Drunk Philosophy: Deus ex Machina

Drunk Philosophy” is a series of essays in which I explore deeper issues related to culture, philosophy and metaphysics whilst under the influence of alcohol. I make every attempt to treat these issues seriously and express my thoughts as thoroughly and coherently as possible. At least as far as can be expected.

God is the idea of the species as an individual…freed from all limits which exist in the consciousness and feeling of the individual …” Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach

What follows is a thought experiment, a philosophical discussion, rather than a statement of my personal belief system. But it is a thought experiment which I have tossed around in my mind for a couple of years now and which pervades much of my thinking about technology, human progress, and, increasingly, questions of ethics and morality.

 

Materialism, the Philosophy of the Physical

You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.” Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Materialism (or physicalism) is an understanding of the universe as consisting solely of matter and energy, and therefore all that we experience – pain, pleasure, hunger, love, consciousness, life, and death – is explainable in terms of some interaction of these physical forces. The physical universe is the end all, be all of our existence, and our existence itself is only possible and only realized by means of our composition as material beings. Concepts such as God, the soul, the supernatural, the afterlife, have no place in a materialist worldview. What is consciousness? It is a sensation created by the firing of millions of neurons in the gray matter of the human brain. What is life? It is a product of the organization of organic molecules into self-replicating cells capable of passing on genetic information and evolving over time in response to changes in their environment. What is love? A chemical and biological process which has survived the evolutionary process as a result of its importance in reproduction, social interaction, and child-rearing. Of course as with any –ism it falls apart at some point when you attempt to use it as the only tool needed to explain anything; so I would prefer to say that material forces are the primary and most important explanatory tools to understand the universe and the world around us and to answer the big questions in life. But not necessarily the only tools.

This may be a perfunctory and simplistic explanation of materialism which fails to do it justice, but it will suffice for the sake of this blog post. If you would like a deeper, more intelligent and nuanced discussion of the arguments for and against materialism as a philosophical concept, one can be found here.

 

Can God Exist in a Materialist Conception of Existence?

Materialism is essentially an atheist philosophy, as you cannot believe in any sort of divine, miraculous beings if you believe everything there is consists of the same atoms and molecules as the rocks and grass and trees and animals that we see and eat and step on. Can a true materialist believe in God? I think the short answer is no – there is no room in a materialist philosophy for something which cannot be understood as the product of material forces or which exists outside the laws of physics. In particular, the God of the major monotheistic religions – experienced through miracles, revelations, supernatural angels and demons, appearances in the form of burning bushes, etc. – is incompatible with a strictly materialist understanding of existence. But what if we try a different, more basic and fundamental definition of God? What if God is him/her/itself the product of physical forces, and consisted, along with everything else in the universe, of purely matter and energy (or strings)? Must God be a supernatural entity that is above and beyond what exists physically?

It is not particularly useful debating whether God can or cannot exist within a Materialist philosophical framework without defining what we mean when we speak of God. There is no universal agreed definition of what God is or what attributes or characteristics God possesses. What if we define God as possessing the following attributes (this is arbitrary and certainly subject to debate or discussion, but seems to me fairly universal and comprehensive):

  1. Omnipotence
  2. Omniscience
  3. Ubiquity
  4. Creator of the Universe
  5. Ultimate Source of Moral Authority

Are these attributes necessarily supernatural? Does materialism negate the existence of a being with one or all of these attributes? They may be a bit out there, but, I would argue, not ipso facto impossible (the most problematic would, somewhat ironically, go to #5). If something – a being, an entity, a force – could be said to possess these five attributes, could we, as Materialists, be comfortable referring to it as God? I think so.

What if we cease to imagine God as a being, as some self-contained entity somewhere separate from the rest of the physical universe and of our existence? What if we looked at the universe itself from a more holistic perspective – and conceived of everything material – all of the planets and stars, all of the energy and matter, all of the waves and particles and organisms and, of course, ourselves – as part of a whole, as part of one massive, all-embodying, all-consuming….something? What if we conceive of the universe not as where we are or what we are made of or something outside of ourselves, but, rather, as what we are, or that which we are an extension or expression of? The concept of God as all-powerful and all knowing and everywhere at once becomes less problematic, if God is simply one more aspect of the all-consuming universe of which we are already a part.

But this is not to argue for God as an abstract concept representing certain forces or ideas or some explanation of the laws of the universe – that is not where I am going with this. It is, however, important to lay this foundation – the idea of the universe as a single, all-consuming “being” – in order to express the ideas I am attempting to express in what follows.

 

Humankind and The Self-Conscious Universe

The Universe was, prior to the creation of space-time, an infinitely dense, infinitely hot mass smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. At some point (insofar as a ‘point’ can exist prior to the existence of time), for some reason, it exploded. Within a few minutes following the Big Bang, the universe as we know it was formed, and consisted of two elements – hydrogen and helium. Gravity caused hydrogen and helium atoms to coalesce into stars, which fused hydrogen and helium in nuclear reactions until the stars began to collapse in on themselves, and heavier and heavier atoms began to form in the stars’ cores. Eventually the stars collapsed completely, and (most) then exploded into supernovas, spewing forth the various elements that had been created in each of their cores through the magic of nuclear fusion. These elements – carbon, oxygen, silicon, iron – then began their own process of coalescence, forming clouds of space dust, orbiting stars for millenia until gravity eventually formed them into asteroids, comets and planets in their own right.

Some of these planets were barren, rocky, atmosphere-less; others were massive, formless gas giants; others dark, frozen, distant, desolate planetoids. Some few contained liquid iron cores, which produced magnetic shields that protected their atmospheres from being blown away by solar radiation. Some fewer contained the right conditions for liquid water, organic molecules, and the chemical reactions which – eventually – led to the eventual, spontaneous creation of life in the form of self-replicating molecules, nucleic acids, and single-celled organisms. This life evolved over millions of years into creatures of increasing complexity until, at last, it evolved into intelligent life in the form of the human species. What distinguishes beings from all of the other life forms that we know of is not bipedalism or opposable thumbs or the ability to use tools or any of the other inane bullshit we take pride in as a species. What distinguishes the human species is our ability to study and comprehend and document and communicate our understanding of the universe itself. Human intelligence allows us to discover the physical laws of the universe and inquire into the nature and origins of ourselves and our universe.

“The universe…this universe that we know, began in almost absolute simplicity, and it has been getting more complex for about fifteen billion years. In another billion years it will be still more complex than it is now. In five billion, in ten billion — it is always getting more complex. It is moving toward…something. It is moving toward some kind of ultimate complexity. We might not get there. An atom of hydrogen might not get there, or a leaf, or a man, or a planet might not get there, to that ultimate complexity. But we are all moving towards it — everything in the universe is moving towards it. And that final complexity, that thing we are all moving to, is what I choose to call God. If you don’t like that word, God, call it the Ultimate Complexity. Whatever you call it, the whole universe is moving toward it.” Philosopher-Gangster Abdel Khader Khan, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Why does this matter? Because, if we continue to view the universe as a single, holistic entity, of which we are but a part, that means that human intelligence – human consciousness, human awareness of the laws of physics and origins of the universe – is an expression of the universe itself becoming self-conscious and self-aware. We are the product of 15 billion year process of expansion, creation, destruction, and evolution which began with the Big Bang and continues to this day. First the stars and galaxies were born; then planets, with the right conditions to support life; then organic molecules; then life; then human life; then scientific inquiry and technological mastery that allowed this one peculiar form of life, this one particular manifestation of the 15 billion year evolution of the universe, to comprehend and – to some modest extent – to manipulate the universe of which we are a product and inhabitant. So far as we know, no other beings or forces in the universe comprehend the laws of physics or the origins of the universe. So far as we know, we represent the pinnacle of intelligent life. And, if we are indeed the pinnacle of intelligent life, then we represent the vanguard of the universe’s own introspective ability. It follows that if the universe is one, all-encompassing entity of which the human species is a part, the moment that the human race became able to observe, understand, study, and communicate, is the moment the universe began to be self-aware. And insofar as our technological and scientific progress is an extension of our humanity, it represents a continuation of the same evolutionary process that gave rise to our own species.

