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…)

A Cheeky Pint From the Bottle-O

A popular trend in American brewing is packaging beer in 19.2 ounce cans, known as stovepipes. Naturally, the first time that I saw that size, I was somewhat perplexed. And no intuitive explanation for the 19.2 figure presented itself to me.

Of course, the internet had the answer for me: 19.2 American fluid ounces is (approximately) equal to one imperial pint. Because an imperial pint is about one-fifth larger than an American pint, stovepipe cans are popular at sporting events, concerts, and the like, where patrons are keen to minimize time in the beer line.

When I learned that stovepipe cans are actually imperial pints, I had two distinct revelations. First, a scene from George Orwell’s 1984 suddenly made sense to me. Second, Australian drinking habits began to seem (slightly) reasonable.

First, in 1984, there is a scene at a bar in which an old man is perturbed that beer only comes in liter or half-liter glasses. He repeatedly orders a pint, only to be told that the barman–raised after the adoption of the metric system–has never heard of pints, quarts, or gallons. The old man complains that  “a ‘alf litre ain’t enough. It don’t satisfy. And a ‘ole litre’s too much. It starts my bladder running. Let alone the price.” This struck me as odd when I read it long ago. To me, half of a liter has always been more than a pint, not less. In America, a liter is just a bit over two pints. But a liter is somewhat less than two imperial pints; each imperial pint is 0.57 liters or thereabouts. So the old man seems to have a legitimate complaint about his beers being more than two imperial ounces smaller than they used to be.

Second, when I was staying in Australia, I found that bar patrons generally did not buy draft beer by the pint. Rather, they drank rounds of smaller beers. The explanation offered to me was that a pint is a just a bit too large a unit. Being familiar only with American pints, I found this odd. Now that I know the Australian pint is about 19.2 American fluid ounces, the explanation for the smaller beers seems more plausible. (Of course, the people I drank with never had just one round, so ordering smaller beers generally smacked of inefficiency.)

My bemusement on this point was multiplied by the puzzling names for the variously sized smaller beer glasses; Australian glass sizes make Orwell’s Newspeak seem comparably reasonable. All of the sizes are officially in milliliters, but are clearly intended to approximate imperial ounce units (for example, beers of about 7, 10, or 15 fluid ounces are common.) But nobody calls the glasses by their actual (metric) or approximate (imperial) volumes. Rather, Australians employ names such as schooner, pot, or middy. And these names also vary from place to place, making it extra hard to know how much beer one may receive at any given bar across the land. For example, a South Australian in Brisbane may be pleasantly surprised when he orders a schooner, and gets 1.5 times as much beer as he expected. And virtually any traveller to Adelaide would be distressed to order a pint and receive only 15 imperial fluid ounces–five fluid ounces less than an imperial pint and some 1.5 American fluid ounces less than an American pint. Anybody planning on visiting Australian public houses should consult Wikipedia’s helpful chart on the subject.

Finally, although not in the nature of a realization, I wonder why the brewers stopped at 19.2 ounces and didn’t push right up to twenty. The 19.2 figure seems somewhat affected when compared to 20. Twenty is such a fine, round number. And 20 ounce beers are already popular at bars and taprooms across the United States, many of which offer 20 ounce pours.

To recap:

A 19.2 ounce can of beer in America is appreciably more than a half liter and significantly short of a liter. It is also the same as a pint in Australia (with the exception of Adelaide.) It is equal to two pots of beer (in Brisbane or Melbourne) and is larger than a schooner by one-third. And finally, it is (to nobody’s great surprise) 3.2 ounces more than an American pint, and .8 ounces shy of a 20 ounce draft.

