Trail Stories #3. “Ace” and I were three days into our circumambulation of Mt. Rainier via The Wonderland Trail. This hike punctuated my life. I had just finished several temp-work years perf testing video drivers at The Great Satan, and they had liked me enough to hire me for real. I had taken a month off before going full-time, because, well, that had been a lot of work, and switching to perf testing web browsers was going to be even more (“The Internet” was just then really taking off for consumers, mostly via Netscape). Ten days of that month were devoted to the Wonderland. The previous day, we had hiked from Mystic Lake to White River (the day after I pissed on an asshole’s bike). “Mrs. Dean” was driving in to meet us, as White River is not backcountry. On the steep descent from Sunrise, Ace made an accidentally disparaging comment about whether Mrs. Dean would be sitting in the shade waiting for us, to which, in umbrage, I insisted that I would be dumbfounded if she didn’t meet us halfway down (or, for Mrs. Dean, up). I was, of course, correct.

The next morning, Mrs. Dean accompanied us up the trail to Panhandle Gap, turning around there so she could get back to the car and Seattle at a reasonable hour. Ace and I continued on to Indian Bar. It had been cloudy and showery since yesterday, and much of our gear was dampish, but just as we finished setting up camp, the sun broke out and we spread our stuff out to let it dry as much as possible. The respite was brief, and after only half an hour we were hastening to fling stuff into our tents to get it out of a sudden squall. After the squall I hiked around to where I could get a nice view down the Ohanapecosh River, while Ace was scrambling about elsewhere, perhaps investigating the welcoming group shelter nearby. It was warm but humid, and I noticed a fog bank making its way up the valley (at that elevation, really not much more than a broad but rough steep ditch). What caught my eye was that the fog was not a massive bank, but more a finger gradually intruding upwards along the valley bottom, sort of like an inflating tubular balloon. I soon noticed that the fog finger was rotating as it penetrated upwards along the river. Not only rotating, but beginning to distend radially, so that what was once a rotating circular tube became more and more oval, quickly becoming two lobes that suddenly snapped into individual, circular, co-revolving tubes, like a DNA double helix, each orbiting the common center but rotating individually. Each sub-tube again distended and snapped in two, so that now there were four of them! You may recall that I am quite the aficionado of fractals, and here I was, observing fractal math in action. The intertwined fog helices continued to ramify, rotating and splitting ever faster, until, just before the finger reached me, the whole mass fragmented into pieces too small to be resolved as anything but a diffuse mass just as it was when I first noticed it. I was engulfed in my own fantasy. Imbued with all of my thoughts, ever. As it continued on above me, following the gulch upstream, ponderously rotating, the fragmented mass repeated its former dynamic, distending, splitting, ramifying in powers of two until the pattern again dissolved.

I really want to return to Indian Bar sometime (perhaps via Nickel Creek, where, if you follow the trail to the camping areas far enough back, you come upon piles of fragmented pentagonal andesite). It would be a great trip for a group, given the shelter, and it has absolutely the best outhouse I have ever used: roofed, but open on the sides for an awesome view. I’ve heard there’s a better one in Glacier; I will have to seek that shit out.

Bertshit Crazy

There’s a mental disease I’ve been aware of for decades, mostly without realizing it, sometimes afflicted with it myself. I need a clever name for it, but for now I will call it “pointless definitional pedantry”, or PDP. I observe it frequently in political speech and Web comments, but it can be found almost everywhere. I think PDP may be related to “math envy” and “science envy”. The beauty of math is that starting with a few basic assumptions and using only logic, a vast and useful quiver of conceptual tools can be developed. The beauty of science is that by cleverly setting up reproducible situations, taking careful measurements, and applying imagination, logic, math, and statistics, we can socially construct facts that anybody (suitably informed and equipped) can confirm or improve. The problem with PDP and the envies is that these techniques don’t really apply to social and cultural disputes.

