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I have never used Twitter. I never will.

If I take off my snark cap and put on my nice cap, and if I try to come up with a reason to justify Twitter’s existence, then this is the best I can do: Twitter is like texting, but it’s a broadcast rather than one-to-one. The 140-character limit isn’t so weird if you assume that most twitting — I mean tweeting — is done from phones. In fact, I think that when Twitter first came into existence, it used SMS text messages and had to work within a 160-character limit. You can use Twitter to “follow” someone that you’re interested in, or you can use hashtags (#babblebabble) to tune in to particular subjects.

Whatever. It’s still useless. A text message that says “I’ll be there at 6” or “I fed the cat” makes perfectly good sense to me. But nobody in the world — including Donald Trump — has anything to say in 140-character broadcasts than I am in any way interested in.

The situation has become much worse, because “Tweets” now find their way into news stories. If I still worked in a newspaper newsroom, I’d argue until I was hoarse that “Tweets” should be treated like any other quotation — inside the paragraph with quotation marks around it, appropriately attributed. But no, the print media seem to have taken up the horrifying, visually jarring convention of putting each litle Tweet into a paragraph of its own, with lots of white space above and below it, some of it in italics, including a bunch of stray characters that are no more useful than 75-year-old Western Union routing codes for Telegrams: “LA063 OD137 0 SFR200.”

And still worse, to stay within the 140-character limit, all sorts of ad hoc abbreviations, elisions and omissions are required, unless of course the Tweet is split into multiple particles, each helpfully numbered (5), (4), (3), (2), (1) in reverse order.

During the days of Western Union, bandwidth was extremely expensive. Depending on how far a Telegram was going, each character cost a lot of money. So there was a good reason for keeping your message short.

Now bandwidth is incredibly cheap, so cheap that we can stream high-definition movies, a different movie to each room of the house. Peter Thiel is famous for saying, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

My first job was as a newspaper copy boy in the 1960s. One of my responsibilities was looking after a room full Teletype machines. There was even a Western Union Telex printer in the room, because newspapers got a lot of Telegrams.

In many ways, I loved the days when bandwidth was expensive. When bandwidth was expensive, information that came in from far away was valuable, with an aura of exotic magic about it. If it weren’t valuable, it would not have been sent. Remember long distance? It was very expensive, and it was thrilling to hear a loved one’s voice from far, far away. These days the chatter is almost all worthless. That’s why I don’t use Twitter. Increasingly, I don’t use the telephone, either. But that’s a rant for another day.


A 1960s Telex printer, Wikipedia

A big backfire of right-wing propaganda


I try to limit my posts on politics to the times when I have something to say that others aren’t saying. The commentary in the mainstream media on Saturday’s events in Charlottesville has mostly been very good.

But I do want to point out here how a propaganda stunt by an ugly minority has backfired on its organizers, even though their web sites are claiming that it was a great success and just a beginning. They were greatly outnumbered. Some of those who were photographed with torches were embarrassed to be seen there, faces contorted with hatred. They tried to backpedal after their photos went viral in social media. If you read some of the comments in social media this weekend, then you know that this right-wing extremism, hatred, and gullibility extend far beyond the losers who carried torches in Charlottesville on Saturday. As long as the Republican Party stokes, or tolerates, this rage in its base, more white terrorism is inevitable.

The theatrics of their propaganda intentionally evoke the Nazis. I’m not sure how they think it will help them, unless they suppose that it makes them look powerful and that it evokes fear. Their most conspicuous web site, I believe, is the Daily Stormer, if you can stomach it. It appears to have been hacked by Anonymous during the weekend. Clearly they see Trump as their Hitler. I do, too.

Why is this happening?

All trails lead to the Republican Party, to the Republican media including Fox News, to professional provocateurs for the Republican Party including Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and to Donald Trump and the White House.

It is not enough to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis. It is the Republican Party that brought us this.


Update:

The backfire has kept growing such that, two days later, Trump was finally compelled to condemn the Nazis: Trump denounces KKK, neo-Nazis as Justice Department launches civil rights probe into Charlottesville death

Republican politicians start coming around, though Mitch McConnell is still being a coward: ‘Vile bigotry’: Politicians respond to violent protests in Charlottesville


Game of Thrones


In looking through the blog logs yesterday, I noticed that someone searched for “Game of Thrones.” It seems odd in retrospect that I haven’t really blogged about the greatest achievement in fantasy since Tolkien, both in literature and in television. (I’m open to the argument that George R.R. Martin’s achievement has surpassed Tolkien’s.)

