Drinking and Thinking

This is the eighteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XVIII: Modern English Drama

For as long as humans have consumed alcohol, its effect on thought, particularly creative thought, has been an important issue.

According to Herodotus, in Book I of his Histories, the Persians made alcohol an essential part of their decision-making. “Moreover,” he writes, “it is their custom to deliberate about the gravest matters when they are drunk; and what they approve in their deliberations is proposed to them the next day, when they are sober, by the master of the house where they deliberate; and if, being sober, they still approve it, they act on it, but if not, they drop it. And if they have deliberated about a matter when sober, they decide upon it when they are drunk.” There are several important features of this comment. In the first place, the Persians applied this practice for “the gravest matters”; the most important decisions require the most complete deliberation. Additionally, the order does not seem to matter; the initial deliberation can be either drunk or sober, so long as the decisions are reviewed in the opposite state. The ultimate decision making is not left exclusively to sobriety.

Two thousand years later, the notion of alcohol as an aide to thought was still common. In Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy She Stoops To Conquer, the jokester Tony Lumpkin sings a drinking song that starts with the lines:

Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain
With grammar, and nonsense, and learning,
Good liquor, I stoutly maintain,
Gives genus a better discerning.

More important than intellectual training, Lumpkin declares, is the consumption of good liquor. Of course, it is not at all clear that this song should be taken at face value. The song meets with the universal approval of the barflies… a group whose decision making is, itself, questionable.

Shortly before our own day, we have come to better appreciate how alcohol adversely affects our mental processes. H. L. Mencken, although an avid tippler, never mixed alcohol and intellectual work. In his essay Giants at the Bar, he wrote,I never touch the stuff by daylight if I can help it, and I employ it of an evening not to hooch up my faculties but to let them down after work. Not in years have I ever written anything with so much as a glass of beer in my system. My compositions, I gather, sometimes seem boozy to the nobility and gentry, but they are actually done as soberly as those of the late William Dean Howells.”

Ultimately, it seems that different amounts of alcohol (from zero to tipsy) provide different mental effects. So for each individual, each mental task probably has its own optimal level of intoxication. (Many, if not most, of which are almost certainly stone sober.) I suppose that it would require years of dedicated study to determine how many beers are ideal for any given task. I’d better get to work.

Beer of the week: PC Pils – Founders Brewing Co. makes this “American hopped pilsner.” But PC Pils doesn’t strike me as very pilsner-like. For one thing, it is a bit hazy, while pilsners are most often clear and golden. And without the classic noble hops aroma and taste, it just doesn’t fit the bill. That said, I quite like PC Pils. Although the aroma is faint, it is nice and hoppy. The flavor is primarily of floral hops and a subtle hint of ginger. Whatever style they claim this is, Founders has done a great job with this summer seasonal.

Reading of the week: She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith – This scene sets up the primary story arc of the play. After performing the song introduced above, Lumpkin misleads some travelers into mistaking their destination. A series of misunderstandings ensues. More alcohol may have helped.

Question for the week: Is there any task, mental or otherwise, that you are better at after a beer or two?

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Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness

This is the fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IV: The Complete Poems in English by John Milton

Samson, the Old Testament character of prodigious strength, is an odd sort of hero. Like a Hebrew Hercules, he performed tremendous feats, but the moral of his story not altogether simple. Samson was quick to anger, cruel to animals, indiscriminate in his violence, and, worst of all, he drank nothing but water.

Samson was a Nazirite, which means that he was consecrated to God and made specific vows: In the first place, Nazirites vow to drink no wine. The second vow is to leave one’s hair uncut.  And finally, Nazirites vow to avoid ritual uncleanliness by coming in contact with the dead, including funerals.

How did Samson fare in attempting to keep his vows? As to the injunction against drinking wine, he appears to have followed through. Maimonides taught that alcohol is not forbidden for Nazirites, so long as it is not derived from grapes. But Samson’s version of this vow seems to be one of total abstention. Most English translations seem to follow The King James Version, stating that Samson was to “drink no wine nor strong drink.” Some more modern translations say that he was to avoid “wine or any other alcoholic drink.” The Contemporary English Version specifically includes beer. In the words of Milton, Samson’s “drink was only from the liquid brook.”

