Demand Satisfaction

It has been observed by numerous readers, and spelled out explicitly in the book itself, that the character of Alexey Karenin is rather unlikable because of his lack of spirit. What stands out particularly is that he is unwilling to challenge his wife’s lover to a duel. The baser sort of people in the book judge him harshly for this. However, the modern reader should feel more inclined to his side. He reasons that a duel does no good. No outcome of a duel can be really satisfactory. In one scenario, he, the innocent and injured party is shot. This, of course, would not do. In the other likely outcome, the offending party is shot. This, one may suppose, is a sort of justice  of which he could approve. But what would this result earn from his wife? He still cannot trust her and she must resent him for killing her lover. No, a duel simply will not serve the purposes of a modern rational man.

Avenging one’s honor has not even always required a formal duel; for Benvenuto Cellini, a flying assault with cutlery or a patient ambush from behind some shrubbery would be adequate. According to Cellini’s autobiography, there was a certain young man named Luigi who was much obliged to Cellini for assisting him in a time of illness. Cellini advised this young man against getting mixed up with the wrong company. One evening, while attending a banquet at the house of his good friend Michelangelo (yes, that Michelangelo,) Cellini overheard Luigi cavorting with a “shameless strumpet” with whom Cellini already had quite a bit of bad blood. Rather than standing on ceremony, Cellini promptly launched himself out of the dining room window with his dinner knife in hand, intent on killing Luigi for disrespecting him. Luckily for Luigi, he was able to make his escape, leaving Cellini holding his cape. Undeterred, Cellini remained “bent on punishing the infamous young man, who showed how little he regarded” his erstwhile patron. Cellini promptly collected his sword and laid in wait for Luigi, hiding in a particularly thorny bush. When Luigi finally arrived, he was accompanied by a dozen or so soldiers. Undeterred, Cellini sprang into action yet again. Through the sheer chaos that accompanied his 1 on 12 attack, he got in a good shot against Luigi and slashed the strumpet right in the face. So surprised were the soldiers that several actually injured themselves and Cellini got away unscathed.

Unfortunately, this story really sends the wrong message. Luigi dies (although several days later in an unrelated equine accident) and Cellini doesn’t suffer any negative repercussions from his insane actions. If Cellini had been mortally wounded by one of the soldiers, one must wonder if he would have decided that it was worth it. Indeed, the dying thoughts of every man who ever fought a duel over a perceived insult and lost would be interesting to know. I side with most modern men (and, I suspect most men throughout history) who say, “Dueling swords hurt more than words, ’cause words can never hurt me.”

Beer of the Week: Kirin Ichiban – In the United States, a bottle of “Japan’s Prime Brew” will note on the label that it was brewed by Busch in California (or somewhere else on the continent.) In Korea, however, this “Imported” beer would surely be shipped in from the original brewery, right? No such luck. The Korean version is imported, but not from Japan. Instead this brew comes from China. Not withstanding, this is a pretty good beer. It starts with a light, but slightly hoppy aroma. There is a crisp, almost spicy, hops presence and it finishes with a pleasant lingering bitterness. Nothing too powerful, just a nice tingling on the tongue.

Reading of the week: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini – If the story of his attacks on young Luigi seem incredible, that shouldn’t be too surprising. Elsewhere in his autobiography,Cellini describes conjuring demons in the Colosseum. But don’t call him a liar, or he’ll come after you with a knife.

Question of the week: What ever became of honor?

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Leaf Suicide

The leaves, lately so colorful, have grown quite withered and dull. Realizing their beauty is irretrievably lost, they jump to their death. If they don’t jump exactly, they at least cease to hang on to life. Autumn is dark in that way.

What are humans to do when they find themselves in the same situation as these leaves? What is to become of a person who, in the autumn of his life finds that he no longer has the strength of a young man and sees his “sable curls all silver’d o’er with white”?

