Skip to content

Ink’s place in the retro movement

Up through the 1970s, this type of ink, made by Scheaffer, was available just about everywhere. As I recall, the available colors included black, blue-black, red, and green. Scheaffer also made inexpensive fountain pens that were sold into the student market. Just about everybody had one. I wore out (and lost) a great many of them. The nice thing about the Skrip ink bottle was that the bottle had its own ink well at the bottle’s neck. Source: eBay.

How many types of ink do you have in your house? I’m guessing that modern households are likely to have no more than two types: ballpoint or felt-tip pens with ink inside, and maybe an inkjet printer. Ink stains on our fingers are a thing of the past. That’s a bit sad.

When I think back about it, and though I greatly love computers, I am ashamed of how long it took me to realize just how much we lost when computers pushed the ink out of our lives. It was the recent revival of my love of typewriters that started me thinking about ink. Typewriter ribbons, of course, are saturated with ink. Change the typewriter’s ribbon and you’ll get ink on your hands.

But it was a slippery slope. As I started typing letters on typewriters as a kind of retro exercise (letters to send to friends who have typewriters or friends who I hope will acquire a typewriter), it became obvious that typewritten letters need to be signed. Then it became equally obvious, because I was born with ink in my veins, that the only way to properly sign a typewritten letter is with a fountain pen. I had not owned a fountain pen in many years. If you buy a fountain pen (I bought two), then you will surely buy some ink as well. And before you know it, you will frequently have ink on your fingers, just like our ancestors.

Though you can’t buy ink at Woolworth’s anymore, there are many types of ink available on Amazon. Lots of weird people still use lots of ink — artists, for example.

An excellent black ink from Pelikan, and a so-so blue-black ink from Parker. The Pelikan ink flows much more smoothly and has a richer color. (The retro adding machine in the background is a Monroe 145 in like new condition.)

According to Wikipedia, human beings have been using ink for as long as 4,000 years (in China). The decline in the use of ink for personal communications started, of course, in the 1980s, as computers became increasingly common. How did we ever live without email and texting? And yet, let us be ever so grateful that our postal services are still with us. They’d still be very happy to transport a letter for you. My letters to Scotland arrive in about six days, and, to France, eight days. That, I believe, is faster than 40 years ago. Wouldn’t it be nice to occasionally find a real letter in your mailbox? But, of course, to get some letters you have to write some letters. Typed or handwritten are equally good.

Our ancestors may not have been obsessive about whether the lines were straight in handwritten letters. To get straight lines, one technique was to slip a sheet of ruled paper underneath the plain white paper. If the paper is not too thick, the rules will show through. The scrivener’s art is almost lost, but for better-looking letters today, a lighted tracing tablet (about $18 on eBay) will work better, with a sheet underneath with heavy rules showing the base lines and margins.

Soon some friend of mine will receive a letter from me written with pen and ink. Have I ever even done that before? After the age of eleven, when I got my first typewriter, I typed everything. But first I need some practice with pen and ink. Many years ago I had a very legible cursive. I’ve completely lost that. But I can still print pretty well. Fountain pens want to move more slowly than ballpoint pens anyway, so printing is not excessively slow (even though I can type ten times faster).

As I reflected on these things, I recovered a memory of the only honor society I got into in high school. That was Quill and Scroll. To my surprise, it still exists. How my pin survived all these years I have no idea. It must have meant something to me. It turned out that journalism and newspapers were my career. And once again there is ink on my fingers as well as ink in my blood.

The “I.H.S.H.S.J” stands for International High School Honor Society for Journalism. According to Wikipedia, fountain pens were invented in 1827 and started replacing quills. What progress! It was no longer necessary to repeatedly dip the quill in a bottle of ink.

Garden chowder

It’s really too hot for soup. But I’ve been making some fine chowders out of summer vegetables, centered around fresh corn. As always with my cooking, there is not an exact recipe. Just use what you’ve got.

Coarsely chop some onion and mild peppers. Sauté them in olive oil with a little butter. Add corn fresh cut from the cob, and sauté the corn with the onions and peppers. Five minutes of sautéing should be enough. Add water. Cut a fresh tomato in half and drop the tomato into the pot. Add a cup or so of precooked white beans, if you’ve got them. I’m not ashamed to use canned beans when I need beans quick.

Simmer all that, covered, for half an hour. Remove the chowder from the heat and move the tomatoes to a saucer to cool. When the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, remove the skin and put the tomatoes back into the pot. Whiz the chowder with a hand blender. Season it. My secret ingredient for seasoning soups are the vegetarian versions of Better Than Bouillon. Add a little cream.

As a concession to summer weather, serve the chowder warm instead of winter hot.