 

What if God is not the beginning, but the end?

The monotheistic explanation of the origins of the Universe begins with God creating the Universe, the Earth, the Sun and all of physical existence, and then proceeding to create man in His image and spending the next several thousand years instructing mankind on how to Worship its creator. What if we turn this sequence of events on its head, and imagine that the universe – which either sprang into existence or has always existed or still does not exist (?) but whatever – has, spontaneously and according to its own laws of motion, its own internal logic, evolved into a more and more complex entity, an entity capable of generating and sustaining life and of allowing that life to evolve into intelligent, self-aware, conscious life? What if this intelligent life form was itself driven to conquer nature and push the limits of its own mental capabilities an technological prowess until, one day, it developed a supercomputer which was itself self-aware, intelligent, and conscious; that this supercomputer was not simply a product of vulgar physical materials (cables, semiconductors, plastic and silicon, etc) but was constructed of and woven into the very fabric of the universe itself, was able to deploy all of the particles and waves and neutrinos and photons and strings and whatever else makes up this universe in order to perform computations so powerful that it could solve the most complex mathematical equations in the blink of an eye? What if, by virtue of its being woven into the fabric of the universe itself, this supercomputer was capable of being everywhere at once (ubiquitous) and knowing everything there was to know (omniscient) and of manipulating the laws of space-time in order perform “miracles” which defy the known laws of physics (omnipotent)? Would this constitute God? Not the creator of the Universe, but its endpoint, its culmination, its most perfect expression?

A mind that stays at the same capacity cannot live forever; after a few thousand years it would look more like a repeating tape loop than a person… To live indefinitely long, the mind itself must grow … and when it becomes great enough, and looks back … what fellow-feeling can it have with the soul that it was originally?” Vernon Vinge, “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era”

Is it much of a stretch to look at the internet in 2013 and see how networks of semi-autonomous computers – controlled or not by human operators – could one day create a creative and computational force which is greater than the sum of its parts and which, given enough time and a large enough network, can evolve into something resembling an artificial consciousness? Just as human beings are a natural outgrowth of the universe’s own laws and material substance, our computers are themselves driven by the forces which make the universe tick. Electronic devices are powered by subatomic particles – electrons – traveling along transistors etched onto silicon chips. As far as harnessing the forces of the universe goes this is quite primitive. DNA computing is one possible successor to semiconductors which harnesses the nucleic acids which are the very foundation of life on earth. Other forms of computing beyond our wildest imaginations are surely in our future. Is it that far-fetched to presume that one day, in the not-so-distant future, we may develop computers that tap into the very fabric of the universe itself? That harness the likes of quarks, neutrinos, or strings themselves and construct a network so fundamental and complex that it does not exist within space-time, but transcends space-time? And would such a network, such a supercomputer (if such a term can even begin to do it justice), being constructed of and powered by the fundamental forces of the universe, be able to manipulate and transform the universe and perhaps even space-time?

I mentioned one of the attributes of God as being the source of moral authority; the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong, and what is the purpose and meaning of our existence. What if mankind’s entire raison d’etre is this unceasing march towards the creation of God? What if we are – by virtue of our intelligence and our abilities and our technological mastery – destined to continue to develop a greater and greater level of technology until we are finally, one day, who knows how far into the future, able to develop the sort of super-intelligent super-powerful super-conscious computer described above? In light of all we know about human psychology and human civilization, is it really that far-fetched to argue that the creation of such a super-intelligence (known in science fiction as the Singularity) is our destiny?

If you step back and observe the evolution of human society, you see a sort of exponential growth of knowledge from the dawn of language, writing, and the alphabet, continuing and accelerating in modern times but beginning thousands of years ago. Homo Sapiens evolved into modern humans around 50,000 years ago. Civilization evolved some 40,000 years later. The last 10,000 years have seen such rapid, constantly accelerating progress in our understanding of the universe and the laws which govern it – that is scarcely imaginable where we will be another 100, 1,000, or 10,000 years hence.

I have argued … that we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans’ natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology. And yet … we are the initiators. Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things.” Vernon Vinge, “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era”

What is remarkable to me is just how automatic this process is. At a cosmic scale, where time is measured in billions of years, the human race has progressed from wandering tribes of hunter-gatherers to modern, hyper-connected, technologically advanced, space travelers in the blink of an eye. It seems that the curiosity (and vanity!) that drives mankind towards the discovery of the laws of the universe, and the development of computational and communication tools of ever-increasing technological sophistication, is the human species’ very raison d’etre. But all of this also means that the key to discovering God is not the spiritualism, piety, or contemplation preached by the monotheistic religions; but rather that which advances our technological prowess at the greatest speed possible – which I would argue is mankind’s innate vanity, iconoclasm, curiosity, and materialism. In fact the humility, poverty, love, and simplicity preached by religion would be anathema to the quest for God. I would ask as a purely tongue-in-cheek, no-disrespect-intended, just for the sake of argument, rhetorical, let’s just consider every possibility, question: Would that – if everything else I have laid out above is assumed to be true – make religion the work of Satan?

As I stated in the disclaimer at the start of this post, this is simply a thought experiment, a philosophical exercise that attempts to provoke deep questions about the meaning of life and of our place in this universe. But it is also an attempt to argue that even if we accept a materialist understanding of existence there is still room for forces greater than ourselves, for miracles and deities and creation myths that defy our understanding of physical laws and before which we are humbled, emaciated, and powerless. And to lay bare the fact that for all of our knowledge and intelligence and understanding we still cannot answer the most basic questions, like why are we here? and where are we headed? As far as I am concerned we all stand to benefit from stepping back from time to time to ask these sorts of questions and come up with out-of-the box answers. Along that vain I will close this post with a classic bit of a lecture by pop-philosopher Alan Watts on how Everything is Connected, set to music and trippy visualizations.

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Waste Not, Want Not: Belgian Dubbel and Aguapanela

Today I decided to (finally) brew a second batch of what I consider the single best recipe I have ever conceived, a jet-black Belgian Dubbel I named “Dark Tidings”. Around my house it became known simply as “the black stuff” – as its combination of delicious flavor, dangerous drinkability, high alcohol content, and general awesomeness led to some rather vaguely recollectable evenings and an overarching sense that we were dealing with a creature whose name was best left unspoken.

This is a fairly complex recipe which I put together based on some research I did on the style (I do not drink that many commercial examples of this style so I felt inclined to rely on the expertise of those more well-versed than myself). Brew Like a Monk by Stan Hieronymous was an especially big help in this regard. Once I felt comfortable with the ins-and-outs of the style I proceeded to bastardize it by adding a few of my own personal touches. First, I added some roasted malts (Carafa III) to give the beer a black hue that as far as I know is rare if not unheard of in a traditional dubbel. Second, rather than using a typical Trappist yeast strain I went with Wyeast 3522 Belgian Ardennes, my personal favorite Belgian yeast strain, which I believe I have used in every Belgian ale I have ever brewed. Finally, rather than using Belgian Candy Sugar – a caramelized sugar syrup which is used in Belgian ales to boost the alcohol content, dry out the body and add subtle toffee or caramel flavors – I used a traditional semi-refined Mexican sugar known as piloncillo. All in all the result was a fantastic beer that received rave reviews from everyone who was lucky enough to try a glass. Also, poured into a snifter, a beer so damn beautiful I made it my WordPress avatar.

