Harvesting Discoveries

Ken M., one of the world’s finest internet trolls once complained that “today’s archeologists seem hellbent on making discoveries at any cost, leaving nothing for future generations.” He followed that statement up with the opinion that “they should at least plant new discoveries to replace the ones they harvested.”

It is a bizarre joke, but I think that it is hilarious. The funniest party is that people take him seriously despite his ludicrous statements. What makes the position so ridiculous is the implicit position that there may one day be nothing left to learn; that someday soon, man might reach the end of knowledge. But as Seneca wrote in his Natural Questions, “the world is a poor affair if it do not contain matter for investigation for the whole world in every age.”

What would it even mean for humans to reach the end of knowledge? Is it even conceivable for there to be nothing left to discover? On the sci-fi cartoon Futurama, alien beings got close to obtaining all knowledge, but they were then forced to destroy the universe before any new information was created. The world is always changing, so there is always more to learn.

And even in situations where immense quantities of raw information are known, that does not amount to knowledge. It is still necessary to interpret and synthesize the data. So do not give in to Ken M.’s fear that discoveries will run out. Seek boldly to learn everything that you can, knowing that there are plenty of mysteries left for the rest of us.

Prairie Path Ale

Beer of the week: Two Brothers Prairie Path – Speaking of new discoveries, somebody has discovered how to use enzymes to break down gluten. When I first got this beer, I did not notice that it is “Crafted To Remove Gluten”. Rather than brew the beer with gluten-free grains such as rice and sorghum, Two Brothers brews this beer with malt and then treats it with an enzyme that breaks down the gluten. Prairie Path is a pale, orange-gold color. The head fades very quickly. The aroma is vaguely of citrus and rice. The beer itself is a bit citrusy but feels very thin. It is a perfectly acceptable, easy-drinking beer. But I feel bad for those who are gluten intolerant if this is the most flavor they can get in a gluten-reduced beer.

Reading of the week: Natural Questions by Seneca, XXX & XXXI – After discussing the slow advance of knowledge from generation to generation, Seneca goes on to chide his countrymen for giving up the vigorous pursuit of knowledge and virtue in favor of indecency and vice. Among other things, he accuses others of “[d]issolute effeminacy and corruption”.

Question of the week: Is there any field in which humans have genuinely learned all there is to know?


Bird Food

Imagine a sunny day, suddenly turned dark. But it is no cloud that is blocking the sun, and the drops that have started to fall are not rain. There is a hum vibrating the air. You look up to see that the sky is positively filled with birds. A tremendous flock of passenger pigeons is passing overhead, and the flock stretches as far as the eye can see. There are literally millions of birds and it will take hours for the entire flock to pass.

Such was the experience of those who witnessed the passenger pigeon. These birds were possibly the most numerous in the world, yet ingenious men were able to hunt them out of existence. It was the most spectacular human-caused extinction… so far.

Flocks of passenger pigeons were so dense and low flying that they provided obscenely easy hunting. Hunting, of course, is hardly the right word for the wholesale slaughter of the passenger pigeon. Native Americans would bring down birds by simply hurling sticks and rocks into the passing flock. At places, the flocks would fly low enough for long poles to strike birds right out of the air.

The introduction of firearms made the harvesting of pigeons even easier. A single shotgun blast into a thick flock could bring down a great number of the birds. Huge nets were also introduced, capable of catching hundreds or even thousands at a time. These readily killed and captured birds became an important and affordable food source for a great number of people, and commercial operations continually ramped up “production”, taking tens of thousands of birds a day.

Over time, of course, this proved unsustainable. The large-scale hunting of pigeons, particularly when they gathered to breed, caused the population to dwindle from the billions to the millions. Legislation was eventually introduced to try to prevent the eradication of the entire species, but it was ineffective.

The last large nesting happened in 1878, and the hunters were ready. Over the next five months, commercial hunters killed over seven million birds. The few survivors scattered, and breeding all but stopped.  The last confirmed sighting of a wild passenger pigeon was in 1901. It was shot.

Although there were several pigeons at various zoos, captive breeding was unsuccessful. In 1914, Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. The most prolific bird in the world had gone extinct in a remarkably short time.

So what is to be made of this disturbing tale?

A pessimist may look on the demise of the passenger pigeons as a sign of man’s cruel and destructive nature. The practice of blinding captive birds to act as live decoys (aka “stool pigeons”) to draw in other birds, sure seems to make men seem downright evil. And although the pigeon is a spectacular example, there are all sorts of other ways in which we see man wreaking unchecked havoc on our natural world.

