Skip to content

It’s inevitable

The March cover story of The Atlantic probably marks a turning point in the long process of bringing Donald Trump to justice. The Atlantic is a centrist publication that often speaks for Washington’s centrist think-tank establishment. This article makes it official: the centrist Washington establishment is done with Trump. They now understand what he has done.

Here’s a link to the article, which is magisterial: Impeach Donald Trump.

February 7 probably is the day when most Americans, who are very busy and distracted, will begin to pay attention. That’s the day Michael Cohen (Trump’s “fixer” and former attorney) starts his testimony to the House Oversight Committee. On February 8, Matthew Whitaker (Trump’s acting attorney general) will testify before the House Judiciary Committee.

My view, based of course only on dot-connecting and following bread crumbs, is that Washington already knows what has to happen — that Trump must leave office. It took time to collect the evidence and to build the legal case. It appears that Robert Mueller is almost done with that. The next step, then, is to inform the American people and to prepare the American people for what is going to happen. That preparation process is now beginning. It seems highly likely that yesterday’s reports that Trump instructed Cohen to lie under oath to Congress about the Moscow Trump Tower project (that alone would be grounds for impeachment) is a part of the preparation process. What the American people are going to learn from Cohen’s testimony on February 7 is going to be shocking. As Yoni Appelbaum points out in the Atlantic article, once Trump’s crimes start being described in day after day of public testimony in Congress, Trump (and Fox News) will have no chance of controlling the narrative. Instead, the narrative will be about the FBI’s evidence and congressional testimony under oath.


Recently someone gave me a 10-year-old (or so) laptop that had been written off as dead. It was sold with Windows Vista, and it would no longer boot. I installed Ubuntu Linux on it and found that it works great. Bottom line: Free laptop.

I’m a Mac loyalist and a conscientious objector to anything from Microsoft (though I believe that Microsoft products have gotten much better now that they’ve lost their monopoly and competition has forced them to improve their software). I’ve been a Unix user since about 1985, and I first used Linux in the early 1990s. Linux has come a long way.

A laptop is not something that I particularly need. But, on those relatively rare occasions when I travel, a laptop is nice to have. Laptops of this vintage can be bought on eBay for as little as $40 if you catch a bargain. In choosing an older laptop to run Linux, you want one new enough to have a dual-core 64-bit processor and 4 GB of memory. An older laptop may be heavy, but they’re cheap. Older batteries can be a problem, but the battery in my newly acquired laptop will run for about an hour. Most of the time, though, even when traveling, you can find a place to plug the laptop into the wall. You’ll want a laptop with built-in WIFI.

Learning to use Linux may be a tad more difficult than learning to use a Mac or a Windows machine. But Linux has gotten much easier to use, with a pretty graphical interface. Probably the biggest challenge that most people would face in bringing up an older laptop on Linux is installing Linux. That’s not something that I want to get into here in detail, because you’ll find many tutorials if you Google for it. But the simplest route is to download a Linux installer on another computer and then copy the installer to a USB thumb drive that is configured to be bootable. You boot the laptop off the USB thumb drive and run the Linux installer. Once you’ve installed Linux, the sailing is much easier.

I am using Ubuntu Linux 18.04, which is the newest version of Ubuntu Linux at present. Ubuntu Linux comes with LibreOffice already installed. LibreOffice is an open-source suite of office software that is, as far as I know, pretty much 100 percent compatible with Microsoft Office. It’s as easy to use as Microsoft Office. It will open all your existing Microsoft Office files. And if you use LibreOffice for word processing, you can send your files to users of Microsoft Office and they’ll be able to open the files just fine.

Ubuntu Linux also comes with the FireFox web browser installed, and Thunderbird for email. If you need software that is not pre-installed, there is a long list of open-source applications that Ubuntu will download and install for you.

Weather emergencies

Ice storm on the ridge

During the weekend, an ice storm turned out to be considerably worse than was forecast. Around sunrise on Sunday morning, the lights starting dimming, then flickered, then went out. Power failures are common here, but somehow I knew that this one would last longer than usual.

