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Tribes of Europa

One of my peskiest chores is scouring through the vast number of what I call “watchables” available for streaming to find something that suits my taste. Clearly my taste is strange, because there’s so little that suits it. Why do so many people want to watch stories that are set in places just like the places they live in, with characters just like the people they know (though the characters are usually quirkier and richer). Why would I want to watch stories about an office, for heaven’s sake, having finally retired and gotten out of them? I occasionally check my bookmark to The Decider just to get the creeps about what is currently popular. Wrestling?? Building yurts?? Baby-sitters?? A jeweller?? Yet another suburban sitcom?? Who watches that stuff?

When I come across science fiction, or anything that is not set in the here and now, I pause to consider whether it’s worth checking out. For a long time, watchables for those with strange tastes were ruined by the vampire fad, then the zombie fad. Fortunately now we seem to be in a post-apocalyptic fad and an Iron Age fad. That’s an improvement, to my taste. Maybe a better word than “strange” is “exotic,” since all “exotic” really means is not from around here.

“Tribes of Europa” is a six-part German series, (poorly) dubbed in English and streamable from Netflix. It’s set in 2074. A global catastrophe has killed off most of the population, and the survivors have divided into tribes. The plot centers around a family from a tribe called the Origines, who live a sylvan Iron Age lifestyle in a forest. It’s not terribly original, and I’d give it at best a B minus, but I haven’t been able to find anything better lately.

Much of what makes it interesting (and more exotic), since I’m an American who is always curious about Europe, is how “Tribes of Europa” reflects contemporary German culture. Or is it just Berlin culture? The details are edgier, coarser, and kinkier than watchables from the U.K., though series of this type always make an effort to shock us.

If there is a season 2, and I suspect there will be, I’m sure I’ll watch it. But now I’m out of watchables again, so it’s back to scouring through the dreck.

Rethinking the growing season

Volunteer cabbage

I should have noticed the possibilities for winter gardening long ago. I suppose it was that I was conditioned to think that gardening season ends with the frost or with the first hard freeze. But that’s not true. There are many vegetables that will keep growing, though slowly.

Certainly some winters are milder than others here in the Appalachian foothills. This was a mild winter, with a winter low of about 15F. The brutal cold that hit Texas and much of the northern and central U.S. this winter never got quite this far east. Some winters are cold enough to damage my fig trees. But I’m expecting a fine fig season this year.

There is an upside to warming, in the form of a longer growing season, as long as an increasingly unstable polar vortex doesn’t spill arctic air onto you, as happened in many parts of the northern hemisphere this past winter. So, winter crops are a bit of a gamble, but I can now see that it’s always worth trying.

The evidence was right in front of me this winter. I didn’t plant fall greens and turnips. But the neighbors did, and their garden was green all winter. I had mustard greens from their garden in December. Just two days ago, the neighbors pulled all their turnips before doing their first spring plowing. They brought me a bag full of very fine looking turnips.

All winter long I admired a mustard plant growing behind the step on the side porch. My guess is that, last spring, when Ken was sitting on the porch in the morning sun, sorting seeds, he dropped some mustard seeds. The mustard plant got only morning sun on the eastern side of the house, but it flourished all winter. I also had a winter cabbage plant. I often throw the stalky remnants of cabbages under the rhododenron bush on the north side of the house, because Mrs. Squirrel loves cabbage stalks. My guess is that a cabbage stalk, with plenty of moisture available, put down roots and sent up leaves. I will leave it there and see if it makes a cabbage head this spring.

All of these observations show me that, not only are some things willing to grow in the winter. They’re eager to grow.

To get an earlier start with the garden this year, I’ve bought a cold frame, which I plant to set up around March 15. I’ll have photos of that project when the time comes. My resolutions for better gardening this year include extending the growing season both in the spring and the fall. I get burned out by summer gardening, overwhelmed by heat, humidity, and weeds. But this year, I resolve to get back into the garden in time to start a fall and winter garden.

Another gardening resolution this year is to grow, and use, more fresh herbs, starting them in the cold frame. I plan to focus on herbs that can go into pestos — lots of basil, of course, but also parsley, dill, and cilantro. I could easily become a pesto fanatic. There are many YouTube videos on making pesto in which cooks swear that pestos are better when made the old-fashioned way — with a mortar and pestle rather than a food processor. That’s something I have to try. Certainly garlic is not really garlic unless it’s crushed rather than chopped. I’ve got to discover whether that’s also the case with basil.

