So Much Duckweed

According to legend, the Chinese sage Liu Ling was at all times followed by a servant carrying a wine bottle and a shovel. The purpose of the wine is obvious; Liu Ling liked to drink. The shovel’s purpose was somewhat darker. Liu Ling thought of the whole world as his home. “The sun and moon [were] the windows of his house; the cardinal points [were] the boundaries of his domain.” Because he felt equally at home wherever he ranged, he had no sentimental desire for his mortal remains to be laid to rest in any particular place; no “bury me on the old farmstead” for him. More important than his detachment from any specific place, it seems that Lui Ling had no particular sentimental attachment to his own body. Consequently, he did not care where it was buried. And so Lui Ling’s servant carried a shovel, ready to inter his master’s corpse wherever he should happen to drop dead.

Many centuries later, Lui Ling’s thoughts on mortality (and on alcohol consumption) inspired Jack London. In his autobiographical novel John Barleycorn, London reminisces about “Liu Ling, a hard drinker, one of the group of bibulous poets who called themselves the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and who lived in China many an ancient century ago.” In particular, London seems to agree with Lui Ling’s statement “that to a drunken man the affairs of this world appear but as so much duckweed on a river.”

But why the do affairs of the world appear as duckweed? When alcohol reduces the drunken man’s problems to mere trivialities, is it because the alcohol blinds him to the true extent of his troubles? Or does it make him neglectful of things that actually matter? It seems more probable that the drunk man is actually seeing more clearly than before. The alcohol helps him to understand the transience and insignificance of human concerns, a realization that is perhaps difficult for a sober mind to bear. Like Liu Ling himself, the drunken man sees the whole world as his home and all eternity as but an instant.

Pearl River Beer
Beer of the week: Pearl River Beer – This Chinese brew pours clear and golden with little carbonation. The aroma is mostly of grass and rice. The flavor is rather plain with some lingering sweetness. It isn’t a particularly bad beer, especially considering its nation of origin. On the other hand, if it has to travel halfway around the world, it had better be pretty good.

Reading of the week: The Genius of Wine by Liu Ling – The translator tells us that the “old gentleman” of this story is Liu Ling himself. This very short passage gives a couple hints of Liu Ling’s philosophy, and relates how he withstood the intervention of “two respectable philanthropists” who tried to get him to quit drinking by berating and lecturing him.

Question for the week: Why are so many people so adamant about what should become of their mortal remains?


Paradoxical Poetry

An original poem on some of Zeno’s paradoxes:

I.
Traverse a line? Don’t make me laugh!
Each segment’s segment’s cut in half.
One cannot simply walk the line,
‘cross infinite halves in finite time.

II.
Swooping down from high above
The eagle catches fleeing dove,
Yet swift Achilles, to this day,
Cannot o’ertake his tortoise prey.

III.
We see the arrow fly through air,
But surely there’s no motion there.
The arrow, ne’er before it’s caught,
Moves where it is, nor where it’s not.

IV.
In the hippodrome they run their course,
Speeds are measured in length of horse.
Opposing directions they fly past,
Each to the next seems doubly fast.

At the risk of over-explaining, a quick note on the four paradoxes mentioned in the poem:

The first verse deals with a paradox known as the “dichotomy”. This is probably the most well known of Zeno’s paradoxes. For a runner to reach the finish line, he must first reach the midpoint. In order to reach the midpoint, he must first go half way to the midpoint. And so on. As a consequence, before any distance can be traversed, an infinite number of smaller distances must be covered. And to take an infinite number of steps must take an infinite time. Therefore, the runner cannot possibly run even a short distance.

The second verse deals with the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. It is actually quite similar to the first. Although Achilles is much faster than a tortoise, he can never catch it because in the time that it takes him to reach where the tortoise was, the tortoise will have moved a little further away. Therefore, before Achilles can ever catch up to the tortoise, he must first reach all of the infinite points where the tortoise had already been.

The third verse is the paradox of the arrow. An arrow, just like any other physical body, always takes up a space equal to itself. So at any given instant the arrow cannot move inside that space because the space is exactly the size and shape of the arrow. But it also cannot move outside of that space because it is perfectly contained. Therefore, motion is impossible.