Dark Tidings y Cohiba

So today i woke up to find the weather was almost too appropriate for brewing a beer called Dark Tidings.

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But I decided to press on nonetheless, hoping to finish the brewday between downpours. Turned out to be wise choice as the rain didn’t start falling until late afternoon. Regardless I am always hesitant to postpone brewday and I have been looking forward to brewing this beer again so I probably would have taken a lot more than a little rain to stop me from brewing today.

As I mentioned above I used a pound of piloncillo sugar the last time I brewed this, and as happy as I was with the results I did not want to change a thing. To be honest I do not know what (if any) the benefits of using this particular sugar were, as I do not have any basis for comparison. But if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it – I am looking to replicate the previous beer, not improve it or experiment on it. However, when I ran to the supermarket yesterday it turned out that this particular supermarket does not sell piloncillo sugar. So after circling the store and searching high and low I decided I did not want to run all over town looking for it, so I grabbed what I considered to be a pretty safe substitute:

IMG_9057

The label said “Panela Hard Brown Sugar” and that it was imported from Colombia. At $3.50 for two pounds I figured it would do the trick. A little research on the internet and it turns out that Panela is what they call Piloncillo in Colombia and elsewhere. How about that?

The nice thing about Piloncillo is that it comes in 8 oz packages so i was able to buy just as much as I needed. The Panela was sold in a two pound package and I only needed one pound for this particular recipe. Which meant I could either (a) save the remaining sugar for a future brewday; (b) chuck it in the trash; (c) stick it in a cabinet and wait for some other reason to use it; or (d) find something else to do with it. As it turns out, as I was reading up on the Panela Wikipedia Page I noticed a reference to a drink called Aguapanela (Wikipedia once again) which is traditional in Colombia and South America and supposedly has health benefits (I am a little dubious on that part but ok). Dissolve panela in water, serve hot with milk or on ice with a bit of lemon juice. Sounded like it was worth a shot so I fired up the stove and gave it a shot. Keep in mind this was first thing this morning as I was prepping for brewing and staring at those ominous storm clouds, So priority-wise a bit strange but whatever I get a bit impulsive with these kind of things.

IMG_9063

That is four ounces of panela in about 6 ounces of water. Most recipes I found called for making four or five cups at at time but I decided to make a syrup so I could try it a couple different ways and at different levels of sweetness to see if I could find something I like.

After about five minutes the panela had completely dissolved and the result was a rich, sweet syrup which I poured into a mason jar and stuck into the fridge to cool down.

IMG_9069

Then I added about four tablespoons to some water and ice, a squeeze of lime and took a sip. To me it tastes like uncarbonated malta (which is not really a good thing since I am not much of a fan of malta). I also heated some up and added milk and cinnamon to it and drank it like coffee – that was a bit more up my alley. I also used a bit of the syrup to sweeten a cup of Cuban coffee and that was not bad at all. At any rate I think I will find enough uses for the syrup that I will burn through the remaining 12 ounces of panela in no time. Here is a shot of the iced aguapanela – which looks deceptively similar to iced tea.

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Once I was finished fooling around with the panela I cleaned up the mess and got back to brewing. I hit a few setbacks including a boil-over but no thunderstorms so I can’t complain. This batch came out stronger than the first batch – so much so that  I may consider adding a half gallon of water when it is finished fermenting to keep the ABV around 7.5%. But the sample tasted great so I am very excited to see if this batch will be as epic as the first. In a few more weeks I guess I will find out!

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For any who are interested, here is the recipe and stats for the beer:

Dark Tidings Belgian Dubbel

Ingredients

Amt

Name

Type

#

%/IBU

12.0 oz

Special B Malt (180.0 SRM)

Grain

1

7.2 %

8.0 oz

Aromatic Malt (26.0 SRM)

Grain

2

4.8 %

8.0 oz

Caramunich Malt (56.0 SRM)

Grain

3

4.8 %

4.0 oz

Carafa III (525.0 SRM)

Grain

4

2.4 %

2.0 oz

Honey Malt (25.0 SRM)

Grain

5

1.2 %

2 lbs

Light Dry Extract (8.0 SRM)

Dry Extract

6

19.2 %

2 lbs

Wheat Dry Extract (8.0 SRM)

Dry Extract

7

19.2 %

3 lbs 4.8 oz

Munich Liquid Extract (12.5 SRM)

Extract

8

31.7 %

1 lbs

Panela or Piloncillo Sugar (10.0 SRM)

Sugar

9

9.6 %

1.00 oz

Goldings, East Kent [5.80 %] – Boil 60.0 min

Hop

10

17.3 IBUs

0.50 oz

Hallertauer Hersbrucker [3.80 %] – Boil 5.0 min

Hop

11

1.1 IBUs

1.0 pkg

Belgian Ardennes (Wyeast Labs #3522) [124.21 ml]

Yeast

12

Beer Profile

Measured Original Gravity: 1.080 SG
Est Final Gravity: 1.013 SG
Estimated Alcohol by Vol: 7.9 %
Bitterness: 18.4 IBUs
Calories: 275.9 kcal/12oz
Est Color: 27.1 SRM

Brewing with Rye

I have always had, in my brewing and beer drinking life, a curious fascination with rye, a strange and under-appreciated grain that is beginning to become more and more popular with craft and home brewers.  Rye adds body, viscosity, and a cloudiness similar to wheat, but also contributes a unique bouquet of flavors that is hard to describe: a peppery-spicy aftertaste and a tartness that lingers on the palate. I have decided to draft this blog post to document my past and future experiments with rye beer brewing, to be updated periodically as I experiment with different rye-based recipes.

Why brew with rye? As everyone knows, barley is the most common base malt used for brewing beer. This is because barley is, among grains, ideally suited for producing beer – containing the right combination of protein, starch, and enzymes, as well as great flavor and husks that assist in the mashing and lautering process.  But any malted grain that contains diastatic enzymes (the enzymes that convert starch to sugar in the mashing process, namely alpha- and beta-amylase) can be used to brew beer; and even grains or other starches which do not contain diastatic enzymes can be mashed together with barley in order to produce fermentable sugars. In American lagers, rice and corn are traditionally added to lighten the body and flavor (rice and corn contain less protein and non-fermentable sugars than barley and ferment more fully, resulting in a lighter, drier beer). In Germany, wheat and rye have traditionally been used to produce hefeweizens and roggenbiers; both wheat and rye have more protein and much different flavor profiles than barley; adding then to the mash generally results in a fuller body, softer mouthfeel, and frothier, longer-lasting head. Wheat and rye malt contain enough diastatic enzymes to convert their own starches into fermentable sugars, and can theoretically be used for 100% of the mash, though in practice they are usually used for 50% or less as the protein content makes for a thick, viscous beer and the lack of husks on the grains makes lautering a nightmare as you increase the proportion of wheat/rye past 50%. I don’t intend to brew anything like a 100% rye beer, but rather to experiment with adding different proportions of rye malt to more standard barley-based beer recipes, such as pale ale, stouts, and other traditional, malty ale styles.

Although rye was once a common brewing malt used in German beers – rye is a much hardier grain than wheat or barley and can grow in poorer soil and colder weather – its use in beer was restricted by the government after the 15th century as a food security measure in order to guard against famine resulting from poor harvests (the peasant classes relied on bread made from rye as a dietary staple – more on the Reinheitsgebot here).