The long-range weather forecast here calls for a mild, wet March. That sounds perfect for getting an early start in the garden.

The mortar and pestle, by the way, came from Amazon and is made of granite. It was the biggest mortar I could find on Amazon, 7.1 inches in diameter.

Volunteer mustard

One of the turnips the neighbors gave me

A new mortar and pestle for pesto

Who, and what, deserve our attention now?

If you ask me, boring government is the best kind of government, though, judging by the grin on his face, Biden is far from bored by rides on Marine 1. White House photo.

Scott Rosenberg has a very good article at Axios this morning: After Trump, the attention economy deflates. Rosenberg writes, “Donald Trump used social media to provoke and distract Americans around the clock, rewiring the country’s nervous system…. Now we’re going to learn whether our fried collective circuits can recover.”

The article, I think, is a must-read. According to Rosenberg, those who want our attention fall roughly into two camps: those who want to keep ranting at us, making us angry, trying to scare us, and exploiting us; and those who want to change the norm, “believing that a pandemic-exhausted public yearns for simpler, straighter talk at lower volume.”

In the first camp Rosenberg puts those who want to continue the Trumpian pig circus, such as Sen. Josh Hawley and huckster Elon Musk. The Biden administration is leading the second camp.

Speaking only for myself, I’d amend Rosenberg’s words a bit. I’m not pandemic exhausted. I’m Trump exhausted and Republican exhausted. I’m sure I’m not the only one who burned out from checking the news two dozen times a day out of fear that the world might fly apart at any moment. We knew that we were being exploited, we knew it was getting to our mental health, and we knew that the attention industry was taking it to the bank.

My morning routine, with coffee, was (and still is, for the moment) to make the rounds of a fairly long list of web sites to get a feel for what’s going on — the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, the New Republic, Axios, Politico, Salon, the Guardian, Vox, New York Magazine, the Irish Times, Herald Scotland, the Economist, and even Huffington Post. I get zero percent of my news from apps and social media, though Heather Cox Richardson’s daily dispatches on Facebook have been a must-read for many months. Also on Facebook I regularly check the work of a former colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle, Debra Saunders, who is now a White House correspondent for the Las Vegas Review Journal. Debra’s work is a way of checking the thinking of those who are still Republicans but who have preserved some ability to reason. Many of the comments, though, were from Trumpian zombies. It took Debra a long time to abandon Trump and to stop writing confirmation bias for Trumpers, but she seems to have finally done it, and she’s taking heat for it from those who remain addicted to the Trump pig circus. “Biden might also put Sominex out of business,” wrote one commenter, as though that’s a criticism rather than a compliment. I’m guessing that Debra finds herself in a rough spot right now — going with principle and reason at the risk of losing readers who aren’t getting their red meat anymore.

Twitter has proven itself to be a big part of the problem. The idea that anything useful in public affairs can be said in 140 (or 280) characters was a dangerous idea from the start. Trump proved how easily Twitter can be exploited as an instrument of low-information, highly inflammatory propaganda. A better world would abandon Twitter. If President Biden uses Twitter, I’m not aware of it.

Another thing that needs to be abandoned is the idea that apps are designed to exploit, the idea of “news feeds,” as though news is something to be chosen for us and then fed to us after we’ve been captured in an app. I never fell for that. I feed myself, which is why I use a web browser, bookmarks, and links and spend very little time in apps. Axios has written about this, too: Publishers see new life in the old open web. But some of us, refusing to be captured, never left “the old open web.”

It’s clear that even news sites that merit trust are struggling for material post-Trump. I’m seeing a lot more of the kind of material that is typical of Huffington Post — television, new chicken sandwiches, royalty news, celebrity news, and the latest trends in relationships.

Rosenberg writes in the Axios piece: “Team Biden isn’t the only force trying to downshift the public conversation…. The new wave of subscription-based newsletter and podcast enterprises aims to put media creation on a less fickle footing, funded by longer-term commitments from readers rather than volume-driven ad revenue.”