One can, and ought to, take good care of himself physically and mentally. The right attitude and precautions against premature aging can act as a greenhouse for the exotic plant that is man. One cannot stop aging, “and nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence,” but the summer of one’s life can be somewhat extended.

Beer of the Week: The Premium Malt’s by Suntory – Moderate amounts of alcohol have been shown time and again to promote heart health, so beer clearly has a place in our prescribed well-being regimen. Luckily, modern bottling, refrigeration and storage techniques make fresh beer available year-round. Even beers from overseas.  Why they decided that there should be an apostrophe in “The Premium Malt’s” is not clear, but questionable grammar aside, this is a rather good beer. It pours light gold and very clear. The aroma is pleasantly malty with some herbal hops. It is smooth and sweet and finishes with a nice bit of grassy hops and bit of fruity sweetness. Grapes, perhaps. This is almost certainly the best Japanese beer reviewed to date.

Reading of the week: Sonnet #12 by William Shakespeare – Everything is withering and dying, and soon you will too. That seems to be the general sentiment of this sonnet. It is not the cheeriest of sonnets.

Question of the week: The last line of the sonnet proposes the one potential defense against death: procreation. Can the survival of one’s genes (in the form of progeny) really offer comfort against the death of the self? Or is it simply the closest thing one has to immortality, so one grasps at it as at straws?


“Simple” Economics

“It’s simple economics, son; I don’t understand it at all.” A big part of what is so funny about this line by South Park‘s Randy Marsh is that it is so true. In a general sort of way, people simply do not understand economics. And, what is worse, many people are simply too intimidated by the subject to really attempt to understand it.

I number among those who do not understand economics, but as in so many fields, I am trying to learn. One of the greatest difficulties is the way that people talk about money and prices. “Eggs cost $2” or “this ring is worth $2,000,” as if the dollar is a fixed unit like a yard or a gallon. (Hopefully, the irony of the variable British pound [£] is not lost on us.) But for the most part it is the dollars themselves that change far more than the production of eggs or the value of a ring.

Another language problem in understanding economics is “inflation.” Every careful shopper (and most people who are spending their own money are careful) observes the prices of everyday items climbing and falling. Well, mostly just climbing. They call this increase in price “inflation.” But inflation means two things. “Price inflation” is the changing price tags; “monetary inflation” is the increase in the money supply. As it turns out, the latter is the primary cause of the former. As banks create money by making loans or the Federal Reserve spends money that it creates “out of thin air”, each existing dollar becomes less valuable and the rise in supply of dollars drives down the demand for dollars and prices of everything else goes up. See, simple economics… I still don’t understand most of it, but getting down some of the language is a good first step.

Beer of the Week: Sapporo – In Korea, one can get Sapporo in bottles or in cans. The cans are imported from Japan and the bottles are imported from Canada. Despite the 5,800 extra miles the beer has to travel to get to the Korean grocery store (to say nothing of the fact that bottles are more difficult to transport because of their weight, fragility and shape,) the Canadian version is cheaper.  The economics behind this disparity is no doubt simple. Yet, the mind fairly boggles when the prices are first encountered. The Japanese version is a reasonably good beer. It is crisp and clean tasting with a hint of hops and yeast in the finish. Just be sure that it is good and cold.

Reading of the week: The Mystery of Banking by Murray N. Rothbard, Chapter IV, Excerpt – Rothbard is a very good writer, which makes his treatise on the economics of fractional reserve banking very accessible despite the daunting subject matter. In this excerpt, Rothbard presents a simple and interesting parable borrowed from Hume and Mises about monetary inflation that shows how simply increasing the money supply only helps the profligate and hurts “the cautious and thrifty.”

Question of the week: Given the profound impact of economics on daily life, why is it that so few people really put in the trouble to attempt to understand it?


Lilac and Lab Coats

In the story Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorn, a young student named Giovanni finds no more pleasant pastime than to look out of his window into Doctor Rappaccini’s garden and quietly observe the beautiful flora (before he turns his attention to the story’s eponymous fauna.) To him, the flowers were “gorgeously magnificent” and the fountain sparkled “cheerfully” in the sunlight. Giovanni understood the garden as beauty and artistic inspiration.

