Friday, January 25, 2008

Modern Medieval-Age Philosophy

Item: The Flintstones was clever creationist propaganda. Devious!

Think about it. "Oh, yeah, well of course people lived with dinosaurs. I've known that since I was a kid!"

No answers as yet as to the agenda of The Jetsons.

EDIT: This might conceivably qualify as using nostalgia as a substitute for wit. I don't think so, but if you find it to be so, I deeply apologize. Sort of.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Oh, Obama...

And to think I was starting to like the guy.

Take a look at the mailer his people sent out all over South Carolina (I have that saved; in case the link is pulled, let me know and I'll rehost it). I've seldom seen a more pandering, manipulative, pathetic gesture. Bad show, Barack. Very bad show. At least we believe Mike Huckabee when he says he's a loony fundie. You're just trawling for votes.

It's really, really disappointing to see the Democratic candidates playing the Republican party's faith-based voting game like this, for a number of reasons. The most practical reason, of course, is that they're not very good at it, and when they try, they tend to get beaten by the Republicans, who are very good at it. More than that, though, it demonstrates badly misplaced priorities and a complete lack of integrity.

Appealing to religion to get votes in a secular nation is just bad form. It's not illegal, of course, and perhaps in the case of openly religious candidates like Mike Huckabee it's not even inconsistent - although I'd still slit my wrists before I'd cast a vote for the man. It is, however, deeply at odds with the job these presidential candidates are supposed to be doing, e.g. enforcing the laws and safeguarding the Constitution. You cannot be "guided by faith," as Obama's flier declares him to be, and still do an adequate job of policing the faith-based influence groups who constantly seek to undermine the wall of separation.

I'm not suggesting that Christians can't be President, of course; that would be just as egregious an assault on the religious freedom of the, well, religious, as any of the faith-based programs the Bush administration has tried to enact have been on the rights of the nonreligious. I am suggesting that to admit that your faith will guide you in office should be a strong mark against you in a Presidential election, not a selling point. The President's first and only loyalty should be to the United States, and proclaiming a strong religious affiliation like that clearly demonstrates a loyalty that is by definition prioritized above everything, including nation and duty. This should be a concern to all voters, religious or not; even if you feel that you and your President share the deepest of faith, what happens when you disagree on what God wants? Do you think that someone who has proclaimed that he is going to be guided by faith, and not by the will of the people, is going to listen to your dissent? George W. Bush's sub-thirty-percent approval rating following his own faith-based platform is a pretty strong indication that they will not.

And on top of all that, of course, there is the matter that a field of Presidential candidates who all proclaim noisy faith utterly disenfranchises nonreligious voters. Coming from a candidate who was supposed to represent progressives, intellectuals, and the movement for change, this is really a bitter pill. But, you know, don't worry about us, Mr. Obama; we're used to this sort of disappointment by now.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Further ab/evo-lutions

Can we just let go of the Great Chain of Being already?

If you don't know what I mean, you can always go and Google or Wiki it. Basically, the GCoB is an old medieval concept about life in the universe (then thought to be Earth only), in which everything has its place on a sort of ladder from the lowest, most unworthy lifeforms to the highest and greatest (inevitably Man) according to Nature or God, take your pick. It was really just an exercise in vanity that went unchallenged during the entire length of the Dark Ages and indeed up until Darwin's time (though not entirely Darwin himself) because everybody liked to think that we're the best.

Here's the thing, though: humans are not the pinnacle of evolution. (If you're a creationist, well, then you have bigger problems in your thinking than whether or not humans are on top, and I'm not really talking to you here.) Indeed, we are exactly as evolved as everything else on earth. Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, have been evolving just as much as we have in the millions of years since we both diverged from our closest relatives. Also importantly, we are still evolving; we're not the end product or acme of anything, even if there were an end product entailed in the process - which there is not.

