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Wintertime table lighting



W.T. Kirkman No. 1 “Little Champ” oil lanterns

For many years, I have been weird about how the table is lit for supper. Electric light is not allowed. It’s not just an affectation for when there is company. It’s an everyday thing, even when I’m having supper alone. During the summer months, supper is over well before dark. But as the days get shorter, it was time to rethink table lighting yet again.

For years, my solution was ordinary tapers of the type that can be bought just about anywhere. But they’re too small. They don’t last long enough. And I don’t much like tapered candles. A year ago, I ordered a box of church candles. They’re very expensive, but they’re great candles. They’re 50 percent beeswax with a nice, straight, ecclesiastical shape. They’re 7/8 inch in diameter and 12 inches long. One box of 24 candles lasted all winter. But the price rose from $50 per box for the first box I ordered to $89 per box now. That’s just too much. All candles gutter and sometimes make a mess. Removing the drippings from the candleholders and replacing spent candles is an unpleasant chore.

My next idea was to try the little blown-glass oil candles made by Firefly. I thought about it for a long time before I ordered a pair, for safety reasons. Flammable liquid inside a glass vessel with a wick is the very definition of Molotov cocktail. What if one of them hit the floor and shattered? But eventually I ordered a pair and tried them out. I hated them. They produce a tiny little dot of light. I should have realized that before I bought them, because the wick is tiny. They are useless, except perhaps as votives, and I’m not a very votive person.

My next idea was an oil lamp, or chamber lamp, of the type that was very common in the days before electrification. They burn kerosene, and they’re easy to find today, both new and antique. But they, too, are usually made of glass. I made a new rule for myself: No glass oil lamps.

Then I admired the yacht lamps and miner’s lamps made of brass, often plated with stainless steel. But they are extremely expensive, and they’re often poorly reviewed as not being well-made enough to be worth the cost.

So then, the last option was oil lanterns.

Obviously there is still a thriving market for oil lanterns. Many people buy them, I believe, as backup lighting for power failures, which makes a lot of sense. They’re made of metal, and the larger lanterns have nice big wicks that are 1 inch wide. As I read reviews of lanterns on Amazon, I finally settled on lanterns made by W.T. Kirkman. Kirkman lanterns get the best reviews and were said to be better made. I ordered two of the Kirkman lanterns from Amazon. Here’s a link to the Kirkman web site. Kirkman sells several models and options in its lanterns, but not all of those models and options are available on Amazon.

I settled on the No. 1 “Little Champ” cold blast lantern. It’s 12 inches high with a 5/8-inch wick. So what does “cold blast” mean? It has to do with how the flame gets its air for combustion. It’s a clever bit of 19th Century technology. In a cold blast lantern, the air is taken in at the top of the lantern and travels down through the side tubes. This is said to give a whiter, brighter flame. Also, cold blast lanterns are said to self-extinguish if tipped over. I’m not going to try that out, but I’m glad to hear it.

The lanterns burn clean and aren’t affected by drafts or blasts of air. Once they’re lit and glowing, they look more domestic and less like something you’d see in a barn. They’re brighter than candles. And they give off a certain warmth (1,100 or 1,400 BTU per hour depending on the model) which should be very welcome in the wintertime.

Kirkman also makes a larger lantern, 15 inches tall with a 1-inch wick. I might just get myself one of those for outdoor use. All the lanterns are galvanized steel. Options include a black enamel finish, round shades that reflect the light downward, and globes in several colors of glass including red, yellow, green, blue, and frosted. Lantern technology is alive and well! You also can buy kits to electrify the lanterns, including with LED bulbs. But why would you want to do that?

When I was a young’un, my grandparents had an oil lantern that they had had since the days before rural electrification. I used to love to play with it. Though I suppose it’s a bit eccentric to have oil lanterns on the supper table, I’m pretty sure that will be my method hereafter. I’ll save the pricey church candles for special occasions.

My grandparents also always kept a 5-gallon tank of kerosene. These oil lanterns will, of course, burn kerosene. But these days most people use the newer lamp oils, which burn cleaner, make less odor, and are said to be safer.


