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Falafel


Once you legalize deep-frying in your kitchen (as I recently did), you’re on a slippery slope to — falafel.

I probably thought of falafel as one of those city foods that can be made only after centuries of practice, and only in a commercial kitchen, like bagels. With falafel, it’s not like that at all. They’re dead easy — street food, really. I had never had homemade falafel before. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever had them anywhere before other than San Francisco and New York City. Maybe London.

There’s no need for me to suggest a recipe here. There are many on the web — just Google. I used store-bought parsley as the herb in this batch. If it were high summer, I’d have some homegrown choices of herbs. But who wants to stand over a hot pot of oil in high summer, even if there are fresh herbs?

Most recipes will warn you that you cannot use canned, or precooked, chickpeas. Soak the chickpeas well, then throw them into a food processor with the other ingredients. Shape them into balls, and cook them in hot oil. Easy peasy. And probably addictive.

Authoritarian governments



Authoritarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know. Erica Frantz, Oxford University Press, 2018. 200 pages.


My expectations for this book probably were a bit off. What I wanted was a kind of theoretical understanding of authoritarianism, or a kind of model from which predictions could be made. This book, though, is more a statistical study of authoritarian governments.

The format of the book is clear enough. The book first sets up a number of categories, such as the types of authoritarian governments. Some examples in this category are: a single strongman leader, a dominant party, or military. The book then poses a series of questions, then answers the questions with statistical frequencies.

For example: How do authoritarian leaders leave power? Answer:

“From 1950 to 2012, there were 473 authoritarian leaders who left power. Regime insiders were responsible for the majority (65 percent) of these exists, with coups and ‘regular’ removals from office each accounting for about a third of all leader exits. Twenty percent of authoritarian leaders died in office, and only 10 percent were kicked out at the hands of the masses.”

So then, after you’ve read many dozens of questions and answers, you become acquainted with the history of authoritarianism. Other than that, I can’t say that I learned anything very profound from this book.

The big question right now, of course, is where the United States stands with Donald Trump. There is nothing about Trump in this book, and there is almost nothing about the United States. The cutoff for the research in the book was 2015 or so, I believe. However, the author, Erica Franz, has written some articles about Trump, and she has been interviewed about Trump. You can find this by Googling for her name plus Trump.

But yes. It would seem clear enough to me that Trump is on a clear course for the “authoritarianization” of American democracy using common authoritarian tactics — seizing additional power wherever and however he can, co-opting institutions to serve his own ends, defying norms, flouting the law, installing unqualified loyalists while demonizing expertise, attacking the media while pushing propaganda, using multiple methods of corrupting elections to prevent a fair vote, lining his own pockets while directing spoils to insiders, and so on.

We should know before long what Trump’s fate is going to be. Personally I think he is doomed, though the next three or four months probably are not going to be easy. Americans — at least those Americans who are on the side of law and democracy — have learned something very important from the past four years, though. That’s that it can happen here, which begs the question: What are we going to do to make sure that it never happens again?

Deep frying?


For many years, I avoided deep-frying. The first reason was that it’s messy. The second is that it’s not regarded as healthy.

Then again …

When I measure the oil before and after frying, I find that surprisingly little oil is lost — certainly less than a stir-fry, which is regarded as healthy. Also, I have been eating a lot of tofu during the past few months. Tofu loves to be gently browned in a deep pot of oil. I think I have decided to embrace deep-frying.

To manage the mess, some kind of system helps. I use a very deep, very heavy, copper Windsor pot, 9.5 inches wide at the top. A slotted spoon serves to move things in and out. Afterwards, I let the oil cool, then pour it through a funnel and wire-mesh filter into a glass bottle. I re-use the oil, and I keep it in the refrigerator, because I suspect that liquids and particles that remain in the oil even after filtering probably ought to be refrigerated. Recipes for deep-frying suggest a temperature of 340 degrees Fahrenheit or somewhat higher. But I find that 320F is fine, as long as you’re cooking smallish amounts of food from room temperature and thus don’t cool down the oil too much. I use peanut oil.

I want to do more experiments with deep-frying fish — a Southern American favorite. I keep my fish oil separate, also in the refrigerator. I have never had, or even heard of, deep-fried salmon. But I’m going to try that soon.

The tofu in the photo is sauced with a kind of Korean sauce. It’s honey, some ketchup, pepper paste, miso paste, and a touch of vinegar.

