Coping with carb craving


We all have carb cravings. For me that equals bread, or sometimes potatoes. The best way I know to mitigate the sin is to make one’s carb dishes at home, from scratch. There are ways of making carb dishes a little less carbie, not to mention keeping the salt much lower than what you get in processed foods.

Potato cakes are a Southern institution — or at least used to be in the days when people still cooked. In our household many years ago, they were generally made with leftover mashed potatoes, with chopped onion, an egg, and cracker crumbs to soak up the egg.

Sometimes when I’m cooking potatoes, I’ll cook a few extra (in the skin) and put them in the refrigerator. They might then become potato salad, but they also can become potato cakes. The potato cakes in the photo were an experiment. Some people, it seems, use flour to soak up the egg. I thought that was worth trying. It was a failure. The flour ruined the potato-y taste and made the cakes too heavy. It’s back to cracker crumbs.

As I’ve written before here, we all should eat as though we’re diabetics, even if we’re not. That means being aware of the glycemic index of carbie foods and knowing some tricks for keeping the glycemic index down. With potatoes, you can lower the glycemic index by chilling the potatoes after they’re cooked. Even if you reheat the potatoes, the glycemic index is still lower. So cooking potatoes in advance and chilling them is a healthy as well as a practical thing to do. I don’t know of any reason why this couldn’t be done even with mashed potatoes. Just heat them up again with the cream and butter.

By the way, when I go to ordinary grocery stores (as opposed to Whole Foods), one of the horrifying things I observe is that it’s a tiny minority of people these days who buy fresh foods. Potatoes are everyone’s favorite vegetable, but only the Whole Foods category of people buys potatoes fresh. Other people buy all sorts of frozen potato concoctions. There is simply no excuse, not least because it’s such a waste of money.

Easier and cheaper shipping

By printing the labels myself and paying the postage on line, each of the books in the boxes on the left cost 70 cents less in postage. The tracking bar code is printed with the label.

If you start a small press and publish books, then before you know it you’re in the shipping business.

It probably was eBay that started the demand for automated shipping tools that can print labels, track things, notify recipients, etc. The best thing about these systems, though, is that they save money.

The U.S. Postal Service has an online system called “Click-N-Ship” that allows you to print labels and pay the postage for some classes of mail including Priority Mail. However, Click-N-Ship doesn’t work for Media Mail, which is a good bit less expensive than Priority Mail. For Media Mail (which is great for shipping books), some people use Stamps.Com. However, Stamps.Com charges a monthly fee. If you have a PayPal account, you can print labels and pay for the postage without any monthly charges. The service goes with your PayPal account. So I use both PayPal and the U.S. Post Service Click-N-Ship.

To use the online services, you need a postal scale, an inkjet or laser printer, and of course suitable packaging. You can buy a digital postal scale from Amazon, or at some post offices. When everything is boxed or labeled, you can give it to your mail carrier, put it in a post office collection box, or drop it at the post office. There’s no longer any need to stand in line and get help from a postal clerk.

This USPS scale is sensitive to the 10th of an ounce and can communicate with your computer through a USB port.

Putting a rush on sourdough


Cooks who teach other cooks how to bake with sourdough often recommend mixing in some ordinary yeast. That serves as a kind of insurance against total bread failure for inexperienced bakers, and it greatly hastens the process. For a long time, I refused to use any yeast. Sourdough was sourdough, and yeast was yeast, and I would not mix the two.

But making sourdough bread is a long process. If you start the night before, you can have bread for supper the next day. But what if you take a notion in the afternoon to have hot bread for supper? Only yeast will get you there. But so will a mixture of sourdough and yeast. To mix the two offended my sense of integrity until I realized that the combination of yeast and sourdough tastes great. It also gives you something to do with sourdough starter that you might otherwise throw out when feeding your starter.

Another factor is that, when I go to the trouble of making sourdough bread, I make a large loaf. Because of the lactic acid, sourdough bread won’t mold the way yeast bread does. A sourdough loaf is good for toast for a week. For sandwiches, it’s good for at least two or three days. But quicker loaves can be smaller loaves. Smaller loaves equal smaller waists, and hot bread for supper.

So, to mix the two, pour two-thirds or more of your sourdough starter into a mixing bowl. Feed the starter and put it away. Then add enough flour and water for a small loaf, plus a teaspoon or so of yeast. In a couple of hours it will be ready to bake.

I’m always experimenting with ways to bake with steam. In the photo below, note that I’ve fitted a Pyrex bowl to an iron skillet. As long as the loaf is not too big, it works nicely to keep the loaf steamed while it’s springing in the oven. Breads that contain very much whole wheat won’t spring very much (at least, not for me), but the steam still improves the quality of the crust and helps give it that texture that shatters when you break it. The loaf in today’s photos contained another experiment — a small potato is mashed into the dough. It made a heavier crumb and didn’t improve the bread in any way. No more potato, at least for everyday bread.


