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Fall sproutings


My attempts during the spring of this year to get an early garden going under a cold frame were pretty much a total failure. I’m not sure why. But my guess would be that the soil was just too cold for good germination, because spring was unusually cold and dry. Now I’m using the cold frame to try to get winter crop of greens under the cold frame. So far, so good.

Ken sowed the mustard while he was here, after he cleared the summer weeds out of the garden. There’s a bit of lettuce and even some celery seed mixed in. I have no idea how the celery will do, but we figured that it would be a nice experiment. Germination was excellent, and growth has been rapid. When hard freezes arrive, I’ll have to drain the drip irrigation system. But I’ll use the drip for as long as I can.

When the garden fades, sprouting season begins for indoor sprouts. I’m using the LED grow lights that I bought last winter for basil to give the sprouts some extra light.

Speaking of light, it’s a shame that our modern lives give us little reason to be outdoors under the night sky. And, even if we were, light pollution would ruin the effect. Thought it’s a poor substitute for the primeval night sky, my bedroom windows keep me aware of the night sky. Though the projector clock shows the time, I’ve learned to estimate the time by the position of the stars outside the window. In this photo, the bright light on the window frames is the full hunter moon on October 21. The moon is still in the east, left of the windows.

These are all iPhone 12 photos. Though my my big Nikon is a better camera for most purposes, the iPhone makes a very handy camera.


Click here for high resolution version.

Fall desserts



Poached pear. Click here for high-resolution version.

Though it’s mid-October, it was nice for Ken to be able to have some abbey-grown foods while he was here for a five-day visit — persimmon pudding from persimmons he picked from the wild persimmon trees that grow in the yard, a poached pear from the abbey’s orchard, pesto from basil still growing in the garden, and tomato soup and tomato sauce from tomatoes I grew and canned.

I wish I had known about poached pears a long time ago. I’ve been getting pears from the orchard for several years now, but they’re as hard as a rock. I’ve come to understand fairly late in life that pears as hard as rocks are normal, and that the fix is to poach them. I poached these pears in tawny port, with some spices. I had bought the tawny port by accident and didn’t know what to do with it, because I greatly prefer ruby port. Problem solved.


Persimmon pudding. Click here for high-resolution version.

The moral status of animals



The gorilla Ndakasi, shortly before she died in the arms of her keeper, Andre Bauma. Source: Virunga National Park via Twitter.

Ndasaki was 14 years old when she died, after a long illness, according to the BBC. When Ndasaki was a baby, her mother was killed by poachers. Andre Bauma, who remained her keeper at a gorilla orphanage, rescued Ndasaki, who was clinging to her mother’s body.

Every culture that I am aware of teaches that animals are a lower form of life than human beings. The life of any human being, no matter how vile or violent that human life may be, is held to be of more value than the life of any animal, no matter how rare or intelligent or majestic that animal may be.

Most of us, I feel sure, have loved animals whose lives we valued much more than the lives of many — or most! — of the humans around us. It’s only because we are never forced to make a trade that this attitude is never put to the test.

Societies are increasingly squeamish about our treatment of animals. However, a serious rethinking of our treatment of animals has yet to occur. A week ago, there were reports that the president of South Korea is considering a ban on eating dogs. Worsening environmental problems, along with the development of “cultured” meats, are encouraging us to rethink our costly habit of eating meat. But this is not happening fast enough. What government wants to be the first to start regulating and closing down the meat industry, while mandating the substitution of cultured meats? The uproar will be horrendous, most of it coming from the sort of people who consider even mask mandates during pandemics to be a heinous offense against their liberty.

A better sort of human beings will have two choices of philosophical reasons for not eating animals and switching to cultured meats.

The first is the utilitarian case: Our planet can no longer handle the inefficiency and filth of the meat industry. Though the cost of imitation meat is much too high today, that cost will surely come down as the cultured meat industry develops and scales up. At some point, cultured meat should cost much less than “farmed” meat, because it is much more efficient. Philosophers tend to use longer words when smaller ones will do. “Utilitarian” just means “useful.” It would be useful to human beings if their burgers were cheaper and just as good, and if human communities were less polluted by vast hog farms, massive chicken operations, and cattle feed lots, all of which are disgusting to human beings and turn the human stomach for the purpose of making human food.

The second is a moral case, rooted in the rights of animals: the right to habitat, the right to life and to live according to their instincts, the right not to be incarcerated and treated cruelly, and the right not to suffer and die for the sake of human dinner plates. This is their planet, too. Dare I suggest, to use a loaded term, that animals have natural rights? I do.