Let’s go there: Worst-case scenarios



This gun-cleaning mat sent out as a freebie to gun-supply customers is pretty clear about how the Republican Party retails Trumpian meanness to its base. Source: Reddit


We are being terrorized, aren’t we? Yet again yesterday, in a press conference, Trump said that any election he loses would be fraudulent and that he won’t commit to leaving office. This terrorism by Trump and the Republican Party is not likely to let up, even after Nov. 3. They want us to be demoralized and just give up.

In 2020, I think that there are reasons for optimism, though. During the 2016 election, the media and the commentariat largely were bamboozled by Trump and fell for Trump’s shtick, taking refuge in centrism and notions of objectivity, thus giving Trump a free ride and suppressing the story of what Trump really is. The New York Times, actually, is still trying to cling to what it sees as journalistic principles and still tries to write about Trump as though the American political situation is still normal. But mostly the media now get it. (I am excluding, of course, right-wing propaganda machinery such as Fox News.) Just in the past few days, there have been several important pieces describing with great clarity just where we stand and how much danger we are in. All these are must-reads:

• The most important of these pieces is in the Atlantic: The Election That Could Break America: If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop him?

• Vox has a very good piece on just how abnormal the Republican Party has become: The Republican Party Is an Authoritarian Outlier

• At Politico: Trump Is an Authoritarian. So Are Millions of Americans.

• A piece at Time describes the economic background on what’s really behind the Republican Party’s desperation to stay in power. It’s to hold on to the system of gross inequality that allows the super-rich to keep getting richer: The Top 1% of Americans Have Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90%—And That’s Made the U.S. Less Secure.

In the past four years of Trump, book after book and article after article have analyzed and accurately described just where America stands today. To try to put it as briefly as possible: A minority party (the Republican Party), desperate to cling to power even though its agenda is regressive and unpopular, is willing to compromise American democracy to stay in power. The Republican Party’s intent is to eliminate real opposition by any means it can get away with (though with a pretense of legality if possible) and to entrench itself as an unchallengeable ruling party with a strongman authoritarian leader: Trump. The party is controlled by the agenda of the 1 percent, but the party has strong (but minority) populist support from the most disaffected and manipulable element of the population. There is nothing new here. If the Republican Party succeeds in subverting the American democracy, it won’t be the first time that a democracy has been lost. The Republican Party has many examples to work with on how to go about putting down a democracy, and they are indeed following a well-studied playbook. (I am at present reading a book on this subject: Authoritarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know. I’ll have a review of it soon.)

We have a huge body of work from academics, journalists, and government experts on where we now stand and what Trump might do. But, as far as I know, no one has yet written about how we get rid of Trump if he steals the election.

So, as a thought experiment, let’s think about the worst case. What if Trump actually succeeds in stealing the election and manages to stay in office after inauguration day on Jan. 20? Let’s try to game it out.

If there is a Trump-Republican takeover, then I can’t imagine that a Trump regime would be able to achieve anything resembling stability. Trump would find himself surrounded by powerful forces working day and night within the tatters of democracy to take him down. Trump has never had majority support. If current polls are valid, he will lose the popular vote in this election by 8 to 10 percent. Except to Trump’s base, who believe what they’re told, the treachery of Trump and the Republican Party would be unmasked. A majority of Americans would be enraged and would demand a restoration of democracy. The Trump regime does not have the machinery in place to impose the level of repression that would be required. They might resort to terror by making examples of some who resist, but I suspect that that would only make things less secure for Trump by further enraging the opposition. It would be difficult or impossible to make a takeover look legal — though of course they will try, claiming as a last resort that it was for the good of the country. Civil servants would resign en masse. Even though Trump has installed incompetent loyalists in government departments (though William Barr at the Justice Department has shown considerable competence at twisting the law) there just would not be enough low-level loyalists to keep the wheels of government turning. Any who’d be willing to try would be unqualified and incompetent and in it for what they could steal. The incompetence and churn and corruption would cripple government services, and people would soon notice (as they already noticed with the U.S. Postal Service). If the Social Security checks ever got held up, the music would stop. Corporate America would look for ways to get involved. Corporate America doesn’t want to be taxed, but business depends on stability and predictability.

