Archive for the ‘PhLog’ Category

Back to School with Ludwig Wittgenstein

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

It’s September, which means those of us in school or teaching are back at school. In honor of those living the academic life, this month we’re writing about teachers and those influenced by them.

Today we’re writing about a philosopher who went back to school in an unexpected way.

After completing his masterpiece the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein decided to give it all up at age 30 and become an elementary school teacher in rural Austria.

Exactly why Wittgenstein chose this drastic life change has mystified Wittgenstein scholars and biographers. He didn’t just leave his life behind and move out to a mountain village, he also divested himself of his massive family fortune so that he needed to rely on his meager teacher’s salary to live.

Wittgenstein appears to have entered into this new profession with a dose of idealism. He tried to help these children think. And he expected the same rigor and independent thinking from the boys and girls in the class. He had very high expectations of these children. But Wittgenstein was teaching in a small mountain village, where the parents didn’t share his ambitions for their children. The villagers never trusted him, nor did he care for them. As he wrote his friend Bertrand Russell: “I know that human beings on the average are not worth much anywhere, but here they are much more good-for-nothing and irresponsible than elsewhere.”

Wittgenstein was also a tough disciplinarian, if that term can be applied to a teacher who would routinely strike children for failing to grasp the complex ideas he was trying to teach them. There was hair and ear pulling. And he hit one child so severely on the head that he collapsed unconscious, leading to a police investigation and a trial. Wittgenstein was acquitted, and while this type of corporal punishment wasn’t considered out of the norm in those days, the so-called “Haidbauer Incident” ended Wittgenstein’s career as an elementary school teacher.

The experience of teaching was ultimately distasteful, and Wittgenstein was more bitter for it. Six years after he left for rural Austria, he returned to the world of philosophy.

But although Wittgenstein resigned in disgrace and with a real loathing for the townspeople whose children he taught (and struck on the head), the experience did ultimately bring him back to his work in philosophy. And in the second half of his career, Wittgenstein was very much concerned with issues of pedagogy.

So those of you considering teaching – sure, the parents and students might drive you away in the end (especially if you beat them), but you’ll learn lessons from the experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Back to School with Arthur Conan Doyle

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

It’s September, which means those of us who are students or teachers are back at school. So we’re writing this month about teachers and those influenced by them.

You may know that Arthur Conan Doyle was a medical student before he became a writer. But did you know that he credited two of his professors as the inspiration for his greatest creation?

Young Arthur Conan Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh under Doctor Joseph Bell, a surgeon famed for his remarkable diagnosis skills. These skills made Bell an early practitioner of forensic science. He was brought in as an expert by the police for several investigations, including the Jack the Ripper murders.

In addition to his professional work, Bell was an outstanding lecturer, and made a lasting impression on Doyle. “The student must be taught to observe,” Bell implored his not-so-observant students. The young Doyle assisted Bell for a while, playing Watson to the great medical detective.

Here’s what Doyle said about his professor:

[Bell] was extraordinarily quick at deductive work. He would look at the patient, he would hardly allow the patient to open his mouth, but he would make his diagnosis of the disease, and also very often of the patient’s nationality and occupation and other points, entirely by his power of observation. So naturally, I thought to myself, “well, if a scientific man like Bell was to come into the detective business, he wouldn’t do these things by chance, he’d get the thing by building it up scientifically.”

Holmes even looked like Bell, with his twinkling eyes, aquiline nose and forceful, expressive energy.

Doyle also acknowledged Henry Littlejohn as an inspiration for Holmes. As Edinburgh’s Surgeon of Police, Littlejohn was a pioneer in forensic science, and as Edinburgh’s first Medical Officer of Health, he made significant contributions to the field of public health. Like Bell, Littlejohn was involved in police investigations, appeared as an expert witness in murder trials and oversaw postmortems. He also he happened to be Doyle’s forensic medicine teacher in medical school.

So those of you who teach, watch out – you may end up inspiring a classic literary character!

Happy Birthday, Amy Beach!

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

Today, as you likely know, is the 150th birthday of Amy Beach.

Amy Beach. You know, the best-known, most-performed and most-respected American composer of the earliest 20th century.

You don’t know? Well don’t blame yourself. Blame history, changing tastes, and good old fashioned sexism.

