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.


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?


Stop losing weight! Don’t you know how bad exercising is for the environment?

Ever since Al Gore won a bunch of awards for his PowerPoint presentation on global warming, carbon emissions have been one of the biggest environmental hot topics. Proposed solutions for excessive carbon emissions include carbon credits, hybrid cars, and local sourcing. But people continue to ignore their personal carbon emissions. They really ought to consider this startling equation from an article in The British Medical Journal:


Well, it is not startling for anybody who hasn’t had high school chemistry for a few years. I’ll translate for those readers whose chemical notation is rusty: one fat molecule (a triglyceride in this example) combines with and 78 oxygen molecules to produce 55 carbon dioxide molecules, 52 water molecules, and energy. Even more simply: whenever your body burns fat, you take in oxygen and literally breathe away the pounds in the form of carbon dioxide. (Water is also released and excreted from the sweat glands or… elsewhere.) Every pound of fat you burn results in 2.8 pounds of CO2 emissions.

Frankly, I do not find any of that surprising. I have always thought it was awesome how plants take in CO2, separate the carbon from the oxygen, and turn it into fruit and leaves and all manner of plantstuffs. Trees turn air into wood. That’s amazing.

Some 250 years ago, Antoine Lavoisier showed that animal respiration is basically the opposite of that; animals consume plant matter, combine the carbon in it with oxygen, and breathe it out as CO2. However, distressingly few people understand this simple biological process. According to that BMJ article, most family doctors, dietitians, and personal trainers surveyed did not know where the fat goes when people lose weight. Most of them answered that fat is simply converted into heat or energy. As if the law of conservation of matter doesn’t apply to beer guts!

Obviously, carbon emissions from losing weight are not the same as carbon emissions from burning coal or gasoline. The carbon in fossil fuels has been locked away for millions of years, and the carbon in your paunch has only been locked away since the last holiday season. Also, it is likely that there are significantly more important factors in climate change than carbon emissions. However, feel free to use this as an excuse for skipping leg day.

Wachusett Light IPA

Beer of the week: Wachusett Light IPA – If you insist on losing weight, you may be tempted to drink “light” beer. The brewers of Wachusett Light IPA claim that it is America’s first light IPA. The beer is hazy orange and has a malty aroma with some of the typical IPA hops. The flavor is a bit more subdued than most IPAs, without the strong punch of hops that one expects from American IPAs. The finish is a bit on the watery side. After swallowing, there is a bit of bite from the hops, but this beer generally light on the flavor. Overall, however, I think this is a decent beer. I get why they call it a light IPA, but I think I would call it it a session pale ale. Of course, I’m not in marketing.

Reading for the week: Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier – This excerpt from Lavoisier’s greatest work is somewhat dry, but it presents a few interesting features. First, Lavoisier explains why ice stays ice cold until it is completely melted even though almost every other substance we know of will warm up (or cool down) gradually. Secondly, he introduces a device called a calorimeter for the measuring of heat. The device is interesting in itself, but the name is also worth a bit of thought. Lavoisier defends mixing Latin (calor – heat) and Greek (metron – measure) because “in matters of science, a slight deviation from strict etymology, for the sake of giving distinctness of idea, is excusable.” He then shoves a guinea pig inside a sphere of ice to measure how much heat it produces.

Question for the week: Lavoisier’s word calorimeter is not the only Latin-Greek hybrid out there. Notable hybrid words include homosexual, television, automobile, and claustrophobia. Is there really something objectionable about mixing and matching root words this way?

Tom and Drugs

As I mentioned last week, I am on drugs that are not to be mixed with alcohol. Luckily, however, I have a small back-log of beer reviews that I need only attach to a reading. So the blog goes on…

Speaking of medicine, one of my favorite literary scenes of all time is about patent medicine. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain lists the remedies that Aunt Polly inflicted upon our titular hero. Tom was depressed because the girl he liked was ill, so Aunt Polly applied all sorts of treatments to him to bring back a healthy disposition. When she settled on pain-killer (although Tom did not have any physical pain,) she certainly got a reaction, but not quite the reaction that she was looking for.

Rather than take the medicine himself, Tom took to “mending the health of a crack in the sitting-room floor with it.” Eventually, Peter the cat got a dose and his reaction was both hilarious and alarming. Aunt Polly was not amused, but learned a valuable lesson. Tom had given the cat a spoonful of the pain-killer with good intentions, just as Aunt Polly had done with him. But “what was cruelty to a cat might be cruelty to a boy, too.”

What we see from this story is that there are no real cure-alls and good intentions are not enough. There must be solid reasoning behind our actions if the results are to be positive. No matter how much we care, it is not caring that solves problems, it is reason.

Beer of the Week: Miller Lite – For better or worse, “light beer” is every bit as American as Mark Twain. Miller Lite was originally known as “Gablinger’s Diet Beer.” Of course, a low-calorie beer is almost inevitably a low-flavor beer. Ironically, diet beer took off not because of the lower calories, but because it is easier to binge drink large quantities. In fact, the bottle doesn’t even advertise the calorie content, it only asserts that the beer is “less filling.” They leave it up to the customer to figure out that “less filling” means you can drink more. The beer itself is as clear as water and just a bit more yellow. If poured aggressively, it produces a decent but quickly fading white head that actually does leave a fair bit of lacing. The smell and taste are both extremely weak, but it sure goes down smooth. After about the 6th or 7th beer I finally understood what the appeal is.

Reading of the week: The Cat and the Pain-Killer from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – Not only is Aunt Polly a great example of the way that people can get caught up in fads and popular trends, the description of the cat’s reaction to being dosed with pain-killer is one of the funniest scenes ever written.

Question of the week: How often do you rely on medicines (or beer) to solve problems that are emotional in nature?