American instability would lead to turmoil in global financial markets and the global economy. America’s allies and even barely friendly economic partners such as China would act not only to protect their own economies and their own interests, but also to impose sanctions against the United States. If there is anything that authoritarian governments hate, it’s economic sanctions (ask Vladimir Putin). If domestic turmoil alone didn’t crush the American economy, then international sanctions would. Trump in his foolishness seems to have lost the confidence of the American military. After a coup or takeover, one of the tests of who is in control is whom the military will take orders from. I seriously doubt that Trump and the Republican Party would be able to cow or to even buy off the American military. Some authoritarian governments are highly competent — Russia’s and China’s, for example. But no amount of help from Vladimir Putin would be sufficient to make up for the incompetence of the Trump regime or of Trump’s loyalists in the U.S. House and Senate. They would bungle everything. There certainly would be disorder in the streets, and that disorder could start to look like civil war. But disorder in the streets would not help to keep a Trump regime in power, no matter how well-armed Republican brownshirts might be. Disorder in the streets does not prop tyrants up. It takes them down.

One of the points that Erica Frantz makes again and again in Authoritarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know is that authoritarian leaders are the most dangerous when they are afraid of punishment on leaving office. That is probably the No. 1 reason why Trump has become so dangerous and so willing to go to extremes to try to stay in office. He’s going to prison, and he knows it. Once he leaves office, no longer with the power to hold off the legal nooses that are tightening around him, his life is over. If he’s smart, he and his family will just get on his plane (which I saw last year parked in plain sight at La Guardia airport), and fly to Russia. There is no future for him in the United States other than an ugly one.

One thing that greatly puzzles me is why the Republican Party has allowed Trump to get away with pushing things this far. A rational Republican Party would have cut a deal with Trump to get him out of the way, to keep the Senate, and to prevent Trump from taking the party down with him. Trump probably would have been able to negotiate some immunity for his crimes. Several pieces have been written about what senators say about Trump in private, though in public those same senators are Trump loyalists. It seems they’ve got Trump’s number, yet they’re siding with Trump and violating their oaths to the Constitution and to the law. Eventually, journalists and historians will figure that out. But I’m afraid that it’s one of the things that we won’t really know until after Trump has been put down and we can trace the money and the kompromat.

In short, I cannot imagine that a Trump-Republican takeover would last long. Once the takeover was put down, I think that the United States would return to democracy, with many lessons learned and many fixes to the law (and maybe even the Constitution) to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.


Update: Some Republicans are distancing themselves from Trump’s threat (but without mentioning Trump). But some Republicans, such as Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, are using it as just another opportunity to show how vile they are. Republicans condemn Trump’s refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power.


Wigtown podcast with Ken and Astrid



Here at the abbey in April 2020, at the baby’s six-month-old half-birthday party.

For some years now, Ken and Astrid have been regulars at the Wigtown Book Festival in Scotland. This year, because of Covid-19, the book festival will be virtual. As one of the virtual events, here is an excellent 30-minute podcast from Wigtown in which Astrid talks about her art and Ken talks about his books — as well as the article he wrote about their lockdown time here in the Appalachian foothills after flights back to Scotland were canceled. The interview with Astrid is in the first half, and the interview with Ken is in the second half.

Wigtown Book Festival podcast

Ken’s article Letter from the Heartland


The hidden powers that are killing democracy



Source: Wikimedia Commons

To the global super-rich, the rest of us are little more than just another natural resource to be exploited, no different in any meaningful way from industrial chickens or pigs. To a significant degree, though, the super-rich are afraid of the masses. The masses can be a bit more threatening than chickens and pigs. That’s because, if the masses are poorly controlled and insufficiently deceived and distracted, the masses can be very dangerous to oligarchic power. Taking to the streets is the last resort of the masses. But the power of the masses is most threatening to the global oligarchy when the power of the masses is coldly and quietly organized around a few formidable institutions that are the enemies of oligarchy: the law, democracy, and deep and truthful sources of information.

As long as some fear of the law remains, criminality and corruption must remain disguised and secret. And yet, given that the No. 1 project of the global criminal oligarchy at present is to corrupt the United States, to disable the American democracy, and to bring down the American rule of law, that project cannot be accomplished entirely in secret. All of us can see the tip of the iceberg in the daily headlines, as Trump and his criminal syndicate do everything they can to corrupt the rule of law and cripple American democracy. It is terrifying that the global criminal oligarchy even got — and seized — an opportunity to take down the United States. How that happened is a question for another day. But that such an opportunity even exists can only mean that democracy and the rule of law have become weak, and that the global criminal oligarchy have become strong.

