Britannia season 1

I am five episodes into Britannia season 1. This was a must-watch for me, since I am particularly interested in the history of the Romans’ clash with the Celtic world.

As for the history, the writers of Britannia seem to have stuck to the basic outline of what Roman history recorded. Everything else is imagined. The year is 43 A.D., 17 years before Queen Boudica’s uprising against the Roman occupation in 60 A.D.

The series has not been getting very good reviews. One reviewer said that it is “crazy as a box of frogs.” There is much to be said for that. My own view is that the Celts and druids were not nearly as wild and barbaric as they are depicted here. Celtic art, for example, and Celtic technology including ships, wagons, and chariots, were plenty sophisticated. Many of the druids spoke Greek. When the Gaulish druid Divitiacus went to Rome and spoke to the Senate around 60 B.C., by no means did he make a fool of himself. Cicero was impressed by Divitiacus’ knowledge of astronomy and natural philosophy. But in Britannia, the druids are half-mad, drugged-out bone-rattlers. They are sinister and ugly, as opposed to the kind of elite caste who left us the Brehon laws. And nothing has been said so far about Celtic music. How could they leave that out?

In many ways, this series defames the Celts and druids. Whether it lionizes Rome remains to be seen.

Still, the series is very pretty to watch, with great locations (though many locations, filmed in the Czech Republic, don’t look much like southern England). The scripts and dialogue are smart. The situations are unpredictable. Except for the Kerra character, all the Celts have bad hair, which I suspect is a trend started by the Vikings series.

I’m not exactly recommending this series, but if you have Amazon Prime, it’s worth streaming an episode or two and checking it out.

Flu shots?


Each winter, the media bombard us with articles telling us to get a flu shot. Here’s a typical headline: “The flu vaccine is only about 30% effective but you should get it anyway.”

No thanks. I’ll do my own calculus on whether to get a flu shot.

Those of us who avoid vaccinations are regularly told that we’re being anti-science. “Anti-vaxxers” are often mentioned as the left-wing equivalent of right-wing climate-change deniers. But I would argue that there is room for rational individual calculus about whether to get flu vaccines. The calculus is not the same for everyone, though. The adult calculus is different than the calculus for children. And the calculus is different for, say, smallpox (mortality rate 30 percent) than influenza (less than 1 percent to around 2 percent, keeping in mind that mortality from the H5N1 bird flu is much higher but is not known to be transmitted from human to human).

From the public health perspective, the calculus supports “herd immunity.” The idea is that even a vaccine that is only 30 percent effective will reduce the overall number of flu cases and hospitalizations. Assuming the vaccines themselves are safe (which I don’t necessarily assume), then that public-health calculus makes sense.

However, from an individual perspective, the calculus may look different.

For those who work in hospitals, or at grocery store checkouts, or on airplanes, or who have children in school — people who are constantly and unavoidably exposed to other people and their germs — the individual calculus almost surely would support getting a flu shot.

But I mostly stay home during flu season. When I do go out, I try to avoid rush times, to minimize the number of people I encounter. I keep my distance from people, especially if someone is coughing or sneezing. I watch what I touch. I wash my hands. I keep little towels in my pockets and in the car.

I do acknowledge that we as individuals have an ethical responsibility — even to others — to keep ourselves healthy. If we have something that’s contagious, we have an ethical responsibility not to spread it. Those of us who refuse the flu vaccine are told that we’re making ourselves more dangerous to ourselves and others, that avoiding vaccinations is antisocial and antagonistic toward public health. That is no doubt true with diseases that are highly contagious and when vaccines are available that are known to be safe and effective. (We are told that the mercury preservative in some vaccines is safe. Do I have to believe that?)

But if I avoid getting the flu, and if I therefore don’t help the flu spread by giving the flu to someone else, then my argument would be that I have met my ethical responsibility to others and that I am not harming pubic health. I also would argue that my no-vaccine, minimal-contact method of avoiding the flu is more than 30 percent effective, is rational, and is aware of the science.

It has been 25 years since I’ve had the flu. So far so good.