In bucking myself up to make the best of it, I decided that I should see it as a trial run for larger emergencies, as a test of how well prepared I am for a relatively brief weather emergency.

Staying warm at these latitudes might be a real challenge during unusually cold weather, such as a “polar vortex.” But when the temperature is around 30F, the outdoor temperature is not a serious threat. I have a propane fireplace for backup heat. I also have a lot of warm clothing. Staying warm: No big deal, even for the cat.

Water: Also not a big deal. I have drinking water as well as flushing water stashed away. I did decide that I should do a better job of supplying washing-up water near the kitchen sink.

Cooking: Also not a big deal. I have propane-fueled camping cookers for that. I don’t like having those things indoors, so a table under the roofed part of the deck becomes the cooking area. It would be nice to have some sort of oven during a long outage, so that needs some thought.

Hot water: In small amounts, heating water in a kettle over a propane cooker is not a big deal. But what if an outage lasted for days, and one needed enough hot water for laundry or baths? That’s a bigger issue. Probably the most practical solution would be to drop back 100 years and heat water outdoors, with a tripod and cauldron over a wood fire. That needs thought.

Food: Food is not a problem. I have emergency food tucked away if I should need it. And when bad weather is forecast, I stock up on groceries.

Refrigeration: I didn’t open the freezer. When the power came back after 14 hours, the temperature inside the freezer was 17 degrees rather than the usual zero — not a problem. For a longer outage, I’d have to sacrifice whatever is in the freezer.

Emergency power: I don’t have, and I don’t really want, a generator. They’re noisy and aggravating and require fuel. However, when the power is out, you can’t have too much battery power.

Lighting: I’ve got candles and kerosene lanterns. But the most convenient, and the safest, form of lighting is to use battery power. I have lots of flashlights, but a headlamp of the type used by campers is by far the most convenient.

Battery power: The challenge with batteries is to keep them charged, both before you need them and after you start using them. You need to stash a lot of batteries of all sizes. But what about rechargeable devices such as smart phones, which want to be charged with a USB connection? For that I have one of the heavy battery-powered devices that is used to jump-start cars with dead batteries. These things usually have 110-volt inverter connections and USB outlets. Its internal lead-acid battery has enough capacity to keep a cell phone charged for many days. Don’t expect to get much 110-volt power out of it, though. Its internal battery is not that big.

Solar power: If a power failure lasts for days, lots of batteries are going to need charging. For that I have a 50-watt solar panel that I have never used. I just keep it stashed until I need it. The controller that goes with the solar panel can charge 12-volt batteries, 24-volt batteries, or USB devices. One needs at least one deep-discharge marine-type battery. A small solar-powered system sufficient to keep your flashlight batteries, phone, and a radio charged can be put together for around $200.

Communications: This, I found, is the biggie. You need a plan for keeping your smart phone charged, though of course a land-line telephone is a good thing if you still have a land line. The most serious challenge I faced during a relatively short outage was getting local news from the outside world. You’ll want to know how bad things are out there. Depending on how close you are to civilization and news organizations, a nearby radio station may or may not be helpful. The only helpful solution in my location is a scanner for monitoring emergency communications.

Local emergency communications: During the past few years, most cities and counties have abandoned their older analog radio systems and have switched to digital “trunk tracking” communications. Trunk-tracking scanners are expensive and complicated. An alternative, as long as your smart phone is charged, are smart phone apps such as “Scanner” for iPhone. Such apps should be able to monitor local emergency communications based on your location, using your cellular data. This may not be 100 percent reliable, because someone in your county, as a public service, has to make these audio feeds available. But this worked for me last weekend. The alternative is to spend $300 to $400 on a scanner and to run it on battery power.

