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?


Tetrapharmakos – Second Dose

This is the second in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

Step 2: Ἄνύποπτον ὁ θάνατος – Don’t worry about death

Many Roman gravestones bear the epitaph: Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo – I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care. This sentiment is a natural consequence of Epicurean materialism. To Epicurus, each living person is simply a particular assemblage of atoms. Before we existed, our atoms were parts of other combinations. After death, our atoms will separate and form new combinations. When there is no more life, there is no more person. All that remains is the atoms. Death means nothing to dead people because there are no dead people, only decaying bodies.

But what about the living? The dead may not care about death, but why shouldn’t we? “Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation,” Epicurus writes. “Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

And this principle is not just about how we should approach death, it informs how we should approach life. Once we appreciate that our existence is utterly fleeting, we are free to live wholly for the present, without fear of what is to come afterward.

Beer of the week: Latitud Cero° Apachita – This Belgian-style wheat ale comes from Ecuador’s La Paz Cervecería. The Latitud Cero° line of beers is named for the fact that the beer is brewed on (or at least very near) the equator. Apachita is a slightly hazy golden beer. It’s got notes of banana in the aroma, and tastes a bit of banana taffy. Apachita is smooth and delicious, if a bit sweeter than I’d like.

Reading of the week: Letter to Menoeceus by Epicurus – Epicurus was an extremely prolific writer, but very little of his ouvre has survived. Three letters were preserved by Diogenes Laërtius. His letters to Pythocles and Herodotus (not that Herodotus) describe his physics and metaphysics. This letter describes his ethics.

Question for the week: It is actually reassuring to believe that there is nothing after death? Or is it distressing?


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?


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?


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?


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.