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How is this even possible?





When will we completely rethink our relationship with animals? Can there be any doubt that this horse not only hears and is working with the beat of the music, but that the horse also knows that what it’s doing is beautiful?

Trump has no future other than prison



A Facebook meme


Polls from Quinnipiac University I always take with a grain of salt. And, actually, any single poll always should be taken with a grain of salt. But this particular Quinnipiac poll is so lopsided that I think it’s worth our confidence.

The poll, released November 22, found that only 35 percent of Americans consider themselves supporters of Trump’s MAGA movement. That means that Trumpism is now pretty much down to the irrational authoritarians who are motivated only by their meanness rather than anything that resembles a fact or a principle. There is a percentage below which that number will never go, because that kind of people never change. The number, I would argue, is somewhere between 25 and 35 percent. But the exact percentage doesn’t matter, because they are and always will be a minority. We need to keep in mind that, even in 2016, a majority of voters rejected Trump. It was only because of our archaic Electoral College and its amplification of rural votes that Trump got into the White House.

As I have often said here, there is not a snowball’s chance that Trump will ever again get near the White House. What remains to be seen, though, is whether the Republican Party will find a way to unload Trump to save itself, or whether Republicans (a majority of whom still believe in Trump) will ride Trump all the way down.

It’s past time for rational people to stop being afraid of Trump. Rather, just enjoy the shadenfreude of watching Trump finally taken down and disposed of by the law. When Trumpists strut and threaten, as they still do, just smirk and walk away.

Workouts for the brain


In a few days, I’ll turn 74. And though I don’t feel my memory or logic circuits slipping, I don’t want them to slip. I read an article recently that mentioned something that I should have known but didn’t know. Reading fiction is very good exercise for the memory, because one has to remember at the end of the book what happened at the beginning. The article said that, when older people start to give up on reading fiction, that’s an indicator that memory problems may be developing.

But what about our logic circuits?

Sudoku was a major craze ten or twelve years ago. I didn’t pay much attention, because I’ve never been all that interested in games. But now that I’m no spring chicken I wanted a game that requires logical deduction as a supplement to the memory exercise of reading fiction. Sudoku seemed to be the right choice. I also wanted to spend less time sitting in front of the computer, and Sudoku can be played with old-fashioned pencil and paper. I did a few Sudoku games with the computer just to learn the rules, but playing Sudoku on a computer felt like cheating, because you get immediate feedback on whether you’re right or wrong when you place a number.

The problem with paper, though, is that one’s worksheet can get cluttered and messy. Sudoku is not really a board game, but I quickly found that a board helps keep order. Part of the challenge is to keep one’s paper worksheet and the board in sync. Another part of the challenge is to never make a mistake. Double-checking one’s work and getting it right the first time is much easier than finding and backing out of a mistake.

Much has been written about the theory of Sudoku, and one question in particular interests me. That question is: Is it ever necessary to guess, or to apply probabilities, in Sudoku? Most sources says no, that Sudoku puzzles can always be solved using only logical deduction. I would like to be convinced that that is true. And so far, though I’m a Sudoku novice, I have found that it is true. That’s excellent, because guessing would very quickly make a mess of things because of the necessity of backing out of a wrong guess — easy to do on a computer, not easy with pencil and paper.

As for reading fiction, knowing that it’s an excellent exercise for the memory is a tremendous bonus. And my focus of late on the novels of Sir Walter Scott is probably as good as it gets, because the novels are long and very dense. Details that seem unimportant in the first part of the novel are discovered to be critically important when Scott finally unwinds everything at the end.

There are many sources online for Sudoku puzzles. I used the OpenSky Sudoku Generator to create a PDF file with a bunch of hard puzzles. You also can generate easy puzzles and “very hard” puzzles. The puzzles are meant to printed out on letter size paper and solved with pencil and paper.

I need one more tool: Colored pencils to help keep order on the worksheet.

Scott-Land



Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented a Nation. Stuart Kelly, Polygon (Edinburgh), 2010. 328 pages.


First, a disclaimer. I did not read the entire book. By the time I was halfway through, so much of the book seemed only obliquely relevant to the subject of Sir Walter Scott’s novels that I scanned the remainder of the book for the bits that seemed relevant and ignored the rest. Others, I grant, may see this book differently, if they’re interested in such matters as how Diana Gabaldon, Tony Blair, or Dr Who may relate to Walter Scott. I wasn’t particularly interested.

