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The Fellowship of the Ring

I first read The Lord of the Rings almost 50 years ago. Subsequently I have reread it at least twice. I often have wanted to do another rereading, but as Bilbo is preparing for his birthday party, I realize that I can quote many of the next lines before I turn the page. It could almost be a parlor game: What does Gandalf say next? Having failed yet again to find a good novel that I haven’t read, I’ve embarked on my fourth reading of The Lord of the Rings. I just finished the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring.

I still know the story by heart, of course. We all do. But this is the first time I’ve reread these books since my retirement more than 10 years ago. In those 10 years, I’ve read more about Tolkien including a book about the Inklings, I’ve read some of Tolkien’s letters, I’ve read a good bit on linguistics and prehistory, I’ve written two novels and part of a third, and — most important — I’ve hiked in remote places in the British Isles. It even helps to have visited Oxford last year, since that’s where these books were written. I’m finding that this fourth reading is rewarding for new reasons — savoring Tolkien’s use of language, admiring his scholarship, and marveling at his imagination.

One thing that has surprised me, though, is how much I’m enjoying the walking, walking, walking. Tolkien’s descriptions of terrain, sky (including the night sky), and weather are extraordinary. Having now hiked in moor, bog, and woodland and having ascended long, rocky, heather-covered ridges to the rainswept tops of wild mountains, I can now appreciate what previously was lost on me. It’s a travelogue, and it’s Tolkien’s descriptions that make Middle-earth so real. I never found the perfect pub (I hope to keep trying), but the provincial hotels of Scotland (such as the Royal Hotel at Stornaway) are almost as much fun as the Prancing Pony inn at Bree would be.

Before I start volume 2, The Two Towers, I am going to read William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which Ken recently finished and highly recommends. It’s a big tome, 1,250 pages. It’s the sort of book that will be kept on a prominent shelf for reference, so I bought the hardback 50th anniversary edition, which was released in 2011. Ken wrote a good comparison of Trump and Hitler, on how they’re alike and how they differ, which I would like to reproduce here later, with Ken’s permission. These three evil characters occupy the same dark space in our minds where we store our dreads and icons of depravity — Sauron, Hitler, and Trump.

Speaking of Trump, each day we learn something new and horrifying about his criminality and treason. I haven’t felt that I have anything to add by posting about politics here, though, because I think that the responsible media and the responsible commentariat are getting it right. I still don’t understand, though, why Republican senators don’t talk Trump into resigning so that the Republican Party can try to save itself, and its hold on the Senate, by putting up another candidate. But then again, it is with Trump as it was with Hitler (and Sauron). To good people (and good hobbits) who are working with good information, such depravity is incomprehensible.

Cucumber sandwiches

Here in the U.S., cucumber sandwiches are thought to be an English thing. I’m not sure if that’s true, though it sounds reasonable, and stores here sometimes sell what we call “English cucumbers.”

In any case, when I was a boy in rural North Carolina, cucumbers were plentiful, but I had never heard of a cucumber sandwich. Tomato sandwiches were the only kind of garden sandwiches we knew. I probably first got the idea of cucumber sandwiches from literature. For years they’ve been staple when good cucumbers are to be had and if I’ve bought store-bought bread in a moment of weakness. The cucumber in the photo was picked yesterday at dusk. It went straight into the refrigerator and spent the night there.

The tomatoes are coming along, but I’m still some days away from the first tomato sandwich. I’ll have to buy another loaf of bread.

Several varieties of cucumber are grown in these parts, but I grow only old-fashioned pickling cucumbers. I haven’t pickled any for several years, but if the cucumber harvest exceeds what I can eat fresh, then I’ll make some refrigerator pickles.

I’ve changed browsers

Periodically I go on a tear about Internet security. I take a look at everything — the browser I’m using, the browser’s security plug-ins, my Mac’s firewall, and pretty much everything I can think of. I check to see if there’s anything new that might help.

The Brave browser is pretty new. Version 1.0 of the browser was released last year. The browser code is based on Google’s Chrome. Brave claims that it is faster and more secure than Chrome. Brave even internally supports the Tor secure-browser network. You can open a Tor window in Brave.

In the browser business, there are no saints, and there never has been. Netscape, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Mozilla, Firefox, Opera … I’ve used them all at one time or another, and all have had their failings and foibles. Brave is no different. A few months ago Brave was caught trying to steer web traffic toward its money-making sites, which have something to do with encrypted currency. Brave apologized, though, and cleaned up their act.

