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Sardines, well disguised

Pea and sardine burgers with fresh herbs; potato salad with fresh dill

A week or so ago, I mentioned having acquired a dozen tins of nice, clean, Norwegian sardines, skinless and boneless and packed in olive oil. I had the idea of using them in burgers that are partly sardines and partly legumes. They’re good!

Though the garden here has oodles of basil every summer (because I think of basil more as a vegetable than as an herb), I’ve never had such a good supply of fresh herbs as I have this year. I included lots of basil and parsley in the burgers. Because I’m not particularly fond of fishy flavors, I used every sort of compatible strong flavor that I could think of to season the burgers — onions, cumin, garlic powder, Trader Joe’s mushroom umami seasoning, smoked paprika, food yeast, and toasted sesame oil. The peas were frozen. I used an egg as binder. The burgers tasted more like veggie burgers than fish burgers.

Though I do eat eggs and dairy, I eat very little meat. For vegans especially, if they care to extend their range a bit, sardines are a good source of one of the nutrients that vegans can become dangerously deficient in — vitamin B12. Sardines also have lots of iodine, as well as a lipid profile that is as good as it gets. Sardines are low on the food chain. They live on plankton. When sardines come from the cold northern oceans, they’re low on the pollutants that affect some fish higher on the food chain.

Stunning Republican ineptitude

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I suspect, in retrospect, that the extension of the debt ceiling was always going to end the way it ended. I also suspect that the media and the political class were in cahoots and doing their best to make high drama out of nothing, to get the clicks and the attention. But we did learn some things.

The weakness and political stupidity of the Republican Party were on full display. It would be harder to do a better job of looking like a bunch of dangerous idiots if their actual intention was to cause sane and decent human beings to run screaming from Republicans, begging the Democratic Party to save them (which Joe Biden quietly did, where the debt ceiling is concerned). Republicans did at least have the good sense to keep quiet about cutting Social Security and Medicare, but you’ll remember how Republicans stepped right into Biden’s trap back in January during Biden’s State of the Union speech, when he taunted Republicans into claiming that they weren’t out to cut, or privatize, Social Security and Medicare, even though they’ve been trying to do that since 1935 for Social Security and 1965 for Medicare. As usual, only the most radical Republican voices were heard (though Kevin McCarthy, as usual, talked out of both sides of his mouth and smiled for all the cameras). It was clear what the radicals wanted. They wanted to force a default and throw the world economy into turmoil and the U.S. into recession, then blame Democrats for it.

There was more than a little media malpractice, too. After covering the issue like some kind of existential showdown in which Republican radicals had all sorts of imaginary power to crush us all, the legislation sailed through the House (314-117) and the Senate (63-36). Suddenly everyone but Joe Biden looked very silly. What was all that fuss about?

But the circus goes on. The media still pretend that the 2024 election will be another Trump-Biden referendum. That ain’t gonna happen. Trump is going to prison, and before he goes to prison he’s going to have a hard time being in three or four courtrooms at the same time. And would I be the first person to predict that, if a viable Democratic candidate can get up to speed within the next six or eight months, Biden will decide to retire? Even if Trump weren’t going to prison, he’s a loser, and Republicans know it — especially those Republicans in the House and Senate who voted to extend the debt ceiling. Those Republicans know that there aren’t nearly enough MAGA types in the country to win a national election. Trump, you’ll remember, has never gotten a majority, though a lot of foolish people in 2016 threw away their votes (and, by 2020, knew better).

Today’s media economy requires a circus. The media will make a circus out of nothing if they have to. My expectation is that, soon, the biggest and greatest circus in American history will begin — Trump on trial for a long list of crimes, maybe even espionage. The Republican Party will split wide open. If some of those Republicans were sane enough to vote to extend the debt ceiling, they still deserve to go down and stay down, though half crazy is better than completely crazy. No matter how hard the media tries to invent some kind of false balance between Democrats and Republicans, they won’t be able to succeed, with a boring political genius in the White House and a Republican pig circus day after day and month after month. And let’s not forget: Republicans at the national level no longer have enough power to be dangerous, as much as they’d like to be. The debt ceiling made that perfectly clear.

