Skip to content

Music soothes the skittish cat

Lily listens to Herbert Blomstedt conduct Richard Strauss’ “Metamorphoses.”

The television doesn’t always terrify my cat, Lily. It depends on what’s on. Long ago I started using headphones when I watch television, to accommodate Lily. Loud blockbuster movies scare the living daylights out of her. But she likes music. Last week, after we watched the weekly Saturday live stream from the Berlin Philharmonic with the speakers on, I accidentally changed channels to — you guessed it — a loud blockbuster movie. She had been lying beside me, and she shredded me as the speakers suddenly exploded and she jumped and ran.

Even with the speakers off, she knows what gunfights and explosions look like, and she’ll run and hide. But if she sees an orchestra, then she comes and lies down, and it’s safe to turn the speakers on.

Richard Strauss’ “Metamorphoses” is very agreeable to a sleepy cat. Written in 1945, the piece is an outpouring of Strauss’ grief over the destruction of Germany. According to Wikipedia, a few days after finishing the piece Strauss wrote in his diary:

The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2,000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.”

Germany recovered, though Strauss was too old to witness that recovery. He died in 1949.

Blomstedt is 96 years old and very feeble. He was assisted on and off the stage by the concertmaster, Vineta Sareika-Völkner. The house was packed for what probably was one of the last occasions to hear Blomstedt conduct. This was the Berlin Philharmonic’s live stream on September 23, 2023.

Blomstedt conducts Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony.

David Brooks’ airport hamburger


The whole world is laughing at David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the New York Times who sees himself as a great moral oracle and moral leader. Brooks posted a picture on X (formerly known as Twitter) of the hamburger he had bought at the Newark Airport. His tweet said: “This meal just cost me $78 at Newark Airport. This is why Americans think the economy is terrible.”

He was instantly busted by people on Twitter, who pointed out that the hamburger and fries had cost $18, and that the remaining $55 was the bar tab — whisky, apparently.

Brooks, like his conservative colleague Ross Douthat, also a conservative columnist at the New York Times, is actually pretty lucid and reasonable much of the time. But it’s important to keep in mind that the New York Times has some very hard-ass copy editors, and Brooks’ and Douthat’s columns have to get through those copy editors before they get into print.

Maybe it’s a cheap shot on my part, but I’m going to take this opportunity to interpret the hamburger tweet as evidence for my argument that all conservative discourse is derp, because there’s always something not quite right, both morally and cognitively, inside a conservative mind. I’ve written on that subject here, here, and here.

Had Brooks had too many glasses of Scotch? Maybe. But that’s no excuse. A normal mind, even on the fourth whisky, would look at the $78 tab and think, “Dang. I just spent $17.78 on a hamburger and $55 on Scotch.” But not Brooks. He’s a great moral oracle and moral leader, after all, so he moralizes, spins, and lies, without any real reflection, all in one short tweet. He trusts his conservative gut. It’s a given to him that non-conservatives are always the ones who are mistaken. He can’t even be fair and rational about evaluating what is literally right under his nose. He baits us — trolls us, even — with the deception.

Show me a conservative, any conservative, and I’ll show you someone with some wires crossed inside their head.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Name of the Rose


While scouring for watchables, I recently came across the 1986 film version of The Name of the Rose, on Netflix. It’s truly a classic film and always worth watching again. Back in the 1990s, I read Umberto Eco’s novel on which the film is based. The novel, too, is worth reading again, now that I think about it.

It left me thinking about Umberto Eco and how scholars can be extraordinarily good novelists, even when their academic field is very narrow. Eco’s thesis for his degree in philosophy was on the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas. Horrors! As an unrepentant heathen, it is hard for me to imagine a mind uglier than that of Thomas Aquinas (except maybe Augustine of Hippo). But Umberto Eco’s mind was a mind ahead of its time. (Consider, for example, his 1995 essay on fascism.)

I don’t recall that Eco’s novel was as rich in dark humor as the 1986 film with Sean Connery and Christian Slater. There are only three people in the film whom we can easily bear to look at — Connery, Slater, and the peasant girl. Otherwise the film is hilariously cast as a pageant of ghastly old men — all monks. And, as with Thomas Aquinas, the monks’ minds are as ugly as their appearances. The abbot’s hairstyle, for example, is like that of Thomas Acquinas in a portrait by Benozzo Gozzoli.

