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Low-carb winter feasting

Walnut pâté, mashed rutabaga, and Brussels sprouts gratin

Rutabaga loves Brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts love Roquefort. Roquefort loves walnuts. There you have it. A menu for a snow day.

It’s amazing what you can get away with if you banish carbs. Not only have I maintained the summer diet that got me into shape for hiking in Scotland, I’ve continued to lose weight at the rate of about a pound a month after I got home. And not only do I not feel hungry. I also feel like I’m overeating, even though I’m not. We’re all different, though. Other people’s mileage may vary. But if you say goodbye to bread and pasta and sweets, something alchemical happens.

Rutabaga: For now, at least, turnips and rutabagas are the new potatoes in this house. A couple of weeks ago I made mashed potatoes for the first time in months. I was expecting a treat, but instead I found the potatoes cloyingly sweet. They actually tasted as though they had sugar in them. They were good potatoes, too — organic Yukon gold potatoes, mashed with butter and cream. I realized that I had enjoyed a recent pot of turnips much more. Last week at the grocery store, I intended to buy turnips. But the rutabagas were 50 percent cheaper, so I bought rutabagas instead. I boil them with a minimum of water and mash them with butter, salt, and pepper.

Walnut pâté: Nuts are a staple on low-carb vegetarian diets. Walnut pâté is as easy as pie. Throw walnuts, celery, onion, garlic, and seasonings into the food processor, with tahini as a binder. I added a tiny whiff of sage.

Roquefort Brussels sprouts gratin: I always have Roquefort in the fridge, though it usually goes into salad dressing (with lots of garlic). But Roquefort makes an excellent gratin if combined with parmesan. Today’s gratin also included milk and cream, in a buttered baking dish.

I go through stages, and I may well be back to making cinnamon rolls sooner or later. But, for now, trading carbs for low-carb pig-outs feels like a very good deal.

Brussels sprouts gratin with Roquefort, parmesan, milk and cream

How do the birds know that snow is coming?

Photo update: Snowmageddon arrives:

A file photo taken here in March 2014 — a cardinal

While looking out the upstairs windows with Lily this morning, it was apparent that the birds were unusually active and agitated. The traffic into and out of the arbor vitae trees was particularly busy, as though the birds are laying claims to shelter space from the heavy snow that is forecast here for tonight and tomorrow.

All of the arbor vitae trees (there are 14 of them in the abbey’s front yard) have little openings in the foliage that the birds use for flying in and out. I’m pretty sure that the openings actually are made by the birds and their frequent traffic. The birds can fly straight in with little or no wing contact. Watching even for a little while, it’s apparently that a single arbor vitae tree shelters many birds, and different species at the same time. They fly in at different levels. Six or more levels per tree would be my guess.

There is an English word for what I think these openings might be called — smeuse. I have never heard this word used, but Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks, on the rewilding of the landscape through language, defines smeuse as “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal.” I don’t know whether the word also would apply to a hedge-like tree. I hope it does. Maybe readers in the U.K. could shed light on that question?

When there is heavy snow, it’s always a problem finding a place to put bird seed where the birds can get it. It occurs to me that just throwing food into the arbor vitae trees might work.

Some of the abbey’s arbor vitae trees

Doorways for birds. Are they smeuses?

The human equivalent: All the milk (except for the organic milk!) has vanished two days before the storm is due.

Snowmageddon approaches from the southwest.

The Apple watch EKG function

Apple released a bunch of software updates yesterday — 10.14.2 of Mac OS; 12.1.1 of iOS; and 5.1.2 of watchOS. The updates for the iPhone and the Apple watch enable the long-promised EKG function on the Apple watch 4.

I’m going to guess that thousands of people who’ve never seen an electrical graph of their own heartbeat before (including me) saw that for the first time today. It’s easy. You press your right finger against the stem of the watch, and the back of the watch has electrical contact with your left wrist. That forms a circuit that goes across your heart. In 30 seconds, the watch creates a simple EKG. The test is intended only to detect atrial fibrillation.

The iPhone saves a record of all your EKG’s. If you request it, the iPhone app will create a PDF of the EKG that you can use to start a conversation with your doctor. I used that PDF to create the image above.

Lucky for me, the watch didn’t detect a problem.