Doctor Rappaccini did not view the garden in the same way. Rappaccini did not see the warm, vibrant garden that Giovanni saw, but a cold, sterile laboratory. And although he was surrounded by beautiful flowers, universally observed to invoke warm emotion, “there was no approach to intimacy between himself and these vegetable existences.” And this was actually frightening to Giovanni.

As important as scientific study is, it is still off-putting to see the harsh, cold light of reason shined on something that would otherwise be seen as simple and beautiful. The scientific project, the unrelenting systematic investigation on all subjects, has led to amazing discoveries. But if the world is viewed only scientifically, it will be found to be cold, indifferent and unsatisfying to humanity. One must, occasionally, stop to smell the roses.

Beer of the Week: Asahi Black – Like flowers, beer can (and, when the time is right, should) be studied. More often, however, it should simply be enjoyed. Asahi Black has a faint smell of licorice, a dark tan (but quickly fading) head and a nice roast malt profile. The body is nice and smooth as well. One might expect a more watery beer from Asahi, but Black has a very nice mouth-feel. It is not a great beer, but it is definitely a pleasant change of pace.

Reading of the week: an excerpt from Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorn – This short story is about science gone wrong. Doctor Rappaccini uses science to change something that is beautiful and pure into something that is poisonous and vile.

Question of the week: Is there any subject that science ought not probe?


Gold malt does not a pilsner make…

“When I lye tangled in her haire,
And fetterd to her eye,
The birds, that wanton in the aire,
Know no such liberty.”

Richard Lovelace was no stranger to paradox. To him, freedom was entanglement; servitude was liberty. In his most famous poem To Althea, from Prison, Lovelace considers himself freer than the birds despite his imprisonment. The source of this freedom? Love and service. And, perhaps, drinking. Although it seems that the stanza about drinking is more of an expression of the freedom of his imagination than about actual wine since he was in prison. Although prison wine is a thing.

He is free because he loves, and is therefore bound to, Althea. Love is both binding and liberating. But it is not only love for his woman that makes him free, but love for his King. When proclaming “the sweetnes, mercy, majesty, and glories of [his] King,” he is freer than the wind. Here, the paradox is greatest. To have a king is to be a “subject,” a title which many philosophers have equated with “slave.” By declaring the authority of his master, he asserts his own freedom. This theme has been explored extensively in Christianity where King or Lord is used metaphorically to refer to God. On first reading, I assumed that the “King” (notice the capital “K”) was God. However, Lovelace was actually in prison for presenting a pro-royalist petition to the House of Commons, so it would make sense from a political protest point of view for King to refer to King Charles. So dutiful service to a master, man or God, may be at the heart of freedom.

Beer of the Week: The Master – Speaking of masters, Asahi’s all-malt pilsner has a very bold name. But can any beer back up such a billing? It starts sweet, light, and creamy on the nose. The taste is a bit creamy with a decent malt profile. The finish has an almost metallic tinge which is not altogether pleasant. It is really a good beer and well may be “The Master” in Japan, but even the can admits that they are but apprentices to “German brewing.”

Reading of the week: To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace – “Stone walls doe not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage;” with these lines, Lovelace flirts with stoicism, accepting that the things of the body are outside of his control and relying only on his own intellect to experience freedom. However, he comes a bit short of stoicism by attributing his freedom to his relationship with Althea and his King.

Question of the week: As long as he loves Althea, he is free. But if she were to die while he remained imprisoned, he would be crushed. So, if she died and he had no way of finding out, he would remain happy and “free.” Is this validation of the claim “ignorance is bliss”? Is freedom simply a delusional state that can only be maintained in the long run by ignorance or outright denial? Or is it proof of the stoic claim that nothing external is the cause of freedom, only the mind of the individual?