Lying isn’t as profitable as it used to be

Alex Jones. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Members of the reality-based community should cheer, gloat, and enjoy the schadenfreude after the jury’s decision yesterday in the Alex Jones defamation trial. Jones has been ordered to pay $4.1 million in compensatory damages and $45.2 million in punitive damages to the parents of a 6-year-old boy killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting. Jones had come up with the conspiracy theory that the shooting never happened and that it was staged by anti-gun activists.

Jones has made many millions of dollars as a professional liar: creating conspiracy theories and selling them to right-wingers. Jones, for example, helped spread the conspiracy theory about “Pizzagate,” the claim that a pizzeria in Washington was being used by Democrats for child trafficking and Satanic ritual abuse. Yesterday’s verdict should serve as a warning to all the other profitable outlets for right-wing lies.

Fox News, you’ll remember, has been sued for $1.6 billion by Dominion Voting Systems because of the lie that Dominion rigged the 2020 election against Trump. That trial has been scheduled to start April 17, 2023.

The market for lies has a supply side and a demand side. One of the most puzzling things for those of us who live in the reality-based community is that there is such a huge demand for lies. There are the big guys, such as Rupert Murdoch and Alex Jones. But for every big guy, there are a thousand little guys trying to get attention and make a buck. YouTube is full of them. As for the other places in social media where such types hang out, I don’t even go there.

As for the people who consume the lies, it’s no wonder that they do so poorly in the world and that they require “elites” above them and scapegoats beneath to blame for their sorry circumstances. Adaptation to a complex and changing world requires knowledge of that world and smart choices based on that knowledge. Those who try to live in that world by applying lies rather than knowledge are certain to do poorly, with only their grievance and rage for comfort. It probably would be easy to show that right-wing lies actually are a drag on the economy, on account of the millions of people who are poorly adapted to the real economy because of their consumption of lies. Those who profit are the people who require the disinformed hordes as a power base, and those who’ve figured out how to make millions of dollars selling lies.

It is incomprehensible to me why right-wingers (including some members of the U.S. Supreme Court) think that making defamation suits easier by overturning New York Times v. Sullivan would increase right-wing power by making it easier for right-wingers to sue what they call “the liberal media.” The liberal media sometimes make mistakes, but they don’t lie, and they don’t need to lie. Unless right-wingers completely corrupt the courts (they’re working on it), they can’t win in court, because courts won’t tolerate the kind of stuff that fuels the right-wing disinformation economy (such as Trump’s Big Lie about a stolen election). Without the huge economy of lies, the Republican Party as we know it would cease to exist. If it were easier to sue, outfits such as Fox News would either have to clean up their acts or get sued out of business. Alex Jones probably did just get sued out of business.

In flagrante delicto

When one lives in the sticks, it is not uncommon to come upon wild things in flagrante delicto. These are eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina). These turtles are very common here and are often seen crossing the road. Roads are very dangerous for them, because their instinct is to close up and stop. More and more people stop their cars and move them safely out of the road.

These turtles were safely on the side of the unpaved road I live on.

The Essex Serpent

I was hesitant to watch this. What I’d read about it made the story seem contrived. A sea monster? Really? Was it a bodice-ripper? If so, that’s not my genre. I also knew that the story was set in the flats and fens and swamps of southeastern England — a part of England you probably want to visit only if you’ve already been everywhere else or if you need to catch a ferry to the Hook of Holland. But I love well done period pieces, and I trusted Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston not to sign up for a weak project. The series is based on a novel by Sarah Perry.

Four episodes in (there are six episodes), I still had my doubts. Much of the dialogue is a bit unpolished and ragged around the edges. Sometimes the dramatic logic seems a little off, with what the characters say and do not always making sense. I frequently wondered whether it was going to be possible to like (and therefore to care about) Claire Danes’ and Tom Hiddleston’s characters. Two of the best characters, really, are supporting cast — Clémence Poésy as Stella and Caspar Griffiths as Frankie, an 1893 example of a boy we would today classify as autistic. The writer, I was afraid, didn’t have full control of the story. But by the last episode, the writer had dotted all the i’s, crossed all the t’s, and stitched the plot into a complete and complex Gothic embroidery.

“The Essex Serpent” can be streamed on Apple TV+.


I am embarrassed to admit that, for the longest time, I didn’t recognize the difference between Marmite and Nutella. I filed them both away in the seldom-referenced category of mysterious European goop in small jars that people make jokes about.

But Marmite and Nutella are very different. Nutella, made in Italy, is a sweet concoction made of hazel nuts and chocolate. Marmite, though it originated in Germany and is now made in Britain, is a salty, savory brown goop made from yeast salvaged from brewing. I recently came across an article in British newspapers about the health benefits of the high concentrations of B vitamins in Marmite. But watch out for the salt!

