In Defense of Idleness

Just think of all the things that you could accomplish if you made the most of your time. What if you replaced every television episode that you watch with a lesson in a foreign language? What if instead of checking Facebook, you did a mini workout? So many hours, and days, and years are wasted by each and every one of us. But is making the most of your time the same as making the best use of your time?

It is well-established that taking breaks improves production. Periodic breaks, whether to stretch your legs or just to think about something other than work, are not a waste at all. Rather, they are part of staying healthy and productive.

Even more extended “time-wasting” can have value. Reading a trashy novel, watching sitcom reruns, or playing a cell phone game are all defensible uses of time. For one thing, if you are actually enjoying the book, TV show, or video game, it is certainly not a total waste. The Teacher commends the enjoyment of life and says that there is nothing better for man to do than to be merry. So if you get more enjoyment from reading Twitter feeds than you would from more “productive” pursuits, that’s not so bad.

And as impressive as it would be to “relax” by taking a deep dive into metaphysical philosophy or intense language study, that is simply not realistic for most people. One cannot give maximum effort every waking hour.

Of course, this is not to say that one ought to be totally idle. Television, social media, and the like often are dangerous time-wasters. The point is to be conscious and conscientious about how your time is spent. All too often we lose track of how much time we have spent. We suddenly realized that we have watched an entire television series in one sitting, or that we spent an hour on a cellphone game that we started playing for no particular reason. The biggest waste of time is letting it slip by unnoticed. So watch your favorite show, read some chuckle-headed beer blog, leisurely sip a beer while doing nothing at all productive. But do those things with the goal of enjoyment. Be mindful; do not merely waste time.

Beer of the week: Budweiser Copper Lager – Barrel aged beers are very hot right now.  Budweiser his trying to cash in on this popularity by offering this lager, “aged on real Jim Beam barrel staves.” The best thing about it is it’s lovely red-brown color. The head, of rather large bubbles, dissipates very quickly. The aroma is somewhat malty, and the beer actually starts off with some warm bready malt flavor. But the beer does not finish especially well. I fancy that I get hints of whiskey, and a bit of smokiness in the end, but that might be the power of suggestion. Either way, it is a middle-of-the-road beer for a bottom-of-the-road (how’s that for a figure of speech?) price.

Reading of the week: Transcendental Wild Oats by Louisa May Alcott – This is an excerpt from a wonderful short story in which Alcott relates the history of Fruitlands, the utopian commune co-founded by her father. According to Alcott, her mother did all of the domestic work while the men of the group sat around the fire and built castles in the sky. The men regarded “being” as more important than “doing,” so nothing got done. Naturally, the whole project lasted barely half a year.

Question for the week: I have recently taken to memorizing poetry. What other relaxing pastime could one adopt that would be both enriching and relaxing?

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What’s in a place name?

When I told my friend that I was going to Prague, she replied, “Oh! I love Praha!” Praha, you see, is the Czech name for the city of Prague. My friend insisted upon using the native name for the city. And it irritated me because it sounded pretentious.

When I was younger, I was all for the idea of using native place names. After all, why should we assign a different name to a city or country? What right do we have to change the name given to land by its own inhabitants? The answer is surprisingly simple: we speak a different language. Prague/Praha is a hard case to defend because the Czech government has totally secured possession of the city and the Czech language is firmly established there. But the English name is derived from the German, “Prag”. The region has been under German or at least teutophone control at various times throughout history. Prague’s most celebrated son of the 20th century, Franz Kafka wrote in German. So why shouldn’t we prefer the German name to the Czech?

The Ivory Coast is another interesting example. The Ivorian government insists that the international community use the name “Côte d’Ivoire”. But unlike Prague or Praha, that name has a clear, modern-language meaning. “Ivory Coast” is a literal translation of “Côte d’Ivoire” from French into English. It makes perfect sense that English speakers would use the very readily available English words rather than the French.

An even more clear example of how insisting on using “native” place names doesn’t work is Belgium. The Belgians have three official languages, Dutch, French, and German. So what should we call the capital if we insist on using the “native” name? Brussel? Bruxelles? Brüssel? ) One would face the same problem trying to discuss Swiss cities, or any place that has more than one official language. I imagine that India, with over a dozen official languages, would be the very paradigm of this dilemma.

Aside from places that do not have a single “native” name, what could be done about places that have sounds that do not appear in English. Tonal languages such as Chinese or Thai cannot easily be mastered by native English speakers; should they be expected to butcher the names of Asian cities and countries in futile attempts to sound like the citizens thereof? I say no. There are English names for most places; let those names suffice. There is some idea that by not even trying to use the native name, there is a sense of superiority or snobbishness, but every language works this way. The French do not call England by the name “England”, they call it “L’Angleterre”. Koreans call the United States of America “미국” or “Me-guk”, meaning “beautiful land.” There is nothing haughty about using your own language. If you have a word for something, use it.

