Love of Learning

You like to read? As a slave, Booker T.’s earliest remembered desire was “an intense longing to learn to read.”

You love books? Booker T.’s first book was a spelling book from which he taught himself the alphabet. He had to teach himself, because none of the black people he knew could read, and he was too timid to ask a white person for help. Even after a school for black children opened, Booker could not attend because he was employed full-time at a salt furnace.

You enjoy studying? As a child, Booker T. put in a full day of work at the salt furnace before spending the evening studying to keep up with the children who were allowed to go to school. And as he got older, he continued to work full-time while studying. As a coal-miner, house-keeper, janitor…

You may think you love learning, but do you love learning like Booker T. Washington loved learning?

Beer of the week: Optimator – This dopplebock from Spaten in Munich pours a dark red-brown with a tan head. The beer is malty and boozy. It’s “only” 7.6% alcohol by volume, but the alcohol is very noticeable in the aftertaste along with hints of dark fruit and bitter chocolate.

Reading of the week: Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington – In this excerpt from his autobiography, Booker T. describes the beginning of his formal education. After this excerpt, he explains, “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”

Question of the week: How can you fit more learning into your schedule? (If a ten-year-old salt mine employee can do it…)


Like a Frog in a Pot

Consider the following thought experiment (based, I believe, on work by the philosopher Warren Quinn):

A surgeon implants a dial into your bellybutton, with numbered settings ranging from 0 to 99. Each setting represents a level of permanent and irreversible discomfort, with 1 being scarcely noticeable and 99 being utterly agonizing. However, the difference between any two sequential settings is imperceptible. The dial can only be turned up, never down; once set to any given number, the discomfort will remain at that level for the rest of your life (unless you turn the dial up further.) The scientist who did this to you is not totally unkind, however. He offers a deal: you never have to turn the dial; it can just stay at 0 for your whole life. But if you do turn the dial, he will pay you $10,000 for each setting you reach. What do you do?

The crux of this question is that consecutive settings differ only imperceptibly. So once the dial is set to 1, there seems to be no reason not to turn it up to 2 and collect the additional money. And because the difference between 2 and 3 is imperceptible, why stop at 2? And so forth all the way up to the excruciating 99th setting. Eventually you may find yourself in constant and terrible pain, having crept to that point by imperceptible degrees.

Beer of the week: Devils Backbone Vienna Lager – Based on the reading of the week, one might have expected a beer from Sierra Nevada, but that’d be too obvious. Instead, I’ve chosen a beer named for a different mountain. This amber lager has a delicious, bready aroma. This Virginia beer is loaded with lots of toasted malt flavor with hints of caramel. It is a very nice brew.

Reading of the week: Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada by Clarence King – The theme of imperceptible gradual change is explored in this reading. King describes how the the forests of the Sierra Nevada mountains transition gradually from “a great, continuous grove, on whose sunny openings are innumerable brilliant parterres” to “a dismal thicket, a sort of gigantic canebrake, void of beauty, dark, impenetrable, save by the avenues of streams, where one may float for days between sombre walls of forest.”

Question of the week: Would you turn the dial? If you do, is there any way to keep yourself from eventually working your way to 99?


Has an octopus a soul?

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by John toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund. EDIT: Now that the campaign is no longer live, I have removed the links. I still encourage readers to participate by reaching out in the comments or through the “Make a Recommendation” page.

In and around Korean seafood markets, there are often restaurants that will prepare fish that has just been purchased from the market by the customers. So one may make a purchase from a fish monger and then have that fish expertly cooked within minutes. Fresh as it gets.

Of course, not all seafood is cooked. Very fresh fish is often sliced and served raw. The fish markets usually also have live octopus. A popular way to serve octopus is a dish called 산낙지 or san-nakji. The octopus is killed, cut up and served while still wriggling. The pieces continue to squirm for some time. They also respond to stimuli, moving more actively when dipped in soy sauce, and grabbing onto the plate, chopsticks, even the eater’s teeth. In fact, it is widely believed (and quite plausibly) that several people choke to death on octopus every year because a sucker clings to the inside of the eater’s throat.