The global oligarchy surveil the masses very carefully. But normally the masses have very little ability to surveil the global oligarchy. But, two days ago, we the masses got a rare leak of information on the vast amount of money (and therefore the vast amount of power) that oligarchs depend on. That leak provided some hints on where the money comes from and where it goes. Clearly a corrupted U.S. Treasury Department is part of a coverup, while doing little or nothing to enforce the law. But no reasonable person can doubt that a great deal of money — mostly Russian money — has been directed to Trump, to members of Trump’s criminal syndidate, and to the Republican Party. They are actively working to corrupt the rule of law and to neutralize the institutions of democracy — in short, to turn us into Russia. The law, actually — and Trump’s attorney general has made terrifying progress with that part of the project — is to be used against the enemies of the regime and to cover up the crimes of oligarchs. There is nothing new in this project or in its tactics, except that now they’ve come for the United States. Money gained from looting Russia is now being invested in making it possible to loot the United States.

Even many who carefully follow the news from day to day remain mostly unaware of the titantic struggle beneath the surface. It takes a historian’s perspective and depth of sources to penetrate the murk. I have previously mentioned Heather Cox Richardson as an essential daily source of information. She is a Harvard historian who posts daily on Facebook. (To find her on Facebook, search for her name.) In today’s post, she brings this leak to our attention:

“For all that these stories are important, my favorite candidate for the story we’re not supposed to notice is last night’s leak of suspicious activity reports (SARs) filed by banks with the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as FinCEN. This agency combats money laundering. The documents, leaked to BuzzFeed, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, found that banks flagged more than $2 trillion in potentially laundered money between 1999 and 2017. The leaked documents, which make up less than 0.02% of the more than 12 million SARs filed with FinCEN between 2011 and 2017, show a world awash in money from criminal activity. They paint a picture of a world of fabulously wealthy oligarchs and criminals, operating out of our sight.

“There is nothing specifically about Trump or his company in the leaked documents, and being flagged in a SARs does not necessarily mean wrongdoing. But transactions involving $1.3 trillion at Deutsche Bank, Trump’s bankers, made other bankers nervous enough to flag them. In one of the documents, Bank of America raises concerns about the amount of Russian money flowing into the U.S. in 2016 through Deutsche Bank.”

Richardson understands how important this is. And yet the media have mostly ignored it. That the leak went to a tawdry little site such as BuzzFeed, as opposed to, say, the New York Times, is very revealing about how easily the media can be manipulated to distract rather than inform. The New York Times, though, did write a brief story about the BuzzFeed leak. As for who leaked this information and why, it would be safe to assume that the leak came from a principled insider who was exasperated by FinCEN’s and the U.S. Treasury’s failure to enforce the law. The leaker knows, of course, that when corruption has blocked enforcement of the law, then the only hope is that the masses will act — assuming that the masses have the information to act on, and assuming that democracy and law are sufficiently intact to empower the masses to act effectively.

This vast flow of international criminal money is something we must keep on our radar screens. Most of Trump’s hundreds of crimes and coverups are sideshows compared with this. His scam university, his bankrupt businesses, the pilfering of his foundation and campaign funds are nothing compared with this — working with the international criminal oligarchy to destroy the American democracy, to loot its resources, to exploit the population like pigs and chickens while providing social services at the same level as Mongolia, and to create a corrupt economy in which criminal syndicates can suck up 25 percent of GDP, while getting away with it all, as they do in Russia.

Donegal tweed



Click here for high-resolution version.

I seem to have become a collector of vintage Harris tweed jackets, after a visit to the Isle of Harris and Lewis in 2019. That’s a slippery slope, because, before long, the tweed habit leads to Donegal tweed as well.

Much has been written about Harris tweed. Less has been written about Donegal tweed. As far as I can tell from Googling, it was Harris tweed that came first and led the way. According to an article in Gentleman’s Journal: “Although the story of tweed began in Scotland, it quickly migrated to Ireland where, in 1900, Robert Temple bought off John Magee’s business and started weaving the illustrious Donegal tweed.” More about Magee in a moment.