A box of church candles

Umberto Eco



Sean Connery and Christian Slater in “The Name of the Rose”


The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco, 1980. English translation 1983.


What? I’m reviewing a book that was first published 37 years ago? Oh well. No one ever accused me of being au courant.

I have tried several times in the past to read Umberto Eco’s The Name of Rose, as well as Foucault’s Pendulum. I have always been driven back by the dry wordiness of Eco’s prose. This time I resolved to finish The Name of the Rose no matter how big a chore it might be, partly as an exercise in better understanding why some writers earn far more generous reputations than they deserve.

First, let’s talk about the film, from 1986. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and with a superb cast including Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham and the young Christian Slater, the film — I thought, at least — was one of the best and most memorable films of the 1980s. But the film didn’t make much money in the United States, though people in more intelligent parts of the world loved it. Roger Ebert wrote, “What we have here is the setup for a wonderful movie. What we get is a very confused story.”

I don’t agree with Ebert. The screenwriters actually did a brilliant job of stripping out most of Eco’s confusion, endless declamation and disquisition, and sticking to the plot — your basic murder mystery. It was said that Eco didn’t much like the screenplay, precisely because all that erudition got cut (as it had to be).

Eco was a scholar — no doubt a good one — with a wide range of interests. The Name of the Rose drew on his background as a medievalist. Obviously Eco was fascinated by the theological debates of the late medieval period. Also obviously, the setting and the plot for The Name of the Rose were chosen because they provided a basis for page after page of theological hairsplitting by monks of different orders. To Eco’s credit, these endless orations on Christian theology can be funny in their absurdity, and Eco leaves it to the reader to discern what fools his monks are. William of Baskerville, however, is at least a nice fool. And his teenage novice Adso (Christian Slater), with his naiveté and surging hormones, is a very fine foil for so much useless learnedness.

(Incidentally, the chief subject of Eco’s theological debate is whether Christ was poor. The Franciscan order certainly believed in the poverty of Christ, and they got crossways with some popes and with the Inquisition. If you’re interested in the details of all that, I’ll leave you to read The Name of the Rose. But it is worth pointing out, I think, how the church is still divided by the question of poverty, with a few Christians remaining who actually care about the poor, and with other Christians giving their money to birdbrain preachers who live in multimillion-dollar mansions like little popes and fly around on the Lord’s business in private jets. If this history repeated itself, then Christians who care today about the poor would be burned at the stake.)

But what I conclude about Umberto Eco is in many ways similar to what I conclude about Neal Stephenson, the science fiction writer. Both, I would guess, are somewhere well along on the autism spectrum. Both are fine thinkers — but without the least trace of feeling. Stephenson, like Eco, set one of his novels in a monastery (Anathem) and for the same reason — so that their characters can talk, talk, talk about abstractions that they find interesting. But their characters, like the authors, totally lack feeling. I also would argue that the best moments in fiction occur when a character is so driven to despair or ecstasy that the character is compelled to sing. When an author sings, that’s when you learn what motivates the author to write in the first place. For a fine discussion on moments in fiction that sing, see E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.

In any case, with writers like Eco and Stephenson, one of the most powerful and meaningful ingredients of good fiction is totally missing. Both Eco and Stephenson are so blind to the feeling element of fiction that they seem unaware of the flatness of their characters and make no attempt to simulate the missing ingredient. Adso knows how to suffer some where sex is involved, but Adso cannot sing.

That said, I love brainy fiction — Isaac Asimov, for example. I have great respect for (and considerable interest in) the erudition to be found in Neal Stephenson’s and Umberto Eco’s novels. But it’s not enough, and that’s a shame.

Crickets. What’s going on?



This photo was in Google images and was sourced to Twitter. The photo was marked as having been taken at 11:43 a.m. on Sept. 16. The “Mother of all rallies” started at 11 a.m.


Have you noticed how dull and unfocused the media have been of late? At first I thought that hurricanes Harvey and Irma were crowding out other agendas. But now that the hurricanes have aged out of the news, the media are still drifting and befuddled about what story to lead with. What’s going on?