Beer of the week: Dragons Milk – This popular bourbon-barrel-aged stout comes from New Holland Brewing Company in a bomber bottle, a popular size for craft beer bottles. At 22 fl. oz., bombers are a fair bit more voluminous than stovepipe cans. But it’s not just size that counts. Dragon’s Milk is 11% alcohol by volume, and the alcohol is clearly noticeable in the taste and aroma. There are also notes of coffee and caramel. Dragon’s Milk is extremely smooth. The whole experience is like a not-too-sweet malted milkshake. It is so rich and boozy that I wouldn’t recommend having much more than one 22 oz. bomber (or a couple American pints or a brace of schooners or a half liter or a few pots…) in one sitting.

Reading of the week: An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language by John Wilkins – The principle purpose of this essay is to propose a universal second language. However, this excerpt discusses the related notion of a universal and rational system of measurement. Although he suggests specific existing units, Wilkins greatly modifies the units so that they are all tenths of the next largest units. He also suggests, but does not press, the notion that we should abandon decimals for octals, because an octal number system is particularly well suited to the mathematical process of bipartition.

Question for the week: What is the best size for a beer?

Post 300!

Three hundred is a significant number. It is the score of a perfect game of ten-pin bowling. It is the number of Israelites who followed Gideon to war against the Midianites. 300 is also the sum of ten consecutive primes (13 + 17 + 19 + 23 + 29 + 31 + 37 + 41 + 43 + 47). Also, as of now, it is the number posts on this blog. And it only took a shade under eight and a half years!

The original plan for this post was to run down a series of statistics:
What nation provided the second most beers of the week? (USA is undoubtedly #1.)
What style of beer was most commonly reviewed? (Pale lager is a good bet.)
What subject tag (history, economics, poetry, etc.) was most used?

But for all the time that I have spent on this site, I never did figure out how to capture and use any of that data. And 300 posts is too daunting a figure for me to manually tally those figures. Either some dedicated fan with more time or more computer knowhow than I have will find those answers, or (more likely) nobody cares enough to pursue them.

What I was able to do, however, is list the authors who wrote at least three of the blog’s readings of the week. Let’s have a look:

Fourteen authors have provided three readings of the week:
Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Frédéric Bastiat, Robert Burns, Homer, Rudyard Kipling, Martin Luther, J.S. Mill, John Milton, Michel de Montaigne, Banjo Paterson, Pliny the Younger, Plutarch, Mark Twain

Notably, all three Mill readings came from On Liberty, the only single work to provide that many readings.

Three authors provided four readings:
Thomas Jefferson, Fred Nietzche, Edgar A. Poe

Jefferson gets credit for the Declaration of Independence. As I recall, the particular excerpt made it through Congress pretty much in its original form.

Two sources provided five weekly readings:
Count Leo Tolstoy, The Bible

I am not really sure how fair it is to count Bible readings. For one thing, the five Bible readings are split three-to-two in favor of the Old Testament.

A single man authored six readings of the week:

Post number 299 gave Plato second place outright.

And, with a total of seven readings of the week, a single author stands above the rest:
William Shakespeare

Despite the fact that many works have provided more than one reading, (such as On Liberty, as noted above,) each Shakespeare, Plato, and Tolstoy reading came from a different work.

What will I do with this information? Not much, I expect. I will probably avoid Shakespeare readings for a while. I will also continue to diversify the pool of authors, particularly by featuring more women and more (relatively) modern thinkers. But mostly I will keep doing what I’ve been doing for the last 300 posts. It’s worked well enough so far.

Here’s to another 300! Although at the current pace, it sure looks like it’ll be more than eight and a half years before I reach post 600.

Beer of the week: King Sue Double IPA – This double IPA comes from Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. in Iowa, a brewery that is very hot right now. Last I checked, BeerAdvocate lists five Toppling Goliath brews in it’s top 50, including the top rated beer overall. On the secondary market, certain Toppling Goliath beers have asking prices approaching four figures.

King Sue, once identified by Business Insider as one of the most highly sought-after beers in the country, is currently ranked forty-ninth on BeerAdvocate. And the hype is not misplaced. King Sue is a very murky pale gold beer, with a huge aroma of mango and pineapple. The flavor also has those tropical fruit notes, together with plenty of malt to round everything out. A special beer for a special occasion.

