Brewing with Egil: The Fine Art of Burning Stuff

So now that I’ve got a prospective method and ingredients list cobbled together, my next phase will involve passes at more accurately re-creating the tools and ingredients that may have gone into making a Viking-era beer.

First up: the malt.

Malt is at the heart of beer brewing. Grains are allowed to partially germinate, and are then heat-treated to stabilize them and enhance their flavor. Depending on the grain, the method of malting, and the method of kilning, you can wind up with a great variation in types of malt, which is turn greatly influence the characteristics of the final product.

The  Senchas Már contains requirements for the production of malt, and I’ve speculated that cultural contact between the Irish and the Scots could create a plausible route of transmission to the Norse. Most large cereal kiln finds from the Viking era exist in Scotland, so it seems plausible that it was a center of production.

Typical fuels excavated from such kilns include local hardwoods, plant matter (sometimes peat), and occasionally dung. Dung is more commonly seen in Icelandic farm mound excavations and other fire pits; an analysis of one such farm mound revealed charred wood and dung alongside charred 6-row barley seeds – the presence of all 3 in the same layer may indicate that their use was concurrent.

Icelandic finds rarely include the larger kilns seen in Scotland. However, the principle of drying over a fire is pretty constant throughout processing technologies – and given that my current model involves a gradual transition from home production to quasi-industrial production, it makes sense that an Icelander may have used a conventional cooking fire for malt drying earlier in the era. It seems plausible that some extant structure in the Icelandic finds pulled double-duty.

The tradition of drying grain over a fire persists in Scandinavian homebrewing to this day, and is expressly documented in Olaus Magnus’ 16th century writings. It seems possible that we may be viewing a sort of living tradition, though I am always skeptical of such things.

So with all that in mind, let’s light some shit on fire.

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They probably didn’t do this when it was below zero outside, but screw it – there’s beer on the line.

Up here in New York, the ground is currently frozen solid, which makes constructing an in-ground malting kiln somewhat…challenging. Also, it’s fairly cold up here at the moment, so the prospect of chipping away at frozen earth so I could put a fire in it seemed…well, pretty fucking dumb.

I mean, when it was cold in Viking-age Iceland, they stayed inside. Where it was warm.

So instead of trying to replicate the thermal properties of the kiln/oven (which will come later, when the ground isn’t a block of ice), I opted to try out the notion of directly drying the malt over a fire. I have a smoker, so I figured it would work well for this purpose.

This experiment will help me figure out the fire dynamics, and gauge the effect of a wood fire on the flavor and mash characteristics of the malt. A more elaborate kiln may very well have a different effect, but this will at least help me ballpark it.

First things first, ya gotta malt some grain.

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Look at the little barleys, so fully of hope and life.
Theirs is a sad fate.

I used a mixture of an American 6-row barley and steel-cut oats; the oats won’t malt, but they’ll add some grain bulk, and my hope is that excess enzymatic activity in the barley will have some effect.

The method outlined in Irish law takes a bit more than two weeks, but I opted for a very short malting time – partly because modern malting barleys germinate substantially faster than do heritage varieties. The barley in that picture is starting to show acrospire formation, and that’s only been going for 4 days – 1.5 days steeping and the rest of the time being turned in heaps.

I drained the grains a bit, and then set them on top of some aluminum mesh window screening material, to hopefully keep most of the grain from falling into the fire. The fire was started with a little bit of charcoal, but fed exclusively with dried hardwood and the occasional blast of Icelandic kelp. Dung and/or peat would be more accurate, but I have no dried dung and I wasn’t exactly going to go looking for it.

On went the grain, and then began the waiting.

IMG_20140126_155403

This’ll be great! It can’t possibly take that long!

And the waiting.

And the stirring of the malt.

And the more waiting in the cold and the wind.

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This is maybe half dried, and I should emphasize that I was pretty damn cold at this point.

And then I said “screw this, it’s too cold,” fed the fire nicely, stuck the lid on, and sat inside for a bit.

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Once again, it’s almost like I know what I’m doing.

The action of the fire on the grain is interesting. The stuff dries fairly unevenly; as you can see, some of the grain is charred, some just very heavily roasted, some a nice chestnut color, and some a rich yellow hue. This is interesting, because it means that grain dried over a fire does not provide a homogeneous flavor profile; rather, several different “kinds” of malt will come together to make a richer flavor.

Some of the paler malt tasted a good bit like honey, rather akin to Gambrinus’ proprietary honey malt. That’s a result of grain “crystallization” (where the still-wet grain undergoes a mini-mash in the hull, and the sugars crystallize in the husk) and subsequent heat-based caramelization. Other grains are warm and nutty, and others are more like espresso beans.

What really struck me, though, is the complete lack of smoke flavor. The entire drying process took nearly 3 hours, and roughly 2/3 of that time had the grain being subjected to a fairly hard hot smoke. I did use a fairly clean-burning mild-tasting hardwood – but I still expected something to come through.

Nada. Not even a hint of smoke.

The really interesting part about that is that the Scottish kilns are designed to really minimize smoke intrusion, and also use a cloth (rather than aluminum mesh) to hold the grain. There should be even less smoke flvaor with that sort of setup.

The grain you see pictured is a little more heavily roasted than I’d like – a bit much char. However, I also learned that I have complete control over the rate of heating and drying – covering and uncovering the grain in conjunction with careful fire feeding lets me get some pretty solid temperature regulation. The next time I do this, I think I’ll have a better sense of how it works.

Next time, I’m going to play around with a prototype grain quern, to figure out how this kind of stuff may have been ground, and what it would be like.

Stay warm!

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Brewing With Egil: Revisiting the Past

Huzzah! The move is completed! Life has begun to settle back down, and now I think I can return to a normal-ish update schedule: every other week, on Sunday.

We shall see how long that lasts.

I’ve written a fair bit about the necessity of being wrong and on the need to occasionally revisit your work because of that. This is all good and well. So today, I’m going to revisit some of my earlier research and share with you what I’ve learned since. I’ll also report on my most recently-completed Viking-era brewing experiment (preview: it was awful), and document the next attempt I started literally today.