As for cutting his hair, Samson famously kept this vow until he was deceived by a prostitute called Delilah. She, then, cut his hair in his sleep, rendering him powerless. Having followed through on this part of the Nazirite vow was the source of his strength, and without his hair he was as weak as any other mortal.

And as for avoiding corpses, I am inclined to think that he did a terrible job. The Bible does not tell us about him attending funerals or strolling through cemeteries, but he killed a bunch of guys. And it seems to me that when he beat a thousand men to death with the jawbone of an ass, he got in plenty of corpse touching. I have heard it argued that at the time that he touched the Philistines, they were not yet dead, and that they only became dead after he touched them. This argument elevates form over substance. And, at any rate, that doesn’t account for the time that he killed thirty innocent men and stripped the clothing from their bodies to give to the people who figured out his stupid riddle. Stripping the clothes from dead men is most certainly NOT in keeping with the Nazirite’s vows.

If the goal of life is righteousness, then I think that the Nazirite vows may actually be a stumbling block. There is no doubt that the discipline and dedication required to follow though with the vows can be a valuable tool for contemplation and self-improvement. But if one simply follows through with the strictest literal interpretation of the vows, he risks achieving ritual purity without achieving righteousness. That is, the Nazirite vows are not the end. Samson followed the vows, but did that justify tying foxes together by their tails and lighting them on fire? Did leaving his hair uncut make it ok for him to frequent brothels? Is it ok to murder thirty men over a riddle, so long as he can do so and not break his vows? (And, again, I think it is important to emphasize that the men who were killed were not the ones who tricked his wife into giving up the solution to the riddle. They were presumably unaware of Samson’s reason for murdering them.)

And the fact that Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut seems to further this form over substance problem. Samson did not break his vow. His hair was cut while he was asleep. And yet, Samson lost his power and his favor from God because of what somebody else did. The power, it seems, was not even in the obedient dedication to God, but in the show of dedication – the hair itself. Without his long hair, nobody can tell that he is a Nazirite just by looking at him; he loses his strength, not because he broke his vow, but because he looks like he broke his vow. The appearance of righteousness is more important for Samson than inward righteousness.

In short, wouldn’t it be better to drink wine, sport a buzz-cut, attend funerals, and not be a violent psychopath?

Beer of the week: Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (2017) – This is an uncommonly strong beer to go with a reading about an uncommonly strong man. Every year, Goose Island releases it’s limited edition Bourbon County Brand line of beers. These special brews are aged in used bourbon barrels. The 2017 Barleywine is an excellent beverage. It is 14% alcohol, and it shows. But it is so smooth that the alcohol is warm but not harsh. The aroma has notes of vanilla. In the flavor there is a hint of pepper (from the bourbon barrel, perhaps.) Dark cherry is a stand-out in a very rich flavor profile. What a treat!

Reading of the week: Samson Agonistes by John Milton – Milton’s version of Samson attributes his downfall to a lack of wisdom, and a weakness for women: “what is strength without a double share of wisdom?” In this section of the tragic poem, Samson is talking with his father Manoa about the proper course of action now that he is imprisoned and blind. Certain of Manoa’s exhortations are reminiscent of Crito’s appeal to Socrates: “Repent the sin, but if the punishment Thou canst avoid, self-preservation bids.”

Question for the week: Ultimately, I think that my reading of the story of Samson is not the intended reading. Samson is meant to be a hero, not a cautionary tale about elevating religious form over virtuous substance. How can his story be read more charitably?


Sincerity

This is the eighth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

SINCERITY: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
– Franklin

To some extent, many competitive sports rely on subterfuge and deception. Hockey has its deke moves, basketball its pump fakes, boxing its feints, rugby its dummy passes. Baseball, no less than any of these other sports, has it’s share of deceptive practices.

The president of Harvard (and editor of the Harvard Classics) William Eliot once said of the university’s baseball team, “…this year I’m told the team did well because one pitcher had a fine curve ball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard.” Eliot, however, is in the minority; most people appreciate and applaud a ball player who is especially adept at deception. It is part of the game, as they say.

Another sneaky part of the game is stealing signs. The catcher uses hand signals to communicate with the pitcher, and if an a base runner is able to intercept those signs, he may gain valuable information for his team. And it is generally accepted that there is nothing wrong with stealing signs.