County Donegal and Scotland’s Isle of Lewis and Harris have a lot in common. They both have rugged western coasts facing the North Atlantic. Though I have not been as far north in Ireland as County Donegal, the terrain, climate, and economic potentials are very similar — sheep-friendly, and a sparse population of cottagers in need of work and an income. What worked economically for the Isle of Harris also worked for County Donegal.

My understanding is that, by law, Harris tweed is produced only on hand-operated looms. The label on my 1970s Magee jacket says that the tweed was handwoven. I don’t disbelieve that, though this article says that the production of Donegal tweed today is dominated by power looms. The Magee company acknowledges the use of power looms in this article on their web site. The article also says that they continue to produce handwoven tweed, though when I spot-checked fabric and clothing for sale on their web site, the descriptions said, “All tweeds are woven in our mill in Donegal, Ireland.”

In any case, a single company — Magee — seems to have dominated the Donegal tweed business since the beginning. They are still very much in business today. Men’s jackets seem to average around $600. They have stores in Donegal and Dublin, and they ship to the U.S.

It’s very unlikely that I would ever buy a tweed garment new. What would be the sport in that? As I mentioned in a post here on Harris tweed last year, there is a good market on eBay for vintage tweed clothing. Sellers are usually very good at providing the information buyers need to judge a men’s jacket. Usually there will be 10 to 12 photos from multiple angles. If there are flaws such as rips, there will be a photo of it. Best of all, they provide measurements that I have found to be accurate. Jackets in great condition can be had for $40 up. Typically I pay $60 to $100. The cost of alterations may add another $100, so a nice jacket ends up costing less than $200. Tweed just doesn’t seem to wear out. A jacket’s lining will be the best indicator of how much it has been worn. I always look for jackets with like-new lining.

My article on Harris tweed has gotten quite a few hits from Google, mostly from readers in Europe. There seems to be a growing interest in vintage tweed, at least in men’s jackets. For those who are interested in collecting, I’d make two suggestions. First, you need access to a tailor or someone with tailoring experience who can do a proper job of alterations. And second, you should keep your own measurements handy when looking at jackets. eBay sellers will typically lay a jacket flat and use a tape measure. You should do the same to get your own measurements, using a jacket that fits you well. It’s the same as buying clothing off the rack (the only kind of clothing I’ve ever owned). Some alterations are easy; some are difficult or impossible. Don’t buy a jacket unless the shoulders are just right, because shoulder alterations are not worth what they’d cost, even if it can be done at all. Letting out or taking up sleeves is no big deal. But if sleeves need lengthening, you’ll need to know how much fabric there is in the sleeves that can be let out. No jacket will look good on you unless the chest and waist fit well. Tightening the waist and chest of a jacket are not a big deal, but there will be limits on how much letting out can be done, depending on how much fabric is available to do it.

I’m trying to honor a new rule to try to keep my collector habit under control. That’s to buy only jackets that are of high quality and in great condition, to buy only great bargains, and to try to buy only jackets that need no alterations. The jacket in the photo, for example, fits great without any alterations, though I plan to move the buttons about 3/4 inch to slightly tighten up the waist.

County Donegal, by the way, is part of the Republic of Ireland, to the west of Northern Ireland. I have never been north of Dublin, and I have never been to Northern Ireland. I certainly hope to get to Donegal someday.


My post on Harris tweed from August 2019.



This jacket was quite a find — made by Magee in County Donegal, from handwoven tweed, from an American seller, and little or no alteration needed. I would guess that this jacket was made in the late 1970s.


The measurements I use when browsing for collectibles on eBay.

Horatio Hornblower



Ioan Gruffud as Horatio Hornblower

Most of my old DVDs are in a box in the attic. But the boxed set of Horatio Hornblower DVDs is always on the TV stand, ready for an emergency escape from the here and now.

The series ran from 1997 until 2003 on ITV in the U.K. and A&E in the U.S., with the Welsh actor Ioan Gruffud as Hornblower. The series is based on the novels by C.S. Forester.

It seems strange to me now that I don’t recall ever seeing the Horatio Hornblower novels in a school library. I think I would have read them as a boy if I had come across them. Recently I sampled a bit of one of the Hornblower novels and found it a bit too young adult to enjoy reading. But for whatever reason, not having read the novels, the television series comes across as fully adult.

