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?


Epic Triple Peal

Somebody recently told me that this blog is too esoteric. This post is probably the extreme limit in that respect. But this week’s reading and beer were specially requested by Micah after he made a generous contribution toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund, so if you don’t like it, take it up with him. 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.

[The following excerpt was lately discovered in the archives of the United States Classics Academy (USCA). It is evidently post-Homeric in origin, but there is no consensus as to its ultimate origin.]

Sing in me, O Muse, of the triple peals of thunder that echoed through Ilium as cunning Ulysses and Teukros, son of Telamon, breached the gates of Troy.

One night, seven years into the Daanan’s siege, Ulysses devised a plan for a two-man raid with stealthy Teukros, to the very heart of the walled city, to leave their marks on the castle’s central column. To do so, the two Argives would need to pass through several gates, and evade watchmen of uncommon military prowess.

But Artemis, goddess of the hunt, was displeased with Teukros. She had blessed many and more of his arrows on hunts beyond number, but before this daring raid, he had made her no offering. Therefore, she shrouded the moon with clouds and obscured the ground with fog, so that Teukros and cunning Ulysses could not tell which of Ilium’s twelve gates they approached, whether it was one of the six front gates or the six back.

[There is a large lacuna in the text at this point. It appears from later summaries that Ulysses had the better of the early exchanges with the Trojan guards, eventually setting up Teukros for an attack on the final gates. However, a remarkably accurate spear throw by Rhesus of Thrace scattered the Greeks. Rhesus then ran the Greeks all around the city before finally returning to a strategic defensive position.]

As was the old standard positioning in those days, godlike Lycophontes and Rhesus stood together near the third back gate, in the southeast corner of the city. Teukros, drew his mighty bow and reignited the stalled raid with an incredible, partly-obstructed shot at Rhesus. The shaft glanced harmlessly off of his shining armor, but accomplished its goal of unsettling the defenders.

[Another lengthy lacuna during which Teukros evidently led the attack, with the skirmish again circling most of the way around Troy.]

Teukros urged cunning Ulysses through the fourth back gate, and crossed through himself. As if to show his approval of the heroes’ bold feat, Zeus loosed a tremendous peal of thunder.

[Another lacuna.]

Teukros rushed mighty Ulysses onward, and through the penultimate gate before the castle’s central column. Rhesus, stationed by the gate, provided little obstacle for the Argive raiders. Teukros struck him a blow more deft than powerful, and sent him reeling. Teukros, with bow drawn to prevent any attacks from the rear, backed through the gate as Zeus again made the very ground quake with a mighty peal of thunder.

[Another lacuna.]

Within the city Rhesus, great Eioneus’ son, and godlike Lycophontes were divided. Brave Lycophontes was now the only one standing between the Argives and their objective, but was utterly incapable of stoping the Greeks as they rushed toward the last gate before the center of the castle. Out of deference for his elder, Teukros gave way for Ulysses to cross the final threshold first, and as he followed, a third and far the loudest peal of thunder enveloped the night.

Ulysses struck the castle’s central column with his sword to make his mark on the very heart of Troy. Teukros, to show his skill a final time, drew his bow again and loosed a shaft at the column. So straight was his shot that the arrowhead buried itself in a masonry joint and the feathered shaft stuck out from the column for all to see.

As victors, though victors only of a small game in the scheme of the monumental war, Ulysses and Teukros returned to their black-prowed ships for a well-earned bowl of wine. While they were out raiding, however, Telemonian Ajax had consumed all of their wine. Ulysses and Teukros would have to settle for beer.

[End.]

Beer of the week: Red Stripe – When I drank this Jamaican lager regularly, the bottles were twelve ounces and had painted labels. Now the bottles are 11.2 ounces and the labels are plastic stickers. In those days, I also thought the beer was better. It is a very pale and clear lager, with an aroma primarily of adjunct grains. The flavor follows: adjunct grains with little hops to speak of, and a slightly sticky finish. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Reading of the week: Expert Croquet Tactics by Keith F. Wylie, Article 2. The First Break – In this book, probably the most authoritative text on croquet tactics ever written, Wylie “leave[s] behind the world of everyday croquet, with its missed roquets and blobbed hoops” to explore what the very best croquet players should do under ideal conditions. This particular section may explain some of what happened during the lacunae in the story above.

