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The Beto-Warren ticket


This morning, the New York Times reports that Beto O’Rourke’s campaign raised $6.1 million in the first 24 hours after he announced for president. That’s more than any other candidate, though Bernie Sanders, at $5.9 million, came close.

This adds considerable support to my belief that Beto will win the nomination. If that’s the case, then I think it’s also obvious who would be the perfect running mate: Elizabeth Warren.

Yes, it’s early. And yes, I’m ignoring my own advice about not making up our minds too soon and giving the candidates time to speak for themselves. It’s only partly for political reasons (or the $6.1 million) that I see Beto as the frontrunner. My main reason for seeing things this way is that, like it or not, media attention will make or break a candidate. Beto already is — and I believe he will remain — the media favorite.

Just look at how the media mangled the 2016 election. I’m not convinced that Donald Trump actually won that election. We need to hear what Robert Mueller and several House committees are going to tell us about the depth of the meddling. But one thing is for sure: The media could not take their eyes off Trump. The 2016 election was a train wreck of media malpractice and manipulated media, with the largest part of it working in Trump’s favor and against Hillary Clinton. No, this isn’t fair. Our media may be slightly chastened after helping to send a crime family and traitor to the White House 2016, but they’re still going to dispatch their reporters and cameras toward whatever they think will pull in the most eyeballs.

Much of the criticism of Beto’s campaign has been valid. But it’s also fixable. It’s true that his message has been vague. In 2018, he ran his campaign against the odious Ted Cruz without a pollster or a speech writer. With that $6.1 million, Beto can now afford a speech writer, and I expect he’ll get one quick.

The more progressive wing of the Democratic Party believes that Beto is too conservative. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that, when Beto ran against Cruz, the votes were all coming from Texas. For a national campaign, Beto will have to rethink things. He clearly hasn’t done that yet. The more progressive wing of the Democratic Party (that includes me) want a Green New Deal. We want reforms of the type that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have done such a good job of defining. I expect Beto to get on board with those things. If he doesn’t, then his frontrunner status is his to lose.

But I think it’s also important for Democrats of the left to acknowledge that many of the people who will be voting for Democrats in 2020 are not San Francisco liberals (like me). Those voters will feel more comfortable with a Democrat who is “too conservative.” That’s one of the reasons why Elizabeth Warren would be so important in balancing the ticket. She is strong where Beto is weak. Democrats must win the suburbs in 2020, and what the suburbs want is hardly radical — decency, predictability, stability, prosperity, and good lives for their children. They want to fix capitalism, not throw it over (which is what Warren wants, in spite of Republican bleating about “socialism”).

There is a saying in the business world: “Hire for character, train for skills.” There is a lot of truth in that. The right-wing demonization machine is already hard at work trying to demonize Beto for things he wrote on line when he was 15, and for a DWI case when he was 26. That stuff won’t stick. During the past few days, it also has come out that Beto was a member of a hacking group, “Cult of the Dead Cow.” Republicans will find that disturbing. But who gives a rat’s tail what Republicans think. Almost half of them are such withered souls that they think that Trump was sent by God. We Democrats should stop worrying about Trump 2020. Trump will be gone, brought down by the law. Fox News will have to find someone else.

To me, Beto-as-hacker-boy, out to save a sorry world from itself, says a lot about his character. It shows a revolutionary, transgressive spirit, rather than a dull, obedient, conservative one. He majored in English literature at Columbia, and that alone may show that Beto has an Irish heart to go with his Irish name. (The president of Ireland, Michael Higgins, is a poet.) At this very moment, I would guess, “establishment” Democrats and corporate money are knocking on Beto’s door, eager to co-opt him. I hope that Beto has the character to resist. Keep waving your arms, Beto.

Policy can be learned. But a fiery spirit, charisma, and telegenic star power cannot be learned. Those things are a rare gift. No other candidate has anything like it. Wonkdom will not win the next election. Fair or not, star power will. Like Obama, Beto’s spirit of reform is inspiring rather than angry. Only Beto has the qualities that will attract the media and the affection of the American people.