An optimist, however, may look at how far we have come in a century. Today, hunters are leaders in conservation efforts. There are several species of animals that are slowly making a comeback from the brink of extinction. Now more than ever, we are beginning to understand the vast power we have to impact nature. As a result, we have the ability to avoid similar tragedies in the future.

A detached economic thinker may view passenger pigeon presents a remarkable real-world example of the tragedy of the commons. Each hunter personally benefited from each bird that he killed, but the whole society shared the loss. This imbalance created the incentive for hunters to take as many birds as they could, even if that meant unsustainable depletion of the entire flock.

Additionally, the demise of the passenger pigeon allows for reflection on seen and unseen economic results. We see that there are no more birds, but what we do not see is the effects that the extinction has on other groups. Farmers, presumably, are not overly upset at the loss of the passenger pigeon. The birds were tremendous agricultural pests. In fact, it has been suggested that the pigeons only reached the height of their population with the introduction of European-style agriculture. Although we have lost a valuable resource in the form of the birds, it is worth considering the positive results for the farmers who are rid of such a numerous menace.

And a maniac may think of the passenger pigeon as a wonderful opportunity to do morally questionable things with science. See, Martha and a number of other specimens have been stuffed or otherwise preserved. Given the state of cloning technology, it is not impossible that the passenger pigeon should be de-extincted. That seems like an awfully expensive project. Perhaps that money should be spent on trying to conserve other species. Maybe that would show that we have learned something from the demise of the passenger pigeon.

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Beer of the week: Coopers Original Pale Ale – Thomas Cooper founded Coopers Brewery in Australia in the 1860’s. There is no reason to think that Thomas is any relation to James Fenimore Cooper. But who knows? This bottle conditioned ale is pale and cloudy. (Although the neon lighting in this picture makes it look a bit odd.) The aroma and flavor are somewhat floral. Overall, it is a delicious and eminently drinkable beer. As something of a bonus, it comes in 12.7 oz bottles. It seems that when Australia went metric, they decided to go up to 375 mL bottles rather than down to .3 L bottles like some countries.

Reading for the week: The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper, Volume 2, Chapter III – This novel was published in 1823, many years before any significant decline in the pigeon population was noted. The pigeon hunt described in this chapter is thoroughly impressive. In the end, a few of the characters come to see how disturbing and unsustainable the practice is. “It’s much better to kill only such as you want, without wasting your powder and lead, than to be firing into God’s creatures in this wicked manner,” says one of the main characters.

Question for the week: If the passenger pigeon could be revived through cloning, should it be done?


You can never drink the same beer twice.

There is an undeniable appeal to the statement by Heraclitus that “you cannot step twice into the same stream.” Impermanence is perceived everywhere we look. People who spend any time along the banks of a river or the seashore know that change is constant. Waters rise and recede; sandbars form and wash away. And this is true about everything else around us. We are always in the midst of growth and decay. We see organic growth and decay in plants and animals, but we also see mechanical growth and decay in buildings, cities, and technology. And, although we are incapable of perceiving it at any instant (because it is constant rather than instantaneous,) we recognize change in ourselves and our loved ones.

But the mere observation that change is constant does not do justice to Heraclitus. What makes the stream metaphor really interesting is the fact that it is paradoxical. Yes, the stream is different from one moment to the next, but we still recognize it as the same stream. How can we know that the river is always changing, but at the same time recognize that it is the same river?

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness begins with a reflection on the history of the River Thames. The characters observe that it is the same river that Roman soldiers navigated as they pushed the dark and dangerous boundaries of the Roman Empire. Likewise, it was the same Thames down which Francis Drake and other “knights–errant of the sea” sailed as they carried the torch of the English Empire to dark new lands. But while holding on to this recognition of consistency, they also acknowledge that the river’s “tidal current runs to and fro” unceasingly and that that the shoreline and the people have all changed.

Although the bulk of the main story takes place in Africa, Heart of Darkness begins on a pleasure yacht in London, as a conversation among ex-seamen. To sailors, we are told, “One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same.” But even us landsmen know that there are high seas and calm seas, and that the conditions at sea are actually very changeable. Again, it appears that Conrad is hinting at the paradox that Heraclitus was interested in: in spite of all its vicissitudes, there is something constant about the sea. And, for that matter, the entire world.

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Beer of the week: Negra Modelo – A Heart of Darkness reading deserves either a dark beer or a tropical beer. Negra Modelo is something of a compromise in both respects. Although “negra” means “black”, this beer is actually more of an amber color. And although Groupo Modelo is based in Mexico City, (and therefore technically tropical,) this bottle was probably brewed north of the tropics in Piedras Negras. (This is due to a complicated anti-trust settlement that I do not fully understand.) As to the beer itself, it is a bit thinner and less flavorful than might be hoped. There are some good dark-roasted malt notes throughout, but this beer is mostly uninspiring.

