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A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World ★★★★



A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World. C.A.Fletcher. Orbit, 2019. 384 pages.


This incredible book has renewed my faith that people can still write superb and beautiful novels. It’s what we call a hot read. I had to keep telling myself to slow down, because the constant suspense made me want to read faster. And then you get to the end, quicker than you wanted, wishing that it could go on, so that you could stay in that world and stay in the story.

The novel’s world, as the title reveals, is a dystopia. It would be wrong to say much more than that, because almost anything one might say about this book would be a spoiler. The author, knowing that, includes this line just before the first page: “It’d be a kindness to other readers — not to say this author — if the discoveries made as you follow Griz’s journey into the ruins of our world remained a bit of a secret between us.”

I will mention some of the setting, since you’ll learn it anyway in the first few pages: The story starts in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, the memories of which are still fresh in my mind from a visit there last August. Everyone who goes there, I suspect, wants to find a way to hold on to the magic of those islands. C.A. Fletcher did it with this novel.

This book, I suspect, will become a classic. And because C.A. Fletcher is a screenwriter, I suspect it also will become a movie. Yes, it’s a dystopia; but no, it’s not depressing. You’re probably going to read it sooner or later, so why not get started…

The end of the road for all you can eat home cookin’?



Hillbilly Hideway. See below for more.

It’s true everywhere, but here in the American South, our cuisine is (or was) an essential part of our culture and identity. Passing that culture and identity from generation to generation is very important work. But — at least here in the American South — that work is breaking down.

For decades, all-you-can-eat places serving traditional Southern cuisine, served family style, have been a meaningful (if smallish) niche in the eating-out ecology. I remember, as a child, on road trips into the Appalachian Highlands, stopping for supper at the Dan’l Boone Inn at Boone. It’s still there! And it’s still doing it, at $19.95 per person. River Forest Manor, at Belhaven on the North Carolina coast, used to serve family-style meals, but they’ve now gone to a different model that emphasizes the big house, for weddings and such, rather than the food. I could name other places, long gone. Back in the 1960s, there even were places that served all-you-can-eat seafood, including shrimp and oysters, on Fridays.

Here in the middle of nowhere, in Stokes County, North Carolina, we still have Hillbilly Hideaway. It seems they haven’t updated the prices on their web site, but lunch and dinner are now $20 per person.

A few times a year, I have Sunday breakfast with my Republican friends (no kidding!) Jess and Kitty. Here in the middle of nowhere, there aren’t many places to go, so sometimes we go to the Hillbilly Hideaway, which, even though it’s in the same county, is nevertheless 17 miles away. Hillbilly Hideway doesn’t do Sunday breakfast anymore, but they start lunch at 11 o’clock on Sundays, before the church crowd. However, there doesn’t seem to be a church crowd on Sundays at Hillbilly Hideway anymore. Jess, Kitty, and I lingered until almost 1 p.m. last Sunday, but only a few tables were occupied, and the place was quiet. Jess, Kitty and I figure that the high cost of all-you-can-eat these days — $20 — is just too high for a poor county like this. Plus I’m starting to wonder if younger people even care about traditional cooking anymore.

For people my age, traditional Southern home cooking is what we grew up on. The standard for any particular individual might have been a mother, a grandmother, or a favorite aunt. But we all idealized it. It’s what people here still do on holidays, insofar as they remember how.

But the younger generations, I now realize, know far, far less about home cooking. They may not even like it, because they’ve grown up on fast food, frozen food, and home cooking that can be put together in 30 minutes or less. Too many vegetables! It’s related, I think, to why even many country people with lots of land don’t bother with gardens anymore. They don’t like that stuff.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who can get their money’s worth at a $20 all-you-can-eat meal. Jess, Kitty, and I are not among them. I wish Hillbilly Hideaway all the best. I hope they can adapt to changing times.


Fried chicken, ham, hoe cake, and cornbread.


