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The Fate of Rome

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, by Kyle Harper. Princeton University Press, 2017. 418 pages. ★★★★★

This book is an extraordinary piece of scholarship. It’s also a demanding and dense read. Kyle Harper retells the story of Rome, adding new findings that were not available until relatively recently. We owe these new findings to the work of archeologists and to scientists working to understand the history of diseases (especially plagues and pandemics) and the history of earth’s climate.

Earlier histories tried to understand the fall of Rome solely from a political perspective. But Harper shows that plague after plague was an important part of the story. We also know now that the rise of Rome occurred during a “climate optimum” in the Mediterranean. But the optimum didn’t last. Volcanoes are part of the story, too, as well as solar output and Atlantic currents. By the time of the last emperor, a little ice age had set in.

Harper agrees with Bryan Ward-Perkins, whose book I reviewed some years ago, that the fall of Rome was not a rational and smooth “transformation,” an idea that was fashionable with some academics for a while. Rather, as Ward-Perkins argues, the fall of Rome was a catastrophe from which Europe did not recover for centuries. Harper’s book is much longer and more detailed than Ward-Perkins’, and Harper’s account is more about a series of catastrophes and recoveries rather than a final fall. Rome was very resilient, and time and again the empire recovered from plague, famine, and war. But ultimately Rome collapsed, first in the west and then in the east. The only winner was the church, which was able to partly fill the vacuum left by Rome.

In many ways, this book is a companion to the last book I reviewed here, James C. Scott’s Against the Grain. Both books contain details that put a lot of light on how the ancients lived — not just the powerful, but also the little people — slaves, soldiers, traders, bureaucrats, travelers, seamen. The book looks toward Asia, and the importance of Roman trade with India via the Red Sea. And the book looks north and east, to Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, and Huns. Some of this detail is so colorful that I long for stories. There is so much history to be mined by novelists and screenwriters. Yet again and again our storytellers write the same old suburban dramas. Why don’t we take a hint from Shakespeare? How many of Shakespeare’s plays were set in Shakespeare’s here and now?

Books like this, I think, are important references to keep on the shelf for years to come. I’m tempted to buy the Kindle edition in addition to the hardback, so that the book would be searchable. If I have a complaint about this book, it’s the quality of the maps. The maps are in black and white. The maps are rudimentary, and they are terrible. Get yourself some good maps of the ancient world before you read this book. In addition to the history, you’ll also learn a lot of geography.

Improvisations on foo yung

Szechuan-style foo yung with yellow squash and store-bought pot stickers.

The chickens are laying so well and I am so rich with eggs that I’ve been eating far too much egg foo yung — and, of course, running experiments. This is a post about Szechuan-style sauce. It’s also a post about MSG.

First, about MSG.

I cannot find any scientific reason for being afraid of MSG. Glutamates occur naturally in many foods, especially the tasty ones such as mushrooms and roquefort. As far as I tell, MSG these days is made through a natural fermentation process. I’ll leave you to read up on all that, though, if you’re interested in the rehabilitation of MSG. As for me, I am increasingly convinced that MSG has its place in a healthy, clean-cooking kitchen.

Last week, while sautéeing onions, I added half a teaspoon of MSG, and within a couple of minutes the onions turned very brown, though the heat was low. (I never cook with high heat unless I’m boiling water.) I Googled and couldn’t find a word about any browning capabilities of MSG. But then I read the Wikipedia article, and, sure enough, MSG will get involved in the Maillard reaction — the browning of food. The Wikipedia article says that this occurs under high heat in the presence of sugar, but I can testify that the heat I use is not high, and that the onions brown — very fast! — under much lower heat, and much quicker, than onions would otherwise brown. Onions work well for this, because there is far more sugar in onions than we might think. Now this easy browning is pure alchemy! Not only are your sautéed vegetables nice and brown, the sautée process also leaves a nice brown glaze in the pan which cries out to be deglazed into a savory sauce.