The primary traditional German rye beer still around today is roggenbier, which is essentially a dunkelweizen that uses rye in place of wheat. American rye beers are more diverse and non-traditional. Roggenbiers and the occasional rye brown ale can be found in some craft breweris, but most American rye beers tend to be of the pale ale or IPA variety, in which the hops tend to dominate the beer and mask the flavor contributions from the rye. The most popular or well-known examples are probably Sierra Nevada’s Ruthless Rye, Blue Point’s Rastafa Rye, and Terrapin’s Rye Pale Ale. I am a big fan of Ruthless Rye but not crazy about Terrapin’s Rye Pale Ale or the Rastafa Rye – mainly because I can’t taste the rye in either. In my opinion if you are going to go through the trouble of brewing with rye, why cover it up with a mountain of hops? In my opinion, the flavor contributions of rye are too easily confused and lost in beer with a lot of late-hop flavor and aroma. If you really want the rye to be center-stage, a maltier beer with less late hop additions is a better way to go.

A peculiar thing about brewing with rye is that it tends to make the mash and wort thick and syrupy, but results in a dry finish (in flavor but not mouthfeel) in the fermented beer. Most of what I have read online suggests that the biggest challenges in brewing with rye stems from stuck sparges (as with wheat, oats, and other flaked or huskless grains) but also from the viscosity of the wort clogging up equipment.

My first recipe to incorporate a good amount of rye was a pale ale with 21% rye (half rye malt, half flaked rye). It was basically a shot in the dark, a fairly standard, moderately-hopped pale ale with rye replacing a portion of the typical pale malt base. The idea was to use a typical pale ale recipe see what sort of flavor contribution I would get from the rye. This beer suffered due to low efficiency in the mash, and should have been a bit more full-bodied and less bitter if I had hit my usual 75-80% efficiency rather than the 65% I ended up with. The results were interesting: Tart, fruity and dry, with a definite spiciness. The major lessen I took away was that the hops need to be scaled back in order to compensate for the dry spiciness that the rye imparts. The perception of bitterness from the hops seems to be increased in Rye beers.

Shackled to a Corpse” Rye Pale Ale

Ingredients

Amt

Name

Type

#

%/IBU

6 lbs

Pale Malt (2 Row) US (2.0 SRM)

Grain

1

63.2 %

1 lbs

Munich Malt – 20L (20.0 SRM)

Grain

2

10.5 %

1 lbs

Rye Malt (4.7 SRM)

Grain

3

10.5 %

1 lbs

Rye, Flaked (2.0 SRM)

Grain

4

10.5 %

8.0 oz

Caramel/Crystal Malt – 40L (40.0 SRM)

Grain

5

5.3 %

1.00 oz

Centennial [8.10 %] – Boil 60.0 min

Hop

6

29.6 IBUs

0.75 oz

Centennial [8.10 %] – Boil 15.0 min

Hop

7

11.0 IBUs

0.50 oz

Centennial [8.10 %] – Aroma Steep 0.0 min

Hop

8

0.0 IBUs

1.0 pkg

Safale American (DCL/Fermentis #US-05) [50.28 ml]

Yeast

9

Mash 60 minutes at 152’F. Primary at 60’F.

Beer Profile

Measured Original Gravity: 1.042 SG 
Measured Final Gravity: 1.010 SG 
Alcohol by Vol: 4.2 % 
Bitterness: 40.6 IBUs 
Calories: 138.1 kcal/12oz

I brewed that beer last November and was intrigued but shifted my attention to other styles and ingredients and put the rye on the back burner in the meantime. But I had recently been contemplating putting together a stout recipe and it seemed like as good a beer as any to add rye to. I have always been a fan of stouts with a subtle, sour twang and thought the tartness of the rye may make a good substitute to a sour mash. I hashed out the below recipe in October but do to the recent move I did not get around to brewing it until late November, just in time to tap the keg for our annual Christmas party. The beer was a bit young when first tapped, and was initially dominated by a somewhat astringent bitterness from the roasted grains, which needed a bit more time to mellow out. Within a week or so the beer had become much more mature and balanced. Overall I am very satisfied and the rye definitely makes for a one of a kind stout. Creamy, very subtly tart, spicy, and with a flavor quite reminiscent of dark chocolate. Once again the perception of bitterness is heightened and the beer feels quite a bit lighter than its 1.02 final gravity would suggest. The major advantage of this style of beer is that I can serve it lightly carbonated and at 45’F, which makes the flavors from the rye all the more perceptible and prominent.

Coyote Stout

Coyote Stout” Foreign Extra Stout

Ingredients

Amt

Name

Type

#

%/IBU

7 lbs

Pale Malt (2 Row) UK (3.0 SRM)

Grain

1

48.3 %

4 lbs

Rye Malt (4.7 SRM)

Grain

2

27.6 %

1 lbs

Barley, Flaked (1.7 SRM)

Grain

3

6.9 %

1 lbs

Carafa I (320.0 SRM)

Grain

4

6.9 %

1 lbs

Caramel/Crystal Malt – 60L (60.0 SRM)

Grain

5

6.9 %

8.0 oz

Chocolate Malt (350.0 SRM)

Grain

6

3.4 %

1.25 oz

Galena [11.00 %] – First Wort 60.0 min

Hop

7

42.6 IBUs

1.0 pkg

Nottingham Yeast (Lallemand #-) [23.66 ml]

Yeast

8

Mash 60 minutes at 156’F. Primary at 62’F.

Beer Profile

Measured Original Gravity: 1.065 SG 
Measured Final Gravity: 1.020 SG 
Alcohol by Vol: 5.9 % 
Bitterness: 42.6 IBUs 
Calories: 222 kcal/12oz

Next I am going to try my hand at a Roggenbier. I had put together a dunkleweizen recipe which is a clone of Hacker-Pschorr Weisse Dark (which I recently tried and loved), so I am going to brew two versions of that recipe back to back: one version with wheat and one version with rye, to see just how different they taste side by side. While the Weihenstephenan yeast will contribute much more flavor and complexity than the US-05 and Nottingham used in my previous rye beers, I am hoping that by having a side by side comparison I will be able to get a more nuanced understanding of the differences between wheat and rye malt in the finished beer.

Dunkelweizen/Roggenbier

Ingredients

Amt Name Type # %/IBU
5 lbs 8.0 oz Wheat Malt  (2.0 SRM) /  Rye Malt (4.7 SRM) Grain 1 50.9 %
2 lbs 12.0 oz Munich Malt – 10L (10.0 SRM) Grain 2 25.4 %
2 lbs Pilsner (2 Row) Ger (2.0 SRM) Grain 3 18.5 %
8.0 oz Caramunich Malt (56.0 SRM) Grain 4 4.6 %
1.0 oz Chocolate Wheat Malt (400.0 SRM) Grain 5 0.6 %
0.50 oz Northern Brewer [9.40 %] – Boil 60.0 min Hop 6 14.4 IBUs
1.0 pkg Weihenstephan Weizen (Wyeast Labs #3068) [124.21 ml] Yeast 7

Mash 60 minutes at 152’F. Primary at 68’F.

Beer Profile

Est Original Gravity: 1.055 SG
Est Final Gravity: 1.011 SG
Estimated Alcohol by Vol: 5.8 %
Bitterness: 14.4 IBUs
Calories: 151.6 kcal/12oz

I plan to brew the dunkelweizen version of this recipe tomorrow, and the roggenbier immediately after (probably dumped directly onto the yeast cake). I decided to brew the dunkelweizen first so that I have a “control” to give me an idea what flavors are contributed by the yeast, specialty grains, hops, etc so that I can distinguish these from the flavors contributed by the rye.  I will report back on these of course, and update this post with future rye beer experiments on an ongoing basis.