Reading of the week: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – This novella is an excellent read, and raises a lot of interesting questions about empire, individuals, and the nature of human society. Conrad apparently based some of the book on his own experiences as captain of a steamboat on the Congo River.

Question of the week: Rivers, like all things, change with time. But civil engineers literally reversed the course of the Chicago River. We may say that the River Thames of today is same river as when the Romans first explored it, but is the Chicago River of today the same river as before it was reversed?


One Last Winter Warmer

“We each of us fill a very small space
On the great creation’s plan,
If a man don’t keep his lead in the race
There’s plenty more that can;
The world can very soon fill the place
Of even a corner man.” – Banjo Paterson

Last week, some parts of the country got hit with a spring snow storm. Judging by the long-term weather forecast, that storm was old man winter’s last gasp. Another season has come and gone. Of course, this winter hardly showed up at all for some of us. (Standing outside in a t-shirt on Christmas Day was a first for me.) But seasons pass on to seasons, and each year is more or less the same as the last.

The same can be said for seasonal beers. Apparently the Boston Beer Company that has driven the demand for seasonal beers. I was told by an employee at the Red Hook brewery that everybody in the industry has started producing more seasonals, earlier (respectively) in the year to keep up with Sam Adams. As a big fan of beer variety, I can’t complain. However, the earlier seasonal beers are released, the earlier we give up on a season and move on. The calendar may say that it is spring, but I am not ready to quit on winter. And just because the days (and beers) march on, each one very much like the last, doesn’t mean we should give up on taking our time and enjoying the moment.

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Beer of the week: Autocrat Coffee Milk Stout – Unless there is a deep, dark corner of my refrigerator that has been left unexplored, this is my last winter seasonal for the year. Narragansett Brewing Company’s milk stout is mixed with Autocrat brand coffee to create a brew that pours with a creamy dark tan head. The aroma is of mild coffee, which is not surprising. The lactose (another unusual ingredient) does not ferment, so it remains in the beer to sweeten it. Between the coffee, the lactose, and the dark roasted malt, this beer tastes almost like an iced mocha. Only the slight hoppy finish reminds one that this is a beer. And a delicious one at that.

Reading for the week: The Corner-Man by Banjo Patterson – This poem’s conclusion is that the world will “jog along just the same” after we die. In some respects, it is a very disheartening idea for those of us who think much of ourselves. On the other hand, it may be regarded as a liberating prospect. Oh, and I suppose that I ought to mention that the poem includes a minstrel show. I had no idea that there were minstrel shows in Australia.

Question for the week: What is the best season for beer?


A Curious Substitution

It is no secret that the philosophy of John Locke was a profound influence on the American Founding Fathers. After all, his concept of natural rights to life, liberty, and property was prominently displayed at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. But there was also a dramatic change in that document’s language: “property” was replaced with the “pursuit of happiness.”

First, let’s be clear on what Locke actually said: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” How “health” got dropped from popular discourse, I do not know. I suspect that health can easily be subsumed by life, liberty, or both. Health is an integral part of life since an ultimate failure of health results in death. It is also an integral part of liberty, since any failure of health impairs liberty to some extent and a serious failure of health (just short of death) totally prevents one from exercising his liberty. (Those in a coma, for example, can hardly be considered “free”.) So, with health out of the way, we are left with the common formulation of Locke’s natural rights: life, liberty, property.

But when it came time to draft the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for “property.” But why? I have done a little reading and asked a few professors, and gotten three answers:

1. That Jefferson, a land-owner, was appealing also to those who did not own land. Since he did not advocate a system where all men got an equal share of the land, he substituted the pursuit of happiness as something that everybody could achieve (even those destined to be tenants.)

This answer seems least likely to me. Of course the Declaration was a practical document, intended to rally support for the cause of independence, but it was also an exposition of Jefferson’s philosophy. Would he really substitute an entire third of his philosophy of natural rights for a relatively minor appeal to the lower class colonists? I am extremely reluctant to consider anything in the first part of the Declaration to be disingenuous. (Whether all of the complaints leveled at King George were all made in good faith is another question.)

Further, under Locke’s formulation, the right to property relies on the assumption that there is enough property to support everybody. The American continent was regarded as practically limitless in size at that time. Why would Jefferson object to the idea that anybody who did not then own land could just move west and acquire property by mingling his labor with the land? And if he did believe that, then why not present that as yet another reason why even landless Americans should support the cause of independence?