Reading of the week: Bibliotheca Historica by Diodorus Siculus – In popular culture, the number 300 probably most associated with the Spartans who made the famous last stand against the Persian king Xerxes at Thermopylae. What mostly gets forgotten is the many thousands of other Greeks who fought alongside the Spartans. But “The 300 Spartans, 1,000 additional Lacedaemonians, 3,000 other Peloponnesians, 1,000 Malians, 400 Thebans, 1,000 Phocians, and 1,000 Opuntian Locrians” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. In the face of “not less than one million soldiers” under the command of the invading Persian king, however, what’s a few thousand give or take?

Question for the week: Excepting small primes, what number has the most cultural significance?


Vital Air

Science and beer go together like philosophy and beer. Or art and beer. Or pretzels and beer.

Around the time of the American Revolution, brewing played an important role in the early study of chemistry. Dr. Joseph Priestley was one of the first people to isolate oxygen and identify some of its remarkable properties. He wrote a six-volume work entitled Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air in which he describes a number of different “airs” – “gasses” in modern English – and his experiments with them.

His “fixed air” – our “carbon dioxide” – was readily supplied by a nearby brewery. The fermenting beer provided such a great and steady supply of the gas that it became a favorite subject for experimentation. Dr. Priestley found that in fixed air, “a candle would not burn, and a mouse would have died presently.” He even used an upside-down beer glass for his make-shift gas chamber:

If I want to try whether an animal will live in any kind of air, I first put the air into a small vessel, just large enough to give it room to stretch itself; and as I generally make use of mice for this purpose, I have found it very convenient to use the hollow part of a tall beer-glass… which contains between two and three ounce measures of air. In this vessel a mouse will live twenty minutes or half an hour.

For the purpose of these experiments, it is most convenient to catch the mice in small wire traps, out of which it is easy to take them, and, holding them by the back of the neck, to pass them through the water into the vessel which contains the air. If I expect that the mouse will live a considerable time, I take care to put into the vessel something on which it may conveniently sit, out of reach of the water. If the air be good, the mouse will soon be perfectly at ease, having suffered nothing by its passing through the water. If the air be supposed to be noxious, it will be proper (if the operator be desirous of preserving the mice for further use) to keep hold of their tails, that they may be withdrawn as soon as they begin to show signs of uneasiness; but if the air be throughly noxious, and the mouse happens to get a full inspiration, it will be impossible to do this before it be absolutely irrecoverable.

If that description made you feel bad for the mice, you should know that you are not the first to have that reaction. At least part of the time he was making these experiments, Dr. Priestly was a tutor at the Warrington Academy. A colleague of his at Warrington had a daughter named Anna Laetitia Aikin, later Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who grew up to be a prominent woman of letters. One of her early works was a poem, dedicated to Dr. Priestley, called The Mouse’s Petition. The poem was written from the point of view of a mouse that had been trapped by Dr. Priestley and lamented it’s prospective demise on the alter of scientific research. As the story goes, Anna placed the poem in the trap with the mouse, and when Dr. Priestley found it in the morning, he set the mouse free. Scientists, after all, are not completely heartless.

Beer of the week: Rusty Red Ale – Building on the work of Dr. Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier demonstrated that respiration and combustion are forms of oxidization: oxygen bonding with other elements. Like respiration and combustion, rust forming on iron is a form of oxidization. This red ale is from Wisconsin’s O’so Brewing Company. It pours a dark red-brown with a head that dissipates very quickly. The aroma is mostly of roasted malt. The beer is bready, and the flavor follows. It is pleasant and malty, but I’d like a little more flavor. Even more caramel malt or more hops bitterness. Or both.

Reading of the week: The Mouse’s Petition by Anna Laetitia Barbauld – Barbauld’s narrator mouse makes compelling appeals that are both philosophical and sentimental. The poem also has a line that makes me curious about how intimate the author was with Dr. Priestley’s work. The mouse claims that “The cheerful light, the vital air, / Are blessings widely given.” The term “vital air” was one of the names given to oxygen, so it is possible that Barbauld was making a specific reference to Dr. Priestley’s experiments with different gasses. Also, lest the reader get the wrong idea about the good doctor, Barbauld added a note to this edition of the poem to say that she did not mean to attribute any cruelty to Dr. Priestley, of whom she maintained the highest regard.