I’ve had the Apple watch for about three weeks now. I have become very fond of it, not only as a timepiece but also as a communications device and fitness coach. If I’ve been sitting at the computer for too long, it taps my wrist and tells me that it’s time to stand up and move around for a while. It has encouraged me to walk more, knowing that it counts every step and that I’d like to have a good report at bedtime. I am still trying to understand how to make use of its “heart rate variability” function (as are many watch wearers). But heart rate variability is a complicated subject for another day, after I understand it better.

Three times, I have triggered the watch’s fall detector. In all three cases, I was slapping my hand against my leg — for example, when I was on the deck yelling at the squirrel to get off the roof. I replied to the watch’s prompts and told it that I had not fallen.

Honestly I would feel a little insecure now without the watch on my wrist. That, I’m sure, is just what Apple was aiming for.

The yield curve and the coming Trump recession

A Facebook meme

One of the first rules of managing your money is never to give, or to accept, advice about money. I’m not giving any advice in this post. But I am suggesting that now is a good time to take a good hard look — according to one’s own lights — at the state of the U.S. (and the global) economy.

Yesterday, the yield curve on U.S. treasury bonds (2-year notes vs. 5-year notes) inverted for the first time since 2007. We all know what happened in 2008. An inverted yield curve, of all economic indicators, has proven to be as reliable a predictor of economic downturns as exists.

Here are some articles:

Bloomberg: The U.S. Yield Curve Just Inverted. That’s Huge.

Reuters: Dollar drops as U.S. Treasury yield curve inversion sparks recession fears

Forbes: The Yield Curve Just Inverted — Sort Of — And That Is A Sell Signal For Stocks

Am I blaming Trump? Not necessarily. Just as Trump gets zero credit for the past few years of economic growth, he may not get the blame for the next recession. Economic cycles and their causes don’t usually have a great deal to do with who is in the White House. But how a country responds to an economic downturn, though, is very important. Trump has plenty of room to screw up on that.

Back in the 1990s, as I got old enough to get serious about money and retirement, I did my best to study up on economics, investing, and economic cycles. I watched very carefully as the Dot-Com boom of the late 1990s turned into the enormous bubble burst of 2001. And as the housing and mortgage bubble grew during the Bush-Cheney years, I watched with horror (because I was very close to retirement). That bubble burst in 2008. But I landed on my feet without losing a nickel of my retirement money, because I knew the bust was coming.

During periods of economic growth, risk is less risky. Lots of people make money. But when an economic downturn is looming, it’s time to go defensive. Going defensive means taking a look at your investments. Is your money in the right places? Going defensive means taking a hard look at the economy, trying to figure out where the trouble spots are, and trying to figure out one’s vulnerabilities.

When big players in the stock market (often called “strong hands”) realize that the market is unsustainable and is going down, there is a huge retail effort to transfer stocks to “weak hands.” Weak hands are then forced to sell in a panic and absorb most of the losses. That’s why professional investing advice is often so corrupt. There is a famous (and possibly apocryphal) story about J.P. Morgan, who said that he knew it was time to sell his stocks when his shoeshine boy started talking about buying stocks. It’s true that the stock market is not the economy. But the economy and the stock market do tend to run on parallel tracks.

We all need our own crystal balls, because everyone’s situation is different. I’ll have more posts in the future on economic conditions. But, for the moment, I have only one point to make. That is that the warning lights are flashing that the time has come to go defensive. Thanks to globalization, we’re all in pretty much the same boat these days. Readers in Europe have plenty to think about, too, such as Brexit in the U.K., or the recent outbreak of economic discontent in France, which has forced President Macron to reverse course on fuel taxes.

As for me, I’m going to plant an extra-big garden next spring.

Update: Just after I posted this, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down almost 800 points. The media are focused on a connection to American trade with China. But I suspect that it has much more to do with investors spooked by the yield curve, as large institutions unload stocks and go defensive. The Dow may well regain most of these losses tomorrow morning, as often happens. But this kind of churning in the stock market is typical of what occurs at this point in the economic cycle.

Update 2: This advertisement appeared in my Facebook feed a day after I wrote this post. This kind of deceit is typical at this point in the economic cycle. As “strong hands” work to sell off their holdings for as high a price as possible, retail efforts intensify to sell stocks to “weak hands,” who are not aware of where we are in the economic cycle and are left holding the bag. Notice that this ad is targeted at older people, and that Facebook knows my age.

Update 3: Here is what Fox watchers are being told:


Hay bale sculptures are a thing around here (we grow lots of hay). Obviously there are even competitions, because there was a sign beside this sculpture saying that it had won first prize in something. It’s in Mayodan, North Carolina.

