Best of All Possible Blog Posts

Aside from his work in mathematics–and lending his name to a brand of butter cookie–Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is best known for his philosophical optimism. He opined that ours is the best of all possible worlds. To oversimplify:
1. God, being good, chose to create the best world.
2. God, being omniscient, was able to evaluate all of the infinite facts and truths of all of the infinite possible universes to determine which is most perfect.
3. God, having determined to make the best possible world and having determined which world that would be, created this world.

Like God, people always act in pursuit of good. As Leibniz wrote in his Discourse on Metaphysics, God’s first decree on human nature “is that men should always do, although freely, that which appears to be the best.” This tracks with Aristotle’s claim at the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics that “every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good.”

Unlike God, however, people are not omniscient, and therefore cannot infallibly determine what is best. “Each soul knows the infinite, knows all, but confusedly. As in walking on the sea-shore and hearing the great noise that it makes, I hear the individual sounds of each wave, of which the total sound is composed, but without distinguishing them.” Consequently, although we always act in the way that appears best, we very often misjudge what is best and/or how to achieve our objective. Without perfect knowledge of what is best, we “must often be content with the simple twilight of probability.”

So what can we do to improve our probability of identifying what is best and most accurately aiming our actions toward it?

One possibility (not suggested by Leibniz, to my knowledge) is to conserve rational energy by minimizing unnecessary decision-making. Have you ever come home from a particularly difficult day at work and felt like you simply could not decide what to have for dinner? This all-too-common experience is the result of an important reality: decision-making takes energy. And rational energy is limited. If you spend all day making important business decisions or solving problems, it shouldn’t be surprising if, at the end of the day, you lack the energy to make even mundane choices such as what to eat.

By reducing the number of choices one must make in a day, one may conserve some of that precious decision-making energy. Supreme Court Justice David Souter famously ate the same lunch every day: yogurt and an apple. Steve Jobs’ constant turtleneck and jeans combination was part of a conscious effort to reduce decision fatigue. By eliminating trivial decisions, one frees up brain power for more important issues. Hopefully, by saving mental energy, we can make the best possible decisions in this best of all worlds.

Beer of the week: Alter Ego – Some people even drink the same beer all of the time. Once you know what you like, why not stick with it? No regular reader will be surprised to know that I enjoy the decision-making that goes into picking what beer to drink. So even though I have had various “go-to beers” over the years, I would never commit to a single brew for long. Alter Ego is a hazy, orangish IPA from Tree House Brewing Company. Its rocky head hangs around for quite a while. The aroma is quite fruity, and the flavor is of tropical fruit with a decent malt body.

Reading of the week: A Letter of Leibniz – In this excerpt, Leibniz uses two synchronized clocks as a metaphor for how one’s soul and body can be perfectly in sync, even though physical and non-physical bodies cannot act on each other. In typical Leibniz style, he ends the passage with the claim that he has more profound proofs, but the clock metaphor will suffice.

Question of the week: Were Leibniz and Aristotle correct in asserting that every human act is aimed at some good?


Partly Cloudy

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Eva and Matt toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund. Now that the campaign is no longer live, I encourage readers to participate by reaching out in the comments or through the “Make a Recommendation” page.

My wife recently asked me why I wear the same pajamas in winter that I do in summer. I replied, “because I live indoors.” William Faulkner once complained that “there are no seasons at all any more, with interiors artificially contrived at sixty degrees in summer and ninety degrees in winter, so that mossbacked recidivists like me must go outside in summer to escape cold and in winter to escape heat.”

It is not merely our living spaces that have lost their seasonality. For many of us, particularly those of us who work in offices, the most pronounced way that the seasons affect our work-day is in our commute. I, for example, wake and return home in the dark during the winter. The character of my work, however, remains the same year-round. I do not exactly envy the landscaper who annually parks his lawn mower and tunes up his snowblower, but at least the seasons prevent his work from being entirely monotonous.

Schoolchildren, of course, know the value of the seasons. In the winter, the prospect of an unplanned day off of school is truly magical. And, although they may lament the end of sledding and snow days, a child’s enthusiasm for summer is without parallel. Aside from vacation as a respite from schoolwork, summer weather is all but universally more conducive to play.