Evolution is the change of gene frequencies over time in response to environmental factors. That is it. That's what it is, nothing more. There are a number of factors which will work; it's not limited to natural selection. We can go over the evolutionary forces later, but for now, the point is this: there's no goal, nor even a direction in which it works. It does appear to work in the direction of greater complexity, but that is, in this case, probably just because it takes time to develop complexity. You know what the most successful organisms on the planet are? Bacteria. Not particularly complex, in relative terms. (...Though exceedingly so in more absolute terms. Just ask a molecular biologist.)

Anyway, you remember how your high school textbook in Biology went "up" through the ranks of life from the Monerans and Protists through Fungi, Plants, Animals, and finally Homo sapiens sapiens? Yeah, that was intentional. It's because your textbook publisher was one of the four or five big publishing houses, and frankly, they don't understand a single goddamned thing about biological science. You can, in fact, safely disregard most of what you learned in high school biology; most of it is bullshit.

So that's your lesson for today: relativism and disrespect for authority.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Hey, that was a pretty clever title, wasn't it? I bet I'm only the twenty-four thousand, two hundred and sixty-eighth person to come up with it and use it to title a blog post.

Anyway: let's talk about evolution, okay? We need to have a chat.

I've been noticing a few things in common parlance which, as an ad hoc evolutionary biologist, make me cringe. The first is group selection, which was supposed to have been done away with by no less than Darwin himself, not to mention countless successors, but still somehow persists in the popular lexicon. What am I talking about? Well, let me explain it with a little bit more clarity. I don't ever want to hear any one of you say again, ever, any of the following things:

"For the good of the species"
"Survival of the species"
"Groups that had [trait] survived better"

...unless you're being very specific and advancing some fairly complex evolutionary biological ideas. Let's just go ahead and get this straight, on the (surely small!) chance that you haven't followed that link to my senior thesis and committed it all to memory: the unit of natural selection is the individual; more specifically, the benefit is always, always to the ability of the individual to pass on its genes. It is not, now or ever, under any circumstances, the group. (There are apparent exceptions to this rule, such as eusocial insects [Hymenopterans, e.g. ants, and bees] and certain populations of things such as elephants which appear to be group selected, but it just doesn't hold up under scrutiny. We can discuss this more later.) When a trait is beneficial, it is beneficial to the individual and makes the individual more likely to survive. When it is also beneficial to a larger group, it is, without fail, because that is beneficial to the individual. Monkeys groom one another because it allows them to get themselves groomed. Bees sacrifice their own reproduction because it furthers the reproduction of the queen, with whom they share on average 75% of their genes. (For this last, it is important to note that genes are just information, which makes no distinction between which copy of a gene is passed on. Effectively, all copies of a gene are the same.)

The short of it is, natural selection always selects on the individual, because it is the individual who lives or dies. Kin groups have closely allied genomes, which means that it benefits an individuals genes, in certain cases, to care for kin, and even the whole species. See Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene for an excellent work on this topic, perhaps even the pre-eminent work. Don't worry; it's good science, from before he turned into an evangelical atheist. I don't have time or space to explain the whole concept here, but suffice it to say that genes are, in fact, selfish, and always act to benefit their own continuation and that of the individual who carries them.

Okay, next!

Not everything is selected. By this I mean the following: life is a complicated thing, and many epiphenomena emerge from the crucible of natural selection which are not, themselves, directly selected for. Everything is evolved, but not everything has a direct purpose.

This one comes into play a lot in behavior. People see an animal (yes, often humans) act a certain way, and so they create a weird hypothesis about why that behavior evolved. Sometimes, they're right; sometimes, they're wrong, and it evolved for a different reason. Sometimes, though, it just happened as an accidental side-effect of other behaviors which were beneficial. This seems to be the case, for example, for many of people's learned behaviors which don't provide any apparent survival benefit. The ability to learn complex things was greatly beneficial; what we learn seems to just happen.