Update: Politico equates “balance” with sucking up to Republicans and snarking at Democrats. But money impresses them.


Boeing: It’s even worse than we think.



Wikipedia photo


I have long been fascinated by aviation. Though I never got a pilot’s license (I chickened out), I have about 45 hours of flying time as a student pilot. On my trip to Scotland last fall, I was eager for the opportunity to fly from New York to Edinburgh and back on Boeing’s newest plane — the Boeing 737 Max. A few weeks later, one of these planes crashed in Indonesia. Last week, another one crashed. Now I have a retroactive case of the heebie-jeebies.

At the time, I felt quite safe on the plane. It’s a beautiful, reasonably comfortable plane, though maybe a bit small for trans-Atlantic flying, for which wide-body planes are the way to go. But now I will refuse to ever fly again in a Boeing 737 Max, because I doubt that Boeing will ever find a way to make the plane truly safe.

Only the nerdier articles have been explicit about what the problem really is. All of the reporting on the two crashes tells us about the onboard software that is thought to be the cause of the crashes. But that leaves the impression that, when the software is revised and updated, the plane will be safe. But I’m not sure that that’s the case, because the true flaw in the Boeing 737 Max is that the plane is inherently unstable because the new engines, which are bigger and heavier, don’t fit the old 737 airframe. The plane is inherently inclined to go nose up and stall, especially when making sharp turns at low speed (which you’ve got to do — at low altitude — getting in and out of airports). There is no way to fix that other than starting from scratch and engineering a whole new plane.

The best article I’ve seen on this problem is at Slate: Where Did Boeing Go Wrong?: How a bad business decision may have made the 737 max vulnerable to crashes.

The New York Times also did a nerdy piece: After a Lion Air 737 Max Crashed in October, Questions About the Plane Arose.

There are two serious problems here. The first serious problem is that Boeing, in trying to save money, used an engineering kludge to keep its 737 model in the air when it should have started from scratch with a new design, as its European competitor Airbus did. The second serious problem is that, in the United States, Boeing more or less regulates itself. This is because the Bush administration, in 2005, changed the rules to serve the industry rather than the public. Republicans actually believe in things like that. James E. Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, writes about this in today’s New York Times: The 737 Max Is Grounded, No Thanks to the F.A.A.: Federal aviation regulators have allowed the airline industry to have too much power.

This is yet another reason why it is essential that we throw the Republican Party out of Washington, for good. Whether it’s education, energy, communications technology, pharmaceuticals, or the environment, Republican notions about deregulation are handing the powers of government over to the greedy few, the public interest be damned.

On top of its engineering kludge, Boeing (as well as the so-called regulators) screwed up again by deciding that pilots didn’t even need to know about the instability, the kludge, and the new software system that is supposed to compensate for the kludge. Engineers and pilots would never go along with anything that appallingly stupid. But the money people would.

Hereafter, when I fly, I won’t buy tickets without being reasonably confident that the plane is either an Airbus (because Europeans still believe in regulation in the public interest), or an older American plane such as the Boeing 747, which was designed back in the days when government did its job and engineers were allowed to do theirs.

Let’s also hope that this fiasco costs Boeing billions of dollars and ends the careers of some executives. Maybe then they’ll remember that cutting corners in something as potentially dangerous as an airliner does not save money in the long run. If I were an airline that bought these planes, I’d sue Boeing’s socks off.

In the long run, good regulation saves lives and property. What Republicans refuse to learn: In the long run, good regulation probably saves money as well.

Why does this feel familiar?



One of the creepiest Zuckerberg photos of all time, which he himself cluelessly posted on Facebook


The sound of derisive laughter from the entire civilized world almost drowned out the din of the Washington circus. Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook will “pivot to privacy.” Yes, and pigs will pivot to flying.

We veterans of the Apple-Microsoft wars, which went on for years, have been there before. Apple is still in the game, but Facebook is the new Microsoft. Facebook’s evil-empire strategy really is the same as Microsoft’s. The strategy is not about giving people what they want and treating customers with respect. Rather, it’s about domination and control, trapping one’s customers rather than delighting them.