We posted about Amy Beach here on the PhLog last summer and since then we’ve become more surprised and dismayed about how quickly her fame has evaporated. Beach’s work is decidedly Victorian, and as a musical conservative, she doesn’t stand out as an innovator. But her work still ranks among the best of her era. A prodigy and exceptional pianist as well as composer, Beach rose to the top of the Second New England School of composers, accepted as “one of the boys” due to her remarkable talent. In a time when a woman having a career outside of the home was frowned upon, Beach toured Europe, performing to adoring crowds. Her “Gaelic” symphony (1894) was the first symphony written and published by an American woman, composed before she was 30. As an American composer, Beach made a point to integrate Native American and African American songs into her work. Besides her symphonic work, Beach was known for her songs, chamber music, and work for piano.

But time hasn’t been kind to Amy Beach. It was always going to be an uphill battle to get major orchestras to program music by a woman, and after Beach’s death, performances dropped off.

But Beach is slowly becoming more recognized. The New York Times covered her birthday and perhaps there may be some more performances sometime soon? Are any music programmers out there listening?

So take a moment today and listen to some Amy Beach. You can find several selections at


The Dog Days of Summer

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

It’s August, and we’re deep in the dog days of summer.

Ever wonder where the term “dog days of summer” comes from? It goes back to ancient times when the Greeks equated the rising of the star Sirius, aka the “dog star,” with the sultriest days of summer.

So let’s just give in, accept that we’re going to sweat through our clothes today, grab a cool drink and spend some time on the internet with dogs!

Let’s start with this adorable puppy picture.

Animal Planet, naturally, has a page dedicated to dogs.

Did you know that NYC has an annual dachshund parade?

Here’s a pretty comprehensive list of literary dogs.

And here are some mythological dogs.

Here’s a picture of the dog star itself, taken from the Hubble Telescope (on the bottom)!

“Dogs in Space” is a 1986 movie from Australia. It doesn’t seem to be about dogs at all.

The New York Times had a hot dog tasting test earlier this year.

Pleb Summer: Pink Lemonade

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

It’s summertime, which means it’s time for trips to the beach house, a cross-country road trip, or travel to exotic vacation destinations.

But for those of us who can’t spare the time or the money to make a getaway, it’s PlebSummer! We’re posting this summer about summer for the rest of us.

Pleb summer is all about finding cheap and relaxing ways to escape the heat. One of the most popular ways to do this (and one of the least expensive) is to pour a nice, cold glass of lemonade. But if you find yourself reaching for the pink lemonade (c’mon millennials – we’re looking at you), it may interest you to know the history of this beverage.

While traditional lemonade can trace its start in America back to the 17th century, the pink variety dates to the 19th century. Though it is hard to confirm the exact origin; most stories place the genesis of this beverage in the circus. One story claims that Henry E. Allot (a man who actually ran away to join the circus) accidentally dropped some red cinnamon candies into a batch of lemonade he was preparing to sell. Instead of making a new vat, he simply sold the pink lemonade.

A similar, albeit slightly more disgusting, tale is linked to Pete Conklin, but in this version the role of the candy is played by pink-tights. Conklin used a tub to make lemonade that had just been used by a female performer to wash her laundry. Instead of dumping the discolored drink he passed it off as “strawberry flavored.” Yum.

Not pictured: dirty laundry

As for how our pink lemonade gets its color today, the answer is slightly surprising. Pink lemons are real (and were discovered in Eureka, California in the 1930s), but their juice is clear, like any other lemon. And while homemade pink lemonade is often made with strawberries, raspberries, or cranberries – the store bought varieties are usually tinted with grape extract. To be fair, all of that sounds better than dirty laundry water.

Pleb Summer: Hot Dogs

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

It’s summertime, which means it’s time for trips to the beach house, a cross-country road trip, or travel to exotic vacation destinations.

But for those of us who can’t spare the time or the money to make a getaway, it’s PlebSummer! We’re posting this summer about summer for the rest of us.

A key element of enjoying Pleb Summer is the consumption of copious amounts of hot dogs. And while it may not be a good idea to think about what your hot dog is made of, we thought it might be interesting to learn about the history of this piece of Americana.