Question for the week: What was the final score in the game of Ulysses and Teukros v. Rhesus and Lycophontes?

 


Random Enough

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Mimi and Gavin 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.

I take for granted that the law of cause and effect are inexorable. Even in very complicated circumstances, it seems obvious that an effect is dictated by its cause(s). Imagine flipping a coin. If we knew the starting position of the coin, the force of the toss, the angular momentum, the air resistance, and dozens of other factors, we could accurately calculate the result every time. The way the coin lands is not random. Quite the opposite; it is inevitable.

This premise is taken to its extreme by the warrior monks of The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker:

What comes before determines what comes after. Dünyain monks spent their lives immersed in the study of this principle, illuminating the intangible mesh of cause and effect that determined every happenstance and minimizing all that was wild and unpredictable. Because of this, events always unfolded with granitic certainty in Ishual. More often than not, one knew the skittering course a leaf would take through the terrace groves. More often than not, one knew what another would say before he spoke. To grasp what came before was to know what would come after. And to know what would come after was the beauty that stilled, the hallowed communion of intellect and circumstance—the gift of the Logos.

We are inclined to call coin tosses or the movement of falling leaves “random”, but they move in ways that would be completely predictable if we only knew all of the inputs. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “if we know the cause, we do not call it chance; but if we do not know it, we say it was produced by chance.” The path of a falling leaf would be knowable if we only knew all of the forces at work: the directions and speeds of the breezes as they swirled about the tree, the weight distribution of the leaf, and hundreds of other considerations. The forces at work dictate with certainty the leaf’s path.

But unlike the Dünyain monks of Bakker’s fantasy world, we ordinary humans can never calculate the result of a coin toss or the path of a leaf in the breeze. We can get better at predicting certain things based on experience, but the vast majority of the springs and gears that control the movements of our world are beyond our ken. So even if the monks are correct in their determinism, even if the result of every coin toss is set in stone from the instant the coin is released, our own limited knowledge of what comes before makes it impossible to know what will come after. The world may not be truly random, but it is random enough for our purposes.

Beer of the week: Coors Light – This week, we are pairing The Darkness That Comes Before with “the (Coors) Light I drank during.” The can’s famous blue-when-cold mountains (as seen in the above image) may officially represent the Rockies, but to me they will forever be the Yimaleti Mountains of Northwest Eärwa. (Is it me, or is “Yimaleti” a pretty obvious play on “Himalaya”?) Coors Light is very carbonated and crystal clear. It’s aroma is faint, but not the least bit surprising. The beer is smooth and crisp, with just a hint of lingering stickiness. It is refreshing, drinkable, and (more than any coin toss) predictable.

Reading of the week:  Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, Democritus – Democritus believed that all matter was made up of atoms, and that these atoms, once set in motion by the vortex of the universe, impassively and inexorably collided to create all of matters varying forms. He believed that matter would decay just as inevitably, as the atoms continued to be moved and move each other in turn, in the eternal cycle of causes and effects. Diogenes makes Democritus sound almost like a Dünyain monk himself. Democritus (presumably by accurately perceiving causes and effects overlooked by others) “foretold certain future events” and made what appeared to be impossibly accurate observations.

By the way, The Darkness That Comes Before is not the reading of the week because it is over 500 pages long and is still under copyright. However, I recommend that any fan of fantasy go check it out from the local library. Bakker engages in some very ambitious world-building, and is not shy about throwing the reader right into the deep end. I think some things are a bit too clearly based on real events, religions, etc., but the whole product is quite entertaining.

Question for the week: “The skittering course a leaf would take through the terrace groves” is one thing, but to “kn[o]w what another would say before he spoke” is much more complicated. While the leaf is only subject to simple physics, it seems that the mind is subject to much more complex and varied inputs. Even so, are our thoughts determined by cause and effect just surely as physical phenomena are?