A PDP example: Back in the HoB era I hung out with folks, some of whom were not shy about how proud and superior they felt to be known as Libertarians. It was quite popular among some of these ‘Berts (as I call them here; an analogy to “Karen” is probably germane in the larger context, if not specifically to the folks of my history) to “prove” such “facts” that, contrary to how they present, environmentalists “actually” hate humanity. Their arguments were invariably based on boutique, specious, PDP style definitions; charisma and obstinacy armed with practiced platitudes: rhetoric, the art of making the bad look good. Another example: defining “alive”, as if there were a single sentence that could capture all of biology. If it is having the ability to reproduce, a worker bee or a red blood cell isn’t alive. Having the ability to move independently? Mushrooms aren’t alive but self-driving cars are. Is a virus alive? A seed? An ant colony? A bacterial specimen frozen at -80° C? The problem with defining life is that every simple definition has exceptions. Religion provides a seeming infinity of examples. One could almost define religion (see what I did there? note the use of “almost”) as an enterprise dedicated to applying PDP, with ever-increasing vigor, ever-more-inappropriately.

The point here is that argumentation about issues that involve vast amounts of interaction among complex agents, in the context of trying to completely define inherently vague terms, is a sucker’s game. If you go along with demands for perfectly defined terms, you have already lost what isn’t really an argument. Words don’t have exact meanings, concepts are metaphors, and the structure of language makes it impossible to prevent paradoxes. One medicine for PDP is a reliance upon hallmarks rather than definitions. Any complex system that possesses many of the hallmarks of life is alive. Obviously, care must be taken with hallmarks, and the goal must be consensus rather than strict agreement.

Back to the ‘Berts. Given the magnitude of effort needed to (rather, to attempt to: they are nothing if not recalcitrant (q.v. Brandolini’s Law)) correct their misrepresentations and oversimplifications, most people, myself included, would rather cut their losses in exasperation, unfortunately gifting them with the emotion of having “won” the “argument”, an illusion often convincing to a credulous audience. Another PDP trick ‘Berts seem to love is the secret use of boutique definitions, which are pulled out for a ‘gotcha’ at the last minute. Just attempting to get a ‘Bert to come to terms usually invites exasperation, again virtually guaranteeing them their victory illusions. The tragedy of our era: we’ve all got things to keep working on, but we need to figure out – and implement! a time and effort self-tax! – strategies and tactics to combat the ‘Bertshit.


In Germany, “das Bier (e)s, -e” refers to, say, a glass of Löwenbräu or Beck’s, which, though perhaps slightly richer, are quite similar to the Miller or Coors you might drink in the USA. In general, the word encompasses any beverage made from water and yeast-fermented grain malt. More German-specific, however, as with much of continental Europe and the USA, the notion of “beer” is synonymous with the notion of “lager”. Now, many people know that “ale” and “pilsner” are somehow also kinds of beers. Pilsner is actually a specific kind of lager, and I’ve heard people distinguish lager and ale with ideas such as “ale is actually alive”, or “ale is aged in wooden kegs”. Not accurately definitional. Now, unless you’re a beer afficionado, you may be thinking something along the lines of “who cares: tomahto, tomayto”. Still, when discussing the topic of beer, or should I say, Bier, people often seem to have the impression that the Germans invented beer brewing, even having famous laws about it, therefore German beer must be some of the best (none of that is true).

Whatever. Taste is a matter of, well, taste. You like what you like, I like what I like, it’s not a rational decision based on factual information and logical reasoning. My taste, as it happens, tends rather towards a dislike, or at least a very low like, of most lagers, which means most German or American beers. And it turns out that, although a matter of taste, there is factual information and logical reasoning that, while not justifying such differences, can at least explain them.

The yeast used to ferment beer has a substantial effect on the brew’s ultimate flavor. Obviously, the grains and other ingredients (such as hops) used in the recipe also have an influence, but even if the only difference between two recipes is the yeast used, the beers can taste extremely different. Ale yeast is the same species as baker’s yeast: Saccharomyces cerevisiae, “sweet fungus of beer”. It has been domesticated for thousands of years and as a result there are thousands of cultivars, as different from each other as cabbage and kale. Lager yeast, Saccharomyces pastorianus (sweet fungus of Pasteur), is a hybrid of S. cerevisiae and S. eubayanus, and has been domesticated for only hundreds of years, hardly enough time to develop as many different varieties. Evidently the hybridization event that led to lager yeast was special, as it has proven very difficult to hybridize Scer and Seub in the lab. Hybridizing between Scer variants couldn’t be easier, and folks are constantly bioprospecting for natural variants of Scer all the time, constantly adding dimensions to “beer space” (there are even tales of “yeast rustlers” – check out Travels with Barley, by Ken Wells). Thus, my perception that lagers all taste essentially the same, while there is a great variety in ales, has factual support.