The first Hornblower novel was published in 1937, and the last in 1962. The novels are set during the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. The Wikipedia article on C.S. Forester doesn’t tell us much, other than that he was British (born in Cairo and later moved to London) and that he moved to the United States during World War II, where he worked for the British Ministry of Information. After the war he ended up in Berkeley.

Forester doesn’t seem to have lived a life of adventure. My guess would be that, in writing these novels, he was largely compensating for an adventureless life. There also is a didactic element in the Hornblower books, I suspect — teaching young men about honor, duty, and hard knocks. The Wikipedia description of the Hornblower character is apt enough: “Hornblower is courageous, intelligent, and a skilled seaman, but he is also burdened by his intense reserve, introspection, and self-doubt, and is described as ‘unhappy and lonely.’ Despite numerous personal feats of extraordinary skill and cunning, he belittles his achievements by numerous rationalisations, remembering only his fears. He consistently ignores or is unaware of the admiration in which he is held by his fellow sailors. He regards himself as cowardly, dishonest, and, at times, disloyal—never crediting his ability to persevere, think rapidly, organise, or cut to the heart of a matter.”

The filming budget for this series was adequate, if not extravagant. I’m thrilled by images of ships under full sail. This series has plenty of that, but there’s not much wind in the sails, and the water is usually flat. Still, a Horatio Hornblower DVD guarantees an hour and a half of escape from the here and now.

Virtual emigration, anyone?



My 20-year-old Sony headphones, well worn but still working

Ken, who is now back in Scotland after being stuck in the U.S. for six months during the Covid-19 lockdown, writes: “I can’t tell you how detoxed I already feel from U.S. politics…. No more Trump signs, no more awful religion, no more right wing madness…. It feels good to be away, honestly.” Luckily for him, Ken has two passports. One of them is a beautiful red British passport, the ones I admire most while standing in the immigration lines. Meanwhile, here I am, with only my useless American passport, unable to breathe the free air of Europe this year, if only for a couple of weeks.

Republicans, while doing such great deeds to make America great again (with generous Russian assistance), say that we liberals would turn America into a flaming hellscape. Actually, what we liberals will do is make America much more like Europe.

We liberal Americans are torn in two directions right now. On the one hand, we’re obsessed with the news, terrified at how far right-wing Americans and their little Hitler will go to get the right-wing dictatorship they crave. And on the other hand we try to preserve our mental health by trying to shut it all out.

This post is about shutting it out.

Technology can bring us all the news (and propaganda) we can eat. But technology also gives us ways to shut out the public madness to protect our mental health. I actually have come to love my Covid-19 masks. I especially love my Covid-19 masks when I’m in a place where right-wingers are maskless. So far, I’ve not been harassed for wearing a mask, but there is a lot of that going on. My mask says to the glowering maskless: I don’t want to be around you. I suspect that’s part of why mask-wearers gall them so badly. It makes them feel low and dirty, when what they want is to feel superior and powerful. I’m considering wearing masks in public for the rest of my life, actually.

Unlike viruses, noise won’t kill you. But too much noise damages our hearing, and too much noise damages our mental health. Noise is not a huge problem for me now, given that I live in the woods. Nor do I find myself in noisy places much anymore. But, partly because I’m so accustomed to silence, I have a low tolerance for noise. I have come to be disgusted by the sound of loudspeakers blaring country music, for example. Once upon a time, country music could express vitality, energy, and optimism. Consider Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” (1958), or the stunning performance of “Cocaine Blues” by Joaquin Phoenix in the film “Walk the Line.” (See footnote for a musical factoid.)

The country music that I’m exposed to in public places these days is always about whining and masochistic suffering. The whining voice, apparently, is supposed to convey emotion. I find myself mocking it and making fun of it behind my mask, or muttering, “Why don’t you just go die and get it over with.” Some cultures are rotting all right, and not the ones in Europe.

Noise was a huge problem when I lived in San Francisco. It was sirens, buses, trains on Market Street, and loud motorcycles. Eventually I refused to go to restaurants, or at least the noisy ones, where the sound level was often over 100 decibels. I also fought the noise with some noise-canceling headphones. I bought headphones that were of poor quality, though, and they didn’t last long. (The headphones in the photo are good headphones, but they don’t do noise canceling.)

I was very excited when I heard that Apple is going to make some over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones. Apparently they’ll be called “Airpods Studio,” and the rumors at present are that they’ll be available in October. The price is said to be $349 or $399. That’s pretty pricey, but my guess is that they’ll be worth it.

