Isn’t it ironic?

P: Did you hear about what what Miley Cyrus did?

M: I could could care less!

P: Don’t you mean, “I couldn’t care less!”? If you could care less, then you do care at least a bit.

M: I’ve never thought of that! You are so smart! And so good at recognizing sarcasm.

P: I know; tell me about it!

M: Don’t you mean, “I know; don’t tell me about it!”? If you really know, then you don’t need me to tell you about it.

P: No.

I suppose that in the main, people say “I could care less” without any further thought. As is the case with the use of most idioms, the use of this phrase is usually done artlessly. However, if said with a thoroughly ironical tone, the meaning is clear. And I could care less whether you agree.

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Beer of the week: Boulevard Irish Ale – This lovely red ale from Kansas City is just a bit cloudy, probably from the secondary fermentation. There are sweet notes in the aroma, including toffee or caramel. Although this beer is quite malty, it is also rather crisp. In the finish, there are hints of caramel as well as a pleasant tingle of carbonation and peppery spice. At the bottom of the glass is some sediment that provides an earthy finish. Overall, a very good beer.

Reading of the week: A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift – The Irish have given our culture more than just delicious beers. A Modest Proposal is one of the greatest works of satire ever written. Swift’s use of irony is impeccable and the ability to write with a straight face (so to speak) is astonishing. He walks very fine lines, does Swift, and he does it effortlessly.

Question of the week: Some hold that the word “sarcasm” should be reserved for insults. Would that be an effective way to differentiate sarcasm from other irony?

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Of Supply and Demand

When traveling abroad, one often finds that everyday items are really luxuries. The laws of supply and demand are universal, and it is amazing how much money people will spend on something that they would usually take for granted. Among other staggering valuations, I have seen substantial price-tags on peanut butter, asparagus, and cheese. Not even fancy French cheese, stuff that was a few steps above “American Singles“. A very common response to those prices is, “that’s way more than that product is worth!” But does that statement have any meaning?

The problem that people so often have is that they get the idea that the commonly accepted price is the real value of something. “San Miguel can be had for pennies in Manila, so it is not worth $5 here.” That sort of thinking is simply not sound. Items don’t have a set value. The value of anything is determined by supply and demand, and since supply and demand constantly vary, values constantly vary. If San Miguel costs more in one place than in another, it is because the markets support different costs.

An important thing to remember as the consumer is that your willingness to pay (along with the willingness of everybody else) is the demand. If you think something is too expensive, you are right. But if you complain that something is too expensive and you still buy it, it wasn’t really too expensive, was it? On a clear day, I may tell you that Mickey’s Fine Malt Liquor is not worth buying at any price. Yet, in a moment of weakness, I may actually make the same purchase that I’ve regretted again and again. At the time of purchase, though, I clearly think that the beer is worth more than the money I am giving up. Otherwise, the sale would never happen.

To be sure, in retrospect we often feel ripped off. For example, if I knew how awful that Brazilian beer was, I would never have paid so much for it. But what I am talking about here is the asking price for a known good. Now I think that Brazilian beer really is too expensive, but only too expensive for me.  For anybody who happens to actually like it and is willing to buy it at that price, it is worth every penny. All transactions in a market economy happen because both the buyer and the seller think that they are getting the better end of the deal.

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Beer of the Week: Bass Ale – Bass was once a go-to beer for me. It is a pretty amber beer with a good malt body and a very comforting flavor. However, this batch was brewed in New York and it is not what I remember or expect from Bass. Compared to my memory, this American version is sweeter. It also has a hint of sourness from the grains, like sourdough bread. It may still be above average for large-batch American beer, but I am disappointed.

Reading for the Week: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome – Simply because Jerome could not get any mustard, he was suddenly willing to trade everything he had and more for a single spoonful. He had witnessed this supply and demand problem before: “I heard a man, going up a mountain in Switzerland, once say he would give worlds for a glass of beer, and, when he came to a little shanty where they kept it, he kicked up a most fearful row because they charged him five francs for a bottle of Bass.”

Question for the Week: In a way, Three Men in a Boat is really about conspicuous consumption:  a group of friends go on a boating holiday with the (unstated and probably subconscious) intention to display their affluence and social standing by engaging in costly leisure. At what point do things become more desirable because of the apparent disconnect between their price and their “real” value? Are larger natural diamonds actually worth more because they have fewer practical applications?


