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?


Play-Fighting

This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Cole 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.

Natural affinities exist between dogs and men. We love them, they love us. They are our companions, our pets, and–as in the case of sheepdogs or bird dogs–our colleagues. But what about dogs makes them our friends?

Spiritedness, according to psychotherapist (and dog-lover) Gary Borjesson, is central to friendship. In his book Willing Dogs & Reluctant Masters, Borjesson writes that our spiritedness, the “feisty, domineering part of our souls… makes us friendly.” It is, he claims, the spiritedness of dogs and their owners that links the two in friendship. But I wonder if Borjesson’s insight is as universal as it seems. He relies heavily on Aristotle, Socrates, and his own experience, resources that are exclusively and unapologetically masculine. It makes sense that male-male friendships (like friendships with dogs) are characterized by spiritedness–and the play-fighting and competition it engenders. But is that also the case in friendships with and between women?

Little boys seem to exemplify friendship through spiritedness. They are forever going on small adventures, fighting mock battles, and inventing new games. Their spiritedness leads them to compete, and their competition breeds friendship.

All of my closest male-male friendships from childhood through college were characterized by competition and play-fighting. At college, my friends and I played every intramural sport on offer, stared at video game screens until our eyes were dry and strained, and even tried to “keep score” in our classes.

(Very rarely, we also played drinking games. More often than not, we simply drank while discussing great books and great ideas. Arguably, such conversations were more competitive than any drinking game.)

Every male-female friendship of mine, however, has lacked any prevailing sense of competitiveness. And it is my sense that spiritedness is not at the heart of female friendship the way it is for men. It is widely acknowledged that girls are generally more cooperative and less competitive than boys. And while boys who dislike competition often have a hard time making friends, I never observed that that about girls. Tug-of-war and such mindless competition may be enough to cement friendship with a boy or a dog, but I get the sense that friendship with girls is more nuanced. Perhaps something less aggressive than spiritedness is at the heart of girls’ friendships.

Spiritedness is not a uniquely masculine trait; don’t get me wrong. As Kipling famously recognized, “the female of the species is more dangerous than the male.” I’ve known and admired many very spirited girls and women. It merely appears to me that the friendship of women is less spirited (though no less ardent) than the friendship of men. But, like Aristotle, Plato, and Borjesson, I am out of my depth in opining what makes women’s friendships tick.

Reading of the week: Eulogy of the Dog by George G. Vest – This famous oration was actually part of Vest’s closing arguments at the end of a jury trial. His client was suing the man who killed his hunting dog. The argument was evidently persuasive; the jury returned a verdict in favor of Vest’s client. Borjesson, “with all due respect to” Vest, claims that if dogs were truly as Vest described them, they would be “too undiscriminating, too foolish and lacking in self respect to be friends.”

Beers of the week: Castaway IPA – Kona may have started as a Hawaiian Brewery, but this particular bottle was brewed in New Hampshire. Castaway is one of Kona’s delicious IPAs. It pours with a creamy head, and smells of bready malts and prominent, but not overpowering hops. Very well balanced, very delicious.

Question for the week: Is spiritedness the lynchpin of friendship?


Sweet Crab Apples

One of the best known of Aesop’s fables is The Fox and the Grapes. The fable goes like this:

ONE hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.”

“IT IS EASY TO DESPISE WHAT YOU CANNOT GET.”

Naturally, The Fox and the Grapes is the origin of “sour grapes”, an expression that is endlessly useful. However, I am not aware of an expression that signifies the opposite of sour grapes. That is, if sour grapes refers to convincing yourself that something is bad simply because you cannot get it, there should be a turn of phrase for convincing yourself that something is good simply because that is all you can get.

People who can’t afford filet mignon might say, “SPAM is actually pretty flavorful.” Those to whom BMWs are beyond reach might claim, “my old Geo is actually a really smooth ride.”  While the fox focused on disparaging what he could not get, a more positive individual might extoll what he has (even if it really isn’t that great.)