I have been making a Szechuan-style sauce using harisa paste, a pepper paste that actually is Tunisian in origin. I buy it at Whole Foods. But who cares if we mix our regional cuisines. Pepper paste is pepper paste. As readers here know, I almost never write up recipes, because most of the time I don’t use recipes. But the general idea is: Deglaze the sautée pan by bringing some rice vinegar to a boil. Add honey, soy sauce, a little toasted sesame oil, and pepper paste. Reduce it until it foams. It makes a great sauce for tofu, vegetables, foo yung, or whatever.

The pot stickers, by the way, come from the freezer department at Trader Joe’s. They are sold as Thai Gyoza. But I prefer to call them pot stickers. I have tried to make pot stickers, but I just don’t have the touch, and they come out too big and heavy. The Trader Joe’s pot stickers are vegetarian and very reasonably priced.

Onions, sautéed over medium heat until soft

The same onions, same heat, about three minutes after adding a half teaspoon of MSG

Are we all Buttercup now?


A couple of days ago, I finally got around to watching “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2.” It was good psychotherapy for trying to psychologically survive this week’s terrifying Republican train wreck in Washington.

I have been doing my best to avoid political posts. Partly this is because the mainstream media and the reality-based commentariat are now fully aware of what Donald Trump is and just how much danger the Republic is in. There is nothing I can add. But I do want to link to a piece by Dahlia Lithwick in which she writes about a question that I also have been gnawing on — that is, are we so far gone that the rule of law can no longer save us? The piece is at Slate with the headline Is It Too Late for Robert Mueller to Save Us? I also should mention a column by Andrew Sullivan at New York Magazine: America Is Trapped in Donald Trump’s Delusional World. Sullivan has a gift for describing the kind of criminal depravity with which we are surrounded.

I’ve also been painfully aware of the fact that sane and decent Americans no longer have a leader. Trump voters have their Hitler, but we have no one. We’re on our own.

All we’ve got to keep us sane and functioning is story and metaphor. “The Hunger Games” is a beautiful story for our times. But the characters of that story, unlike us, had their heroine to pull them through — Katniss.

The scene with Katniss and Buttercup near the end of “Mockingjay Part 2” is one of the most effective film scenes I’ve ever seen. It is the emotional fulcrum around which the entire story finally shifts from horror to relief. In the real world, we’re still waiting on tenterhooks, cringing like Buttercup, clinging to hope that the law will see us through.

HughesNet Gen5 satellite service: 6-month re-review

Dec. 18, 2016: HughesNet’s EchoStar 19 satellite aboard an Atlas 5 rocket, Cape Canaveral, Florida

HughesNet Generation 5 satellite Internet service ★★★★★

After eight years of living in a crippled and slow Internet hell, for the past six months the abbey’s Internet has been the fastest I’ve ever used. I owe it all to rockets and satellites.

This place is half a mile off the pavement, deep in the woods of the Blue Ridge foothills. If I weren’t a nerd, getting connected to the Internet these past eight years might even have been impossible. It required a directional antenna in the attic, connected to a Verizon “air card.” It was finicky and unreliable. Constant fiddling was required to keep it working, drawing on my experience both as a ham radio operator and lots of network savvy from my years as a newspaper systems person. All the Verizon components were lightweight consumer junk, because junk is all that is available for use with cellular. All cellular is consumer junk, but that’s a rant for another day.

As a nerd, it wasn’t enough just to understand the new dish in the yard and the new satellite transceiver and WIFI router down in the hallway closet. I also wanted to know what I was connected to up in the sky.

On Dec. 18, 2016, HughesNet launched a new satellite called EchoStar 19. It’s an SSL 1300 satellite, built by Space Systems Loral in Palo Alto, California — my old stomping grounds just south of San Francisco. It was carried to geosynchronous orbit by an Atlas 5 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The new satellite went into service in March 2016. I signed up in April.

Previously I had avoided satellite. The word-of-mouth reputation of HughesNet’s previous generations of satellite Internet service was not good. Though the EchoStar 19 satellite was new and un-reviewed, the specifications (true broadband by the FCC’s definition, 25Mbps minimum) and the deal that HughesNet was offering were irresistible. I called and signed up. The very next day, a technician installed the dish. It has worked flawlessly from the beginning and has never let me down.