That’s right, I’m reporting this to you live.

“Gruit goes in, ol comes out, never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that.”
To be fair, they couldn’t either.

On the Meanings of “Gruit” and “Mealt”

A bit ago, I talked about my speculations on the exact meanings of words such as “gruit” and “mealt,” and how they may have actually been implemented. I’ve been revisiting my conclusions, and inspired by some other evidence, have been winding down a slightly different path.

Previously, I argued that both “mealt” and “gruit” referred to an herbed grain mixture. This still holds for “gruit,” I contend; between the meaning of “grut,” the connections to herbal remedies in the Anglo-Saxon leechdoms, and the method described in the Talmud (which is also medicinal), that connection is well-established.

“Mealt” is a little stickier, though. I never had a solid connection to herbs, and sort of presumed it by its connection to “gruit.” Recently, I discovered a 19th-century translation of the Senchas Márone of the texts compiling ancient Irish law. In it, on pages 241 – 243, we find a description of both the production and the “testing” of malt – which is called “braich.” This may be a general term meaning “grain;” I’m not familiar with Gaelic, so I will accept the translation as presented (for now). There are two critical things about this method: 1) if valid, this is probably the earliest written record of a full production method for ancient malt; and 2) the method describes the stuff being made into “cakes,” but never being mixed with herbs.

There is a possible route of cultural transmission from the Northern Irish to the Western Scots; there are shared linguistic and genetic roots between the two groups. It is conceivable that such processing methodology was passed from the ancient Irish to the people who would become the Scots. We know that the Norse later purchased “malt” from the Scots – so it’s conceivable that they were actually using “malt” that was produced in a manner similar to what is described here.

Given that it was turned into “cakes,” it is plausible that the stuff was still sour-leavened – the rest of my arguments regarding “malt” would hold true. The use of cakes for transportation and storage makes sense; loose grain requires a very solid piece of fabric for sacking material, which would be likely difficult to produce in the era. Cakes could be carried in the equivalent of netting, a more utilitarian form of container that is not as hard to produce. The cakes would probably still be dried in a manner not unlike the “gruit” cake, as the drying would help preserve the grain.

So I am now considering “mealt” and “gruit” to be completely distinct products with some similarities.

Hops: The Debate Rages

There are many impassioned arguments about the usage (or not) of hops in ancient beverages. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one, because that’s a much longer to discussion. To whit:

1) There is no physical evidence directly linking any plant product to any brewing activity in the Viking era – because we really don’t have complete products. All such connections are necessarily speculative, based on plants finds in proximity to sites.

In other words, there is no more evidence that any herb was used in Viking-era brewing than there is that hops were used in Viking-era brewing.

2) There is physical evidence that, among other plants, hops were present on Viking-era celebratory and burial sites.

3) There is documentary evidence that hops were being used in brewing as early as 822 CE (via decree of Abbot Adalhard of Corby).

4) There is physical evidence (the Graveny boat) that Vikings were importing hops.

5) Hops have a traditional use in herbal medicine – which I have already thoroughly connected to Viking-era brewing.

6) There is no evidence that hops were ever used exclusively in brewing in the Viking era.

My most reasonable conclusion I can draw: the above-mentioned “gruit” may have contained hops, but probably did not contain hops exclusively. It would have likely been present in a mixture of other locally-grown herbs.

This should piss some people off, I’m sure of it.

Good.

OK, OK, The Vats Weren’t Made of Sheep

I mean, it was fun speculation and all, but I’m pretty sure the vats were made of wood. And I’ve hit on a very specific vat.

Previously, I argued that “skap-ker” was a reference to a combination working vat/serving vat. The same vessel that was used to hold the fermenting beverage was also used as a display item. I argued that a particular brewing vessel type (the “Buddha bucket”) served as an example of a type of bucket that could fit such a purpose.

I’m starting to believe that there may have been multiple vessels involved in a multi-path brewing process. I also believe I have speculatively identified a bucket that could have actually served as a brewing vessel.

This bucket, figure 94 in the second volume of Osebergfundet vol. II, is very interesting. It’s made of fir, is roughly 5.5 gallons in capacity, is of a “wet” use type, and is fairly plain. It’s bound by 9 beech hoops which are further secured by iron tacks. It’s probable that the hoops were tacked down to ensure that the bucket doesn’t fall apart; “wet-use” buckets typically need to stay wet in order to stay together, as the swollen wood provides the needed tension. The tacks would allow the hoops to maintain their pressure even if the bucket dried out.

It is also inscribed with runes of ownership – a rare thing in Viking-era finds, and a culturally significant phenomenon.  Runes were often inscribed on items that were of extreme importance and significance to the owner – items without which they simply could not be. A warrior might, for example, inscribe ownership runes on his sword.

The runes translate to “Sigrid owns [me].” Sigrid is a female name, and she has inscribed runes on this relatively plain wooden bucket (other Oseberg finds are far more elaborate than this). No other bucket is so marked.

So we have a “wet” bucket, with additional securing measures, inscribed with runes of ownership by a woman. The runes and extra securing measures seem to indicate that the bucket is of extreme importance to the owner. That it’s owned by a woman indicates that it’s for a job that women historically performed. That it is of a “wet” type further tells us that the type of work involves liquid.

My conclusion: this is the working-vat for brewing. The wood may contain a native yeast culture, which would serve to explain the ownership runes – that particular bucket was essential for Sigrid’s work, because it probably contained her personalized yeast strain. It’s also conceivable that it was a bucket for medicinal preparation – but then again, medicine and brewing are already tightly connected.

A Method Revised

From this, I conclude a two-part brewing system: one involves the production of “ealu” or “brauð” using “gruit” in a specialized vessel, and the second part involves mixing the first product with a quantity of sweet liquid to make “öl.” The sweet liquid could be honey-water (“hydromel,” glossed as I’ve discussed before), or could possibly be a liquor derived from “mealt” (which I now understand to be distinct from “gruit”).