The main reason that lagers have become so dominant is that lager yeast ferments well at low temperatures, and the yeast particles settle to the bottom of the vessel, making it relatively easy to create a consistent, clear brew if you have access to constant-temperature caves for fermenting and storing your product (“Lager” in German means a storage area or warehouse), especially useful hundreds of years ago before knowledge of microbiology and mechanical refrigeration. Now, although it has proven difficult, it has not proven impossible, to hybridize Scer and Seub in the lab. This is good news – there is great potential for developing new lager strains with as great a variety of flavors as ale yeasts, perhaps allowing humanity to accomplish for lagers in the next century (through direct genetic intervention) what it took natural and human selection millenia to accomplish for ales. Cheers!

Mowing the Weeds

I live in a house. As with most houses, mine has a yard. Grass grows in my yard, but also way too much Glechoma hederaca (creeping charlie), Plantago major (broadleaf plantain, not the banana-like fruit), Potentilla indica (false strawberry), and others. What I’d really like is for there to be some kind of innovative farming outfit that would come use my property for their organic produce business, but I doubt that would be viable – farming, especially organic farming – is already low margin when done on dedicated fully owned centralized farmland. What I should do is implement some kind of lawn replacement concept utilizing native shrubs, flowers, and ground cover. What I end up doing is procrastinating and infrequently whacking the lawn with a lawn mower. None of my weeds responds very well to manual removal, and even if I went all out and did a presumptively one-time herbicide treatment followed by grass seeding, the neighboring yards are all equally infested and it wouldn’t be long until my efforts proved futile.

I live on a planet. As with most inhabited planets, mine has continents. Some smart, nice, helpful, cooperative people live on these continents, but also way too many Factus denialistus (generic Qonservatives), Nutjobia fuck-you-ive-got-mineii (Quibertarians; take Qonservative denialism and square it), and Outright nazifascistia (Republiqans; GQP types for whom F. den and N. fuc are way too intellectual). What I’d really like is for there to be some kind of innovative knowledge transference device that could identify and correct the pathologies that are going on in whatever has replaced the nervous systems of these defective enormities, but I doubt that would be viable – whatever it is interprets facts and logic as enemies and mounts an allergic reaction to them. What I should do is figure out some way to engage socially and/or politically and at least try to nudge some of these QNuts towards some kind of sanity. None of these disease vectors responds very well to traditional communications using verifiable information and reasoning, but even if I invented some kind of mental judo they would no doubt realize that my efforts are a threat to their pathology, and the number of their contagious co-infecteds is so great that my efforts would surely prove futile.

Note: in case you non-ironically style yourself Conservative, Libertarian, Republican or GOP member, you might think my barbs above are aimed at you. Not necessarily so! However, if you strut about parroting QNut codewords and dog whistles; if you fancy that you argue in good faith by sneering at environmentalists, feminists, progressives, liberals, etc.; if you get off on “triggering the Libs”, I would ask why you endeavor to appear so Nazi-adjacent. I myself used to be a registered Green, but only because I had read that some law in my state required that a political party have a minimum number of members to be officially recognized, and the Greens, despite their kookiness, are usually the only party brave enough to argue in favor of real environmental reform. I even switched my registration to Democrat once the Greens had eroded to official non-recognition, but only to vote for Bernie in the primaries, knowing that Hillary (cue kneeless knee-jerk QNut spit-gasms here; let us pause while I wipe off the spluttering blow-by spewing from my screen through that series of tubes that is the internet) would win. I say this to portray that I am aware of tactical reasons for party or group membership. I may not be aiming at you particularly, but maybe you unwittingly (not in the same sense that the QNuts are unwitting) make yourself a target. Perhaps you should distance yourself from, rather than sidle up to, the poisonous fucks you strive to resemble.