I’d propose the expression “sweet crab apples” after the story Paper Pills by Sherwood Anderson. In that story, Anderson talks about the gnarled little apples that are left in the orchard after all of the “good” apples have been picked and sold. Despite their appearance, the narrator claims that these twisted apples are actually sweet and delicious. But I can’t help but wonder whether the people who eat the rejected apples are just deluding themselves.

The SPAM eater may genuinely enjoy canned meat product. The Geo driver might get a lot of joy out of his car. And Anderson may really love the gnarled leftover apples. But have they discovered genuine quality that everybody else overlooked? Or have they just convinced themselves to be happy with what they can get?

Beer of the week: Natural Light Naturdays – I’d be willing to bet that a substantial number of college students would claim that they genuinely like the taste of Natural Light. Whether this preference is genuine, or merely self-delusion based on what beer they can afford, we may never know. Naturdays is a “light lager with natural flavor” meant to approximate a shandy made with strawberry lemonade. Basically, it comes off as a strawberry alcopop. What little head it has dissipated before I could snap a photo. The color is so clear and pale that I would guess that nothing resembling a strawberry came within a mile of the brewery where this was canned. The aroma is like a strawberry candy, but with hints of beer. Honestly, Naturdays is actually pretty good for what it is. It has a nice lingering tartness, and only a little bit more sweetness than I think would be ideal. I suppose it could also have more beer flavor, but it’s refreshing and different.

Reading of the week: Paper Pills by Sherwood Anderson – I actually think that Anderson is serious in his claim that the gnarled, rejected apples actually are delicious. However, in the story, a young woman has bad luck with suitors and ends up marrying an eccentric doctor. Her appreciation for this third-choice mate is likened to an appreciation for the rejected apples.

Question for the week: Does the world need a phrase like “sweet crab apples”?


Sights and Sounds

In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas De Quincey observed that most people make the mistake of assuming that humans are merely passive to the effects of music. It is not simply the music acting upon the ear that makes it pleasurable; “it is by the reaction of the mind upon the notices of the ear (the matter coming by the senses, the form from the mind) that the pleasure is constructed, and therefore it is that people of equally good ear differ so much in this point from one another.”

Virginia Woolf’s The String Quartet provides a fascinating example of the mind reacting the the sensations produced by music. In her classic stream of consciousness style, Woolf shows us all of the mental impressions inspired by a piece of music by Mozart: “Flourish, spring, burgeon, burst! The pear tree on the top of the mountain. Fountains jet; drops descend. But the waters of the Rhone flow swift and deep, race under the arches, and sweep the trailing water leaves, washing shadows over the silver fish, the spotted fish rushed down by the swift waters, now swept into an eddy where–it’s difficult this–conglomeration of fish all in a pool; leaping, splashing, scraping sharp fins; and such a boil of current that the yellow pebbles are churned round and round, round and round–free now, rushing downwards, or even somehow ascending in exquisite spirals into the air; curled like thin shavings from under a plane, up and up….How lovely goodness is in those who, stepping lightly, go smiling through the world! Also in jolly old fishwives, squatted under arches, obscene old women, how deeply they laugh and shake and rollick, when they walk, from side to side, hum, hah!”

It is clear that these images are primarily the product of the listener’s own mind. It is true that composers often have specific imagery in mind themselves (Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov and the storm section of Rossini’s William Tell Overture come to mind,) but it is all but inconceivable Mozart wrote Woolf’s detailed scene into his music. As sublime as the music is, it is Woolf’s own mind that constructed the pleasure.

And because the processes of the listener’s mind are at the center of the how pleasurable music is, it is little wonder that mind-altering substances and music go together so often. As far as I know, Woolf did not drink, but De Quincey used to get high on laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) and buy cheap seats to the opera. And there is reason that Grateful Dead concerts smell the way they do.

So have a beer (or more) and see if it doesn’t make music a bit more enjoyable.

Beer of the week: Flying Fish Abbey Dubbel – This Belgian-style ale from New Jersey is alright. The aroma is is sweet and yeasty, with notes of dark cherry and red wine. But the flavor does not quite deliver the same punch as the smell. I would very much like this beer to have a bit more spice, or sweetness, or something in the finish.