So, how was it out there?: It was a mess! The sheriff’s department and fire departments were kept busy by power lines that had fallen on or near roadways. Some of the downed power lines caused fires. There also were a great many trees fallen across roads. Ambulances were called for a good many heart attacks, plus what sounded like a drug overdose. Several times, sheriff’s deputies asked the dispatcher when service trucks from the power company were expected to arrive. That made it clear that the power company’s priority was responding to emergency requests from the sheriff’s department rather than outage complaints from homeowners. I was surprised, really, that I got power back after only 14 hours.

Reading material: I have a Kindle. But there’s nothing like an old-fashioned book, read by the fire.

With the exception of a solar-powered charging system or a scanner for emergency communications, none of these preparations are expensive. We should all have, at a minimum, a three-day emergency plan. Longer would be better.

Scanner app for iPhone

Breakfast oats out on the deck, boiling over

Where the squirrels live

Shot with a 200mm lens from an upstairs window. Click here for high-resolution version.

From my upstairs office window, during the winter, I can see deep into the woods, up to the top of the next ridge, and down to the little rocky stream below the house. I also can watch the squirrels going about their business in the trees. I have a pretty good view of two squirrel nests, though binoculars would be needed for proper squirrel-watching.

Of all the creatures in the woods, squirrels have the best — and I suspect the safest — homes. They have to worry about hawks and owls from above, and foxes and coyotes from below, but my guess is that squirrels are caught less often than animals such as rabbits that can’t climb trees.

For many animals in these latitudes (including squirrels, I suspect), the best habitat is to be found where forest comes up against meadow. In a forest, the canopy catches most of the sun. But in a meadow, the sun reaches the ground, and all the growth is different. At the borders of woods and meadows, wildlife gets the benefits of both worlds.

As much as I hate seeing woods cut down for timber, I have to admit, having watched such areas begin to recover, that after the shock of the loss of woodland habitat, many species benefit as low-growing plants take over. Deer and rabbits love it. It’s also how humans managed to subsist when they first started living in the Appalachian forests. They would cut, or burn, a hole in the forest. For subsistence, they required both kinds of terrain — woodland and farmable meadow. When a natural event such as a fire clears an opening inside a healthy forest, that opening becomes a kind of oasis. Even if one big tree falls, and sunlight suddenly reaches the ground, all sorts of growing things take advantage of the opportunities.

I like reflecting on this, because I think it shows that rural living is sustainable — farmland alternating with woods. A recent Gallup poll found that most Americans would prefer rural living to a city, a suburb, or a small town. Rural living, I believe, is a privilege, because it’s not an option available to most people, given the kind of economy we have today.

In the photo below, one of my squirrel neighbors is working the yard for food. I’m not sure what. Skunks, raccoons, moles, and birds mine the yard for grubs, especially during the winter. But as far as I know, squirrels don’t eat grubs.

Speaking of moles, most people regard them as pests. I find them to be very beneficial. In mining for grubs, they do a beautiful job of aerating the soil. Grass flourishes in areas that the moles have cultivated.

Barley biscuits and barley gravy

Barley biscuits

One of my kitchen projects at present is figuring out whether it would be possible to entirely replace wheat carbs with barley carbs without hating what we eat. We all know that wheat carbs, though addictively delicious, are not the healthiest carbs in the world. Whereas barley carbs have lots of health benefits. I will probably conclude that replacing wheat carbs with barley carbs would not greatly diminish the tastiness of our baking.

When baking with barley flour, the main challenges are yeast (or sourdough) breads, and biscuits. Heavier things such as muffins or banana bread would be dead easy. Pie crusts I haven’t yet tried.

Barley flour has much less gluten than wheat flour, and therein is the challenge. I cannot make good barley biscuits without using about one-fifth wheat gluten. Yeast breads require a higher proportion of gluten — one-fourth or a little more. When making yeast breads, you want a dough that feels as springy as wheat dough when you knead it. That requires gluten.

I’ve written about this before, but I am not a soldier in the anti-gluten wars. My system loves wheat gluten. It’s the wheat carbs that make us gain weight. Wheat gluten is 75 percent protein. Adding wheat gluten to barley flour improves the carb-to-protein ratio of the bread, in addition to greatly improving the quality of the carbs.