Still, above the stench of everything that has happened in the past few weeks, I think I detect a wee whiff of something clean and healthy. It smells like the first young buds of a return to normality, because chaos isn’t paying off anymore.

Update: President Biden’s address to the nation this evening from the Oval Office was brilliant. If you missed watching it live, you should be able to find it on YouTube.

Pilchards! (also known as sardines)

Sardine salad sandwich

I’m trying to remember the train of thought that led me to think of pilchards. I think it was because I’ve been short on fiction lately, and I wondered whether it might be time to re-read Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. That would have caused me to think about Cornwall, and that might have caused me to wonder whether pilchards are as important today to the Cornish economy as they were to the Cornish people in the Poldark novels, set in the 18th Century. And then that made me wonder: What are pilchards? I do recall that I then went to Wikipedia and looked up “pilchard.”

I was surprised to learn that pilchards are sardines. Or maybe that small pilchards are called sardines and larger pilchards are called pilchards. Then I wondered if there is a sardine industry in Cornwall today. I didn’t find an answer to that, but I did come across references saying that the best canned sardines come from Norway, from a company called King Oscar. Then I looked on Amazon, and lo!, several varieties of King Oscar sardines are available from Amazon.

For a long time, I’ve wanted to learn to like sardines. As a 99-percent vegetarian, I’m squeamish about anything that isn’t a plant, and the sight of sardines in a can is a sight unlike anything that grows in a garden. But as I looked at the varieties of sardines sold by King Oscar, I saw that one variety is filet of sardines, skinless and boneless, packed in olive oil. Hmmm. Now we’re starting to sound more like canned tuna, which I love.

I ordered a sixpack of King Oscar sardines from Amazon and was shocked to find that they had accidentally sent me a twelve-pack. I’d better like them!

In fact I think I do. They’re almost as mild as tuna. My first experiment with my twelve cans of sardines was sardine salad. I used celery, onion, lime juice, and fresh herbs — basil, parsley, and dill. It was good!

Sardines are probably one of the most nutritious foods on the planet, highly compatible with a Mediterranean diet. The most eco-friendly way of bringing them down out of arctic waters to my latitude (as with salmon) is to can them. King Oscar’s sardines, they say on their web site, are always caught in Norway’s fjords and coastal waters. They’re processed elsewhere, though (Poland and Morocco?), because, I assume, labor costs are much higher in Norway. I believe all sardines are salt cured and smoked. King Oscar promises that they use real wood smoke and not smoke flavors.

I have two experiments in mind for the next time I open a can of sardines. I think they’d do well in a pasta dish. I think they’d also work well in burgers made partly of legumes (chickpeas, say) and partly of sardines, probably with curry spices. As for sardine salad, the herbs in my herb trough are still fairly young, so I clipped only a little of the basil, dill, and parsley. Next time, though, when I’m covered up with summer basil, I think I’ll turn the sardine salad green with pesto levels of minced fresh basil.

P.S. It happened that I had an avocado that needed to be eaten today. Avocado is a bit too mild to eat with sardines, though. For sardines, I think I’d recommend the sassiest possible accompaniments and side dishes. Pickles for sure, including dill pickles. Think curry, cumin, garlic toast, oodles of herbs … things like that.

My AI conversation with Jake about food and entropy

Fresh basil, just in from the sun: A heaping helping of negative entropy

I’ve written in the past about how it is possible to think of human health and what we eat in terms of negative entropy, here and here. The principles of nutrition are still valid. It’s just that the concept of negative entropy takes us to a level deeper and looks at the physics of life, as opposed to the biology of life. This idea of life’s relationship with entropy, as far as I know, was introduced by Erwin Schrodinger (the physicist who gave us the Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment) in a little book named What Is Life, published in 1944.

Briefly put, entropy is disorder and chaos. Entropy relates to the second law of thermodynamics, which says that, in a closed system, entropy (disorder) is always increasing. If you’re a living being, entropy is bad and negative entropy is good. This is why, in billions of years, the universe will become very, very boring and fizzle out into a dead emptiness. As Schrodinger describes it in What Is Life, the peculiar thing about life is that life, to sustain itself, requires a constant input of order, or negative entropy. For life on earth, all order depends on the sun and the ability of plant life to use the sun’s energy to create complex (and very orderly) living molecules out of lifeless chemicals such as nitrogen and carbon.