Normally there is a keen competition for setting the agenda, and someone somewhere is staging a big show to direct the media’s attention to where they want it. That’s what we saw when the Congress was mucking around with health care bills a few weeks ago. And there was Charlottesville. But for most of September, it’s been crickets. Back in August, we were told that September would feature mighty battles in Congress over the debt ceiling and tax “reform.” I believe that warfare in Congress was scheduled to lead the media agenda this month. But it fell apart.

At the moment, there’s just nothing going on keep us peasants angry and at each other’s throats. That’s pretty strange, given that whipping up political rage has been at the top of the agenda for more than a year now. We’re told that Trump invited the congressional Democratic leadership to the table. What’s that about?

Yesterday, some of the leadership of Trump’s so-called base scheduled “the mother of all rallies” (MOAR) on the Mall in Washington. They hoped for a million people. They wrote on the rally’s web site: “MOAR will send a message to the world that the voices of mainstream Americans must be heard. We are coming together to send a direct message to Congress, the media and the world that we stand united not divided to protect and preserve American Culture.”

Barely a thousand people came. A clown group outnumbered the MOAR attendees. The right-wing media seem to be as becalmed and befuddled as the mainstream media. At this moment, Drudge Report is leading with an acid attack in France.

Trump is said to be holed up at one of his resorts in New Jersey, and the White House wasn’t releasing any information about what Trump was doing. The media were isolated in a media container 18 miles away with nothing to do.

All this makes me nervous. To a dot-connector like me, it appears that something has disrupted the agenda and media scripts of the powerful, as though there is some kind of stalemate. It’s as though something new — and big — has derailed the September schedule for agenda-setting and media management.

Obviously I know nothing. All I can do is speculate and try to connect dots. Wishful thinking is always a trap to be avoided. But it’s almost as though Donald Trump has been fatally nailed by Mueller, and the lords of Washington are in retreat to write the script on how it will all play out. We know from a little Associated Press piece, mostly ignored by the media, that Mueller had a bipartisan meeting on Thursday with the leaders of the House judiciary committee. That’s the committee that is responsible for initiating impeachment proceedings.

Have I fallen into the trap of wishful thinking? Sure, I want Trump and his entire criminal syndicate gone and in prison, the sooner the better. Trump is clearly mentally ill, and in a dangerous way. But I also know that, when impeachment happens, the collateral damage to this country is going to be a terrible thing. When it happens, whether soon or next year, we the peasants won’t know about it until the powers that be have gone into hiding and worked out a reasonably responsible plan for managing the American people as the trauma unfolds.

Darn you, Apple


Normally, Apple product rollouts don’t phase me. I take note of Apple’s new stuff and carry on without the slightest trace of lust to buy. My old iPad works just fine, my iPhone 5 works great, my 27-inch iMac will last for many years, the Apple TV is old but still useful, and I have not perceived any need for a watch that tracks my heart rate or that nags me about my calendar.

But Apple’s new watch, announced today, actually does something new and useful. It’s a cell phone and texting device, and it uses the same phone number as your iPhone. That’s progress. Dick Tracy’s dream of a two-way wrist radio — a dream that is almost 70 years old, seems to be a reality now.

Not since my working days have I regularly worn a watch. But I do like watches, as long as they’re absolutely accurate. I have an “atomic” watch that I wear sometimes if I’m traveling or otherwise have to keep to a schedule. The “atomic” feature, which sets the time using a radio signal from WWV, is always accurate to the second.

When Ken’s not here, I’m here alone. Though I’ve by no means reached the age at which I’m afraid of falling and not being able to get up, accidents can happen. When I’m mowing, for example, I always keep my cell phone in my pocket. Many older people pay for a device that they can carry, or wear around the neck, that’s always with them and that can summon help.

Plus, my iPhone 5 is a pocketfull. I’ve never lost it, but I’ve been known to leave it places. Then I have to run back and get it when I realize it’s missing. Just a couple of weeks ago, I left my iPhone on the counter at Whole Foods and had to dash back in from the parking lot to retrieve it.