Those of you who are not up to date on agricultural machinery may not know that hay from large fields is often baled into large, very heavy rolls these days. These rolls are too heavy to be moved by one human being. But the smaller, rectangular bales are still produced, too. This cat sculpture combines both types of bales. And a lot of black paint.

The eternal elegance of good technology

The signal strength dial on a Collins 75A-4 receiver, circa 1952

Uh-oh. This is a nerd post.

Every so often, I have a maintenance day for my collection of obsolete technology. Stuff gets dusted. Stuff gets turned on and exercised. Batteries in portable devices get charged. Little fixes gets done. These things are like pets. Like pets, they like to be photographed. Unlike pets, they hold still for tripod shots with long exposures.

To keep working and for a long life, many devices actually need the periodic exercise. Failure to periodically use my IBM Selectric III would be one of the worst things I could do to it. Capacitors in old radios and other electronics need tend to deteriorate unless they are energized and charged periodically. Batteries require maintenance. But old devices, like old pets, also need to be (and like to be) petted and loved. They are intelligent machines from some incredible engineers. I have been known to say that engineers were some of the best artists of the 20th Century. A collection of old technologies is in many ways an art collection.

Strangely enough, pretty much all my old technology works. I realized today that my Pioneer SX-9000 receiver-amplifier (about 1972) is sitting idle and needs to be used. It works fine, but all of its dial lights are burned out. On eBay, for the SX-9000 and many other classic amplifiers, one can buy brand new LED replacement bulbs for the dial lights. For $19.95, I ordered a set of bulbs. I’ll soon make a project of opening up the SX-9000, dusting it out, replacing the bulbs, and moving it to a place where it can be connected to good speakers and still be heard.

I didn’t get to all my old pets today. But they’re still loved, so maybe tomorrow.

A Monroe 650 calculator, with Nixie tubes, which just calculated the square root of 2. This is my go-to calculator when I’m doing my taxes.

An Astatic D-104 microphone

A 10-point “Delegate” typeface for my IBM Selectric III. My IBM Selectric is long retired from the San Francisco Examiner and bears a nameplate for The Typewritorium, a San Francisco typewriter business that may still be in operation, though I think it has moved.

An analog measuring device with a very long history

The fine-tuning dial on the Collins receiver, which has 21 tubes and weighs 35 pounds

A Tektronix 2430A oscilloscope, totally cherry and shipped from San Francisco when I moved. It was retired from the data center of the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, where I believe it was used for calibrating the read-write heads on early “wash tub” disk drives.

The somewhat dusty interior of the Collins 75A-4 receiver

A Civil Defense CDV-700 Geiger counter, in perfect working condition. There were times when winds from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan (2011) blew this way. The Geiger counter reported a significant (but not dangerous) increase in the North Carolina background radiation.

Let’s hear it for the P.O.

Many things have vanished in rural America. Jobs and people (particularly young people) are at the top of the list. One institution that remains is the U.S. Postal Service, which has shown a remarkable ability to change with the times.

Though I lived in San Francisco for 17 years, much of my life has been spent in rural America, with a rural mailbox. I feel sorry for people who open their mailbox and mostly find bills. I get some of those, too. Still, after all these years, opening the mailbox each day and seeing what’s inside is like a tiny Christmas that comes every day.

When I was a boy, I eagerly awaited the little packages that brought fresh chemicals or glassware that I’d ordered for my chemistry set. I often ordered little doodads that were advertised in comic books. For years, I received regular catalogs from the U.S. Government Printing Office, and I ordered little books and pamphlets on all sorts of subjects. Everyone received a Sears catalog. As a teenage nerd, I got lots of electronics catalogs such as Allied Radio and Electronics. When I was older and had friends, and when those friends began to scatter, it was the post office that kept us in touch — letters typed on manual typewriters and mailed in legal-size envelopes, always with commemorative stamps for better presentation. Many of those old letters from friends still survive in trunks in the attic, which I refer to as the archives.

Everyone has email these days, so letters in the mailbox are, sadly, a thing of the past. But opening the mailbox is still a tiny Christmas. Amazon Prime, of course, is the new Sears catalog. All those boxes bother me (though of course I recycle them). But Amazon Prime does greatly reduce the amount of driving one has to do. Since the mail carrier drives through every day anyway, there are efficiencies there in maintaining rural supply lines.