As Slate and other publications have pointed out, what Zuckerberg’s “pivot to privacy” is really about is domination. Apple owns that high ground at present, with its smooth-as-silk iMessage ecosystem. And as Consumer Reports points out, encrypted messaging is already here and has been for a long time. Apple’s iMessage has had encryption all along. And even old-fashioned SMS phone-to-phone texting is secure, as long as the cellular carriers keep their promises not to snoop.

I sometimes wonder if Apple’s messaging system didn’t lead — or at least feed — the trend away from actually talking on our phones versus using our phones for texting. Millennials, and the coasts, have led the way. According to Forbes, some companies are eliminating voice mail, because so many employees don’t want it and don’t use it.

I am right on the edge of changing the answer message on both my phone lines to say that I never answer the phone, but that if it’s really important and you leave a message, I might call you back someday. More than half the time when my phone rings, it’s a spam call. The rest of the time it’s somebody that I don’t want to talk to, because my friends (as well as most of my political associates) text me or email me.

So Zuckerberg has accurately noticed that texting is now the future and that people are disgusted with Facebook (and with social media in general). It took about 10 years for people to realize that social media, despite its early thrill, would inevitably rot because of the drag and corruption exerted by the lowest common denominator. There is even a precedent for this rot, though latecomers to the Internet would not be aware of it. It was called Usenet. Usenet started around 1979. All the early Internet computers had it. During the 1980s, Usenet was a marvel of elite communication. All the universities had it. But after Usenet reached a certain size, it became useless because of the spam, the trolls, too many people, and those who tried to bilk it for promotion and advertising. This is now happening to Facebook. Consequently Zuckerberg is desperate for new terrain to dominate and control.

I predict that Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, like Microsoft and Bill Gates before him, will fail. That’s because Facebook will continue to build traps. Apple will compete by building better and better stuff.

Improvising Asian sauces



That’s miso broth in the cup, and fermented black beans in the jar.

I have encountered two big challenges in trying to improve my competence with Chinese cuisine: wok cooking and the sauces.

Recipes for Chinese dishes may call for one or more of an array of Chinese sauces that some of us have never even heard of. It’s then tempting just to give up on Asian cuisine and not even try a recipe, because of the sauce mystery. For example, here is a list of sauces gleaned from Wikipedia: Douban sauce, hoisin sauce, mala sauce, mee pok sauce, oyster sauce, peach sauce, plum sauce, soy sauce, and shacha sauce.

Part of what’s sophisticated about Chinese cooking, though, is what I call the sense of sauce. A sense of sauce is one of the things that makes French (and Irish) cooking so good. Of course, the Irish also have Kerry butter.

With Chinese sauces, I find that some are essential and must be store bought (soy sauce, for example). But many can be made at home. If you lack an ingredient, just improvise. You probably already have what you need to make hoisin sauce. Oyster sauce can be improvised, even a vegan version.

I improvise shamelessly. I’m not ashamed to use ingredients that are traditionally Japanese, or even African, in Chinese food. Pepper paste, for example, is pretty much pepper paste. That which isn’t entirely authentic can at least be good. It’s all about umami. All sorts of things that you already have in your kitchen are useful for improvisation: blackstrap molasses, many types of vinegar, raisins (whizzed in a food processor), and any type of pepper sauce (I use harissa sauce). One of my inauthentic secret weapons is Better Than Bouillon, which will add a lot of oomph and color to a sauce that calls for water, allowing you to reduce the amount of soy sauce.

With black bean sauce, there is no improvisation. You’ve got to have the real thing. The black beans are not the same as what we call black beans here. They’re actually a type of soybean. They’re fermented, and it’s the fermentation that gives the beans their sassy taste. I couldn’t find fermented black beans even at Whole Foods, but Amazon has them.