For biscuits, with four parts barley flour to one part gluten, most biscuits recipes probably would work with little modification. For yeast breads, three parts barley flour to one part gluten should work. But I would recommend these barley-bread experiments only to cooks who have the experience to know how a proper dough should feel and can adjust things as necessary.

You can buy barley flour at most grocery stores in one-pound bags. I prefer to grind my own, using organic hulled barley, bought in bulk at Whole Foods. Store-bought barley flour has a slightly lighter color than my home-ground flour, so I wonder if the store-bought flour is more refined than I would like.

Barley flour, as a thickener for gravy, seems to thicken a gravy pretty the same as whole wheat flour would. The gravy will have a slightly grainy texture, but it’s delicious. Because it’s the starch in flour that thickens a sauce, you don’t want to add gluten to the flour that you use for making gravy.

I would rate barley gravy at 3 stars out of 5. I’d rate barley biscuits at 4 stars out of 5. Barley biscuits are vastly better than whole-wheat biscuits, something I gave up on trying to make a long time ago. Barley biscuits have a nice, nutty flavor that tastes great with a little honey and butter.

I’ll post in the future on yeast breads made with barley flour. I’m even going to try a pie crust.

Barley biscuits and barley gravy. The only fat that I ever use for making gravy is olive oil.

Organic hulled barley, bought in bulk at Whole Foods

My flour-grinding apparatus

Flour from whole-grain hulled barley, nice and fresh

Yes, cats understand television

Lily often snuggles up beside me while I’m watching a movie on the television. She rarely pays attention to what’s on, though. She hates loud soundtracks. The only two things I’ve watched in the past few months that held her attention were “Watership Down” and “Kedi,” on the cats of Istanbul. “Kedi” is a documentary, and, if you’re a cat lover, you’ll want to watch it. With your cat.

Rethinking the unthinkable

Those of you who recognize the quote in the image above will guess the subject of this post: thermonuclear war. The quote is from the 1983 classic film “War Games” starring Matthew Broderick.

First of all, I’m not the only person with a renewed concern about nuclear weapons. It seems to be in the zeitgeist recently. For example:

• Two days ago, on Christmas day, Russia tested a new bomb-delivery missile that flies at 20 times the speed of sound. Putin gloated. The Russian people were thrilled. Here is a link to the Washington Post story, Russia is poised to add a new hypersonic nuclear warhead to its arsenal.

• The day after Russia’s missile test, Vox published a fairly detailed overview of the current state of the world’s nuclear weapons, including some quotes from experts about the global level of danger as it stands today. The article also includes some scary information on just how deadly the detonation of even one nuclear weapon would be. Here is a link to the article, This is exactly how a nuclear war would kill you.

• Earlier this year, the United States released a report with the title Nuclear Posture Review 2018. The report was signed by Jim Mattis, the former Marine Corps general who recently resigned as Secretary of Defense because of his disgust with the Trump administration. The report is a slick piece of public relations. You have to read it carefully to catch the main point. That main point is that, under Trump, the United States has lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. Here is a link to the report.

• The Vox story includes an anecdote from a Georgetown University professor who, for many years, has taught a course on nuclear weapons and world politics. As part of the course, he always asks students whether they think nuclear weapons will be used in their lifetime. In years past, no more than one student would raise their hand. But for the past two years, 60 percent have raised their hands. The professor agrees with them.

In this context, please take a moment to ponder the insanity of an American politics that construes the most urgent threat to the nation’s security to be the U.S. border with Mexico, a politics so depraved that it’s willing to shut down the U.S. government to get billions of dollars for a border wall. Yes, the Pentagon is spending lots of money to catch up with Russia on hypersonic missiles. But to the Trump administration, diplomacy is a dirty word, as Trump repeatedly insults our allies and sucks up to corrupt and belligerent strongmen. Trump boasts that his nuclear button is bigger than North Korea’s nuclear button. The world’s nuclear arsenal is now largely under the control of madmen.