Whatever Eco thought of the church, The Name of the Rose is a story about the ridiculousness of theologies. The church itself is the main villain. The year is 1327, and part of the plot is that theologians from Rome are arriving at the isolated abbey to settle, by debate, a burning theological question: Did Christ own, or did he not own, the clothes he wore? The structure of Eco’s story is entirely classic. The wicked get punished, the good prevail. The peasants not only save the peasant girl from being burned at the stake by the inquisition, they also give the grand inquisitor a horrible and much-deserved death. Much of the dark humor is Christian Slater’s constant terror, not only that he’ll be the next to be murdered, but also the terror of being surrounded by ugly minds — a terror not unknown to sane and decent Americans during the Trump era. In fact, this film would be a good starting point for a serious essay on what I call ugliness of mind.

There was a new film version of The Name of the Rose in 2019 which was, at least for a while, available on Sundance TV. But, as far as I can tell, that 2019 version is not available for streaming in the U.S., nor are DVD versions available that will play on American DVD devices. I hope that will change. I’d really like to see the 2019 version.


Brown = umami = Maillard reaction

It would be easy to believe that the secret of cooking Chinese at home is as simple as using too much salt. That’s not it, though Chinese dishes certainly like salt. The real secret is the brownness. That’s where the umami flavor comes from. When foods are browned during cooking, that’s the Maillard reaction. Whether we’re talking about toast, grilled meat, roasted peanuts or even toasted marshmallows, every good cook must take advantage of the Maillard reaction.

Here’s an experiment. For years, I couldn’t figure out how to get fried rice to be brown. Just pouring some soy sauce into the pan did not seem to be the answer — though those umami-rich sauces are necessary as a finishing touch. I suppose that even rice, if it was in a skillet or a wok for long enough, would start to turn brown. But it’s much easier than that.

Brown your onions. Even after the onions come out of the pan, they’ll leave some of the brown behind in the pan. Your other stir-fry vegetables, as long as you don’t let them become watery, will add to the brown in your pan. If you’re brave enough not to be afraid of a little monosodium glutamate near the end of the stir-fry of your vegetables, it will triple the amount of brown (as well as the amount of umani). Remove the vegetables from the skillet or wok, then add the rice. The rice, as you toss it, will lift the brown off the bottom of the skillet. Not only is the rice now brown, it’s glazed with umami. If you can avoid it, never waste umami by leaving it in the bottom of a pan!

This deglazing is the same thing that cooks do when making gravy in a pan that was used to cook meat. Pour off the grease, and make the gravy in the roasting pan such that the brownness is recovered from the bottom of the pan. That brownness is a cook’s gold.

Orchestras hate it, too

Jörg Widmann thrashes to try to help the orchestra detect a beat.

Why would anyone pay up to $90 a seat to listen to someone beat on the back, the sides, and the neck of a violin, tunelessly sawing and scraping the poor thing when not beating it?

Lots of people won’t, which is why there were so many empty seats in the house for yesterday’s concert by the Berlin Philharmonic. (The concerts are live-streamed to online subscribers in the hinterlands such as me.) Those who did buy tickets at least knew that, if they could survive a violin concerto (plus some silly but virtuoso solo noodlings on the clarinet) newly composed by Jörg Widmann, then after intermission and a few drinks they’d be compensated with a Mendelssohn symphony.

The truth is, orchestras hate new music as much as audiences do. Some years ago, an old friend of mine was in the San Francisco Symphony (he’s now in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), and he used to complain mightily about having to play new music. Orchestras have to play it, though, for political reasons. Else orchestras would be accused of playing only “museum music” and failing to support living composers.

It may be apocryphal, because I read it years ago and can’t verify the story anywhere on line today. But I believe the story was about the American composer Aaron Copland, who was in the audience for some new music — maybe Arnold Schönberg or something. Copland noticed that the man sitting next to him was fidgeting and squirming. At intermission, Copland said to the man something like, “What’s the matter? You don’t like it? Sit up and take it like a man!”

Copland, bless him, wrote quite listenable music, not least because he unapologetically borrowed from the late Romanticists rather than resorting to mere noise to rebel against them.

By the way, the soloist for Widmann’s violin concerto was his wife. And Widmann himself conducted. No further comment.