So if a Chinese recipe calls for a sauce, and you don’t have it, Google for a recipe. Then improvise. As for wok cooking, it’s like breadmaking and getting to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.


The tofu and vegetables here ended up in a black bean sauce.

The inequalities of banking


Increasingly, liberals are noticing that it’s very expensive to be poor. It may seem strange to those of us for whom bank accounts are an ordinary fact of life. But many people cannot afford bank accounts. Consequently poor people pay more for just about everything.

Often when I go to the post office, I see people buying money orders and paying with cash. Fortunately, money orders from the U.S. Postal Service aren’t expensive — $1.20 for up to $500. But cashing a check may have cost them up to 12 percent. Many people with precarious finances do have bank accounts, but they get eaten alive by fees. Americans paid $34.3 billion just in overdraft fees in 2017. The poorest are the most vulnerable, with a typical poor person with a bank account being charged about $450 each year.

Democrats — in particular Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — have proposed that all U.S. post offices offer retail banking services. Republicans, naturally, don’t like the idea. Even some centrists don’t like the idea. But it seems to me that any serious plan for reducing economic inequality must include a mechanism for giving poor people options that allow them to avoid financial predation, which is at present a lucrative and ugly business.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, those who are solvent and who know how to manage money make money from their banks. “Rewards” cards are the main vehicle for that.

Rewards cards are increasingly controversial, because merchants are charged more by credit card companies when customers pay with a rewards card. Some people have even made a hobby of juggling rewards cards to maximize cash back, using spreadsheets to track the best deals. According to the New York Magazine article that I just cited, more than 90 percent of credit card transactions now involve “rewards.” This is costing banks more and more money, so powerful financial interests are fighting for changes.

Though it is merchants who have to pay for the use of credit cards, we all pay for the credit card industry through higher prices charged by merchants. What rational person would not want to get some of that money back, if the banks let you do it?

I confess that I have two rewards card. Each year I earn a significant sum from my Bank of America rewards card by paying the full balance each month and collecting the rewards. Recently I acquired an Amazon Prime rewards card. I really didn’t want another credit card, but 5 percent cash back on everything I buy from Amazon and Whole Foods was just too good a deal to turn down, since Amazon and Whole Foods are my two main supply lines. And, strangely enough, Bank of America even sweetened the deal a bit last month by allowing customers to choose their 3 percent category, with online shopping as one of the categories. That probably was to compete with Amazon’s card. But the difference between 5 percent and 3 percent was too much to pass up.

The unfairness built into this system is apparent. Those who are financially stronger are making money off of those who are financially weaker, through higher prices on virtually everything from groceries to gasoline. Does that mean that I should abstain from using a rewards card? No, because the rewards that I don’t collect would be pocketed by the bank, not by the poor.

Instead, we should demand financial reform that is fair to the poor and less harsh on merchants — at the banks’ expense. If that means an end to rewards cards, I’ll understand. As long as merchants reduced their prices to reflect reduced expenses for accepting credit cards (would they?) then we’d still get the money back through lower prices.

A Place to Call Home


Last night I finished watching the first season of “A Place to Call Home.” I can’t believe that I didn’t discover it sooner. It is superb melodrama and a superb soap opera. It’s perfectly cast and beautifully filmed. The dialogue is magnificent, some of the most intelligent dialogue I’ve ever seen in a TV series.

No one ever accused me of being up to date on matters of entertainment. I go for the good stuff, not the new stuff. This series, which went through six seasons and 67 episodes, premiered in 2013 and ended in 2016. I watched it on DVDs from Netflix. It also can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video (with an extra charge), and it’s included with a subscription to Acorn TV.

Here’s a link to a trailer on YouTube.

The story is set in 1953, in Australia. The traumas of World War II linger. Like two other great soap operas — “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the central setting is a big house. But around the big house live an array of complicated characters with complicated pasts and complicated secrets. It’s an Australian production created by Bevan Lee. It’s a period piece that beautifully evokes the 1950s. Keep your hanky handy.