HughesNet promises typical speeds greater than 25 Mbps. I found that speeds of 45 Mbps were typical (and still are typical even as HughesNet adds customers). At times I’ve measured 53 Mbps. Upload speeds are relatively slow — 3 to 5 Mbps.

If you live near civilization and have the option of cable Internet, or, better yet, fiber Internet, you don’t need to consider satellite. A land-based service will be cheaper and fast enough. Only those who live in the boonies should consider satellite service. The three drawbacks of satellite Internet service are:

1. It will be more expensive

2. Your data allowance will be capped each month

3. The distance to the satellite (23,000 miles) forces a delay, or “latency,” of about half a second when you’re waiting for a response, simply because of the speed of light and the 46,000-mile round trip to the satellite.

I chose HughesNet’s 30GB per month plan. I also signed up for telephone service (which is a problem; more in a second) and for the higher-priority service plan if I needed a technician on site. For this I pay $131 a month. I don’t begrudge a penny of it.

The deal from HughesNet is remarkably generous. In addition to the 30GB per month, you also get 50GB per month of off-hours data between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. If you exhaust the 30GB (more in a second), they don’t cut you off. Instead, they throttle the download speed to 1.5Mbps or so for the rest of the month. Your Internet service actually is unlimited. But your fast Internet service is limited according to the data plan you choose. You can buy more fast data by paying for a “token” ($15 will get you 15 more fast gigabytes), but otherwise you are throttled and in “FAP” mode, in which FAP stands for “fair access policy.” This makes sense. A satellite’s bandwidth is not unlimited, and HughesNet must be able to provide fast data as promised to other users who have not exceeded their limits. Data hogs mustn’t be allowed to mess things up for everyone else.

Normally during the past six months, I’ve used less than 1GB a day, and at the end of the month I have unused data. But, this month, two teen-age great-nephews were among my Thanksgiving guests. In one evening, they exhausted my remaining gigabytes and threw me into throttled FAP mode with five days to go before my data reset. This was the first time I’d ever seriously been in FAP mode. The five days gave me plenty of time to see what throttled satellite service feels like.

It didn’t really feel any different! Not only do web pages load (subjectively) just as fast, I found that I could still stream HBO, Netflix, Hulu, PBS, etc., as though nothing had ever happened. This feels like a miracle to me and makes me want to buy some HughesNet stock. If I were, say, downloading a Mac OS update of 5GB, then that download would take 20 times longer when throttled. But for ordinary web browsing and movie streaming, throttling doesn’t much matter. At your throttled speed of 1.5Mbps, the system is loafing, and the download speed is very steady. So streaming services such as Netflix adjust to the available bandwidth, and the video never stalls. (Note: My streaming tests at 1080 px, high definition, are limited. I usually stream at 740 px, which looks perfectly fine on my 37-inch television.)

If you’re throttled in FAP mode, then at 2 a.m., when your off-hours 50GB bonus applies, the speed goes back up to the maximum. At 8 a.m., you’re throttled again. I have never used all the 50GB of off-hours data or even come close. This all strikes me as a very generous and rational pricing plan on HughesNet’s part. Why not let customers have extra data at night when demand is low? And why not let customers go on streaming at throttled speeds as long as the satellite can meet its promises to other customers? Would Verizon ever be that nice and that rational? Hell no. Us hates Verizon.

Telephone service

Telephone service has been a problem right from the start — dropped audio, dropped calls, and lots of aggravation. HughesNet acknowledged the problems and made some fixes. Nevertheless, though the telephone service has improved some as they’ve worked on the system, I still would rate the telephone-over-satellite service as just short of acceptable. You’d want this only if you have no other options. Increasingly I am resolved to just stop using the telephone, because in these days of cell phones the horrible audio is just too much to bear. Emailing and texting suit me much better. I almost never answer the telephone anymore. But that’s a rant for another time.

