Wisdom for sale!

In his biography of Charlemagne, Notker the Stammerer relates a story of two “Scotchmen [who] were unrivalled for their skill in sacred and secular learning.” These men would go into the market and call out, “Ho, everyone that desires wisdom, let him draw near and take it at our hands; for it is wisdom that we have for sale.” This claim drew in the crowds and, ultimately, the attention of the emperor.

The twist in the story, however, is that the Scotsmen really had no interest in marketing their learning to make a profit. They had simply come to realize that if they offered to teach for free, nobody would be interested. Because the price tag is the first signal that the market sees, things that are being given away for free or sold cheaply are assumed to have little worth. Likewise, some people put extremely high prices on their products (even if they intend ultimately to sell for a much lower price) in the hopes that the product will appear more desirable.

I was a tangential party to a real life example of how asking price affects perception. One of my side jobs in college was dealing cards for a promotional company that ran poker tournaments as fund-raisers. The tournaments were well organized and quite successful. However, the owner of the business quickly discovered that some prospective clients saw his very reasonable prices and decided that they wanted to go with a more up-scale competitor. His solution was to raise the prices without changing anything about the product. And it worked. New prospective clients assumed that the high price was a good indicator of the product’s high quality. Business actually increased after the price went up, precisely because the price went up. Like Notker’s Scotsmen, the owner of the promotional company learned that sometimes you have to ask for more than you need, just to get people’s attention.

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Beer of the week: Modelo Especial – The head on this beer faded so quickly that I couldn’t get a good photo of it before it was gone. Modelo Especial is a clear, gold brew. It has little aroma or flavor to speak of, really. It’d be easy enough to drink a bunch of this stuff at a party Cinco de Mayo fiesta, but otherwise, why bother? And don’t get me started on the price!

Reading of the week: The Life of Charlemagne by Notker the Stammerer, Book I, 1-4 – Charlemagne filled his court with educated men, such as the aforementioned Scotsmen, and had them educate the children of his kingdom. He found that the highborn children did not take to their lessons as well as the commoners. The lesson, again, seems to be that certain assumptions about value need to be carefully scrutinized.

Question of the week: How much does the asking price affect your perception of a product’s value?


Don’t be like them!

Peer pressure is an interesting and familiar phenomenon. It can also be very dangerous, particularly when alcohol is involved. The classic form of peer pressure is “to be one of us, you must do x“. If “x” is drinking, smoking, stealing, etc., this can be very problematic indeed. But peer pressure can also be used to encourage more positive behaviors or to enforce less dubious social mores. (“If you want to be one of us, you have to be respectful.”) So peer pressure is not bad per se.

One particular form of peer pressure that deserves a closer look is when there is a very specific non-peer group used as a counter example. In this sort of peer pressure, the form is “do NOT do x, lest you become one of them.” There remains the implicit pressure to conform to one’s own peer group, but the pressure is compounded by vilifying another group.

The Laws of the Old Testament are full of this sort of admonition. A several acts are proscribed specifically because they are perceived as gentile behaviors. And even when certain things are prohibited for reasons other than to keep the Jews separate from the rest of the world, there is still a hint that being different from the gentiles is the real goal. Moses Maimonides explained that the prohibition on eating pork was for sanitary reasons. Even so, he made a point of bad mouthing the (Christian) French while he was at it. “[W]ere it allowed to eat swine’s flesh, the streets and houses would be more dirty than any cesspool, as may be seen at present in the country of the Franks.” Don’t eat pork, or you will be like the French.

Likewise, in A Counterblaste to Tobacco, King James I of England railed against the use of tobacco, arguing in part that it is unbecoming of Englishmen to take on the habits of “beastly Indians.” For good measure, he even points out that the English disdain the habits of the French and Spanish. If they refuse to adopt the customs of their near neighbors, how much worse is it to imitate New World savages?

Of course, the French were not only on the receiving end of this type of negative peer pressure; they practiced it as well. After invading Egypt, the use of hashish among the French became popular. Napoleon supposedly banned the consumption of hashish, not because of it’s deleterious effects, but because he did not want to see Frenchmen adopting the habits of lower-class Egyptians.

On this side of the Atlantic, the same thing can be observed. In addition to banning tobacco and alcohol, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith forbade his followers from drinking tea and coffee. One of his supposed revelations from God was that “hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” Frankly, I do not know if the prohibition on tea and coffee was specifically for the purpose of further separating Mormons from the rest of American society. But it is worth noting that something like 90 percent of American adults consume caffeine daily, making it the single most popular drug in the country. If the goal is to separate themselves from the rest of society, a rule against coffee seems like a good starting place.

About a century ago, the Department of Agriculture relied partly on the vilification of the others in advocating the prohibition of cannabis. In a report by R. F. Smith, the Department concluded that, “[t]he sale of the drug [marijuana] is not confined to Mexicans. American soldiers, negroes, prostitutes, pimps, and a criminal class of whites in general are numbered among the users of this weed.”