I took a fresh look at Firefox, and I was appalled. Firefox was slow and was full of memory leaks. But Brave has been running nice and clean for a week now. Fewer security plug-ins are needed with Brave, because Brave takes care of many security issues by default, no plug-ins needed. Switching to Brave is easy if you’re a Chrome user, because it is compatible with Chrome. I easily moved my bookmarks and saved passwords to Brave.

Like it or not, Chrome is the most advanced browser, not least because it’s based on Google’s Chromium open-source software project. That’s how Brave is able to make use of the Chromium code base. But Google, being Google, is evil, and I’ve always distrusted Chrome, knowing that Google makes software decisions based on what makes people money on the web, not on what provides the best security for browser users.

I continue to use Safari, but only for Facebook. I detest and distrust Facebook, but I’ve not yet quit it. I keep Facebook running in a separate browser to keep it more isolated. And, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m now using OpenVPN, with the VPN server running on my own virtual private server.


Click here for high-resolution version.

I had not previously encountered borage. I think it is not as commonly used in the U.S. as it is in Europe. But we grew some this year in Ken’s herb trough, starting from seeds in a variety pack of favorite German herbs that I bought on Amazon. The borage is blooming now, with cheery little star-shaped flowers. Its taste is a bit like cucumbers, and it works well in soups and salad dressings.

Foundation teaser

Today Apple released a teaser for their Apple TV production of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, which we will get to see in 2021.

I have read Foundation three times, I believe. It’s bound to present a challenge for filmmaking, and they’re bound to have to improvise. As beautiful a piece of fiction as Foundation is, I often have laughed about how nothing really happens. The story mostly consists of smart people sitting in boring rooms and talking. I’m hoping they’ve figured out how to make a film of it.

Why I can’t have apple pie

The squirrels have been stealing peaches from the orchard for at least a couple of weeks. Now they are stealing apples. This morning, I saw Mrs. Squirrel in the backyard, coming down from the orchard with an apple in her mouth. I knew where she was going, so I had time to go get the camera. She was going to the deck railing, because she loves to sit there and eat what she steals. It’s time to put out the scare cats. I’ll have another post about that.

One last noble service from your mayonnaise jars

It bugs me how much food gets wasted inside retail food jars, no matter how much scraping you do when the jar is empty. With mayonnaise jars, my solution is to keep the near-empty jars in the refrigerator until I need a quick salad dressing. Add vinegar, seasonings, and herbs, shake it up, and you’re done.

This particular empty-jar dressing included fresh dill and borage. I used it on raw vegetables that came from the garden this morning — onion, cucumber, squash, and tomato. This supper was my reward for three hours of toil this morning. I pulled out the defunct spring crops such as kale and gave the garden a good weeding. Now I have spaces where I can plant late tomatoes, late basil, and such.

This was my first proper supper from the summer garden. That’s variegated beets on the plate (they were mostly white, yellow, and pink).

Why you need a private VPN server

To my regular readers: This is a nerd post that won’t interest most of you, for which I apologize. However, about half of the connections to this blog come from Google, from people who have searched for a topic that I have written about. This post is mainly for readers from Google who are interested in private VPN servers.

If you are interested in a private VPN server, then you already know why you need a VPN. But why do you need a private VPN? You need a private VPN because:

1. It’s impossible to know to what degree a VPN service can be trusted.

2. VPN providers charge too much. VPN service is cheap to provide. There are free services, such as Windscribe. But you have to wonder how they use a free service to make money.

3. Some highly secure web sites (my bank, for instance) seem to know when you’re using a public VPN. They may refuse to talk with you at all, or they may challenge you with pesky checks such as CAPTCHAs.

4. A private VPN will almost certainly be faster.

5. Assuming you have the know-how, a private VPN lets you control the configuration on both client and server. You can optimize the VPN for the way you use it.

The hurdle to having your own VPN server is not the cost. Virtual private servers have become quite cheap (more about that below). The hurdle is the amount of knowledge you need to install and configure VPN (virtual private network) on a VPS (virtual private server). Anyone who is comfortable with Linux should be able to do it. You need to be adept at working at a Unix command line. You need a decent understanding of how encryption works. And you need a decent understanding of how networks work.