Question for the week: The use of animals in scientific research is a touchy subject. Some extremely important discoveries have resulted from the death and suffering of countless animals. Is there anything like a clear line that can be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable animal testing? For example, might we agree that testing cosmetics on animals is never ok, or that testing prosthetics on animals is always ok?

I Don’t Know

When Fanny Price’s cousins in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park learned just how deficient her education had been, they were most unkind.

“Dear mama, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together—or my cousin cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia—or, she never heard of Asia Minor—or she does not know the difference between water-colours and crayons!—How strange!—Did you ever hear anything so stupid?”

When compared to their own education, Fanny’s was woefully inferior.

“I cannot remember the time when I did not know a great deal that she has not the least notion of yet. How long ago it is, aunt, since we used to repeat the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns.” “Yes,” added the other; “and of the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the Heathen Mythology, and all the Metals, Semi-Metals, Planets, and distinguished philosophers.”

I would certainly have some trouble putting the map of Europe together. (Especially around the Balkans.) I also don’t know the principal rivers of Russia or the kings of England. Of the Roman emperors, I can only recount the first handful. But Fanny Price was only ten years old, and from a family of quite limited means; what’s my excuse? Indeed, there are a great many notable holes in my knowledge. Although I am somewhat embarrassed to admit these deficiencies, it is far better to admit them then to pretend that I have learned everything that I can or should. And so, I present a (quite incomplete) list of things that I do not know:

  • How many yards are in a rod, furlong, or mile.
  • The books of the Bible, in order.
  • The constellations and their seasons.
  • How to play a musical instrument.
  • The number and names of the bones of the human body.
  • The meaning of “transcendental”.
  • The presidents of the United States, their vice presidents, and their first ladies.
  • The difference between forfeiture and waiver.
  • A second language (very much in spite of my formal education.)
  • Virtually any modern philosophy.
  • Virtually any Asian or Arabic philosophy.
  • And, of course, there are a great many things that I do not know that I do not know.

Much as Dr. Watson was shocked to learn that Sherlock Holmes was ignorant of the heliocentric theory of the solar system, I imagine that my own ignorance on certain subjects must surely surprise others. I will, I hope, remedy at least a few of these deficiencies in time. If nothing else, I have at least one advantage over Fanny Price’s cousins: I know that I have not reached the end of my education.

“If you are ever so forward and clever yourselves, you should always be modest; for, much as you know already, there is a great deal more for you to learn.”
“Yes, I know there is, till I am seventeen.”

Beer of the week: Sarajevsko Premium – Although I could not positively point it out on a map, Sarajevo is the origin of this Euro lager. The brewery is creatively named Sarajevska Pivara. The beer is very pale, and just a little cloudy. The aroma is like that of most Czech lagers that I’ve had, a bit hoppy and a bit malty. I am always surprised how different European beers taste and smell when compared to similar American beers. Sarajevsko is a fine beer, but could be better. More hops would help, for one thing. And it has a slightly sticky mouthfeel rather than a good, crisp finish.

Reading of the week: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – Without giving too much away, Fanny Price ultimately gets the better of her unkind cousins. And as much as this scene demonstrates Fanny’s rusticities and awkwardness, it shows the thoughtlessness and vanity of her cousins and aunt even more.

Question for the week: What do you not know, even though you know that you should?