What blowback looks like


After the little town of Walnut Cove agreed to let the state of North Carolina (at taxpayer expense) drill a geological core sample on town property to test for the presence of frackable gas, what followed was an uprising. These photos are from a press conference called by the state and national NAACP to announce an environmental justice investigation into where these polluting activities tend to be located — near black communities.
















Seveneves: a review


It’s difficult to write a spoiler-free review of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, but I will try. It’s not really a spoiler to say that, in the first paragraph of the novel, the moon blows up. What follows is a long saga of survival — 866 pages long.

Stephenson always provides a hot read. I devoured the book in six days. Stephenson also always provides a feast for nerds. Reading Seveneves is like taking a course in orbital mechanics. Stephenson is not the best at character development, character conflict, and character intimacy. But he seems to be aware of that weakness in his previous books and has made a strong effort to do a better job in Seveneves. Still, he writes some of the least hot love scenes in science fiction.

I give Stephenson high marks for giving the reader a lot to think about. His novels do seem to stick to the ribs over the years. But after about a week’s reflection on what’s worth remembering and worth keeping in Seveneves, I can’t say that I come up with much. One could ask the question, “What is Neal Stephenson passionate about?” I’m pretty sure that, after reading Seveneves, the only solid answer would be technology.

I don’t accuse Stephenson of being a techno-utopian. I think he’s too smart for that. He also has some criticism for those who might put too much faith in technology, and at one point in the book he uses the phrase “techno-mystical ideation.” Yet it seems pretty clear to me that technology is his passion. This is clear just from reading his acknowledgements.

The bottom line, for me at least, is that Stephenson writes must-read science fiction. However, I’m getting stronger and stronger whiffs of an arrogant and elitist attitude that can spoil fiction if it gets out of hand. Stephenson is most comfortable with characters who have big egos, lots of admirers, and Ph.D.’s. If you read the acknowledgements or check out his personal web site, it’s pretty clear that he runs with the gazillionaires of the tech industry — the lords of the universe — and that he can’t much be bothered by us mouth breathers.

Stephenson probably will get a movie deal for this book. It’s the kind of space spectacle that Hollywood loves, and I’m sure that Stephenson knew that when he wrote it. I’d give it four out of five stars. Unless he does something completely different with his next book, I’ll have read enough Stephenson.

Cwm Rhondda


I am almost finished with Neal Stephenson’s blockbuster science fiction novel Seveneves, and I will have a review of it soon. Last night, 50 pages from the end of this 866-page novel, I was touched by one of Stephenson’s erudite little details. Some characters sing a hymn, and Stephenson identifies the hymn tune as the Welsh hymn “Cwn Rhondda.” This hymn has somehow managed to survive the calamity that strikes Earth in the first paragraph of the novel.

Every organist knows that “Cwm Rhondda” is one of the great majestic Welsh hymns that often are sung at royal events at Westminster. Stephenson’s mentioning the hymn gave me an irresistible compulsion to hear it sung. I put the book down and went to YouTube to shop for a good performance. There are some terrible ones, to be sure. The good ones, and there aren’t many, are either from Wales or Westminster. This led me to reflect yet again on something I have long known: Americans simply cannot sing. There are American choirs that can sing. But Americans as a whole cannot, or won’t, sing. We even shame people who sing too enthusiastically. When I was a child, regularly dragged to church, there was a woman in the congregation who sang a little louder than everyone else, Cornelia. Everyone made fun of her singing.

The Welsh are different. Not only do they have a living culture of choral singing, they have a living culture. American culture, in so many ways, is dead, and our inability to sing together is a consequence of that. Singing together is of the commons, and we American individualists aren’t much into common things. At the big sporting events, do we stand as one people and skillfully sing our national anthem together? Of course not. Some popular singer sings it solo, and part of the sport is to see what sort of patented personal spin this singer can give to the anthem to try to make it water-cooler talk the next day.

I can remember only once in my life when I have heard a large group of Americans actually sing. That was around Christmas 1996, in San Francisco. There is an annual event in Davies Symphony Hall called “Christmas Pipe Dreams.” The hall is jam packed. Everyone sings Christmas favorites, accompanied by the hall’s enormous organ and perhaps a brass choir. They make games of it. The director may divide the audience by counties — Marin, Alameda, San Francisco — and see who can outsing each other. I am proud to say that I am an American who can sing, and at this event I sang at the very top of my lungs and yet could not hear my own voice because the sound was so enormous. Does this mean that the San Francisco Bay Area, unlike most of America, has a living culture and a respect for the commons? I would say so.