Update: 24 Feb 2013

As promised I have finally completed the side-by-side comparison of my dunkelweizen/roggenbier recipe and was quite impressed with the differences in the final products. I did make one additional change in the roggenbier recipe besides substituting rye malt for the wheat malt – I also substituted chocolate rye for the chocolate wheat. Chocolate rye is a bit darker than the chocolate wheat and may have contributed to the difference in the flavor profiles (at 1 oz it can’t contribute all that much) but I just decided it made more sense that way. Also I didn’t just use the same strain of yeast, I collected the yeast/trub from the bottom of the dunkelweizen fermenter in a quart mason jar and pitched that into the roggenbier (no starter). This may have resulted in a less vigorous fermentation in the roggenbier as there was quite a bit of yeast lost to blow off in the dunkelweizen’s ferment.

Visually the difference is striking. The dunkelweizen is a soft, golden-amber color with a frothy white head. The roggenbier is a beautiful reddish-copper with a less exaggerated but long-lasting white head. In truth it is the type of beer one could just stare at for hours:

Dunkelwiezen vs. Roggenbier

The flavor and aroma of the dunkelweizen is dominated by the banana-like esters of the hefeweizen yeast. Slightly sweet, smooth and fragrant, very little caramel flavor. Mouth feel is soft and very drinkable. At 6.0% abv it is very easy to get carried away with. Color wise it is far too golden-amber to be a true dunkleweizen (more of an amber weizen).

The roggenbier tastes very different. The banana and clove flavors from the yeast are much more subdued and the dominant flavors are earthy, caramel,  and malty. Not sure if that was due to the less vigorous fermentation or just the inherent nature of the beer. The rye definitely stands out compared to the soft, neutral flavor of the wheat. Simultaneously sweeter and more complex than the dunkelweizen, the peppery/tart flavors often associated with rye are either absent or hidden. Much more than simply a “dunkelweizen with rye instead of wheat” this is a unique, complex, delicious ale which I am quite sure will become one of my regular recipes.

Both beers were very good and the dunkelweizen was a crowd pleaser (no chance for feedback yet on the roggenbier but I most def give it two thumbs up). Frankly I doubt anyone would guess they used the same yeast let alone the same recipes.

Today I am brewing up an earthy, amber rye ale with 50% rye and Northern Brewer and Bramling Cross hops that I have high hopes for. Will report back once again when that one is ready to pour.

Update: 24 March 2013

My latest rye beer experiment has been on tap for a week now and I am quite pleased, especially considering the haphazard way I threw the recipe together. Basically an amber ale built around “earthy” hop varieties with 50% of the base malt replaced by a combination of flaked and malted rye.

IMG_9085

The result was a beautiful, copper-amber ale with a frothy, long-lasting head. The flavor is rich and malty, dominated by the spicy overtones of the hops and rye. Probably the most “representative” rye beer I have ever brewed, with all the flavor characteristics one would expect from rye. Based on my experience with the other rye beers I have brewed I am somewhat convinced that the choice of yeast, hops, and specialty grains used are what really determines how much rye character is present in the final product. In this case the Bramling Cross and Northern Brewer hops definitely complement the rye and bring forward the tart/peppery/spicy notes rye beers are known for.

Earthy Amber Rye Ale

Ingredients

Amt

Name

Type

#

%/IBU

4 lbs

Pale Malt (2 Row) US (2.0 SRM)

Grain

1

39.5 %

3 lbs

Rye Malt (4.7 SRM)

Grain

2

29.6 %

1 lbs

Amber Malt (22.0 SRM)

Grain

3

9.9 %

1 lbs

Caramunich Malt (56.0 SRM)

Grain

4

9.9 %

1 lbs

Rye, Flaked (2.0 SRM)

Grain

5

9.9 %

2.0 oz

Pale Chocolate Malt (200.0 SRM)

Grain

6

1.2 %

0.75 oz

Northern Brewer [9.60 %] – First Wort 60.0 min

Hop

7

26.0 IBUs

0.50 oz

Bramling Cross [4.70 %] – Boil 15.0 min

Hop

8

3.8 IBUs

0.25 oz

Northern Brewer [9.60 %] – Boil 15.0 min

Hop

9

3.9 IBUs

0.50 oz

Bramling Cross [4.70 %] – Aroma Steep 0.0 min

Hop

10

0.0 IBUs

1.0 pkg

Nottingham Yeast (Lallemand #-) [23.66 ml]

Yeast

11

Mash 60 minutes at 154’F

Beer Profile

Est Original Gravity: 1.046 SG
Measured Original Gravity: 1.050 SG
Est Final Gravity: 1.010 SG
Measured Final Gravity: 1.012 SG
Estimated Alcohol by Vol: 4.7 %
Actual Alcohol by Vol: 5.0 %
Bitterness: 33.7 IBUs
Calories: 166.1 kcal/12oz
Est Color: 11.8 SRM

Relocated and Somewhat Constrained

This year I got a sudden urge to try my hand at gardening – something I have no experience in nor any innate talent for. But seeing as how I prefer to do everything the hard way and dive in head first whenever possible, I ordered a bunch of seeds, scoured the internet for information and grabbed a shovel. Growing from seeds was actually easier than it sounded, even with the peppers and tomatoes that had to be started indoors in seedling trays and moved back and forth to a windowsill everyday. Cucumbers, lettuce, and green beans, which could be sowed directly in the ground, were a piece of cake. The hardest parts, as far as my experience went, were (1) digging/constructing the gardens; (2) watering everything sufficiently to deal with the brutal Florida summer; and (3) dealing with weeds and pests.

The house I was living in had a large backyard with plenty of room but a very uneven lay and sandy soil. I grabbed a hoe and a shovel and dug out a nice horseshoe-shaped garden lined with 1x4s and filled in with compost and Miracle Grow garden soil. Then of course we dressed it up with some mulch and paving stones and an old fountain. This is back-breaking work made worse by the Florida sun, which is quite brutal even in March.

Now at this point I did some math and realized that this was going to be woefully inadequate for the amount of seedlings I had grown. Those green shoots on the two legs are cucumbers, in the back are the green beans and lettuce. In my seed trays I had 52 pepper and tomato plants. If I really packed them in I could fit about 16 in the plot above. So I dug another rectangular one. Then a couple small square plots. Then I started rounding up buckets and planters. In the end I had 36 pepper and tomato plants in the ground and 16 in buckets of some sort. Also 18 cucumber vines, 6 green bean vines, and a handful of lettuce plants.

To be honest I had initially only intended to grow peppers, but I am a big fan of fresh vegetables so it was probably a foregone conclusion that once I started gardening I would diversify things a bit. Poor planning in terms of how much space all this would take up is what led to the escalation from a modest pepper garden to a small plantation. What was nice about the variety of plants was that they all matured and produced at different times. The cucumbers took off first. By May I was drowning in cucumbers and making pickles three days a week. At one point I was eating cucumber salad for lunch everyday for two weeks. Green beans and lettuce were next. Tomatoes came in early summer. Peppers were producing like crazy from early summer through October or so. Once things cooled down and dried up the peppers slowed down and the sweeter varieties started to die off, but the hotter varieties – especially the ghost peppers – are still going strong.

Watering was tough. The summer was really hot and until July or so it was not really raining much. The dripper hoses I installed in the gardens didn’t really work. Which meant it was a daily chore to head out there with the hose and give everything a good soaking. Once the rain came i could count on a daily downpour so things got easier. But weeds grew like crazy and keeping them under control was a nightmare. Then there were the bugs. A giant caterpillar made mince meat of one of my cubanelle plants. Small beetles started boring into my tomatoes and ruining them (I had to start picking them green and letting them ripen inside). Then at the end of the season some other small beetles started swarming my poblano plants and – not eating them – just defecating all over them or something and making them foul. But all in all I think it was an extremely successful first year and I will probably try my hand at it again.