However, I greatly commend the author for writing a book about Walter Scott, given that Scott is hardly ever mentioned anymore, except maybe by travelers who emerge from Waverley Station in Edinburgh and see the enormous Scott memorial for the first time. The author, in fact, seems to assume that the readers of Scott-Land have not read any Scott, since few people read Scott anymore.

It’s an odd thing, isn’t it? Walter Scott as a cultural phenomenon is deemed to be worth writing books about. But few people are willing to go out on a limb and make the case that Scott is still worth reading and taking seriously, or that Scott’s books are still worth talking about the way we still talk about Jane Austen or George Eliot, or even Charles Dickens.

This is not an academic book. It’s meant to be entertaining. It’s often flippant and even snarky. Kelly seems to think that if he — or even we — took Walter Scott too seriously, that would be embarrassing, like liking the Pet Shop Boys. Kelly’s connection with Scott isn’t even particularly literary. Kelly grew up in the Borders area of Scotland near Scott’s baronial home at Abbotsford, so Kelly’s connection to Scott has a cultural rather than a literary origin, though Kelly studied English at Oxford. This is purely a guess on my part, but I’d guess that Kelly writes about Scott the same way that one would have to talk about Scott today at Oxford — with a knowing smile or even a touch of smirk.

But I’m probably an odd duck of a reader, because I have read Scott. I also take Scott seriously. A part of my personal view, though, is that we probably wouldn’t want to read Scott today because of an interest in the history of Scotland but rather because of an interest in the history of the English novel, with the bonus that in reading Scott we also get a great deal of the Scots language as well as English. A friend asked whether I’d agree that Scott’s themes are less relevant today than, say, Jane Austen’s or Charles Dickens’. I would agree. I’m certainly not arguing that Scott should be at the top of our reading list in 19th Century novels; only that he should be on it, for dedicated readers, anyway.

The first question one might ask if one is considering reading Scott is, “What should I read?” My suggestion would be — anything but Ivanhoe. Scott is at his best, I think, when he is writing not about his beloved kings and heroes but when he
is writing about ordinary people in ordinary places. I’d suggest The Heart of Mid-Lothian or The Antiquary as a good place to start.

I’m still looking for a recent academic book about Sir Walter Scott. Meanwhile, I very much agree with what the academic says in the short video below, in which she answers a question after a lecture.




Miso broth


One of my winter resolutions is to drink more warm drinks. Miso broth is a good choice.

Miso, of course, is live and fermented, made mostly from soybeans. Miso broth is pretty salty, but no saltier than soup. To get the probiotic benefits of miso, it mustn’t be heated too much. Some sources say less than 140F is OK. I keep it below 120F (49C) just to be sure.

Miso broth cries out for some fresh winter herbs. I’d better get to work on that.

By the way, I got that bowl yesterday at an annual event sponsored by the local arts council. It’s a fundraiser for county food banks. They call it “Soup and a Bowl.” For a $25 donation, you get a handmade bowl and your choice of soup, served outdoors. The event yesterday was so well attended that the available bowls were gone in the first hour, and some of the soups started running out. The bowls, in many different shapes and colors, are all made by local potters. Most of the work that comes from small potteries seems to be in a hippy style that doesn’t really appeal to me. I got there early enough to get a bowl before the bowls (and the chili) ran out. One classic bowl with a cream-colored glaze, the only one with a handle, stood out from the others. Why don’t more soup bowls have handles? The potter lives a few miles north of me.

Mushroom Wellington



Click here for high-resolution version.

Last week, the Washington Post’s food section had a recipe for vegetarian mushroom Wellington. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Today was a cold day, a good day for making puff pastry and for using the oven. So I did it.

As always with recipes, I borrowed the concept and modified it to suit my own taste. Chestnuts didn’t sound nearly as good to me as walnuts. The Post’s recipe calls for bread crumbs in the filling, which I thought was a poor idea because there already are enough carbs in the crust. I made up the difference with peas and carrots. And I seasoned it with a touch of sage and mace rather than the herbs that the Post’s recipe calls for. The Post’s recipe uses large slices of portobello mushrooms, I assume to resemble slices of beef. Instead, I chopped the roasted mushrooms coarsely and mixed them in with the rest of the filling.

The Post’s recipe also calls for store-bought puff pastry. What would be the fun in that, even if I could find it? Adventure in the kitchen means making puff pastry every now and then. I used half butter and half olive oil, which works great. As long as you keep the dough cold and there are some butter bits in it, the pastry will turn out fine.

I’ve written here before about how all forms of pie are magical. I thought a lot about that while I was making mushroom Wellington. Partly, pies are comfort food. Pies are ancient, going back to the Middle Ages and no doubt beyond. And covered pies, or pies enclosed in a crust, have the same kind of appeal as a nicely wrapped present. You get to open it to see what’s inside.

