Fire and Brimstone

Sulfur is one of a handful of elements that can be found in its native state, like silver, gold, and copper. The ancients knew about brimstone because they didn’t have to extract it—they could literally pick it up off the ground. With the emergence of industrial civilization the demand for sulfur and its products became so great that sulfide minerals became a more important source of sulfur. And since sulfides are the source of metals like iron, lead, and the aforementioned copper, extracting those materials produced sulfur as a by-product. Sulfuric acid, which is produced from sulfur, is among the most widely used of all industrial chemicals, something close to 200 million metric tons are produced annually worldwide. Most of it is used to make fertilizer from phosphate rock which means your food supply depends on sulfur.

In the old days people used fire for everything. They heated their homes, boiled water, and cooked food with fire. They also used fire for manufacturing processes such as smelting ores to obtain needed metals. Today we have electricity for that stuff, but we still get most of our electricity from fire. When we learned to burn coal and other fossil fuels in great quantities in order to generate electricity we moved our fires out of our homes and shops. Now we have special fireplaces (“power plants”) that burn better fuels than wood and burn them more efficiently. It was discovered early on that burning oil and gas created a great deal of pollution. Coal fires, in particular, are very messy. Soon people figured out that among the major pollutants were oxides of sulfur, and it was discovered that those chemicals could be recovered from the gases released by these fires.

Now all modern fire-making places scrub the sulfur from the exhaust. This is now the main source of our sulfur! We burn a hell of lot of fossil fuels and most of them contain significant sulfur and so we have a new, steady supply. What we used to think was a waste stream is now a resource.

That’s the lesson for me. There is no such thing as waste. We live in a material society that creates a lot a stuff. And we throw a lot of that stuff away. The steel, aluminum, and glass industries do a lot of recycling for example, so there’s proof that we can do a better job with our “one-and-done” system. But most things we make we use for a while and then we toss them. Our market economy requires new goods to be continually made and purchased so there is a lot of incentive to dump the old things.

In fact if we don’t keep buying our economy will collapse. Capitalism has to grow. A steady-state is the same thing as a death spiral. So we will continue to burn our great fires and dig up our minerals and build our things so that we can keep selling them and keep buying them. That way we can all see our wealth grow and we can continue to have faith in our economy so that we will borrow and spend and pay back our loans so that we can borrow and spend some more. All those who borrowed money expect to keep earning and all those who loaned money expect to be paid back. And so it goes.

All resources are ultimately finite. We won’t run out any time soon, even with billions of us demanding more everyday. We will however find it harder to get the stuff we need. And it will get more expensive. So we have to do better with what we have. We can’t just suck oil out of the ground and make plastic doohickeys and get rich selling them and then just let them float out in the middle of the Pacific. That plastic is enormously-resource intensive. We can’t allow that energy to be wasted. All things we make must have an end-of-life plan.

The only way we can do that is to re-work this notion of waste. There isn’t anything that is actually waste. Given enough time everything will return to its atomic constituents and get re-shaped by nature into something else. Right now we are counting on nature to take care of our messes for us. But that’s not going to work anymore. We have to see a barrel of oil not as a one-way arrow but as a circle. When we burn oil to make electricity and we recover the sulfur from the fumes that’s thinking like a circle. And that’s just a tiny little thing, imagine what we could do if we really tried.

I once had a nuclear engineer tell me he thought sealing up and burying nuclear waste was a mistake. He viewed the material by-products from the reactors as potential resources and wanted them stored in such a way that we could “get the stuff back when we need it.” I tell you I liked the way that guy thought! Maybe radioactivity makes you squeamish, it does a lot of folks, but if we are going to use it we need that kind of outlook.

God rains fire and brimstone down upon the unfaithful. Throughout the Bible those two things serve a symbol of god’s wrath. Sodom and Gomorrah got the fire and brimstone treatment, for example. These days we harness our fire and brimstone but that doesn’t mean they won’t come back and bite us in the ass. I don’t worry about god’s wrath, I worry we won’t catch on quick enough about this waste stuff. Because we’ll pay just as heavy a price as the S & G crowd did, just not as quickly. Their trip to oblivion was instantaneous, ours will be slow enough that we might not notice.