However, a few weeks ago the Boston Red Sox got caught using an Apple Watch to communicate stolen signs, and that burned some people up. It’s fair enough to have a player steal signs from the base paths, but to use video cameras and electronic messaging is something else entirely. For one thing, a catcher may change his signs when an opponent is on base, making the signs themselves part of a game within the game. But what adaptive measures could the catcher use against video cameras and wireless messaging? It takes an aspect of the game away from the players and puts it in the hands of nameless support staff. For another thing, it converts a relatively rare advantage into a constant. Traditional sign stealing only happens when a runner is on second base, but the use of video makes it possible to steal signs on every single pitch.

The line between admirably clever and despicably devious  is not always easy to spot, but when somebody steps well and truly over that line, he draws well deserved ire.

BeachBlonde

Beer of the week: Oval Beach Blonde – Summer is technically over, but a late heat wave has kept this summer blonde enjoyable. Oval Beach is a beautiful blonde brew from Saugatuck Brewing Company in Michigan. The beer is just a bit tangy, and has a nice malt body. A very refreshing choice.

Reading of the week: The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, Book I, Chapters X & XI – As in sport, military leaders are often praised for deception, but only up to a point. A well laid ambush is considered laudable, but if the ambush is baited with a false truce, it is considered villainous. This excerpt describes some of the acts of Robert Guiscard. Anna Komnene clearly thinks that Robert overstepped the bounds of decency, but history knows him as “Robert the Resourceful”.

Question for the week: Is there really a fair distinction between clever deception and devious deception? Or is all deception equally admirable/reprehensible? (Kant may suggest an answer.)


Tomato, Fruit or Vegetable?

Identify the correct statement:

A. Tomatoes are fruits.
B. Tomatoes are vegetables.
C. Tomatoes are berries.
D. All of the above.

The key to this question is the key to most questions: first agree on definitions. If the terms are not adequately defined, then there is no real hope of reaching a consensus on the right answer.

So what is a fruit? In the botanical sense, a fruit is the structure that bears the seeds of a flowering plant. In the culinary sense, a fruit is a sweet plant part. Culinary fruits are usually botanical fruits, but it is not always true that botanical fruits are culinary fruits. For example, apples, cucumbers, acorns, and pumpkins contain the seeds of their respective plants, and are therefore botanical fruits. But of those, only apples are usually considered to be culinary fruits because they are sweet and fleshy. Likewise, tomatoes have seeds, so they are botanical fruits. However, they are not considered culinary fruits because they are generally not prepared the way that sweet fruits are. So answer A. is correct, so long as the broader definition is used.

What is a vegetable? Again, there are broader and narrower definitions. A vegetable may be any edible part of a plant. Or it may be a culinary vegetable: leaves, stems, roots, or some of the less sweet botanical fruits. Nuts, for example, clearly fit into the first definition, but may not fit into the second. The same can be said of grains. So tomatoes are definitely vegetables under the broader definition, and also under the culinary definition.

What is a berry? You’ve guessed it, there are multiple definitions. The colloquial definition is a small, fleshy fruit that is usually sweet. This includes strawberries, blackberries, mulberries, and cherries. But none of those fruits fit within the botanical definition of a berry. Botanically speaking, berries are fleshy fruits that do not have stones that are produced from the single ovary of a single flower. So blueberries, elderberries and grapes are botanical fruits. But so are pumpkins, bananas and, indeed, tomatoes. So although they are not berries in the common sense of the word, C. is a correct answer if the question is about the botanical definition.

Ultimately, the question is more “what definitions are being used?” than “what is a tomato?” People often argue at length about things that are no less trivial than the categorization of tomatoes. And frequently the source of their disagreements are at the definitional level. One of the great flaws of language is that no matter how many words we have, they are all but poor representations of ideas. Try to focus on agreeing on definitions before jumping into an argument where you are likely to be talking right past each other.