Marmite, which is very rich in the umami flavor, is no doubt a less refined relative of monosodium glutamate, which also is extracted from yeast, though the MSG is of course refined into a white salt. I am not among those who disparage MSG. Back in the 1970s, MSG got a bad reputation based on falsehoods. Again and again studies have shown that MSG does not cause headaches and that it’s not bad for you. The truth is that yeast extracts are used in many foods to enhance flavor. I’m guessing, though, that there is no yeast extract more flagrant than Marmite. There is a slight bitterness — hops from the brewing? — but the umami flavor goes on and on. There’s a boozy, old-world flavor about it that I like. Marmite has been made for 120 years. It reminds me of a pub, and I like anything that reminds me of pubs.

No doubt Marmite is an excellent seasoning for dark soups and stews. I’ve seen recipes for Marmite pasta sauces. All that is something that I will definitely experiment with this winter. It’s too hot right now for that sort of thing.

Another forever home for another typewriter

I have written here in the past about empathy for mechanical things. The syndrome must surely be related to the feelings — should I call them moral intuitions? — that cause us to adopt homeless cats. The mechanical version is the conviction that beautiful old machines ought to have a home. They ought to be maintained. And they ought not to be abused or put down.

I now have five typewriters in working condition. Four of them are electric. I promised myself that I would stop bringing home homeless typewriters after I acquired just one more machine. That machine would be a manual typewriter. It also would need to be a full-size office machine. And it would need to be a fairly late machine that well represents the highest evolution of non-electric typewriters. I was looking for an Underwood, because I used to have an Underwood that served me well for many years. But no suitable Underwood showed up on eBay. My next choice was a Royal FP. That’s what I bought.

Based on an on-line database of typewriter serial numbers, this typewriter was made in 1961. The eBay photos showed it to be very dirty, but I couldn’t see any damage or rust. I kind of liked that it was green. Typewriters with colored panels seem to be in demand by collectors these days. When the typewriter arrived, I was horrified to see that the carriage was jammed, hard. The carriage also was out of position by about 3/8 inch. It would have taken a very heavy blow to knock the carriage off its rails. The shipping box was not damaged. My suspicion is that the eBay seller knew the machine was damaged, even though he said in the description that the machine was working.

The seller would have allowed me to return the typewriter. But my empathy for mechanical things had already kicked in. This machine was eminently restorable except for the derailed carriage. I knew that, if I returned the machine, it probably would end up being junked with no hope of ever being repaired. Removing the carriage on most typewriters is one of the last things you want to do. But after watching a couple of YouTube videos on repairing old Royals, I decided to remove the carriage and see if repair was possible. Hail Mary surgery was, I reasoned, this particular typewriter’s only hope. If I failed, I would at least learn and know that I tried.

To my surprise, after removing many screws and with only two screws left to go, the carriage popped back onto its tracks and started moving smoothly again. I stopped disassembling at that point and put everything back together. This old typewriter has a will to live. Then again, all old typewriters do.

Many people who collect typewriters these days — including lots of young people — have no early experience with typewriters that makes them sentimental about typewriters. But I got my first typewriter when I was eleven or twelve years old. My first part-time job, during high school, was as a newspaper copy boy (1966). Not only did I look after the routine needs of a roomful of beautiful (and noisy) Teletype machines, I also worked in a newsroom full of typewriters. Over the years, as I moved up the food chain in the newspaper world, I used many models of typewriters. They were mostly Royals, and some of them were Royal FP’s like this one. (Computers started taking over newsrooms in the mid-1980s.) I found that my hands still have a memory of using the controls on the Royal FP, including its “Magic Margin.” How long has it been since you held a kitten? Even if it has been many years, if you pick up a kitten your hands will remember.

And speaking of newspapers, I retired from the San Francisco Chronicle, where a famous Royal FP is still on display in the Chronicle lobby, as far as I know. The Chronicle columnist Herb Caen often referred to his “loyal Royal.” There’s a picture of Caen’s last loyal Royal in the Wikipedia article on Herb Caen.

Click here to expand

How reason propels the arc of justice

The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress. Peter Singer. Princeton University Press. Second edition, 2011; first published 1981. 208 pages.

Peter Singer, born in 1946, is one of our most progressive moral philosophers. In 1975, he published Animal Liberation. For years, he has argued for altruism, from utililitarian principles. In 2015, he published The Most Good You Can Do, which holds that we have a duty to, at the very least, donate money to help alleviate global poverty.

Singer looks largely to David Hume (1711-1776) for the roots of his utilitarian philosophy. Singer’s concern in this book is how it was that moral progress has continued since the time of Hume, as rights were extended to slaves, to women, and even, to a much lesser degree, to animals. Singer calls this the expanding circle. I would call it the arc of justice.