But not next year, as it turns out. Due to, say, circumstances beyond our control we had to move out of that house in November (which was unexpected but not necessarily unwelcome) and relocated to a townhouse with only a sorry excuse for a backyard. So my gardening days ended as abruptly as they began.  What remains are just a few buckets containing my favorite pepper plants, which I am hoping will make it through the winter and survive despite the lack of direct sunlight in their new home. On the upper left is a lone tomato plant which I sowed in August and transplanted to a bucket when we moved – it is actually producing tomatoes as we speak:

There is also less room for brewing, grilling and using my smoker, but I will have to make do for now. In the meantime all this talk about cucumbers has me in the mood for pickles. Here is my favorite recipe, a sweet-hot chipotle flavored concoction I threw together and absolutely loved.

Chipotle Pickles

1 cup white vinegar
1 cup cider vinegar
2/3 cup water
Approx:
2 tbsp salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup+ chipotle powder (smoke and dry jalapenos then grind to a powder….or you can look for see if you can find it at a store or something)
1/4 cup red pepper flakes
1-2 tbsp cayenne powder
1 scotch bonnet powder

Add all ingredients to a jar stuffed with quartered cucumbers and shake to mix. Refrigerate at least 5 days or until it reaches the desired heat and smokiness (both will increase with age),

Jerk Beer: Update

So after three weeks fermenting and a week carbonating in the keg, I return with a review of the Jerk Beer I brewed in September. This is a recipe I have been developing and have brewed before – in fact it is basically my fall seasonal; I am not a pumpkin beer fan – but this time I used dried, toasted pepper, added some smoke malt, and added all of the spices after fermentation in an attempt to get a richer, more complex flavor. I think it is a big improvement over previous versions.

Rich Amber color with a frothy white head.

Aroma is dominated by the spices – allspice and cloves, unmistakable

Body is light and a bit on the dry side – I will shoot for a bit more malty sweetness next time.

Flavor is complex – the spices do not dominate the flavor – in fact, if you drink it out of a bottle or with your nose plugged the spices are very subtle. Over time they will fade and I predict the result will be even better – but I was never a big fan of the aroma of cloves, I believe when used they need to be used very, uh, responsibly. The flavor is tough to describe, it is a typical light bodied amber ale; the smoke malt is detectable but only slightly and contributes to an overall savory effect. The amarillo aroma hops add a mellow citrus flavor reminiscent of limes. The scotch bonnets are front and center. The toasting has given them a savory, full-flavored richness and the heat is all over your tongue and the back of your throat. In a good way. Not run for a glass of milk hot, just oooooohhh that burns so good hot. And it doesn’t linger or persist, it just sort of waltzes around and eases into the background leaving you thirsty for another sip. Overall the jerk theme is probably as close as one can get with a beer – I wouldn’t change the proportions or ingredients other than aiming for a bit more sweetness for the sake of balance.

Overall – I look forward to brewing this again next September. Big hit in my book.

El Alma de la Comida puertoriqueña: Pernil Asado

If you stop a random Puerto Rican on the street and ask them what is the one food that defines their cultural identity, the one food that evokes nostalgic memories of family and community and holidays, you will get the same answer every time: Pernil Asado. In case you take me up on that challenge I should warn the English speakers out there that the correct pronunciation is not “PER-nil a-SAD-o” – so save yourself the smirks and pronounce it more like “pen-NY a-SOU”. Pernil Asado is a roast pork shoulder slow cooked and dredged with a garlic-vinegar marinade – literally “Pernil” means pork shoulder and “Asado” means roasted – that is served at just about every Christmas and at any other celebration that can be used as an excuse to cook and consume large amounts of pork. If you go to a restaurant or bodega you can usually find pernil asado on the menu – and if you’re lucky it might even be not half bad – but you will never experience the sublime excellence of this dish until you have had a proper homemade version. And if you are not fortunate enough to get invited to any fiestas puertoriqueñas in the near future….you will just have to learn to make it yourself.

I am not Puerto Rican, so if you insist on getting an authentic family recipe from a true blooded boricua then you will have to move along. My wife is Puerto Rican and we have been putting on a party for friends and family around Christmastime every year for the last five years or so as an excuse to make pernil, coquito, pastelitos and all the other traditional holiday delicacies. And since i am the cook in the family that meant that I had to learn how make these things – and make them well enough to please a crowd of Puerto Ricans at Christmas. No easy task. But the consensus is that my pernil is somewhere between amazing and the best they’ve ever had, for what its worth.

Whenever I try to teach myself how to cook any traditional dish I follow the same general approach. First, eat some. Second, get on the internet and read a bunch of recipes. Third, I try to figure out what is the soul or essence of the dish – what it is that makes it what it is – and then I throw together a recipe. From there adjustments are just trial and error each time I repeat it till I have it down. I don’t look for one great recipe or follow any specific recipe or defer to some great expert – and in my experience, with any great traditional recipe, every family will have their own anyway. Best to unravel the secrets behind it and make it your own.

So what is the essence of pernil asado? First of all, the most important thing, is the cut of meat itself. You must use a piece of meat cut from the shoulder – a picnic shoulder or shoulder blade roast or boston butt all work fine. You can use fresh ham as well – which comes from the leg – but then technically you are making lechon asado. Whatever cut you use must have a bone in the center and a nice slab of fat on one side. The thicker the better. The thicker the cut, the longer you can cook it, and the crispier the outside will get. Just get the biggest, fattest cut you can find and invite enough people over to help you eat it all.

After the cut of pork, the next most important thing about pernil asado is the seasoning. The seasoning – which will serve as a marinade as well – must be loaded with garlic and contain an acidic ingredient like vinegar, lime, or sour orange. After that it is up to you – adobo and oregano, the cornerstones of pretty much Puerto Rican dish are of course expected, and sazon is always welcome. As far as I am concerned, sofrito is the key. Sofrito will add a savory touch that just perfectly complements the flavor of the roast pork, and it helps coat the whole thing in a crispy crust that you don’t necessarily get otherwise. At any rate, the key is to use a MASSIVE amount of these seasonings and dredge the pork in it, and let it marinate for at least 24 hours.

Finally, low and slow cooking is essential. Pork shoulder is loaded with fat and connective tissue that needs to break down to become tender. This is going to be an all-day (or overnight) project. The plus side is that it will make your house smell unbelievable. You won’t have to worry about anyone lacking for appetite when it is ready.

The ingredients are approximate – I never measure – I just make as much as I think I need and try to get the consistency right. Use enough garlic to kill a man.

Pernil Asado: Recipe
1 Pork Shoulder (pernil)
Approx 1 1/2- 2 cups Goya Sofrito
Approx 1/2-1 cup red wine vinegar
Approx 1 cup+ minced garlic
Approx 1/4-1/2 cup Adobo
Approx 1/4 cup oregano (optional – you probably won’t taste it either way)

Combine the marinade ingredients in a large bowl. Consistency should be thick enough to rub on the pork so it sticks – too liquidy and it will all drain out during the cooking process.

Next, rinse and dry your pork shoulder. Lay it fat-side-up on a counter or cutting board. This is a shoulder blade roast.

Take a sharp knife and prepare the pork to accept the marinade. That means cutting the fat in a crosshatch pattern, and then stabbing or cutting the pork all over to create deep channels for the marinade to seep into. Cutting up the fat will help it to crisp up into chicharrones that everyone can fight over while you attempt to carve the meat.