I believe the Berlin Philharmonic has a very successful business model, so no doubt they’re well aware of what sells tickets and what doesn’t. Looking over their schedule for the 2023-2024 season, it seems to me that they clear the decks of the new music early in the season (September). And then, come October, November, and December, when the people of Berlin are much more in a concertgoing mood, the programs change — Mozart piano concertos! Mahler symphonies! Mozart’s 40th! Brahms’ 4th! Beethoven’s 4th! A Beethoven piano concerto! Wagner overtures!

If there are valid political reasons why orchestras have to play new music, fine. But nobody should have to pretend to like it — except maybe the composer’s wife, if even she does.

Carolin Widmann

A new edition of Tolkien’s letters

A new edition of Tolkien’s letters (from William Morrow in the U.S. and HarperCollins in the U.K.) will be released in the U.S. on November 14, and in the U.K. on November 9. The new edition, in hardback, contains 150 new letters since the previous edition of Tolkien’s letters in 1981, bringing the total number of letters to 500.

The book can be pre-ordered from Amazon.

Look at that tweed jacket! And I’m still waiting for the Tolkien Society to do something about my suggestion of an article on Tolkien’s typewriters.

Two short drone videos

I’m a long way from making any thrilling drone videos shot in exotic places. For one, I’m a drone newbie. And for two, I’m still so pinned down by the late-summer heat that it’s miserable to venture outdoors except in the mornings.

One socially useful thing to do with a drone is to take videos of local points of interest (for YouTube), and photos of local points of interest (for Wikimedia Commons). Many people, I’m guessing, don’t know what a tobacco field looks like. As for the Belews Creek Steam station, it’s impressive from the air, but its environmental record is not so impressive.

My drone is a DJI Mini 3. The video is shot at 4K resolution. As for the background music, there are free “loops” available all over the web.

Not a book for the squeamish

Goodbye, Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land. Jacob Mikanowski. Pantheon, July 2023. 378 pages.

If some perverse god created the earth, then it’s almost as though that perverse god reserved Eastern Europe as a place dedicated to the relentless refinement of human misery. The book describes how life there has never been fair, not any time in recorded history, and not in the present, either.

First I should mention why the title includes the word “Goodbye.” This is explained early in the book and in the jacket copy. No one wants to be from Eastern Europe anymore. The people there would prefer other identities: “Ask anyone today, and they might tell you that Estonia is in the Baltics or Scandinavia, that Slovakia is in Central Europe, and that Croatia is in the eastern Adriatic or the Balkans. In fact, Eastern Europe is a place that barely exists at all, except in cultural memory.”

We know even less about the pre-Roman history of Eastern Europe than we do about Western Europe. But we do know that when the Roman religion made its way into Eastern Europe, it was just as brutally violent, including genocides, as it was in the west. Not only did the brutality come from Rome, though. The arrival of religion in Eastern Europe was a triple whammy — the western church out of Rome, the eastern church out of Constantinople, and Islam out of whatever hell it came from, each as horrible as the other. After the Christians came, Eastern Europe was used as a source of slaves, who were sent overland in chains to slave markets in the Mediterranean. At times, Jews were welcomed in some places and were temporarily safe, but for the Jews safety was always temporary. The Roma (the gypsies) rarely had it easy either. Though the agricultural potentials of Eastern Europe were and are enormous, famine and starvation were all too often a way of life, as was war. I think it is fair to say that states and cultures were almost always poorly rooted and precarious, because there was rarely the kind of stability that could be found in Germany, Britain, or Scandinavia. The five maps at the front of the book show how national boundaries have changed since 1648. Every change came with turmoil.

During World War II, westerners learned a great deal more about what life in Eastern Europe was like, starting with Czechoslovakia and Poland. But everyone suffered, from Bulgaria in the south to Lithuania in the north. And then there’s Russia. The west looked away from Eastern Europe after World War II ended, but the human suffering wasn’t over, especially for surviving Jews who wanted to return home from hiding (often in the forests) but found that their homes and properties now had new owners who refused to give it back. Jews continued to die.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has made Eastern Europe visible again to western eyes, but reporting on the war is shallow. Westerners still know very little about what life is like for the people of Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, Belarus, Lithuania, and even Poland. Part of the story is about corruption and what corruption does to those who are exploited by it. My guess would be that the young people of Eastern Europe, as long as they are not deceived by the propaganda pumped out by corrupt states, know vastly more now than was formerly possible, because of the Internet. I can’t help but wonder how long they will put up with it. However the war on Ukraine ends, my guess is that after that war we will see more mass uprisings in Eastern Europe demanding democracy, as we have seen in Belarus after the stolen election there in 2020. Georgia also is a hot spot. As for us Americans, perhaps our interest in Eastern Europe would be greater if we were able to recognize that what the corrupt anti-democratic right wants for Eastern Europe is exactly what they want for us here.