2. That the right to property is merely a subset of the right to pursue happiness.

What could that really mean? Even if we allow that acquisition and possession of property is but a single possible path to happiness, what else falls in that category? What else is included in the right to pursue happiness that is not already included in liberty? And how are these other subsets of the right to pursue happiness related to the right to property?

I have heard that the pursuit of happiness can be divided into pursuit of earthly happiness (i.e. through the acquisition of property,) or heavenly happiness. This makes this language a nod to freedom of religion.

It is worth noting that later in 1776, but also in Philadelphia, another important document was drafted: the first Constitution of Pennsylvania. In its Declaration of Rights, the drafters asserted “That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Here, the pursuit of happiness is separate from the right to acquire, possess and protect property. It appears that at least the Pennsylvanian Founders did not consider property rights to be a mere subset of the pursuit of happiness. Religious freedom was also provided for by the Constitution of Pennsylvania, undermining the earthly/heavenly distinction suggested above. If property and religion are the two parts of the pursuit of happiness, why name all three separately?

3. That Jefferson did not believe that property rights were natural rights; that property rights are derived entirely from society.

This is a very interesting answer to the question of why property is replaced by the pursuit of happiness. I first saw this hypothesis in an article by Albert Alschuler of the University of Chicago. Alschuler claims that Jefferson’s departure from Locke on the point of property is the result of Jefferson siding with Scottish Enlightenment thinkers (including Lord Kames, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and David Hume) on the issue. The Scots apparently diverged from Locke on the question of whether property rights were natural or wholly societal in origin.

Of course, this could explain why the right to property is not listed in the Declaration, but it does not explain what the pursuit of happiness is. I’d better do some more reading and have a beer…

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Beer of the week: Philadelphia Pale Ale – From the same city that brought us the Declaration of Independence, the Pennsylvania Constitution, and the United States Constitution comes this pale ale. Yards Brewing Company produces this very light-colored beer. It is very crisp and refreshing despite a decent malt body. Although it is an ale, it drinks more like a pilsner. I think that this beer is quite good.

Reading of the week: Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, Declaration of Rights – The rights to life, liberty, and property are accounted for by this document, but there are a great number of more particular rights besides. Among the rights provided for are procedural protections for criminal defendants, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right of the people to modify or abolish the State government if they deem it best to do so. And, since the state was founded by Quaker pacifists, the right of a conscientious objector to refuse military duty is also guaranteed (provided he pays for a replacement).

Question of the week: What is the pursuit of happiness?


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:

C55H104O6+78O2→55CO2+52H2O+energy

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?


A Pointillist Theology

A high school religion teacher once remarked to me that the only proof of God’s existence that she needed was to look out the window. “How could anybody look upon the wonder of creation,” she wondered incredulously, “and not believe in God?” I was not convinced.

Are not the awe-inspiring beauty and order the universe even more awe-inspiring if they are organic rather than miraculous? That is to say, isn’t nature more impressive than creation? Creation could have been anything that God chose, but nature had to be the way it is. Rather than focusing on the single miracle of creation, why not focus on the ever-accumulating individual discoveries of the world around us? If God created the butterfly instantly and miraculously, that would not make it any more beautiful. But the fact that the butterfly evolved over millions of years and is the distant progeny of the first spark of life, that is beautiful and awe-inspiring.

Nietzsche would say that my teacher had an “old fashioned eye” that preferred “beautiful, decorative, intoxicating and perhaps beatific” myths to “simple truths, ascertained by scientific method.” But reason and scientifically discovered truths are every bit as beautiful as the old world views and aesthetics. In fact, they are even more beautiful. This is because the old views are static and limiting, but the “the richness of inner, rational beauty always spreads and deepens.”
Fiddlehead Kölsch

Beer of the week: Fiddlehead Kölsch – Fiddlehead ferns are a neat example of naturally occurring logarithmic spirals. Their geometric (near) perfection can be viewed as proof of an ordered universe. The quality beers from Fiddlehead Brewing Company are also proof of an ordered universe. This pale, cloudy ale has a soft, round bouquet with hints of pineapple. Although it is not overly hoppy, it is surprisingly bitter for its style and aroma. This is certainly a good beer, but for my taste the hops leave the mouth feeling a bit too dry in the end.

Reading of the week: Human, All Too Human, Appreciation of Simple Truths by Friedrich Nietzsche – Reading leads to reading. Reading Emerson led me to read Greenough and Landor. Reading Mencken led me to read Nietzsche. And reading Nietzsche led me to read more Nietzsche. This paragraph of Human, All Too Human directly follows the reading from two weeks ago.

Question of the week: Are the ideas of creation and evolution truly opposed?