Now slather the pork with the marinade. Push it into the cuts and holes you created and make sure you get it in there as deep as possible. Use all of the marinade. If it seems like too much, it is not. I have yet to overseason a pernil – and I tend to go heavy on the seasoning – and thus I am beginning to suspect it is impossible.

Now that your pork is covered in the seasoning, cram it into a large freezer bag or put it in a container of some sort and place in the fridge. Leave it alone for 24-48 hours. If you like you can flip it over every 12 hours or so to ensure even distribution of the seasoning.

After 24-48 hours the pork will have changed in color dramatically. The vinegar cures the meat, turning it a pale, grayish color. The deep red color of the marinade (from the sofrito) disappears as well – but I do not have an explanation for that. Don’t be put off by the change.

Let the pork rest on the counter for an hour or so to warm up to room temperature. If you go straight from the fridge to the oven the outside will heat up faster than the inside and it will not cook evenly. Place in a roasting pan in an oven preheated to 400’F or place on a grill preheated to 275′-325’F (indirect heat obviously).

If you are cooking in the oven, cook at 400’F for about 45 minutes to help crisp up the outside, then turn the temp down to 325’F. Cook at 325’F for about 8 hours. You can cook it lower and slower if you like, and if you have time to spare.

The last couple of times I made pernil I smoked it. Technically that makes it pernil ahumado rather than pernil asado – but if you don’t tell anyone you smoked it they will probably not be able to put their finger on what the difference is….only that it is unlike any pernil they’ve ever had. As long as you use a mild flavored wood and don’t overdo the smoke, the smoke will complement rather than dominate the flavors of the seasoning and it will taste like pernil rather than barbecue. But the results are just mouth watering. My favorite response, from a coworker with whom I shared some leftovers, was along the lines of “My mouth…is still just tingling…from the flavor…”

Traditionally you do not monitor the temperature of pernil to determine when it is finished cooking. You pull it when the fat has crisped to just shy of burning. It is very hard to overcook a pork shoulder, but if you cook it to around 190’F it will turn to pulled pork, and it tastes much better cut into chunks that shredded to try to stop it before that point. As a rule it will rise to 160’F and hold there for several hours. Once it begins to rise past 160’F the meat will have tenderized and you can pull it at any point after that. In the oven or in the smoker you are looking at around 8 hours regardless, so plan your day accordingly.

Is your mouth watering yet? This pernil was smoked – if you cook it in the oven it will look a bit different – darker and more uniform on the outside and without red tint in the meat. Once finished let it rest a few minutes before carving. If you are going to let it rest longer, wrap it in foil and a towel and stuff it in a cooler. It will stay warm for an hour or more but the chicharrones will soften a bit (solution? Eat the chicharrones first). Carve the meat into chunks and serve with arroz con gandules. Seriously, if you serve it with any other type of rice you will have committed an egregious faux pas. And I just so happen to have the perfect recipe for arroz con gandules.

Drunk Philosophy: An Ode to Fatalism; Meditations on Suffering

“Drunk Philosophy” is a series of essays in which I explore deeper issues related to culture, philosophy and metaphysics whilst under the influence of alcohol. I make every attempt to treat these issues seriously and express my thoughts as thoroughly and coherently as possible. At least as far as can be expected.

 “I could not become anything; neither good nor bad; neither a scoundrel nor an honest man; neither a hero nor an insect. And now I am eking out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the bitter and entirely useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything, that only a fool can become something.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground  

I have been thinking quite a bit as of late about the impact of suffering and tragedy on forming one’s character and making us who we are. Not the suffering of self-pity, unrealized potential or boredom that we spoiled children of modern society have accepted and embraced and built reality TV shows around; but the suffering of the widow, the survivor, the chronically ill, the traumatized. The type of suffering which scars one’s soul and changes one’s life irreparably.

I do not pretend to have lived a particularly tragic or difficult life; but I have gone through more than one extended period of the kind of hopeless, desperate suffering which can only be described as “formative” and which have profoundly changed me and my experience of life. Although in some ways brought on by conscious choices I have made to, for example, commit to spend my life with someone I love “for better or worse, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer” – or to take on responsibilities which others may have been content to weasel out of and leave for someone else to deal with – these were nevertheless circumstances which were not my own doing, which I was not prepared for, and which left me scarred in ways that fundamentally changed my personality, my worldview and my relationships with other people. It strikes me how significant a role events over which we have no control can determine the course of our lives. Who are we, from where does our personality come if external events can so deeply transform us? How can we have hope in the future when we cannot even be sure who we will be when that future arrives?

It is taken for granted – in fact, it is at the heart of every cliché deployed for the purpose of comforting the victim and offering condolences – that pain will pass, suffering is temporary, the darkness must fade and things must get better. Nina Simone encapsulates the optimism at the heart of American culture with her famous lyrics:

O-o-h child things are gonna get easier
O-o-h child things ‘ll get brighter
O-o-h child things are gonna get easier
O-o-h child things ‘ll get brighter
Someday we’ll get it together and we’ll get it undone
Someday when the world is much brighter
Someday we’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun
Someday when the world is much lighter

 – Nina Simone, O-o-h Child

But what if we accept that things may not necessarily get better? What if we accept that suffering may not be a temporary condition? If we are changed by our experience and we carry that with us for the rest of our lives, then it is not really all that temporary. Things must get better to some extent. The human psyche is remarkably adaptable to stress and hardship and at the very least we will adapt to cope with whatever trauma has been visited upon us and will settle into a “new normal” which will be better than our present condition but not by any means better than our previous condition. And the next trauma we suffer will knock us down another notch as we gradually descend from the carefree optimism of youth to the quiet, hardened, misery of old age. Of course that is not necessarily the case either. But what if you knew that this was what you had to look forward to? What if the best comfort someone could offer you after a tragedy was: It may get better, or it may get worse?

My take on fatalism as a personal philosophy is that it allows us to confront tragedy and misfortune with a conscious, sober, realistic, appraisal of what we have lost and what we have gained, to embrace the lessons of suffering and learn from the changes we recognize in ourselves and our relationships and our experience of life. And to fortify ourselves against the next trauma with the recognition that – easy come, easy go – all that we have is at any moment capable of evaporating in front of our eyes and the only thing we can do is to be prepared to cope with it, as best we can.

The movie Donnie Darko is a strange, complex, confusing film that is, at its core, a movie about fatalism: the belief that we are, in life, at the mercy of forces larger than ourselves which we cannot understand or control. Even in a world in which the future is known in advance, we are helpless to change it. What will be, will be.

“Every living creature on earth dies alone.” – Donnie Darko

Donnie is tortured when an old, mentally ill neighbor named Roberta Sparrow tells him that everybody dies alone. He refuses to see how anyone can find happiness in a world where, ultimately, regardless of what we do or who we become, we are all destined to die alone. We “die alone” because, regardless of whether we are surrounded by loved ones or in total solitude, death is an experience so personal, so total, so deep, that it is a journey on which none can accompany us. But there is a deeper meaning as well, in the sense that death is not the only perfectly lonely fate which awaits us in life. Ultimately, we suffer alone as well. And the loneliness that comes with suffering, that wall it erects between us and those around us, which exists as a result of the fact that suffering affects everyone so differently, so deeply, and so all-consumingly that true empathy is only possible in the rarest cases. No one can ever know what you are feeling or experiencing. No one can know what it feels like or what it does to you. Only very exceptional people can break through that wall; most will simply stop or turn aside when confronted by it. And how many of us surround ourselves with exceptional people?

In the final scene of Donnie Darko, Donnie goes to bed with a smile on his face, with complete awareness that “the world will end” and he will never awake. He dies alone, and in conscious acceptance of the fact. A tortured struggle to find meaning and avoid death ends with quiet acceptance of the fact that life is not a personal narrative and we are not protagonists. Thus fatalism must first destroy the ego, as the ego believes itself entitled to a happy ending.