“Hot dogs are proof God loves us and wants us to be happy” -No One

The sausage has existed for hundreds of years with Gaius, the cook for Emperor Nero, often being given the credit of creating the first. From there, the history of the hot dog (like most foods) becomes tricky to pin down. The sausage moved across Europe, and both Frankfurt and Vienna in Germany claim to be home to the “frankfurter” and “wiener” respectively. But seeing as a hot dog is nothing without the bun, the birth of this delicious treat does not really occur until the 1860s in New York City, where German immigrants sold hot dogs on milk rolls with sauerkraut (yum).

One of the earliest peddlers of the hot dog proper was Charles Feltman, who sold franks from a stand in Coney Island, Brooklyn. By the turn of the century, Charles had upgraded the stand to a full-blown restaurant – Feltman’s German Gardens – a complex serving beer and food that ran down West 10th Street, from Surf Avenue to the beach. While the focus switched to seafood, Feltman kept seven grills open serving hot dogs for 10 cents a pop. The story goes that it was while working one of these grills that a young Nathan Handwerker started saving his money to open his own establishment. In 1916 he leased a space on Surf Avenue, and started selling hot dogs for 5 cents. His plan to undersell the competition worked, and today Nathan’s Famous is a recognized brand nationwide. You can grab a Nathan’s dog in Coney Island, in numerous food courts, or from your local grocery store -but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has heard of Feltman’s.

By the Great Depression, the hot dog was enjoyed across the nation. In 1939 Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt served them to King George VI as part of a picnic lunch at Hyde Park (they were supposedly well received). Today we eat them all summer long – at ball games, backyard barbecues, beach concerts, or just around the dinner table.

However, we don’t all eat them the same way. In Chicago, dogs are placed on a poppy-seed bun and topped with tomato, pickle, peppers, onion, relish, and mustard. In the Midwest they have the “Coney dog” which is topped with chili, cheese, and onion. Arizona is home to the Sonoran dog, which is wrapped in bacon and topped with pinto beans, mayo, chopped tomatoes, onions and jalapeños. The good people of Seattle eat dogs covered in cream cheese, grilled onions, jalapeños, and cabbage. And, for our money, you can’t go wrong with a traditional New York City hot dog – served from a cart, boiled in suspicious water, and topped with saucy, sweet red onions.

So make sure the next time you and a friend are “grabbing some dog” as the kids call it, you tell them all about the history of the hot dog – they’ll thank you for it.

Pleb Summer: Free Shakespeare

Thursday, July 27th, 2017

It’s summertime, which means it’s time for trips to the beach house, a cross-country road trip, or travel to exotic vacation destinations.

But for those of us who can’t spare the time or the money to make a getaway, it’s PlebSummer! We’re posting this summer about summer for the rest of us.

One of the best things about spending the hotter months in New York City is the opportunity to see free Shakespeare. An institution for over 60 years, Shakespeare in the Park, produced by The Public Theater and preformed in Central Park, is perhaps the best-known production. This annual summer series is not only free, it often features universally acclaimed actors. Past productions have included Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, James Earl Jones, and Denzel Washington.

However, Shakespeare in the Park is not the only company to preform the Bard for free in this fair city – Hudson Warehouse and Shakespeare in the Parking Lot also offers the public a chance to experience Shakespeare at no cost. A longer list of some of these free productions is available here:

Free Shakespeare extends beyond the five boroughs. Odds are if you Google your hometown and “free Shakespeare” you will come across a production nearby. You can also visit where they offer a large list of productions (some free, some not) across the world, sorted by play! You can view that list here:

So get out there and go watch a man talk to his ghost dad, or some teenagers who hang out with a monk. It won’t cost you a dime.

Pleb Summer: Ice Cream Trucks

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

It’s summertime, which means it’s time for trips to the beach house, a cross-country road trip, or travel to exotic vacation destinations.

But for those of us who can’t spare the time or the money to make a getaway, it’s PlebSummer! We’re posting this summer about summer for the rest of us.

Whether echoing down crowded city streets or quiet suburban hamlets, looped music over a loudspeaker evokes a response as strong as anything Pavlov could have imagined and it can only mean one thing:

The ice cream truck is here. One of summer’s most happy pleasures.