Readers of this blog are aware that I am persuaded by John Rawls’ theory of justice and that I believe that Rawls has rendered the utilitarian moral philosophies of the Enlightenment now obsolete. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls was aware that many of the principles he lays out can be extrapolated to animals. As I read Rawls, he practically begs other philosophers to do the work of applying justice as fairness to animals, with any adjustments that may be necessary. Rawls says explicitly that he does not mean for his theory to apply to the question of “right conduct in regard to animals and the rest of nature.” The question, to Rawls, if there is a difference between the moral status of animals and the moral status of humans, is whether animals possess “the capacity for a sense of justice.” He writes, “Certainly it is wrong to be cruel to animals and the destruction of a whole species can be a great evil.” But otherwise Rawls steers clear and writes that the moral status of animals is “outside the scope of the theory of justice.”1

As for utilitarianism, animals didn’t stand a chance, even to the best of minds. The kindly Edinburgher David Hume, writing in 1751 in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, has this to say in the section on justice:

“Were there a species of creatures, intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is, that we should be bound, by the laws of humanity, to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other. Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign: Our permission is the only tenure, by which they hold their possessions: Our compassion and kindness the only check, by which they curb our lawless will: And as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally useless, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy. This is plainly the situation of men, in regard to animals.”2

I have said that I consider utiliarianism obsolete. Many don’t. It’s almost certainly true that, as utilitarian philosophies were developed during the Enlightenment, they advanced the causes of fairness and justice. I would argue, though, that the faults of utilitarianism have been blocking human progress for a long time. Utilitarians — or some of them, at least — could find room in utilitarianism even for slavery, on the grounds that it is useful (and therefore good) to enslave the few if the many are better off for it. Right-wing political and moral philosophy today is deeply rooted in utilitarianism, though there is much deceit involved. For example, there is the constant argument that light regulation and the preferential treatment of the rich is just, even if it is unequal, because it “floats all boats.” Even if the utilitarian case is sound, the deceit destroys the right-wing case, because further enriching the rich does not float all boats.

One of the side effects of political turmoil in the U.S. is that it drowns out conversations about progress that we ought to be having. The European Union has invested modest amounts of public money in research on cultured meats. Singapore has already brought a product to market. The United States is lagging. Vox, in May 2021, wrote that animal agriculture is completely missing from President Biden’s infrastructure and climate plan. Even so, there was right-wing screeching about a Biden “burger ban,” just one example of how right-wing obstruction prevents us from having conversations that we ought to be having.

Why is gorilla poaching still going on in Africa, where deforestation and other factors have been so devastating? As far as I can tell, it’s partly because some people eat gorillas. Some are sold to go live in cages.

My personal position, I think, would be seen by many people as radical. I would start from the position that the moral status of animals is in no way different from our own, and then see who has arguments good enough to force me to retreat. For example, why might the moral status of an overpopulation of rats in the New York City subways be different from the moral status of wild tule elk at California’s Point Reyes? One might argue, for example, that where animal overpopulation is a threat to the health of human beings, human beings have a right to defend themselves, just as a brown bear has a right to defend her cubs from an overpopulation of humans. Nor would I argue that our partiality to dogs and cats is somehow hypocritical, because dogs and cats are compatible with human families and become members of human families. Having domesticated them and bred them to live in human families, we now have a duty to every cat and dog that is born to sustain them as lifelong members of human families.

Ndasaki’s life and her life story are important because she compels us to see things to which we are usually blind. Ndasaki’s story is much like the story of Cecil the lion, who was killed by poachers in 2015. Cecil’s death caused an outbreak of shaming in social media, along the lines of “how dare you be more concerned about the death of one animal than [fill in the blank with some other cause].” I wrote about Cecil here, arguing that we’re entirely capable of concern about more than one injustice at a time. The sad thing is that, because we are usually blind and distracted, people with causes must compete with other causes to draw attention to their own cause, as though caring about a lion or a gorilla somehow makes us care less about injustice against humans.

But the death of a gorilla does not distract us from other matters of justice. Ndasaki’s story doesn’t distract us from Cecil’s story; the death of a gorilla reminds us of the death of a lion. Ndasaki’s death reminds us that we have a lot to think about, a lot to talk about, and a lot of things to roll up our sleeves and do. And even where collective action remains obstructed by the kind of people whose uncaring attitudes and sorry thinking diminishes the moral value — not to mention the usefulness — of their own unexamined lives, we can still make changes in our own everyday lives that make the world a little bit better.