Hope and Prey

This is the twenty-ninth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXIX: Voyage of the Beagle

The August issue of National Geographic Magazine has an article about the use of pesticides to poison wildlife in Africa. It is bleak. It seems that some people are poisoning lions and hyenas in retaliation for and prevention of livestock depredation. Poachers and dirt farmers poison elephants and rhinoceroses. And various animals are poisoned to be sold as “bush meat” for human consumption. (Eating poisoned meat doesn’t sound especially safe, but I suppose that if you don’t tell the buyer how the kill was made…) And, predictably, there are tremendous wildlife causalities in the form of collateral damage. Vultures, in particular, are likely to die from eating poisoned carrion.

Driving this disturbing practice is a conflict as old as humanity: competition. A growing human population competes with predators and agricultural pests for resources. It is easy on this side of the Atlantic and this side of a desk job to condemn the killing of lions; but what must life be like for a shepherd whose livelihood is threatened by predators? How many of his sheep must he be willing to lose before he attempts to stop the loses once and for all? And what weapon can he use that is more effective and less dangerous to himself than pesticide? Obviously, using pesticides to poison endangered species is a disgusting and irresponsible practice, but it seems like a natural step in man’s perpetual conflict with the natural world.

When Europeans first came to the Americas, indiscriminate destruction of wildlife was part of the norm as well. Charles Darwin described how early 19th-century South American ranchers hunted pumas (also also commonly known as cougars, mountain lions, panthers, or catamounts): “In an open country, it is first entangled with the bolas, then lazoed, and dragged along the ground till rendered insensible. At Tandeel (south of the Plata), I was told that within three months one hundred were thus destroyed. In Chile they are generally driven up bushes or trees, and are then either shot, or baited to death by dogs.”

By the beginning of the last century, pumas were all but eliminated everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States. The only puma population left in the eastern US was the critically endangered Florida panther. With such a depleted population, the genetic problems associated with inbreeding have become pronounced in the Florida panthers.

Conservation efforts are underway in both Kenya and Florida. Certain pesticides have been taken off of the market in Kenya, and locals have been hired as rangers and conservationists. In Florida, authorities have released female pumas from Texas to expand the gene pool and put in nighttime speed reduction zones, special roadsides, headlight reflectors, and rumble strips to reduce vehicular collisions with pumas. But the fates of the African lion and the Florida panther are anything but certain. And they will remain uncertain until humans become more mindful of the wide-reaching effects of their actions. As a conservationist quoted in the National Geographic article put it, “wildlife management is people management.”

By the way, tomorrow is the first day of puma (cougar) hunting in Alberta, Canada. The debate about whether sport hunting (together with the licensing fees and game lands management) contribute to healthier and more sustainable animal populations rages on. But Alberta’s got enough of the big cats to get along even if the hunting quota is filled. Assuming those setting the quotas know their business.

Beer of the week: Moosehead Lager – Is there any hunting trophy more iconic than a mounted head? And man, do moose have big heads! From Canada’s oldest independent brewery comes this standard macro lager. It is golden, clear, and fizzy. Neither the taste nor the aroma are anything special, but the little extra hint of malt at the finish makes Moosehead more than just serviceable; it’s actually pretty good. Oh, and this can was among the last to feature the old logo; the company changed it’s packaging this spring.

Reading of the week: The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin – This excerpt from Chapter XII describes the puma and some of the birds of South America. It is a good example of Darwin’s writing as a naturalist rather than theorist.

Question for the week: Is it possible that the only way to save the African lion and other endangered species is to adopt neo-Malthusian methods? That is, can we only save these animals by taking affirmative steps to reduce the human population?


Trending Up

This is the fourteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XIV: Don Quixote, Cervantes

In the preface to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain does not profess to know the laws or customs of Arthurian England. However, he asserts that whatever the laws and customs were in the sixth century, they must necessarily have been worse than those that exist today. “One is quite justified in inferring that whatever one of these [modern] laws or customs was lacking in that remote time, its place was competently filled by a worse one.” Society, he seems to say, necessarily improves over time.