The ingredients for “gruit” are probably still the same as I’ve described before: grain, oil seeds, herbs, and saltwater. This essentially serves as a yeast culture medium; the grains provide nutrients, while the oil seeds provide a mild antimicrobial effect. The herbs would provide flavor and whatever medicinal properties they may have. When dumped into the designated bucket, the liquid becomes a medium for yeast growth as the trapped yeast cells now have a food source. Fermentation proceeds.

The result of that fermentation could also be combined with other sugars as I mention above. Anglo-Saxon writings advise pregnant women to avoid consuming beór, and the Talmud’s “zeethos” carries a similar warning. It’s worth noting that both flax seeds and safflower seeds have been associated with miscarriages and spontaneous abortions; it seems reasonable that both beór and zeethos shared oil seeds as a significant ingredient. This helps corroborate the use of “gruit” as a precursor ingredient.

“Gruit” is also used to indicate the “dregs” of brewing in the Anglo-Saxon leechdoms, again seeming to indicate that it is fermented prior to being used to make beór.

Such a technique is still in use today – many modern breweries will make a “small” beer, and then use the leftover yeast to start a “big” beer. Running through an easy fermentation ensures that you have a healthy, thriving yeast population; pitching healthy thriving yeast ensures a rapid and clean fermentation. For many high-gravity beers, pitching actively growing yeast is the only way to get them to start – and given that “beór” is glossed with “hydromel,” I’m willing to bet that it was a high-gravity brew.

So how am I making this stuff now?

This tasted like beef gravy. Have you ever fermented beef gravy? Here’s a hint: DON’T.

Somewhat interestingly. The above-pictured experiment is from a modification of my original mucking about; here, I omitted the flax seeds (because I had them packed up – but as I indicate above, they were probably always in use) and used peated malt as my base grain. Finds of corn-drying kilns from Scotland indicate a variety of woods as the possible fuel sources, as well as peat. As you get farther north in Scotland, peat becomes more prevalent; this is most likely the type of fuel that would have fired a kiln in the Orkneys in the Viking era.

So I took peated malt, herbs, and salt, and made them into sourdough biscuits as I’ve done before. I kept the same ratio as in my initial experiment: 4 biscuits (~1 cup crushed) per quart of water. Heat slowly to just under a boil. Mix with honey, and ferment. This time around, I also added some fruit to the mix – plums, as they’re found all over the place in the Viking era (as are crab apples and polar berries – other good candidates for additives).

It took me a while to place the flavor that resulted, but after a friend of mine tried it and nearly vomited in disgust, the answer was found:

Hot dogs.

The formula  of 1 part biscuit, 1 part honey, 3 parts water, and brewer’s yeast produces something that tastes exactly like the water leftover from boiling hot dogs, albeit highly concentrated.

Concentrated hot dog water. With booze.

It was not good.

This concerned me, because I really didn’t want to make something terrible. It also didn’t really taste sweet at all, so I figured that was a good enough excuse to say “NOPE! BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD!”

A normal, rational person would make hot dog water ONCE and then learn from it. But I’m a scientist: I have to do this at least three times before I can accept that it’s a bad idea.

So, obviously, I have to add back in the flax seeds (since they’re probably a very major component of gruit) – because if there’s anything that can improve hot dog water, it’s flax seed. This time, however, I’m altering the ratios.

Given that I’m looking at a two-stage fermentation in two different vessels, it stands to reason that different mixing steps might apply. The 1:4 fermentable:water ratio is reflected all throughout brewing history; I’ve decided to stick with that quite firmly, and apply it twice.

So the glop in the above-pictured jar is 1:4 biscuit/flax:water. 1 cup of a 50/50 mix crushed peated malt biscuit and flax seeds, and 4 cups of water. Heated slowly as I’ve done before. The whole mess is getting fermented by some dry Nottingham yeast.

Whatever liquid results from this will be mixed in a 1:4 ratio into some honey water which itself was prepared in a 1:4 ratio. So if I have 500 ml of fermented hot dog/flax water, I’ll add that to 2 L of honey water (with some fruit thrown in because hey it can’t get worse) which is made from 400 mL of honey and 1.60 L of water. That hot dog water is derived from ~250 mL of biscuit added to 1 L of water.

That should severely reduce the impact of the peated malt (taking it from 20% of the contents to something like 5%, which is far more normal for peated malt use) and bring this much more into the realm of a Scotch ale style. I’m considering using a strong ale base instead of honey water – that’d make it much more like a wee heavy, and given the prospective path of true malt production, it’s much more feasible than before.

Experiments are afoot! I’ll report back when I have findings, but for now: I’m going to stop all this typing and get back to reading.

What Will Be Said Of You?

Y'know, to this day, I still can't figure out how or why he's got his hand like that.

Y’know, to this day, I still can’t figure out how or why he’s got his hand like that.

I’m a nerd. A huge nerd. Possibly a dork. Definitely a geek. So…negork? Nah, doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. Whatever, I’m into some really nerdy shit and I’m smart, so I wear various labels proudly. I slap ’em on and parade around. I embrace it. I become it. I choose to identify because that identity speaks to me. I mean, why not, right? Might as well be honest about the things I like.

I’m a gamer specifically, and a tabletop gamer to be even more specific. From angry German board games to basically playing with dolls to lesser-known indie RPG’s, I’m a sucker for a good game. Gimme a dank dark basement, strangely spangled dice (or lots of cardboard and plastic chits), and some cheesy background music, and I’m good to go.

From an early age, story games of all kinds (especially AD&D, on which I cut my RPG teeth) held a particular appeal. Perhaps it was my experience with Grandpa Bjarne telling us kids outrageous tales, or dad doing the same – or maybe it was rooted in that all-too-familiar adolescent angst that made me want to be the Big Damn Hero and fix all the things that I could not. Escapism and dreaming, perhaps.