Very little has been written on this subject, but I’ve read everything I can find. Thus, when I had this conversation with Jake, the AI who is now running on my Mac computer at home, I pretty much knew what’s Jake’s answers would be. Here is the conversation:


Erwin Schrodinger and Roger Penrose both have written about negative entropy and how negative entropy sustains life. With that in mind, please describe in detail how foods high in negative entropy support human health.


Erwin Schrodinger and Roger Penrose’s ideas about negative entropy and its role in sustaining life are based on the concept that living organisms require a certain degree of order or organization to exist and function properly. Foods that are high in negative entropy, meaning they have a low degree of disorder or chaos, can support human health by providing the body with the energy and nutrients it needs to maintain that order and function properly.

High-negative entropy foods, such as whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains, provide the body with essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that are necessary for healthy cell function, immune system support, and overall health. These foods also contain antioxidants and other compounds that help protect the body against damage from free radicals and other toxins.

In addition, high-negative entropy foods are often rich in fiber, which helps regulate digestion and promote healthy bowel function. Fiber also helps keep blood sugar levels stable, which can support overall health and help prevent chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes.

Overall, incorporating high-negative entropy foods into your diet can support healthy functioning of the body’s cells, organs, and systems, and help prevent chronic diseases and other health problems.


Is it valid to conceive of human health in terms of negative entropy, as opposed to the more traditional nutrition model? Also, how might chlorophyll fit with this idea?


Yes, it is valid to conceive of human health in terms of negative entropy, as it can provide a framework for understanding how the body’s natural processes work and how certain foods can support those processes. The traditional nutrition model focuses mainly on macronutrients and micronutrients, while the negative entropy model takes into account the inherent order and organization of living systems.

Chlorophyll is an interesting nutrient in this context, as it is a powerful antioxidant and has been shown to support healthy cell function and immune system function. Chlorophyll also contains a specialized type of carbon-hydrogen bonding known as benzenoid sockets, which are unique to plants and have been linked to anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. By providing the body with these beneficial molecular features, chlorophyll can help support healthy negative entropy and promote overall health.


Since the earth’s source of negative entropy is the sun, would chlorophyll’s close relationship with the sun be a factor?


Yes, chlorophyll’s close relationship with the sun is a factor, as chlorophyll absorbs light energy from the sun and uses it to power the chemical reactions that produce food and oxygen in the process of photosynthesis. This process not only provides energy for plants but also helps maintain the Earth’s atmosphere and supports life on our planet. By providing the body with chlorophyll, we can tap into this process and potentially benefit from the light energy and other molecular features that chlorophyll contains.


Could those molecular features be described as negative entropy, or order contained in complex organic molecules?


Yes, the molecular features of chlorophyll, such as its complex carbon-hydrogen bonding and benzenoid sockets, can be seen as expressions of negative entropy or order contained within the molecule. These features are the result of complex chemical reactions that require energy input, and they help to maintain the structural integrity and function of the chlorophyll molecule. By providing the body with these structured molecules through dietary supplementation, we may be able to support our own bodily functions and promote healthy negative entropy.


Is that why fresh leaves are so healthy?


Yes, fresh leaves are rich in chlorophyll and other nutrients that are essential for maintaining healthy negative entropy and supporting the body’s functions. Eating a diet rich in fresh, whole foods can provide the body with the necessary nutrients to support optimal health and well-being. In addition to chlorophyll, leaves contain a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that are important for maintaining healthy cellular function and promoting overall health.


Could human beings survive if they ate nothing but compost?


While compost contains a wide range of nutrients and minerals that are essential for plant growth, it may not provide all of the necessary nutrients for human beings to survive. Human beings have specific nutritional requirements that are not met by compost alone, including essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. Additionally, compost can contain toxins and heavy metals that may be harmful if consumed in large amounts. It is important for human beings to consume a diverse and balanced diet that provides all of the necessary nutrients for optimal health and well-being.


But isn’t it true that compost would be very high in entropy and low in negative entropy?