Tech support

There are two ways to get tech support. You can make a phone call, talk with someone in India, and have an aggravating and utterly unproductive experience. (I had to do this a couple of times because of telephone problems). But HughesNet also has an on-line support forum. A very nice moderator named Liz will open tickets for you and actually get things done. Longtime, highly technical HughesNet users in the forum also can be very helpful.

The router, etc.

The HT2000 satellite transceiver and router provided by HughesNet has worked flawlessly for six months. It will enable two WIFI networks, one at 5Ghz and one at 2Ghz. The 5Ghz network is faster but has less range and less ability to penetrate walls. This is a nice way to set things up. The WIFI networks are highly configurable, through your web browser. You also can test your satellite connection and get lots of diagnostics, should you need it (I never have needed it, but I watch things just out of nerdly curiosity). This stuff is built more to commercial, as opposed to consumer, standards. Cellular stuff is junk. Satellite stuff is cool.

The installation

The installation of the dish and router went smoothly, and, six months later, the satellite signal strength as reported by the HT2000 router actually has become stronger. I’d suggest tipping the installer generously before the work begins. They are independent contractors.

Bad weather

If there is a thunderstorm between your dish and the satellite in the southern sky, then your signal strength will weaken, and you may lose service altogether until the storm passes if the storm is a severe one. This is unavoidable with satellite. I’ve learned that, if the Internet stops working because there’s a thunderstorm to the south, I can expect heavy rain within the next 10 minutes.


I’d have to say that this is an excellent service, rationally priced. And the technology is beautiful.

An SSL 1300 satellite like HughesNet’s EchoStar 19

La saison des camélias

The abbey’s camélias have have reached above the roof line. It’s time for pruning, I think.

The bee was working the camélias at 42 degrees F.

And yes, when I think of camélias I always think of La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas the younger, which, before my French started getting rusty, I read in French along with the elder Dumas’ Le Comte de Monte-Cristo. Compared with his father’s work, the younger Dumas’ writing reads like juvenilia. Yet the story is strangely compelling and hauntingly moody. Giuseppe Verdi turned the story into an opera — La Traviata.

Against the Grain

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, by James C. Scott. Yale University Press, 2017. 312 pages.

Why did human beings abandon their hunter-gatherer livelihoods, build the first towns and cities — and therefore create the first governments? This book uses new findings from archeology, epidemiology and climatology that may radically change our views on this radical period in human history that completely upset how we live as human beings.

The long-prevailing view was that farming and sedentary human communities were a great advance in human wellbeing and comfort that led to rapid advances in human cultures. But maybe not. Farming and pasturing actually were harder work than hunting and gathering and took more time and labor. Crop failure and famine were frequent. Sedentary people were sitting ducks for raiding. The greater density of people and domesticated animals, not to mention their wastes, brought all sorts of new diseases and epidemics. The diets of sedentary people were far less varied. Settled people weren’t nearly as healthy as hunter-gatherers. Grain was easily taxed. Elites arose to lord it over the peasants. Walls were built not just to keep raiders out but also to keep the peasants in. People actually liked their hunter-gatherer lifestyles and did not necessarily take up farming eagerly. Slavery was already well known, but slave labor was especially needed to keep the towns and cities running. If a town went bust (as frequently happened), the survivors would return to hunting and gathering. The move from wild to domesticated living was not a sudden and permanent switch. There was a lot of back and forth for centuries.

The only environments that were rich enough to support the early towns and cities were the mouths of rivers where the rivers slowed and spread into alluvial plains where the soil was enriched by siltation. Water was plentiful and provided transportation as well as irrigation. But all sorts of things could go wrong — floods, droughts, war, epidemics, environmental degradation and soil exhaustion, and natural changes in the climate. It was a risky, dangerous life. Child mortality was easily 50 percent.

The author has so much to say about taxation and the oppression of states that I was afraid I was being set up for a libertarian message. That did not happen. Scott, who is at Yale, is too good a scholar for that.

