You can never drink the same beer twice.

There is an undeniable appeal to the statement by Heraclitus that “you cannot step twice into the same stream.” Impermanence is perceived everywhere we look. People who spend any time along the banks of a river or the seashore know that change is constant. Waters rise and recede; sandbars form and wash away. And this is true about everything else around us. We are always in the midst of growth and decay. We see organic growth and decay in plants and animals, but we also see mechanical growth and decay in buildings, cities, and technology. And, although we are incapable of perceiving it at any instant (because it is constant rather than instantaneous,) we recognize change in ourselves and our loved ones.

But the mere observation that change is constant does not do justice to Heraclitus. What makes the stream metaphor really interesting is the fact that it is paradoxical. Yes, the stream is different from one moment to the next, but we still recognize it as the same stream. How can we know that the river is always changing, but at the same time recognize that it is the same river?

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness begins with a reflection on the history of the River Thames. The characters observe that it is the same river that Roman soldiers navigated as they pushed the dark and dangerous boundaries of the Roman Empire. Likewise, it was the same Thames down which Francis Drake and other “knights–errant of the sea” sailed as they carried the torch of the English Empire to dark new lands. But while holding on to this recognition of consistency, they also acknowledge that the river’s “tidal current runs to and fro” unceasingly and that that the shoreline and the people have all changed.

Although the bulk of the main story takes place in Africa, Heart of Darkness begins on a pleasure yacht in London, as a conversation among ex-seamen. To sailors, we are told, “One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same.” But even us landsmen know that there are high seas and calm seas, and that the conditions at sea are actually very changeable. Again, it appears that Conrad is hinting at the paradox that Heraclitus was interested in: in spite of all its vicissitudes, there is something constant about the sea. And, for that matter, the entire world.

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Beer of the week: Negra Modelo – A Heart of Darkness reading deserves either a dark beer or a tropical beer. Negra Modelo is something of a compromise in both respects. Although “negra” means “black”, this beer is actually more of an amber color. And although Groupo Modelo is based in Mexico City, (and therefore technically tropical,) this bottle was probably brewed north of the tropics in Piedras Negras. (This is due to a complicated anti-trust settlement that I do not fully understand.) As to the beer itself, it is a bit thinner and less flavorful than might be hoped. There are some good dark-roasted malt notes throughout, but this beer is mostly uninspiring.

Reading of the week: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – This novella is an excellent read, and raises a lot of interesting questions about empire, individuals, and the nature of human society. Conrad apparently based some of the book on his own experiences as captain of a steamboat on the Congo River.

Question of the week: Rivers, like all things, change with time. But civil engineers literally reversed the course of the Chicago River. We may say that the River Thames of today is same river as when the Romans first explored it, but is the Chicago River of today the same river as before it was reversed?

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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?