The final verse treats the paradox of the stadium. If two teams of horses, four horses long each, pass each other in opposite directions, an observer will notice that in the time that the lead horse has covered a total distance of two horse-lengths, it will have actually passed all four of the other team’s horses. Therefore the chariot, despite its constant speed, travels two different distances in the same amount of time, which is absurd.

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Beer of the week: Cerveza Monterrey – The term “Corona knock-off” gets thrown around a bit, and this isn’t the first beer I’ve reviewed that might merit that description. This extremely pale Guatemalan lager is very carbonated. On its own, it is fairly watery and tastes of corn. The addition of lime and sea salt, however, makes this a reasonably palatable hot-weather drink. With a lot of lime, it is rather refreshing.

Reading for the week: Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, Parmenides, Melissus, and Zeno of Elea – Zeno’s own writings are lost to us. However, Diogenes Laërtius (among others) preserved some of his ideas. Diogenes also relates the gruesome details of Zeno’s death, including the part where Zeno bites off the ear (or nose) of a tyrant. To help give context to Zeno’s life, this reading includes the lives of his teacher (and lover?) Parmenides and his contemporary Melissus.

Question for the week: Are the paradoxes mere logic tricks, or do they point to some more profound truth?


I Spy

“The American of today, in fact, probably enjoys less personal liberty than any other man of Christendom, and even his political liberty is fast succumbing to the new dogma that certain theories of government are virtuous and lawful, and others abhorrent and felonious. Laws limiting the radius of his free activity multiply year by year: It is now practically impossible for him to exhibit anything describable as genuine individuality, either in action or in thought, without running afoul of some harsh and unintelligible penalty. It would surprise no impartial observer if the motto “In God we trust” were one day expunged from the coins of the republic by the Junkers at Washington, and the far more appropriate word, “verboten,” substituted. Nor would it astound any save the most romantic if, at the same time, the goddess of liberty were taken off the silver dollars to make room for a bas-relief of a policeman in a spiked helmet. Moreover, this gradual (and, of late, rapidly progressive) decay of freedom goes almost without challenge; the American has grown so accustomed to the denial of his constitutional rights and to the minute regulation of his conduct by swarms of spies, letter-openers, informers and agents provocateurs that he no longer makes any serious protest.” – The American Credo (1920)

In the nearly 90 years since George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken published The American Credo, the country has changed quite considerably. It seems worthwhile to make note of some of the ways that their predictions have turned out:

  • “[T]he dogma that certain theories of government are virtuous and lawful, and others abhorrent and felonious” has been a staple of American foreign policy since the book was published. The whole of the Cold War was dedicated to the proposition that American-style “democracy” is morally superior to Soviet-style “communism”. Our latest military adventures have likewise been sold as “spreading democracy” to countries that have “bad” governments. (Even as the United States has actively participated in propping up violent dictators, so long as they were adequately pro-American, if not pro-democratic.)
  • It is more true than ever that virtually all actions violate some law or other. Federal laws alone are now so numerous that literally nobody can say how many there actually are. Additionally, many federal regulatory bodies have the power to enact rules and regulations that carry criminal penalties. So while there may be as many as 4,500 federal criminal laws, there may also be as many as 300,000 federal regulations with criminal penalties. Consequently, it remains nearly impossible to do anything “without running afoul of some harsh and unintelligible penalty.”
  • “In God we trust” is subject to more or less constant attacks, but so far without any success.
  • The goddess of liberty has been removed from our dollar coins. Her first replacement was Dwight Eisenhower, former general and chief executive. Not quite a “policeman in a spiked helmet,” but not too different either. Eisenhower gave way to more peaceful images of Susan B. Anthony and then Sacagawea. Now we are back to the presidents, although the mint now has such an insane supply that they have stopped releasing new presidential dollar coins into circulation. More important than the image on the coins, however, is the fact that in the middle of the 1960’s the United States officially reneged on the promise to pay silver on demand for its notes, paving the way for unprecedented manipulations of the supply of money.
  • The “swarms of spies, letter-openers, informants and agents provocateurs” are still at work in this country, but with more power than ever. Whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden have helped to highlight just how vast and pervasive American government spying is. And, true to Mencken’s observations, the vast majority of Americans do not put up any real protest.