Ice cream vendors actually date back to the 19th century. Back in the old days, a “penny lick” got you a small portion of ice cream on a dish which you would lick clean. The dish would then be dipped in a bucket of water and used to serve the next customer. This lack of concern for basic hygiene, plus a general lack of refrigeration, meant that while enjoying an ice cream treat, you’d be risking diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and many other life-threatening diseases.

Luckily hygiene improved, and in the mid-20th century, Harry Burt, the founder of Good Humor, started selling his Good Humor bar out of a truck. In 1965, Mister Softee was founded, and ice cream trucks have been here to stay ever since.

And that music! You can read an interesting history of the ice cream truck jingle here.

And if you like your ice cream truck history more on the fictional side, we highly recommend “Comfort and Joy,” Bill Forsythe’s movie about the Glasgow ice cream truck wars.


We Welcome Bob Ross to the Ivory Tower

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

We at UPG are thrilled to announce our newest personality: painter, TV host, and Guru of Calm, Bob Ross.

At first glance, Bob Ross might not seem like an obvious choice for The Unemployed Philosophers Guild cannon.

But, actually, if you think about it…

Bob Ross retired after 20 years of in the armed forces to dedicate himself to painting. He became a popular teacher and ended up landing his own television show.

His gentle demeanor and unabashed delight in painting continues to inspire us.

Got a problem with his presentation?

Got a problem with a guy who teaches that anyone can learn to paint.

Got a problem with his subject matter?

After approximately four minutes, you’ll come to the realization that you are a person with problems!

As a drill sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, Bob Ross did his share of yelling. On his show, he speaks to his viewers in gentle tones. In the service, he spent plenty of time harassing recruits to hurry up, do things right, get tough. On his show, he urges us to paint along, to play, to think of mistakes as part of experimentation instead of terrible obstacles to being correct/right/perfect?

Why do we find it so difficult to accept the realness of art if we’re the ones doing it? Why can’t we believe in the goodness of making things for the sheer pleasure of expression? So maybe we won’t paint anything likely to break records at Christie’s – so what?

The act of creation is one of the most essential human experiences, and though we lost Bob Ross many years ago, he continues to bring countless people to that experience.

It this spirit, we present three brand-new Bob Ross items:

Bob Ross Self-Painting Mug

This mug depicts Bob Ross poised in front of a canvas with brush at the ready. Add a hot beverage, and the entire mug transforms into a lovely Bob Ross painting!

Bob Ross The Joy of Painting Sticky Notes

A collection of sticky notes featuring Bob Ross’ art and quotes from the great man, himself. Includes a canvas sticky note for your own tiny works of art!

Bob Ross Happy Little Mints

Delicious peppermints in a lovely tin featuring Ross and his artwork. A little minty inspiration for your day.

Pleb Summer: The State Fair

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

It’s summertime, which means it’s time for trips to the beach house, a cross-country road trip, or travel to exotic vacation destinations.

But for those of us who can’t spare the time or the money to make a getaway, it’s PlebSummer! We’re posting this summer about summer for the rest of us.

About this time of year, average citizens from Alaska to Alabama are gearing up for a classic summer tradition: The State Fair.

State Fairs are so ubiquitous (as are the county fairs that lead up to them) that Americans take for granted just how uniquely American and odd they are.

Agricultural fairs date back to ancient times of course. But American fairs are so much more. In addition to annual display of livestock and agricultural products, state fairs are known for their fairground rides and games, pageant shows, recipe contests, tractor-pulls, rodeos, speeches by vote-hunting politicos (even Abraham Lincoln spoke at a state fair when he was running for president), freak shows, loads of fried and remarkably frightening foods, bird-calling competitions, and, of course, butter sculptures.

The first American State Fair was held in Syracuse, New York in 1841, but it wasn’t until after the Civil War that they really became the sites of mass rowdy entertainment that they are today.

If you live in a State with a fair (and odds are you do, since they’re held in 46 states), treat yourself with a trip down to the fairground for a special kind of fun you’re not going to find elsewhere. Where else but a State Fair would you see a replica of the Statue of Liberty made out of corn or monkeys in top hats dancing to minstrel music (OK, they don’t do that last one anymore, but they used to, at the Ohio State Fair). Lost children, stomachaches, and monkey bites are the norm in August and September as Americans gather on fairgrounds for one last bacchanal before the summer ends.