The message here is this, I guess: if you see a trait of life, feel free to create hypotheses about why it is how it is, but include among those hypotheses the idea that maybe it arose as a side-effect of something else, perhaps something entirely unrelated to your previous line of thinking.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


One more batch in the fermenter tonight. This one's a medium-high gravity dark English ale. Since I didn't add a whole lot of body malt, it'll probably be closer to a porter than a stout, which is in fact what the recipe for it originally intended, based on the pound of alderwood smoked two-row malt that went in at the beginning along with the half-pound of chocolate malt. I think that, so long as the dry yeast doesn't let me down, this batch should be quite delicious - a little toasty and smoky.

I also have a couple of beers to review.

The first is Great Divide's Wild Raspberry Ale. Now, I respect Great Divide; their Yeti imperial stout, especially the oak-aged variety, is amazing stuff, and their Hibernation winter ale is pretty tasty. This beer, though, was quite disappointing. It was a medium-bodied plain brown American ale turned to a rather artificial-looking reddish hue by the raspberries and blackberries used in the brewing. Unfortunately, the raspberry flavor and the flavor of the base ale just didn't complement one another.

There are good fruit beers; in fact, there are some damned good fruit beers in this very family. New Belgium's Frambozen is quite similar superficially; it's a brown ale brewed with raspberries. Unlike Great Divide's, it's only slightly pinkish, not deeply magenta hued. The key difference, though, is that New Belgium uses a slightly sour brown with a sort of Belgian lambic character. This works fabulously well with the raspberry's natural tartness and creates a beer that actually tastes like raspberries without giving up being beer.

Sadly, Great Divide's Wild Raspberry just tastes like soap. They did not use a sour brown ale, but rather a plain brown, and it really doesn't work. There are overly fruity hints of raspberry that actually might be good if they were developed further, but they're lost in a beer that really, honestly comes off as soapy. The mouthfeel is mediocre, because like the flavor, you don't really know what to expect. With a tart flavor like raspberry, you want a dry, crisp mouthfeel, but Wild Raspberry is actually somewhat full and heavy, and again, it's reminiscent of soap. Bleagh. I certainly won't tell you not to try this beer, because it might end up being more to your taste than mine, but I did not care for it. Unless you like chewing on the brightly-colored bars of hand soap in the guest bathroom at your grandmother's house, get some Frambozen instead.

The second I sampled was Widmer's Brewer's Reserve 2008 Crimson Wheat. It's a wheat ale with, they claim, three different wheat malts: hard red, dark brown, and caramelized. I guess that sounds okay. I've been quite pleased with Widmer's Brewer's Reserve beers in the past.

My first impression was this: I don't think I've ever had a smoother beer. There is a flavor there, certainly, and it's a pretty tasty one, but the first pint of this stuff slid down my throat practically before I even noticed any flavor. It's damned smooth. Widmer's normal Hefeweizen is delicious; in fact, I'm a fan of the Widmer Bros. brewery in general, and most of their beers are notable for smoothness (their Drop Top Amber is more or less everything I think an amber ale ought to be). This beer was... different. I honestly think that the normal hefe might have a better flavor - a little more robust. This brew is clearer, redder, and impossibly supple. I'm honestly still not quite sure what I think of it, though I definitely like it. I think I'm going to have to have another one tomorrow and finish up the review then.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Famous Hurl

I've never really been a fan of comedian Patton Oswalt - until now. The man was asked by the Onion's AV Club to sample the infamous KFC "Famous Bowl" that he had been joking about in one of his routines, and the subsequent write-up he produced for them was a brilliant, poetic exercise in gustatory disappointment. Now, I know the "I ate gross food and then blogged about it!" thing has been done to death, but I really think that this one is worth checking out. You may read it here.

A couple of favorite bits: describing the Famous Bowl, a plastic tub full of mashed-together potatoes, corn, gravy, fried chicken bits, and cheese, as "a failure pile in a sadness bowl," and a description of the KFC "restaurant" at which he purchased his very own infamous bowl: "The franchise I visited, on Hollywood Boulevard near my old apartment, looked like it had withstood assault by bullets, flamethrowers, Baseball Furies, and a hundred hook-handed whores. Everything inside the store—including the employees and customers—looked like it had been rubbed with sad ham."