This book, in spite of the light it sheds on that part of the world, really only serves to remind me how little I know.

From the book. Click here for high-resolution version.

Some recent eats

Egg foo yung with stir-fried sweet-potato leaves

I buy good eggs from pastured chickens and then forget that I have eggs. I think it’s because I’m so content on a plants-only diet, until I start to worry that I might not be getting enough B-12. Then I remember how good egg foo yung can be.

You don’t need Chinese vegetables such as bean sprouts. Plain old cabbage (with a bit of onion) works great. The key to good egg foo yung is umami, and that means brown. The umami is partly in the sauce, with some Better Than Bouillon and soy sauce. But the cabbage and onion also need to be browned. I’ve written here in the past about how I think monosodium glutamate is not harmful in small quantities. It’s made from yeast. Study after study has tried to prove MSG guilty of something, anything, and have mostly come up short. After all, our own bodies make glutamic acid, and it’s found naturally in many foods such as tomatoes and cheese. Like salt, it’s something that should be used sparingly. But its ability to add umani is a kind of miracle. When MSG comes into contact with hot oil, it immediately turns a beautiful brown, revealing what it truly is — pure brown umami (though it’s as white as salt) stabilized with a sodium molecule. Oil and heat transform it back into something brown.

Monday morning, because the day was cloudy and somewhat cooler, I made my periodic trip to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s in Winston-Salem. I feel pinned down by the weather of July and August, and I don’t get out much. As a kind of mini-vacation, I went to Reynolda Village, where there is a Village Tavern. Reynolda Village is adjacent to the campus of Wake Forest University. The place was built in 1916 as a mansion and working dairy farm for the R.J. Reynolds family (think tobacco, and Winston and Salem cigarettes). But since 1965 it has belonged to Wake Forest University. The house is a museum. The grounds and gardens are a park. All the many outbuildings, all of which have a lot of charm, have been turned into little eateries and boutiques. At 11 a.m., Village Tavern had just opened for lunch. The large patio was empty, with big yellow umbrellas and twinkle lights, overhung by enormous oak trees. The waitress assigned to the patio had no one to accommodate but me. How could I resist a nicely cooked lunch, since I rarely eat out?

Incidentally, what is the appeal of fast food other than that it’s (somewhat) fast? It’s not even cheap. A few months ago, I went to a Chick-fil-A for the first time because I was curious about their cauliflower sandwich (a temporary offering; they no longer have it). As I recall, that sandwich cost more than $11. And yet the grilled salmon plate with healthy fixin’s at Village Tavern didn’t cost that much more — $18 — and in a far more pleasant setting. I might eat out more often but for the fact that Winston-Salem, about 45 minutes away on winding roads, is the nearest place with civilized eateries and trained cooks. Here in the sticks, it’s all country cookin’ with shockingly sorry ingredients, cooked by cooks who couldn’t cook their way out of a ham biscuit.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I esteem country cookin’. One of my grandmothers was a master chef of provincial Southern cookin’, by any standard (and she had a big farm to supply her). But these days few people know how to do it or have even tasted anything that meets the standard. And rural restaurant food is always inferior because of the necessity of sorry ingredients, stingily deployed by untrained low-wage cooks, to keep prices low. Southern provincial cookin’ is like a dying language that a few native speakers are trying to keep alive.

I started out talking about egg foo yung, didn’t I? But of course there are many methods that all good cookin’ has in common.

Grilled salmon at the Village Tavern, Reynolda Village in Winston-Salem

Now let’s stop being afraid of them

A malignant narcissist’s last resort: If you won’t adore me, at least be afraid of me.

Politically, they are doomed. The very devil would have to intervene with some sort of devil-miracle to prevent a wipeout of Republicans in the 2024 elections. Not only are Trump and his operatives politically doomed, their lives are over. Some of them are old enough to die in prison.