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Beer of the week: Budweiser Budvar Classic – In an earlier post, I incorrectly identified Budweiser Budvar Original as Budweiser Budvar Classic. This happened because the label read Budějovický Budvar, leading me to believe that the beer was something other than the original Budweiser Budvar. As I noted in that post, Budweiser means “from Budweis”. However, Budweis is the German name for that town; the Czech name is Budějovice. So what I thought was a different beer by the same company is actually the same beer labeled in a different language. However, the gold foil (instead of silver) leads me now to believe that that beer was Budweiser Budvar Original. This week’s beer, with the silver foil, is Budweiser Budvar Classic, the lower alcohol session beer that I thought I was drinking last time. Got it?

Well it doesn’t make much of a difference anyway. After reading my review of the Original, I see that I could basically copy and paste for this week. It is a fairly standard macro lager. It does have a fairly attractive, hoppy aroma initially, though the head fades quickly and the smell with it. Underneath is decent malt for such a pale beer. Overall, it is an ok beer. Not necessarily something I would fight numerous international trademark lawsuits over though.

Reading of the week: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka – Little seems likely to be lost in the translation of place names. However, in literature, there are some works (principally poetic works) held to be utterly incapable of translation. (Years ago, I searched fruitlessly for a readable version of the Chinese epic “Journey to the West.”) I do not think that Metamorphosis is in that group. I have read, however, that the word “vermin” used throughout the story is not easily translated. I think that the idea shines through, though.

Question of the week: Place names are one thing, but personal names are another. How reasonable would it be to insist on calling Pedro or Pierre by the name “Peter”?


Would you like some beer with your water?

Last month news broke that Anheuser-Busch InBev is facing two big law suits. The more sensational suit is a class-action that alleges that they have been watering down their beers. Specifically, they are accused of adding water directly before bottling, reducing the alcohol percentage of several of their brands below the level stated on the labels. The reduction is claimed to be as high as 8%. (That is, 8% of 5%. So less than half of a percent. Numbers sure are nifty that way.)

As I mentioned in a recent post, class-actions are basically scams. The only people who get very positive results are the attorneys; successful plaintiffs generally get paid in coupons. My other beef with them is the math used to calculate damages. The plaintiffs in this case want the court to award $5 million in damages for AB InBev selling them 4.7% beer with a label that says 5%. How in the world is that worth $5 million in damages? Don’t get me wrong; if they are actually selling a product that is not consistent with the label, that is both wrong and illegal and they should be punished. And if InBev made an additional $5 million by filling more cans with less beer, they have no right to that money. But I just can’t imagine a scenario where I could stand in front of a judge and say under oath, “The difference between the label and the product was enough to cause me material damages on the order of 6-figures. But the product was not bad enough for me to just buy a different beer. Because, seriously, I  bought a six-pack of Budweiser every week for the past four years, even after I had found that I was dissatisfied with the product.”

What makes this case even more suspect is the fact that adding water immediately before bottling is totally standard practice and is in no way improper. They brew the beer slightly strong to begin with and then add water to get the alcohol level to the exact level they want. NPR decided to test some of the beers for themselves and found every one tested to be “well within federal limits” of their labeled alcohol content.

The second law suit is an anti-trust suit. The feds are trying to prevent AB InBev from purchasing Modelo, brewers of Corona. The logic of the suit is that the acquisition would create a giant company capable of obstructing the free market and causing price increases. As much as I love the idea of protecting the free market, the claims just don’t seem to make much sense to me. AB InBev is already a giant company. But they have been losing ground to smaller brewers for years now. Adding a few more macro-brews to their portfolio isn’t going to grant them a stranglehold on the market. If they attempted to raise prices across their newly acquired lines, that would only make it easier for other breweries to gain market-share just by keeping their prices the same. If anything, I’d expect prices to drop as the company consolidates production and streamlines distribution. It seems likely to me that AB InBev just didn’t make the right campaign contributions to make this deal go through smoothly.

Beer of the Week: Cafri – Until these law suits are sorted out (or until I forget,) I am boycotting AB InBev and Modelo beers. So this week’s beer is an unaffiliated, Corona-like brew from Korea. And, for what it is, it isn’t bad. Cafri is clear and smooth. It certainly does not have much flavor at all, but what is there is not at all offensive. It is more than adequate as a Corona substitute and was at one point my go-to cheap Korean beer.

Reading of the week: The Code of Hammurabi, Selections – The oldest extant written code of law seems primitive in some respects; there are regulations about how and when family members can be sold into slavery and under what conditions rape victims should be executed. But there are also some “progressive” laws; there are minimum wage requirements and laws that relieve debtors in the event that their crops are destroyed by acts of god. Also, there is a law against overcharging for beer. The penalty (rightfully) is death by drowning. Not in beer, in the river.

Question of the week: Under The Code of Hammurabi, a judge whose decision is later shown to have been made in error is permanently removed from the bench and forced to pay back the fine he imposed 12-fold. Would the American judicial system be better if judges whose decisions were overturned on appeal were forced to retire?