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Beer of the week: Shiner Ruby Redbird – Grapefruit is considered a “modified berry” because, unlike most berries, it has a tough skin and internal segments. Ginger is either a spice or a vegetable, depending on what definition is used. And both are ingredients in this beer. Ruby Redbird was originally a summer seasonal. However, it is now available year-round. It pours with a fluffy head that fades quickly. Ginger dominates the smell and the aftertaste. There is a hint of citrus at first, but the ginger is so strong that everything else is really secondary. That’s not a bad thing, mind. As long as you are ok with ginger flavored beer, this is a very tasty and refreshing option.

Reading of the week: How I Edited an Agricultural Paper by Mark Twain – Like the narrator of this great short story, I don’t really know much about agriculture. (But at least I know that turnips don’t grow on trees.) This story is very funny, but it also ends with a great critique of newspaper editors that is equally applicable in a digital age where everybody, no matter how ill-informed, can spread his opinion to the masses.

Question of the week: Is baseball a sport? Or, more accurately, is there any reasonable definition of “sport” that excludes baseball?


Discount Logic

Nearly every time I sit down at a bar, I ask the barkeep the same question: are there any beer specials on at the moment? Admittedly, the motivation behind this question is pinching pennies. But as Confucius said,“Waste begets self-will; thrift begets meanness: but better be mean than self-willed.” So I’d rather be thrifty than wasteful. And anyway, if I save a dollar per drink, that can quickly add up to another drink.

Another important feature of the question is its ability to narrow down my choices. There are so many beers out there, that I often appreciate the opportunity to rely on the daily specials to help me decide. I have sampled a great number of beers that I might otherwise have overlooked this way.

But discounts are more than they seem. Discounts can reveal a number of motivations. They can be implemented for the purpose of new customer acquisition. They can also be used to move inventory that is growing stale. But the main sale prices offered by bars are designed to drive sales, particularly at times when demand is low. Compare, for example, the deals that you can get Tuesday afternoon compared to Saturday night. The traditional notion is that the retailer will reduce the price to encourage a greater volume of sales. The increased number of sales hopefully offsets the decreased profit margin on each unit (and then some.)

But those Saturday night customers might have a gripe against the Tuesday happy hour crowd. Arguably, discounts are essentially subsidies paid by one group of patrons for the benefit of another. Everybody who drinks at the bar outside of happy hour is subsidizing the drinks of the happy hour drinkers. For the bar to remain profitable, base prices have to go up in order to cover the revenue lost due to discounts. So by accepting a discount, thrifty patrons are externalizing a portion of their tab and the rest of the customers share the cost in the form of higher prices later.

But there is nothing very novel about this notion. The idea has been around for a long time. A classic example is the expression “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” The “free lunch” in question is the time-honored tradition/marketing scheme whereby public houses offer free food with purchase of a drink. (An arrangement that fed me and my friends more than a few times during our college years.) As more than a few people have observed, those who buy a single drink and eat well get a great bargain. While those who buy multiple drinks or eat little essentially subsidized the feeding of others.

Once this situation has been recognized, one must ask whether there is a moral imperative not to accept discounts on the grounds that doing so is to the disadvantage of those customers who do not receive a discount. The answer, I think, is no.

The bars that I frequent sell cans of PBR or Hamms for as much as $3 per can. And some people make the free choice to pay that price. After all, each and every transaction at the bar is made freely by both the bar owner and the customer. The bar owner is free to set his prices and if the customer finds the prices too high, he may return during happy hour or take his business elsewhere. What does it matter to me if the bar makes more money off of some other patron than he does off of me? If the bar owner is actually losing money on me, let him raise his prices or discontinue his discounts. In a free market, one has little right to complain that somebody else got a better deal.

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Beer of the week: Revolution Rosa – I have complained before about the fact that bars in Boston are prohibited from offering happy hour specials. Chicago no longer has such a prohibition. And this Chicago beer may now be seen at a discounted price, because summer beers are finished and autumn seasonals have hit the shelves. It is hard to tell from the photo, but this beer has a color unlike any other beer have ever seen. It is brewed with hibiscus, which gives the beer a distinctly floral taste and a pink hue. The aroma of the beer is very sweet and malty. The taste follows the smell closely: sweet, malty, flowery. I think that this beer is very good, but I would understand if anybody complained that there is not enough hops to balance all of the sweetness.