The reason, really, is that I’m so into Game of Thrones that, if I started writing here about Game of Thrones, there’d be no end to it. I would become a Game of Thrones boor. Besides, everyone writes about Game of Thrones. Each Monday morning after a new episode, the media cover last night’s happenings in Game of Thrones just like a news event. On a slow news day, Game of Thrones is a big story. The real world blurs into the Game of Thrones world. That in itself is tremendously exciting and serves as a reminder of the power of stories and the power of fantasy — not to mention our need for escape and distraction (especially on Sunday nights when so many hardworking people are dreading the reality of Monday morning).

Since the very beginning, with Season 1 in 2011, Ken and I have spent untold hours discussing each episode and developing what I would call Acorn Abbey’s theory of story analysis (which is pretty well developed and taken very seriously). If Ken is here, the discussion happens at the table, at breakfast and dinner. If Ken is away, the discussion happens in emails. Game of Thrones matters. If you’re a writer, you want to understand how Martin does what he does. You also become very attached to these characters. You have to know what happens to them.

Ken has pointed out how, in many ways, the genre of the two-hour movie is increasingly passé. Even when there are sequels, two-hour movies can’t accomplish what a series can accomplish — world building, character development, complex intertangled plots, a deep exploration of time, place, people and ideas. No doubt it was literature that led the way. Isaac Asimov started his Foundation series in 1951, and the Robot series in 1954. Though I think that Tolkien did not really think of The Lord of the Rings as a series when he wrote it, it was broken into volumes for publishing (starting in 1954). Now everyone writes series. Yes, most of them are bad. You’ve all heard Sturgeon’s law: “Sure, 90 percent of science fiction is crap. That’s because 90 percent of everything is crap.” Theodore Sturgeon was, of course, a science fiction writer.

If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, none of this needs saying. If you’re not, then it’s not too late. The books are as close as Amazon. Everything is available on DVD and Blu-ray. The two HBO apps, HBO Now and HBO Go, keep all seasons available for streaming.

And tonight at 9: Season 7, episode 5.

How to win: Torture the language and muddle the story


I pay very little attention to the science fiction and fantasy publishing industry anymore. Almost every book I try to read, I end up flinging away in frustration after the first few pages. Almost no one knows how to write, and almost no one knows how to tell a story.

Instead, what passes for “good writing” is innovation in quirkiness. Last night at the World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki, the Hugo award for the best novel of 2017 was won by N.K. Jemisin for The Obelisk Gate. I have not read this novel, nor will I. Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature saves me a lot of money and time, because I can fling books without having to buy them.

The quirk that Jemisin applied in The Obelisk Gate was to write the narrative in the second person, and in the present tense. And there is just enough dialogue in Amazon’s free sample to reveal that the characters are jerks who talk just like the here-and-now people in television’s meanest sitcoms.

This is the kind of writing that will win you a Hugo these days:

And this is the kind of characters and dialogue that will get you a Hugo these days:

Who am I protest? N.K. Jemisin sells lots of books, and I don’t. But I have to ask: Why does jerks arguing make good dialogue? I stand my ground: The best writing style is a style that the reader never even notices, a window into the story that is as transparent as possible. And though villains are necessary, there had better be some characters to fall in love with.

Here’s yet another Hugo winner that will be completely forgotten, and good riddance, before the pages have started turning yellow.

The new girls come on line


The easiest time of year to acquire chickens — at least in these parts — comes in the weeks before Easter. That’s when the local mills and Tractor Supply have chicks for sale. Spring chickens can be counted on to start laying in August. The new girls are right on time — maybe even a little early.

The abbey’s chickens are always beautiful and healthy, but 2017 has been a special year, I think. The rain and cooler weather have made for excellent pasturing and foraging. The chickens here have three fenced areas. During the day, when it’s hot, they have full shade in the woods. They love to spend mornings and evenings in the orchard. And when there are no young plants to damage, they have full run of the garden.

The first eggs are slightly smaller than the eggs of the mature chickens, about 52 grams vs. 62 grams. All the girls are laying superb eggs with good shells and golden yolks from all the grass and clover.

Conversion to SSL


The change should be transparent, but this blog has switched over to SSL, or “secure sockets layer,” protocol. You might have noticed that your URL window now says “https:” rather than “http:”. Depending on the browser you use, you may also see a padlock icon with the URL.

SSL uses encryption to improve the security of web sites. Though encryption is not really critical for blogs, since no private information is involved, nevertheless encryption is never a bad idea. Also, Google ranks sites higher when they use SSL encryption.

Not quite canary


For the past few months, I’ve been rereading Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. I’m now on book 8. I would rate Winston Graham as one of the best novelists of the 20th Century, but that’s a post for another day. This post is about wine — dessert wine in particular.