Here’s what you need:

1. A virtual private server running a recent and well-supported flavor of Linux

2. Knowledge of Unix (or Linux), and knowledge of encryption and networking

3. The right software (and knowing how to install it) on your virtual private server, mainly OpenVPN and SSL

You will hit some bumps, and you will have some questions. I found how-to files from Digital Ocean to be particularly helpful (you can Google for such how-to files). My VPS provider (VPSCheap) also had a helpful how-to file in its support section. In this post, I don’t propose to tell you how to set up a private VPN server. I just want to encourage you and get you started.

About virtual private servers: You can Google for where to sign up for a virtual private server (VPS). I use Some very negative reviews have been written about them, but it was clear that the reviewers didn’t know very much. My guess is that many people write negative reviews of VPS services because they’re in over their heads and don’t know how to use a VPS. My VPS (there are many options) includes 1GB of RAM, 20GB of disk, fast and unlimited network access, and Ubuntu 20.04 LTS. It costs $50 a year. It’s assumed with pretty much any VPS that you get root access to the server via ssh. With VPSCheap, I had to open a help ticket after I saw that my newly set up server did not have the full 20GB of disk space. Five minutes after I opened the ticket, I received an email saying that the problem had been fixed (and it had indeed been fixed).

Your private server does not need a domain name. All you need is the bare IP address. For security and anonymity, it’s probably better not to have a domain name pointing to your server. It would be very difficult for anyone (other than your VPS provider) to find how who uses that IP address. An exception is that, when you’re using a VPN, and when you sign in somewhere (such as your bank) with your real name, your bank will then be able to associate your name and IP address. You can be sure that banks log IP addresses. But law-abiding users of the Internet ought not to need to hide from their bank. Those who do use the Internet for shady purposes are using Tor, not a VPN. The VPN is to protect you from snooping and tracking. It won’t hide you from your bank, or from the law.

My requirements for a VPN are harsh, because I connect to the Internet by satellite (HughesNet). Satellites cause latency, and VPNs hate latency and work poorly over satellite. I tried some free VPN services, and some pay-by-the-gigabyte VPN services, but their slow performance over a satellite link made them unusable. With my own VPN server, the performance of OpenVPN is slow, but tolerable. I found that certain configuration changes (on both client and server) helped. Take a look at keep-alive and replay-window if you have similar problems. Also UDP (rather than TCP/IP) is recommended, because UDP will shovel packets down the tunnel without all the back-and-forth control protocols that TCP/IP uses.

An extra benefit of having your own VPS server is that you can use it for things other than VPN. I’m testing the possibility of moving my blog from GoDaddy hosting to a VPS. That would save money. It also would give me total access to, and total control over, the blog’s server. I think I’ve checked off all the requirements, including the necessity of being able to run SSL (HTTPS) using a free, signed certificate. SSL certificates are another item that cost far, far more than they ought to when you buy them from somebody like GoDaddy.

Another extra benefit of having your own VPS server is that you can use it on all your devices. My private VPN service works great on my iPhone (using the OpenVPN iPhone app) and on my Windows laptop. I use OpenVPN as the client on all my devices, including the iMac. There are other client options, such as Tunnelblick. I tested Tunnelblick and hated it. You don’t have to create separate certificates or profiles for each device. Just one will work with OpenVPN clients on all your devices. When I’m at a hot spot with fast WIFI, I find that my VPN server is super fast, even transparently fast.

It sucks that everyone doesn’t have the skill and resources to have a private VPN server, or at least an honest VPN service provider. But the truth is that there are politically powerful interests on the Internet who want us to be vulnerable, because they want to track us and snoop on us, and they want to be able to push advertising at us the better to “monetize” whatever they’re selling. The same thing is true of email. The technology has long existed for encrypted email systems in which identities can be verified by signed encryption certificates and in which spam could virtually be eliminated. But again, there are powerful interests on the Internet (including the government) who want to snoop on us or push advertising at us.

It’s a jungle out there.

Update: All VPN users show know what a WebRTC browser leak is and how to prevent it. Google for those terms to learn more.

Countdown to summer: 4, 3, 2, 1

The first pesto of the season may not be as exciting as the first tomato sandwich. But it’s pretty exciting.

It would have been a crime to apply heat to a perfect little squash that was growing in a cool rain only minutes ago. So I et it raw.

Speaking of summer, do we tolerate summer better as we get older? I would find it difficult to live without air conditioning here in the South. But I set the thermostat for 83 (though I make it a little cooler at night). It’s 93 that I can’t handle. Still, working in the garden in the heat of summer is hard work. My only hope for keeping a respectable garden now that Ken has headed back to Scotland is to get the gardening done early in the morning.