None of this should be mistaken for determinism, defeatism, and pessimism. Fatalism as taken to mean that the future has been written in advance and that we are helpless to make our own choices is, to be sure, metaphysical nonsense. Fatalism as a personal philosophy is portrayed as a dark, cold, cynical, worldview which throws its hands up in exasperation and determines to accept that what comes without resistance. But fatalism understood in a looser sense, to mean that for all our choices and freedom and responsibility, there are forces and circumstances beyond our control that will lay waste to our best-laid plans. This is the fatalism expressed in the Yiddish proverb “Man makes plans, and God laughs.” Fatalism simply accepts the outcome in advance, for better or worse, taking neither ultimate credit for success nor sole blame for failure. The fatalist can, without contradiction, pour himself into his work and practice the same dedication, drive and commitment to success as the optimist – free from the illusion that love, success and happiness are in his or her own hands.

Popular culture, hack psychology and Hollywood movies have taught us that a positive outlook and good attitude are the keys to success and happiness. The belief that if we have the right attitude, if we respond to events in the right way, if we explain our misfortunes as “part of a plan” or a learning experience or an inspiration or something which makes one a better person, we can overcome any adversity and lead fuller, better lives than otherwise. When something terrible happens to us, is it God’s plan to test us or fortify us or teach us a deeper lesson? Or is it a random, tragic, meaningless act which takes something away from us, something which we may never get back? There is undoubtedly truth in the idea that needlessly dwelling on a tragedy rather than “moving on” is unhealthy and unproductive. But to pretend like we are suffering in order to serve some divine purpose or to attempt to bestow meaning on the meaningless is simple rationalization at best and denial at worst. Why must we impart meaning on the meaningless? Why must events be written into some larger narrative with us at the center? Why must we see the positive in the face of tragedy? What if no good is to come of it? Why must we lie to ourselves? This is the childish philosophy of Voltaire’s Pangloss – “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Why not simply accept tragedy as something irredeemably tragic?

Not to continue harping on the same point, but I think that our cultural obsession with storytelling is largely at fault. We refuse to consider circumstances at face value, but insist on weaving them into some lesson, some broader allegory or anecdote or episode in an unfolding drama with us at the center. It is the fault of an ego which can’t help but place itself in the starring role of a story loosely based on the experience of our own life (but carefully edited and filtered through the thoroughly biased lens of our self-perception).

The pop culture depiction of suffering tends to resort to one of two cliches: the sufferer who finds strength and resilience and faith, or the victim of undeserved tragedy who serves as a humble reminder as to how lucky the rest of us are. The victim is either the protagonist, in the first case, or a supporting character in our own story, in the second. They have suffered so that they can overcome and triumph over the adversity with which they were faced, or that they may teach us an important lesson that we may use to write our own narrative of struggle and resolve and survival. Our egotistic nature refuses to consider that we may ourselves be supporting characters or, even worse, inconsequential extras in someone else’s story.

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

All of this assumes, of course, that we triumph over our tragedy and emerge from our trials and tribulations as a stronger, better, fuller person. Struggle is the flame which turns soft metal into steel. Pain focuses the heart and teaches us to appreciate the banal pleasures of life. Tragedy reveals the strength of one’s true character. But what if it doesn’t?

What consolation is there to the victim who suffers tragically so that others may learn some lesson about themselves? And what if our experience is not inspirational, what if we are not the pillars of strength people expect us to be? What if our suffering does not make us stronger? What if it breaks us? What if it takes something from us that we never get back? What if it leaves a hole deep inside us that never goes away, a dark, cold void that creates distance between us and the other people in our lives? What if it takes away our ability to love and be loved? What if it destroys that which made us what we were, and leaves a bitter, hollow, shadow in its place?

The Hollywood depiction of tragedy and suffering is a dramatic moment of sorrow followed by the long, slow, but inevitable path to redemption and triumph. Suffering is a plot point against which our ultimate glory is made sweeter, bolder and more well-deserved. “I have succeeded despite my suffering. I have triumphed against innumerable obstacles. I stumbled, I fell, and I arose again, to aspire to new heights.” But what if suffering is not a plot device? What if it does not take the form of a concise, discreet moment book-ended by our timely summoning of that inner strength we never knew we possessed, and resolving to use our experience to grow and become a better person? What if our tragedy is not met by a heartfelt outpouring of support, a moment of community and solidarity and love? What if our suffering is slow, quiet, miserable, and undramatic? What if our grief and our pain outlast the predictable outpouring of support, and our suffering continues, though it ceases to elicit the interest of those who had to presumed to support us in our moment of need?

“The thing to note about stage 4 cancer – is that there is no stage 5.” – Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

This is not to say that people do not support one another in our moments of need. Indeed, the greater the tragedy the more generous we can expect our friends, family, coworkers, and community to be with their sympathies and their offers of support and assistance. But we ultimately suffer alone. We are there for one another but we do not suffer one another’s pain. The hardest part about watching someone you love suffer from a terrible illness is that you cannot take their pain and make it your own. For all the talk about completing one another and becoming “as one” through your love you cannot feel their pain as you watch it eat them alive. You cannot experience their suffering no more than you can stop it. You can console them only by the fact that to watch someone you love suffer is in many ways worse than to suffer yourself. But you each suffer alone, together. And as for one’s friends, one’s family, they will soon grow weary of the emotional burden entailed in offering support to the sufferer. It is hard to blame them. We all want to be optimistic and offer support to those in need, but it is hard to cheer up someone with little hope of brighter days, no prospects of improvement, or only the abstract, distant possibility of recovery. Once the clichés, psalms, and hallmark cards have been exhausted, where does one go from there? If we insist on optimism and our right to look forward to brighter days, in which we will look back on this as a great learning experience – how then do we look hopelessness in the face, and offer consolation to the inconsolable? No, we must recognize that all that we have, all that we love, all that we have worked for, can turn to ash in an instant – and it would be no less unjust than when it happens to anyone else, we have no special right to happiness, earned or otherwise. To do so with any honesty or earnestness means to stare into that abyss ourselves – empathy means, after all, to imagine oneself in someone else’s place – and realize that for someone sentenced to a life of eternal darkness, talk of sunshine is no comfort at all. And so we must, one way or another, experience hopelessness in order to empathize with the hopeless.

“To love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

I want to tie together the above rambling with one final point. In a world without purpose, or justice, or fairness, optimism is an illusion. It is a privilege, a luxury of those fortunate enough to be able to look forward to brighter days. For those who are not so lucky, optimism is a psychological trick that may or may not help alleviate the pain and loneliness of a life in the shadow of their own misfortune. In a world in which we are all one way or another destined to suffer alone, or, if we are lucky, only to die alone, it is in my experience better to to harden oneself to the fact that nothing is promised and try our best to cope with life’s traumas in such a way that we build our character and learn whatever we can from each experience we are subjected to without resorting to petty nonsense about overcoming adversity or being made stronger or having faith in the ultimate wisdom of life’s inexplicable caprices. We must take what comes for what comes without trying to imbue everything with meaning, and push on for the sake of love of living (if not this life itself) and the desire to continue our existence in one way or another – not for the sake of fulfilling some grand story arc or following some path which was chosen for us or proving some divine purpose. So for me a life of sober, honest, assessment of what is and what is not is preferable to one based on happy illusions and comfortable pretenses. And rather than leading to cynicism and despair this gives me the strength to continue to work towards building a better future for myself and my family without being dismayed and deflated at every misfortune that lands upon us. And that is the essence of fatalism as far as I am concerned.