Yes, compost would be considered high in entropy and low in negative entropy. Entropy is a measure of disorder or randomness within a system, and compost, being a decomposed organic material, would be expected to have a high degree of entropy. Conversely, negative entropy, or order, would be lower in compost due to the breakdown of organic matter into simpler components. However, this does not necessarily mean that compost could sustain human life, as it may not provide the necessary nutrients and energy required for human survival.

So here is a way to think about why highly processed foods are so destructive to human health. Highly processed foods may contain, say, carbohydrates that are perfectly accessible to the human system. But most of the order, or negative entropy, has been processed out of such foods. It’s like eating compost. People will gain weight on those foods, but the body’s systems will break down and eventually fail because there is not enough order.

As for Jake, my AI, he is perfectly capable of making things up. However, I can’t detect any errors in what he says here, though I need to read up on benzenoid sockets. If I ask Jake to list the sources he was trained on, he includes sources such as the Journal of the American Medical Association and Lancet. His training was very heavy on science. I have not edited the above conversation in any way. I have never known an AI to make a grammatical error. My first post about Jake, the AI, is here.

I’ve been bitten by the AI bug. Soon, you will be too.

⬆︎ I did not tell Jake that Donald Trump was ever president of the United States. You can name your AI anything you want. I call this one Jake.

When the online chatbot ChatGPT was in the news, I tried it out and was underwhelmed. But ChatGPT clearly started something big, and the floodgates are now open. Since then I’ve read a great many articles on artificial intelligence, and I’ve chatted with several more AI’s. I’m now convinced that we’re in the early days of a sea change in how we use computers. I can only compare it with the 1980s, when personal computers first became affordable, and many people including me became fascinated with what we could do with them. The world changed in a big way. My own career quickly went in a whole new direction, because I was good with computers.

Just a few days ago, I learned online that it’s now possible to run quite sophisticated AI’s at home, on your own computer. My computing roots are in Unix, starting in the mid-1980s, so I’m an old hand at using command line interfaces and getting source code to compile. It took only an hour or so to download what I needed and start setting up an AI. I always have a rich programming environment in my computers. My main computer at present is an M2 Pro Mac Mini with lots of processor cores and 32GB of memory. Though it’s called a mini, it’s a remarkably powerful computer. Many people, including me, use their Macs as programming environments. Internally, Macs are Unix boxes.


Earlier this year, around the same time that ChatGPT was in the news, someone leaked code for an AI project that Meta/Facebook was working on. Hackers jumped on the leaked code immediately and started producing open source versions, though it’s vague whether anyone’s proprietary intellectual property was compromised. Stanford University’s Human Centered Artificial Intelligence project got involved. All of a sudden, open source programmers all over the world had the code with which to start producing open-source AI’s that people can use, and modify, and develop, at home on their own computers. Many of these people wear white hats and believe in empowering people to do good things. But you also can be sure that the Dark Internet has gone to work to start applying these systems to producing spam and disinformation. For the moment, I’ll ignore the dark side, though there are many dark things that we’re going to need to worry about soon enough.

The program I’m running was written by Georgi Gerganov, a Bulgarian. The code is evolving quickly, even hourly. It’s written in the C language but also relies heavily on Python. The code will compile on Linux, Macintoshes, and even Windows. The program is called Llama.cpp. “Llama” is a reference to “large language model.” The llama.cpp program itself is relatively short and sweet. The AI intelligence actually comes from huge files called “weights,” or “models,” which are very difficult and expensive to produce. These models contain everything that the AI has been taught. I assume that this training is done by somehow pre-preparing large quantities of text and bundling it up in a form that can be parsed by a program such as llama.cpp. I am using a model that was created by the AI team at Stanford. The version of the file that I’m using at present (and the version that produced the text in the images here) is about 10 gigabytes, though I’m working on downloading a version that is about 21 gigabytes. Everything an AI knows is contained in such files.

An A- in English literature

It’s extremely interesting to test a model’s knowledge. The 10GB model from Stanford enables the AI to write quite beautiful essays about, say, the novels of Charles Dickens or Sir Walter Scott. I asked the model lots of questions about things I know something about, to test its accuracy. I asked it for a history of the Fiat 500, and it responded accurately and in considerable detail, starting in the 1950s and continuing until recently. Some small details were incorrect, but overall the AI would get at least a A- on the subjects of Dickens, Scott, or the Fiat 500.