Cold temperatures and snowfall have finally arrived in winter-like amounts. The gods relented at last and spring seems further away than before. But the gods extract their price nonetheless:2018-02-25-snowpack-updateRed is not good. I see a lot of red. Folks in the northern Cascades are looking at a normal year. Northern Idaho is too, and Montana and northern Colorado are awash with snow. But the Oregon and Nevada numbers look bad. (The white of northern California just means there are no SNOTEL reporting sites: most are in the Tahoe region.)

But I don’t need a graph to tell me that. I’ve skied over enough rocks this season, rocks in Wyoming, rocks in Utah, rocks in Oregon, and rocks in California. There’s just not enough snow cover. Which means there’s not enough snow. Which means there won’t be enough water in the summer. Welcome to life in the West.

Alpine Meadows ski area is forecasting almost four feet of snow to fall in the next five days and Mount Shasta Ski Park is calling for almost five. The winter we have all been waiting for is about to bury us in the white stuff. California is supposed to get hammered by the upcoming storm cycle. I like it. This is good. But tomorrow is the last day of February! We’ve only really got a month—March—to get those accumulations up. The snowpack needs to get built when it is still cold and the sun’s angle is still low in the sky. By April and May the storms don’t add enough to the base and what falls doesn’t stick around as long.

But at least we’ve had a taste. I was going crazy with the lack of skiing but after a long road trip to chase the powder and some good days here locally on Mt. Ashland I feel a lot better. My skis look like they’ve hit bottom too many times, which they have, and I expect a few more gouges and scrapes before the lifts stop running. But skis can be repaired, drought-ravaged forests not so much.

Perhaps we’ll get our “Miracle March” and the snowpack will be thick and deep for the dry season. That will mean a lot of winter weather in the next few weeks. It looked like it might not come at all and then it came with a bang and I’ll bet folks will be sick of it in short order. But we need it. We need snow, snow, snow. And not just for us skier-types, we need snow to live and thrive. The water doesn’t come from anywhere else and the taps shut off by the middle of May so if we don’t get it now we’ll come up short. As a lifelong Californian, I’m used to that.

John Wesley Powell told Americans that the 100th meridian divided the watered East from the arid West. No one listened. We moved West and brought everything with us. What we have today is a series of oases in the deserts linked by highways and power lines. In California we have a gigantic plumbing system that captures the mountain snowmelt and ships it to the coasts and valleys where the people live. We’ve created the illusion of a fertile Eden but it is just that—an illusion. It works for now because we’ve got a good plumbing system and plenty of cheap electricity. But when Mother Nature denies us our snow, hence our water, things get a little tight. Our demand for water and energy is not going to slacken and our water sources aren’t going to increase. We have to make do with what we’ve got unless we want nuclear-powered desalinating plants dotting our shores. So put on your mittens and pray for more snow.

The Snow Gods

The snow gods, like all gods, are petty and capricious. They smile upon you one day and cruelly pull the rug out the next. It takes two days to get across Oregon and Idaho and into Wyoming. The forecast said Jackson Hole Mountain Resort would get steady snowfall from Thursday through the weekend. We were there and ready to shred the pow but the storm petered out somewhere over the Tetons.

Friday was our first day on the mountain and we woke to a report of trace amounts of snow. We got to the ski park early enough to be part of the first wave on the Aerial Tram and that put us on the summit minutes after opening. It climbs 4,139 feet from the base! It was overcast and blustery up top and the skiing was hard going on a slick surface. We explored the upper runs only as the lower runs were mostly closed due to lack of coverage. Locals had advised us to focus on the terrain around the Sublette Quad Chair but it was on wind hold and we had to try other places. Visibility was poor in the flat light and many of the un-groomed slopes were over-populated with moguls and icy patches.