I grew up during the Cold War. Most people concluded that elaborate shelters were not affordable or justifiable. The government at the time actually recommended the building of fallout shelters and made plans available. But, as my father used to say, what would you do when the neighbors show up and want in? Shoot them?

But I think that there probably is a sweet spot on the affordability scale. There are inexpensive things that one can do in advance that greatly improve one’s options in a sudden emergency. These include the storage of a certain amount of food and water for all types of emergencies, including weather emergencies or earthquakes. Where might that sweet spot be for thermonuclear war?

As far as I can tell, the standard handbook is still Nuclear War Survival Skills. It was originally published in 1979 by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It was revised in 1986. The revised edition is available, in print, from Amazon. A PDF version is downloadable, free, from many places on the Internet. You can find it by Googling for the title.

Chapter 16 of Nuclear War Survival Skills is only two pages long. It’s a summary of “minimum pre-crisis preparations.” Most of those preparations are inexpensive, and all are based on common sense. For example, you may not make the effort to turn your basement into a fallout shelter. But why not have a plan, and why not stash some items such as tools and tarps. Did you know that stacks of books can be used for radiation shielding?

One potentially costly item that must be stashed in advance is a radiation detector. I have an old Civil Defense Geiger counter. It was made in 1963. It still works great. I bought it on eBay. Dosimeters also would be highly desirable, to track the total cumulative exposure to powerful radiation such as gamma rays. A cheap dosimeter card is available on Amazon. I can’t vouch for its quality, but I believe that the science of it is sound. I don’t want to get into the science of why iodine absorption is a problem with nuclear fallout, but having potassium iodide on hand is a good idea. It’s inexpensive and is available on Amazon.

Preparations aside, survivability would greatly depend upon one’s knowledge. Some of the needed knowledge is easy to acquire. Some of that knowledge is probably not available. For example:

• What should you do if you see extremely bright lights in the sky and suddenly the power goes out? Nuclear War Survival Skills contains these instructions: Don’t look at the light. As quickly as possible, get behind the strongest shield possible between yourself and the light. Stay there for at least two minutes. If no shock wave or explosion sounds reach you in two minutes, then you are more than 25 miles from the detonation. Congratulations. You probably will not be harmed by the effects of the blast itself. You can now come out of hiding and deal with the problem of surviving the nuclear fallout. How to survive nuclear fallout in an improvised shelter is a complicated matter, and that’s why you might want to have a printed copy of Nuclear War Survival Skills on your bookshelf. You also will want to know as much as possible about prevailing winds in your area and the location of nuclear power plants or other military targets, especially if they are upwind of you. This information is easy to acquire now. But after the power goes out, suddenly many things become much more difficult.

• Even with the 1986 revisions, the information about military targets and the capabilities of nuclear weapons is hopelessly out of date. There may be places on the Internet where one might find much of this information, with some diligent research. But all I’ve been able to find is low-quality stuff from people such as right-wing preppers, people with high levels of paranoia and low levels of knowledge. In addition to the lack of references, I’d imagine that much information is a matter of military secrecy. Should we continue to assume, as we did in 1986, that any runway long enough to land a B-52 bomber is a target? I have no idea. Are nuclear power plants still a target? I have no idea. Are major cities still a target? I have no idea. Still, those are all things that I would not want to be downwind of. The amount of fallout from a nuclear detonation greatly depends on the size of the warhead and how far above the ground it detonated. A flash of light will tell us little to nothing about those factors. We just don’t — and probably can’t — know enough to fully assess the risks, either before or after we see a flash. Would radio broadcasts provide information after a flash? Though a battery-powered radio is an essential item, my guess is that any stations that are still able to broadcast are likely to be far away, out of range of most receivers and antennas and with no information on local conditions.