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Further beering

I brewed today, for the first time since I relocated to Seattle. It felt good.

This brew (and another that will take place in a week, once the primary fermenter is free) is possible in large part due to the generosity of various folks over the holidays last year. Without generous gifts of most of the ingredients I used, as well as the big ol' propane fryer/boiler I cooked them on, it might have been some time yet until I scraped up both the money and the will to get started again. Not wanting to call anyone out here, I'll just say: thank you.

Today's beer is going to be a Belgian pale ale with just a hint of sweet orange and a fairly light hopping with American Centennial hops. It should have the mellow fruitiness typical of Belgian ales, with a bit more sweet citrus than usual thanks to the fairly citrusy hops and the orange zest. I'm starting with a slightly high original specific gravity of 1.050, and Belgian Abbey yeasts tend to be high-gravity tolerant, so I expect the final alcohol content to be anywhere from 6-8%. That depends, of course, on what the final gravity turns out to be after fermentation. In a bit of an oversight, I didn't add much dextrin or other complex sugar-rich malt, so most of the sugar profile in this batch should be fermentable. The final product may not have quite the body I'd like, but it will probably be a little more alcoholic than average. We'll see.

I've brewed one Belgian pale before, with a significantly different recipe, and it was not only a success, it was a smashing one. Indeed, it was the first beer I ever brewed, and to this day, I think still the best. It matured exquisitely, from being something of a disappointment when I first sampled it to being a sought-after commodity by my family once it was a few months old. I'm hoping for similarly good results this time around.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Beer Review: Duchesse de Bourgogne

Well, I don't really know where to start on this one, so I'll quote the commercial description first:

"[This] is the traditional Flemish red ale. This refreshing ale is matured in oak casks; smooth with a rich texture and interplay of passion fruit, and chocolate, and a long, dry and acidic finish."

That's accurate, I guess, as far as it goes, but it's also terrifically inadequate. This might well be the best beer I've ever had. It's certainly in the top three.

Flemish ales (from Flan-diddly-anders!) are fermented with a (sometimes wild-inoculated, by leaving the mash or wort open to the air) mix of microorganisms, not just the usual brewer's yeast Saccharomyces cerevisae. The mix includes wild yeasts like Brettanomyces, as well as lactobacilli and maybe a few other things; I'm sure it varies from brewer to brewer and is probably usually a craft secret. Belgian sour ales are also fermented this way. For those not familiar, lactobacilli (lactose-fermenting bacteria), along with Candida yeasts, are responsible for the sour in sourdough as well.

Now, "sour" is a relative term. I've had some Belgian- and Flemish-style sours that made me pucker like sucking on a lemon (La Folie), and some that were just a bit tart (Rodenbach), and now this one, in which the mild tartness is just one factor in a veritable symphony of flavor. If I'd tasted this beer without knowing the style, I'm not even sure that "sour" is one of the characteristics I'd have noted as being dominant.

The best thing I can liken the flavor to is mincemeat pie. Now, hold on there! I know a lot of people don't like mincemeat pie; that's okay. Courtney doesn't like mincemeat pie either, and she loved this beer. A lot of the flavors combined in a way that really reminded me of mincemeat pie, with all sorts of subtleties like orange, chocolate, oak, anise, allspice, cloves, cherries, and a number of other things that I'd have to have another to pick out. This was almost certainly the most complex beer I've ever had, if nothing else. It was also moderately sweet: definitely not a quaffing sort of ale. The finish was long and dry, like the description says; it allowed the flavors to linger without becoming astringent or bitter in the least. Speaking of bitterness, there was virtually none; hops were definitely not emphasized in this beer.

The mouthfeel was fabulous, smooth and full and even a little rich without distracting from the flavors; there was only a little head on the pour, but I didn't miss it. I can't honestly remember the nose, because I'm just too overwhelmed by the taste.