It was a disappointing day. My buddy and I are often our own worst enemies as we are both condition snobs. We like freshly-fallen snow and live to ski the powder. That kind of skiing is both more relaxing and more exhilarating at the same time. The harder surfaces require more attention and more effort. Nonetheless we appreciated being at a new place and we made sure to explore and gain a modicum of familiarity. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort takes up four square miles (about 2,500 acres) and is thus ten times larger than either of our local hills!

Saturday we again woke to a report of trace amounts of snowfall and we watched the webcam for a few hours thinking the storm might arrive later in the day and we could go up in the afternoon to catch the fresh stuff. We gave up after lunch. That evening it snowed lightly in the town of Jackson and we figured there would be accumulations at the higher elevations the next morning.

Sure enough the morning report said two new inches and, sticking to our pattern, we hustled up there early to beat the holiday crowds and were rewarded again with “first tram.” This time it was crystal clear and without a hint of wind and we hurried off the tram and on to the slopes of Rendezvous Peak. We caught some soft turns immediately in the bowl and worked our way over to a nice patch of tree-skiing on our way to the now-open Sublette. We were able to find many nice stretches of fun skiing. We estimated they actually got closer to four inches on the upper third of the mountain. We did our best to make the most of it.

The views across Jackson Hole and to the Gros Ventre range were stunningly beautiful. The air was delightfully cold and refreshing and we worked our way through Tensleep Bowl, Laramie Bowl, the Cirque, and the Amphitheater. We were stoked as the snow skied deeper than it actually was and we pushed ourselves hard. It was crowded and got more crowded as the day went on but we found it easy to get around and didn’t experience too much waiting in the lift lines. We stopped for a beer at the Gondola Summit (9,095 feet) and were rewarded again with breathtaking vistas. The resort sits at the southern edge of the Grand Tetons and everywhere you look there are jagged, rocky peaks and snow-mantled forests not to mention the huge high valley that is Jackson Hole itself.

Everywhere we went on the mountain or in town we met friendly people whether they were residents or fellow tourists. There’s a relaxed, open vibe and everyone is cheerful and happy. Who wouldn’t be in such an alpine paradise? We stood in line with people from Switzerland and sat on the chair with folks from Down Under as well as people from all over the States. Many shared stories similar to ours— no snow back home and chasing a weather forecast with the hope of catching the elusive freshies.

The journey home was long and tiring but we made it safe and sound. The math on the trip wasn’t ideal: four days of driving for two days of skiing and only one of those good. But we were thrilled to have bluebird conditions on that one great day and it made the entire expedition worthwhile. All we want to do in the winter is ski and the snow gods are mocking us mercilessly with these drought conditions. But we got to ski and we got to ski at a spectacular place and we had good times in a happening resort town to boot.

The forecasts don’t look much better for the new year, and it will take some time before any of the resorts we want to visit get sufficient base to open all their terrain. But we managed to use our skis twice in the waning days of 2017 which was our goal. We’ll have to figure out some better means of propitiation for these indifferent deities. Any suggestions?

Chasin’ Freshies

There’s nothing here. Neither Mt. Ashland nor Mt. Shasta have much snow and neither resort looks to open anytime soon. That means a road trip is in order! The storm tracks throughout the month have been northerly and neither Utah nor Tahoe resorts are anywhere close to seasonal norms. The snow has been falling in Washington, Idaho (especially the panhandle), and Wyoming. They have the Tetons in Wyoming and that’s our destination: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

My buddy (who does the driving) is coming in an hour and we hope to make it to Idaho Falls tonight. Then an early start and we can hit the slopes Thursday and also get a full day in on Friday. If the predictions are good we should hit freshly fallen snow both days. “When it snows, we goes” is our motto but we’ve been hard-pressed to pull the trigger on a trip because of the paucity of the white stuff so far this season.