Railway project #1

Click here for high-resolution version

Here’s my down payment on the railway project that I described in the previous post. I used Google Earth to find the spot where the railway line crosses the Dan River north of Walnut Cove, North Carolina. That spot is about 12 miles from the abbey. I was delighted to see from the Google Earth satellite image that the bridge is a truss bridge, with short trestles on the approaches. Truss bridges were very common from the late 19th Century up until the 1930s or so. I suspect this bridge dates from the 1930s.

The photo above is a digital photo taken with my Nikon camera. I had the film camera with me, but getting to the bridge required parking the Jeep and hiking more than two miles in and out. I don’t have a backpack for the film camera yet, so it was too awkward and heavy to carry. I plan to go back and shoot this spot later with the film camera.

Below is the Google Earth satellite image of the bridge.

What can we learn from railway maps?

A coal train near Cotton Hill, West Virginia. Source: Jason Bostic, Flickr

As I mentioned recently, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to go on more hiking and picture-taking expeditions. When I made the resolution, I was vaguely aware that I wanted to focus on the Appalachian highlands. But I also wanted to get a bit more order and purpose into it — that is, to make a project out of it.

I think my plan is to follow the coal.

About 15 miles away, at Belews Creek, North Carolina, is the Belews Creek Steam Station, a coal-fired generating plant operated by Duke Energy. The plant burns massive amounts of coal and produces massive amounts of coal ash. The environmental consequences of this are a whole different story. But that whole different story also figures into my political and environmental activities in these parts. But back to the coal.

The coal that feeds the Belews Creek Steam Station comes from (where else?) West Virginia. The coal gets here from West Virginia on very long and very heavy coal trains. The route the coal trains follow is not hard to figure out using Google Earth and other online sources. The train line’s path from the steam station to West Virginia runs like this: Belews Creek (North Carolina), Madison, Stoneville, Martinsville (Virginia), Ferrum, Rocky Mount, Roanoke, Christiansburg, Ripplemead, Narrows, Princeton (West Virginia), and thence into a complex network of rail lines that bring coal out of the West Virginia mountains.

Railways (and trains) are remarkably photogenic. Most railway lines were built many decades ago. They tend to follow rivers, traveling through wild places to link old industrial cities. Their routes show us where industry was concentrated back in the days when the U.S. had industry.

So the photographic project I’m proposing for myself is to follow the coal train from Belews Creek (North Carolina) to Kopperston (West Virginia) or thereabouts. Such a project would take time — a couple of years, probably — with each segment requiring a separate road trip.

We’ll see!

If you’re interested in looking at railway lines in Google Earth (railway lines in the U.S., anyway) then with this link, you can find .kmz files for Google Earth. When loaded into Google Earth, the files draw the routes of the railways in Google Earth for most American railway lines. If you click on a railway, you can see who owns it, plus a bit of the railway’s history.

The Google Earth screen shot below shows the Belews Creek Steam Station (circled in red); the little town of Walnut Cove (circled in green); and the route the coal train follows toward Roanoke, Virginia (the red arrow). This train line dates back to 1889 and now belongs to Norfolk Southern Railway.

I plan to start shooting at Walnut Cove and the Belews Creek Steam Station and then, over time, work my way toward the coal mines of West Virginia. Following the train lines with Google Earth should help me zoom in on the most photogenic areas.

Ursula Le Guin

After the death of Ursula K. Le Guin this week, it was heartwarming to see so many beautiful eulogies and obituaries. Rarely is a fantasy and science fiction writer accorded so much respect in the mainstream. I can add very little, except to say that in addition to her fiction, she was a fine essayist and advocate for the science fiction and fantasy genres. It’s out of print now (and expensive), but I highly recommend her 1982 book The Language Of The Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction.

On a more personal note, Amazon sales of my novels spiked yesterday and today. I had a busy day, and I didn’t have time until this evening to try to figure out what might have caused the spike in sales. Then I figured it out. I owe it to Ursula Le Guin. I run ads for my books on Amazon. The ads are displayed when someone searches for certain terms. For each of my books, I have 100 to 200 search terms. For as long as I’ve been running Amazon ads (going on two years), by far the search term that sells the most books for me is “Ursula Le Guin.” People who read Le Guin seem to like my books. Obviously many people have been buying Le Guin’s books this week. In searching for her books, they came across mine. I don’t claim to be in Le Guin’s league, but I do think we are kindred spirits — heretics, take us or leave us.