A Little Bit of Conversation

One of the great joys of reading widely is seeing how authors and ideas respond to each other. This referencing, refuting, and rephrasing done throughout history that has led some to think of the entire development of literature and philosophy as an ongoing conversation. Take, for example, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. That didactic poem was an exploration of the teachings of Epicurus, who lived and wrote some 300 years before Lucretius. In it, Lucretius writes:

Sweet it is, when on the great sea the winds are buffeting the waters,
to gaze from the land on another’s great struggles;
not because it is pleasure or joy that any one should be distressed,
but because it is sweet to perceive from what misfortune you yourself are free.
Sweet is it too, to behold great contests of war in full array over the plains,
when you have no part in the danger.

Some 1,800 years later, the poetess Charlotte Smith responds Lucretius. She also describes the pleasure of looking watching the sea from a safe spot on the shore, but watching men suffer and die takes all of the sweetness out of it:

The upland shepherd, as reclined he lies
On the soft turf that clothes the mountain brow,
Marks the bright sea-line mingling with the skies;
Or from his course celestial sinking low
The summer sun in purple radiance glow
Blaze on the western waters; the wide scene
Magnificent and tranquil seems to spread
Even over the rustic’s breast a joy serene,
When, like dark plague-spots by the demons shed,
Charged deep with death, upon the waves far seen
Move the war-freighted ships; and fierce and red
Flash their destructive fires–The mangled dead
And dying victims then pollute the flood.
Ah! thus man spoils glorious works with blood!

Where Lucretius perceives the suffering of others as a sweet reminder of our own relative security, Smith sees the suffering of others (particularly the human-inflicted suffering) as a great mar on the otherwise awe-inspiring world.

This reading of Smith as an answer to Lucretius is supported further by her poem The Emigrants. The poem begins on the cliffs of the English coast, facing France, a country in the midst of a bloody revolution. Shortly before encountering refuges from the conflict, the narrator announces:

For never yet could I derive relief;
When my swol’n heart was bursting with its sorrows,
From the sad thought, that others like myself
Live but to swell affliction’s countless tribes!

Again, where Lucretius finds sweetness in knowing that others suffer more than he, Smith derives no relief. In fact, it seems to make her own suffering even worse; not only must she endure her own sorrows, but also the knowledge that others seem to live only to suffer.

Despite these differences in perspective on the afflictions of others, Lucretius and Smith have a similar opinion about what life would be most enjoyable: one of isolation. For Lucretius, this isolation is found in philosophy, where he would “dwell in the calm high places, firmly embattled on the heights by the teaching of the wise.” For Smith, the desired isolation appears to be more literal:

How often do I half abjure Society,
And sigh for some lone Cottage, deep embower’d
In the green woods, that these steep chalky Hills
Guard from the strong South West; where round their base
The Beach wide flourishes, and the light Ash
With slender leaf half hides the thymy turf!—
There do I wish to hide me; well content
If on the short grass, strewn with fairy flowers,
I might repose thus shelter’d.

Nearly two thousand years separate Lucretius and Smith, and yet they each appear to play a part in the ongoing conversation. The common inquiry into the human condition makes each text richer, and the whole of the Western canon that much grander.

Beer of the week: Optimator – This doppelbock comes from Munich’s Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu. It is a pretty, dark brown with a quickly dissipating head of small bubbles. The aroma has hints of ripe, dark fruit. Optimator is not syrupy, exactly, but it is very rich and full. This is a good beer to sip on over a longish period of time; not just because of the 7.5% alcohol content, but also because the flavor opens up a bit as the beer warms.

Reading of the week: The Emigrants by Charlotte Smith – The French Revolution must have been a very perplexing event for the English. To side with the monarchy was to side with England’s perennial adversary. To side with the revolutionaries was to oppose the very notion of divine right. But the countless victims of such a regime change, no matter their allegiance, are worthy of our pity.

Question of the week: What works do you see as responses to earlier writings?

Woman’s Ornament

In my experience, people tend toward one of two extremes when analyzing the writings of the ancients (and, to varying degrees, those of other bygone eras.) The one extreme is to assume that the authors, as products of a primitive time, have nothing to offer. We are so much more enlightened now; all of the ancients must be regarded as quite ignorant. The other extreme is to ignore the faults of the ancients, or, if they cannot be ignored, to make every possible contortion to explain them away. The ancients could not err when it came to thinking because, as Homer’s heroes could single-handedly lift boulders that a dozen modern men could hardly budge, the philosophers of old possessed intellectual powers far beyond those of any modern genius.