Hillbilly Hideaway vegetables


Potatoes


Pinto beans


Stewed apples


The dessert cart, extra cost


Update: Ten years ago, Huntington, West Virginia, was identified as the most obese city in the nation. Today, Politico reports on how citizen activists improved on that. For fun, nine years ago, Jamie Oliver went to Huntington and found that most children cannot identify basic vegetables.


A parable of justice



In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy. Katrina Forrester, Princeton University Press, 2019. 402 pages. ★★★★


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, liberal ideas ruled. There had been a terrible Depression, followed by a terrible world war. Seventy-five million people died. Great cities and vast armies were completely destroyed. When the war ended, many lessons had been learned. The world was still a scary place, though. Fascist forces had been soundly beaten in the war, but they plotted a comeback. There were still many people living who had once been slaves and for whom equality and justice remained only a dream. But as the world began to rebuild itself from the war and as many began to prosper, a new hope took root and spread. A consensus grew that, with the right ideas, the right institutions, and the right politics, the world could become a much better place, with liberty and justice for all.

These ideas were closely connected with three great universities, which were called Oxford, Harvard, and Princeton. One man in particular, a man who had survived the war, returned to his studies after the war at the place called Princeton. His name was John Rawls, and he was beginning his life’s work of codifying these new ideas into a new philosophy and a new politics. He modestly called this new philosophy and politics A Theory of Justice, or justice as fairness.

In that galaxy at that time, great thinkers and great scholars were greatly admired rather than ridiculed. Another great thinker, somewhat older than John Rawls, also was at the place called Princeton. His name was Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein’s theory, called relativity, had revolutionized physics, rendering largely obsolete the science that had preceded it, called Newtonian. John Rawls was now codifying a similar revolution in moral and political philosophy, renderingly largely obsolete the philosophy that had preceded it, which was called utilitarian. The highest value of this utilitarian philosophy was deemed to be the greatest good for the greatest number. But that philosophy had led to much suffering, because it found it acceptable that many might suffer, if more are better off. That cannot be, said John Rawls. Not even one person is to be treated unfairly to benefit anyone else, he said. No one, he said, is to have more than anyone else unless such inequality benefits even the least fortunate. All are owed what they need for self-respect. All are owed what they need for a fair chance at the life they want.

Few could understand Einstein’s theory. That theory was, as physics tends to be, very complicated. But, of those who did understand it, many said that Albert Einstein could not be right. Time after time, they tried to prove his theory wrong. But no one succeeded. Instead of disproving Einstein’s theory, others built on it. In that galaxy, Einstein’s theory stands to this very day. After more than twenty years of work, John Rawls published his complete theory. That theory was, as philosophy tends to be, very complicated. Few could understand it. Of those who did, many said that John Rawls could not be right. Time after time, they tried to prove his theory wrong. But no one succeeded. Instead of disproving Rawls’ theory, others built on it. In that galaxy, John Rawls’ theory stands to this very day.

Seventeen years after Rawls’ death, a brilliant scholar named Katrina Forrester, from the place called Harvard, wrote a book examining in great detail how John Rawls developed his theory of justice and how, for fifty years, others critiqued and extended that theory. Katrina Forrester imagines a time when John Rawls’ theory might be replaced. But that has not yet happened.