Anyway, here’s a link to a YouTube performance of “Cwm Rhondda” in a church in Cardiff packed with Welsh people. I believe the BBC made the video, though I don’t know what the occasion was. Listen carefully to the Welsh articulation of the vowels and consonants. There is nowhere in the world I’d rather hear English spoken than in Wales. I have visited Welsh friends in Pontypridd several times. “Cwn Rhondda” actually was written for a hymn festival in Pontypridd in 1905, which makes the hymn about 110 years old.

They sing the last few lines of the hymn in Welsh. Part of what we are seeing here is the surviving Celtic spirit. Listen to the recording with a good headset if you have it. The recording quality is excellent. The choir and congregation nail the details. Note the strength of the altos. I’m guessing that most young Welsh women learn early on whether they are better suited to be sopranos or altos and that they learn part-singing.

“Cwm Rhondda” in Cardiff

And to prove that the church in Cardiff is not an anomaly in Wales, here’s a congregation in Swansea similarly nailing it:

“Cwn Rhondda” in Swansea

A musical footnote: The congregation here is singing with the church’s choir. The choir is certainly well trained and well disciplined, but note how the congregation fully participates and how the congregation is paying just as much attention to the director as the choir. You can see this in the full stops at the end of verses (which the director is certainly controlling) and in the director’s ability to control the slowing tempo and fermata before the last line. The organist is probably watching the director on a video link. And by the way, that fermata before the last line is not just a director with good taste. It’s actually written into most arrangements. And, as long as I’m being a musical nerd, note the musical drama that occurs in the next-to-last line. On the words “Feed me till I want no more,” the tenors and second sopranos hammer the same repeating note with an also-repeating trochaic rhythm. While that note is repeating, the basses step down six chromatic steps, with all voices landing firmly on the dominant, with a full measure to move into the dominant seventh, followed, of course, by the last line and the inevitable return to the tonic. It is brilliant choral writing.



I don’t want to drop any spoilers to the plot of the sequel to Fugue in Ursa Major (which is in progress and which I hope to have in print sometime next year). But Jake does set out on a rather dangerous journey of what I would call cultural recovery.

I have put countless hours of thinking and research into imagining what the world would be like if Christianity had never existed. The church, of course, automatically supposes that it has improved the world. I beg to differ. The church really was just Rome, entangled in the theology of what, except for accidents of history, would have been an obscure (and theologically ordinary, for its time) Middle Eastern cult. The church systematically drove all the magic out of the world. It saw nature and the rest of creation as just resources, with no other inherent rights or value, for humans to exploit. It used the nastier parts of its theology to wipe out time-tested bottom-up social structures (which worked) and replace them with top-down social controls (which exact a huge toll on the human psyche, because people aren’t aware of any other systems and thus don’t even know what’s wrong with their lives). I could go on and on.

Thus I am fascinated, as a storytelling proposition, with what might happen if you took a contemporary young man like Jake Janaway and set him down in the middle of a culture untouched by Christianity. I chose Scotland as a key setting, partly because I love and am somewhat familiar with the British Isles. It’s also the culture of Jake’s ancestors, as it is mine. The Scottish coast also is only a few days’ travel, by sea, from Gaul (France), and hence the Scottish elite are aware of, though at a safe distance from, the turmoil of Rome’s clash with the more pastoral cultures of North Atlantic Europe. Rome called them barbarians, not least because they wore trousers (which popes and some clerics still don’t wear). But I would argue that Rome was much more ruthless and violent than the barbarians.

I also would argue that, had Rome been less violent and less ruthless, Rome and the barbarians eventually would have come to terms. Even in the first and second centuries B.C., the barbarian tribes were turning away from raiding as the centerpiece of their economies and were happy to produce things of value and trade with Rome instead. The tribes wanted Rome’s wine and luxury goods. Rome wanted commodities like tin and copper — and slaves. Rome required a constant input of slaves by the tens of thousands to drive its economy. Calling them barbarians made it much easier to excuse slaughtering and enslaving them. Even in the 19th Century United States, the church split over slavery. The evangelicals of the Southern Baptist Church, a major supporter of today’s Republican Party, split again in the 1960s over Civil Rights. It is only one of many of the moral failures of Christianity and the Roman politics that tends to revolve around it.

Anyway, if you lived on the coast of Scotland in 48 B.C., and if you were very lucky, you just might live in a broch. The brochs were fortifications, certainly, intended to protect the occupants from raids. They marked status. They almost certainly were watch towers and beacons. The brochs were situated so that a beacon fire at the top of a broch could be seen from the next broch, which could relay the signal onward. A system of flags, I suspect, also was used.