The more things change, so they say, the more they stay the same. But it is hard to believe that even Mencken and Nathan could have been so cynical as to foresee the world as it is today. Surely the constant, and actually accelerating, decay of freedom must have a breaking point. How vast our freedom must have been if we are able to have lost so much.

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Beer of the Week: Zlatý Bažant (Golden Pheasant) – Although I have been aware of this Slovakian beer for quite a while, I never tried it until now. When I saw Golden Pheasant for sale in the past, it was always brewed under contract in the Czech Republic. This bottle, however, is the real deal from Hurbanovo, Slovak Republic. The beer is pretty and golden, with a nice white head that leaves decent lacing. It seems very much like any Czech lager, but there is something about it that seems a bit off, particularly in the aftertaste. It really is an ok beer, but there is just something about the Golden Pheasant that I don’t care for.

Reading of the week: The Spy by Svetozár Hurban-Vajanský – Hurbanovo, Slovakia, as it turns out, is named for Jozef Miloslav Hurban, a prominent Slovak freedom-fighter against the oppressive Hungarian regime. His son Svetozár Hurban-Vajanský was a poet and also a prominent Slovak nationalist. So a Hurban-Vajanský poem seems like a good pairing for Golden Pheasant. — The extensive use of spies and secret police against citizens is a sure sign of trouble for all freedom-loving peoples. It has been repeated through history, and the rulers who use those tactics number among the most notorious names in the annals of human society. This poem is a parody of the creation of man from Genesis. The devil forms a body of clay (and spit) and breathes life into it. And the result is not an ordinary man, but something far more evil: a spy.

Question of the week: There is an expression, the origin of which I cannot locate: “agent provocateur is a job so despicable that there is no word for it in the English language.” Do you know who said that? And is the agent provocateur really the worst sort of spy?


Vespa

So much of comedy is context. Things are often especially funny when they are incongruous with the background. For example, the behavior of the Blues Brothers in a fancy restaurant is much funnier because their vulgarity is especially out of place in a formal setting.

But in many ways not just the setting but also the history and cultural background is needed to “get” a joke. For example, when Aristophanes makes a joke about Cleonymus throwing away his shield, we have to know that shield throwing is shorthand for cowardice, and that Cleonymus had a reputation along those lines. Not knowing who that person is or what it means to throw down a shield, such a joke just can’t land.

Or to get a joke about Hercules at the dinner table one must know that the demigod’s insatiable appetite was something of a cliché in Aristophanes’ time.

Obviously, these are not great examples. A modern person who has never held a sword may still understand the implications of throwing down one’s shield. And even if Hercules is not a regular character in our comedic repertoire these days, gluttony is still readily understandable. But I am at a disadvantage in picking my examples; the best of them go right over my own head.

As a result of this need for background information, much ancient (or otherwise culturally remote) comedy is quite inaccessible. Certain people, customs, or places that form the butt of jokes might not be known, so the joke must fall flat.

Aristophanes is often accessible. In The Clouds, for example, a lizard defecates onto Socrates’s face. Classic. However, at other times, I just feel like I am not in on the joke. He lampoons people that I’ve never heard of, and makes all manner of social comments that are simply beyond me.

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Beer of the week: Pacifico Clara – This is yet another bland Mexican lager. There is not much else to say about it. It is a little sweet and a lot bland. Pacifico is not bad, but there is just not much to it.

Reading for the week: The Wasps by Aristophanes, Lines 986-1121 – In this part of the play, Aristophanes (through the chorus) lets us know that there is much more at stake than getting his jokes. He believes that there are bigger, more important things going on in his satire than getting laughs.

Question for the week: What about comedy is truly universal?


The Insanity of Regulation

Near the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson found himself in a tight spot financially. He had spent the previous 60 years or so in the public service as President, Vice-President, Governor, Ambassador, Regent of the University of Virginia, etc. These various services to his country and state kept him, so he claimed, from properly attending to his own affairs. As a result, he ended up deep in debt.