So you see the justification for the new Apple watch that is taking shape in my mind — always there, not cumbersome, hard to lose, and available in emergencies.

Unfortunately, I’d have to upgrade my iPhone to use the new Apple watch, because my iPhone is a year or so too old to work with the cellular feature of the new Apple watch.

I’m not going to rush into this. But I’m very tempted. And I’d have to say that I’ve never regretted buying stuff from Apple.

The Equifax cyberattack: Odds are, you were affected



Update: According to the Washington Post, some security experts think there may be something fishy about Equifax requesting six, rather than four, digits of Social Security numbers. Also, Equifax may have whipped up a “terms of service” agreement that tricks you into forfeiting your right to participate in a class-action lawsuit. For now, it might be best to avoid Equifax’s EquifaxSecurity2017.com web site, though a credit freeze would still be appropriate, as far as I know, for those who want to do that.

Here’s a link to the Washington Post story: Equifax asks consumers for personal info, even after massive data breach

It would appear that Equifax is bungling their response to this.


You probably know by now about the huge data breach at Equifax, one of the three American credit-reporting agencies. According to the New York Times, since data for 143 million people was stolen, the odds are greater than 50 percent that you were affected.

Equifax set up a web page where you can enter your last name and six digits of your Social Security number to see whether you were affected. I was.

I can testify that even a minor case of identity theft is a pain in the neck that is very difficult to straighten out. When I lived in San Francisco, someone used my name and Social Security number to get a telephone in San Jose. They didn’t pay the bill, of course, and Pacific Bell came after me. I was shocked to learn that, under California law, it was up to me to prove that I did not open the account, rather than for Pacific Bell to prove that I did. Can that be constitutional? The burden to undo the damage was entirely on me. It took several months to resolve the whole thing, following an irritating process defined by the California Public Utilities Commission.

After the California problem, I put a fraud alert on my records. A fraud alert lasts for seven years. That has now expired, of course.

After some Googling, it seemed that the smartest thing for me to do after the Equifax cyberattack was to freeze my credit. This is a pain in the neck. You have to set up a freeze at all three credit-reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. However, this can be done on line. It’s very rare for me to open new accounts, so dealing with the freeze process won’t be too great a burden. But a total credit freeze (which can be overridden by a PIN number you’re assigned when the freeze becomes active) might be too inconvenient for some people.

[Update: Avoid this link until more is known about how Equifax is handling this.] Here’s the Equifax link with which you can determine whether you were effected: Equifax2017

This article includes links on how to set up a credit freeze online: How to do a credit freeze

Here is a credit freeze FAQ from the Federal Trade Commission: FAQ

It’s really pretty terrifying how dangerous a place the Internet is. My guess is that the fallout from this data breach will go on for a long time. Whoever stole the data probably will break it into chunks and retail it all over the world.

Why is linguistics so rarefied?


I think a lot about language. I often have questions about language that are very difficult to find answers to. That’s not true of most sciences. If I have a question about physics (insofar as there are answers to questions about physics), I can find an answer in no time. (As a science fiction writer, I often have questions about physics.) In Oratorio in Ursa Major, I have a character who is a linguist. The research for her character, and for some of the things she needed to say, was damnably difficult.

For an example of a pretty trivial linguistics question, I had been wondering why so many personal pronouns and possessive adjectives rhyme, at least in the three languages that I know something about:

English: Me, thee, he, she, we • mine, thine

French: Me, te, se • nous, vous • mon, ton, son • ma, ta, sa • notre, votre

Spanish: Nosotros, vosotros • nuestra, vuestra • tu, su

My first question would be, is this accidental? It doesn’t seem to be accidental. If it’s not accidental, why should this be?

In this particular case, I was able to find a pretty good answer by Googling. Googling led me to a book that contains a collection of papers from the 14th International Conference on Historical Linguistics in Vancouver in 1999. Google Books, as usual, provides only part of the book. The complete book can be bought for $156 (!). But a paper by Johanna Nichols from the University of California at Berkeley titled “Why ‘Me’ and ‘Thee’?” provided a pretty good answer. The answer is that, no, it’s not accidental. It’s also a feature of 152 languages that she compared.