Thank you, Ursula Le Guin, not only for your books, but for having helped my sales. I’m not sure how to return the favor, but I think the least I can do is to write your publisher begging them to reprint The Language of the Night.

If you haven’t read Le Guin, I’d recommend starting with The Left Hand of Darkness. It was outrageously head of its time, first published in 1969.

Crows welcome here

A couple of days ago, a gang of crows drove off a hawk and saved the life of a chicken. Now I would like to know how to put up a big sign that says “Crows Welcome Here.”

I Googled, and it seems I’m not the first person to have chickens saved by crows. There’s actually a lot of material on the web about how to attract crows. It boils down to: Feed them, and call them.

For feeding them, I need to find a sack of peanuts in the shell. Calling them requires a “crow call,” which I’ve ordered from Amazon.

Almost every day this winter, I’ve had a gathering of crows in the woods behind the abbey, usually in the afternoon. Sometimes it’s only a few crows, but sometimes it’s hundreds. On the day the crows drove off the hawk, I could tell from the sound — angry and agitated crow sounds as opposed to social chatter — that something was going on. I dashed outdoors and saw a dozen or two crows harassing a hawk, which was right above my chickens, over the orchard. Soon the hawk flew off, chased by crows. I suspect that this is not the first time that has happened. As for the chickens, they watch the sky, and they certainly can distinguish hawks from other birds. The chickens pay no attention to the crows, but they scream and run for cover when they see a hawk.

It’s sad how many people consider crows to be pests. Like moles, or possums, I’ve never known them to do the slightest harm.

Now I’ve got to figure out a crow strategy. If they learn that I’m putting out food for them, they’ll keep an eye out for food and, in doing that, also keep an eye out for hawks.

eBay’ing from Japan

Having spent an embarrassing amount of money lately on a film camera, lenses, and other stuff necessary for film photography, I certainly had noticed on eBay that some of the best deals and best prices were from Japanese dealers. I came across a portrait lens that looked so perfect and was so reasonably priced that I bought it in spite of my concerns about doing business outside the country. I figured that delivery would take forever, but I was willing to wait for a lens like that.

Much to my surprise, six days after I ordered the lens on eBay, it was delivered to my door — special delivery — by the U.S. Postal Service. I have never received an eBay item that was so carefully and neatly packed. Best of all, there was a little bird in the package, made of folded green paper.

Now I feel ashamed for not seeing that America does not have a patent on good business. We Americans may even be slipping, since my expectations are so low, which makes me wonder if the rest of the world is wary of doing business with us.

The package was sent from the Japanese post office to the U.S. Postal Service, using a service called Express Mail Service. It’s trackable and insured, and there seemed to be no delay in customs.

I’m still in the testing and learning state with the new camera, but I should have some film photos before long.

Fried barley polenta

A good New Year’s resolution would be: Eat less bread, but eat more barley.

They didn’t call the gladiators “barley eaters” for nothing. I think we tend to scorn barley, because it’s old fashioned and common, in favor of fad grains such as quinoa (which I detest for its taste and texture and overpriced fad-itude). Barley, on the other hand, loves seasonings. It has a very meaty bite and chew. The list of barley’s virtues is very long.

Barley grits, I believe, can be bought at health food stores. I made my own from whole pearl barley, using the grinder attachment on my Champion juicer. I cooked the grits slowly in the steam oven until they were well done but on the dry side. I used vegetable broth as the liquid to give the grits a little more oomph.

I wanted a sausage spin, so I added sage, pepper, and garlic powder. I used brewer’s yeast as a binder and to help keep the mixture fairly dry. I rolled the mixture into aluminum foil and let it cool. Then I sliced it into patties and fried the patties in butter on low heat.

I’ve done a lot of experimenting with vegetable protein patties. I’d have to say that this was one of the best.

Fresh-ground barley grits

Cooled and ready to slice

Nikon digital photos

Delhi, 1993

I’ve had some distractions and haven’t posted for more than a week, but I’ll be back soon.

One of my distractions has been getting myself set up for 120-format film photography. That included buying a film scanner. Having a film scanner enabled me to scan some of my slides from a trip to India in 1993.

⬆︎ Dutch friends who looked after me and helped me manage my culture shock. They had been in India before.