Take, for example, the treatment of women by Aristotle and Plato. Our modern understanding of the differences between men and women is very much at odds with the apparent opinions of Aristotle and Socrates on the subject. What do we do in the face of these problematic ancient texts?

One approach is to throw out Aristotle and Plato entirely. Sexism is so embedded in their thought, some opine, that their writing can have no value in our modern world. Even as early as the 15th century, William Caxton wrote that “if [Plato] had made fault in writing of women, he ought not, ne should not, be believed in his other dictes and sayings.”* (As we will see shortly, Caxton does not actually find fault with Plato’s treatment of women.) Likewise, Aristotle was extremely wrong about the role of the female in sexual reproduction, so his philosophy on humans generally can’t be trusted. These “dead white men” are so out of touch with our modern knowledge and sensibilities that they can hardly be considered authoritative on any philosophical question.

(I pause to note that the bland dismissal of these thinkers as “dead white men” always amuses me. The ad hominem attack itself adopts the language of racism, implying that the value of the authors is somehow related to their skin color. At the same time, it ignores the fact that classifying Aristotle and Plato as “white” should certainly raise a few eyebrows.)

On the other side, there are those who would wave away the apparent sexism of the ancients. The easiest way to do that is to simply call them a product of their times and move on. But some offer more convoluted explanations in an effort to keep the ancients from ever being “wrong”. Caxton wrote, “I cannot think that so true a man and so noble a philosopher as [Plato] was should write otherwise than truth.” And because Plato must have been right, Caxton was forced to come up with a way to reconcile the apparently sexist writings of Plato with the more enlightened views of his own day. He did so by concluding that if Plato ever said anything derogatory about women, he was only speaking of Greek women. “For I wot well, of whatsoever condition women be in Greece, the women of [England] be right good, wise, pleasant, humble, discreet, sober, chaste, obedient to their husbands, true, secret, steadfast, ever busy, and never idle, attemperate in speaking, and virtuous in all their works—or at least should be so.” So if Plato says, for example, that teaching a woman to write is multiplying evil upon evil, that may true of ancient Greek women, not of modern English women.

A more modern defense of that same type is to find esoteric meanings that are different from the ancients’ explicit meanings. So when Aristotle, in Book I of his Politics, says that “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he actually means nothing of the sort. The line is actually a quotation from Sophocles’s play Ajax. In the play, Ajax has gone insane by the time he utters the line. Obviously, Aristotle would have been familiar both with the play and the context of the quotation. So when Aristotle says “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he is slyly hinting that only a mad man would actually believe what he is saying. See? Aristotle was never sexist in the first place!

As usual, I favor the course of moderation. We should neither discard the ancients (or any author, really) out of hand, nor should we engage in mental gymnastics to defend the position that any author is always right. There is untold value in studying our intellectual predecessors, but nothing is gained by accepting their writings uncritically.

Beer of the week: Furious IPA – This aggressively-hopped ale from Minnesota’s Surly Brewing Company pours with a nice fluffy head. The piney hops certainly dominate, but there is a good balance with caramel malt notes. The label says that this beer defies categorization, but the IPA label seems right to me.

Reading of the week: Hymn To Aphrodite by Sappho – Here’s a crazy idea: if you want to know the ancients’ views on women, how about reading the poetry of an ancient woman? This is the only complete poem that has survived from Greece’s greatest poetess.

Question for the week: Is there any extant writing older than, say, 1,000 years that is actually not worth studying? Is it possible that anything has survived that long without some serious merit?

*Caxton actually discusses the sayings of Socrates as if Socrates himself was the author of the Socratic dialogues. I have substituted Plato into the quotations to give Caxton the benefit of the doubt; surely he meant to discuss what Socrates said and what Plato wrote.