Notes:

1. Rawls, A Theory of Justice. See the third entry under “animals” in the book’s index. This is page 448 in my 1999 Harvard Belknap edition.

2. Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Section III, “Of Justice,” Part 1.


Another note: Yesterday, a neighbor’s milk cow was hit by a car and killed while they were herding their cows and a calf from pasture to pasture along a country road. Today, the calf broke through two fences to try to get to the place where her mother was killed. The calf was frantic. It took several people to catch the calf, tie her, and, to use Kay’s word, incarcerate the calf in a stock trailer where she is safe. The calf, Kay said, is too traumatized to eat. We are in denial if we can’t see how aware even young animals are.


Persimmon season


Persimmon season has started. Ken picked (and shook trees) for only a little while this morning and got more than enough for the first persimmon pudding of the year. This is only about a tenth, Ken said, of what we’ll get this year just from the persimmon trees in the yard. We’ll make a video next week on the process of harvesting them, pulping them, and making persimmon pudding.

Ken is on a college speaking tour, by the way, and is here at the abbey for a few days before he returns to Scotland.

Summer 2021: Some of us had it easy



Tomato bisque from tomatoes I grew and canned

Nature was not kind to everyone this summer. There were terrifying fires in California and Australia, and deadly floods in the United States, Europe, and Asia. But here in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, it was like 1950 again. The temperature here in my woods never exceeded 94F. Heavy rain sometimes washed ruts in the road (which a neighbor quickly repairs with his tractor), but rainfall was good, though the spring was a bit dry and cold. It has been at least eight months since a power outage that lasted more than two seconds. With a little help from the irrigation system, the 2021 garden was great. Not every summer, I’m afraid, will be so nice.

The poplar tree that overhangs the deck seems to have had a growth spurt. All summer long, half the deck was in shade, with a deck umbrella no longer needed. I don’t think I’ve eaten indoors more than four times since early spring.

One of the many remarkable things about this planet is how the seasons change in the temperate zones. This means we get not only changes in the weather, but also changes in what we eat. After months of buying hardly any produce and relying on the garden, the perennial vegetables are back on the menu. By perennial, I mean winter vegetables and the things that can be profitably shipped from one climate zone to another. My twenty jars of canned tomatoes will extend the memory of the 2021 garden for most of the winter. Most of the tomatoes, I think, will go into soups.

Speaking of soups, I have found that the “warming zone” on my glasstop stove is a great place for simmering soups. With the warming zone set to high, my favorite copper pot will hold a soup at about 192F, a very good simmer temperature.

As for the weather, the Atlantic hurricane season is not over. So it’s not too late for nature to knock us around here, a couple of hundred miles from the Atlantic coast.

Remember the stars?



The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars. Jo Marchant, Dutton, 2020. 388 pages.


Marchant is concerned about how modern people and our cultures have lost touch with the sky. Paradoxically, we think of ourselves as living in a larger world than our ancestors. But in truth, by cutting ourselves off from the sky, we live in a much smaller world.

This process of cutting ourselves off has a long history that began centuries before GPS and light pollution. The invention of clocks, for example, in the Middle Ages, meant that people no longer had to look up at the sky to estimate the time. The regimentation of our lives made possible by clocks is something that never occurs to us, but Marchant covers clocks in the fourth chapter, “Faith,” in which she relates how the development of clocks had a great deal to do with the church, specifically the need of the Benedictine monasteries to be more precise in carrying out their 24-hour cycle of rituals.

Marchant starts with paleolithic cave drawings and works forward in time: sites such as Stonehenge, then Babylon, Egypt, Ptolemy, clocks and the middle ages, ocean navigation, the development of modern astronomy, and the interaction even today of plant and animal life with the celestial world.

This is not an academic book; it’s a survey rather than an in-depth exploration of any of its topics. But the book’s extensive notes provide a good list of sources for further reading. There also is an index. The book will serve as a good reference. It will end up on my best bookshelf.

Deep frying with olive oil?



Rutabaga-Roquefort fried pie, deep fried in olive oil

We have learned in recent years that olive oil is more stable at high temperatures than we knew. Research has shown that the stability of vegetable oils when heated is more complicated than the temperature at which they begin to smoke.

In any case, I can testify that olive oil, when heated to 350 degrees (a good temperature for deep frying) does not smoke.

With all this in mind, I continue to believe that, the less vegetable oils are heated, the better. I don’t deep-fry very often. But when I do, I’d rather use a nice organic olive oil than, say, a peanut oil of doubtful origin.

The olive oil can be re-used if strained and stored nicely. I am strongly of the opinion that, because of the unknown food components that get into the oil during deep-frying, even olive oil should be stored in the refrigerator after it has been used for deep frying.