In the Poldark novels, the poor folk drink gin. Everybody drinks ale. The gentry drink wine. The menfolk drink brandy. The gentry also drink a lot of dessert wines, and not necessarily with dessert — port (Demelza’s favorite drink), and canary.

If I ever knew what canary is, I had forgotten, and I had to look it up. It’s a sweet white (or yellow) wine. It was popular in Elizabethan England and on into the 18th Century. The wine was imported from the Canary Islands, and presumably that’s how it got its name. I would like to think, though, that the wine was a canary yellow. That’s how I visualize it, when they drink it in the novels.

I understand that winemakers in the Canary Islands are trying to have a comeback. But if anything resembling 18th Century canary wine is available today, I wouldn’t know where to get it. But there is sweet yellow dessert wine that is pretty hard to find and that also deserves a comeback — sauternes, which is made in Bordeaux.

I was suprised to see Trader Joe’s selling little bottles of 2011 sauternes. It wasn’t cheap, but the canary color was irresistible.

Some Googling showed that wine reviewers have mentioned sauternes occasionally in the past few years. One such reviewer disparaged the idea of drinking sweet wines with desserts — too much sweet, he said. Rather, he suggested having sauternes with lobster. I’m not likely to be making any lobster dishes any time soon. Maybe banana pudding?

This sauternes is only 13 percent alcohol. It would seem the fermentation is stopped early, when there is still lots of sugar in the wine. As I understand it, the grapes for sauternes are left on the vine for a while, partly to shrivel and dry (making a very concentrated juice) and partly so that bacteria specific to sauternes can grow in the grapes.

Also from Googling, I learned that someone in Scotland makes a scotch whiskey that is aged in sauternes casks. I have to try that.

A buck — a rare sighting here


It’s apparent that I have a herd, or maybe an extended family, of deer that live in the woods just below and behind the abbey. During the day, I sometimes see them moving around just inside the woods, mostly hidden by the foliage. But at dusk and just after dawn (and no doubt during the night) they come into the yard and eat whatever they want.

This is the first buck I’ve ever seen in the yard. He was with a young doe. I don’t know much about deer family relationships, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re yearling siblings who still hang out near their mother.

The enlightened past


Once upon a time, philosophers could find work with newspapers. There are no such people now. But, back then, Sydney J. Harris was such a person.

Harris (1917-1986) worked for the Chicago Daily News, and, later, the Chicago Sun-Times. For years, he wrote a column called “Strictly Personal,” which was syndicated in 200 newspapers. One of those papers was the Winston-Salem Journal, where I got my first job. When I was college age, not as much was said about liberals vs. conservatives. I only knew that I loved Harris’ columns. He was, of course, a liberal. I should mention that the insufferable William F. Buckley also had a newspaper column in those days, “On the Right,” which was syndicated in even more newspapers — 300. No doubt I read, or tried to read, some of Buckley’s columns, but I have no recollection of it. Buckley would have made no sense to me. His pomposity, and the turgidity of his prose, would have offended me, I’m sure, though Buckley left no lasting impression.

Harris’ columns, I now realize, were formative for me and helped me sort out the political turbulence of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. I think about Harris from time to time, as though he was a mentor. In a way, he was.

Unfortunately, Harris’ books are out of print. His reputation has not carried forward very well into the Internet era. As a kind of memorial, I would like to reproduce here two columns. Both of the columns are taken from the book The Best of Sydney J. Harris, which was published in 1975. Some of the columns, I believe, may go back as far as the 1950s.


We are not fit to colonize space

By Sydney J. Harris

A few days after our successful orbiting of the moon, a friend expressed the hope that this venture would teach people humility in the face of the universe.

“If this helps us realize how vast outer space is, and how small our globe is,” he said, “then it might make us all feel more united as inhabitants of this tiny speck of dust whirling in space.”

This would be a commendable lesson to learn, I agree, but I doubt that we would draw so philosophical an inference from the moon project. Rather, I suggested bleakly, it might lead us in the opposite direction.

Instead of regarding space exploration as a common effort binding mankind together, it is far more likely that we will simply extend our competitiveness from inner to outer space, and look upon the solar system as competing nations once regarded explorations on earth — as places to plant flags, to colonize, to use as economic resources and military outposts.

Unless we make some unexpected quantum jump in our thinking and feeling, we will simply extrapolate to other worlds the same greed and vanity, the same lust for possession and domination, the same conflict over boundaries and priorities throughout the solar system.

What is even more dire, we might also export the contamination of our planet, not merely in terms of wars and prejudices and injustices, but quite physically, in terms of bacteria and viruses and all the assorted pollutions of earth, air and water that are rapidly making our own globe nearly uninhabitable.