It’s New Year’s weekend of course and that means it will be busy in Jackson. Most of the motels are at or near capacity. The mountain report says that only a small portion of the lifts and thus the trails will be open to ski. “Early-season conditions” is the word. But we are desperate and willing to go almost 900 miles just to catch some runs. We already had our ski-legs by this time last season so it should be a challenge at a new park that neither of us are familiar with.

That’s part of the excitement, seeing a new place. The Northern Rockies are spectacular and the Grand Tetons are perhaps as beautiful as any mountain range anywhere in the world. We hope that there will be another following storm so that we can stay on the road and get some skiing in at another spot before we head back home. The forecasts don’t look very promising, unfortunately. Sun Valley is in a dry stretch, so are the Cottonwood resorts, and not much is happening in Colorado, either.

Wish us luck!




My latest foray into time-wasting is Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain by GMT Games. Pendragon is a card-driven board game set in the fourth and fifth centuries of our era. This is a time of civil unrest as the Pax Romana on the frontiers of the Empire began to crumble after the death of Marcus Aurelius in AD 180. Britannia was still a province of Rome but barbarian invasions and local rebellions had made it a troubled land and its overseers were increasingly uncertain about the future. Pendragon re-creates the conflicts among the Romanized citizenry, the imperial government, the unconquered tribes, and the many acquisitive foreigners.

I ordered the game when it was in pre-production last fall and it finally got published and printed this fall and arrived in the mail last week. The packaging is beautiful with quality parts, a large colorful board, and extremely detailed rules and player aids. When I say detailed I mean there is a 17-page tutorial to walk you through the game process! It will take me weeks to learn the system but it seems carefully constructed and play-tested. Pendragon is the eighth in a series that GMT calls COIN for COunter-INsurgency. The developer of the scheme and series is listed as Volko Ruhnke but Pendragon’s creator is Marc Gouyon-Rety. It’s not strictly about counter-insurgency but rather asymmetric conflict which of course is of continuing relevance in the 21st century.

One of the things that appealed to me about this game was the lack of solid information about this time and place in history. War games involving Napoleon, WWII, or the American Civil War are very popular and we know a lot about the historical settings, the units involved, their fighting strength and disposition, and the topography and terrain. The conflicts in Britannia 1500 years ago are shrouded in the mists of the past. Much of that time comes to us as fable or legend, King Arthur for example, and we have few first-hand accounts and little written material to study. The Peloponnesian War took place four hundred years before Christ but we have Thucydides to consult. Julius Caesar published books about his exploits in Gaul fifty years before Christ. We have no such comprehensive sources for the Empire’s woes in the British Isles four hundred years later.

Pendragon allows you to take on the role of either the Britons or the barbarians. The Britons are divided into two factions, the ‘Dux’ who represent the imperial army and administration, and the ‘Civitates’ who are the landed gentry, native chieftains and their tribes who depend on Roman support. The barbarians are also divided into two factions, the ‘Scotti’ or Celtic raiding parties from Ireland (Hibernia) and Scotland (Caledonia), and the ‘Saxons’ who are Germanic peoples looking for new lands to settle. The Briton factions seek to preserve the status quo and their prosperity while the barbarians seek plunder, prestige, and the disruption of Roman rule. The Briton factions can come into conflict with each other as the Civitates desire independence while the Dux hope to preserve the Empire. The barbarians can join together to fight the powerful cavalry and militia of the civilized people or they can fight each other while seeking loot, land, and glory.

Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain covers a span of about 150 years and big changes took place in the lives of the many people who inhabited Britain during that time. The collapse of Roman power and the rise of the early kingdoms must have been massive disruptions to the peace and prosperity of the populace. The game includes things like changing victory conditions to reflect the chaos of the times. I’ll admit it is overwhelming. The ‘Playbook’ (which includes the aforementioned tutorial) is 72 pages, and the ‘Rules of Play’ add 44 more. These are 8-1/2 by 11 pages with a two-column format and a typeface with capitals that aren’t quite 2.5 mm high. It takes some doing to figure it all out. But it brings out my inner geek, and I’m interested in the history. There’s a bibliography included in the material and a number of contemporary books listed seem promising.