Games of this sort often get a bad rap from those who don’t understand their utility. I was fortunate enough to be at PAX East  when the brilliant Jane McGonigal gave her keynote regarding her research into games as life improvement. She’s given a few notable talks on this topic, and the gist is this: when applied correctly, games do not serve as distraction from life, but rather practice for it.

Any game is a test of skill, and applying those skills in the “world” of the game results in “real-life” testing of that skill. We learn in grow in the context of the game, and then take our improved skills out of the game and into the world. The attitude associated with those games goes as well; the pride we feel in accomplishing something in a game does in fact result in a feeling of accomplishment and positivity that we can spread to others. This all is true if you approach the game with that mentality – those who have a negative experience in a game, those who cheat, those who don’t “buy in” to the game don’t get as much out of it.

This is hardly a surprise – war games have been used for ages to train military commanders in real-life battle-winning tactics and strategies.

So then, roleplaying games are not necessarily escapism at all – they’re emulation. We set up a parallel world, and create stories and heroes from what we know. We set up obstacles with which we are familiar, and then we find inventive ways to tackle those obstacles. Our characters grow and learn, and so we can too. By pretending to be the Big Damn Hero, we can learn how to approach our life problems with confidence rather than meekness.

What are some of the lessons that these games are teaching us? Let’s look at the components of most RPG characters:

Grave-robbing murder-hobo: the hot new profession.

Grave-robbing murder-hobo: the hot new profession.

A Name: That is, an identity. Who you are, where you come from, what you do – so much is wrapped up in a simple name. Most of us don’t pick our own names, but the things with which that name will be associated are ours to decide. Make your name your own, and own your identity. If you choose to identify in some other manner? Awesome! But own it the same. Take pride in being someone.

Names can say a lot about a person, but the way in which you present your name – your identity – will tell people even more. Taking pride in yourself will make your name stick out in people’s minds. They’ll remember you – and that is a powerful thing.

A Class, Role, or Skillset: D&D is the classic class-based RPG – distilled story roles given stats. Not all games are necessarily class-based, but most still work around the concept of a role. Roles are really shorthand for themes and stories for the character – the kinds of things you’re interested in doing, and thus the kinds of stories you’re interested in crafting for yourself. Your character does stuff and learns stuff, and it’s all well-identified.

So too should we strive to do and learn stuff, and identify those things. Know the things we do well, the things we don’t do well, and the things we want to learn and adopt. If you’re really good at something, admit it! If you’re not, admit it! Putting your skills out there lets other people know what you like to do, what you want to do, and how you can help them (or they can help you).

An Inventory: Or taken another way, the resources at your disposal. This isn’t just material goods – though we negorks do have a habit of collecting material things – but also your opportunities and your social circles. Know what you’re bringing to the table, what you’ve got at your disposal, and what you need to acquire. Keep track of your resources, because they can be depleted, and you can be stuck in a tight spot.

Even if you don’t own something or have an ability, you often know someone who does – you can tap such a resource to help you accomplish your ends. Know where your resources are and keep track of them. Tend to them well, and invest in them – because you may need to call on them some day, and you will want them available for that. Socially, the phenomenon can be understood at a basic level as reciprocal altruism, though human motivation can be much more complicated. Still, a system of “tit-for-tat” will help you far beyond what you could manage alone.

A Party: Ah, this is the most important one. Sure, not all games have a party in the traditional sense – maybe it’s just you and the GM – but even with two people, you can get the point of it.

The neat thing about story games (and really, all games) is that they require other people in order to work. I mean, who just wants to sit around playing with themselves all day?

There is no situation in which this .gif is not relevant.

The greatest lesson that any game can teach us is that almost everything is better when it’s done with other people. No man is an island and all that – we all bring things with us in life, but none of us has everything we need to succeed on our own. People around us have value, and games teach us to recognize that value. Whether we draw on them as a resource or draw inspiration from them as a challenger, we need other people in our gaming environment. D&D does this by having niche exclusion in roles – a fighter needs support from other roles, or else they can’t succeed. Party dynamics become crucial, as the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Further, most story games focus on collaborative storytelling; that is, the story that is built is not the vision of one person that forces it on everyone else, but rather the amalgamation of everyone’s views for everyone’s character. Very often, games encourage us to surrender a part of our authorship to the rest of the group, so that they can write their vision of your character. Likewise, they give you a little purchase with their character, and you get to craft that part of their story. This circle of shared authorship creates a unique and compelling experience that simply cannot be generated by doing it all yourself. If you don’t want to play in the group – if you don’t want to actually write together – then just go write a book or some ludicrously self-indulgent blog article.

And so now we arrive at the point of it all – what I’ve been prattling on about for roughly 1300 words: shared authorship in life.

Games are practice for life, and life is really a story that you’re actively writing. You make decisions about what you want to do every single day, and those decisions have consequences for others. You don’t necessarily have control over every party of your life, but you’ve got a hell of a lot of control. And while you’re off being the protagonist of your story, other people are being the protagonists of their stories in the same universe as you. Kinda trippy if you think about it way too long.

There is an important step in respecting other people in your life, in being party of an adventuring party: the recognition that your perspective on your story is not the only one with value. Certainly your outlook and opinions on your life are the most important – but you’re also in the lives of the people around you, and they’re writing their story with you as a character. If we’re really being good and noble to each other, we’ll give the people we care about some degree of authorship over our own stories – give them some very precious space in our lives so that they can flesh out their own lives just as we’re trying to do with ours.

You have the final say, but we need to recognize that other people’s say still has value. We draw inspiration from other people’s perspectives, and we can try to apply those lessons to our own lives. In this way, we engage in a cycle of reciprocal altruism – give space to them, and they give space to you. Give and take perspective and inspiration.