The key word there is “subscription.” As I rethink my media diet, I’m not willing to pay just anyone for news, but I’m willing to continue to pay the New York Times and the Washington Post. And I’ll probably continue to check some clickbait sites such as Huffington Post, for the same reason that I sometimes watch the ABC evening news — because I want to see what people are consuming and what kind of information low-information types are working with. (I draw the line at watching Fox News, just because brazen propaganda and Republican red meat are so damaging to one’s health, no matter where one is on the political spectrum.)

But, as choosy and news-savvy as I am as an old newspaperman, I realize that I’m not in control. What matters most is what happens next in what Rosenberg calls the attention economy. Surely we can assume that a media divide will continue to exploit the political divide. We high-information types will continue to have good sources of news and commentary, especially if we’re willing to pay for it. For the news to be more boring would be thrilling, in a paradoxical sort of way. As for those who love a pig circus, we can hope that hard times are on the way, since it seems very unlikely that a Josh Hawley, or an Elon Musk, or a Marjorie Taylor Green, will ever be able to out-pig the greatest pig in American history, Donald Trump.

If I had my way, the news hereafter would be much more boring, and all those movies and series available for streaming would be less so.

Not for squeamish readers

Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. Bantam Spectra, 1992. 608 pages.

The title is a warning: This book is going to be about doom. To avoid spoilers, all the reader should know before starting the book is that it’s about time travel to the 14th Century, and that the plot has to do with the plague. If the Covid-19 lockdown has got you down, this book won’t be good for your mental health. Despite its flaws, Doomsday Book has earned its place in the apocalyptic section of everyone’s bookshelves.

I considered flinging this book several times, even after I was a few hundred pages into its considerable length. Connie Willis, who is one of a small group of our most competent living science fiction writers, ought to know better than to let a novel drag along so slowly for 400 pages, the first two-thirds of the book. This novel won both the Nebula and Hugo awards in 1992, and Connie Willis was named a grandmaster of Science Fiction Writers of America in 2011. She (and her editor) should have realized that such weak or non-existent subplots are not enough to keep the reader engaged for a long, slow 404 pages until the plot is finally off and running. One Amazon reviewer writes, “I finally couldn’t take it anymore and simply gave up.” I stuck with it, because many of the characters are appealing, and because I fell under the spell of her Oxford and medieval atmosphere.

It would be easier to review this book by dividing it into two parts.

The first two-thirds: Almost all the scenes are too long. Almost all the conversations include some pitter-patter. Rather than strong subplots presenting obstacles to the characters’ striving, the obstacles (of which there are a great many) are rarely more than frustrating and meaningless little aggravations — somebody can’t remember something, or someone is on vacation and can’t be found, or a petty official forbids something, or the weather gets in the way. Sometimes the pettiness has the feel of slapstick. But Willis does have a pretty good sense of humor, and that helps. This meandering is not a total loss, though. By the time we’re 400 pages in, a lot of good character development has gotten done, and the scene-setting is excellent even when it is suffocating. A romp around medieval England would have been fun and easier to write, but Willis rightly chooses to keep the characters in one place, locked down, in the dark about their circumstances, miserable, often crossways with each other. After all, the plague is not something that one goes questing for. The plague comes and finds you, even if you try to hide.

I give Willis high marks for her theology, a subject that is bound to come up in a story in which there are last rites, lots of Latin, graveyards, and so many church bells. I also would give Willis high marks as a psychologist, as she makes the point that certain types of people will be with us in any century — the noble few, the hordes of the ordinary, and those who specialize in being insufferable.

The last third: With the key to the plot revealed at last (not that it was hard to figure out), the story is off and running. The slow investment in characterization and setting pays its dividends. The level of danger escalates rapidly. The misery of the characters starts to seem sadistic, but as Kivrin, the main character, reminds herself, “It’s a disease. No one is to blame” — except maybe God, an idea that Willis invites us to see through modern eyes as well as medieval eyes, and through the eyes of the noble as well as the insufferable. In spite of the slow start, Willis ends up weaving a spell so intense that my reality started to blur a bit. Partly it was the weather, in which my local atmosphere was like the atmosphere in the story — cold rain and ice, dark skies, a cat by the fire, masks, and not going anywhere if one can help it. And though the pandemic in the here-and-now has been nothing like the plague of the 14th Century, one never really knows how bad things might get before a pandemic finally starts to recede.