Readers in Europe: Your risk calculus will be a little different that risk calculus in the U.S., but the risk to Europeans is as great, or greater, than in the U.S.

I’m not arguing here that we ought to worry ourselves to death. The Vox article, for example, says that the actual risk that a nuclear weapon (or weapons) will be used remains small. We’ve lived with nuclear weapons now for almost 75 years, and, except for once, we’ve had the good sense not to use them. Nevertheless, the world and its leadership does seem to be particularly disordered at the moment. There is still a huge investment in nuclear weaponry, with new generations of weapons coming online. The United States has lowered the threshold for the use of these weapons. There also is a chance that a rogue state or a terrorist cell will get a nuclear device.

Minimal preparation, I think, is in the same category as insurance. We all spend relatively minor sums on insurance to protect ourselves against major losses. As far as I know, every major business has a disaster plan, prepared in advance and kept up to date. When I worked for the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle, where earthquakes are a constant threat, we always had a disaster plan, with backup production sites that were equipped and ready, so that we could continue to publish after an earthquake.

Households, I think, would do well to have a disaster plan, with an affordable level of preparations in place. It’s not just about thermonuclear war. It’s also about storms, blackouts, and epidemics, which are far more likely.

Update: From today’s Irish Times, a European take on Russia’s new missile: Bullish Putin unveils ‘invulnerable’ nuclear weapon.

Watership Down

I watched the first episode of Watership Down last night on Netflix. It’s the best thing I’ve watched in a long time.

This is a new production of the Richard Adams novel by the BBC. There are four episodes.

Watership Down was originally published in the United Kingdom in 1972. The American edition was published in 1974. I read the book soon after it was published in the U.S., and I have reread it at least twice since then. I know the story, but whether you know the story or not, this BBC production is thrilling — and terrifying.

I don’t think that Richard Adams really meant Watership Down as an eco-parable. But it is that, though the story also is much more. The decimation of farmland to turn it into suburbs has been going on for a long time. I see Richard Adams as a kind of empath. I have to imagine that he loved the countryside and that, like Tolkien, it greatly disturbed him to see countryside lost. A writer’s imagination would then have a very natural way of lingering on what the loss of farmland would feel like to a rabbit. He felt their needs, their vulnerability, their contentedness (when they had it), and most of all he felt their fear and their panic. This is not a story for young children.

According to the Wikipedia article, Watership Down was rejected by publishers seven times before it was accepted, with no advance, by a one-man London publishing house, Rex Collings. Collings died in 1996. I hope he died rich.

Richard Adams died on Christmas Eve in 2016, at Oxford, at age 96.

Merry Christmas from Acorn Abbey

A smaller take on lemon cake

I haven’t been able to get lemon cake out of my head. I am working on the third novel in the Ursa Major series, and I just wrote the scenes in which Rose, the Scottish cook, sees Jake again. She wastes no time making one of Jake’s favorites — her lemon cake.

But it’s just me and the cat and the chickens right now, so what would I do with a huge cake involving six eggs and half a ton of butter and flour? I read a bunch of lemon cake recipes and came up with a recipe that uses only one egg, with the other ingredients similarly reduced. I wanted a dense cake, more of a pound cake. I wanted it to be very lemony, and I wanted nutmeg in it.

Here’s what I came up with:

1/2 stick butter
1/2 cup sugar

1 egg
1/2 cup flour
juice and gratings from 1 lemon
1/4 cup cream
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon turmeric (for color)

Follow the usual procedure for cakes. I used used a stand mixer. Cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg and beat the living daylights out of it. Add the other ingredients and beat just enough to mix it well.

I used the 4-inch spring-form pans that I bought for Scottish pies, in two layers. Bake the cake at 325 degrees until it passes the toothpick test. My pans and oven required about 29 minutes.

For the icing, I made a slurry of 1/4 cup of powdered sugar, the juice and gratings of one small lemon, and half a teaspoon of nutmeg. The icing was too runny and did not make a proper glaze, but I just didn’t want to add more sugar.