His solution was to sell some of his property to pay off his creditors. However, the land was very valuable and the market was very depressed, so he feared that there would be nobody willing to pay full price. As an alternative to traditional sale, he proposed a lottery. By putting up the property as the prize of a lottery, he believed that he stood a better chance of receiving full value for the land. The only problem was the the Commonwealth of Virginia regulates all lotteries, so Jefferson would need special dispensation from the legislature. So he made an appeal, recounting all of his services to state and country and waxing philosophical about the moral implications of gambling.

Jefferson starts this appeal by acknowledging that “chance” is merely the name given to causes that we do not or cannot know. “If we know the cause [of a thing], we do not call it chance; but if we do not know it, we say it was produced by chance.” So every human endeavor includes some element of chance. He calls the farmer “the greatest of all gamblers” because the farmer risks his rent, his seeds, and his labor on a crop that may fail because of things beyond his control. And because all human action is a gamble to some extent, gambling cannot be immoral per se. So far, so good.

But then Jefferson holds in opposition those games of chance that are not productive in the way that insurance or capital investment are. (I briefly observe that games of chance are productive in the form of entertainment, which can be hard to measure but clearly has value.) He writes of “cards, dice, billiards, &c.” as games “which produce nothing, and endanger the well-being of the individuals engaged in them.” And he lauds the state’s suppression of these games for the sake of those who would be injured by playing and losing. Here, I think, Jefferson busts.

Jefferson acknowledges that there is a natural right to gamble. This, I take it, is based on two considerations: first, as discussed above, gambling is not immoral per se, but is merely another term for the risks that all of us take in each of our daily actions; and second, that the natural right to property necessarily includes the right to dispose of it by sale, gift, or game of chance. (A previous post on this blog discusses the curious relationship between Jefferson’s and Locke’s notions of the natural right to property.) So once gambling is acknowledged as a natural right, how can its prohibition be justified?

The justification is by way of analogy. The analogy drawn by Jefferson is between degenerate gambling and “insanity, infancy, imbecility, &c.” If a gambling addiction is a sort of madness, then the state is right to prohibit gambling for the protection of the addicts. But even if we agree that a gambling addiction is akin to a mental handicap – which is at least debatable – the analogy is somewhat unfair. Why should all table games be banned for the protection of the fraction of the population that suffers from a gambling addiction? If we do not allow children or the mentally ill to drive cars by virtue of their infancy or insanity, that does not mean that we would authorize the state to ban cars outright. And if cars are too modern a concept, then consider an example of what children and the insane could not do in Jefferson’s day: neither group was capable of entering into legally binding contracts. Yet Jefferson would not have advocated the notion that the enforcement of all contracts should be banned for the sake of the children and the insane. Rather, the intervention of the state should be limited to protecting the narrow subset of individuals while interfering as little as possible with the rights of everybody else.

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Beer of the week: Wieselburger Gold – Jefferson may have found himself short on gold, but who isn’t? If the name “Gold” is used to describe the color this Austrian beer, the name is not very apt. This brew is much more pale than anything that I would call gold. If the name refers to the quality of the beer, they still come up a bit short; this is a bronze medal beer, silver at best. What little head there is dissipates quickly, and there is hardly an aroma to speak of. However, the flavor is not without its charms. There is a bit of malt sweetness up front, and a floral, hoppy finish that leaves the mouth feeling dry, always encouraging the next sip.

Reading for the week: Thoughts on Lotteries by Thomas Jefferson – There is more to dislike about this appeal than the weak analogy between gamblers and the insane. Notably, Jefferson discusses his own political career at length and argues that he should be entitled to exceptional treatment by the legislature on those grounds.

Question for the week: Is there a formula for what percent of the population is impacted before rightful actions should be banned?


Tesla’s Spirit

My grandmother felt a very real connection to her Pennsylvania-Dutch roots. Her great-great-etc.-grandfather came to these shores from the old world, and his son fought in the American Revolution. My grandmother was born, educated, married, and died in Pennsylvania. That’s not to say that she wasn’t worldly. She left her part of the state to attend Gettysburg College, one of the two Lutheran colleges in the state that admitted women. She travelled to India, Hawaii, Hong Kong, and more. But she stayed firmly connected to her ethnic roots in a way that I haven’t.