Reading of the week: The String Quartet by Virginia Woolf – The excerpt above describes only the first movement of the performance. The rest of the music evokes a sinking boat, a sword fight, and much more.

Question for the week: Have you ever, like Woolf, had vivid images elicited by live music?


Buck up, do your damnedest, and fight.

This is the thirtieth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXX: Scientific Papers

In 1911, a mere two years after the Harvard Classics was first published, Douglas Mawson (later Sir Douglas Mawson) led an expedition to map the coastline of Antarctica. He was an adventurer and a hero, but he was a man of science first. The great proof of this is not only in his scientific achievements, but also in his very attitude toward his objectives.

In 1912, Mawson was part of a brutal race against time and weather to get back to the base camp. He was part of a three-man surveying party that had pushed over 300 miles into (quite literally) uncharted territory. Suddenly, one of the dogsleds disappeared into a crevasse. With it went one of the men, B. E. S. Ninnis, the better half of the dogs, and most of the rations. Mawson and his remaining companion, Xavier Mertz, with little food (and no dog food) turn back to camp faced with the very real possibility that the weather and lack of supplies would thwart their attempted return.

Frostbite was a problem for them. But even worse was a condition called hypervitaminosis A. When humans consume too much vitamin A, they can suffer from adverse mental effects, hair and skin loss, and a slew of other nasty effects. And it just so happens that husky livers are chock-full of vitamin A. Of course, Mawson and Mertz did not know that; vitamin A was not even named until 1920. So when it came time to eat the sled dogs, they ate them liver and all. The results were deadly.

After nearly a month of trudging, eating stringy dog meat, and deteriorating health, Mertz succumbed. With the wind howling outside of the tent, his team members dead, and his own collection of physical ailments, Mawson considered just staying in his sleeping bag. It would be easy to just stay in the bag forever. But instead, he remembered this poem by Robert W. Service:

The Quitter

When you’re lost in the Wild, and you’re scared as a child,
And Death looks you bang in the eye,
And you’re sore as a boil, it’s according to Hoyle
To cock your revolver and… die.
But the Code of a Man says: “Fight all you can,”
And self-dissolution is barred.
In hunger and woe, oh, it’s easy to blow…
It’s the hell-served-for-breakfast that’s hard.

“You’re sick of the game!” Well, now, that’s a shame.
You’re young and you’re brave and you’re bright.
“You’ve had a raw deal!” I know — but don’t squeal,
Buck up, do your damnedest, and fight.
It’s the plugging away that will win you the day,
So don’t be a piker, old pard!
Just draw on your grit; it’s so easy to quit:
It’s the keeping-your-chin-up that’s hard.

It’s easy to cry that you’re beaten — and die;
It’s easy to crawfish and crawl;
But to fight and to fight when hope’s out of sight —
Why, that’s the best game of them all!
And though you come out of each gruelling bout,
All broken and beaten and scarred,
Just have one more try — it’s dead easy to die,
It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.

(Service, by the way, is known as the Bard of the Yukon. How appropriate for someone struggling for life near the South Pole to get strength from a poet of the far north.)

And those words inspired Mawson to break camp and trudge on. The day he buried Mertz in the snow, Mawson wrote in his journal: “I read the Burial Service over Xavier this afternoon. As there is little chance of my reaching human aid alive. I greatly regret inability at the moment to set out the detail of coastline met with for three hundred miles travelled and observations of glacier and ice-formations, etc.; the most of which latter are, of course, committed to my head.” See what I mean about Mawson’s attitude toward his geographic work?

Over the next thirty days, Mawson made his way back toward base. At one point, he fell through the ice. However the sled, what was left of it, wedged in the opening of the crevasse, and Mawson dangled from a rope above the abyss. Despite his weakened state, he hauled himself up, only for the edge to break away beneath him and leave him hanging once more at the end of the rope. He summoned all of his strength for one final attempt and dragged himself from the gulf in the ice.

Eventually, Mawson made it back to base camp. He returned without his companions, without his dogs, and without much of his skin and hair. What he did bring back was a great deal of geographical information, including names for two large glaciers on the Antarctic coast: Ninnis Glacier and Mertz Glacier.