And don’t even get me started on graffiti…

The sun is shining. The breeze is warm and fresh. The mounds of snow start melting away to reveal mounds of garbage. City life is hell.

I can say without hyperbole that litterers are worse than Hitler. If you litter, you are a bad person, deserving of scorn and derision. Luckily, there is hope for you yet. You can be redeemed from your sinful ways. You don’t need to find Jesus or go to church or any of that. Just stop littering. It’s that simple. Don’t throw your trash on the ground like an asshole.

A friend of mine who was a smoker observed that all smokers litter. But truly I tell you, even smokers can be saved. I once met a smoker who had worked as a ski instructor in a national park. The penalties for littering cigarette butts in the park were severe. (Not to mention the forest fire hazard that cigarette butts would cause.) So he learned to put out his butts, pocket them, and throw them away when he got to a trash can. “But that’d make his clothes smell,” I can hear some of you smokers yelling at your computers like idiots. The thing is, his clothes already smelled like smoke because, you know, he was a smoker.

In the final analysis, litterers will always litter because of a problem identified by Professor Coase. Littering is a classic externality. Externalities exist when one person forces an expense or benefit on another person who had no choice whether or not to accept it. Litterers force the expense of cleaning up their trash on somebody else (society at large in a general way, though it actually falls on more or less specific parties.) According to Coase, if the litterer and the person charged with cleaning up trash could get their heads together, the clean up person could just pay the litterer not to do it and we would reach the most economic result. Unfortunately, the transaction costs of identifying all of the litterers and all of the people who suffer at the hands of the litterers would be far too high to be able to negotiate an economic result. Some people will always value the time it would take them to walk to the trashcan on the corner more than they will care about the cost they are inflicting on society, both monetarily and aesthetically. And those people are terrible.

Seriously, don’t be a terrible person: don’t litter.

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Beer of the Week: New Planet Off Grid Pale Ale – Gluten-free beer. Is nothing sacred? This beer has a sweet grainy smell. My first thought was that the aroma was malty, but there is no barley malt in it. The beer is actually very sweet, but the sweetness from sorghum and brown rice extract is decidedly NOT the same as sweetness from barley or rye malt. The beer is actually rather good tasting, but it is simply unlike other beers. If I ever had to go gluten-free, I would certainly miss the other options, but I could certainly see myself drinking this regularly.

Reading for the Week: Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Chapter 17 – For a beer called Off Grid Pale Ale, there could hardly be a reading more suitable than Walden. In this section, Thoreau describes watching sand and clay form into beautiful and familiar patterns as the snow melts and washes it slowly down hill. He sees in these rivulets all of nature’s splendor. The patterns in the sand are of a kind with leaves and blood vessels and butterfly wings; the very earth seems to be pulsing with life. This passage is a remarkable contrast to my own experience of watching the melting snow wash garbage slowly down the gutter.

Question for the Week: Do you litter? If so, did your parents do a dreadful job of raising you?


Affluent Need Not Apply

And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” When his disciples heard, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.

There are two interpretations of this passage from Matthew 19 that I have heard many times. Both of which I find incompatible with the actual text.

One interpretation is to assume that the meaning of “eye of a needle” is not obvious. Some people claim that “the eye of the needle” was actually the name of a small outer gate. Camels, being large and difficult to handle, could only be made to pass through this small gate with great effort. This interpretation is popular with those who wish to be rich themselves, since it means that rich men are not literally incapable of achieving salvation; it is only more difficult.

As far as I know, there is no historical evidence to support the term “eye of the needle” meaning a small gate. (So sayeth Wikipedia.) More importantly, this interpretation makes no sense in context. Why would the disciples be “exceedingly amazed” if Jesus described something that was only a minor inconvenience? And then why would Jesus go on to state that “with men this is impossible”?  I have heard in defense of this interpretation that the gate was actually too small for camels, so it was impossible for a camel to pass through. In that case, why bother looking for a different meaning for the term “eye of the needle”? Impossible is impossible and it makes no real difference whether it is the eye of a needle, a one inch hole or a door that is slightly too small.

