What was I thinking?

“What was I thinking?”

That rhetorical question is often used to express dismay at a lack of foresight e.g. “A while back, I passed on a chance to buy a Bitcoin at $400; what was I thinking?” Sometimes it goes to absentmindedness e.g. “I peeled a banana and accidentally threw away the banana and went to take a bite of the peel; what was I thinking?” But in both of these cases, the question is purely rhetorical because it is pretty easy to determine the thought process involved. In the Bitcoin example, the person presumably thought about the risks and advantages of buying a Bitcoin and determined that the potential upside was not worth the $400 risk. In the banana example, the person was clearly thinking about something totally unrelated to the task at hand, and mere distraction caused the errant movements.

There are times, however, when the question “what was I thinking?” is more than rhetorical, times when one honestly does not understand his own motivations. Every once in a while, we each do something that we are later unable to explain. It is occasionally impossible to determine what thought process or motivations led to the decisions made.

There appear to be multiple potential causes for such internal confusion. For one thing, not understanding one’s own motivation may be a simple failure to carefully self-evaluate. For another, there may be pre-rational motivations that get overlooked in the search for a rational explanation, such as instinct or something like it. But most likely, it seems, is the likelihood that the decision in question is the product of a great many thoughts and motivations, possibly even at odds with each other. The complicated interplay between our various desires, instincts, goals, etc. may simply be so convoluted that we are unable to untangle (or even recognize) them all.

In The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela, the motivations of the belligerents during the Mexican Revolution are explored.  A rebel leader called Demetrio tells about the time that he got drunk and spit in the face of a local political boss, Señor Monico. As a result, Monico brought “the whole God-damned Federal Government” down on Demetrio, who narrowly escaped into the hills. Demetrio asserts that all he wants is “to be let alone so [he] can go home.”

His interlocutor, however, sees more in Demetrio’s motivations than Demetrio sees himself:

“It is not true that you took up arms simply because of Señor Monico. You are under arms to protest against the evils of all the caciques who are overrunning the whole nation. We are the elements of a social movement which will not rest until it has enlarged the destinies of our motherland. We are the tools Destiny makes use of to reclaim the sacred rights of the people. We are not fighting to dethrone a miserable murderer, we are fighting against tyranny itself. What moves us is what men call ideals; our action is what men call fighting for a principle. A principle! That’s why Villa and Natera and Carranza are fighting; that’s why we, every man of us, are fighting.”

This speech certainly works on Demetrio’s men, who emphatically embrace this noble characterization of their motivations despite the manifestly ignoble acts of plunder, rape, and murder in which they engage. But Demetrio’s reaction to this impassioned speech is more subdued; he orders more beer.

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Beer of the week: Corona Light – A Mexican reading deserves a Mexican beer. Corona Light is clear and pale and foamy. The aroma and flavor are pretty standard macro. There is a hint of lime in the aroma, and just a trace of nuttiness in the finish. A pinch of salt brings out the lime in the flavor, which is a big improvement. Still, Corona Light; what was I thinking?

Reading of the week: The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela – The title The Underdogs (Los de Abajo in the original Spanish) refers not to the rebels, but to the common folk of Mexico. Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that the people are always oppressed, no matter which faction has the ascendency.

Question of the week: Is it really the case that some motivations cannot be discovered through self-examination? Or is it possible that we are just too afraid to look deep enough?

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List Your Blessings

A popular Thanksgiving tradition is to go around the table, listing the things for which those present are thankful. It can be a very powerful exercise to actually compose such a list. Lists create a sense of scale and the cumulative effect of each item listed tends to compound the others.

Take, for example, the catalog of ships in The Iliad. Several pages of that text are dedicated to listing all of the ships, along with the numbers of their fighting men, that came to the Trojan shores. The seemingly ceaseless recital of the Greeks emphasizes the scale of the conflict. During the battles, the narrative follows individuals as they engage in one-on-one combat. And this is why the catalogue of ships is so important. Without that list to establish the scale of the armies, one could be mislead into thinking of the war as a series of encounters between a handful of individuals rather than between mighty hosts. The knowledge that the Greek and Trojan armies are quite large gives a sense of scale to the dramatic face-offs between the individual heroes.

So this Thanksgiving, give some thought to the vast number of the world’s blessings and how that great list gives context to each individual blessing.

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Beer of the week: Saranac Pale Ale – Saranac, New York is about 300 miles from the site of the fabled first Thanksgiving. In American terms, that’s rather close enough to count as local. This beer has a solid malt body with just a bit of hops bitterness to back it up. Saranac Pale Ale makes for a really good beer for a casual drink.

Reading for the week: The Fourth Book by François Rabelais, Chapter 4.LIX – Some would argue that there is virtually no way to stay awake through the entire catalogue of ships, especially in the drowsy afterglow a large meal. This list is probably more appropriate for Thanksgiving. Rabelais was a master of writing lists, and this particular excerpt is the menu of the Gastrolaters, a people whose god is the stomach and whose religion is eating.