Nikola Tesla is another example of somebody strongly attached to his own cultural identity, even when physically separated from it. Tesla was a Serbian, but he was born and raised in what is now Croatia. His education took him to Vienna and to Prague, and his work took him to France and the United States. In fact, it doesn’t appear that he spent much (or any) time at all in Serbia proper. Still, his entire life, Tesla regarded himself as a Serbian. He founded the Serbian Culture Club at his university in Austria, he memorized and translated Serbian poetry, and is now regarded as a national hero in Serbia (and namesake of the largest airport in the country.) So why is his Serbian connection so strong despite never living in Serbia?

For one thing, Tesla strongly believed in a unified Balkan Peninsula. “The fact is,” he wrote, “that all Yugoslavs-Serbians, Slavonians, Bosnians, Herzegovinians, Dalmations, Montenagrins, Croatians and Slovenes – are of the same race, speak the same language and have common national ideals and traditions.” (It seems that the Serbo-Croatian language has fractured along political boundaries, but Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin remain mutually intelligible.) This belief in a shared identity helps elucidate how somebody born in Croatia would see no incongruity in asserting his own Serbian-ness.

Another determining factor in Tesla’s connection to his Serbian identity was his education. His mother memorized and recited Serbian epic poetry. And in that poetry, he found the same sort of grand feats and noble traits that draw people to the ancient and proud identities of Sparta or Rome. “For in Milosh [Obilich, hero of the Battle of Kosovo,] we see both Leonidas and Mucius, and, more than this, a martyr, for he does not die an easy death on the battle-field like the Greek, but pays for his daring deed with a death of fearful torture. It is not astonishing that the poetry of a nation capable of producing such heroes should be pervaded with a spirit of nobility and chivalry.” It is the poetry, with all of the history and ideality it contains, that kept Tesla a Serbian, first and foremost. In many ways, that is far more important than geography or blood.


Beer of the week: Spirit Tesla – This week’s beer, named for the man himself, is intertwined with these questions of identity and national pride. The idea to name this beer after Tesla apparently came from an American importer keen to capitalize on the popularity of the inventor. (In some circles, Tesla is something of an obsession.) In Serbia, the same beer is sold under the brewery’s trade name, Valjevsko. Whatever it is called, this is a decent Euro lager. There is not much head to speak of, and it is perhaps a bit on the sweet side, but I like that it is a solid malty offering. Unlike so many cheep lagers, this one has some flavor.

Reading of the week: Zmai Iovan Iovanovich – The Chief Servian Poet of To-Day by Nikola Tesla – The love of Serbian poetry that Tesla inherited from his mother stayed with him his whole life. In fact, he assisted in translating a fair bit into English.

Question of the week – Do you associate more with where you are from or where your ancestors are from? And even if those are the same, do you consider yourself primarily of your town, region, nation, or continent?


Bowling for Blue Ribbons

Bowling is an excellent sport. Like most of my preferred sports, it is a recreational option for the young and the old alike, it goes well with beer, and is very social.

In fact, the routine of the game creates a very interesting social dynamic. Conversation during a round of bowling naturally diverges and converges as each participant steps away from the others to take his or her turn. With three players, this occasionally results in three distinct conversations being carried on throughout the game, one between each pair of bowlers. This constantly shifting one-on-one aspect can be really fun.

With a larger group, the dynamics change less with each player stepping away. Nonetheless, the conversation still shifts markedly. In my experience, it helps to ensure that everybody stays involved because the group conversation is less easy for one person to dominate. It also forces couples to interact with the rest of the group by being separated by each one’s turns. This is even true if one of the party is not bowling. In fact, one of my favorite trips to the lanes involved an infant who was passed from hand to hand as each new bowler stood up.

“Nice pick-up! Here, have a baby!”

PBR

Beer of the week: Pabst Blue Ribbon – Let’s be honest, this beer is not very good. No head retention, smells like cheap grain. Tastes like, well, cheap beer. That said, I am certainly not above downing a few pitchers of the stuff at the bowling alley or throwing back a few PBRs on a warm day. It’s just bland; that’s the worst thing about it. It most certainly could be worse.

Reading of the week: Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving – The evening that Rip Van Winkle spent with the mysterious Dutchmen was full of drinking and bowling. However, the drink in the story is Dutch gin. At least PBR doesn’t leave me passed out in the woods for a couple decades.

Question of the week: Are there better social games than bowling?