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As Rawls’ theory grew in scope and beauty, the world once again turned ugly. A new war broke out, this one in the jungles of a poor continent. Many from the rich countries refused to fight, and some were shot for their resistance. Laws had been changed to give full equality to the descendants of slaves. But many people hated the idea of equality. So great was the resistance to equality that fascists, recently so decisively defeated and at such great cost, began to claw their way back to power. At first, they moderated their goals and disguised their intentions. But steadily they began to take back power for the enemies of equality who were amassing great riches. The enemies of equality did everything that was politically possible to avoid the expenses of helping the least fortunate. A world of inequality was exactly what they wanted. The theories they wanted were the theories that justified that inequality. The first great leaders of these enemies of equality were called Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had their own theories and principles, among them privatization, supply side economics, and deregulation. These theories were closely aligned with other theories, such as libertarianism, which held cruel theories of fairness very different from Rawls’. Even before the world war that had preceded Rawls, fascists had refined the art of propaganda, so that the powerful could disinform the people and direct the people’s resentment toward scapegoats, blinding the people such that the people looked up to and lionized the very people who were exploiting them. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan further refined this art of propaganda. In despair at the world’s reversal, many good people looked for refuge in simple theories that withdrew from engagement with the larger world, such as identity theories or communitarian theories. So overwhelming was the structure started by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan that many were persuaded. Some even tried to accommodate the Thatcher-Reagan theories in Rawls’ theory of justice. Even the political opponents of Thatcher and Reagan capitulated, calling it the Third Way. Though they had compromised many of their principles, these people still considered themselves to be liberal egalitarians.

By the time the liberal egalitarians awoke to their misjudgment, great damage had been done. Even by the time John Rawls died (the year was 2002, in that part of that galaxy), the condition of the world looked increasingly hopeless, though there was worse to come. A new leader arose. His name was Donald Trump. Not since the years before the world war had people like him held so much power or deceived so many. The gains that had been made for fairness and equality were reversed.

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The story from that galaxy is an old one. Why do people do so poorly when they know how to do much better? Perhaps no theory exists adequate to explain it. Part of the problem, surely, is that physics and philosophy are hard. Most people must get by with easier understandings. Even books such as Katrina Forrester’s, magisterial in their command of political history and the history of ideas, do little to make those ideas more accessible or to counteract the propagandas of the wicked. The places called Oxford, Harvard, and Princeton might as well be in a different galaxy.


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A NOTE FROM DAVID: This is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read. It took me weeks to get through it, though I have read Rawls and other books about Rawls. I am not a scholar or a philosopher. To do a straight review of this book would be beyond me. But part of why I found this book fascinating and rewarding is that the years it covers — roughly 1946 to the present — are the years in which I have lived. The events and crises that shaped and reshaped Rawls’ theory of justice are the same events and crises that shaped my political awareness — the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights era, civil disobedience, the energy crisis, overpopulation, Woodstock and the hippy era, the Reagan-Thatcher era, the Third Way, gross inequality, ecological catastrophe, and now Trump and Trumpism. One of the things I learned from this book is that, during all these events and crises, I am proud to say that I have been solidly a liberal, though I did not come to know Rawls’ work until much later. This liberalism came from my own conscience, a few good mentors, and a few good friends. For a very good straight review of this book, I recommend Jedediah Purdy’s review in The New Republic: What John Rawls Missed: Are his principles for a just society enough today?

A portrait I wish I had shot



Christopher Tolkien. New York Times photo by Josh Dolgin. Click for high-resolution version.

I hope I am not inviting copyright trouble here. The extraordinary photo above is linked to a New York Times URL; I have not downloaded a copy of it. The photo accompanies the New York Times’ obituary for Christopher Tolkien, son of J.R.R. Tolkien: Christopher Tolkien, Keeper of His Father’s Legacy, Dies at 95.

You all know who Christopher Tolkien was. There is nothing that I need to add. But as lovers of literature and photography, how can we not ask a question: Why is it that people who change the world with their books always look so amazing? It was the same with Christopher Tolkien’s father, J.R.R. Tolkien, who was always photographed in tweeds, and often in front of a fireplace or bookcase.

What a gift, to have lived such lives.

Conservatism, with lipstick and without



Roger Scruton. Wikipedia photo.

The Washington Post has an obituary this morning for Roger Scruton, whom the Post describes as a “British philosopher, author and high priest of conservatism.” Scruton was a lipstick conservative. By that I mean that his fundamental meanness was masked by good manners, nice clothes, connections to Cambridge, and even a trip to the palace to be knighted by the queen.

Lipstick conservatism was the rule during the era of Thatcher and Reagan. But in the era of Trump, the masks are gone. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” conservatives no longer feel a need to disguise themselves with lipstick. Ugly things that once had to be encoded and encrypted are now spoken openly. But regardless of how well they speak English or how they dress, they are the same thing: ugly.