These criminals actually occupied the White House. That’s how close we came to fascism. They were off to a good start, but four years was not enough for them to turn us into Russia. That, of course, was their intention. Elections would no longer matter. With a bit more work, the lower courts wouldn’t be able to touch them. The Supreme Court would protect them. Then they’d divvy up the economy, and it would be full steam ahead in the process of looting America, the same way Putin and his friends looted Russia. They’d all fly around in private jets (including Supreme Court justices). They’d all buy fancy properties (as the Russians have done, and including Supreme Court justices) in all the places where the global oligarchy go to live it up on the loot they’ve extracted by turning their home countries into corrupt shit-hole countries.

The leaders of this conspiracy to turn the United States into Russia are finished. But the big problem now is that we are left with the fools who not only supported them but who continue to support them. That’s no more than 30 percent of the voting population. At the national level, there are not enough of them to be dangerous — at least, not unless one of the many wannabes succeeds in becoming the new Trump and some stupid “independents” fall for it, as they did for Trump. Right-wing Republicans can continue to do damage only in the red states where they are in power. It’s going to take years, unfortunately, for them to die off. Most young people detest them, which is a major driver of right-wing panic and their attempts to lock themselves into power, legally if possible and illegally if they think they can get away with it. They are terrified of the future, because there is no place for them there.

What amazes me is that the hometown deplorables thought they had something to gain from the corruption and criminalization of the American government. The deplorables seem to actually believe that criminals like the people in these mug shots somehow care about them. Or maybe it’s that the deplorables are so motivated by such pure spite that they’d be OK with even greater marginalization, and ever-smaller pieces of the pie, as long as the people they’ve been taught to hate are kicked around even worse than they are themselves.

Though the fascist dream of a fascist America has been crushed for now, their propagandists are still active. The dreams of the propagandists seem to have been reduced to violence. With elections now beyond them, violence is their only hope. Sarah Palin said yesterday that a civil war is going to happen if the prosecution of Trump continues. Dream on, Sarah Palin. Tucker Carlson wanted to ask Trump about civil war. That’s a pretty dream if you’re a fascist, but the truth is that the troops are no longer available for the civil war they dream of. I’m reminded of the Vietnam era, when the peaceniks often said, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” Today it’s, “What if the fascists gave a civil war and nobody came?” The cream of the fascist crop went to the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and they got neutralized by justice. The deplorables now know that they’ve lost, though they’re still in the rage and denial stage.

The courts are dealing with the criminals. But it’s up to us to deal with the hordes of hometown deplorables and their rage. They’re all around us. But there’s nothing they can do now with their rage, other than go after school boards and harass their scapegoats. Some true believers with lots of guns will, as usual, go on shooting expeditions that they won’t survive.

As recently as August 2, David Brooks wrote a piece in the New York Times with the headline “What if we’re the bad guys here?” He’s reviving yet again the terrible idea that it’s Democrats and other decent human beings who are somehow responsible for Trumpism, rather than the deplorables. Even if life for the deplorables isn’t fair (it isn’t), that’s no excuse for fascism. The deplorables might benefit from studying the history of African-Americans (rather than erasing them from the history taught in schools), whose lot was — and is — far worse than the deplorables, but who chose good leaders and a rational path to progress. I just saw a new and very true meme on Facebook — that those who deny history fully intend to repeat it.

I very much believe that there is something cognitively and morally broken — deranged — in those who still see Trump as a hero. They are just not decent human beings, and they are not fit for decent human company. Yet there they are, and we have to deal with them. That’s why civility is more important than ever. We’re surrounded by them. If they’re civil to us, then we can be civil to them. (Start preparing yourself now for the next Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings.) Most of them will never change, and it’s going to take years for them to die off. Economic justice — better lives for working people rather than more billionaires, the very thing that Republicans most oppose — is a major part of the longterm solution. Educating their children is one of the biggest challenges, because the deplorables (and their leaders and propagandists) don’t want children educated. They want children to be deplorable.

We’ve avoided disaster. Now we just need more time for the arc of the moral universe to continue its course toward justice — until, someday, as their numbers dwindle, as their children catch on, and as their churches serve the devil and go bankrupt, we leave these ugly souls behind forever.


It’s not just me. Anyone with a moral IQ above 98.6 can see it.

Trump has ‘moral compass of an ax murderer,’ says Georgia Republican.