And if the final conclusion is that rich men actually are incapable of salvation, that brings us to the next interpretation: that it is simply impossible for the rich to enter heaven. The syllogism is simple:

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God;
A camel absolutely cannot pass through the eye of a needle; Therefore,
A rich man cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

Of course, this ignores the next line: “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” Applying this line to the result of our earlier syllogism:

A rich man cannot enter into the kingdom of God;
With God all things are possible; Therefore,
With God a rich man may enter into the kingdom of God.

So there you have it. The salvation of the rich is possible, but requires a miracle from God.

Tsingtao Draft

Beer of the Week: Tsingtao Pure Draft – This Chinese beer is very pale, very clear, and very boring. It is promising to see Asian brewers starting to make rice-free beer, but this one is a dud. There is some malty sweetness but very little hops. It almost comes off as an attempt at a beer flavored soft drink.

Reading of the Week: Epictetus and Seneca by Walter Savage Landor – Emerson wrote of Landor, “He has a wonderful brain, despotic, violent, and inexhaustible, meant for a soldier, by what chance converted to letters, in which there is not a style nor a tint not known to him, yet with an English appetite for action and heroes.” His appetite for action and heroes and his command of style are evident in his Imaginary Conversations of Greeks and Romans. In this dialogue between the great stoic philosophers Epictetus and Seneca, Epictetus really gives Seneca the business for thinking that he can be both rich and a philosopher. “Fortune cares little about philosophers; but she remembers where she hath set a rich man, and she laughs to see the Destinies at his door.”

Question of the Week: How far can the parallels between Mark 19 and Epictetus and Seneca be drawn? In what way is Christian salvation like philosophy? Are the rich barred from both for the same reasons?


Put a flag on it!

Given the opportunity to go back in time to the summer of 2001 and invest in the manufacture of American flags, would you? I suppose that the question needs a bit more detail: You have the technology to go back in time, but only to the summer of 2001. While you are there, the only thing you can do is buy stock in a company that makes American flags and decorative magnets for automobiles. You have no power to substantially change any events and buying the stock does not change anything about the present except for how much money you have. Do you buy that stock?

I suspect that there are two common responses to this hypothetical: “Of course. I’d be foolish not to collect big ol’ dividends from the giant uptick in American flag sales,” and “No. The recent proliferation of flag-waving distresses me. Sights of streets lined with the national flag look shockingly similar to images from Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. Over-the-top nationalism and militarism is a serious problem in this country and I want nothing to do with it.”

Early 19th century American sculptor Horatio Greenough offers another reason not to invest in the mass-marketing of American flags: when the flag is everywhere, it loses any special meaning. (It is important to note that Greenough’s complaint came at a time when seeing five American flags in a single day seemed excessive; he could scarcely have imagined the modern applications.) Greenough’s essay Aesthetics in Washington includes a section entitled The Desecration of the Flag. Therein, Greenough explains why he thinks that the flag has no place at taverns or peepshows or even private homes: the flag is desecrated by being used simply as an ornament by anybody and everybody. It is a very special symbol and to have it plastered everywhere greatly diminishes how special it is.

Some might argue that as a free and democratic people, Americans have a right to use the flag however they see fit. Greenough seems reluctant to allow that. But he doesn’t have to. Even if people do have a right to use the flag, that doesn’t make it right. People have a right to “excessive beer-drinking and other gluttonies”, but that doesn’t mean that they should. Asserting the right to fly the flag or be rude or to curse is just bootstrapping simple barbarism to the noble concept of freedom, something the flag once stood for.

Beer of the Week: Tucher Helles Hefe Weizen – This past summer, I saw several American flag beer cans. Can anybody honestly say that using the flag as a marketing gimmick for cheap beer doesn’t cheapen the flag itself? Greenough would be disgusted to see the American flag in the form of a crumpled Budweiser can on the side of the road. Astute observers will notice that the design of the Tucher Helles Hefe Weizen can is patterned after the flag of Bavaria. But Tucher’s can has a problem that even worse than it’s dubious use of the Bavarian flag; the can claims this beer is brewed “in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot.” I seem to mention this former law quite often. I know that it is just a marketing tactic to make the beer sound natural and pure, but when it is patently false it just irks me. Wheat was not an acceptable ingredient under the Reinheitsgebot (neither was yeast, but that is another issue,) so it is impossible for a hefeweizen to comply with the law. False advertising not withstanding, the beer is alright. It is light and cloudy and it smells of banana. The flavor matches the smell exactly, which is actually a bit of a shame because it doesn’t really have any spice or bite at all; it is just sweet and smooth. It is missing something, but what it does have is pretty good.