Question for the holiday: In certain cases, shorter lists arguably indicate greater importance. A short list of experts in a field may indicate a higher level of expertise. A short list of friends may indicate more intense or close friendship than a longer list. Are there certain sorts of blessings for which this is also true?


Bird Food

Imagine a sunny day, suddenly turned dark. But it is no cloud that is blocking the sun, and the drops that have started to fall are not rain. There is a hum vibrating the air. You look up to see that the sky is positively filled with birds. A tremendous flock of passenger pigeons is passing overhead, and the flock stretches as far as the eye can see. There are literally millions of birds and it will take hours for the entire flock to pass.

Such was the experience of those who witnessed the passenger pigeon. These birds were possibly the most numerous in the world, yet ingenious men were able to hunt them out of existence. It was the most spectacular human-caused extinction… so far.

Flocks of passenger pigeons were so dense and low flying that they provided obscenely easy hunting. Hunting, of course, is hardly the right word for the wholesale slaughter of the passenger pigeon. Native Americans would bring down birds by simply hurling sticks and rocks into the passing flock. At places, the flocks would fly low enough for long poles to strike birds right out of the air.

The introduction of firearms made the harvesting of pigeons even easier. A single shotgun blast into a thick flock could bring down a great number of the birds. Huge nets were also introduced, capable of catching hundreds or even thousands at a time. These readily killed and captured birds became an important and affordable food source for a great number of people, and commercial operations continually ramped up “production”, taking tens of thousands of birds a day.

Over time, of course, this proved unsustainable. The large-scale hunting of pigeons, particularly when they gathered to breed, caused the population to dwindle from the billions to the millions. Legislation was eventually introduced to try to prevent the eradication of the entire species, but it was ineffective.

The last large nesting happened in 1878, and the hunters were ready. Over the next five months, commercial hunters killed over seven million birds. The few survivors scattered, and breeding all but stopped.  The last confirmed sighting of a wild passenger pigeon was in 1901. It was shot.

Although there were several pigeons at various zoos, captive breeding was unsuccessful. In 1914, Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. The most prolific bird in the world had gone extinct in a remarkably short time.

So what is to be made of this disturbing tale?

A pessimist may look on the demise of the passenger pigeons as a sign of man’s cruel and destructive nature. The practice of blinding captive birds to act as live decoys (aka “stool pigeons”) to draw in other birds, sure seems to make men seem downright evil. And although the pigeon is a spectacular example, there are all sorts of other ways in which we see man wreaking unchecked havoc on our natural world.

An optimist, however, may look at how far we have come in a century. Today, hunters are leaders in conservation efforts. There are several species of animals that are slowly making a comeback from the brink of extinction. Now more than ever, we are beginning to understand the vast power we have to impact nature. As a result, we have the ability to avoid similar tragedies in the future.

A detached economic thinker may view passenger pigeon presents a remarkable real-world example of the tragedy of the commons. Each hunter personally benefited from each bird that he killed, but the whole society shared the loss. This imbalance created the incentive for hunters to take as many birds as they could, even if that meant unsustainable depletion of the entire flock.

Additionally, the demise of the passenger pigeon allows for reflection on seen and unseen economic results. We see that there are no more birds, but what we do not see is the effects that the extinction has on other groups. Farmers, presumably, are not overly upset at the loss of the passenger pigeon. The birds were tremendous agricultural pests. In fact, it has been suggested that the pigeons only reached the height of their population with the introduction of European-style agriculture. Although we have lost a valuable resource in the form of the birds, it is worth considering the positive results for the farmers who are rid of such a numerous menace.

And a maniac may think of the passenger pigeon as a wonderful opportunity to do morally questionable things with science. See, Martha and a number of other specimens have been stuffed or otherwise preserved. Given the state of cloning technology, it is not impossible that the passenger pigeon should be de-extincted. That seems like an awfully expensive project. Perhaps that money should be spent on trying to conserve other species. Maybe that would show that we have learned something from the demise of the passenger pigeon.

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Beer of the week: Coopers Original Pale Ale – Thomas Cooper founded Coopers Brewery in Australia in the 1860’s. There is no reason to think that Thomas is any relation to James Fenimore Cooper. But who knows? This bottle conditioned ale is pale and cloudy. (Although the neon lighting in this picture makes it look a bit odd.) The aroma and flavor are somewhat floral. Overall, it is a delicious and eminently drinkable beer. As something of a bonus, it comes in 12.7 oz bottles. It seems that when Australia went metric, they decided to go up to 375 mL bottles rather than down to .3 L bottles like some countries.

Reading for the week: The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper, Volume 2, Chapter III – This novel was published in 1823, many years before any significant decline in the pigeon population was noted. The pigeon hunt described in this chapter is thoroughly impressive. In the end, a few of the characters come to see how disturbing and unsustainable the practice is. “It’s much better to kill only such as you want, without wasting your powder and lead, than to be firing into God’s creatures in this wicked manner,” says one of the main characters.

Question for the week: If the passenger pigeon could be revived through cloning, should it be done?