You’ll probably need to make some thin brown gravy to moisten this dish. And you’ll need some ale.

Western Union, now just an elegant ghost



Western Union and the Creation of the American Corporate Order, 1845-1893. Joshua D. Wolff. Cambridge University Press, 2013. 306 pages.


There probably are not many people who think about Western Union today, but I do. In many ways, the disruptive creation of Western Union in the middle of the 19th Century resembles the creation of the Internet in our era. The radical improvements in the speed and cost of communication changed everything. Before telegraphy, communication relied on the U.S. Post Office Department. And the 19th Century U.S. Post Office was no slouch. By the time telegraph companies were getting started, the Post Office had shortened the time to move mail between New York and New Orleans from two weeks to five days, even before railroads. The Post Office also was cheap. Telegrams never were.

Telegraphy in America started as a motley and unstable group of unprofitable and technologically unsophisticated small and local companies, using technology invented by Samuel Morse, or variations that evaded Morse’s patents. It was consolidation and monopoly that, whether we approve of monopolies or not, allowed a new company named Western Union to buy up small, unsuccessful, and poorly connected local companies and convert them into a united monopoly network that connected distant parts of the United States. Before long, telegraph cables reached across the Atlantic as well.

This is a book about Western Union as a corporation and business. I wish I could find a book about Western Union’s technology and how it changed over the next one hundred years. I’ve mentioned here recently that my first job was as a newspaper copy boy in 1966, when Western Union very much still existed. Sometimes, reporters who were on the road would file their stories by Western Union telegram, and it was part of my job to walk down the street about five blocks to pick up the telegram from the Western Union office. A bit later, most newspapers had a Telex machine for such purposes. That was a later stage of Western Union technology that allowed companies that could afford it to have their own Telex teleprinter at their office, which did not require a dedicated phone line to operate. Telex was like a dial-up system for delivering telegrams that used the long-distance circuits only when needed. It was the Telex system that, in Western Union’s last years, linked the farflung offices of multinational corporations.

I have many curiosities about how the old telegraph network worked. I know from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, for example, that it could take hours or even a day or two for a telegram to travel between Berlin and Moscow. Though electricity, of course, moves at the speed of light, the old telegram network did not have wires that directly connected every place on earth with every other place on earth. You’d be able to send a telegram from New York to Philadelphia in one hop. But some telegrams had to be forwarded from one city hub to another, with multiple stops before reaching the final destination. The message had to be transcribed and then rekeyed at every stop.

These days, it’s only novels — particularly detective novels and spy novels — that remind us that Western Union ever even existed. Western Union’s history is very closely connected with the railroads, though of course railroads survived in a diminished form and Western Union didn’t survive at all. (Western Union still exists as some sort of vague financial entity.)

If you’ve ever held a fresh telegram in your hand, though, as I have, you can’t help but remember their beautiful typography. The format changed over the years, but there basically were two forms. The first form was a pad on which the customer wrote, by hand, the text of the telegram and checked off some choices about how it was to be sent. The second form was the telegram after it was received at the destination, on a yellow sheet of paper 8 inches by 5.5 inches with the classic and beautiful Western Union logo at the top. The font used for the text “Western Union” is a variation on the Goudy font named Goudy hand-tooled. I’ve included two examples below. The first is a scan of an actual Western Union pad for outgoing messages, bought on eBay. The second is my own reproduction of an incoming telegram as they looked in the 1940s.

The Trump show’s last season, canceled for bad ratings



Source: Wikimedia Commons


Is the Trump nightmare over? I would say no, not quite. There’s more craziness where that came from in the packed clown car of Trump wannabes and QAnon whack jobs. But I would argue that, now that the 2022 midterm election is over, we’ll be watching Trump through the rearview mirror. He’ll keep trying to scare us, and he’ll keep trying to get into the spotlight and pretend that he’s got us right where he wants us. But even Republicans now know that Trump is a loser. For the rest of us, it’s popcorn time. No matter what happens in the next presidential election in 2024, we now have two good years of deliciously crunchy fresh-popped schadenfreude to look forward to, watching Trump whimper and whine as he is financially ruined, exposed as weak, exposed as a loser, indicted for serious crimes, and put on trial for charges that may well include espionage. As his business crimes and tax returns come to light, we’ll find out who owns him — Russians and some nasty oil people in the Middle East would be a good guess.