Reading of the week: The Sayings of Confucius – To be honest, I am not sure how to read Confucius. I have made a couple of attempts but not as seriously as I might. This section seems like a more or less random smattering, but it contains quite a few lovely thoughts. Of particular interest to me is the line “Were shouldering a whip a sure road to riches, I would turn carter: but since there is no sure road, I tread the path I love.”

Question of the week: Do discounts to some really disadvantage others? Is this a case of the workers in the vineyard?


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?


Look on my works, ye mighty…

In 2003, a large statue of Saddam Hussain was toppled in Firdos Square, Bagdad. Video of the destruction was something of a media sensation. (Whether the event was staged or spontaneous is still unclear, but it sure seems like a brilliant photo-op.) For the most part, the destruction was met with approbation.

In 2015, members of ISIS destroyed priceless statues and reliefs at the 2,900 year old palace of King Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria. Video of militants destroying similar relics throughout the region resulted in international outrage.

So what is the difference?

The obvious answer is time. The fall of Saddam’s regime was not yet complete when an armored vehicle pulled down his statue, but Ashurnasirpal had been gone nearly three millennia when a bulldozer crashed through his palace. But isn’t the time difference superficial? Had the Saddam statue been allowed to stand, it too could have become an ancient and priceless relic. And, had the statue stood for 3,000 years, wouldn’t it’s destruction have elicited the same sort of outrage as the destruction of Ashurnasirpal’s palace?

Another insufficient answer is the brutality and general badness of the late Dictator of Iraq. Saddam invaded neighboring countries and maintained a repressive regime. One might argue that allowing a statue of such a man stand is an insult to all of the Iraqis, Kurds, and Kuwaitis who were killed, tortured, or otherwise hard done-by. But Ashurnasirpal (like most kings) was no tower of virtue himself. Not only did he invade numerous neighboring lands, he was unthinkably brutal. His own account of an insurrection that he put down brags that “Of some [prisoners] I cut off their feet and hands; of others I cut off the ears noses and lips; of the young men’s ears I made a heap; of the old men’s heads I made a minaret. I exposed their heads as a trophy in front of their city. The male children and the female children I burned in flames; the city I destroyed, and consumed with fire”. Surely this man was every bit as bad as Saddam. So why is the destruction of his monuments so appalling while the destruction of Saddam’s is so lauded?

Neither is the comparative “art value” of the two a good explanation. To compare the artistic merits of the separate monuments is beyond my ability and training, but I would argue that neither Saddam’s nor Ashurnasirpal’s likeness derived much of their scorn or value respectively from the technical ability of the artists who sculpted them. I strongly suspect that even if the Saddam statue were a masterwork, the response would have been the same.

What appears to make the difference is the symbolism of the two acts. The toppling of the Saddam statue was partially a warning to other Middle East leaders. Further, since Saddam himself was not captured until several months later, the statue destruction also served as a psychological strike against him and whatever loyal forces he still had. And, like the destruction of all Hitler era monuments in Germany, the toppling of the statue may have had an element of eliminating a potential future rallying point. The destruction of Ashurnasirpal’s palace, however, sends a different message. ISIS has made clear that they intend to destroy everything that is not part of their version of Islam. Whether priceless art, ancient artifacts, or fellow human beings, ISIS is dedicated to the annihilation of anything and everything that does not fit into their worldview. A very disconcerting position for those of us who are part of that “anything and everything”.

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Beer of the week: Magic Hat Snow Roller – After spending Christmas in a t-shirt and the first week of the year in the rain, the last couple weeks have finally provided cold weather sufficient to justify drinking some winter seasonals. This pretty brown ale smells of toasted grain and a bit of hops. Hints of burnt toast also lead the flavor. It is really in the aftertaste that this beer comes together. There is some lingering sweetness, but that is offset by tingling hops and alcoholic sharpness (6.2%). This is a good beer, but a bit more bitter and alcoholic-tasting than I would prefer.

Readings for the week: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Ozymandias by Horace Smith – The poets (and close personal friends) Shelley and Smith each wrote a sonnet on the same subject: the shattered remains of an ancient statue of the Pharaoh Ozymandias, which had been meant to preserve the glory of its subject for all time.

Question for the week: Is the video footage of Saddam’s statue being pulled down now a sort of “digital monument” to George Bush II?