There you have it, don’t eat pork, lest your cities stink like France. Don’t smoke tobacco, lest you take on the habits of savages. Don’t take hashish, lest you be like lowly Egyptians. Don’t drink beer, wine, coffee, or tea, lest you fall in with non-Mormon Americans. And don’t smoke hemp, lest you be like Mexicans, negros, pimps, and the criminal class in general. You don’t want to be like any of them, do you?

Beer of the week: Dundee English-Style Ale – There may well be legitimate reasons to avoid pork, coffee, tobacco, alcohol, hashish, and cannabis. (Legality and health concerns spring to mind in particular cases.) But the fact that some group of “other” people consume them is not a legitimate reason. So I am going to smoke the occasional shisha (tobacco) and cigar. And drink this beer. Dundee English-Style Ale is a dark brass-colored ale has a foamy white head that leaves good lacing down the glass. The aroma is slightly sour and malty, like sourdough. The body is malty with hints of sour and spice. Overall, very nice beer. Dundee proves to be a good value yet again.

Reading of the week: A Counterblaste to Tobacco by King James I of England – Jeremy Bentham wrote of this pamphlet, “as the circumstances of the times did not afford the same facility of burning tobacco-smokers as for burning Anabaptists, [King James] was forced to content himself with writing a flaming book against it.”

Question of the week: Have you seen peer pressure used for good?


Learn By Example

A friend of mine once told me that his favorite Bible verse was from Chapter 6 of the Book of Job:

“Oh that my grief were throughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together!
For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea: therefore my words are swallowed up. For the arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirit: the terrors of God do set themselves in array against me.”

What he liked about this verse is that it helped put his own troubles into perspective. The calamities that befell Job were so great that it makes our own pale in comparison.

A similar philosophy was espoused by Lucretius in On the Nature of Things when he stated that it is pleasant to watch a shipwreck from the safety of the shore. There is no misanthropic impulse behind that statement, just the recognition that people are subject to all sorts of misfortune and that we are fortunate when we are not getting the worst of it.

Polybius went even further. According to him, “the only method of learning how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune, is to recall the calamities of others.” Is it really the only method? This seems like a step to far. Religion and stoicism spring to mind as two possible ways to learn how to cope with disaster that may not require looking to examples of unfortunate others. To be sure, both of them rely on examples to some extent (e.g. Job, the saints, Socrates, etc.) But I am not sure that they need them to be effective.

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Beer of the week: Blue Moon Rounder – My past experience with Blue Moon didn’t prevent me from trying this beer. Perhaps it should have. This Belgian-style pale ale is not much to write home about. The photo shows how clear this beer is. This is a bit surprising since there actually is some wheat in the recipe. The smell is fairly bland and grainy. It tastes primarily of malt, but there is just a hint of spice in the finish. The name comes from the idea that one could drink several rounds of this beer. I suppose that this would be a fine beer to drink a half-dozen of in a sitting. There is something to be said for that.

Reading of the week: The Histories by Polybius – At the very beginning of his greatest work, Polybius announces that he does not need to commend the study of history because “all historians, one may say without exception, and in no half-hearted manner… have impressed on us that the soundest education and training for a life of active politics is the study of History.”

Question of the week: Is there any other method for learning to face disaster than to look to the examples of others?


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?


Confessions of an Belgian Blonde Ale Drinker

“Champagne’s funny stuff,” according to Jimmy Stewart’s character in The Philadelphia Story. “I’m used to whiskey. Whiskey is a slap on the back, and champagne’s heavy mist before my eyes.”

Different alcoholic drinks have different effects on people. Some of those effects are apparently personal rather than universal. I have a friend who stopped drinking moonshine because it produced in her a very melancholy drunk. I have another friend who has sworn off tequila because it made him “rambunctious.” Although wild or irresponsible behavior while drunk on tequila is a common trope, there are others in whom tequila produces much more mellow effects.

Some people are made warm and affectionate by red wine. This is something of a double-edged sword. Warmth and affection can both be good things, but wine can only produce these up to a point before they become grotesque. According to Thomas De Quincy in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, “wine unsettles and clouds the judgement, and gives a preternatural brightness and a vivid exaltation to the contempts and the admirations, the loves and the hatreds of the drinker… In the sudden development of kind-heartedness which accompanies inebriation there is always more or less of a maudlin character, which exposes it to the contempt of the bystander. Men shake hands, swear eternal friendship, and shed tears, no mortal knows why; and the sensual creature is clearly uppermost.”

But that is only true after a point. De Quincy admits that he always found “that half-a-dozen glasses of wine advantageously affected the faculties—brightened and intensified the consciousness, and gave to the mind a feeling of being ponderibus librata suis,” (balanced under its own weight.) De Quincy’s “sensual creature” only took over after he started in on the second bottle. Before then, the rational man seems to have been the main benefactor of the booze.

De Quincy also relates that “the pleasure given by wine is always mounting and tending to a crisis, after which it declines.” I think that beer also has this mounting tendency, but because of how filling it is and because of its relatively low alcohol content, drunkenness from beer develops more slowly than from wine or liquor. And with an especially strong beer, one often drinks so slowly that the added time makes up for the added alcohol.