We adults should be better at living seasonally, in two ways at least: eating and playing.

Eating seasonally means eating fresh and eating local, both of which have clear benefits. Eating local produce means less waste: less spoilage, less delivery fuel, and less packaging. It also means supporting local farms and markets. A fresher more local diet is also much more salubrious. Vegetables are most nutritious when they are most ripe, and vegetables that must be shipped a long distance must be picked well before they are ready.

Play is, perhaps, our closest tie to the seasons. With our most of livelihoods protected from the elements, it is only our recreation that still relies on the weather. Consider two examples:

1. A friend of mine, an avid alpine skier, (very) often comments that winter is his favorite season. While others focus on the ways in which winter weather interferes with their otherwise year-round activities–such as commuting–he focuses on the ways that winter weather allows him to play in a way that he cannot most of the year. And once the last of the snow melts, he breaks out his croquet set, yet again playing in a way that conduces to the season. And, although I gather that he does not eat especially well, he drinks local, seasonal beers.

2. Another friend lives in central Florida. He golfs every weekend, year-round. His dinner menu is virtually unchanging for 51 weeks of the year. (Although his vacation diet, I understand, is very local and very seasonal.) He drinks the same macro-brew every night. Even though his world appears to be without seasons, they still affect his play. As an avid sports fan, he breaks up the calendar, not into winter, spring, summer, and fall, but into football, hockey, and baseball seasons. The weather under the dome of Tropicana Field may always be the same, but the baseball season is still dictated by the weather of the rest of the country. His play remains seasonal despite his removal from seasonal weather.

Faulkner’s complaint about our loss of seasonality is as true today as when he published it in 1962–if not more so. But many of us are starting to question the homogenization of our lives, and getting back to seeing the seasons as part of our own natural cycles.

Beer of the week: Partly Cloudy IPA – Part of recognizing the role of the seasons in our lives is not wishing away inclement weather. Without cloudy skies, clear skies would lose meaning. Virginia’s Solace Brewing Company produces this cloudy IPA. The aroma is of citrusy hops with grass undertones. Although fairly bitter, I don’t think the fruity hops notes are as prominent in the flavor as in the smell. Partly Cloudy is a nicely balanced, not overly-hopped beer.

Reading of the week: Song of Solomon, Chapter 2 – Beautiful though a crisp winter day may be, the coming of spring always evokes strong positive emotions. “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away,” writes Solomon. “For, lo, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth.” (By the way, I picked the King James Version for this reading. Is it the most poetic translation? No. The most literal? Not likely. I picked it because the KJV has “turtle” for “turtle dove”, which conjures images of trees budding in the spring sun, while flocks of shelled reptiles precariously perch on their branches and “sing”. I find that very amusing.)

Question for the week: How do the seasons affect you? Do you make any effort to embrace each season?


Real Men Write Poetry

If you are reading this, you have probably never been “in the fell clutches of circumstance.” You’ve likely never suffered “the bludgeonings of chance.” And odds are, you haven’t been engulfed by a metaphorical night as “black as the pit from pole to pole.”

If you have not been tested to the utmost, how can you know whether your soul is unconquerable? Or whether you really are the master of your own fate? And, more relevant for our present purposes, what good is the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley?

In his youth, Henley suffered from tuberculosis. He had a leg amputated when he was sixteen. Later, rather than submitting to the amputation of his remaining foot, Henley traveled to Scotland to be a patient of a doctor later to be known as “the father of modern surgery,” Joseph Lister. Lister’s antiseptic treatments saved Henley’s foot. During his three-year course of treatment, Henley wrote and published his famous “hospital poems,” including Invictus. Although he eventually lost the battle with tuberculosis, a disease that caused him constant pain and cost him his leg, Henley had spent his whole life with his head unbowed.

Invictus is also associated with Nelson Mandela and his time at the infamous Robben Island prison. Sentenced to life imprisonment, and consequently with no obvious hope of ever again being a free man, Mandela supposedly recited Invictus to fellow inmates. Even in a cage, Mandela remained the captain of his own soul. (As an aside, the CIA had a hand in Mandela’s arrest. So there’s your fun fact for the day.)