Not a great deal is known about the interior of the brochs (the timbers long ago decomposed), and it’s hotly debated by archeologists. They might have been roofed — or not. There were no exterior windows, so I am skeptical of how wise it would be to roof the entire broch, since it would always be dark inside. If I built a broch, I’d roof it partly, to let in some light. The double stone walls were mortarless. Between the walls there were stone stairs, and, depending on the size of the broch, chambers. There were windows in the inner walls facing the enclosed courtyard.

Obviously Jake is going to spend some time in a broch in the sequel to Fugue in Ursa Major. There will be a thriving community around this broch. Jake will be able to learn quite a lot from them about what life was like for the Scottish Celts in 48 B.C. Much of this, of course, will of necessity be a project of imagination, but a great deal of it is based on a good two years of research and stacks of books that I don’t have any shelves for. Jake also will get swept up in what is going on in Gaul.





By the way, this is 1,004th post in the Into the Woods blog.

In the past, I have mentioned one of my heros (or heroines, if you wish) — Rita Levi-Montalcini. Italians affectionately called her “La Professoressa.” She was a Nobel laureate. She discovered nerve growth factor back in the 1980s and in 1986 won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. She died in December 2012 at the age of 103.

My favorite interview with La Professoressa is now behind a paywall. But in the interview (I believe she was 98 or 99 at the time), she was asked how she managed to remain so active, with such a young mind. She said that it was because she took nerve growth factor. Nerve growth factor, as I recall, is manufactured in small quantities in Italy, where it is used to treat certain eye disorders. It is not available in the United States. At the age of 98 or 99, La Professoressa said that her mind was sharper than it had been in her twenties. She still worked in her lab every day.

This naturally got me thinking about how it might be possible to acquire some nerve growth factor. I never found a way, but sources pointed to something similar — Huperzine-A. It’s natural and is derived from an Asian moss. There isn’t as much research on Huperzine as I’d like, but the research that has been done is promising for anything having to do with neurological degeneration such as Alzheimer’s. It seemed likely that Huperzine would be helpful to anyone who’s getting older.

At the time I started taking Huperzine-A, Ken was here. As you know if you’ve read Ken’s book, he’s a smart guy. Sitting across from his young mind at breakfast and dinner every day is a challenge. My 63-year-old mind would sometimes forget things (names and nouns in particular). Sometimes I would tell him something that I’d already told him, and he would nicely let me know that I’d already told him that. I found that tremendously embarrassing.

After a couple of months on Huperzine, I asked Ken if I’d forgotten anything lately or repeated something I’d already told him. He thought for a second and said, “Why no, I don’t think you have.”

After I started taking Huperzine, I finished and published my novel. I lost 20 pounds (and have kept it off). I may certainly still have little memory lapses if I’m tired or distracted (forgetting the names of people I don’t know very well, for example). But I’d put my memory up against anyone’s. If you asked me how many clean coffee cups are in the cabinet, or for an inventory of what’s in the dishwasher at the moment, I’d probably get it right. I rarely misplace things. I don’t forget to shut the chickens up in the evening. I know what’s on my calendar.

The effect of Huperzine is subtle. It doesn’t feel like coffee or any kind of stimulant. In fact it actually lowers the heart rate. My resting pulse is rarely above 72, and if I’m really relaxed it’s in the 60s (though how low it goes varies with how much exercise I’ve been getting). Huperzine just makes you feel more focused and more able to concentrate. It won’t compensate for lack of sleep. Nothing does.

There are two side effects.

If you take it close too close to bedtime, it probably will give you insomnia with a racing mind. (Frankly, a racing mind in the middle of the night can be a good thing, if you don’t have to get up in the morning. The imaginative work I do for novel-writing mostly happens in the middle of the night, or while taking long walks. See Clark Strand’s new book Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age.)

Huperzine also will give you vivid dreams. When I read the Amazon reviews by people taking Huperzine, I thought they might be exaggerating the effect it has on dreams. But they weren’t. If you want to enhance the dream effect, take Huperzine close to bedtime. If you have good dreams, they’ll be very good. If you have a bad dream, it will be very bad. The dream effect, however, does tend to diminish over time. It’s most noticeable in the first days of taking Huperzine. It increases the complexity and vividness of dreams. I often hear music in my dreams. In a dream just last night, an organist was playing a fugue. I am quite sure that I heard all four voices of the fugue, as clearly as if I were at a live performance. I don’t know how the brain can render detailed visual and aural reality on the fly (in dreams, at least), but somehow it does. If you are prone to sleep paralysis, Huperzine probably will aggravate it.

Here’s an Amazon link for buying Huperzine, which I pass on with all possible disclaimers. You should read up on Huperzine before you try it. Read the Amazon reviews.

Huperzine appears to not have much effect on younger people (except for dreams). Younger people probably don’t need it. But I personally am convinced that it helps keep older minds sharp.

The late Rita Levi-Montalcini