If Republicans take the House, then we’ll have to listen to a series of barking-mad “hearings” featuring the likes of Jim Jordan. Even if those hearings become the three-ring circus that Maga Republicans want, the circus will succeed at confusing only the sort of people who watch Fox News. We mustn’t forget that that’s barely four million people at primetime. The craziness that we can expect from a post-Trump Maga House probably would do Republicans more harm than good, because most Americans now know what Trump is. A Republican House would keep reminding decent Americans why they hate Trump. It’s also possible that “establishment” Republicans and even Fox News will try to move on, to something that actually has a chance of working in 2024.

This morning, two days after the election, it’s amazing to me how quickly the media, as foolish and fickle as always, pivoted from pumping the Republican “red wave” to heaping humiliation on Republicans because the red wave didn’t happen — puff them up, then kick them when they’re down. We should always keep in mind that the last thing the media want is competent and therefore boring government. The media, like the Republican Party, now need something new. What will it be?

What are HBO, Disney, Hulu, Amazon Prime video, etc., for after all. That’s where our entertainment should come from, not from Washington, or Mar-a-Lago, or sadistic right-wing circus tricks in places like Florida, Texas, or Arizona. One way of interpreting this election, I think, is that Americans are very tired of the circus. The Trump show has had a run of five or six seasons, same plot, same crappy characters. I’d bet a dollar, plus an 8.2 cent adjustment for inflation, that at this very moment, the grandees of the Republican Party and the media’s best creative geniuses are in meetings behind closed mahogany doors trying to come up with two new blockbuster seasons of — something, something new — to preserve their profits through 2024.

Meanwhile the White House is safe, the courts are still in working order, there’s toilet paper on the shelves, and Republican dreams of everlasting domination just took a big hit. President Biden will continue to focus on things that actually matter. Wouldn’t it be nice if the media would, too. In any case, we don’t have to be afraid of Donald Trump anymore. In the season finale, Trump will go to prison. Then he’ll be history, over in the trash heap section.


Update:

The New York Post, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, heaped scorn on Trump in today’s edition with a “Trumpty Dumpty” cover.

Another Murdoch property, the Wall Street Journal, called Trump “The Republican Party’s Biggest Loser.”


How cheap bandwidth is used against us



When I was a newspaper copy boy back in 1966, I operated a Teletype Model 19 exactly like this one. Teletypes like this used long-distance telephone lines. If you remember how much long-distance telephone calls used to cost, then you can imagine how expensive it was to keep a long-distance telephone line connected 24 hours a day from, say, New York to San Francisco. For decades, it was the Teletype network that brought us the news and supported commerce.


In September 1995, the Economist, which often gets things wrong because of its neoliberal obsessions, got something exactly right. The cover story was: “Suddenly Distance No Longer Matters.” Unfortunately I can’t find a link to this piece. But the point of it was that the era in which long distance communication was expensive was ending. Not only would the Internet make bandwidth very cheap, it would cost no more to communicate with the other side of the Pacific than with the other side of town.

And here we are today in a world in which distance doesn’t matter. Even ten years ago, we dreamed of an Internet with enough bandwidth to allow everyone everywhere to stream the movie of their choice. Today we’re almost there. It’s only those of us who live in rural areas who don’t have enough bandwidth for streaming high-definition movies.

But from the Internet’s beginnings in the 1990s, those with ugly agendas have been developing ways to take advantage of us. They give us free stuff, such as free email, but we don’t stop to think how they are making money off of us. Taking advantage of our innocence was immensely profitable, and many new billionaires were created. Harvesting information about how we spend our money in order to target ads seems relatively benign. But it’s worse than that. As Zeynap Tufekci writes today in the New York Times, “The need to keep users on the site for advertisers has led to design and algorithm choices that increase engagement, often with false, inflammatory or tribalizing content that research shows travels much more easily on social media.”

It’s entirely reasonable, in 2022, to ask the question: If it weren’t for the ways in which cheap bandwidth has been used to monitor us and manipulate us, would democracies today be at risk of takeover by the authoritarian oligarchy? Could Trump have happened?

There are three excellent pieces in the New York Times today about how tech is being used against us:

Tufekci’s piece is: “We Pay an Ugly Cost for Ads on Twitter.”

Brian X. Chen, the lead consumer technology writer for the New York Times, has this piece: “Personal Tech Has Changed. So Must Our Coverage of It: Our tech problems have become more complex, so we are rebooting the Tech Fix column to focus on the societal implications of the tech we use.”