Reading of the week: The Desecration of the Flag by Horatio Greenough – This is the second reading choice from an author mentioned in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s English Traits. Therein, Emerson wrote that “Greenough was a superior man, ardent and eloquent, and all his opinions had elevation and magnanimity.” He was also, by Emerson’s account, very handsome. The Desecration of the Flag is a section of an essay entitled Aesthetics in Washington, which also includes an interesting architectural critique of the Washington Monument.

Question of the week: Would you go back in time and invest in the flag company?

Alternatively: Is it not profoundly ironic that many of the people who would purchase American flag underpants or special edition American flag beers are the people who claim the most respect for the flag itself? (Unfortunately, I suspect that this hypothetical person is not self-aware enough to express his opinions about the flag in this way: “Flag burning should be a crime and I regard it in no way hypocritical that I leave shit stains on a pair of boxers that are designed to look like Old Glory.”)


“Travel between the extremes.”

Nearly everybody is familiar with the myth of Icarus, the youth who flew too close to the sun on man-made wings and plunged into the sea when the heat caused the wings to fail. I just typed “flew to” into Google and the first auto-complete suggestion was “flew too close to the sun”. That is a real testament to how thoroughly ingrained the story of Icarus is in our culture. Even more evidence of how deep this story is embedded in our collective consciousness is the way that Icarus appears in pop culture. When George Constanza on Seinfeld got dumped because he brought a cold cut sandwich into bed, he told Jerry that he “flew too close to the sun on wings of pastrami.”

The lesson of the story seems obvious; Icarus fell because he overreached. If he had only been more cautious, he would not have crashed into the sea and drowned. But “don’t fly too high” is only part of the moral. In Ovid’s retelling of the ancient myth, Icarus’s father Daedalus warned about flying too high but also about flying too low. Flying too close to the sun would scorch the wings, but flying too close to the sea would weigh them down with moisture. “Take the middle way,” he cautioned, “Travel between the extremes.” With that advice, the story really appears to be about moderation. And moderation happens to be a popular topic on this blog.

The dangers of being immoderate are especially acute as we move into Lent. On one hand, there is Mardi Gras, during which many people engage in all manner of excess. (Like that one Fasnacht Day that I ate an entire box of donuts.)  If the reports are true, there are a few cities that really go to extremes. But the excesses of Fat Tuesday are followed by the austerity of Ash Wednesday and Lent. As I have pointed out before, abstention is immoderate. There is certainly value in giving up something for Lent as a way to focus on what really matters. But focusing on the abstention itself is just another kind of excess. So if you are going to give something up for Lent make sure that you apply yourself to ordering your soul and don’t dwell on the thing that you are missing.

Beer of the Week: Mythos – Sometimes the beers I review have nothing to do with the reading. This time, however, is an obvious slam dunk. From the time I saw Mythos on the shelf, I knew that I’d have to read Ovid. The can informs us that Mythos is “the World’s Most Famous Hellenic Beer.” Of course since Greece is not exactly known for its beer, this honor is not quite as impressive as it could be. This pale lager has a pleasant aroma that is somewhat malty. The flavor is understated, with some light grass notes and a bit of lingering hop oil in the finish. It is primarily a good beer for quenching thirst since it goes down like water. As a light, drinking beer, there is nothing wrong with it. It is not exactly mythical in quality, but it is appropriate for a sunny Mediterranean beach.

Reading of the week: Metamorphoses by Ovid, Bk VIII:183-235 – There was a time when every educated American was well acquainted with Ovid. Unfortunately this has  changed considerably. As noted above, the stories are still part of our culture but their origin is not known by most people. I mentioned that “flew too close to the sun” came up right away on Google. What I didn’t mention is that most of the results for that search were “who flew too close to the sun?” The underlying story is there, but the details are mostly forgotten.

Question of the week: What is the most that you could give up without dwelling on the loss?