It is reason, Singer believes, that leads to this ever-expanding circle of rights. Applying reason to rights and justice, Singer writes, is like stepping onto an escalator. Once you take the first step, you must ride all the way to the top; there is no way on the way up to get off. There is no reason at all, Singer believes, why animals should not have the same rights as human beings. And Singer is entirely open to the idea, somewhere much higher up on the escalator, that plants have rights, as does the land, a mountain, or a river. On that subject, his sympathy is with Aldo Leopold.

Singer, in this book though, gets into a serious quarrel with the sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, who died in 2021. Singer entirely accepts Wilson’s case that our “moral intuitions” including altruism have their roots in our human evolution as social animals. But Singer believes that Wilson was entirely wrong in claiming that these moral intuitions are the last word in moral philosophy, with no moral progress possible beyond what is innate in our instincts. We are reasoning beings as well as social beings, Singer argues, and it is reason that leads us up the escalator to an ever-expanding and increasingly altruistic concept of rights and duties.

Singer makes a strong objection to Wilson’s criticism of John Rawls (A Theory of Justice, 1971). Wilson wrote that Rawls’ concept of justice (which is of course based on reason) may be “an ideal state for disembodied spirits,” but is “in no way explanatory or predictive with reference to human beings.” Singer does not discuss Rawls in this book except to defend Rawls against Wilson. But I think it would be safe to assume that Singer has no argument with Rawls. As I’ve mentioned here in the past, Rawls — having stepped onto the escalator of reason — does not attempt in A Theory of Justice to extend to animals his concept of justice as fairness. But as I read Rawls, he almost begs someone else to do that work.1

Why am I so interested in moral philosophy? I would argue that we all should be interested in moral philosophy, as a means of holding our ground and preserving our confidence in an era in which religion and politics increasingly have gone insane, actually belittling the effort toward moral progress as “woke,” using insulting terms such as “social justice warrior.” Religion and right-wingery have always worked to block moral progress. But in the present era they are increasingly open to using violence and corrupting our institutions to gain power and cruelly turn back the clock to a far more primitive time.

Singer paraphrases Leviticus 25:39-46, which I quote here from the Christian Standard translation:

“If your brother among you becomes destitute and sells himself to you, you must not force him to do slave labor. Let him stay with you as a hired worker or temporary resident; he may work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then he and his children are to be released from you, and he may return to his clan and his ancestral property. They are not to be sold as slaves, because they are my servants that I brought out of the land of Egypt. You are not to rule over them harshly but fear your God. Your male and female slaves are to be from the nations around you; you may purchase male and female slaves. You may also purchase them from the aliens residing with you, or from their families living among you – those born in your land. These may become your property. You may leave them to your sons after you to inherit as property; you can make them slaves for life. But concerning your brothers, the Israelites, you must not rule over one another harshly.”

Though that passage is more than 2,000 years old, it is shocking that, until the Enlightenment, with the church unchallenged, the arc of justice moved so slowly. It was not until 150 years ago that owning and inheriting slaves was outlawed in this country. And now the heirs of the Confederacy2 are reasserting themselves, actually claiming moral superiority for themselves and ridiculing resistance as “woke.”

What does one say to people like that? More important, what does one do to resist them? I return again and again to the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis in 1945:

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice; we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

But how?


1. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 448.

2. Heather Cox Richardson, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, 2020.

Planting pumpkins

I’ve written here previously about the nearby farm where I’m buying most of my summer vegetables this year. They sell the vegetables for $1.50 a pound (mix and match) from the shade of an old barn right beside the fields. You can see in the upper right of the photo that the corn will be ready soon. The crew (they are from Mexico, and they are very good) are planting fall crops — three varieties of pumpkins including what I call pie pumpkins, and sweet potatoes.

I first observed this planting protocol from commercial strawberry fields. The plastic, of course, keeps down the weeds and preserves moisture. A drip irrigation pipe runs under the plastic in each row. The water for these fields is pumped from a pond just below the fields, but rainfall has been good here this summer. The soil look pretty terrible, doesn’t it? But it is typical of the soils in the North Carolina piedmont and foothills — very red. The high white fence is to keep the deer out.

The mountain in the background is part of the Saura mountain chain. It’s the location of Hanging Rock State Park here in Stokes County, maximum elevation about 2,500 feet.

Young lives, ruined by Hitler

Generation War, a German production, 2013

We Americans have seen many movies about World War II, but we probably haven’t seen a movie about how the war looked from a German perspective. Generation War is hard to watch, as the misery and disillusion of the Germans escalate year after awful year. The stories of the five young people in Generation War make it clear that the lies behind the war were as cruel as the war itself, adding existential agony to the physical agony.

The series is in three parts, each about an hour and a half long. The cast is charismatic. It’s a beautiful period piece, shot in Germany, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Generation War can be streamed on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.