steps of a palace or in the grass of a ditch, ask the world what time it is. And the answer will be: time to get drunk!

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Beer of the week: 5 Vulture Oaxacan-Style Dark Ale – Find a photo of Baudelaire and tell me that he doesn’t look like a cartoon vulture. Which, given his dark style, seems totally appropriate. 5 Vulture Ale is brewed by 5 Rabbit Cervecería, a Latin American inspired brewery near Chicago. This dark ale is brewed with ancho chili peppers. The color is dark amber and the head is tan. The aroma is distinctive and sweet. The taste has hints of dark chocolate and a subtle fruit presence that I can’t quite pin down. The ancho chilies used in the brewing give a pleasant tingle at the end, though I’d actually prefer a bit more spice. It also feels thinner than one would expect from such a dark, flavorful beer. It is so different that I really don’t know what to think about it.

Reading of the week: Get Drunk by Charles Baudelaire – The first version of this poem that I read was an English translation that included the word “beer”. When I checked the French, I was disappointed (though not surprised) to find that the word used was “vin”. Beer would have been better, but wine will do.

Question of the week: I am sure that I understand being drunk on wine. I think that I understand being drunk on poetry. But I can’t quite get my head around being drunk on virtue. What can that mean?


A Star is Burns

Last week, I complained that the law library does not circulate its volumes of the Harvard Classics. As it turns out, a brief email was all that was needed to get the situation remedied. I sent a message politely stating the reasons that these books should circulate, and I received a reply after a couple days informing me that the set had been re-cataloged. Now I can finally get liberally educated in only fifteen minutes a day!

The first book that I decided to check out was Volume 6, The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns. So far, it has made for good train reading. I particularly enjoy some of his more humorous works. For example:

Epitaph on a Henpecked Country Squire

As father Adam first was fool’d,
(A case that’s still too common)
Here lies a man a woman ruled,
The devil ruled the woman.

And its sequel:

Epigram on the Said Occasion

Oh Death, had’st thou but spar’d his life,
Whom we this day lament,
We freely wad exchanged his wife,
And a’ been weel content.
Ev’n as he is, cauld in his graff,
The swap we yet will do’t;
Tak thou the carlin’s carcase aff,
Thou’se get the saul o’ boot.

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Beer of the Week: Crabbie’s Original Alcoholic Ginger Beer – According to his works, Burns drank both ale and Scotch whiskey. I have not seen anything in his poems about ginger beer though. Most people are familiar with ginger beer and ginger ale as soft drinks. However, traditional ginger beers are a sort of sparkling wine: fermented from ginger and sugar-water with yeast and fungus. Crabbie’s modern version is a bit of a cheat, I think, with alcohol added instead of fermented directly from the ginger and sugar. So this is closer to a wine cooler than a beer, but it is still quite tasty. Served over ice, it is crisp and refreshing. It does not have as strong a ginger bite as most non-alcoholic versions I’ve had, but perhaps that is because most soft ginger beers are really meant to be used as mixers, so the taste has to be stronger. Crabbie’s is certainly worth a try if you like ginger and you like your soda pop to be alcoholic. It is not, however, a beer.

Reading of the week: Scotch Drink by Robert Burns – In this ode to whiskey, Burns refers to the drink as “poor man’s wine.” He also points out that food supports life, but life is not worth living without booze to ease all of life’s pain and grief.

Question of the week: The poem addresses “John Barleycorn… king o’ grain.” Given his description of rich brown foam spilling over the lip of the cup, is it possible that the poem is not only about whiskey, but also about barley’s other alcoholic progeny: beer?


Prefaces

My daily commute has recently increased from 5 minutes to 50 minutes. As a result, I have added a new category of reading to my routine: train reading.

The law library has some “popular reading”, but I have no interest in the works of John Grisham and the selection consists of little else. I was pleased to find, however, that there is also a complete set of the Harvard Classics. I picked up Volume 39, Prefaces and Prologues. The table of contents included a list of authors who all either are or ought to be among those I have written about on this blog: Calvin, Copernicus, Bacon, Newton, Goethe, and more. But it was after reading the introductory note by William Allan Neilson that I was totally set on making this volume my commute reading.

According to Neilson, a preface is where “the author descends from his platform, and speaks with his reader as man to man.” Whatever the character of his narrative voice in the final work, the preface is his own; “a personality which has been veiled by a formal method throughout many chapters, is suddenly seen face to face in the Preface.” In short, the preface is the closest thing to getting to chat with the author about his work, and that conversational aspect appeals to me greatly.