I won’t be going hungry for good television for a good while now. In addition to five more seasons of “A Place to Call Home,” I need to re-watch the previous season of “Game of Thrones” before it returns with the final season in April.

QAnon?



Vice President Mike Pence with members of the Broward County, Florida, SWAT team on Nov. 30, 2018. The officer wearing the “Q” patch was later disciplined and lost his tactical assignment. Wikipedia photo.


One of the many disturbing things about the Trump era is learning just how crazy many Americans are. For years now, susceptible old white people have been taught that only right-wing propaganda can be trusted. Anything else is fake news. All Trump supporters are immersed in a sea of propaganda. On the far fringe is QAnon.

NBC News reported yesterday that a QAnon book was No. 56 on Amazon’s list of bestselling books.

“The book claims without evidence a variety of outlandish claims including that prominent Democrats murder and eat children,” the NBC News story says. QAnon believers regularly appear at Trump rallies holding up “Q” signs.

“Adherents of the Qanon conspiracy theory falsely believe that the world is run by a Satanic cabal helmed by former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton,” the NBC story says.

In an article about QAnon last August, the Washington Post wrote: “QAnon flirts with eschatology, fascist philosophy and the filmmaking of Francis Ford Coppola. Adherents believe a ‘Great Awakening’ will precede the final storm foretold by Trump. Once they make sense of the information drip-fed to them by ‘Q,’ they will usher in a Christian revival presaging total victory.”

A friend who monitors Twitter (I stay away from Twitter) sometimes sends me “tweets” from QAnon crazies. Not only do they really believe that stuff, they also believe that they’re the smart ones, that they’re on the inside of what’s really going on. It’s the rest of us who are fools.

QAnon, it would seem, serves two purposes. For one, it helps to keep right-wingers inflamed and alienated by demonizing those who practice rational politics. And, for two, it makes money for some very nasty people.

NBC News writes: “Conspiracy theory researcher Mike Rothschild told NBC News that ‘An Invitation to the Great Awakening’ is a new way for those pushing the QAnon conspiracy theory to make cash, since recent changes to YouTube’s algorithm have made it harder for conspiracy theorists to find new followers and cash in on true believers.”

The larger problem is that right-wing propaganda is highly profitable. In 2016 (the most recent year for which I can find numbers), Fox News had profits of $1.67 billion. MSNBC didn’t even come close, at $279 million. CNN is moving up, and is probably moving to the right, as well.

If we ever get out of this mess, one of the problems to be solved is to figure out how to deal with the fact that duping ignorant old white people is so profitable. According to Michael Cohen’s testimony last week, that’s why Trump ran for president in the first place. The Trump campaign was to be the “greatest infomercial in political history.” Inseparable from the problem of the profitability of right-wing politics is the profitability of right-wing religion — tax free. Christian revival indeed.

Lily learns to listen


What? No cat videos lately? What good is all this digital stuff if we can’t aim it at our pets?

The abbey’s organ used to terrify Lily. She would run to her most secret hiding place at the faintest sound from the organ. She still does not like sound that is too loud. But now, whenever the organ is being played, she sits on a nearby table and listens as she looks out the window. I’m pretty sure that she enjoys it. Back in the days when I had a dog and a piano, the dog would come and lie under the piano whenever I played. Animals do like music.

That’s the abbey organ in the video above, but it’s not me playing. It’s a MIDI (electronic keyboard capture) performance made by an unknown organist. I have pretty much the complete organ works of J.S. Bach in MIDI format.

What a screenplay!


Since Michael Cohen’s career as a lawyer is over, he’ll be looking for a new job when he gets out of prison in 2022. I’d suggest that he move his family to Los Angeles, make a fresh California start, and get into the business of writing screenplays. Assuming that he wrote yesterday’s opening statement himself, he’s a good writer. Also, the year 2022 should be about the time Hollywood will start producing its first documentary blockbusters on the Trump catastrophe. Cohen will be a rich man again in no time, and an honest man to boot.