For men such as Henley and Mandela, Invictus appears to affirm their mettle. The poem’s value, however, is not as an affirmation, but as a bulwark. The poem is not a boast about one’s fortitude and strength of character, but a brace against the bludgeonings of chance. Just as The Quitter by Robert W. Service helped Douglas Mawson overcome the compounded difficulties of being sick and alone in the uncharted antarctic wilderness, Invictus has served as a source of inspiration for those in fell circumstances. It would behoove us all to study poems such as Invictus while we are relatively safe and comfortable, so that we can call them to mind if and when we must face true suffering.

Beer of the week: Official by Bell’s Brewery – This hazy wheat IPA pours with a white, rocky head. It has a very faint aroma, with a hint of grass. Notes of peach are followed by a dry finish and nice wheat notes.

Reading of the week: Invictus by William Ernest Henley – This poem also lent its name to the most successful rugby movie ever made. On the eve of the Rugby World Cup Final, it is worth a revisit. (By the way, this poem uses the adjective “fell”–meaning “terrible” or “ferocious”–to describe the “clutches of circumstance.” It is the only time I can think of where that adjective has been used to describe anything other than a “swoop.”)

Question for the week: In case of emergency, you may stock up physical needs such as canned foods, candles, and bottled water for disaster. But how do you prepare for your mental well-being?


Play-Fighting

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Cole 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.

Natural affinities exist between dogs and men. We love them, they love us. They are our companions, our pets, and–as in the case of sheepdogs or bird dogs–our colleagues. But what about dogs makes them our friends?

Spiritedness, according to psychotherapist (and dog-lover) Gary Borjesson, is central to friendship. In his book Willing Dogs & Reluctant Masters, Borjesson writes that our spiritedness, the “feisty, domineering part of our souls… makes us friendly.” It is, he claims, the spiritedness of dogs and their owners that links the two in friendship. But I wonder if Borjesson’s insight is as universal as it seems. He relies heavily on Aristotle, Socrates, and his own experience, resources that are exclusively and unapologetically masculine. It makes sense that male-male friendships (like friendships with dogs) are characterized by spiritedness–and the play-fighting and competition it engenders. But is that also the case in friendships with and between women?

Little boys seem to exemplify friendship through spiritedness. They are forever going on small adventures, fighting mock battles, and inventing new games. Their spiritedness leads them to compete, and their competition breeds friendship.

All of my closest male-male friendships from childhood through college were characterized by competition and play-fighting. At college, my friends and I played every intramural sport on offer, stared at video game screens until our eyes were dry and strained, and even tried to “keep score” in our classes.

(Very rarely, we also played drinking games. More often than not, we simply drank while discussing great books and great ideas. Arguably, such conversations were more competitive than any drinking game.)

Every male-female friendship of mine, however, has lacked any prevailing sense of competitiveness. And it is my sense that spiritedness is not at the heart of female friendship the way it is for men. It is widely acknowledged that girls are generally more cooperative and less competitive than boys. And while boys who dislike competition often have a hard time making friends, I never observed that that about girls. Tug-of-war and such mindless competition may be enough to cement friendship with a boy or a dog, but I get the sense that friendship with girls is more nuanced. Perhaps something less aggressive than spiritedness is at the heart of girls’ friendships.

Spiritedness is not a uniquely masculine trait; don’t get me wrong. As Kipling famously recognized, “the female of the species is more dangerous than the male.” I’ve known and admired many very spirited girls and women. It merely appears to me that the friendship of women is less spirited (though no less ardent) than the friendship of men. But, like Aristotle, Plato, and Borjesson, I am out of my depth in opining what makes women’s friendships tick.

Reading of the week: Eulogy of the Dog by George G. Vest – This famous oration was actually part of Vest’s closing arguments at the end of a jury trial. His client was suing the man who killed his hunting dog. The argument was evidently persuasive; the jury returned a verdict in favor of Vest’s client. Borjesson, “with all due respect to” Vest, claims that if dogs were truly as Vest described them, they would be “too undiscriminating, too foolish and lacking in self respect to be friends.”

Beers of the week: Castaway IPA – Kona may have started as a Hawaiian Brewery, but this particular bottle was brewed in New Hampshire. Castaway is one of Kona’s delicious IPAs. It pours with a creamy head, and smells of bready malts and prominent, but not overpowering hops. Very well balanced, very delicious.