The paper refers to these kinds of words as “lexical sets.” In lexical sets, rhyming, alliteration, and other sorts of vocal patterns (collectively called phonosymbolism) are repeated: Mama, papa.

As I understand her academic explanation for why this might be, it boils down to this: Lexical sets that rhyme or that are otherwise phonosymbolic appeal to people of all languages. Because it’s appealing, it spreads and becomes entrenched.

That makes sense to me, and I’ll consider the question answered.

But it’s also interesting to note that, compared with other fields (such as, say, anthropology) far fewer people get Ph.D.’s in linguistics. In my life, I have met only one Ph.D. in linguistics. That was someone in New York, the friend of a friend who is an anthropologist. (Do they all know each other so they can ask either other questions?) Also, most smaller liberal arts schools don’t even have linguistics programs. The list of universities with stellar linguistics programs is very short.

The downside of this for us lay folks and non-scholars is that linguistics is very nearly out of our reach. You’ll find almost nothing in your public library. Googling won’t get you very far. And though the books are out there, they are very, very expensive. One book I’d like to have, for example, is The English Language: A Linguistic History, from the Oxford University Press. It costs $110, and it takes Amazon two to four weeks to get it, which probably means that it has to be shipped from the U.K.

I’d kill for a friend who is a linguist. Unless I move to Amherst or Oxford or Palo Alto, that probably is not going to happen.

Massive media failure, now documented


“Attempts by the Clinton campaign to define her campaign on competence, experience, and policy positions were drowned out by coverage of alleged improprieties associated with the Clinton Foundation and emails. Coverage of Trump associated with immigrations, jobs and trade was greater than that on his personal scandals.”Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University


Media watchers and exhausted members of the reality community already knew that media coverage of the 2016 Clinton-Trump campaign was a media disaster, which led to a political disaster, which is now leading to a disaster of democracy. This week a Harvard study has quantified and documented the media disaster.

Here is a link to the study. It can be downloaded in PDF format.

Those who don’t have time to read the entire study should at least read the conclusion, which starts on page 128. Do look at the charts and graphs, though. Some of them are terrifying. Also note (page 107) how the right-wing media were successful at using propaganda to turn Sanders supporters against Clinton. (We all know Bernie supporters who believed the lies about Hillary Clinton and who bleated that Clinton was as bad as Trump. We must never stop rubbing their noses in it.)

It is no secret that the right-wing media are a filthy swamp of lies and propaganda. There’s not much we can do about that. But the study makes it clear that, if mainstream outlets such as the New York Times had not been sucked in by right-wing agenda-setting on fake scandals such as the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s emails, Trump could not have won the electoral college.

I spent my life in the newspaper business. After the rise of Fox News in 1996, I watched, aghast, as most of my journalist colleagues were deceived by right-wing media strategies that turned the principle of “objectivity” into a utensil for corrupting mainstream newsrooms into agents of right-wing lies.

Editors and reporters are a herd, and few of them are geniuses. Within ten years after the start of Fox News, false equivalence had become an unchallenged standard in American newsrooms. They were tricked into treating the right-wing narrative seriously, even though it was transparent malarkey. Journalists became completely incapable of calling a lie a lie. I have lost friends over this when I tried to call them out for it. Not until a year ago, during the Clinton-Trump campaign, did an old colleague (one with a top-of-the-industry résumé, I might add) apologize to me and acknowledge that I was right. When newsrooms finally saw through the false equivalence trap, they turned as a herd, as they always do. Media scholars and media intellectuals have understood the problem all along. But you would be surprised how slowly this insight trickles down into newsrooms. When suddenly they saw Breitbart in the White House and a perilously deluded, disinformed, and enraged American public, even the slowest-witted mainstream journalists started figuring out that they had been used by malevolent (and outrageously rich) players who had outsmarted them.