Would this novel be as compelling if read in the merry month of May? I don’t know. I’d say it’s a winter novel, if you can handle it.

Let’s hear it for the wobble

Illustration from An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics

Surely one of the coolest things about this planet is that it wobbles on an annual cycle. That causes the intensity of the sun to be about half as great in midwinter as it is in midsummer. The result is that life at most latitudes had to evolve to deal with the variation. Trees shed their leaves and fall asleep. Other plants produce seeds and then die. Animals evolved fur and feathers and warm blood. As the atmosphere and oceans strain to make up for the uneven heating of the planet (as required by the second law of thermodynamics), we get our wind and weather — more wind and weather than we want, often enough.

Maybe I’m crazy, but I like a bit a winter. That’s easy to say, though, for those who have warm clothes and heated houses. One only has to look out the window to see that most creatures have only their fur and feathers for winter comfort. But even as the polar vortex struggles to obey the laws of thermodynamics and spills arctic air where it doesn’t belong, I think that even the creatures outside the windows understand right now that winter won’t last much longer. The birds are grateful for the seeds I put out for them, but they’re clearly not starving. The squirrels look well-nourished. Even Mrs. Possum, though she licks clean the bowl that I leave for her most evenings at the edge of the woods, wasn’t hungry enough to eat the pimentos that had started to mold in the refrigerator.

And so the minor ice storm here this weekend was more entertaining than inconvenient, especially since I lost power for only about four seconds. In the eleven years I’ve lived here in the woods, I’ve started thinking of Valentine’s Day (I’m at latitude 36.423961) as the last day of true winter. The 10-day forecast looks good (though wet), and, as the wobbling back toward the sun accelerates, tomorrow will be 2 minutes and 8 seconds longer than today.

For several days now, the prevailing winds have brought rain followed by freezing rain followed by more rain.

A science project this winter was buying greenhouse basil at the grocery store, potting it, and feeding it with light for two or three weeks before turning it into pesto. The basil grows many more leaves, and the green grows deeper. The LED grow lights cost only $29 from Amazon (though I see the price has now gone up a little).

The garlic in the herb trough was planted in early December.

The birds aren’t visible in the photo, but Lily is watching the birds eat the seed that I spread at the edges of the driveway.

Homemade lemon shortbread with lemon icing

I didn’t go out in the ice storm, but a neighbor sent me this photo. There is no shortage of tractors and chain saws in these parts. Ice storms are to old pine trees as pneumonia is to the elderly. It’s often an ice storm that ends an old pine tree’s life.

Our own fresh taste of the 14th Century

The Covid-19 virus. Source: Wikipedia

By historical standards, this plague has been a mild one. So far, worldwide, about 2.3 million people have died from Covid-19. The most fatal pandemic in recorded history was the Black Death, which peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1351. The Black Death killed between 75 million and 200 million people.

Covid-19 is not the first plague that seniors like me have lived through. Even today, the World Health Organization estimates that there are 10 to 20 million survivors of polio worldwide. AIDS has killed up 40 million people worldwide, and the peak year for deaths from AIDS — 2004 — is only 16 years behind us. Hundreds of thousands of people still die each year from AIDS.

There is much here to reflect on, including our vulnerability to the dark and primitive side of nature, no matter how modern we think we are or how dazzled (and coddled) we are by our technologies. Nor can we forget that the dark and primitive side of human nature is still with us. When I was a poll watcher during last year’s election, a woman who refused to wear a mask said, loudly, because she wanted as many people as possible to hear, “God’s got me covered.” And just this morning a former friend posted a link on Facebook about how Covid-19 was caused by a global “criminal elite,” including Bill Gates, George Soros, and the Rockefeller family.

Though I think there is such a thing as the arc of justice and slow moral progress, we have plenty of grounds to wonder just how much fairer today’s world is from the world of the 14th Century. Covid-19 reminded us that viruses are just as fatal to the high and mighty as to the poor. But the poor are more exposed, and they’re usually the last to get help.