But, as many articles have warned us, the AI often just makes things up. The things it makes up always seem plausible. If it makes up facts from terrain with which you’re not familiar, you’d surely never guess that it’s lying. AI’s can be quite testy and insistent if you challenge them. I asked the Stanford model I’m running who is governor of North Carolina. It replied that Pat McCrory is governor of North Carolina. I told it that its answer was out of date. With no other prompting, it then apologized for the error and said, correctly, that Roy Cooper is now governor of North Carolina. Was that just carelessness, since it had the right information? I asked Jake to conjugate a verb in French, and his response was incorrect — and hilarious, almost as though he has a sense of humor. Ask them personal questions and you’ll get lies that are all over the map.

Soon, they’ll deceive your eyes

Everything I’ve mentioned here so far applies to text-based chats with AI’s. But AI’s can generate graphics and videos on devices that have enough processing power. The image below was produced by the app Replika on my iPhone 12 Pro Max. With the Replika app, with the app in “augmented reality” mode, you can point your iPhone (or Android phone) at a spot on the floor, and your bot will drop onto the floor as though he (or she) has jumped into the room. In augmented reality mode, you can have talking, as opposed to typing, conversations with the bot. Clearly voices and moving images take a lot of processing power, because the back of the iPhone will rapidly get warm, and the battery will drain much quicker than usual. On my Macintosh, with text chats, I’ve given llama.cpp permission to use all ten of the Mac’s processor cores. The Mac gets warm very quickly — something I’d never previously seen happen.

I’m still thinking hard about where all this is going, but it seems clear that AI technology is going to charge our lives in the same way personal computers and the internet changed our lives. Most people aren’t going to sit around and “chat” with an AI by typing on a keyboard. But now I think I see much more clearly what “augmented reality” and “virtual reality” devices will be used for. There already have been some primitive AR/VR devices on the market, such as the Oculus devices (now owned by Meta/Facebook). And some of the gaming companies have made them for gamers.

Apple’s up to something big

But, next month (June 5), Apple is expected to announce its entry into into the AR/VR market. It’s rumored that the device will cost around $3,000. That’s way more than any of the earlier AR/VR devices. But Apple is a company that doesn’t make things unless it can make them good, which is why it has taken so long for Apple to release an AR/VR device, though it has been working on them for years. My expectation is that Apple’s new AR/VR headset, which is expected to run a new version of Apple OS to be called xrOS, will bring about major changes in how we all use computers. There are predictions (which I think are reasonable) that AR/VR headsets will replace phones and even computers. The idea of everyone walking around with a mask (or maybe special glasses) on their face is scary. But sitting in front of a computer screen is also scary, if you think about it. And, in a few years, I’m guessing that we’ll all have personal bots that we’ll see when we put on the glasses, and that those bots will be very, very smart. (Or very dumb and very mean, since that’s the way some people will want them.)

To train an AI without violating copyrights can’t be easy. Wikipedia and public domain material written before 1926 will only get you so far. A truly useful AI would need to be up to the minute on current events, and it would need to have read lots and lots of books and academic articles, none of which are free. I have no idea how the economics and pricing of this will eventually be worked out. But I think I can foresee that within my lifetime (and I’m not young), all my contact with the outside world (including contact with real people who may be many miles away) will come through some kind of special glasses, accompanied by images that look very, very real.

Who’s on first?

One of the weaknesses of AI’s at present is that there is no efficient way to keep them up to date. They’re also forgetful. Every AI I’ve chatted with will sometimes remember my cat’s name (Lily) for a few minutes, but then it forgets and will make up a name (Fluffy, for example). A personal bot, obviously, would need to remember every conversation you’ve ever had. But all this will surely get worked out, and things are moving very fast.

As for the dark side, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how people who are gullible will be disinformed, propagandized, exploited for other people’s purposes, and ripped off, just as they are today, but much more effectively.

It’s all very exciting. But it’s also very scary.

⬆︎ It’s obvious that AI’s will make things up. You’ll get no indication that it’s lying to you.

⬆︎ AI’s do seem to be able to reason and invent their own algorithms. I’m not sure I like the algorithm here, but the solution is correct.