Though I am not very hopeful, there are signs that the 2016 election taught a valuable lesson to the people in America’s newsrooms — that for 20 years they republished lies, tricked by their own principles, a little too dumb to perceive the trick. With luck, and with the chastening we have seen at the New York Times and the Washington Post (which slowly trickles down to lesser newspapers), maybe it is less likely now that it will happen again.

Postscript: I have not mentioned the broadcast media or cable news industry here because I completely disdain what they do and don’t regard it as journalism. As for Russian interference, as the Harvard study mentions, we don’t yet have all the information we need on that. I trust we will, eventually.

Preserving culture



Foxfire students interviewing Aunt Arie — photo by Foxfire Fund, Inc.

There are some strange ideas kicking around these days about what it means to preserve culture. But preserving culture is hard work and a labor of love.

Many, many people are doing this work. It involves books, books, and more books. It is being done with film and photography, with museums, with special events such as fiddlers’ conventions and food festivals, with archeology, and by scholars from many departments of the universities including linguists, historians, anthropologists, and even the music department.

Nor is white trash culture, or Southern culture, or Appalachian culture, being neglected. Far from it! It isn’t culture that white supremicists such as Peter Cvjetanovic seek to preserve. It’s privilege, injustice, and some sort of perverse notion of purity.

We might call the people who do the real work culture workers. And though preserving culture is a labor of love, there is so much demand for the products of culture workers that many people can make a living at it — scholars and writers, for example.

As I have argued in other posts, there is much that is sick in the conservative mind. They look to the past, but they look only to an arbitrary and falsely glorified moment in the past when their ilk were dominant. They selectively ignore the rest of the past. In doing so the conservative mind is blind to privilege and injustice and to the factors that rotted their moment of glory. I have no problem with statues, but the intention behind most statues is not to preserve culture. Rather, it’s to preserve glory.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

One of the things that bothers the dickens out of me is how disinterested many people are in preserving their own personal histories and their own family histories. Some may go so far as to sign up for Ancestry.com and try to build lists of their ancestors, working on line. But how many people bother to get to know great-aunt Matilda before she dies, ask her about what life was like eighty years ago, and then write it down? In most families, collective memory rarely extends beyond two or three generations.

If the white racist Peter Cvjetanovic actually knew any history, he would know that cultures have been melding together throughout human history. As for the moment he glorifies, he also would be sensitive to African-American history, to how African-Americans helped to build this country, and to how African-Americans still have not achieved their full and fair share of justice and equality. But conservatives don’t care about justice unless it involves punishing people they don’t like.

Preserving culture is work that all of us can and should do. Now that I’m retired and don’t have to work for a living, culture work really is my life’s work from now on.

Those who have read my novels know how concerned I am about the loss of pagan Celtic culture to Rome and to Rome’s predatory religion. The damage to Celtic culture was so severe that it was a genocide, actually. Our only means of reconstructing that culture is to absorb what exists in the written records, look at what archeologists have learned, and then use one’s imagination. Where lost Celtic culture is concerned, many writers are doing that.

I don’t plan to publish my memoir for many years, but 150,000 words of it is written. We all should write our memoirs. I was very flattered when Ken asked me if he could interview me and videotape it as an oral history. He did the same thing with his parents. He ended up with so much video that he wasn’t sure where to store it. That is the kind of work it takes to preserve history and culture. All kids have that capability now. All that’s needed is a smart phone that shoots video.

While open-minded people are actually doing this work, small minds are mistaking the preservation of hatred and privilege for the preservation of culture.

That photograph of Peter Cvjetanovic — holding a torch, his face contorted with hatred — has quickly become a cultural icon. It’s a photograph that will still give people the creeps a hundred years from now. Cvjetanovic has contributed to the cultural record, that’s for sure. But in the exact opposite of the way he intended.

Total eclipse


I saw the eclipse inside the zone of totality at Franklin, North Carolina. Franklin is in the Great Smoky Mountains and is inside the Nantahala National Forest. I was with two friends, and we turned it into a tailgate party followed by dinner in Asheville.