Do we really need so much stuff?

It took almost a month to build the new shed up above the garden. For ten years, a shed has been much needed here, because I did not have a place to store the lawn mower, or the tiller, out of the weather. Plus my beloved Jeep needs to be sheltered. But when I stand back and admire how nicely the project all turned out, I can’t help but think: Do we really need so much stuff? Not only does stuff cost money. Storing stuff costs money, too.

At any given time, most of the stuff we all own is in storage, unused. The abbey’s attic and basement are stuffed with stuff that is being stored. In this part of the U.S. (and probably everywhere in the country), “self storage” units are a growth industry. A great many people are renting a place to store all the stuff that they don’t have room for at home.

Many of us aspire to simple living and an uncluttered life. But why so much stuff? When I moved from San Francisco back to North Carolina eleven years ago, the cost of moving my stuff was just over a dollar a pound. I had to ask myself, for everything I owned and wanted to keep, whether it was worth a dollar a pound. My moving cost was about $3,400, which means that, even after I sold, gave away, and threw away a lot of stuff, I still had 3,400 pounds of stuff that I decided was worth a dollar a pound.

I’m going to guess that even our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors had to carry a lot of stuff on their backs when they moved around. For three million years, anthropologists say, humans have been using tools. Those tools probably made the difference between survival and death. Humans started cooking, anthropologists say, about two million years ago. Cooking, as we all know, requires stuff, the kind of stuff that fills up the cabinets in every human kitchen. When early humans started farming, that required infrastructure. That infrastructure was more or less permanently fixed in place, yet people needed wagons. Wagons have been used to carry stuff for about 4,000 years.

I think I have come to the conclusion that living without stuff would be impossible, and that we should not feel guilty about acquiring and storing a reasonable amount of stuff. All sorts of specialized stuff — in the form of tools — was required just to build the new shed: saws, drills, impact drivers, measuring devices, levels, post-hole diggers, shovel, wheel barrow, and lots of ladders.

Even a simplified and sustainable life requires not just tools, but also infrastructure. You can’t grow food without a lot of stuff: fields (or at least a garden plot); some form of plough and something to pull it (a tiller will do for a small operation); tools (such as hoes); fences; a way of handling mulches, manures, and composts; and, if your life depends on what you grow, some form of irrigation.

Infrastructure, really, is the biggy. Once human beings migrated out of the tropics, a lot of infrastructure was required for a settled subsistence: A house secure against the weather, a source of heating, a source of water, a system for cooking, places to sleep, systems for sanitation, sources of fiber (such as flax or wool) and systems for turning fiber into clothing, and so on. But we human beings don’t want to settle for mere subsistence. We also want comfort and a reasonable level of convenience.

I’ve resolved to not feel too guilty about acquiring (and consequently storing) stuff — particuarly when that stuff supports sustainability. I do try to ask myself, though, before I buy something: Where will I store it, and how will I maintain it? Maintenance of stuff can be expensive, especially things that have engines, such as vehicles, mowers, and tillers. Maintenance (of the house, of the house’s systems and appliances, and of vehicles) is one of the bigger categories in my budget.

Two optional forms of infrastructure were relatively easy to add to the new shed. A gutter catches the water off the roof and directs it to the 250-gallon tank that feeds the garden’s irrigation system. There’s also a small solar system. At present the solar system provides only lighting and a way of keeping the Jeep’s battery charged (the Jeep often is unneeded and unused for weeks at a time). But even a small solar system can provide some options during a long power failure.

Most people prefer to live, and build, on flat terrain. I, however, love hills, mountains, valleys, and slopes. Flat terrain makes me feel bored and uneasy. There is virtually no flat place in the abbey’s land here in the Appalachian foothills. Thus the shed had to be built on a slope. The shed is 16 feet long, and the ground at one end is almost three feet lower than at the other end. That made the job more complicated, with one end of the shed almost 16 feet high. But slopes have their advantages: gravity. The shed is higher than the water tank, and the water tank is higher than the garden. So the irrigation system can be fed by gravity. Just turn a valve, and the garden gets watered with last week’s rain. That’s infrastructure!

The shed was a pandemic project. Ken did most of the work, but a neighbor also volunteered many hours of his time, tools, and know-how. Lucky for me, I got the new shed for the cost of the materials.