Apple has figured out how to get amazing sound quality (and a wide range of frequencies) out of small devices, with low distortion. I’ve never used ear buds, because they don’t fit my ear well, and because buds can’t do noise canceling. For noise canceling, the ears must be covered with sound-suppressing padding. Another virtue of the Apple headphones, I’m sure, is that they’ll integrate well with other Apple devices — iPhones, computers, and watches. The headphones will surely have a microphone. And Apple knows how to make products that are hard to break and don’t wear out.

It’s a sad thing when we have to protect ourselves against the environment we live in. And yet, we don’t fret about protective items such as caps (against sun damage) and gloves (against skin damage). For now, more options are needed. Masks defend against viruses, and, as a bonus, tell maskless right-wingers that you’re not one of them. Noise-cancelling headphones not only keep out the ear-damaging noise and the soul-damaging music, they also help build a virtual bubble, one’s own private Edinburgh.


A musical aside: The Folsom Prison scene from “Walk the Line” contains a fine example of what musicians call “vamping.” Vamping is what accompanists do while they wait for the vocalist to start to sing. The accompanist(s) just keep an eye on the singer and repeats a short musical phrase, maybe only one measure long. In the Folsom Prison scene, the band vamps while Joaquin Phoenix delivers a monologue that sets his audience on fire. Then, at 0:51, he breaks a glass, signaling the band that he’s ready to go. When Phoenix returns to the microphone, a guitar cues the singer with a chromatic sequence of four eighth-notes, dominant to tonic. Then Phoenix proceeds to kill it with “Cocaine Blues.” Hollywood, on the dreaded and liberal West Coast, knows how to do this. Nashville seems to have forgotten how.


Update: Even in Edinburgh, noisy restaurants are a problem. From the Scottish newspaper The Herald: We shouldn’t have to wear ear defenders when eating out.


The Door Into Summer



Heinlein with (I believe) Pixie, c. 1953. Wikipedia photo.


The Door Into Summer, by Robert A. Heinlein. Original publisher: Doubleday, 1957.


When I can’t find any newer science fiction that seems worth reading, a classic Robert A. Heinlein is always a good bet. The Door Into Summer is delightful.

I’m certain I’ve complained here before about writers who don’t know how to write. The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon made an axiom about that. It’s called Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” Sturgeon was responding to the criticism that science fiction was usually of low literary quality. The point he wanted to make is that most fiction is of low literary quality, so why pick on science fiction? I have certainly found Sturgeon’s Law to be true in a long life of reading. It’s why I fling so many books after fewer than 30 pages. On Amazon, it’s why I move on after spending a few minutes with “Look Inside.”

Robert A. Heinlein could write. He’s often called “the master” by lovers of the science fiction genre, because few writers have been able to match his skill. Heinlein rarely bends the rules that apply to classical story structure, which is a great virtue. There are many reasons why some writers can’t write. But one of those reasons is that bad writers often imagine that they are too creative and too literary to be constrained by classical story structure. That kind of writing stinks so badly that you can smell it and fling it within three pages. To my taste, the stricter the form, the better the art, as long as one can master the form. The analogy I use is fugue form, one of the strictest forms in music. And yet, working within that strict form, J.S. Bach can blow your mind. As can a Heinlein novel.

The Door Into Summer is a story about extreme injustice followed by justice and revenge. Much of the charm comes from a character who is a cat. Heinlein’s dialogue can be counted on to be as good as his plots. The dialogue with the cat in The Door Into Summer is not just funny, or clever in how it serves the plot and the characterization. Anyone who knows cats will also recognize it as a true reflection of how cats think (and talk).

The cat character sent me to Google, wanting to know more about Heinlein’s cats. It seems that, in Grumbles from the Grave, a posthumous biography of Heinlein assembled by his wife and published in 1989, there is a letter to Lurton Blassingame, a literary agent. In the letter, Heinlein writes:

“Pixie is dying … uremia, too far gone to hope for remission; the vet sent him home to die several days ago. He is not now in pain and still purrs, but he is very weak and becoming more emaciated every day — it’s like having a little yellow ghost in the house.”

I believe Pixie died in 1957, and I believe Pixie was the cat that Heinlein wrote about in The Door Into Summer.