The very first reading on this blog was a preface: Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Since then, I have used prefaces from Bede, Kant, Descartes, Machiavelli, Huygens, and Rabelais. If the preface really is the way to interact with authors “man to man” as Neilson put it, I could hardly think of a group of men I would rather get to know.

So I attempted to check out Volume 39 and was informed that the library does not allow books that are part of a set to circulate. I suppose that the idea is that if I were to steal the book or lose it, it would ruin the set. There are plenty of copies of the Harvard Classics out there, but replacing a given volume from a specific printing might prove difficult or even impossible. Still, I would be willing to wager that I am the only patron who has picked up that particular book since it was placed on the shelf. I may even be the only person to have opened it since a rubber stamp was used to mark it as library property. Under these circumstances, it seems pretty stupid to keep the books from being checked-out by the one person with any interest in them.

Since unthinking bureaucracy crushed my reading plans, I checked out a book of Kafka short stories instead. It seemed only appropriate.

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Beer of the Week: Hamm’s Premium – The can still says that Hamm’s is “from the land of sky blue waters,” but it is no longer brewed in Minnesota, but in Milwaukee by MillerCoors. (See also National Bohemian beer, from “the land of pleasant living” and also brewed under contract far from the original brewery.) Even after taxes, I paid less than 50¢ per can for this beer, so expectations were low. So low, in fact, that I was pleasantly surprised. Don’t get me wrong, it is not good; it is about as bland as mass produced beers get. It is, however, not bad. I could drink a lot of this stuff on a hot day and not complain.

Reading for the Week: Harvard Classics Vol. 39 by William Allan Neilson – When Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard, suggested that a liberal education could be obtained by reading 15 minutes daily from five feet of shelf space, publishers asked him to prove it. And so, the Harvard Classics “Five Foot Shelf” was born. Eliot selected the works to be included and enlisted William Neilson to choose the editions and write the introductions.

Question for the Week: What work would you most like to discuss with its author?


Of Cats and Dogs

Some people divide the world into two groups: cat people and dog people. I think that the distinction is too stark. I know people who love both dogs and cats. I also know of people who don’t like either. In The Reivers, William Faulkner, without expressly stating a personal preference, rated cats as more intelligent than dogs (though less intelligent than rats and mules.)

Cats, he explains, are total parasites. They do whatever they want and cannot be bothered to lend a hand. They contribute nothing to your household by way of work. They don’t help with the chores. They don’t sweep the house or bring home groceries. (Although in my experience, cats will bring home a mouse or mole occasionally, which certainly gives the appearance of attempting to chip in.) Still, “the cat lives with you, is completely dependent on you for food and shelter but lifts no paw for you and loves you not.”

Although many dog breeds were selected for labor, the vast majority of dogs are every bit the parasite that cats are. They too are totally dependent for food and shelter. The difference is that they don’t have the good sense to resent you for it. For your approval, they will perform all manner of demeaning “tricks”. As Faulkner says, “[a dog] will debase and violate his own dignity for your amusement; he fawns in return for a kick, he will give his life for you in battle and grieve himself to starvation over your bones.”

Nobody can ever accuse a cat of being so foolish as to actually care what his owner thinks.

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Beer of the Week: Pegas New Zealand IPA – This local brew from Brno, Czech Republic is pretty darn good. As far as I can tell, it is an American-style IPA brewed with New Zealand hops, and plenty of them. The alcohol content is a bit lower than most American IPAs at 5%, but the flavor is dead on. This golden beer has a nice, thick head and a very strong aroma of hops. The bitter hops dominate the flavor as well, but there is some good bready malt in the finish to round out the taste. With the quality of this beer, I would not be surprised if Pegas expands beyond Brno soon.

Reading for the Week: The Reivers by William Faulkner – During this comedic novella, the narrator goes on a few interesting digressions about the history of his part of Mississippi and on the nature of animals. In this excerpt, he ranks animals based on intelligence and usefulness and explains why he holds mules in such high regard.

Question for the week: Is Faulkner’s ranking of animals based on intelligence (rat, mule, cat, dog) the reverse order of how these animals would rank in terms of companionship? If so, what about the inclusion of the horse as the least intelligent?


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