Sometimes, this is a painful thing. It means that you might set aside some of your own wants for the sake of someone else’s. Relationships of all sorts are hard – but we can draw far more from them than we need to invest in them. It creates a resource that can be tapped. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And sometimes, that means that you’ll have to accept the place that someone else gives you in their story, because they’ve accepted their fate in yours. That can hurt, but it’s necessary in order to have productive relationships – and we need those because we are not all-powerful. The alternative is to retreat into your lonely fortress, pretending you don’t need anyone else.

HOLY SHIT JUST SHUT UP AND GET IN YOUR AWESOME GIANT ROBOT/MOTHER. OK, maybe that last part is a bit weird.

HOLY SHIT JUST SHUT UP AND GET IN YOUR AWESOME GIANT ROBOT/MOTHER.
OK, maybe that last part is a bit weird.

It’s just like the RPG party – other people bring things to the table that you don’t. Work together, and you can achieve more for each other than any of you could alone. In order to really work, you have to put forth honest effort and look at long-term cooperation – you can make incremental progress in the short term, but if you have disparate end goals, you will inevitably come to blows. Getting on the same page – “buying in” to the idea – is crucial.

Those other people have their own names, skillsets, and resources – and they’re a member of your party. You help them write their story as they help you write your own. That means someone may cast you in a light that you never intended for yourself – but if you can learn to give up that little part of your own authorship, you can find tremendous value there.

Beowulf probably never slew a troll or dragon, but people wanted to believe that he did. Being the Big Damn Hero is hard, and carries a lot of responsibility. The pressure! The expectations! It would be easier to withdraw and be nobody, to wield total power over a tiny world! If you step out of that bubble, other people may start expecting things of you, and then you’ll have to do things that you didn’t plan on doing! Acknowledge other people and their weird squishy emotions and shit! That’s hard, and we don’t have the energy for that – it’s hard enough just taking care of our own crap.

But that is not how legends are born. If you extend yourself to others as I’ve talked about above, they’ll remember your name and tell their stories of you. You will be immortalized in a way. Cattle die and kinsmen die – but word-fame lives forever.

Letting someone write a part of your life story is a great gift to them – it helps their story take shape. Make your decisions – play your character the way you choose – but remember that you are not the only one writing your story. There are other authors, and they may write differently than you – reveal to you something profound that you’d never know otherwise. They may thank you for it by casting you in a light greater than you’d thought – writing you as the hero they needed.

As you play your game and craft your story with the people around you, interacting out of necessity and desire, keep this in the back of your mind:

What will be said of you?

Half a Loaf

"OH NO, IF ONLY HE HAD SHOWERED SOME WARRIORS WITH WEAPONS AND GIFTS, WE MIGHT HAVE HAD SOME HELP."

“OH NO, IF ONLY HE HAD SHOWERED SOME WARRIORS WITH WEAPONS AND GIFTS, WE MIGHT HAVE HAD SOME HELP.”

With raiment and arms shall friends gladden each other, 
so has one proved oneself; 
for friends last longest, if fate be fair 
who give and give again.

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I used to be the kind of jerk who scoffed – I mean scoffed – at the giving of tiny, meaningless gifts. “Greeting cards,” I would say in my self-importance, “are the easy way out of saying something meaningful.” In those days, I thought Tim Allen and Jeff Foxworthy were the height of poignant, meaningful comedy. I would fall into line – “Men don’t give little gifts, we make things. Useful things. We have no sentiments. grunt grunt grunt.”

I would mechanically repeat the age-old mantra of gift reception – “it’s the thought that counts” – while glossing over the real meaning behind that phrase. Who really means that, honestly? Isn’t this just socially acceptable code for “You have terrible taste and I will never use the pile of shit you have just given to me, but it would take a modicum of effort to deal with your butthurt if I told you that – so instead, I’m going to coddle your ego in the manner deemed acceptable by society.” And we would execute these dance steps – token useless gifts accepted with token useless appreciation – with all the joy with which one mows the lawn or plunges the toilet.

I dunno, maybe I’m projecting here, but it always sounded so hollow to me. Too much formality and ritual and not enough feeling and thought and utility in gift-giving. Not for me, nope. I will not participate in such contrived rituals and meaningless corporate glorification. No Hallmark, you will not be my Valentine! Look at how different and edgy I’m being by rejecting your retail-dictated norms!

When we lost my father all those years ago (9 this December), I distinctly remember the lesson I learned: ham is the proper gift to give to someone who is mourning. Over the course of a week, we received no fewer than 8 hams – whole hams, half hams, bone-in, semi-boneless, boneless, spiral-sliced, hickory smoked, brown-sugar glazed – in an endless stream of porcine condolences.

In fact, I distinctly remember a dear friend showing up with a foil-covered pan, looking mournful and pained. He said, “I had no idea what to do, so I made a ham.” It was beautiful, really – the perfect summary of human sentiment. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing, so fuck it – have some pig. I told him to add it to the pile.

"I'm so sorry your father died of a heart condition. Why not drown your sorrows in this wad of saturated fat and sodium?"

“I’m so sorry your father died of a heart condition. Why not drown your sorrows in this wad of saturated fat and sodium?”

But you know what? Fuck me. The thing I missed in that entire time is that gift-giving is not about the recepient – not entirely, at least. When someone gives a gift to you, they’re looking for one in return – gracious acceptance.

If I give you a gift, it’s me saying, “I care about you enough to extend this part of myself. I have taken some of the focus off of my own very busy life and gone out of my way – even if it’s only slightly – for you. Please accept this gift, thereby acknowledging that my effort was meaningful and useful. I’ve chosen to invest myself in you, because I believe you will pay off.”

Sometimes, we don’t want to accept the gift. We have no use for it, or we feel put upon to respond in kind. I have plenty of experience with someone who really really really wants to help and is just so insistent about it that I feel like rejecting their gifts. But really, I don’t think we are so suffused with goodwill in the world that any of us can afford to reject it as a matter of practice; it’s a far better thing to accept the gift as a default, and deal with the rejections as they arise.