In short, I can imagine there being people who don't like Duchesse, especially frugal people (it was $5.99 for small bottle, less than 12 ounces), and I can even imagine people who are largely neutral, if they don't have trained palates, but I can't really imagine anyone who does like it not being absolutely stunned.

Definitely an A+ beer. No question at all. Try it if you get the chance. Whole Foods carries it, at least in stores with a big beer selection; other than that, I don't know, but I'm sure you could find it if you were determined. It is apparently available in kegs, but the kegs cost around $180, so don't get your hopes up about finding it on draft at your local pub. The extremely nice and knowledgeable beer maven at our local Whole Foods, Stauss, tells me that it's better bottled anyway. Strange but true!

And as an addendum, I'm going to be trying to brew a Flemish red ale. I don't expect it to be in the same class as Duchesse de Bourgogne, obviously, but it's got me inspired.


Looks like everyone's favorite second choice, Barack Obama, swept Iowa. Whee. And on the other side, Huckabee manipulated a bunch of working-class evangelical sods. Great. I suppose it could be worse; Giuliani could have won the Repubs. He's such an unimaginably huge asshole I have little doubt we'd have been launching an unprovoked invasion of one nation or another within weeks of his inauguration. Man. Huckabee would be a disaster for our country - indeed, might yet be - but Giuliani would be a disaster for the whole world.

The more I listened today, the more I thought, the more my mind changed about the presidential race. I have come to two conclusions:

1) The presidential race will be Obama/Edwards against Huckabee/McCain or maybe McCain/Huckabee.
2) I no longer care. I have run dry of outrage. I still think the Democrats will win this one, though not by as large a margin as everyone else seems to think, but I can't really tell any substantial difference between any of the Dems who have more than a hopeless sliver of a chance. Edwards is a little different from Hillary and Obama, but he also has no real hope of getting the nomination. Kucinich is a lot different, in some ways that are very good and some that are very bad, but he has significantly less chance of winning the presidency than Dolly the (deceased) clone sheep. He'll just have to content himself with his gorgeous redhead trophy wife. And any one of the Republicans would be the absolute, bitter end of my hope for the future of this country, or at least for the realization of any hope within my lifetime.

So, perhaps - perhaps - I'll get back to writing more about beer and science. I don't know. I listen to an NPR station most of the day at work, and it's good to stay informed but when you're saturated with news like that, it's hard to distance yourself from it.

EDIT: I guess I had enough outrage left in me to be pissed off about one more thing. I just ran across this article, in which Barack Obama, winner of the Iowa caucus and possible next POTUS, is referred to as "the only African-American in the Senate." Now, if this were an article about race, I might forgive that. But it's not. It's a story about the primaries. WHAT THE FUCK, USA TODAY? Why is the fact that he's black the most relevant thing about him? Why is that the one fact your stupid, shallow asses picked out for the first sentence of the story? Racist dickheads.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Fuck Iowa

No, seriously. Fuck all that noise, and fuck their pasty-white corn-fed self-important asses. What, I don't live in a flat, empty, midwestern state in the goddamn Corn Belt, so I don't get a meaningful say in the nation's government?


Sorry, I'm just a little disenfranchised today.

No, you know what? I'm not fucking sorry. Our democracy is broken. I'm tired of living in a "democratic" nation where my vote has never counted for a single fucking thing in a single election, ever. I might as well live in China as be a liberal in Texas, for fuck's sake, and living up here in Washington doesn't seem any better, just opposite in direction. The state already falls liberal. Why do they need me?

Yeah, I don't live in a "swing state" or an early primary state. Apparently that means I'm not good enough to have a vote. Hell, I don't even think any of the candidates are bothering to campaign here. Why should they? The rest of the nation more or less always meekly lines up and does what Iowa and New Hampshire tell them to do anyway.

So, yes, we come back to my original point: