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The joy of dieting

A diet-day main meal of scallops and roasted cauliflower in a creamy tomato sauce. Painless.

To say that I’m an experienced dieter sounds like I’m making a joke. That’s because it reveals that, when I lose weight, I gain it back. That’s true. I do gain it back. But as long as one’s weight oscillates within reasonable limits, that doesn’t seem so bad.

It’s my belt that lets me know. When I have to loosen my belt a notch, it’s time to start thinking about a diet.

As much as I dislike (and postpone) making the decision to go on a diet, I always find that dieting is not so bad. A diet to me means 1,200 calories a day. That’s nowhere near a starvation diet. It’s also a predictable diet. On 1,200 calories a day, I lose about two pounds a week. So, when I start a diet, I know how long it’s going to last.

Medical opinion about dieting seems to be changing, moving toward a consensus that diets don’t work and that diets aren’t worth doing. If that’s the case, I very much disagree. Diets do work. If one gains back the weight one lost, then the solution seems simple enough: Diet again. To me, the discipline involved in managing my weight isn’t about maintaining my optimum weight. I’m bad at that. But what I’m good at is starting a new diet when my belt tells me it’s time to start a new diet cycle. The window in which my weight oscillates is about ten pounds. That window needs to be kept small, to make one’s diets shorter and therefore not as daunting to undertake.

Being an experienced dieter has its advantages, chiefly familiarity and predictability. How to go about dieting is probably very confusing to many people, because there are so many theories, so many specialty diets, and so many books and articles on dieting.

But the fundamental science of dieting has not been overturned. If you consume fewer calories each day than your body burns, you’ll lose weight.

Therefore, as I see it, counting calories is essential. One could invent a specialty diet based on eating nothing but Krispy Kreme doughnuts. That would work, if one counted calories. But that would be a miserable diet that would be terrible for one’s health. It would be miserable because the carbs involved would make one hungry all the time. I have a saying, “Carbs today, hungry tomorrow.”

So, as I see it, the healthiest sort of diet also is the least uncomfortable diet. That means keeping carbs to a minimum. When I’m on a diet, I have to give up my favorite food: bread. Ideally, a diet should improve one’s health, not damage it. I find that fish (or tofu) and low-carb vegetables are ideal. One can even have three meals a day, if two of them are small. When I’m on a diet, I cook only one main meal a day. Breakfast, if I have it, might be a couple of teaspoons of peanut butter and sauerkraut. I might have popcorn for an evening snack. These days, with fresh local strawberries to be found, the evening snack might be strawberries with a little cream and a couple of very thin cookies. This does not feel like a hardship.

It worries me when I see articles like this one in the Washington Post, “Five myths about obesity.” Encouraging this kind of hopeless attitude seems unkind, though clearly the motivation is kindness and tolerance for those for whom weight management is particularly hard. I understand that. But the unintended unkindness, in my view, is that it leads people to not even try to manage their weight, though they might want to. I also find some of the premises misleading. Though no doubt it’s true that there is individual variation in how calories are processed by the body, that does not mean that the law of calories in vs. calories out has been rescinded. It just means that individual variation must be factored into dieting.

I can testify that, in my 72 years, weight-watching is nothing new. Based on what I overheard from adults years ago, people did this even in 1958, when I was ten years old, when most people were more lean, and when I was told that I was going to dry up and blow away if I didn’t eat more. There is no such thing as not being able to lose weight.

Shadow and Bone

Who knew that Tsarist Russia could look so good? Actually, most of this series was filmed in Hungary. Not since “Game of Thrones” has a fantasy series been such a visual treat.

I had watched the trailer for “Shadow and Bone,” and I was skeptical. But I heard good reviews from friends. I’ve watched two episodes so far, and it has greatly exceeded my expectations. The plot is a bit thick. I had to watch parts of it twice to hang on to the threads. But two episodes was enough to hook me.

The casting is excellent. It’s a very attractive, diverse, eccentric, and charismatic cast of characters. The sets and settings are lavish. Filming must have cost a fortune. The music is very good. And the horses!

The series is based on a trilogy of fantasy novels by Leigh Bardugo. It’s available for streaming from Netflix. There are eight episodes in the first season. I’m surprised how little buzz this series has gotten.

An international recipe for progress

Scotland 2070: Healthy, Wealthy, Wise. Ian Godden, Hillary Sillitto, Dorothy Godden. College Publications (London), 2020. 218 pages.

What would it take for Scotland to attain the same level of wealth and wellbeing as the Nordic countries? This book lays out a fifty-year plan for accomplishing that. What’s remarkable about this book, though, is that its ideas easily translate to any country looking to the future.

I first became aware of this book from an article April 17 in the Guardian, “An independent Scotland could turn to Denmark for inspiration.” I ordered the book from Amazon.

Though one of the book’s subtitles is “An ambitious vision for Scotland’s future without the politics,” it’s not entirely true that there is no politics in the book. It’s pretty clear that the authors’ view is that Scotland can optimize its future only by breaking with the United Kingdom and becoming independent. The authors, though they are highly educated, are not scholars. They’re businesspeople. In the U.S., it’s generally safe to assume that businesspeople believe in conservative notions of small government, low taxes, keeping working people on the brink of starvation with no safety net so that they’ll work for cheap until they drop dead, crummy education, health care as a profit center rather than a means of keeping people healthy, and a manipulative and deceptive politics that ensures that people are preoccupied with cultural grievances and thus never figure out who is really eating their lunch. These Scottish businesspeople are the opposite of that. The central principle — a principle at last being advocated by America’s Democratic Party — is that government exists to serve the people. This is in opposition to the neoliberal principle that has reigned for decades, that government exists to serve private profit.

Twenty-five years ago I fell in love with Ireland on my first trip there. But Ireland has changed in the past 25 years, and not for the better. Ireland chose a low-tax, low-productivity, low-knowledge, low-education, low-equality neoliberal strategy. Global money thus poured into Ireland. The authors of this book use kinder language about Ireland’s mistakes. I’m more blunt. The way I’d put it is that Ireland greatly damaged itself and its people by becoming a global tax whore. But I’ve also been in Denmark a couple of times, where I admired the contrast between Denmark and Ireland and how Denmark has developed a prosperity that serves its people rather than the global rich. Scotland, on the other hand, has been pretty much in stasis, largely because Scotland is a tail wagged from Westminster. The United Kingdom — or should I say England — seems too inclined to waste time and opportunity by nursing its cultural hurts, which is holding Scotland back. If Scotland does become independent in the future, the power of global money would do everything possible to turn Scotland into another Ireland. The authors of this book understand that. It would be up to the people of Scotland to choose a better path by looking north rather than south, and that’s the point of this book.

Though it’s tempting to list the key points of this book’s vision, I think I won’t, because it’s a book worth reading no matter where one lives. I will say this, though. That vision of the role of government and the demands of the future have a great deal in common with the vision that President Biden has brought to Washington. California, America’s most progressive state, just announced a $75 billion budget surplus. Voodoo economics has had its day. It’s time to get serious about a sustainable green economy, with major new investments in education, health, and infrastructure broadly defined.

Go for it, Scotland.

Blackberry winter

⬆︎ A cold spell in May is nothing new in this area. Older generations, more engaged with the weather than most of us are these days, called it “blackberry winter” — a cold snap while the blackberries are blooming. This blackberry has invaded my abelia bush, but I’ll leave it for now. Spring this year has been oddly cold and dry enough to make me nervous. Is it La Niña?

⬆︎ The crimson clover bloomed about two weeks later this year than it did last year.

⬆︎ White clover perennializes and spreads. Crimson clover doesn’t. I’m making a tradition of sowing at least five or ten pounds of crimson clover in the yard each fall. I stop mowing to let it bloom. There is nothing more cheery than a stand of crimson clover on a spring morning. But where are the bees? A neighbor’s theory is that there’s a lot of things blooming for the bees right now, including trees in the woods, and clover is not the bees’ first choice.

⬆︎ My rhododendron has achieved a very respectable size.

⬆︎ Spiderwort. I have both white and blue.

⬆︎ The garlic is doing well. I’ve had to water it often, but the garlic likes cool weather.

⬆︎ I pruned aggressively in the orchard during the winter. The trees are tall enough that I was able to trim lower limbs to make mowing easier. Because of the pruning, the blooms were more sparse this year. I think that may be a good thing, though. Last year the peach tree, in particular, had far more fruit than the tree could support. I’m not sure that one could learn enough about keeping an orchard even if one had three lifetimes in which to learn. Every year is different. Fruit trees are like willful, unruly children. Some errors in keeping an orchard can be fixed. But there is nothing I will be able to do about the woods that adjoin the orchard on two sides. The squirrels come over the fence and steal.

⬆︎ This amazingly green romaine will have the honor of being the first thing in the garden to be eaten. The early garden this year was almost a total waste. The soil was just too cold for germination. My experiment with a cold frame did not go well. I hope for better luck later on, using the cold frame for winter vegetables. This romaine was started from a plant that I bought at the mill in Walnut Cove. We still have nighttime temperatures in the 40s (F) for the next week or more. I’ve put in a few summer vegetables, all of them plants from a garden shop, and will add more in a week or two. It’s still too cold, though, to plant summer seeds.

⬆︎ Each year, the house seems to recede a bit deeper into the woods. Still-young trees in front of the house — poplar, maple, and sycamore — will overhang the driveway in five or ten more years and pretty much obscure the house from view. That is according to plan. Many of the trees in the abbey’s yard are volunteers that spread from the woods. But the trees that Ken and I planted, including the many arbor vitae trees, were carefully placed so that eventually the house will feel enclosed in a stand of woods a bit less sparse, and more managed, than the wild woods at the edges of the yard. To live here is to forest-bathe, especially on the back side of the house. There may come a time when some trees will have to be sacrificed to provide more sun, especially uphill where the garden is.

⬆︎ I have only five acres. The adjoining property owners have much larger holdings of land. Fortunately the way they choose to use their land is agreeable to me. Even their gun range down in the creek bottom, though it’s noisy sometimes, is a good thing to have nearby. I practice my shooting there, with no apologies to the local Republicans that I’m a Democrat. They find it highly amusing, actually, that a San Francisco liberal is such a good shot and has a concealed carry permit. They might be surprised, actually, how many San Francisco liberals know how to shoot. That’s an antique rifle in the photo, a sniper rifle made for the army.

⬆︎ The neighbors seem to have, or to have access to, all sorts of heavy machinery. Here they’re digging out a spring on their land up on the ridge to the south of the abbey. The spring produces about five to ten gallons a minute. Their plan is to pour concrete and to build a springhouse. Stokes County is known for its springs, which a hundred years or so ago attracted summer tourists to the area that is now Hanging Rock State Park. The plan for this spring is to make it into a natural, backup water supply. Everyone in these parts has a well as the primary source of water.

⬆︎ This new bee hive belongs to the neighbors and is on the south ridge near the spring. Game cameras up there often get pictures of a young black bear whom they call Yogi. I’m concerned that Yogi will smash the hive, but so far so good. My clover is only about five hundred yards away as the bee flies. Hopefully it’s the sourwood in the woods that the bees are working right now, since they disdain my clover. Sourwood honey is the most prized of the local honeys.

Frost, on Earth Day

Wild persimmon

Most of the country had unusually cold weather on April 21 and 22. Ironically, April 22 was Earth Day. Here in the South, spring was far enough along that there was considerable damage. Native species are hardy and came through pretty well, with the odd exception of wild persimmon. Most of my persimmon trees are fine, but one tree in particular was badly bitten. The frost was devastating to my two deciduous magnolia trees. The figs were heavily damaged but will recover because they were in an early stage of leafing. The other fruit trees in the orchard — all old Southern varieties — don’t show any damage.

A Facebook friend with commercial vineyards posted sad photos of his damaged vines. He wrote this:

“I want to thank all my dear friends for your concern about our vineyard. First, let me say that it’s not just our vineyard. All the North Carolina vineyards in our area suffered the Earth Day Freeze. Different varietals have varying degrees of damage with the Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc suffering the most. It looks like most of shoots that were budded out were damaged. What will happen is that we will end up a very reduced crop with a mix of latent primary and secondary fruit with irregular ripening. The positive is that this event did not split and kill the vines like we have experienced in the Easter Freeze of 2007. This is being a grape farmer in North Carolina. It’s difficult and this is why wine is so expensive.”

Late frosts have always been a risk, of course. But it seems to me that, at least in this part of the country, late frosts are happening more and more often. I blame global warming, which causes early budding, complicated by increased arctic turbulence also caused by global warming. That turbulence messes with the jetstream, and cold air spills south into places where nature has already committed to spring.


Deciduous magnolia

Update: It happened in France, too: Washington Post: French vineyards devastated by April frost that followed unusually warm March.


Preppers love disaster films. And, after Covid-19, aren’t we all preppers now? “Greenland” is a pretty good disaster film.

Except that “Greenland” is really more of a family film — a vulnerable seven-year-old boy with diabetes, and a mom and dad (who aren’t getting along very well) fighting to save the family.

The film was supposed to be a summer blockbuster last year, in theaters. The Covid-19 lockdown forced a change of strategy. I first noticed “Greenland” in iTunes, where Apple was renting it — renting it! — for $19.99. That was an interesting test of the desperation of the bored lockdown market. I have no idea how many people rented it at that price. I waited for the rental price to come down to $5.99, as it did a month or two ago.

What’s scary about “Greenland,” and also of particular interest to preppers, is that the people are far more scary than the comet fragments bombarding the earth. The film reminded me of “War of the Worlds” (2005), when I kept yelling at Tom Cruise on the TV, “No! Get off the roads! Stay away from people!” It’s the same with “Greenland,” which is largely a movie about a terrifying road trip north from Atlanta.

Screenwriters usually do a pretty good job of representing mass psychology during a disaster. Some people will try to help others. But others would shoot you over a bottle of pills. In a disaster, cities are a terrible place to be. But the highways would be worse.

It was after 9/11 that I became a left-wing prepper. I continued to live in San Francisco for eight more years. It was obvious how trapped I was. In a disaster, the possibility of evacuating San Francisco over the two bridges — the Golden Gate Bridge north to Marin County, and the Bay Bridge east to Oakland — would be non-existent. The only way out of the city would be by boat (if you had one), or by a dangerous road trip south toward San Jose. I bought a Jeep for that purpose. My plan was to drive the Jeep out to the coast, offroad through Golden Gate Park, and then to try to find a way south, off the pavement and around stalled traffic as much as possible. Fortunately I never needed the Jeep for an evacuation, but I still have it. It also was during those San Francisco years that I got an amateur radio license and learned how to use radios. Another detail that the “Greenland” screenwriters got right is that, when the inferno caused by the comet subsided after nine months, the scattered survivors located each other by radio. A detail the screenwriters got wrong, however, was in showing abandoned houses still with electricity, and cell phones still working after cities are on fire, and cars with enough fuel for a long road trip. Every bug-out plan must consider communications and a rendez-vous plan worked out in advance. Anything you need but didn’t stash in advance will not be available.

If you live in a populated place, do you have a bug-out plan? From wildfires or earthquakes in California, to tornados anywhere from the plains to Maine, to hurricanes and flooding along the rivers and coasts, millions of Americans need a bug-out plan and don’t have one. “Greenland” should encourage us to think ahead.

Literary novels and other trash

I know that, when something really gets under your skin, it’s a psychological red flag and that one should ask oneself what’s really going on. Whatever. But when I ask myself what’s really going on with my aggressive hatred of literary novels (or literary anything), I think it’s this: Literary novels are not merely bad, they’re also a fraud. They’re a fraud because they suck up so much oxygen, suffocating and marginalizing and demeaning far better work. Literary novels get all the attention. Everything else is carefully ignored by critics (though not by the millions of people who actually read for pleasure).

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is trash, not worth having been written and not worth reading. But just look at all the fawning reviews it got in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Atlantic. I believe Gore Vidal called them “university novels,” though I’m not sure Vidal is entirely guiltless, literarily speaking. Orson Scott Card, a good writer in spite of his rotten politics, call it “pre-criticized fiction,” written to appeal to critics and for those who imagine themselves to be a literary elite.

So why did I read The Buried Giant? A friend was reading it, and I was looking forward to discussing it with him. Normally I would have flung such a book within thirty pages. But I kept reading even after I discovered it was a university novel, for the sorriest of motives: to have more credibility to rip it to shreds.

As is required in a literary opus, the title is meaningless. Clarity is forbidden, and vagueness and randomness substitute for plot. Most of the novel doesn’t make sense, because it’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to be more like a Rorschach test, and the reader is expected to project great profundity into the vagueness that one can’t quite put one’s finger on and that — since the critics loved it — must surely have gone over one’s head. The reader is constantly taxed with an excess of words. But, worst of all, the ending is frustrating to the reader and cruel to the characters. To my mind, it’s a writer’s ethical duty both to readers and to the writer’s characters that a novel’s characters might be made to suffer, but that they will be compensated in the end by winning their heart’s desire. It is both a literary crime and a breach of ethics to leave one’s characters in hell because that’s “like life” or something. If I ever met an author like Kazuo Ishiguro I would berate him within an inch of his life for being a fraud, for possessing a mediocre mind in which a deliberate vagueness masks the mediocrity, for his pessimism and literary cruelty, and for being a mediocre and wordy writer to boot.

A friend from L.A. with a large eating-out budget once criticized me for liking cuisines that are “easy to like,” such as Thai. To his mind, stuff that is hard to like — raw eels in cold gummy rice and reeking seaweed, for example — is the real test of a connoiseur. My crime was refusing to go with him to a sushi restaurant.

I refuse to be shamed. There must be a thousand bodice rippers, ten thousand science fiction and fantasy novels, and a hundred thousand historical novels, crime novels, spy novels and mysteries that are better, better written, wiser, and deeper than the phony likes of The Buried Giant.

Barley dumplings

Barley dumplings in tomato sauce

I’m on a constant quest to test the versatility of barley. The latest experiment was barley dumplings. I think I can get the grade up next time, but my first effort would get only a C+.

The ingredients were barley flour, egg, and seasonings. I ground the barley flour myself (from organic hulled barley) in the milling attachment for my Champion juicer. I steamed the dumplings, thinking that they’d be less likely to fall apart than if I boiled them in stock. That was a mistake, because the dumplings were dry, and there was no risk of their falling apart. They needed to be in water long enough for the barley flour to take up more water. Also, I think that flat dumplings would have fully hydrated better than round dumplings.

Barley is magical, and healthy. After all, Scotch and ale are made from barley. There’s nothing like barley for thickening soups. But there have just got to be other uses for barley that are equally good.

A classic diner returns (I hope)

From the 1950s

If you’re like me, as things reopen after a year of staying in, you’ve been thinking about how much you’ve missed eating out. I’ve even been thinking about where to go for an eating-out celebration. Until yesterday, my plan was to go to Bernadin’s in Winston-Salem. But I learned yesterday that a classic diner on the Blue Ridge Parkway, long closed, will reopen on May 27.

The restaurant is The Bluffs. It first opened in 1949. It was in operation for 61 years until it closed in 2010. The National Park Service could not find anyone to operate it. A great many people remember the place fondly, and the Park Service was under pressure to reopen it. Lots of people donated money to a campaign organized by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. The Appalachian Regional Commission contributed, as did the stingy state of North Carolina. You can read about this at the restaurant’s web site, here.

Those outside the eastern United States may not know that the Blue Ridge Parkway is a national park. The Bluffs is at Doughton Park. That’s at Laurel Springs, at Milepost 241. Part of what’s exciting about this reopening is that it’s a public-private project worth supporting.

I’ll have a report soon after The Bluffs reopens. I’m just hoping that they get it right. Judging from the photos, authenticity was priority 1 for the renovation. I hope the same is true of the cuisine, though I suppose that heavy porcelain dinnerware, and glasses and cups that aren’t supersized, would be too much to hope for.

The renovation


Source: Hubble telescope, NASA, Jesœs Maz Apellÿniz, and Davide De Martin via Wikimedia Commons

An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics. Bradley W. Carroll and Dale A. Ostlie. Cambridge University Press, 2017. 1,342 pages.

Quick now: How old is the universe? Answer: About 13.8 billion years.

If you were to walk out under the night sky this evening, photons of light would reach you that are billions of years old. You wouldn’t be able to detect those photons with your unaided eyes, but the photons came from the far edges of the observable universe. That light is very, very old and was generated by a star that was among the first to form after the Big Bang. When you look out into the far reaches of the universe, you are looking into the distant past. Even the light from our sun, of course, is about eight minutes old. What’s happening at the edges of the universe right now? We can’t possibly know for billions of years, when the light reaches us.

It is almost criminal that light pollution and modern living have robbed us of a relationship with the stars. Our ancestors must have felt that relationship very keenly, given some of the artefacts they left — the clay tablets of the Babylonian astrologers and astronomers, for example, or the prehistoric henges.

One of my favorite bedside books is an astronomy textbook last revised in 1964. There’s very little in that textbook that is actually wrong; astronomers then knew what they didn’t know and what needed to be figured out. But in the 55 years or so between the two textbooks, our knowledge of astrophysics has exploded. There are very few equations in the 1964 textbook, but the 2017 textbook is full of them. We now have mathematical models for (and therefore substantial understanding of) all sorts of phenomena, including what happens in the interior of stars, how elements heavier than hydrogen are formed inside of stars, how gravity works its magic in the gas and dust of the interstellar medium to form galaxies, etc. Astrophysicists love their equations.

I cannot follow the math of all those equations. However, not being able to follow the math should not stand in the way of reading books like this. I frequently read books that I can’t completely understand. There is still much that can be learned. The processes that are modeled by equations can also be described in text, and this book is lucid in its descriptions of astrophysical phenomena.

But, as is often the case with nerds, it’s not just about the science. The wonders of the universe also are food for the imagination. I can almost imagine that stars have personalities. Though stars can be classified according to type, size, age, temperature, and many other factors, each star is different. There are even not-exactly-fringy theories that stars are conscious. Stars, like life, have the almost magical ability to create order in a chaotic universe. Stars can do amazing things, such as make oxygen or iron or gold out of hydrogen. Stars furnish the chemicals out of which life is made and the energy that sustains life. Like stars, each galaxy also is different. Both stars and galaxies cluster, almost as though they have social needs. Stars (and galaxies) are very frequently found in pairs like friends or lovers, orbiting each other around their mutual center of gravity. Like us, stars are born. Some live longer lives than others, but eventually all stars die. The earth, of course, is made from the bodies of long-deceased stars, which is why scientists like to point out that we are all stardust.

The table of contents of this book is an excellent outline of what we know so far about the universe.

Cambridge University Press. Click on images for high-resolution version.