What started me thinking about the reliability of the post office was the unreliability of UPS and Fedex in rural areas. Fedex can hardly ever find me. (The truth is that Fedex drivers don’t try very hard, because they obviously detest rural deliveries.) UPS does a better job here, but not much better. UPS and Fedex are just not efficient for rural delivery. Whereas the U.S. Postal Service knows its rural customers because they deliver every day.

Rural Free Delivery has been the rule in the U.S. since about 1900. Before that, people had to go to a post office to pick up their mail. Still — and this is just as true today — mail carriers don’t deliver mail to every rural door or driveway. Mailboxes are often clustered to make delivery easier. If your home is remote (as mine is), then your mailbox may be some distance away. My mailbox is half a mile away. I can stop and pick up the mail if I’m in the car, or I can walk a nice woodland trail to pick up the mail, just over a mile round trip.

The use of First Class mail continues to decline. But, since 2014, Postal Service revenue from online retailers has been steadily increasing and is making money for the Postal Service.

Not too long ago, I was saying to a friend that rural living today is a privilege. Obviously people need jobs, and they need reasonable commutes. Rural living is not very efficient for most working people. For retired people like me, rural living is efficient, if one stays off the roads as much as possible and especially if one grows at least some of one’s food, as many rural people used to do. It’s shocking to reflect on the fact that the world’s population is now twice what it was when I was born. That is just too many people, so it is a great gift — if you like peace and quiet and nature — to live in a place where the population actually is declining rather than growing. The U.S. Postal Service is as necessary to rural life today as it was in 1902.

Lookin’ good, Skwurlikins …

This squirrel is such a regular visitor to the house that I ought to give him or her a name. Sometimes he gets on the roof. Sometimes he peeks in an upstairs dormer window. And sometimes he tries to break through the screen of an attic vent, in which case I go out to chase him away. On this particular day, he just sat on the deck for a while, looking relaxed and contemplative. It must have been a good year for the squirrels. He looks well fed, with a fine bushy tail. I don’t feed the squirrels or encourage them. They’d soon get out of hand.

The global rot of billionaires

The list of things that make American deplorables so deplorable is very long — racism, vile religion, anti-intellectualism, appalling ignorance, love of propaganda, and tolerance for violence, to name a few. But one of the worst vices — taught by their sorry politics as well as their sorry religion — is the glorification of the rich.

Sometimes I think that the state of the world today is best understood not by looking at the competing interests and activities of states (the U.S., Russia, China, Germany, etc.), but rather by looking at the competing interests and activities of global oligarchs. Our media, out of long habit, focuses its attention on states and their doings, while the doings of oligarchs fly under the radar.

The media do report on the doings of billionaire oligarchs, but in a piecemeal way. The media ignore, or cannot see, the larger pattern of how billionaire oligarchs now have the world by the throat and have tapped the power of the state to amplify the power of their money. (See links below.)

The key to understanding Trump is to understand that the global oligarchy, with which Trump is criminally entangled, intends to loot the United States the same way they have looted (and continue to loot) Russia, China, Africa, Latin America, and many smaller states such as North Korea and the Czech Republic. The test for the United States is whether the rule of law will be able to slow this process of looting, which has been going on since the Reagan administration. There is nothing new in Trump’s politics. It’s just that Trump is more flagrant. His intent is more transparent. He is rather obviously a tool of global oligarchs, for reasons that the Mueller investigation will surely expose. The Republican Party has gone along with Trump because the Republican Party has been working for years (though with disguised intentions) to loot the American commons, to weaken the American democracy, and to hand the country over to the oligarchy. Billionaires have learned an incredible new trick: How to masquerade as populists, which the ugliness of right-wing politics and the stupidity of the deplorables have made possible.

The question is whether democracies can muster the power to rid themselves of these billionaire parasites and their corruption. The solution is easy to describe, but much harder to actually do. The solution is to use the existing power of states to put billionaires in prison when they break the law, and then to tax them into the dirt.

As for the deplorables, I’m afraid they’ll never get it. They’ll probably continue to glorify the rich who are eating them alive, while blaming dark-skinned people, whose poverty and powerlessness they are destined to increasingly share if billionaires continue to get away with looting and murder.

Here are just a few reports on the doings of global billionaires:

Czech Republic: The New York Times: Scandal Around Billionaire Prime Minister Leaves Czechs in Limbo. What Andrej Babis is doing to the Czech Republic is remarkably similar to what Donald Trump is doing to the U.S.

Venezuela: The New York Times: Jets, Horses and Bribes: How a Venezuelan Official Became a Billionaire as His Country Crumbled. This is about how an oligarch family sucked up the assets of the Venezuelan people, Russian style.