If you view the Trump catastrophe as a terrifying made-for-TV drama now in its third season, yesterday’s hearing before the House Oversight Committee was the episode in which the plot turned. Until yesterday, the prospect of justice was remote. The ugliest characters in American history were stealing everything they could carry off and smashing the rest. They were getting away with it. Viewers were aware of a mysterious character named Robert Mueller, who was seen once or twice in short scenes, emerging from a black sedan with his briefcase and hurrying through the door of the FBI building. But Mueller has had no speaking lines so far. For three seasons, viewers could easily believe that the villains were going to keep getting away with it all. The first three seasons were an international spectacle of crime, corruption, and treason. It was clear what the villains were doing to America: Neutralizing the rule of law, poisoning our politics, turning 40 percent of the population into lie-eating zombies, turning the U.S. into the new Russia with billionaires and oligarchs fully in control, and looting yet another country with impunity, this time the United States.

At last, yesterday, from the grandeur of the U.S. Capitol, with millions of people watching, the script gives us this:


I am ashamed of my weakness and misplaced loyalty — of the things I did for Mr. Trump in an effort to protect and promote him.

I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr. Trump’s illicit acts rather than listening to my own conscience.

I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is.

He is a racist.

He is a con man.

He is a cheat.”


At last, one of the key characters is saying what we’ve long known, having watched all three seasons so far. The wheels of justice have started to roll.

The screenplay of the Trump catastrophe will surely follow classical storytelling structure from here on, with justice done in the end and lots of bad guys perp-walked off to prison. But classical storytelling structure also calls for one more crisis, the worst crisis of all, a crisis so severe that we are forced to abandon our new hope. Technically, this crisis should occur just before the final elements of justice move into place. The villains, in a diabolical act so ghastly that we would not have thought it humanly possible, will make one last desperate effort to turn the tables back toward evil. Having nursed our hope through the entire fourth season, in the season-ender episode all hope is lost.

I am not being entirely unserious here. That’s because the Trump-catastrophe-as-reality-show accords with how Trump sees himself and how he sees the world — as posh reality TV with himself as the star. He spends half his day in the White House watching television. He is obsessed with ratings. And though he is too stupid to come up with a plot or write a screenplay on his own, he nevertheless has a primitive dramatic instinct. When the time comes, and when the long arm of the law lays its hand on Trump’s shoulder, he will not be able to resist one final act of appalling destruction to try to save himself.

Who could have guessed that, compared with Trump, the vile Richard Nixon was just a petty amateur? Garrett Graff writes in Raven Rock that, during the last days of Nixon’s presidency, James Schlesinger and Henry Kissinger became concerned that Nixon might do something foolish as payback or distraction, and they gave instructions to the military that no nuclear orders from Nixon would be executed without Schlesinger and Kissinger signing off.

Trump, a monster from the same mold as Nixon but worse, will have the same impulse. Let’s just hope that the Deep State will once again come to our rescue. That the Deep State should take precautions to save the country from depraved politicians is not surprising. What is surprising is that, in this screenplay, the Republican Party actually perverts itself into an enemy of justice and goes to war against congressional accountability, the Department of Justice, and maybe even the Pentagon before this is all over. After Trump, the Republican Party, having gone full fascist and embraced criminality and treason to stay in power, is doomed for a hundred years.

Yesterday’s screenplay also included hilarious scenes in which those who are still covering for Trump make pluperfect fools of themselves — for example, Rep. Jim Jordan from Ohio. He doesn’t seem to have a clue how this is all going to end, so he doesn’t realize the video of himself as dolt and villain that he has contributed to future documentaries.

Still, once the Trump catastrophe is finally brought to a close, the documentaries are made, and history moves on, we will still leave the theaters shaking our heads, worrying over the same old unanswered questions: How can people be so dumb? And how can people be so mean?


Update: I’m not kidding about a final crisis. As for what such a crisis might look like, Michael Cohen actually warned the U.S. Congress, and the world, yesterday:

“Indeed given my experience working for Mr. Trump I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power, and this is why I agreed to appear before you today.”