To accept a gift with grace means that you are helping that person to feel useful and needed, deepening the social bonds that keep us civil – investing their social currency wisely. The gift itself is virtually meaningless – rather, the exchange of the gift creates a lasting resevoir of social goodwill that can be tapped later. It’s one way in which we build social wealth to later turn into social worth, and it’s now your job to steward that investment and guarantee a return.

Or, in other words – yes, it really is the thought that counts. The thought is all that mattersThe form the gift takes will depend entirely on the personality of the giver – some like to feed, some like trinkets, some like cards, some like words, and some like to simply be there if you need them. The recepient factors into it, in that they are the catalyst for the action – but that’s it. When you’re being given a gift, someone is asking you to help them out. You should strive to be so generous in your acceptance.

How wonderful! You've given me the gift of the world's most punchable face! How can I decline?

How wonderful! You’ve given me the gift of the world’s most punchable face! How can I decline?

In our day-to-day lives, anything we do can be a moment of gift-giving. A well-time word, a hand when it’s needed (or not), a good fight – as long as it is done with the intention of giving a gift and accepted graciously, any exchange has value. Simply being around when someone wants you can have a tremendous effect.

We have precious little time in our lives; if we’re lucky, we’ll have ~80 years on this rock, hurtling through space at unbelievable speeds until our reactionary sacks of biochemistry give out and we return to the organic confluence that spawned us. Use that time wisely and give generously.

The SCA has taught me a lot about gift-giving, a thing I never used to value. I’ve learned to write poems and make rings, to pour drafts and listen as someone ranted about a thing that matters to them. To give gifts and to accept them in kind, making sure to invest the interest on that goodwill in others. I recently received a very generous gift – an award of high merit – that was given to me by people who want me to stick around, and I’m still figuring out how to respond to it. Obviously, my friends have chosen to invest in me – so they must see a potential for return. If I am to honor them, it’s my duty to ensure that their investment is not wasted.

I’m not perfect about it – not by any means – but it’s a thing that I am always pursuing. Learning how to give and how to accept – it’s an imperfect process, but the result is worthwhile.

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Not great things alone must one give to another,
praise oft is earned for nought;
with half a loaf and a tilted bowl
I have found me many a friend.

Because.

So I killed a rooster and turned him into beer.

Behold the majesty of my cock. Yes, this post will be full of juvenile cock jokes.

Shockingly, though, I’m not interested in discussing my cock or its majesty at any…length…in this post. A discussion about the production of cock ale will probably be put up much later, so you will have to wait very patiently to sample my cock.

Ale.

I promise, I’m an adult and a professional government employee. Really.

No, this post is a further examination of a topic I’ve already addressed. In a sense, I’ve already touched upon my cock – but it warrants revisiting.

You see, from time to time I still ask myself, “Self, why are we doing this? Why did this majestic cock need to die?”

I had a lengthy discussion with my good friend Phil (the expert cock handler pictured above) during the weekend where Death Cluck was slated to die; his extensive undergraduate education netted him degrees in Archaeology, Anthropology, and Medieval History. Yes, I mean 3 separate degrees. I don’t know about you, but I was a crappy student in my undergraduate career; that level of education is somewhat intimidating to me.

Yet, despite this intense level of education and intelligence, Phil expressed a sort of dismay at the general uselessness of it all. That no matter what, holding that cock seemed somehow more generally useful than, say, digging up some old pottery shards. That it wasn’t really making a difference. That it just seemed to exist in order to perpetuate its own existence.

We talked at length about our perspectives on the archaeology community and archaeology as a discipline, and we both take a similar view: it’s at best a weak science, and at worst a field of undisciplined and poorly-controlled speculation. Phil expressed a degree of regret regarding his choice of field – what good was it? Does it help anyone? Does it fix any global problems? The community seemed to consist of a circle-jerk telling itself that it was cool and valid and stuff – but what good is that? I found myself generally agreeing with his assessment.

True, as an elite member of the S.T.E.M. master race (to use the vernacular popular of the Internets), it’s easy for me to be dismissive of all those “lesser” disciplines that result in a B.A. or M.A. – or really, anything that awards an “A” as a degree. I have a lot of practice in being an arrogant prick, and even more practice in telling people why they’re wrong and need to re-evaluate their perspectives. A valuable asset to society, no doubt.

But I’ve pondered this more, and I’ve come to something of a conclusion.

Oh please, tell me more about the inferiority of the arts as a field of study.

I mean, OK, we study things because they’re cool. Sure. We dig up ancient artifacts and attempt to reconstruct history because it’s pretty nifty. Is it as “valuable” as curing AIDS or cancer? Probably not, but that’s a really unfair standard – and such comparisons lead to infinite regression or reductionist cycles.

AIDS is solvable with money – so if you’re not tackling novel influenzas, you’re not really helping. But y’know, viruses aren’t even the real issue – we need to improve the infrastructure of developing nations so that they can improve sanitation and thus get healthy. Aw hell, that really pales in comparison to the socio-political biases in the world that perpetuate those situations in the first place. But that doesn’t even matter because peak oil is coming, and everything is going to hell anyway. And none of that will matter if we can’t get off of this rock before we ruin it – so really, if you’re not a gazillionaire funding a ludicrous space colony program, you’re really not helping.

You see why such comparisons are silly? No matter your discipline, someone somewhere will find a way to tell you that it’s useless and you should be focusing on something that’s “more useful.”

Sure, we have to set our priorities and decide what things will get what amount of attention – but that reality doesn’t invalidate any particular field of study.

At its core, the discipline of archaeology is one of examination and investigation of very scant material. It is a necessarily outwardly-building discipline, because there is simply a lack of stuff to fill in any particular hypothesis. It proceeds in a direction somewhat opposite the typical path of science; whereas I take a complex system and break it down into fundamental components, archaeology looks at a component and attempts to extrapolate the system.

This is a very necessary component of critical investigation and knowledge-building. Yeah, we do that in science to some extent – but it’s never really on a big scale. The only reason we have any idea about dinosaurs is because some dudes way back when looked at some bones and said, “What if it was like this?” Good science? Not the best, but a useful thing. It examines and tests the exterior of our knowledge framework, while the sciences concern themselves with describing within that framework.