Foundation?


Whatever this is, it’s not Foundation. If Foundation is what it’s supposed to be, then it’s a complete failure. It’s something entirely different from Foundation. Whatever the difference is supposed to be, it’s nothing new. After watching the first two episodes, I find myself angry, partly because it’s not Foundation and partly because it tries to schnooker us into liking it by recycling ingredients from Game of Thrones (but with space ships).

Critics who like it keep inviting us to compare it with Game of Thrones, which, no doubt, is also what Apple wants. I decline.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books are very cerebral. There is hardly anything cinematic about the books, which no doubt is why several attempts to make a movie went nowhere. It was obvious, when we first learned in 2018 that Apple had commissioned a Foundation series, that some kind of creative reworking would be necessary to make the story cinematic. I was prepared for that. But I don’t like what I see. Those who have never read the books (I’ve read book one in the series at least three times over the years) will probably not be as critical as I am.

Asimov was not interested in romance. He didn’t bother much about setting scenes, let alone creating spectacle. Asimov was interested in ideas, politics, and the interactions between highly intelligent people. Asimov does that mostly with the intelligence of his dialogue, with very little action. This series has lots of action but some of the crudest dialogue I’ve heard in years. To show us that the Gaal Dornick character is highly intelligent, the screenwriters have her winning a math contest and “counting primes” when she’s stressed. But other than that, she behaves and talks like a not-too-bright teenager with reckless taste in boyfriends. As for politics, the Hari Seldon character comes across as a cold and arrogant smartass, up against emperors who are merely Game-of-Thrones cruel rather than near-matches for Hari Seldon’s political genius.

In short, Apple’s Foundation, after watching the first two episodes, looks to me like a dumbed-down derivative. I will watch the next episode, which will be released on October 1, hoping that, if I can get over that it isn’t Foundation, I might find something worthwhile in it. So far it looks like the screenwriters put a drop of Asimov into a food processor, added some scoops of Game of Thrones and The Rise of Skywalker, chopped it up, and spooned it out on Apple TV.

Centrist authoritarians



A radical centrist disciplines a partisan. George Cruikshank, 1839, Wikimedia Commons.

I believe it was Paul Krugman who came up with the term “radical centrists.” Here’s how I would define them: Smug, preening, mediocre intellectuals who strut their undoubted moral superiority, claiming an ability to see “both sides” and believing themselves to be innocent of bias and “partisanship.”

Radical centrism has had a long run. We have a track record now about where radical centrism got us as a political practice. It brought us the “Third Way” of the Clinton administration. It badly tainted and weakened the Obama administration, always blocking progress while averting its eyes from growing threats from the right. Centrism is always about the left conceding to the right, and rarely or never the other way around. Fortunately the Biden administration seems to understand this. It’s not the progressives who are making trouble for Biden, it’s the narcissistic “moderates” such as Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema. If people like Manchin and Sinema truly were centrists, they’d be pulling Republicans on board rather than blocking Democrats. Centrists are blind to the one-sidedness of their centrism. That blindness is part of the syndrome. Like fundamentalism, centrism needs to simplify the world to make it comprehensible and comfortable. That both sides are just the same is a centrist axiom, even though nothing is like that in the real world. It is a projection of the centrist mind.

As damaging as centrism has been as a political practice, I would argue that it has done just as much harm as a media practice. Radical centrist pundits and authors imagine that they are doing some kind of principled public service. But what they really have done is serve as apologists for the radical right, paralyzing — for years — any effort to rein in the radical right before the U.S. found itself right on the brink of fascism, Reichstag moment included. Warnings from the left were ignored and vilified as “partisan.” Right-wing lies weren’t just unchallenged; they were amplified and dignified with “equal treatment.” Anything partisan is automatically wrong, you see, because only centrists can see clearly.

Though the Atlantic remains one of America’s best publications, it is nevertheless a refuge, a training ground, and a well-paying employer of the country’s most well-known and most radical of radical centrists. The Atlantic proved that yet again with a new piece yesterday with the title “The Experts Somehow Overlooked Authoritarians on the Left.” The piece was written by Sally Satel, a right-wing psychiatrist who works for the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. A key assumption of radical centrists is that everything is symmetrical with themselves at the fulcrum of virtue. To a radical centrist, if a vice such as authoritarianism exists on the right, then it also must exist on the left. If there is an existential threat from the right (say, fascism, insurrection, and coup), then there also must be an equally severe existential threat from the left. Hence all the shrill warnings about “cancel culture,” a hobgloblin of the centrist mind. Centrists do sometimes warn about threats from the right, but such warnings must always be “balanced” by a symmetrical warning about the left. Such things as authoritarianism and cancel culture must be found on the left, as centrist self-protection against cognitive breakdown.