And given the ever-deepening stupidity and treason-coddling of the Republican Party, they may be stupid enough to go along with it. There is zero chance that Trump will be around to run for re-election in 2020. But the problem would be the same: getting him and his remaining accomplices out of the White House and out of the U.S. Congress.


Proper stir-fries at home: Is it even possible?



Tofu, fried rice, and mixed vegetables

Stir-frying is such a good way to make low-carb suppers that, for months now, I’ve been having stir-fries for supper three and even four days a week. I had been using a large nonstick skillet, with heat much lower than professional Asian cooks use. I’ve gotten very good at skillet stir-fries, so good that it was time to up my game. That means using a wok, not a skillet.

Not long ago I saw a Lodge cast iron wok in a variety store up in the mountains. The price tag said $99.00. The wok was beautiful, almost magical. I petted it for quite some time but decided not to buy it. The price was just too steep.

Then when I got home, I checked Amazon. Amazon Prime sells the very same Lodge wok for $49.90, shipping included. I ordered it immediately. It’s a shame to cut out local merchants and buy from Amazon. But why should I make a $50 donation to a store that’s willing to overcharge its customers so badly?

The wok comes pre-seasoned, but after I took the wok out of the box I spent a few hours seasoning it a bit more, just to be sure that nothing would stick (and partly to pet it). Nothing did.

Though I have had many good, authentic Chinese meals in San Francisco and New York, and even though I survived a few days in Bangkok with nothing to eat with but chopsticks and soup spoons, I have never watched a professional Asian cook use a wok. YouTube to the rescue. (But be careful — there are also plenty of wok videos made by people who have no idea what they’re doing.)

The amount of heat that professional Asian cooks use is terrifying. Their wok stoves are like blast furnaces. Not to mention that all who are concerned with healthy eating try to keep cooking oils from overheating and smoking, because smoking oils produce carcinogens. If you do some Google searches on this subject, you’ll find several online discussions about just how high heat really needs to be for decent wok cooking at home. The woks of professional Asian cooks may reach 900 degrees F, I understand. Some foodies say that 650F is the minimum. Some claim good results at 450F. But even 650F is too high for my comfort. The smoke point of avocado oil is 500F. That’s my limit, insofar as it’s possible to control the wok’s temperature at every instant of the cooking process.

If you watch YouTube videos of Grace Young cooking in a wok, she is definitely not doing a fire show. She is the author of The Breath of a Wok, which I have ordered. I believe her book is the best-reviewed book written by an Asian for non-Asian cooks using domestic cooking apparatus.

It’s going to take weeks or months for me to get the hang of wok cooking and to figure out where the sweet spot is between a Cantonese fire show and low-smoke home stir-fries. But, even on my first attempt, though I produced a little smoke, the results were like magic. The Chinese call it wok hei, translated “the breath of the wok.” That’s the taste of fire and smoke. Asian fire-show cooks even get short flashes of fire inside their woks while they’re cooking. Don’t try that at home.

I quickly realized that you don’t have to have flash fires in the wok to get (at least some) real wok hei flavor. My first stir-fry did indeed taste like fire. The taste was primal. It was like something that had been cooked outdoors, over a fire, 900 years ago. That’s wok hei.

A friend said (in a text message) that woks are a Platonic sort of cooking vessel. That’s a good way of putting it. The word primal also keeps coming to mind. There is something ancient about the wok, about the cooking process, and about the flavors that you can get. My electric range seems to get hot enough. But if at some point I decide to experiment with murderously high heat, I’ll use a high-powered gas-fired cooking tripod outdoors on the deck.

All the work of wok cooking is in the preparation, because you have to have everything lined up and ready to go. Once you actually start cooking, it’s over in minutes.

The Lodge wok is very big and very heavy. Before you buy one, you might want to figure out where you’re going to store it. I’ll probably store my wok in the oven most of the time. On my electric stove set to high, the 12-pound wok takes about nine minutes to heat up.

Making a wok meal is an hour of patient washing, drying, and slicing followed by a few minutes fire and frenzy.