I have not read Scruton’s books, and I won’t. But it doesn’t take many words to reveal what he was. According to the Wikipedia article, Scruton wrote, in praising authority, that obedience — obedience! — is “the prime virtue of political beings, the disposition that makes it possible to govern them, and without which societies crumble into ‘the dust and powder of individuality.'” His sense of virtue permitted him to write articles favorable to tobacco without disclosing that he was receiving monthly payments from a tobacco company. When busted for this, he attacked others and made no apology. The Washington Post obituary says, “Unabashedly elitist, he favored fox hunting, the fur trade, Bordeaux wines and the House of Lords, as well as an old-fashioned death sentence, hanging. Single mothers, gays, socialists and multiculturalism came in for scathing criticism.” The Pet Shop Boys once sued Scruton for libel for a gratuitous insult that was provably wrong. The Pet Shop Boys won.

It happens that, when I read Scruton’s obituary in the Post, I was about 30 pages from the end of Katrina Forrester’s book on John Rawls and the history of liberal philosophy. Though many moral and political philosophers who engaged, extended, or criticized Rawls’ thinking are discussed in this book, Scruton is not mentioned. He just doesn’t signify, even as a critic. The contrast is remarkable. While liberal philosophers were building an elegant and rigorous theory of fairness, equality, and justice, Scruton was making mud pies out of privilege and meanness and getting knighted for it.

I Googled for other obituaries for Scruton; they’re mostly hagiographic. But, as for me: Goodbye, Roger Scruton. I’m glad I never knew you.

Richmond, Jan. 20: I’ve got a bad feeling about this



“Unite the Right” rally, Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017. Wikipedia photo.

I had been wondering when the mainstream media would write a proper piece about the gun-rights rally planned for Richmond, Virginia, on Jan. 20. The Washington Post finally has it today: Prospect of gun control in Virginia draws threats, promise of armed protest.

Because I am in the woods of rural red America, I’ve been hearing about this for quite some time. This is militia country, and the buzz I’m picking up on the ground is that lots of militia guys are planning to go. They’re actually training for it. Most of them won’t be looking for trouble. But as we learned from the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, it only takes one fool to start some violence, as when a man drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others.

The organizers of the Richmond event have asked the militia guys to leave their long guns and military gear at home. But if you know any militia guys, then you know that that’s not going to happen. The militia guys have every right to protest gun legislation in Virginia that they don’t like. But to descend on Richmond heavily armed, with all of Richmond’s emotional reminders of the old Confederacy, and with the world on the edge of a nervous breakdown, is playing with fire. I just hope that the state of Virginia has a plan for keeping the protesters and counter-protesters apart. There are too many people who actually want violence, because violence feeds their fantasies or supports their agendas.

Many studies have found that conservatives are more fearful than liberals. Thus liberals don’t easily understand why conservatives respond they way they do if they think someone is going to take their guns away, because conservatives very much see their guns as protection, while liberals are much more likely to see guns as just dangerous. The Virginia gun legislation is still being debated (the legislature goes back into session on Jan. 8), but actual buybacks of assault weapons, as far as I know, are off the agenda. Registration of already-owned assault weapons may be in the current version of the legislation, but conservatives aren’t going to accept that either, because as the Washington Post story says, they see it as just the first step toward confiscation.

Did organizers of the gun event know that Jan. 20 is Martin Luther King Day? I suspect that they did and that it was intended as an insult. As I said in the headline, I’ve got a very bad feeling about this.


Update 1: I don’t know if I agree with this opinion piece or not. But it’s something that we need to think about: How would the far right react to a Trump loss? Here’s a glimpse.


Update 2: The Guardian posted a story today about Virginia: Virginia Democrats won an election. Gun owners are talking civil war.