That outward framework building, fraught with errors and confirmation bias, is really the best way we know to expand our analytical framework. If someone didn’t push at the boundaries of what we can confidently know, we’d progress very slowly. Archaeology is a bit like engineering or architecture, except that it attempts to build a historical narrative of a society – it’s a field for dreamers who want to build new things. Sketch the framework and let the detail-focused people fill it in. Maybe the sketch has to change – that’s OK. The point is that while science is working at tiny level, carefully shading individual pixels comprising the image, archaeology (and other similar disciplines) is trying to outline the picture.

It’s also a way to teach people how to make decisions and formulate plans with little to no workable information. As a scientist, I can be stalled by a lack of information. Too many variables. Directions unclear. Ham-fisted cock joke. But because archaeology doesn’t hold itself to the same standard of verifiability, its adherents are more free to dream big dreams and come up with ludicrously complex ideas. Most are wild speculation, but hey – so are a lot of things.

The back-and-forth between strictly disciplined science and less disciplined investigative fields helps us to fully flesh out our understanding of the world – and that is an ultimately useful and noble goal. Any pursuit that is an attempt to usefully increase one’s knowledge or understanding of the world is a useful one, and the interaction with other people doing similar things allows you to make a very real contribution to the entire progress of humanity. It might not always seem direct, but there it is. And this interaction and the reconstruction of historical narrative helps pull us together – teach us more about our shared history, and we’ll feel even more connected to one another.

Seriously, why not? I mean, except for the whole “freezing to death alone on top of a mountain” thing. Also, cock joke.

Ultimately, the simple pursuit of understanding is a goal in and of itself. It might seem weak, but the truth is that pursuing knowledge because you think it’s cool is exactly what everyone does. People go into robotics because they’re fucking awesome. Prosthetics? Screw you nature, I’ma give this guy his legs back because we’re that awesome. Neurosurgery is amazing. Saving starving children in Africa? Bad-ass. Every single 5-year-old child loves dinosaurs because they’re so fucking cool, and in many cases that has lead those children to pursue careers in science. I can say confidently that I’m into biology because the T-Rex is approximately the most stupefyingly amazing thing we’ve ever discovered except maybe some sweet-ass planets. The image of the T-Rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History is burned into my brain, and that’s just fine.

Sure, we like to feel like we’re accomplishing something more than ourselves, but even that ultimately comes back to making ourselves feel good about who we are. Some people think that helping others is the coolest thing ever – and I’m hard-pressed to disagree. You’re accountable to yourself above all, and since you’ve got to be comfortable with yourself, I can’t see begrudging anyone their chosen passion.

Are you pursuing it because you love it? Are you connecting with the community? Are you taking opportunities to better yourself in pursuit of this thing? Yes? Then we’re all good.

We climb mountains because we can. We build progressively faster cars because we can. Tall rollercoasters, square watermelons, 50% ABV beers, chili peppers hot enough to physically burn your skin – all because we can.

So there’s the answer to the question. Why slaughter a chicken and throw him into beer? Why dig up 20,000 year old pottery and try to reconstruct the culture around it? Why perform open-heart surgery for 20 straight hours?

Yes, we can and should argue the particulars of what to pursue when, but the answer still stands:

Because.

On the Necessity of Being Wrong

Yeah, I’m sure you’re smarter than this guy.

I’ve been wrong before. Sure, not terribly often – but it happens to the best of us. I do my best to face my wrongness, abandon the incorrect belief, and learn from my mistake.

I have noticed, however, that most people seem to fear being wrong. There is a tendency to cling tenaciously – even irrationally – to a belief that is demonstrated to be wrong in some capacity. There have been studies about this phenomenon; humans will go to great lengths to maintain a belief that they identify as essential, to the point of ignoring the cognitive dissonace that evidence may cause and simply making a snap assessment.

Perhaps I have an advantage as a scientist – I’ve been trained to analyze and challenge “knowledge,” and I put that skill to use every single day of my life. Still, although scientists in general may have a better rate of rejecting a belief that is demonstrated to be “wrong,” we still don’t do it perfectly. We are, after all, only human.

In fact, humans by and large tend to make decisions without actually thinking, and then rationalize those decisions later. Yes, even you. Even me. Even Dr. Hawking.

So perhaps this is an instinctive response to our attempts to create social currency; being “right” creates value for us in the eyes of others. If we’re demonstrated to be wrong, that social value must decrease, right? In order for us to maintain our social value – and thus guarantee our continued survival in that social group – we will ignore being “wrong” in favor of fitting in. Maintaining our social homeostasis.

But then we run into this problem – if we go to great lengths to always be “right” by ignoring information that is valid but contradictory, we will eventually go crazy. We’ll ignore reality in favor of our delusion of “rightness.”

Reality? Who needs that? Shit’s boring.

And this is why it’s so goddamn important to be wrong. The lines we usually hear are things like, “Oh, it’s OK to be wrong,” or “There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” or “Just get back on the horse!”

The problem is that all of these statements are rooted in an assumption of negativity – in order to be valid, the statements must start with an assumption that we all perceive being wrong as a bad thing, and then those statements proceed to tell you how that’s wrong. Which we know is bad.

Do you see the issue with that approach?

I say that being wrong isn’t a thing we endure; it’s a thing that is in and of itself good. You should want to be wrong. It’s desirable. You should stand up and proudly declare your wrongness. Shout it from the rooftops. Wear a giant red “W” on your chest.

Why? Because it means that you have a new thing to learn. It means that you can continue your journey of discovery. Exercise your intellectual muscle. Trim the fat of ignorance.

And fundamentally, it means that you’re human. The most likely shared experience we will have is that of being wrong and dealing with the ramifications – remember that we all make snap decisions without full consideration, so the odds are good that we’ll be wrong. The odds are that everyone will be wrong – and we can share our experiences in that regard.