This idea is seconded by the title character Hank Morgan. Hank finds the people of sixth century England to be boorish, gullible, superstitious, and stupid. (Even, we must take it, when compared to the people of nineteenth century Connecticut.) He reports that among the knights of the round table, there were not enough brains to bait a fish-hook. Society must have come a long way indeed if the cream of medieval society were so much dumber than people today.

As to Twain’s apparent belief in the perpetual progress of society, Don Quixote de La Mancha would certainly disagree. Don Quixote perceived that society had declined since the time of Arthur rather than progressed. The time of knights-errant was an era of men who were brave and true, and faithful to their lovers and their God. Since that time, however, society generally descended cockering and excess. How can society as a whole be better off when the upstanding knights-errant have been replaced by people soft, indulgent, and deceitful?

And as to Hank Morgan’s claim that people are smarter now, he seems to confuse intelligence with knowledge. He thinks that because he knows the formula for gun powder and the dates of certain eclipses, he is more intelligent than those who lack that specific knowledge. But it is foolish to conflate the possession of certain facts with total intellectual capacity. (And it should not be taken for granted that memorizing the dates of celestial events at least back to the sixth century is a sign of intelligence rather than a sign of unhealthy fixation.) If Hank Morgan is smarter than King Arthur because he can build a lightning rod, is he also smarter than Newton, Galileo, or Aristotle for the same reason?

At any rate Twain hints that Hank himself is not as smart as he thinks. Hank fancies himself something of a connoisseur of chromolithographs, an popular form of colored print. But Hank is quite critical of a “new artist” called Raphael who did a number of well-circulated chromos, clearly unaware that the prints are copies of Raphael’s paintings and that the artist lived and died more than 300 years earlier.

Beer of the week: Supper Club – This lager from Wisconsin’s Capital Brewing Company is slightly hazy, with a nice malty flavor and aroma. It is not very hopped, just a pleasant, bready lager. There is something to be said for simple, grain-heavy midwestern fare.

Reading of the week: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – In this passage, our hero explains to some fellow travelers what it is to be a knight-errant. They, of course, perceive him to be insane. (As an interesting aside, this translation uses the archaic adjective “wood” meaning “insane.” Coincidently, near the beginning of A Connecticut Yankee, the narrator reads an old tale about Sir Lancelot in which a giant, terrified by the brave knight “ran away as he were wood.” Twain includes a note explaining that “wood” means “demented”.)

Question for the week: Does human society have a generally upward trajectory? Or generally downward? Or is there any discernible trend at all?


Crazy Cowboy Categories

This is the eleventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XI: Origin of Species, Darwin

Beer used to be an extremely local product, made with local ingredients and techniques. As a result, each region had its own styles, but few people had access to a wide range of different beers. As more beers have gotten wider distribution, people have attempted systematic categorization of beers. Here is my taxonomy for the beer of the week:

Kingdom – Beverage
Phylum – Fermented drinks
Class – Beer
Order – Lager
Family – American Adjunct Lager
Genus – Malt Liquor
Species – Crazy Cowboy American Lager

Although “malt liquor” is not on the can, there is good reason to think this is a proper identification. For one thing, I have only seen it sold in individual 1.5 pint cans, rather than in more traditionally sized units or in six-packs. Also, the price was $0.99 (before tax) for 24 oz. And although the alcohol content does not appear on the label, Untappd has it listed as 5.6% abv. Super cheap, relatively high-alcohol beer? This one could probably have been categorized before the can was even opened. Once it was poured, no doubt remained.

Beer of the week: Crazy Cowboy American Lager – This is a clear gold beer with some slightly sour aroma. The flavor confirms the style; it tastes of cheap grain and little else, with a slightly metallic aftertaste. Not great, but it does remind me of some crazy times.

Reading of the week: The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin – This chapter tackles the question of where mere varieties end and distinct species begin. We take for granted a lot of the larger taxonomic distinctions, but as we get closer to the individual specimen, it becomes harder to draw firm lines.

Question for the week: Is there a principled distinction between a stout and a porter? And are different brewing technique or ingredient list more important in distinguishing styles?