Update 3: “We have received credible intelligence from our law enforcement agencies that there are groups with malicious plans for the rally that is planned for Monday.” Virginia Governor Declares State Of Emergency Ahead Of Gun Rights Rally.


Update 4: Virginia Capital on Edge as F.B.I. Arrests Suspected Neo-Nazis Before Gun Rally.


A morbid measure of mass insanity



Wikipedia photo from the entry on Multi-Vehicle collisions

During the weekend, in Pennsylvania, yet another traffic pileup killed five people and injured more than 60. Oddly, I can’t find any information on how many vehicles were involved in that pileup, though several of the stories have referred to a pileup in Virginia two weeks ago, involving 69 vehicles. Other pileups in that area of Pennsylvania have involved 100 vehicles.

This is not just an American phenomenon. According to Wikipedia, the record for the pileup with the highest number of vehicles was in Brazil, at 300. In 2009, 259 vehicles were involved in a pileup in Germany. The record in the Czech Republic seems to be 231. In Los Angeles, it’s 216. In the Pennsylvania crash this past weekend, several of the drivers who were killed were professional drivers, who ought to know better than to drive too fast for conditions.

When one car rear-ends just one other car, that’s bad judgment — often fatally bad. But when 100, 200, 300 cars pile up, that is mass insanity. We have normalized the kind of insane traffic conditions in which pileups occur — too many cars, too close together, traveling too fast. If a driver can’t stop to avoid a hazard ahead, then that driver’s vehicle is not under control. That 300 vehicles should be out of control in the same place at the same time blows my mind.

Wikipedia has a good article on the subject, Multi-Vehicle Collisions, though the article says that very little research has been done on the causes. Some of the details in the Wikipedia article are hellish:

Multiple-vehicle collisions are particularly deadly as the mass of crumpled vehicles makes escape for survivors difficult. Even if survivors are able to exit their vehicles, other cars may strike them. Individual vehicles in a multiple-vehicle collision are often hit multiple times at high speed, increasing the risk of injury to passengers who may have survived the first impact with the benefit of now-discharged protective airbags. Collisions after the initial collision may occur from the side of the vehicle, where the passenger compartment is more vulnerable.

A fire in one part of the collision can quickly spread via spilled gasoline and cover the entire crash area. Multiple-vehicle collisions can also overwhelm local firefighting, ambulance, and police services making speedy rescues more difficult. If the collision takes place in a remote area, getting medical help to the scene can be a daunting task.

Suburban commuters drive every day in traffic conditions in which a pileup would occur if a single mistake by a single driver started a chain reaction. My guess is that people who routinely drive in such conditions have normalized it to such a degree that they no longer sense the danger. They may even be eating or talking on the phone.

Fortunately for me, my lifestyle rarely gets me into the kind of traffic in which pileups occur. I stay off of freeways, and I don’t drive into big cities. Last summer, while driving to the Raleigh airport, I drove through a severe thunderstorm. Visibility was terrible, and water on the road made hydroplaning inevitable. But the traffic around me didn’t slow down. I realized that if I slowed down to a safe speed, I’d be inviting the congestion of speeding drivers behind me and increase the risk of being hit from behind. So I got off the road and waited. That’s why I left for the airport early — to not put my flight at risk if there were traffic problems. But most drivers are in a hurry and won’t slow down, which multiples the dangers.

This is a form of mass insanity that is getting worse, not better. We keep building freeways, and new freeways seem to be overloaded as soon as we build them. If you’re forced to drive on these freeways, even if you’re aware of the insanity of it, you can’t protect yourself by driving at a safe speed, because you’ll be hit from behind. Maybe that’s why good drivers, including professional drivers, get trapped in pileups: They know that if they don’t maintain the same speed as the rest of the traffic, they only increase the danger to themselves and others as traffic packs up behind them. They’re trapped in a fast-moving slug of traffic vulnerable to a pileup. You either entrust yourself to luck in spite of the danger, or you get off the highway.