Beer of the week: Alaskan Amber – Alaska has many nicknames, including “The Last Frontier”. But Mawson’s account of Antarctica makes Alaska seem relatively tame. And at least Alaska has breweries. From Juneau comes this delightful amber ale. It pours a clear dark amber with a good head. It smells mostly of roasted malt. The beer is smooth and malty, with hints of marshmallow and apricot. Delicious.

Reading of the week: Geographical Evolution by Sir Archibald Geikie – At the beginning of this essay, Geikie writes, “From the geographical point of view… we must rank an explorer according to his success in widening our knowledge and enlarging our views regarding the aspects of nature.” In this respect, Mawson ranks very highly among the great Antarctic explorers.

Questions of the week: As great a story as it is, is it even possible that the information gathered by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition was worth the human suffering and death?


Polar Twins

This is the twenty-eighth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXVIII: Essays English and American

Spoiler Alert: If, by some miracle or defect in education, you know nothing about The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, do not proceed. Rather, find a copy of that book, avoid reading the cover or any introductory material, and read it alone, preferably in one sitting.

I suspect that nobody will have cause to heed the above warning. Jekyll and Hyde are so engrained in our culture that one could hardly reach drinking age without knowing the gist of the story: mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll, by means of a chemical concoction, transforms himself into the evil Mr. Hyde. But what people often fail to realize if they only know about the the story secondhand is that the fact that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person is a shocking twist ending. Unlike in the adaptation The Nutty Professor, where we watch the scientist transform, in Jekyll and Hyde, the titular characters are introduced in a way that conceals their relationship. Throughout the story, the narrator slowly untangles the mysterious connection. The slow build and dramatic twist made the book immensely popular, and ironically, its popularity spoiled the story for many future readers.

With the common understanding of the plot comes a common misunderstanding: the idea that Jekyll and Hyde are two sides of the same coin, one good and one evil. Though Hyde is the evil side of Dr. Jekyll’s being, Dr. Jekyll is not merely the good side. He is the composite of Hyde and some unidentified good side. Jekyll and Hyde are not, as in common metaphor, opposites. Rather, Hyde is just an isolated part of Jekyll.

Jekyll’s own account of his transformation contributes to the confusion on this point. He refers to the struggle between “these polar twins”, the good and evil parts of his soul. But we never see Hyde’s twin. For some reason, Jekyll is able to unbind his evil side, but not his good side. How different a story it would be if Jekyll’s experiment transformed him into his angelic, pure good version rather than the demonic, evil Hyde.

To push even further from the notion of Hyde and Jekyll as opposites, the character of Jekyll suggests that he is more than a simple dichotomy. Despite his reference to “these polar twins”, Jekyll opines that “man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens.” So at most, Hyde is likely just one facet of Dr. Jekyll’s immensely complex soul.

Stevenson, like Plato before him and Freud after, seems convinced that the human soul (psyche?) is either multipartite or, at least can be most readily understood by means of such a metaphor. It seems to me that the soul is too complex for such analysis. There is no “good side” and “evil side”; no desires or appetites that can be neatly and perfectly divorced from reason or affection. We are whole beings, not a mere assemblage is parts. We are all Jekyll and no Hyde.

Beer of the week: Shiner Bohemian Black Lager – Calling Spoetzl Brewery’s Shiner Bohemian Black Lager the Hyde to Shiner Bock’s Jekyll would fly in the face of the analysis above. Yet here we are. This, Spoetzl’s schwarzbier, is a pretty nice offering. It is very dark brown, with a quickly diminishing tan head. The aroma is of dark malt. The flavor is is a bit smoky, but quite light and refreshing.

Reading of the week: Truth of Intercourse by Robert Louis Stevenson – As is evident in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson was very interested in how people represent themselves and their true natures. In this essay, he discusses the ways in which people can be habitual liars, but honest in their relationships, and vice versa. “Truth to facts is not always truth to sentiment;” he writes, “and part of the truth, as often happens in answer to a question, may be the foulest calumny.”

Question for the week: Do you perceive multiple parts of your own soul?