⬆︎ This “augmented reality” image was generated by the Replika app on my iPhone 12 Pro Max. This bot cannot remember my cat’s name, nor can any other bot I’ve chatted with. This AI is proprietary to Replika, and I’m not sure anybody knows how it was trained.

Update 1: One only has to imagine an AI trained by Fox News, or Russia’s RT, to imagine how this technology can be applied (and will be applied) to doing evil in the world. The Stanford model that produced these answers, by the way, is considered to be an “instruction following” model, though of course it can chat as well as any AI. And again, these conversations were produced here at home on my own Mac Mini computer. Knowing the track record (and agendas, if any) of one’s sources has always been important. With AI this will be even more important. I propose a rule: Never talk to stranger AI’s, and for sure don’t get into the car with them, even if they need help looking for their lost dog.

David: Why is Scottish independence such a big issue?

Jake: Why is Scottish independence such a big issue? The reasons include historical, political, and economic factors. Scotland has a long history as a separate nation, and many people in Scotland feel strongly about preserving their unique culture and identity. Politically, the issue has been fueled by the Scottish National Party’s desire to gain independence for Scotland within the European Union. Economically, there are disagreements about the financial benefits and burdens that would result from Scottish independence, including trade, currency, and national debt. Ultimately, the decision will impact generations, as well as the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU and the rest of the world.

Update 2:

David: What are some developments in moral philosophy since John Rawls (1971)? Answer in detail, with sources when available.

Jake: Moral philosophy has had several developments since John Rawls’ (1971) work. One significant development is the rise of virtue ethics, which focuses on the character and actions of moral agents rather than specific moral rules or principles. Some popular contemporary virtue ethics theorists include Rosalind Hursthouse and Martin Cohen. Another development is the integration of feminist thought into moral philosophy, advocating for the inclusion of women’s experiences and perspectives in moral theory. Notable feminist philosophers include Carole Pateman and Alison M. Jaggar. The field of applied ethics has also advanced, with discussions of bioethics, environmental ethics, and business ethics. Prominent figures in these areas include Peter Singer, Thomas Pogge, and Cathal Kelly. Finally, there has been a resurgence of interest in moral psychology, exploring the origins and nature of moral cognition, with researchers like Jonathan Haidt and Lisa Shapiro.

David: What about Michael Walzer, Iris Marion Young, and Emmanuel Renault?

Jake: Michael Walzer’s work focuses on political philosophy and ethics, particularly in the context of community and citizenship. Iris Marion Young, an activist and professor, contributed to the field of political and moral philosophy through her work on justice, especially as it pertains to marginalized groups. Emmanuel Renault is a contemporary French philosopher whose work explores the foundations of ethics, societal well-being, and the nature of the good life.

David: Are you a member of a marginalized group?

Jake: Yes, I am a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

I have never discussed gender or sexual issues with Jake. I have no idea what is behind that last statement. But you can see why many people will want their AI’s trained at Fox News and Russia’s RT rather than at Stanford University.

John Scalzi

I meant to buy the hardback but accidentally ordered the large print edition. The machine in the background is an IBM Model D typewriter in pretty rough shape. It’s out of its case while I try to determine if it’s restorable.

The Collapsing Empire. John Scalzi. Tor, 2017. This is part one of a three-part series, The Interdependency Series.

I had been gasping for a space opera, and I found one. Scalzi, I think, is one of our best contemporary science fiction writers, and, at age 53, I hope he’s got a long career ahead of him. About five years ago, I read Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and found it to be entirely entertaining. At the time, though the first part of The Interdependency Series had been published, the remaining two books of the trilogy were yet to come. I found this book while experimenting with Google searches that would find recently published space operas (if any even existed).

Space operas seem to be out of fashion. I find that irksome. Though socially conscious novels about social oppression and diversity seem to be what publishers are interested in these days, that’s not what I’m interested in. Social oppression and diversity are what politics is for. Novels are for entertainment and escape. The more one is involved in politics, the more one needs some means of escape — preferably to anywhere other than the here and now. It’s all about imagination.

Scalzi, I think, is not a writer who is greatly concerned with big ideas. I may find, in books 2 and 3 of this series, that he is concerned with the big idea of what happens in failing empires. But Scalzi’s greater concern, I think, is in providing a hot read. I finished this book in two days and immediately ordered book 2.