As readers of this blog know, I’m no techno-utopian. But I wonder if this is one of the problems that self-driving cars might be able to solve. But self-driving cars seem to be a bigger challenge than was expected. For a computer to drive a car is easy. What’s difficult for computers is the same as what’s difficult for good drivers — keeping track of all the idiots around you.

His Dark Materials ★★★☆


Until the next truly smashing science fiction or fantasy series comes along, His Dark Materials will help a bit to tide us over. Some reviewers seem to think that it’s a Game of Thrones knockoff. It looks more like Harry Potter to me. Still, there are strong elements of originality. A big part of what makes it worth watching is purely visual — an imaginary world with lots of gothic and steampunk elements. The animal sidekicks are charming and are used to excellent dramatic effect.

My main criticism might be that it’s a touch too young adult for the total immersion of someone as old as I am. But it’s good enough, I think, to make up for that. Anglophiles will love it, and unfortunately for those who live at Oxford, the flood of tourists is only going to get worse. I thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit to Oxford back in August. I’ve watched two episodes of His Dark Materials so far and have downloaded the third.

His Dark Materials was produced by the BBC and HBO. You can stream it from HBO Now or HBO Go.

Are we overdue for a cat picture?



Click here for high-resolution version.

I apologize for not having posted for a while. For now, here’s a cat picture, because I don’t think I’ve posted a cat picture for a long time.

It’s shocking to me that Lily, who still thunders up and down the stairs like a kitten, is almost 11 years old. In this photo, she was sitting with me while I was reading (she often does), and I caught her in a contemplative moment with the iPhone camera. I regret that I’ve never had the experience with other domestic animals such as horses and cows, but with cats and dogs, if you raise them from infancy, converse with them constantly, give them every possible privilege and the same dignity a human being deserves, they become people. In fact, they become better people than a lot of people. The older they get, the more language they learn, and the more they talk back. The briefness of their lives is a great pity. I can imagine what a 70-year-old cat raised from a kitten in a good home would become.

On other matters: I decided not to write a post about this, because I try to avoid posting when I’m angry, but here’s a link to a New York Times story on the rogue Navy Seal Edward Gallagher and how he has become a right-wing celebrity after Trump pardoned him for war crimes. It is extremely difficult for decent Americans to understand how a criminal sociopath got into the White House and why so many people make heroes of men who are cruel and depraved. I stand by my argument that the entire conservative spectrum, especially when it is socialized, is a cognitive and moral impairment, not just another way of being, and that authoritarian personalities are both sick and dangerous. Decent societies normally can contain and manage these people, but we are living in yet another era in which demagogues and predators have overwhelmed the safeguards.

Reviews to come: I am working my way through Katrina Forrester’s new book about John Rawls, In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy. It’s a book that must be read slowly, but I’ll have a review before long.

His Dark Materials“: I’ve watched one episode and found it interesting enough that I’ll watch another. I may have a review. It’s an eight-part series produced by the BBC and HBO, and you can stream it from HBO.

No-meat meat pies in Scotland, from Herald Scotland: Greggs launch vegan steak bake.

A globe is worth a thousand maps



North America at sunset in New York, winter solstice. Click here for high-resolution version.

Maps are fascinating. But maps also are highly deceptive. That’s because there is no way to represent the surface of a sphere on a flat piece of paper without distortion. Today is the winter solstice, when the earth’s northern hemisphere is at its maximum tilt away from the sun. While testing a new portrait lens (a Nikon 105mm f2.5 prime lens), I shot photos of my globe, doing my best to light the globe the way the sun lit the earth today.

The first thing that I find striking is just how far north the United States and Europe are — particularly Europe. In the photo below, even sunny Italy is far to the north. The United Kingdom and Scotland are spookily close to the winter darkness inside the Arctic Circle. And just look at the vastness of Africa, even just the part of Africa that is north of the equator.

Maps are great for showing relatively small areas, because that can be done with minimal distortion. But to really see the vastness of our planet in perspective, you must consult a globe.

Just before sunset in northern Europe, winter solstice. Click here for high-resolution version.