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?”