Question for the week: Is spiritedness the lynchpin of friendship?


10,000 Hours of Drinking

Occasionally, upon witnessing some great athletic performance, hearing some beautiful music, or viewing some astounding work of art, I think to myself, “wouldn’t it be great to have some discernible talent?”

Of course pure, raw talent is exceptionally rare. For the most part, any remarkable performance is the culmination of an immense amount of work. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the the 10,000 Hour Rule, the idea that greatness (in performing arts, computer programming, or whatever) requires 10,000 of practice.

But 10,000 hours of practice is not simply 10,000 hours of practice. It is also 10,000 of not doing something else. Every hour in the gym, the library, or the studio is an hour not spent with family, or relaxing, or anything else. The sacrifices made to achieve greatness are more than the 10,000 hours of practice, they are also the 10,000 not not practicing. We can see the hours of training, but what we can’t see may be more important in the long run.

Beer of the week: Green – The brewers at Tree House Brewing Company must have put in their 10,000 hours because Tree House is one of the hottest names in beer. Green is one of their many renowned IPAs. Green is cloudy, practically muddy, and pours with a big, rocky head. The aroma is hop-forward with some tropical fruit notes. The beer is smooth and creamy with hints of citrus and pineapple and a lingering taste of orange. Green is an excellent IPA.

Reading of the week: First Sorrow by Franz Kafka – I almost wrote that this very short story is about a trapeze artist, but I am never sure what Kafka stories are really about. The main character of the story is a trapeze artist who “never came down from his trapeze by night or day . . . from a desire to perfect his skill.” That’s one way to rack up 10,000 hours quickly.

Question for the week: Can greatness coexist with balance? Or must the great (in any field) have some off-setting deficiency, such as in family life?


B&T Goes to Cornell

I am pleased to announce that I have signed up for a course in beer tasting from Cornell University. Although I practically minored in beer drinking as an undergrad, this is an actual class from an Ivy League school. The course focuses on the differences in the myriad styles of beer, and how to apply a consistent set of criteria to evaluate and review them.

Shocking as it may be, however, Cornell is not free. And so, I have decided to crowdfund my tuition. I struggled with this decision because it feels frivolous and conceited to ask people to put their hard-earned money toward my hobby. But after a lot of consideration, I decided that there are good reasons to start a crowdfunding campaign.

For one thing this blog is not just my hobby. There are people out there who genuinely enjoy BeerAndTrembling. And I know for a fact that some people are actually excited to support this blog and contribute toward a class that will improve it.

Moreover, the crowdfunding campaign is not solely about the money. Hopefully, the crowdfunding platform will introduce BeerAndTrembling to a new audience. It may also inspire readers, old and new, to become involved in the blog through various “perks”, including the right to choose readings or beers to be featured in future blog posts. Plus, I am going to share my notes with everybody who donates, so that everybody who is interested can have access to Cornell’s expertise without Cornell’s price tag.

So check out the crowdfunding campaign here: BeerAndTrembling’s IndieGoGo Campaign

Make a donation, share the campaign, go read some good books, and cheers!

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.

Beer of the week: Pinch of Grace – This beer is a perfect example of why I need this class. I feel completely incapable of writing competently about this beer. Pinch of Grace is an IPA with citrus peels and vanilla from Two Brothers Brewing Company in Illinois. Based on that description, I didn’t know whether to expect a creamsicle flavor or a hoppy IPA.  But I got neither. It was neither as sweet nor as hoppy as I expected. As it warmed, the vanilla opened up a bit, but I don’t think I would have guessed that vanilla was an ingredient. I rather enjoyed Pinch of Grace, but it sure tastes unusual.

Reading of the week: The Man with the Twisted Lip by Arthur Conan Doyle – Not only did I struggle with whether to start a crowdfunding campaign, I also struggled with this reading. The excerpt that I picked for reading of the week totally spoils the story, and spoiling a detective story seems especially gauche. On the other hand, the story is over a century-and-a-quarter old and just seemed perfect to pair with this blog post. So just consider this your spoiler warning.

Question for the week: Are there any additional “perks” you would that you think would get donations?


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:
Plato

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?