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Beer of the week: Delirium Tremens – De Quincy had to deal with opium withdraw, but this Belgian blonde ale is named after the effects of alcohol withdraw. It is very pale in color, with a fluffy head that fades fairly quickly. The beer smells sweet, fruity, and yeasty. The carbonation tickles the tongue as the rich flavor really fills the mouth. The aftertaste lingers for quite a while leaving the hints of spice and alcohol behind. Overall, the flavors and alcohol (8.5%) are very strong. I could definitely see some people being overwhelmed by this ale, though I find it delightful.

Reading for the week: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincy – This excerpt compares the effects of alcohol and opium. De Quincy was criticized very strongly for making opium use sound too appealing. He describes getting high and going to the opera. He paints a picture of himself in a mountain cottage, surrounded by five-thousand books drinking tea (and opium.) I understand the critics; De Quincy makes opium sound pretty awesome. (Until the part about the terrifying hallucinations and nightmares.)

Question for the week: Is there any sort of alcohol that you abstain from because of its particular effects?


Tall Daisy Syndrome

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

Could anything be less obvious? In all of the most visible ways, men are anything but equal. Some are strong, some are rich, some are intelligent. Very few are all three. In every measurable way, men are simply not created equal. In fact, the inequality of man has been carefully studied and tends to fall into a bell curve.

However, our societal dedication to the idea that everybody should be equal has occasionally resulted in efforts to “rectify” natural inequalities. This can be done either by giving the disadvantaged a leg-up or by handicapping the advantaged. But both of these remedies miss the real meaning of equality in American society.

The way in which all men are created equal is “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Everyone, regardless of his strength or wealth or intelligence, is possessed of equal rights. It is our rights that make us equal, and attempting to achieve other, less meaningful equalities by modifying our fundamental rights is a dangerous mistake.

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Beer of the week: Daisy Cutter Pale Ale – This is a delicious and popular pale ale from Half Acre Beer Co. in Chicago. Daisy Cutter is a slightly hazy, amber beer. The aroma is of floral hops with a hint of pine. The body is pleasant and malty with a good hops kick that leaves a pleasant tingle. Overall, this is a very well balanced and very tasty brew.

Reading for the week: The History of Rome by Livy – In much of the English-speaking world, “tall poppy syndrome” refers to a collective desire to disparage or attack the most successful or prominent members of society. This reading contains the origin of that expression: symbolic advice to strike off the heads of the tallest poppies.

Question for the week: Is there a minimum sort of equality in strength/wealth/intelligence required to exercise the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?


The Soul of the Condemned

When I read that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was to be executed for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, I immediately scrolled down to the comments. I was not surprised at what I found, but a little dismayed.

The bulk of the comments were to the effect that death was too good for Tsarnaev. That he should be made to suffer the same physical injuries that his victims suffered. That the pain he inflicted upon others should be revisited upon his person several times over. No comments that I read advocated anything that resembled compassion, rehabilitation, or even a quick, clean removal of Tsarnaev from our mortal company.

The very beginning of Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault illustrates the cultural shift from public executions and corporal punishment to “improved” and “humane” execution methods and rehabilitation. Brutal public executions used to be the norm for the administration of capital punishment. However the object of the penal system, Foucault observes, has shifted from the body of the condemned to the soul or the rights of the condemned. It is true, of course, that when a person locked in a cell, his body is necessarily involved. However, the purpose of locking up a convict is to take away his liberty, not to punish his body. The same is true of modern capital punishment. The purpose of execution is to take away the condemned’s right to live, not to destroy his body. Although the body is necessarily destroyed by execution, the intent of the act is simply to remove life, not to inflict pain.

This is why the guillotine was designed to instantly sever the head. This is why the hangman measured the rope so that the drop would break the convict’s neck. And this is why, when Tsarnaev is ultimately killed, it will be by injection with a series of chemicals, the first of which will put him to sleep. The separation of body and soul that happens literally with the stopping of Tsarnaev’s heart first happens figuratively when the executioner administers the first dose of chemicals. It is Tsarnaev’s right to live that is being taken by the state; the adverse effects on the body are collateral.

Conduct of Life

Beer of the week: Conduct of Life – The most innovative gifts that my bride and I received for our wedding was a cooler full of “Vermont beer rarities and esoterica.” Among these special brews was this hazy, unfiltered American pale ale from Hill Farmstead Brewery.  The aroma has hints of lemon and pineapple. The beer is smooth and well balanced, though dominated by citrusy hops. It is quite a delicious beer.

Reading of the week: In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka – By the time I was a few pages into Discipline and Punish, I could not stop thinking about this short story by Kafka. The question of what role the body of the condemned has in the penal system is central to this story, as is the shift away from corporal punishment toward… well… something else.

Question of the week: To what extent can capital punishment be divorced from corporal punishment? Would execution be more humane if the condemned never saw it coming?