Charge of the Light Beer Brigade

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Tennyson’s classic poem Charge of the Light Brigade is actually a story of a failed military action. In short, there was an order that was misunderstood which resulted in a cavalry charge against a strong defensive position. Naturally, the Light Brigade was repelled and suffered heavy casualties. Because of the poem, the folly has gone down in history as a glorious exhibition of the honor and ability of the British cavalry. But just like military action itself, the claim that the charge was honorable is also easily shot down.

According to Tennyson, the soldiers “knew / Someone had blunder’d”. They were aware that this mission was suicidal and was impossible. The suicidal part I will not take issue with here. It may be possible to make a rational decision to give up your life for the sake of your country or to achieve a “higher goal.” (The fact that we balk at the idea of suicide bombers and kamikaze pilots may induce us to seriously question whether it actually is possible to make that choice rationally, but that is not the issue here.) Tennyson tells us that “Theirs is not to reason why, / Theirs is but to do and die”. When they enlisted in the Light Brigade, they apparently signed away their rational faculties. The very thing that makes us human is our reason, and it is their very humanity that they gave up when they agreed to relinquish their ability to think.

One will readily argue that it is necessary for soldiers to give up their will and reason to their superiors if anything is to be accomplished. If soldiers are constantly questioning their superiors and failing to obey with alacrity, they put themselves and others at risk. Although it is true that soldiers must trust each other and their superiors and act in the faith that their orders are reasonable, they cannot simply follow without exercising their reason. In an ideal case, they have good reason to believe that their orders have been made by competent superiors who are better informed than they are. Blindly following orders in this case is a rational decision.   But the Light Brigade knew that something was wrong, that order could not have been made by a well-informed, rational superior:  “Someone had blunder’d.” If the act is not rational, how can it be honorable? French Marshal Pierre Bosquet famously said, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie.” [It is magnificant, but it is not war: it is madness.]

Yet Tennyson tells us to “Honor the charge they made”. Should we really be expected to honor madness?

Beer of the Week: Budějovický Budvar – Just as Pilsener originally meant “beer from Pilzen,” Budweiser once meant “beer from Budweis.” The people at the Budweiser Budvar Brewing Company still claim that is the only legitimate meaning of the word. As such, they have been battling with Anheuser-Busch in courts all over the globe in an attempt to secure the international trademark. This has met with limited success. Budějovický Budvar, according to their website, is not the brewery’s signature Budweiser Premium Lager, but their less alcoholic session beer, “ideal for those occasions when it is evident in advance that you will not finish with just one beer.” If that was their goal, they have not done a bad job. The beer has good hops on the nose and a decent lingering (although a little sour) finish, but is still light enough to make it go down quick. Better flavor than the A-B Budweiser, but about the same in terms of body and ability to be consumed in large quantities.

Reading of the week: Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson – Regardless of the philosophical implications of glorifying the tremendous error that resulted in the death, injury, or capture of so many men, this poem really does get the blood pumping. Although if you hear a recording of Tennyson reading it himself, it is more creepy than inspiring. (But what can you expect from a 120 year-old recording on wax?)

Question of the week: If one can rationally point out what an awful mistake the charge was, why is it still so captivating?


The Right Man Was Convicted

I have, on the rarest of occasions, been mistaken. If that admission has not rocked your world to its foundation, I am sure it is because you reasoned thusly: “I am always right. Jake is not me. Anybody who is not me must differ from me in some respect. Therefore, Jake must be wrong at least sometimes.”

As Ben Franklin wrote, “Most men… think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error.”

We regard this as something of a joke. We agree that people tend to be extremely confident in their beliefs even (or perhaps especially) when they do not have all of the information. But since we really do know better, the convictions of others are laughable.

However silly self-confidence can seem in such an uncertain world, it does serve one useful purpose. Namely, it gives people the grounding required to act. Without convictions, one can hardly be expected to do anything wholeheartedly. That has long been one of the great arguments against philosophy in general is that it produces no action. Socrates’ “I know that I do not know” is not exactly a call to arms.

The problem of how to be a man of action while still living the life of the mind is one that Franklin himself seems to have over-come. It seems that part of his ability to act was his willingness to compromise for the sake of practical progress. He never lost sight of the his real world goals and always looked for a way to realize theoretical progress.

Beer of the week: Budweiser – As part of “America Night”, I read Franklin and made a delicious cheese steak sandwich with real American colby-jack cheese. However, the night went wrong when it came to the beer. A careful examination of my Budweiser bottle revealed the OB logo on the glass. Further research indicates that Budweiser sold in Korea is brewed in Korea. The tasted confirmed it. Imagine a bland, watery beer… then add water. In general, I do not care much for Korean beer (or Budweiser for that matter,) but this was the worst Korean offering yet.

Reading for the week: Disapproving and accepting the Constitution by Benjamin Franklin – In a very short address, Franklin makes a few bons mots about self-confidence and then proceeds to justify compromise for the sake of the practical end of a working federal government.

Question for the week: What is the limit to which one can “sacrifice [his opinion] to the common good” before he does the common good a disservice by not insisting on some point of principle?