I feel slightly ashamed to report that, three days ago, I got the first dose of the Moderna vaccine for Covid-19, because my state (North Carolina) is now vaccinating people over 65 as the available vaccine is allocated to risk groups. Meanwhile, teachers can’t yet get the vaccine, nor can younger people with pre-existing conditions. In the U.S., only 28.9 million people have had at least one dose of the vaccine so far. At that rate, according to the New York Times, we won’t reach 90 percent of the U.S. population until Dec. 15.

It’s surprising that I’m just now getting around to reading Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, in which a 21st Century historian time-travels to 14th Century Oxford to do historical research and accidentally arrives during the middle of the Black Death pandemic. Now seemed like a good time to read this book, the better to appreciate not only how some things never change, but also how much better off we are — or could be if we really tried.

Source: Wikipedia

Having mentioned the 14th Century, I should also mention Barbara Tuchman’s classic (if somewhat controversial) book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, published in 1978, which I have read twice.

Horowitz in Russia

In 1986, near the end of the Cold War, Vladimir Horowitz, then 82 years old, agreed to return to the Soviet Union for concerts in Moscow and Leningrad. The performance was recorded on video. PBS’ Great Performances draws on this historic video for the documentary “The Magic of Horowitz,” which was broadcast on Jan. 22. The program also is available for streaming, here.

Concert videos are one of my favorite genres — often more entertaining than movies. But this one is extra special, because it’s an important little piece of Cold War history as well as a glimpse of Russian culture, as the camera frequently moves around the hall to catch the responses of the audience. They adored Horowitz. President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev arranged the concert, as the U.S. and Russia moved toward d├ętente.

The camera often watches Horowitz’ hands on the keyboard. Musicians will want to take note of Horowitz’ unusual hand positions — wrists low, fingers often almost flat. This is not how pianists are taught to use their hands. At times, Horowitz’ hand positions look almost amateurish and awkward. One wonders how he did it.

The documentary is narrated by Peter Gelb, who was Horowitz’ manager. Gelb has interesting stories about Horowitz’ personal peculiarities, such as what he ate, as well as Horowitz’ recovery from a dark period in which he never played in public.

Eat more barley ( … and sugar cake)

Barley risotto

I sometimes hear the voice of Michael Pollan in my head: “Eat more leaves.” To that I might add: Eat more barley.

Wheat, of course, will always be regarded as the monarch of grains, because we can make beautiful breads out of it. But for second place, I would nominate barley — humble, healthy, sustainable, and versatile (after all, you can make ale and whisky out of it.)

Pearled barley is much easier to find, but pearled barley is not really a whole grain. Hulled barley is the real article. If you cook hulled barley thoroughly, it’s just as good as pearled barley, and healthier. I was thinking, as I had this barley risotto, that, even though I like the chewy texture of barley, if barley risotto spent a few seconds in a food processor, you’d almost think it was a hearty form of mashed potatoes. It’s a comfort food, for sure.

Before Covid-19, it was easy to find hulled barley, in bulk, at Whole Foods. At least in the Whole Foods store that I shop, the bulk foods section has been greatly diminished for safety reasons. My last batch of hulled barley was ordered from Amazon. It’s organic, and it was grown in western North Carolina.

This afternoon my nearest neighbor appeared on his ATV bringing a box of Moravian sugar cake from Dewey’s bakery in Winston-Salem, to thank me, he said, for being such a good neighbor. To those who live in or near Winston-Salem, Moravian sugar cake is a holiday treat. It’s made here year round, though. Winkler Bakery in Old Salem, which still bakes in colonial-style wood-fired ovens, makes the best version. (Winkler Bakery is currently closed because of Covid-19.) The recipe and concept, no doubt, were brought here 250 years ago by German settlers. Dewey’s makes a close approximation of the colonial article. Those in this area will know about Old Salem. To those who live elsewhere, Old Salem is a restored colonial town much like Williamsburg in Virginia. (I was shocked to see all the corporate logos on Old Salem’s home page. Times must be hard for them.)

And I thought it was spring fever

Pale greenhouse basil bought from Trader Joe’s gets a boost from some rays before it goes into pesto.

Where did all this energy come from? Why am I spending more time outdoors instead of in front of the computer doom-scrolling? At first I thought it was an ordinary case of spring fever, because January has been mild. But then I realized that it’s relief, and that I feel safe again now that the country has clawed its way back from the brink of fascism.