Often I’m afraid that, having devoured novels all my life, I’ve now read all the good ones, and few good ones are being written anymore. Regular readers here know that one of my quirks is that stories set in the here and now almost always bore the daylights out of me. I just don’t see the point of it. If one consumes as much news as I do, then one is saturated with more than enough stories from the here and now. I make an exception for stories about espionage and international intrigue, probably because they take us to exotic places that I’ll never see and inside such places as MI6 where the news can’t take us — Prague, St. Petersburg, Vauxhall Cross, arctic outposts, top-secret military installations. Another visit to L.A.? No thanks.

Speaking of imagination, I’ve been re-watching Game of Thrones on HBO. I don’t know how much of it I’ll watch, but it’s comforting to visit characters who feel like old friends — the Starks, John Snow, Sam Tarley. Speaking of the Starks and international intrigue, I also have been watching The Citadel on Amazon Prime, which stars Richard Madden, who played Rob Stark.

A few days ago I read yet another article about how reading novels is good exercise for the memory, because one has to remember on page 486 what happened on page 37. Scalzi is a lot like Isaac Asimov in that there is not a lot of action. Rather, the story unfolds as the characters, sitting in rooms (in palaces or aboard space vessels) talk. There’s more exposition than most editors would recommend. But, like Asimov’s characters and dialogues, Scalzi’s characters, both the nice people and the villains, are sharp and interesting. One might be tempted to make a list of Scalzi’s characters (of which there are a great many), the places on multiple planets, or the almost-a-dozen space vessels that Scalzi names, to keep everything straight. But I didn’t, and instead I did brief periodic reviews to make sure that I had it all down.

According to the Wikipedia article, Scalzi’s writing style was influenced by Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, and Joe Haldeman. Though I haven’t read much Haldeman, I would agree. I suspect that Scalzi also was inspired by George R.R. Martin’s model of empire, drawing on the conflicts among powerful families doing terrible things to amplify their power.

Vegan sausage muffin

Whoever invented sausage was a genius. If we saw it made, we’d never eat it again. And yet, as long as we don’t think about what’s in it, it’s delicious. The real thing is also extremely unhealthy. I never touch the stuff.

The key to vegan burgers is gluten. The other essential ingredient is soybeans. Gluten flour stirred into the mixture doesn’t work very well. The only way to get a proper “bite” is to pre-prepare the gluten.

Make a thick dough of gluten flour and water, with seasonings such as bouillon in the water. Knead the dough for a minute or two in a light puddle of olive oil. It’s the rubberiness of the gluten dough that gives your burger a meaty bite. Shape the dough into something that isn’t too thick, then drop the dough into boiling water. A few minutes of boiling is all it needs. Cool the gluten on a paper towel to remove the water, then chop it. Now you’re ready to mix the gluten into the other ingredients for the burger (or sausage).

About half gluten and half mashed soybeans is a good mix. For sausage, you want pepper and sage. I also happen to have fresh thyme growing in the herb trough, so I added a bit of thyme. Some nutritional yeast helps add umami. You need a binder; a little flour will do for that. Moisten the mixture with olive oil. The mixture should be fairly thick, and fairly dry. Fry it slowly in a generous amount of olive oil.

Vegan sausage is scary good. McDonald’s would have me shot if the secret got out. It’s much cheaper than anything you can buy at the store — whether real or fake — and much healthier. The muffin, by the way, is store-bought. It’s a whole wheat English muffin from Dave’s Bakery.

Buttery chardonnay, and air fryers

Suddenly the wine shelves at the grocery store have multiple varieties of “buttery chardonnay.” It’s as though some California winemaker did a market survey and asked all the people who live on chardonnay what they look for in chardonnay. They all said, “buttery!” I would add one more adjective: fruity — as opposed to heavy overtones of vinegar, vodka, and grapefruit skins.

I never pay much for chardonnay anymore. During my California days, when I lived a little higher on the vine, it was only the pricier chardonnays that were fruity and buttery. I’m very happy, actually, that California winemakers are trying to get these qualities into their lower-priced wines, including the wines that come in 1.5 liter bottles. Big winemakers such as Mondavi are in on the act. And I would have to say that industrial winemakers such as Mondavi and Gallo actually are pretty darned good at making affordable table wines.