China: The Guardian: Guo Wengui, the maverick Chinese billionaire who threatens to crash Xi’s party. This is about competing billionaire oligarchs in China. China is run by billionaire oligarchs.

North Korea: The Sun: Where does billionaire Kim Jong-un get all his money to spend on luxuries such as superyachts, top quality champagne and his favourite Swiss cheese? North Korea is just one country of many that is controlled by damned-fool oligarchs.

Africa: Quartz: There may now be more billionaires in Africa than in Latin America. Competing billionaires are sucking all the wealth out of Africa, while the people of Africa are increasingly impoverished.

Russia: The Irish Times: Oligarchs and ‘unexplained wealth’: London’s rich Russians. Russia, of course, is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It’s a country run by oligarchs, for oligarchs.

Saudi Arabia: The New York Times: Saudi Arabia Arrests 11 Princes, Including Billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal. There is some sort of power struggle going on among the billionaires of Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has shown that, like billionaire oligarchs everywhere, he can get away with murder.

The United States: The American Prospect: The Trump Presidency: Oligarchs, Billionaires, Corporations, and Porn Stars. To quote from the article: “But the hate is not the point of this presidency. It’s a tool for protecting the massive looting of the public commons currently under way, and most importantly, the shady network of Russian oligarchs, U.S. billionaires, Kremlin cronies, hapless lawyers, and privately held corporations that brought Donald J. Trump to power. The U.S. billionaires and privately held corporations are in it for the looting.”

Kirby vacuum cleaners

A Kirby Avalir vacuum cleaner

Sorry again, non-nerds. This is another nerd post. Though we’ll also talk about Kirby’s business practices.

I had not been inside a pawn shop in probably 50 years. Nice people don’t go into pawn shops. But I was waiting for the oil to be changed in my car, with a one-hour wait on my hands. I got in 2.5 miles of walking, checking out the businesses in the neighborhood of the car place. One of those businesses was a pawn shop. When I went in, a nice young man told me that if I saw anything I liked, he’d make me a good deal on it.

Only one thing caught my eye. That was a Kirby Avalir vacuum cleaner, model G10D, that looked like new. The sticker said that it came with a box of tools. The sticker price was $199. After wandering around the store for a while, I told the young man that I had some time to kill while my car was being serviced, and that I was interested in the vacuum cleaner. I asked what kind of deal he’d make me. He went behind the counter and looked up something in a computer. He’d sell it for $140, he said. I went out and walked some more, and I Googled for that model of Kirby. The price he’d offered me was a total steal. I resolved that I’d go back, and, if the box of tools (which was in the back, he said), was complete, then I’d buy the vacuum cleaner. After visiting an ATM machine and withdrawing enough cash, I went back to the pawn shop. Most of the tools in the box appeared to have never been used. There even was a shampoo attachment (which I will never use and probably ought to sell on eBay).

Kirby vacuum cleaners are an American icon, with about 85 years of history. Their build quality is superb, and they’re very high-powered. The mechanical beauty of a Kirby vacuum cleaner is so appealing to men that it seems that most of the YouTube videos on Kirby vacuum cleaners are done by men. Kirby’s marketing, though, has often gotten the company into trouble. They’re sold by “direct sales” only, door to door. Though they’re great vacuum cleaners, they cost twice as much as comparable products, like every product that is sold door to door. Poor people and old people are often targeted by Kirby salesmen, people who can’t afford Kirby’s prices. I would assume that Kirby must also make money through financing, because it seems very unlikely that many customers are in a position to write a $2,000 check for a vacuum cleaner.

And so the value of a Kirby vacuum cleaner drops by about half as soon as the salesman walks out the door. After that, Kirby vacuum cleaners hold their value very well, as you’ll see if you shop for one on eBay.

Driving home with the vacuum cleaner in the front seat and the box of tools in the back, I had a good chuckle at the model name “Avalir.” As a word nerd, I knew that it’s clearly taken from the French avaler, which means to swallow or to inhale. It was a bit of work, Googling in French, to trace the root of the French avaler back to Latin. The Latin root is valles, or valley. The French avaler, it seems, originally meant “to descend,” but later the word acquired the meaning of swallowing. An English cognate is avalanche.

I haven’t used the vacuum cleaner yet because I’m waiting for some new vacuum cleaner bags from Amazon. But Lily (the cat), though she has never heard the thing run, recognized it instantly as a vacuum cleaner. She turned and fled upstairs.