Part of the beauty of this book is that it sheds so much new light on how our Paleolitic and Neolithic ancestors lived. Their lives were not unappealing! They were free, they were bigger and healthier than city people, and most of them preferred a wild life to a life as a domesticated human, which was not all that different from the life of a domesticated animal. When cities and their governments squeezed the people too hard, people would often flee back into the wild. Returning to the frontier, Scott points out, was easier than revolution.

The sad thing is that, today, we have run out of wildness and frontiers. We are all domesticated now. We all are subjects of states. Though it’s terrain that this book is not concerned with, nevertheless these two opposites — wild vs. domesticated — beg some thought experiments. How can we do as much for ourselves as possible and disengage as much as possible from domestication and corporatization? To our overlords — who are now stronger and richer than they have been in a hundred years — we are just livestock. They exploit our surplus. They abhor us, but they also are afraid of us because we outnumber them and we are the source of their wealth and power. In that sense, nothing has changed in 10,000 years.

Merlin’s neck rags

Why is it that, though warm around-the-house winterwear is easy to find in the form of henleys and waffle-weave undershirts, nothing ever has a collar? Necks get cold. Sure, I have turtlenecks and even fleece neck-warmers that I keep in the Jeep. But the collarless winterwear needs a supplemental collar. The TV series Merlin (a guilty pleasure), suggested a solution.

The linen drawer in the kitchen always contains cotton muslin flour-sack towels, which can be bought on Amazon. I use the towels chiefly for drying greens and lettuce. I put the greens into the towel, which is 28 inches square, gather the corners of the towel, and then go out to the deck and sling the water out. It occurred to me that the flour-sack towels would make great neck rags. They work perfectly well in their natural white, of course, though they look a bit like spaghetti napkins. I got some dye and dyed them.

There you have it — cheap, effective, and easy to make. But they’re also like berets. Don’t dare be seen out in public with one.

Let’s just talk about the truck

The flag on the back is the Christian flag, which is commonly flown in King, North Carolina. Also note the bumper stickers in the lower photo.

We could talk about why a surplus military vehicle belonging to the Pfafftown (North Carolina) militia, a right-wing paramilitary group, showed up at the polling place for the Nov. 7 municipal elections in King. We could talk about how, in the previous two elections in King, assault charges have been filed because of encounters between members of the conservative majority and the liberal minority. We could talk about how Republicans and churchgoers are upset because an atheist is running for the King town council. We could talk about how it’s part of my duty, as a local political operative, to be concerned about what happens at the polls on election days. But let’s don’t talk about any of that. I’m burned out on tomfool right-wing drama. Let’s talk about the truck instead.

Because I’m a nerd with a Y chromosome, I find these trucks fascinating, just as cool machines. It happens that, only a couple of months ago, in writing book 3 of the Ursa Major series, I needed a truck like this for a fictional military operation. I had never seen such a truck, so I had to do some research on military vehicles. I never just make stuff up, when stuff must correspond to reality! I do whatever research is necessary. I found the army’s operator’s manual for the truck, which is 452 pages long. I admit without shame that it was fascinating reading, and that the truck almost becomes a character in the novel, the way Jake’s Jeep did in book 1, Fugue in Ursa Major.

I believe the truck in the photo is an M923A2 dropside cargo truck. These trucks come in about 30 different configurations, including dump trucks, wreckers, and vans. It has a Cummins diesel engine, all-wheel drive, and all sorts of cool features that harden it for military use. If you like fine machines (from aircraft to communications apparatus), you’ve got to love military specs.

The driver said he bought this truck for $10,000 a few years ago. I’m sure he drives it to church and to watch people vote. But I shudder to imagine where else.

Two-course breakfasts?

The French conceive of breakfasts in two categories — sweet and salty. I suppose we Americans do, too, though I don’t recall anyone ever asking, “Would you prefer a sweet breakfast or a salty breakfast?”

Usually we choose. But this morning the cool, gray weather — and the devil — led me to do both. The three-day-old sourdough bread called out for pain perdu. And the hens are laying so many eggs that I can be as lavish with eggs as I want and still have lots of home-laid organic eggs to give away (or to trade for things like the apples and the local greenhouse tomatoes that I traded for yesterday).

