Take your tablets along with you…

“It is wonderful how the mind is stirred and quickened into activity by brisk bodily exercise.” – Pliny the Younger

The weather is finally right for outdoor activity and outdoor beers. Throw around the generic plastic flying disc toy. Jog through the park. Grill up some burgers. Crack a cold one and drink to your own vitality. Or, if you prefer a more peaceful outing:

“There is something, too, in the solemnity of the venerable woods with which one is surrounded, together with that profound silence which is observed on these occasions, that forcibly disposes the mind to meditation.” – Pliny the Younger

Stroll leisurely through the forrest. Read a book in the shade of an ancient tree. Compose original verses on the nature of springtime. Casually sip your beer and envelope yourself “in the solemnity of the venerable woods.”   20130702-212742.jpg Beer of the Week: Saranac Wild Hop Pils – This American pilsner is brewed with Belma hops, a variety of hops that was discovered growing wild in Oregon. The pale gold beer has a nice foamy head that leaves good lacing on the glass. Grassy and slightly floral hops dominate the flavor, but it is not especially strong. Overall, this is a light, crisp beer that seems well suited to drinking in large quantities.

Reading of the Week: Letter To Cornelius Tacitus by Pliny the Younger – Pliny went hunting one day (much out of keeping with his genteel and bookish character.) While in the forest, he made more use of his pencil than of his spear. “Whenever you hunt, to take your tablets along with you, as well as your basket and bottle, for be assured you will find Minerva no less fond of traversing the hills than Diana.”

Question of the Week: Is there a better place than the forrest for calm reflection?


An Excellent Piper

Can you sprint through the first several levels of Super Mario Bros.? Can you throw a ping pong ball behind your back and into a cup at the far end of a table? Can you play “Tom Sawyer” on Rock Band without looking at the screen? Can you… play a real musical instrument?

Some skills that require a significant amount of practice seem pretty worthless in the long-run. Some of them may be even worse than worthless since every hour spent playing video games or sports or music is an hour not spent on something more valuable.

“He who busies himself in mean occupations produces, in the very pains he takes about things of little or no use, an evidence against himself of his negligence and indisposition to what is really good.” What Plutarch means is that we have a duty to ourselves to direct our energy toward those activities that are truly improving.

It is important, however, not to be too dismissive. Plutarch suggests that the dedicated study of music, for example, is frivolous. He tells us that an excellent pipe player must be “but a wretched human being, otherwise he would not have been an excellent piper.” I disagree.

Music is a valuable and even essential component of a well-rounded education. And beyond a casual acquaintance with the principles of music and a passing familiarity with some of the greatest composers, the actual playing of music does a great deal of good. Practicing music improves discipline, requires focus and determination, and helps instill an appreciation for order and harmony that transcends music itself. It is true that an excellent piper may be a wretched human being, but it is certainly not a foregone conclusion.

Less obviously, other seemingly frivolous pursuits may likewise have value beyond their evident scope. Video games improve coordination and problem solving skills. Sports improve physical health and social relations. The key, it seems, is not to disregard these pursuits entirely, but to remember always that they are not undertaken for their own sake. Everything we do should be done with an eye toward self-improvement. And if we are improved by something that we enjoy, all the better.

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Beer of the Week: Bernard Černý – Becoming an excellent brewer, for example, is clearly not a “mean occupation”. Bernard is a family-owned Czech brewery. Their dark lager has an exceptionally full flavor. The dark roasted malt gives this beer hints of chocolate covered espresso beans. The smooth brew ends with a pleasant bitterness that really rounds out the flavor nicely. This is one of the best Czech beers I have had.

Reading for the Week: The Life of Pericles by Plutarch – Plutarch starts this book with a story about Caesar rebuking people for fawning over puppies and baby monkeys. It would be much better if that sort of affection were shown to other human beings, rather than being wasted on beasts.

Question for the Week: It is easy to spend too much time on video games or even music and neglect other improving studies. Is their any pursuit for which any time spent is too much?


“And after April, when May follows…”

A large city is not the best place to experience springtime. Just like in the country, there are robins and other birds that reappear in the spring. However, the city’s pigeons and seagulls never leave, so a lot of excitement about the return of the songbirds is lost. Further, there are fewer plants to watch returning to life. There are flowerbeds here and there and trees line some streets, but in the main, spring in the city is not ideal.

Perhaps more important than the return of birds or the blossoming of trees is the familiarity of the seasonal changes. In the poem Home-thoughts, from Abroad, Robert Browning pines for his native England in April and May. I do not believe that springtime in England is much more attractive than it is in Italy. So why pine for England when he had a Mediterranean spring outside his window? Perhaps what Browning really longed for was not English spring per se, but the familiarity of it. The poem mentions specific trees and flowers and birds, not because the flora and fauna of his native land are necessarily superior to those of Italy, but because they are the specific things that he associates with spring.

If that assessment is correct, that what makes spring beautiful is the return of familiarity, then the first sentence of this post is incorrect. A large city actually is the best place to experience springtime for those who intimately know the city and the particular changes that arrive with spring. Those who have lived in the city for a long time will know and expect all of the changes that the seasons bring with them. Still, I can hardly imagine ever thinking “O, to be in Chicago now that April’s there!”

Abita Strawberry Harvest

Beer of the Week: Abita Strawberry Harvest – No matter what the thermometer says, springtime is here, and so are the spring seasonal beers. There is plenty of strawberry in this wheat lager. A close look reveals a fair bit of red particulate floating around in the beer. Strawberry and wheat dominate the aroma. The beer is very fizzy and it is also fruity and tangy without being very sweet. This combination reminds me of vitamin C powder packets. Although this beer did grow on me after a bit, I don’t think I’d buy it again.

Reading for the Week: Home-thoughts, from Abroad by Robert Browning – Although the poem starts in April, it goes on to extol the birds and blossoms of May. So this poem is still a beautiful choice for the first day of this month.

Question for the Week: Spring and autumn seem inherently transitional, while winter and summer seem more consistent. Does spring really bring with it more change than summer does, or do the changes of summer just not stand out as brightly as the first robin or the first green leaf?


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. 

Miller High Life

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.


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