I may be in way over my head on this, but I’m sufficiently intrigued to give it a shot. It can’t be THAT hard, right? These people can’t be THAT much smarter than me, can they?

We’ll find out.



Apparently there is an official kind of moodling: an open-source software resource for teaching and learning. That’s not the kind of moodling I mean. I’m thinking more like Brenda Ueland:

So you see the imagination needs moodling—long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.

My wife calls this “piddling” and it has an entirely positive connotation when she uses it. Moodling is about renewing the imaginative part of the mind and allowing ourselves to be creative. Much of life is doing stuff you have to do. It’s hard to maintain a fresh, open, and free outlook when completing tasks. You need to be able to goof off in order to do that.

Unfortunately we live in the world of work. I’m retired, but I used to be part of that world. In the world of work, one must work. And work is often dull and unrewarding. Even people like me who found something that suited them discovered that the actual job had little to do with the idea of the job. I was a teacher but spent most of my time on crowd control and record keeping. That’s just the nature of it despite the best efforts of many. I stuck it out for thirty years mostly because I had summers off! And I did my best to focus on the positive things. I had a good job by most people’s standards and I felt fortunate, but I would not have gone to work unless I got a paycheck. People talk about loving what they do but how many would show up just to do it if they didn’t have to worry about money?

And that’s what it is all about here in the US of A. Money. We have to have it. And moodling is contrary to money-making. You can’t moodle and be a good capitalist. You have to be working and striving and competing. You have to be improving all the time, being more organized and more efficient. That’s what makes innovation and that’s what begets growth and that’s how we get money. So moodle at your peril, bohemians!

But the creative, imaginative part of us needs nurturing. Even if we are CEOs we need to allow for moodling. You can’t solve problems entirely by attack mode. Sometimes you have to un-think about things in order to open new mental pathways and get around conceptual roadblocks. Creative people are good at breaking out of popular, established modes of thought. They see connections between seemingly disparate things. I used to think only some people had this ability, but I met many hundreds of youngsters in the course of my career and I can assure you they—and thus we—all have it.

We mostly don’t get to develop our creative sides. We have to work. We have to make some kind of accommodation with the economic system. We need money for food and rent and cars and clothes and doctors and phones and all the rest. Even if you don’t play the guitar or paint or whatnot you still need your imagination to prosper. And that requires care and feeding just like your muscles and organs do.

The world needs more grace, tolerance, diplomacy, empathy, humility, and kindness. Perhaps the mythological free marketplace that we worship will provide such things with the same alacrity it provides us with cheap jeans. Perhaps not. We’ll have to look for after-market solutions like more moodling. We have to imagine loving our enemies before we can actually do it, right? Thus we need to allow insight, ingenuity, and inspiration, and that comes about not by force of will or increased effort but by just the opposite, a sort of dreamy idleness, much like all children naturally have.

I’m a big boy and I know we have to till the land and harvest the seas to sustain our bodies. And we have to extract from the earth the materials we need to build our societies. But we also have to feed our minds. And if society gives us no time for that because we are too goddamn busy working, and if not working then worrying about work and money, what’s the point? We should not have to be grinding all the time. There should be ample time for resting and reflecting. Without that we can’t absorb all the inputs of all the days and thus we can’t learn and grow, that is imagine and create. We ought to value moodling a lot more than we do.


There was this writer from Argentina named Borges. He wrote poems and essays as well as some weird, mind-bending short stories. He said this once when asked about his personal beliefs:

Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity.

Gnosis is a Greek word meaning knowledge. But it has always been applied to metaphysical or divine knowledge. So to be a-gnostic is to accept not-knowledge. That is, knowledge that cannot be tested or arrived at by reason alone. The mystic claims knowledge of god but the ways of the mystic are not necessarily accessible or repeatable. The experience of god, although universal, is still personal. Just because one guy can sit under a tree for 49 days to find god doesn’t mean it will work for you.