Why do the arms of the octopus continue to move after being severed from the brain? Or, put into provocative Latin-root terms, what animates the parts of the octopus? Is it the same animus (soul, psyche, life force) that lately animated the whole, live animal? And if it is the same, how did a single living being become a plateful of animated parts? How did the chef’s knife divide the animus?

A possible explanation for the active pieces may be that octopuses have less centralized nervous systems than mammals, with their neurons distributed throughout their bodies. As a result, cutting an arm off does not immediately rob the arm of all function. While we think of the brain as the sole seat for the soul, of an octopus soul exists, it is more dispersed throughout its body.

Additionally, experience teaches that dipping the meat into soy sauce increases its motion. A biochemical explanation is that electrolytes in the sauce facilitate or cause additional nerve cell activity.

But those explanations don’t get to the metaphorical heart of the metaphysical question: has an octopus a soul? I don’t know the answer, but I won’t be eating octopus any time soon.

Beer of the week: Skipjack – Skipjack tuna is also ever-present at Korean seafood markets. But Skipjack lager is brewed and canned by Union Craft Brewing on the other side of the world, in another seafood hub: Baltimore. This “true bohemian lager” (again, from Baltimore, not Bohemia) is brewed with Bohemian Pils malt. The aroma is led by bright hops. The beer is silky smooth and very malty but with Plenty of clinging hops in the finish

Reading of the week: Has a Frog a Soul, and of What Nature Is That Soul, Supposing It to Exist? by T. H. Huxley – This is a very engaging essay on the question of whether the soul (or whatever you want to call the thing that distinguishes living things from non-living things) is material or immaterial. The reading, however is not for everybody. Huxley describes in some detail his experiments on live frogs, and it gets downright unpleasant. But this sort of experimentation is crucial to understanding our world and our place in it. So while I personally would not enjoy chopping up live frogs and subjecting their severed limbs to various stimuli, I am glad that Huxley thought to do it.

Questions for the week: Has an octopus a soul? Would you eat a plate of wriggling octopus?


Unknown Knowns

According to the Socratic Paradox, Socrates knew more than anybody else because he knew that he knew nothing. I would like to suggest that I personally have surpassed Socrates in that respect.

Since the age of Socrates, there has been an unthinkable increase in things that can be known. Among the newly knowable things are scientific facts that had been unknowable because the technology had not yet advanced sufficiently. But the universe of knowable things has also grown by production. Socrates could not have known any Shakespearean poetry, for example, because the English language did not yet exist. Similarly, Socrates could not know how to change a fuel filter on a 1987 Buick Regal. For me, however, the poetry of the Bard, and the basic maintenance of mid-sized American automobiles are well within the realm of knowable things. Socrates may know that he knows nothing, but the nothing that I know is even less!

I do know, however, six more poems than I did three months ago. In that time, as in the first three and second three months of this year, I memorized two poems per month:
Invictus by William Ernest Henley,
I taste a liquor never brewed by Emily Dickinson,
The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
To Althea, From Prison by Richard Lovelace, and
Hot and Cold by Roald Dahl.

As I typed that list, I could not recall the title of Hot and Cold for the life of me. Somehow I had a poem totally memorized and yet I could not think of it. I can’t really claim to know the sixth poem if I cannot think of it. I don’t even know the things that I know. Take that Socrates!

Beer of the week: Tuckerman’s Headwall Alt – This “German style brown ale” is a handsome red-brown, with a lovely head. The aroma is of dark bread. Dark bread notes dominate the flavor as well, with a pleasant smokey finish.

Reading of the week: I taste a liquor never brewed by Emily Dickinson – The flavor of “a liquor never brewed” is one of the many things that I do not know. But I know that this is a fun poem that draws on a lot of temperance imagery, including being an “inebriate of air” and “debauchee of dew.”

Question of the week: The sum total of human knowledge is much greater now than it was in antiquity. Consequently, each individual–even the most educated among us–knows a smaller portion of the total. So do we know more than the ancients or do we know less?