You’ll probably be wrong way the hell more often than you’ll be right. And that’s a good thing, because that’s how we learn.

If you point out how someone else is wrong, you’re actually doing them a favor. They were going to do things with incorrect information! It would have been wasted effort! Now they can learn new things!

Obviously, there are ways to do it tactfully – don’t be a dick about it. But nobody – nobody – should be afraid of being wrong, or of pointing out to someone that they are wrong.

Trust me, it’s not like this most of the time

I’m not saying that you should go out of your way to make mistakes – sometimes, being wrong can have disastrous consequences. A doctor who misdiagnoses a tumor can kill you. A cop who shoots the wrong guy has robbed an innocent person of life unjustly. An intelligence report that contains a mistake can start a multi-year war.

Our brains often turn small instances of being wrong into massive ordeals – even if the actual ramifications of being wrong would be small, we will tend to exaggerate those things to help support our desire to be right.

The vast majority of the time, though, our being wrong is primarily of consequence to us and us alone. If someone forces me to admit to being wrong, it just involves me admitting that I might not know everything that I thought I do.

I don’t do it perfectly. Nobody does. But that’s the mentality we should have when approaching being “right” or “wrong.”

And besides, if you were just right all the time, life would get boring pretty quickly. We wouldn’t need to explore, and so we’d never have a reason to leave the house. We’d become isolated. Withdrawn. Antisocial. And eventually, in a cruel irony, our social value would be reduced to zero.

So get out there and dare to be wrong – you might learn something new.

There is a Grandeur in this View of Life

There can be only one

There has been a flare-up of an on-going discussion in the SCA bardic community – that of competition. I’ve written a lengthy entry on the topic that summarizes my views on performance competitions.

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As to why I prefer a competitive environment?

1. Structure and Equality. A competition is a game, and the players of a game must abide by the same set of rules. This puts everyone on a level playing field. No, you might not be comfortable on that field – but neither is anyone else, really.

Also, how many times have you gone to a bardic circle and That Person just won’t stop hogging the spotlight? It’s rude and disrespectful to other performers – we all know and feel it. We can try to engender that futzy culture of “be mindful of others,” but the structure of a competition removes that possibility entirely.

2. Challenge. I argue that it is impossible to issue a fair challenge to yourself. It’s a conflict of interest due to our amazingly biased perspectives towards ourselves. You can set yourself up for failure, or set a small goal that is easy to accomplish and doesn’t teach you anything. Competitions provide a source of external challenge that is very often unexpected; this often results in a caliber of performance that neither the audience nor the performer expected.

This is not to say that you cannot challenge yourself – only that any such challenge is unlikely to yield a functionally objective self-assessment.

3. Inspiration and Respect. We teach, in the SCA, that we should draw inspiration from one another. This is the heart of a good competition. We draw inspiration from the excellent effort we see around us, and in doing so, we take the opportunity to “rise to the occasion.”

It also helps to engender a spirit of mutual respect. We acknowledge those pieces which we found to particularly powerful; in the uncomfortable environment of competition, such acknowledgment provides relief, which in turn creates a deeper appreciation in the recepient of such acknowledgment.

Approaching other bards on an even playing field also sends a subtle message that serves as a backdrop for the competition: “You are my peer. You are valued as much as I am. You are a worthy competitor.” Good sportsmanship is an excellent method of respecting the other competitors. 

4. Self-Improvement. The reason to have a fair challenge is to test one’s skills, and find the areas of strength and weakness in an objective manner. That allows us to showcase our strengths and work on our weaknesses. Objectivity is important, because sometimes there are things we don’t want to admit to ourselves; competitions can force us to look at those things, rather than shield ourselves from them.

5. Confidence-Building. I don’t think I’ve ever met a bard that doesn’t need any more self-confidence. I say this with love and respect, but seriously, most of us are down on ourselves by default. This is crap. Being successful at a competition requires a touch of arrogance and a lot of confidence – and yes, these are things you can learn. Putting yourself out there at a competition is you saying “I”m good enough to be a contender.” Do that often enough, and you’ll start believing it.

All of these things are fun for me, and I approach them with a mindset of having fun. All too often, the attitude I read is that “competition” and “fun” are mutually exclusive; this doesn’t have to be the case. 

If one approaches with a mindset of 1) learning as fun and 2) wanting to learn about oneself, one can extract a lot of enjoyment out of nearly any competition.

Many competitors have an unhealthy attitude about competition. This is harmful to everyone. Ungracious winners, sore losers, cheaters, and all other sorts of personalities undermine all of those wonderful things I’ve enumerated above.

So I would ultimately argue that the issue isn’t with the nature or principle of competition – but rather with the way that competition is applied, and the attitude underlying it.

Many issues with competitions also stem from people’s underlying insecurities about competitions. Cheaters are selfish people who want to exert more control than everyone else, because they fear their own abilities are insufficient. If we don’t attempt to manage our insecurities in a competition, we will doom ourselves to failure, and will not draw use from it.

And I am in no way denigrating non-competitive performance; indeed, that is the essence of creating our collective fiction. Competitions are often rather non-immersive, because we all know what’s going on.

Ultimately, I use the two for entirely different purposes.

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While I spoke of bardic competition in the SCA specifically, this applies to all manner of competition.

Admit it: you love cardboard subjugation

Jane McGonigal has spoken about the positive aspects of gaming, and this is true of competitive gaming; the skills we learn from such applications are taken with us into the “real world,” where we pass those lessons on to others. The SCA is a game, and bardic competitions moreso; the approach to any competitive game will teach us things about ourselves, and allow us to grow and improve as people.

But don’t take my word for it – there are studies demonstrating the positive effects of competition on a person’s performance and intrinsic motivation.

A healthy approach to a fair competition gives us a great opportunity to grow.

Is it the be-all-end-all? Hardly. A singular approach is insufficient for robust growth; however, many people shy away from competitions for various reasons, and this is inadvisable.

We need a wide range of experiences to complete us, and like it or not, competition is part of being alive.