I used to call myself an atheist. I distrust dogma, and I particularly distrust theologies (or any -ologies) that rely on elaborate logical scaffolds. To me, a-theism is not a rejection of god, just a rejection of the bullshit people have constructed about god. (I tend to think we made Him in Our image, not the other way around.) But in the end the notion of god is merely unscientific, nothing else. The fact that something is unscientific does not mean it is untrue, merely that it is not amenable to analysis. God cannot be part of an experiment. You can’t prove or disprove the existence of an omnipotent being. You cannot write a testable hypothesis. Since you can’t do that you can’t do science on the subject.

It was Thomas Henry Huxley who coined the word agnostic but he of course did not invent the notion. Humans have wrestled with such questions for as long as there have been humans. I used to think an agnostic was a Hamlet-like fellow who could not make up his mind. Atheists seemed to be sure of themselves, agnostics seemed wishy-washy. I used to think being sure of yourself was a good thing. Now I’m not so sure!

Since science cannot provide answers to questions like “why are we here?” and “is there a god?” or “what happens to our souls when we die?” a guy like me with a scientific-rationalist bent tends to think such questions are irrelevant. And as far as my day-to-day life goes, they are. I don’t think, necessarily, that such questions are unanswerable. They just cannot be answered by human reason. Any answer obtained will be about subjective experiences, and in science you have to have repeatability. This is why popular things like astrology and psychic powers don’t survive scientific study—their claims can’t be reproduced.

An atheist says no and an agnostic says I don’t know. There is a big difference between the two. Theism is the belief in a deity or deities. I don’t believe in deities but I’m much less of an atheist these days. Here’s more from Borges:

The world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny.

I can see the appeal of that. I would counter that the picture of the world that science gives us is far stranger than anything people have imagined. And I’m talking about all the things people have imagined since the beginning of human knowledge. What science shows us about the universe is, in my view, way more bizarre than the ghosts, demons, and monsters of our pre-scientific past. I used to think that because this was so that all that nutty stuff was pointless.

But having such an opinion, that such-and-such is pointless and such-and-such is not is rather pointless, don’t you think? In other words, it’s just an opinion, and everybody has opinions. We pay some people to spout their opinions on TV every night and they don’t have anything to say, really, their opinion is no more truthful or valuable than anyone else’s. This is the problem with opinions. This is why I like science. Your opinion of a scientific result does not change the result! It’s a repeatable phenomenon whether you want it to be or not.

But that criterion, true for everybody all the time, is a tough one. Only a limited set of our knowledge can pass that test. I think that’s a good thing. There’s a lot of stuff out there and winnowing it down to stuff we can really work is to our benefit. It’s not so much about what DO we know but what CAN we know. What kind of knowledge can we be the most sure of?

Just because we can be sure of some things does not mean that the other things have less value. Take love for instance. There’s no certainty in human relationships, they are entirely an act of faith. We spend much of our lives living in this subjective world of hope and belief. Clearly things we cannot be sure of, in the scientific sense, are of great importance to us. I’m guessing there are more people in the world with religious faith and belief in god than there are not.

So even though the probability of The Holy Trinity seems awfully low to me, I choose to believe in the possibility, no matter how remote. After all, I cannot say for sure, so to reject such a claim would be unscientific. I can put The Trinity on a mental back burner but it serves no purpose to dispose of the idea. It’s a powerful thing even if it is not part of my world view. I remember when I first learned of the Michelson-Morely experiment which was an attempt to find the so-called aether that people at the time believed filled empty space. The experiment did not verify the hypothesis. It showed that the aether was not necessary to the propagation of electromagnetic waves. It did not, as I first believed, show that the aether did not exist. It merely showed that such a description of empty space was not needed to account for what was known about nature. The aether may still be there, but it’s not what we once thought it was, so we put it on the back burner.

Here’s the last bit from Borges:

It makes me more tolerant.

I like that.