It also was an excuse to try out the strawberry syrup that I bought last month. It’s made by Fogwood Farms, which is located one county eastward in Rockingham County. It’s sold in the storefront operated by our county arts council in Danbury. The storefront sells local artwork and handmade items. It’s also a coffee shop and performance space. If you live in this area, look to the opposite side of the street when you pass the old courthouse in Danbury.

Grilled tomatoes, by the way, are a winter standby. The gas grill is on the deck and just a few steps from the kitchen, and I use it all the time. I’m saving the local tomatoes that I got yesterday to use raw (except for the green ones, which probably will end up in a curry). The tomato in the photo came from Whole Foods. The quality of winter tomatoes, I think, has improved. Of course winter tomatoes are never good enough for sandwiches, but they’ll usually do for salads. And they roast very well into a nice breakfast vegetable.

I don’t know what I was thinking. I couldn’t eat all this. But the chickens got the leftovers.

The troubles of the 4th Century

Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians. Edward Armitage, 1875.

Julian, by Gore Vidal. Vintage International, 1962, 502 pages.

On the Gods and the Cosmos, by Sallustius, mid 4th Century.

Paganism’s last stand occurred in the 4th Century. Early in the 4th Century, the Roman emperor Constantine established Christianity as the state religion. A few decades later, the emperor Julian did his best to reverse it. Julian did not succeed.

I think it would be fair to say that the pagan intellectuals of that era did not see the conflict as a competition between the old gods and Christianity. Rather, they saw the conflict as a rational and living philosophy versus lifeless doctrine and dogma. These pagan Romans spoke Greek. Julian was trained as a philosopher at Athens. To them, Christian doctrine was (to put it bluntly) hickish and childish.

I have found it remarkably difficult to read up on the 4th Century. The 4th Century is covered in many general histories, of course, but I have been looking for sources that are limited to the 4th Century in particular. There are some new books by university presses, but they’re very expensive and narrowly focused (for example, on the city of Rome as an urban center). The old references — Gibbon, for example — are outdated. There are oodles of biographies of Constantine. But I’m not very interested in Constantine. After all, we now live in Constantine’s world. I couldn’t figure out what to read first, so I settled on Vidal’s novel.

Vidal is a good writer, in that, unlike so many people who write for a living these days, Vidal has an excellent command of the English language. But Vidal is not a good storyteller. He seems to lack a sense of drama. It’s as though he’s just dutifully writing up his research. That’s a shame. I can’t help but compare Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, or Mary Renault’s Alexander novels. Yourcenar and Renault bring their subjects to life and make them human. Vidal is just not good enough as a novelist to do that.

Vidal, however, was a formidable intellect and a fearless heretic. I wonder if any other writers have ever really dared to write about the formation of Christianity as the cultural castastrophe it actually was in the eyes of philosophers such as Julian — the triviality of its texts; the depravity of its early bishops and theologians; its expropriation from the pagans of anything the Christians found useful; its lust for wealth, property and dominance; its habit of violence, persecution, and inquisition; its tendency toward quibbling and schism; its self-delusion about its absoluteness; the hypocrisy of its carnality vs. its other-worldly posturing; its imperial usefulness as a tool for subduing, pacifying, and, as necessary, exterminating the masses. “No evil ever entered the world quite so vividly or on such a vast scale as Christianity did,” says Vidal’s Priscus.

Gore Vidal died in 2012. I don’t think that we now have any public intellectuals who are quite like him or who can take Vidal’s place.

For a short, sweet read on how the last pagans saw the world, you probably can’t do better than Sallustius’ On the Gods and the Cosmos. Sallustius was a trusted friend and military leader in Julian’s army. What stands out in Sallustius’ writing is his sophisticated use of reason. He understands perfectly well that the pagan gods were myths and that the meaning of the myths had to be teased out with the tools of philosophy. Reading Sallustius, one becomes aware of how reason was smothered for centuries by Christian doctrine and didn’t get its head above water again until the Enlightenment. In many ways, it seems to me, this 4th Century conflict is playing out yet again.