Farhad Monjoo has a bleak progress report on Mark Zuckerburg’s plan to entrap us in his “metaverse,” in order to own us and advertise us to death: “My Sad, Lonely, Expensive Adventures in Zuckerberg’s V.R.

I have used “gift” links for the articles above, so you should be able to read the articles without a subscription to the New York Times.

Sometimes I think that we’d all be better off if we could go back to the world of Teletypes and expensive long-distance telephone calls. As Tufekci mentions in the article above, and as I well know from a career in newspapers, publishers once went to great lengths to keep the advertising department out of the newsroom. Those days are over. I was there back in 2000 for the horrible merger of the staffs of the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle. It was already understood then that newspapers’ continued existence was endangered, because craigslist had destroyed newspapers’ market for classified advertising. Publishers’ solution was to unleash hordes of “bean counters,” as we called them, on newsrooms to teach journalists that they had to help find ways to “monetize” the news. One of the reasons the New York Times has survived, as Tufekci points out, is that the Times found a way to rely on subscriptions rather than advertising.

I despair of any means ever being found to keep the vast majority of us from being exploited and manipulated by today’s tech giants and how they use costless bandwidth. Some people make fun of me, as though I’m paranoid, for using a VPN, for refusing to use free email, for never having used Twitter, and for taking steps to make sure that Mark Zuckerberg knows as little about me as possible. For years I’ve had the ability to encrypt and sign my emails using a private key, but no one else I know bothers to do that, so encryption isn’t an option for me. We could put an end to spam, to email scams, and to email phishing tomorrow if everyone signed their email with a private encryption key. But that’s the last thing that Internet giants want. Google makes millions by analyzing people’s emails and by tracking who communicates with whom. There is no perfect defense, though, other than going off the grid.

The most dangerous threat, though, from cheap bandwidth is the ability to push out lies and to mass-manipulate people who don’t know any better. There is nothing that we can do for that kind of people. Time and again, I’ve heard people refer to eagerly ingesting conspiracy theories as “doing their own research.” We’re on our own, hanging by the thin thread of hope that enough of us will remain sane to steer clear of the authoritarian dystopia that is being planned for us.

Andor and us


“Andor,” now streaming on Disney+, is the best television since Game of Thrones. We’re now nine episodes into the season’s twelve episodes. Ken called it “Star Wars for adults,” which is a good description. If the Force exists in “Andor,” it hasn’t yet made an appearance. There are no cuddly animals, no light sabers, and no Yoda-like characters who are all-knowing. These characters — like us — are on their own to deal with a world that is sinking fast into fascism. This is pure politics — a developing rebellion against the fascist Empire.

I very quickly lost interest in the new Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones spinoffs and stopped watching them. There’s room there for plenty of criticism, but neither of those two series is really worth bothering with criticism. The bottom line for me was just that I couldn’t care about any of the characters.

“Andor,” on the other hand, is loaded with characters whom we can care about, right from the first episode. Those characters who are powerless are increasingly feeling the iron boot of the Empire. Even those who are powerful (a rebel senator or two, for example) would lose their lives in a second if their cover was blown.

Episode by episode, Andor’s parallels with our current political situation become more apparent. I had been wondering how intentional this is. It seems the answer is that it’s very intentional.

The Wikipedia article says that Diego Luna, who plays Cassian Andor, and Tony Gilroy, who is described as the “showrunner,” have said that the Andor series is about “how the disenfranchised can stand up to effect change.” Fiona Shaw, who plays Cassian Andor’s adoptive mother, is quoted in the Wikipedia article:

“Co-star Fiona Shaw described Gilroy’s political commentary in the scripts as a ‘great, scurrilous [take] on the Trumpian world,’ adding that ‘our world is exploding in different places right now, people’s rights are disappearing, and Andor reflects that. [In the show] the Empire is taking over, and it feels like the same thing is happening in reality, too.’ ”

This series is so well done that I’ve watched each episode at least twice, and some of them three times. It moves fast, and the details are important.

Are Trumpists aware that Disney is exposing their fascism and motivating the resistance? A little Googling shows that Trumpists are aware, and they’re plenty mad about it, claiming (for example) that Disney risks financial disaster if they alienate half their potential audience. Ha! According to Wikipedia, Andor has been at the top of the streaming lists.

“Andor” is worth studying from several angles, especially how the rebels and the fascists differ in their “moral foundations.” Andor’s fascists, like our Trumpists, are cruel, uncaring, and committed to iron-boot authoritarianism. The motivations of the rebels, more complex and more subtle, are being revealed in the script a bit more slowly. I’ll have more to say about “Andor” in the next few weeks.