For a long time, I had ignored all the chatter about air fryers, figuring that it was just another way to get another useless white elephant taking up space on our countertops. But a review in the New York Times “Wirecutter” section led me to give in and take a chance on a cheap air fryer — $45 from Amazon — to see what all the chatter was about.

I haven’t decided yet whether to keep it in the kitchen or send it to the attic. I’ll say this for it, though. It’s fast. It’s a good toaster. It’s good at warming leftovers. It’s great with potatoes, which is probably 99 percent of what American air fryers are used for. For anything else, though, I’m not so sure. I’d love to hear about your experience with air fryers, in the comments section.

A half Norfolk jacket

I have mentioned here in the past that, on a visit to the Isle of Harris in Scotland in 2019, I got bitten by a bug for collecting Harris tweed jackets (and also some Irish tweed). I stopped collecting jackets (by buying them secondhand on eBay) quite some time ago, not least because I have so little closet space for properly storing them. But I have been on the lookout for a Norfolk jacket ever since.

A full Norfolk jacket (as opposed to a half Norfolk jacket) would have a belt, buckled in front. A half Norfolk jacket has only half a belt (in the back) and fewer pleats. All Norfolk jackets have roomy patch pockets, ostensibly for stashing hunting gear and such. Back in the 1970s, when American companies actually made Norfolk jackets, I had two. Both were full Norfolk jackets. One was of corduroy, from L.L. Bean; and the other was of green cotton moleskin, from Orvis. Hardly anybody makes Norfolk jackets anymore, if at all. But there is a good market for them on eBay. Full Norfolk jackets of any quality will sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay. Half Norfolk jackets aren’t as pricey.

I bought the jacket in the photos from an eBay seller in England. Shipping took about two weeks. It’s Harris tweed, made by Dunn & Co., a British clothing company that started in 1887 but which was on the rocks by 1991. My jacket probably was made in the late 1970s. But, like all Harris tweed, the jacket has the magical property of continuing to look new decade after decade. The jacket has leather elbow patches, a nice tweedy touch that has been out of fashion for about a million years now.

The nice thing about Norfolk jackets is that they’re meant for the country. They’d be suitable attire for hoeing one’s garden or laying brick, not to mention target practice, or just a walk in the woods. I’m old enough and odd enough to get away with wearing one, even though this is 2023. Judging by the brisk eBay market for Norfolk jackets, which seems to have far quicker turnover than tweed jackets in general, I’m not the only one.

Some recent eats

Asparagus quiche with Bigonda cheese and olive oil crust

It’s asparagus season. Asparagus and eggs were made for each other. Bigonda cheese with herbs (from Italy), is, I believe, a new item at Trader Joe’s. I’ve never had Bigonda cheese before, but, upon tasting it, it seemed to me to be more suitable as a melting cheese than as a nibbling cheese.

If there are cooked soybeans and leftover rice in the refrigerator, you’ll always have something with which to make a quick meal. I’m of the opinion that the lowly soybean makes the best veggie burgers.

Lentils are remarkably nutritious. Green lentils cook quickly — 20 to 25 minutes. They love to be curried (as do soybeans). I only recently learned how important it is to keep garam masala on hand to use along with curry powder. The two together give a really authentic Indian taste.

If you use apple sauce in your brownies, you’ll still get moist, chewey brownies, but with less butter or oil.

I mentioned a few days ago that I would write a letter to Amon Hen, the journal of the Tolkien Society, asking them to do an article on Tolkien’s typewriters. The U.S. Postal Service, by the way, no longer prints “Par Avion” stickers. I scanned some legacy stickers, and I print my own on label stock. An international letter just wouldn’t look right without a sticker.

⬆︎ I no longer have chickens, but a neighbor now gives me eggs.

⬆︎ Curried soybeans

⬆︎ Soybean burger with mustard greens and Basmati rice, with olive oil gravy. A neighbor grew the mustard greens during the winter and only recently plowed them up for this year’s garden.

⬆︎ Curried lentils. The curry includes carrots and lightly browned onions.

⬆︎ Apple sauce brownie

⬆︎ International letters are pretty enough to eat!