The news is three parts boring, three parts worrisome, and four parts encouraging — a welcome change from ten parts terrifying.

This time a year ago, the abbey grounds were a mess, with locust, copel, and briar creeping in from the woods and springing up everywhere the mower couldn’t reach. Ken did a lot of clearing last March, so it was only a day’s work for me to whip the yard back into shape with a bow saw and a pair of loppers. The daffodil shoots are two inches high. The garlic is up about three inches. The birds seem very happy, because it has been an easy winter for them so far. Mrs. Squirrel has been climbing on the house, trying to get back into the attic, no doubt because she’s ready to build a nest for her spring babies. I talk her back into the woods with a slingshot (no squirrels are harmed). I saw Mrs. Possum on a recent evening, and she was plump — probably pregnant. Out in the front ditch by the road, I pulled a blackberry stalk out by its roots, and a well-nourished earthworm came up with it. I still have some pruning to do — apples and grapes. The countdown to daffodils is about thirty days.

I can’t wait to start scratching in the dirt. The garden had a good clearing and tilling back in the fall, so it’s looking good for spring — dark, friable, and winter-fallow. I’ve bought all the seeds I need. To get an earlier start, I’m going to experiment with a kind of cold frame bought from Amazon. It’s just metal hoops with a clear cover, enough for one short row of early greens and lettuce.

For the first few years here, the challenge was building up the soil and establishing a landscape. Now the problem is managing the fertility and fecundity — holding back the woods and managing the overgrowth. In one wet summer, the place could turn into a jungle.

Keeping up the yard, garden, and orchard would be impossible without machines. The tiller, which had not worked quite right for two or three years, runs as good as new now that it has a new carburetor, which a neighbor helped me install (or, more accurately, I handed him tools and he installed it). The Snapper mower is now eleven years old and breaks down too often. It will now become a backup mower, replaced by a new zero-turn Ariens mower that I had to order from the factory and that arrived in December. Zero-turn mowers are the new must-have item for homeowners. I’m hoping that a zero-turn mower will save me some mowing time and give me much better options for mowing around trees and obstacles. The chain saw normally gets some exercise only when Ken is here. But I lent it to a neighbor to cut up the beech tree down by the bridge that fell during a storm last March, knowing that the neighbor would return it all shiny and sharpened and with stabilized fuel. (I learned the hard way that one winter is all it takes for gasoline to go bad and gum up carburetors in small engines.) I helped split and load the firewood for the neighbor. These days, though, splitting wood means operating a hydraulic splitting machine.

But we can’t yet totally avert our eyes from the pig circus that was Trump. Over at Lawfare, my old friend Jonathan Rauch, a recidivist centrist if there ever was one, argues that President Biden should pardon Trump. Jonathan’s arguments are reasonable, as long as you can stomach the idea of overlooking a minor matter like an attempt at a fascist coup and treason that served the interests of Putin’s Russia, treason the details of which we still don’t know. I cannot stomach those things. Trump must be neutralized by vigorous application of law and justice. All his crimes must be exposed, as well as whatever it was that Putin was holding over his head. Trump’s children — baby sociopaths, as the New Republic called them — must also be neutralized. They’re a crime family, after all. It was inevitable that, once we wrestled the reins out of the hands of right-wingers and fascists, that radical centrists would want to steer the ship of state again, as they did during the Clinton and Obama administrations. That’s the challenge for progressives now — not letting anyone forget that we progressives earned this, that even Georgia has turned a corner, and that our time has come. For Republicans, “unity” means acting as though they didn’t lose, and continuing to make the rich richer while fattening the livers of authoritarian white people by force-feeding them with propaganda. We have been waiting a long, long time for progress. Centrists and right-wingers have had their way for more than 50 years. This is our last chance to do something about inequality and environmental catastrophe.

I’m ready for some progress. And I’m ready for spring.

Meanwhile, to better prepare you for spring fever, here’s a beautifully produced video on Swedish winters.

And the home of the brave

And brave we were. We lived through four years of crime, treason, lies, and trash-talk from some of the worst human beings ever born. We did what we could to limit the damage. And then we got rid of the bastard.

I wish I knew who should get credit for this photo. If I can find out, I’ll post it. A friend got it from Twitter.