This was my second total eclipse, so I knew what to expect: roosters crowing (check), birds confused (check), and cold chills imagining how terrifying a total eclipse must have been for our early ancestors, who didn’t know what was happening. Some of the locals were trying to make money off the eclipse and were charging $30 for parking. We found our own place — a business that was closed, with two big shade trees in front. We trespassed there (politely), and no one seemed to mind. In fact two carloads of students from Charlotte, admiring our spot, stopped and asked if they could join us, and of course we said yes. There were people everywhere.

The traffic jams were epic. On the way from Asheville to Franklin, there were two severe traffic jams caused by fender-benders. The return trip to Asheville should have taken little more than an hour, but instead it was four and a half hours of stop-and-go bumper-to-bumper traffic. Still, everyone was patient and polite — no honking and no rudeness. Everyone seemed to be trying to make the best of it. Some people got out of their cars to share food and drink with friends they were traveling with. Stopped traffic is a bit spooky to me. It puts me in mind of conditions like those in the movie “War of the Worlds,” or zombie apocalypse movies (of which, for the record, I am not a fan).

We had reservations for dinner at the restaurant that is reputed to be the best in Asheville — the Admiral — but we had to call and cancel our reservations because we were so delayed. We ended up at the Storm restaurant in old Asheville.

A friend who watched the eclipse in Athens, Georgia (well outside the zone of totality), texted me this: “The light here was like I always imagined Lothlorien: golden but slightly dark around the edges, like early dusk except the sun was overhead, so it had this surreal quality. It was mildly mood-altering. Lovely.”

When I took the photo above, someone else was driving.

Twitter



Library of Congress


I have never used Twitter. I never will.

If I take off my snark cap and put on my nice cap, and if I try to come up with a reason to justify Twitter’s existence, then this is the best I can do: Twitter is like texting, but it’s a broadcast rather than one-to-one. The 140-character limit isn’t so weird if you assume that most twitting — I mean tweeting — is done from phones. In fact, I think that when Twitter first came into existence, it used SMS text messages and had to work within a 160-character limit. You can use Twitter to “follow” someone that you’re interested in, or you can use hashtags (#babblebabble) to tune in to particular subjects.

Whatever. It’s still useless. A text message that says “I’ll be there at 6” or “I fed the cat” makes perfectly good sense to me. But nobody in the world — including Donald Trump — has anything to say in 140-character broadcasts than I am in any way interested in.

The situation has become much worse, because “Tweets” now find their way into news stories. If I still worked in a newspaper newsroom, I’d argue until I was hoarse that “Tweets” should be treated like any other quotation — inside the paragraph with quotation marks around it, appropriately attributed. But no, the print media seem to have taken up the horrifying, visually jarring convention of putting each litle Tweet into a paragraph of its own, with lots of white space above and below it, some of it in italics, including a bunch of stray characters that are no more useful than 75-year-old Western Union routing codes for Telegrams: “LA063 OD137 0 SFR200.”

And still worse, to stay within the 140-character limit, all sorts of ad hoc abbreviations, elisions and omissions are required, unless of course the Tweet is split into multiple particles, each helpfully numbered (5), (4), (3), (2), (1) in reverse order.

During the days of Western Union, bandwidth was extremely expensive. Depending on how far a Telegram was going, each character cost a lot of money. So there was a good reason for keeping your message short.

Now bandwidth is incredibly cheap, so cheap that we can stream high-definition movies, a different movie to each room of the house. Peter Thiel is famous for saying, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

My first job was as a newspaper copy boy in the 1960s. One of my responsibilities was looking after a room full Teletype machines. There was even a Western Union Telex printer in the room, because newspapers got a lot of Telegrams.

In many ways, I loved the days when bandwidth was expensive. When bandwidth was expensive, information that came in from far away was valuable, with an aura of exotic magic about it. If it weren’t valuable, it would not have been sent. Remember long distance? It was very expensive, and it was thrilling to hear a loved one’s voice from far, far away. These days the chatter is almost all worthless. That’s why I don’t use Twitter. Increasingly, I don’t use the telephone, either. But that’s a rant for another day.


A 1960s Telex printer, Wikipedia