Nothing in our history, early or recent, indicates that we are not prepared to despoil other planets as carelessly and contemptuously as we have turned ours from green to gray, from fair to foul, from sweet to sour, in the countryside as well as in the cities — so that even sunny, snowy Switzerland has shown a 90 percent increase in smoke content and turbidity of the air in the last two decades.

We are no more morally or spiritually equipped to colonize other parts of the solar system — given our past level of behavior on earth — than a hog is fit to march in an Easter parade. Our technical genius so far outstrips our ethical and emotional idiocy that we are no more to be trusted to deal lovingly and creatively with another planet than a rhesus monkey can be allowed to run free in a nuclear power plant.

The astronauts are bold men, and the scientists who sent them up are bright men, but they are not the ones who will decide what is done once we get there. The same old schemers will be running the show.


Radical righters are fascists

By Sydney J. Harris

It’s an interesting peculiarity of our social order that while the term “communist” is flung around frequently and often carelessly, its opposite number, “fascist,” is hardly used at all.

In Europe, this is not the case. People have no hesitancy in speaking of the right-wing radicals as “fascists,” for this is what they are. To speak of them as “extreme conservatives” is a foolish contradiction in terms.

And it seems quite plain to me that there are many more fascists and fascist sympathizers in the United States than there are communists and their sympathizers — unless, of course, you care to adopt the fascist line and suggest that everyone who favors staying in the U.N. and retaining Social Security is a Red fellow-traveler.

We seem to be so exercised about communist influence in this country, which is negligible, both in numbers and in appeal to the American temper. Yet, year by year, one sees a fascist spirit rising among the people, although it is called by many other and softer names, and has even achieved a certain dubious respectability in some circles.

There is no reason why there shouldn’t be a fascist movement in this country; nearly every nation has one. But it should be called by its right name, and it should be willing to accept the consequences of its position, as the fascist parties do elsewhere.

It has no business masquerading as “Americanism” or “conservatism” or “patriotism,” when its whole philosophy of man is based on a hate-filled exclusiveness that would shock and affront the conservative American patriots who founded this country.

What is distressing about this movement is the tacit or open support given it by men who genuinely think of themselves as “conservatives,” and who do not understand the implications of right-wing radicalism any more than the German industrialists understood what would happen to them when Hitler swept into power with their support.

Just as Communism always begins with an appeal to “humanity” and “equality” and always ends with inhuman despotism, so does fascism always begin with an appeal to “nationalism” and “individualism,” and ends with a military collectivism far worse than the disease it purports to cure.

These twin evils are the mirror-image of one another. It would be the supreme irony if, in rejecting the blandishments of communism, we fell hysterically into the arms of fascism disguised (as always) as Defender of the Faith.


Why doesn’t it mold?



Month-old commercial bread — no sign of mold

A month ago I bought a loaf of commercial bread for my annual ritual of the year’s first garden-tomato sandwich. Today I found the leftover bread on top of the refrigerator. There is not the slightest sign of mold. The bread label boasts that the bread contains no preservatives — at least no “artificial” preservatives. What is going on?

I found that, if I Googled for “Why doesn’t bread mold?” there were a lot of conflicting and confusing answers. I changed Google’s search parameters to show links less than a year old, thinking that there must surely be something new involved, and then the answers started looking more plausible.

The bread contains an ingredient called “cultured wheat flour.” That, I believe, is the magic ingredient.

It’s not clear how long “cultured wheat flour” has been in use. I suspect that it’s for less than 10 years. Clearly it is effective at preventing bread from molding. It is made from wheat flour that has been fermented with a bacterium called Propionibacterium freudenreichii. According to an article at BakerPedia, this bacterium is found in dairy foods including Swiss cheese, so it has been around forever and can be considered safe. According to the article, it is as effective as chemical preservatives at inhibiting mold. “As a result,” said the article, “it is growing in popularity in all natural and organic products.”

This bread is from a baking company called “Nature’s Own,” which is owned by Flower’s Foods. This bread is sold not only at my nearest Whole Foods in Winston-Salem, it’s also sold into the very bottom of the market — Dollar General stores. Apparently Whole Foods is satisfied that the bread passes muster.

The calcium-containing ingredients near the end of the list, by the way, are leavening agents that fizz when combined and are probably nothing to get terribly excited about.

The question I was trying to answer was whether it would be safe to give the leftover bread to the chickens. I think that the answer is yes. It’s scary, actually, to eat a food that resists being biodegraded. But fermentation is a natural process that does exactly that, and humans have taken advantage of fermentation as a way of preserving food for thousands of years.

Dissenting views? Please comment…