Fortunately, the damage done by so many years of being instructed by centrists is being exposed. Eric Levitz wrote about it last June in New York Magazine, “The delusions of the radical centrist.” An old colleague of mine in the newspaper business, Dan Froomkin, has a web site devoted to monitoring centrist bias in the media, Press Watch.

It’s bad manners for me to quote Levitz’s conclusion after his longish and thoughtful piece, but here it is: “But America does not need more highbrow apologetics for the conservative movement, nor sophistry that conflates the pathologies of each major party. And unfortunately, this era’s most prominent iconoclasts seem less interested in honestly criticizing America’s lesser evil, than running interference for its greater one.”

That, I would say, is an understatement.

Apple News+


There are two versions of Apple News. The free version, called just “Apple News,” is on all Macintosh computers, iPads, and iPhones. The subscription version, called “Apple News+”, costs $9.99 a month.

For some years, I had casually used the free version on my iPhone, because it often showed me things that I had missed on my daily rounds of a long list of newspapers, magazines, and web sites. After I upgraded to a new version of iOS, some ads appeared for the subscription version. I looked through the long list of publications that are available and immediately subscribed.

Getting news from Europe to Americans is just one example of how Apple News+ can expand our reading horizons. One of the reasons we Americans know too little about Europe (and the world, for that matter) is that American media (including the New York Times) don’t cover Europe well. For years, I had longed for access to the Times of London, but it was hard to justify the cost. Nor did I want yet another password to manage. A part of the hassle of managing subscriptions to paywalled publications is the aggravation of signing in. With the New York Times and Washington Post, I deal with that by always having a tab open to their “my account” pages. Subscriptions to the New York Times and Washington Post, by the way, are expensive and are not included in Apple News+. Part of the appeal and convenience of Apple News Plus is that you don’t have to sign in to read any of the publications you follow. That’s all handled through your Apple ID, so you’re always signed in to the publications you want to see.

Many times, I have been tempted to resubscribe to the Economist. But an Economist subscription costs about the same as the New York Times, and the sign-in problem was a big deterrent. Apple News+ lets you subscribe to the Economist through Apple News+ and pay for it monthly through Apple. With access to the Times of London and the Economist, suddenly I have new windows into Europe. Previously I had only the Guardian, the Irish Times, and the Herald of Scotland. (As far as I can tell, Der Spiegel’s English edition is not included in Apple News+.) The Times of London, by the way, seems to cover Scotland quite well.

Another newspaper that is included in Apple News+ is the Wall Street Journal, still a good newspaper in spite of its wingnut editorial department. Two North Carolina newspapers are included, the Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer. Both those state newspapers are greatly diminished, but they’re all we’ve got for state coverage.

Magazines include Scientific American, the New Yorker, Wired, the Atlantic, and MacWorld. There is a long list of niche magazines, to which I subscribed to only one lest I be overwhelmed by niche magazines. That exception was Octane, a niche magazine about classic cars.

Some people like reading on their phones. I do not, even though I have a large iPhone 12. It’s on a big iMac screen that Apple News+ excels. The presentation is often just as good as a publication’s web site. There are some ads, but they’re not terribly intrusive.

In short, for news junkies and those who make a serious effort to keep up with the world’s news sources, Apple News+ is both a bargain and a convenient way of centralizing lots of sources.

One thing is missing. Much of what we need to know is to be found in papers from academics and think tanks. That stuff has been privatized. It is very hard to get and also very expensive, unless one has access through a university’s accounts. It’s a cartel that needs to be broken. There is a movement crusading for open access publishing in academia. Apple probably could break that cartel if they wanted to.

As for newspapers and magazines, much has changed. The Times of London today is nothing like the old gray lady it was when I first bought copies of it in London in the 1980s. Many publications still exist but have gone to hell in a basket — Newsweek, for example. Fox News is in Apple News+, making an ax-grinding fool of itself as always. Wired, though provocative, seems to be just as wrongheaded as it always was. The Atlantic’s print version maintains a high standard, but their web site indulges in clickbait. Fox News notwithstanding, and though there is plenty of fluff, Apple News+ seems to have steered away from fringe publications on both the right and the left, as though the word came down from on high at Apple that their mission is to be informative, not provocative. Imagine that.

Here is Apple’s complete list of publications.