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Watership Down

A rabbit friend stopped by this afternoon to inspect the clover and to remind me to remind you that, if you’ve never read Watership Down, then now is a good time to read it. And if you have read Watership Down, then now is a good time to read it again.

London Spy

Ben Whishaw as Danny, and Edward Holcroft as Alex

Almost in despair that five perfectly good gigabytes of my monthly satellite data was hours away from expiring, I happened upon “London Spy,” on Netflix. It’s a BBC television drama from 2015 with five episodes. I watched the first two episodes last night. It’s fantastic.

I’ve looked up a couple of reviews this morning. Let’s just say that the reviews are “mixed.” Those that are critical are snarky. But pay no attention to the snarky reviews, because such reviews are aimed at simple folk who stream simpler fare about simpler characters. “London Spy” is for those who need a more challenging story diet. It’s beautifully written and beautiful to watch. It’s psychologically disturbing, and it’s excellent mystery of the sort that the British do so well. In the plot, a vulnerable London naif, because of love, gets pulled into a dangerous situation in which he is way over his head.

Ben Whishaw is Danny, a troubled underachiever and hopeless romantic who would like to get his life together. Edward Holcroft is Alex, whom Danny meets along the Thames riverfront when Danny is having a very bad day. Jim Broadbent is Scottie, a much older man whose care and attention have kept young Danny alive as Danny made mistakes that could have been fatal.

I had recently watched Whishaw as Richard II in “The Hollow Crown,” a superb 2015 high-budget version of Shakespeare’s play. Whishaw is an incredibly gifted actor who can play a king as convincingly as he can play a young London slacker with a drug problem.

Script writers rarely get mentioned, and that’s a shame. This script was written by Tom Rob Smith, a young British writer and novelist who is only 38.

Tom Rob Smith writes about the kind of characters that most people don’t care much about, people whose lives are usually lived in the shadows. Danny works in a warehouse. Scottie managed to survive a typical case of blackmail, moral destruction, and emotional isolation. And yet such characters occur and again and again in real life in all times and places. I recognize them because they are my own Jake and Phaedrus characters. They’re always in over their heads, they’re always in it for love, and if they can survive, then despite the scars and damage they always turn out to be more resourceful than we — or they themselves — thought them to be.

Jim Broadbent as Scottie

J.B. Priestley

“An Inspector Calls,” BBC, 2015

J.B. Priestley had never particularly been on my literary radar screen. He should have been. I will work on that.

Last night, with quite a few gigabytes of satellite data to use up before my account does its monthly reset, I was determined to find something good to stream, which seems increasingly hard to do. On Amazon Prime, I came across “An Inspector Calls,” a 2015 BBC production of Priestley’s most famous play, with which I was unfamiliar.

It was one of the best films I’ve seen in years. The cast is superb. Who says that stagey productions are slow? I couldn’t avert my eyes or take a bathroom break. I was late putting the chickens to bed.

The play was written in 1945. It is set in 1912. I generally love films that are based on plays. I’m sure that this is because such films, of necessity, emphasize the work of the writer. There will be no special effects and no loud soundtrack. No effort will be made to hold the interest of those with short attention spans. Much will be demanded of the cast. Some exertion of the mind will be required. We will be reminded of why we love the English language.

For an overview of Priestley’s biography, I started with the Wikipedia article. By the third paragraph, Priestley had earned my permanent respect: “His left-wing beliefs brought him into conflict with the government, and influenced the birth of the Welfare State. The programme was eventually cancelled by the BBC for being too critical of the Government.” The program the article is referring to is Priestley’s radio program on the BBC in the 1940s. Here’s a short sample from Youtube, June 1940, in which Priestley is talking about the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Is “An Inspector Calls” didactic, as some critics complain? You bet it is. The headline on a review in The Spectator reads “An Inspector Calls is poisonous, revisionist propaganda — which is why the luvvies love it.” I must be a luvvie. Any play that after almost 75 years still gets under right-wing skin that badly is not to be missed. And that play’s writer is not to be forgotten.

Writers’ lives matter. As surely as odious propagandists such as Ayn Rand helped to pull us all into the right-wing swamp in which we are now mired, so also left-wing propagandists such as J.B. Priestley helped to prepare the world for the liberal policies and institutions that brought decades of shared prosperity after World War II. But in more recent decades, right-wingers have been winning the propaganda wars, and thus they have succeeded in reversing and rolling back the very policies that enabled the Golden Age that cranky old conservatives still glorify — the 1950s. I am at present reading a new book by Robert Kuttner, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, which tells the story of how those liberal policies came about in the days of the New Deal, and how they were reversed. I will review that book soon.

As the BBC understood in reviving “An Inspector Calls,” we have regressed, badly. Priestley’s Eva Smith, a poor factory worker who struggled for a better life but was blocked at every turn, is still very much with us. The wealthy Arthur Birling also is entirely recognizable, though I would have to say that Arthur Birling, in fictional 1912, shows a capacity for truth and kindness and transformation that I fail to detect in today’s rich lords of the universe — at least those who have political and media power.

“What a load of manipulative, hysterical tosh,” rants The Spectator. That’s what they always say about anything that disturbs their nasty little Ayn Rand world, and plenty of fine writers have vindictive 1-star reviews to prove it. May Priestley’s heirs write on, and may we somehow manage to find them out there in all the noise and bile and razzle.

J.B. Priestley, “Let the people sing.

Taking a look at the Facebook propaganda

On May 10, the Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released information on 3,500 Facebook ads that were posted by Russian agents to influence the 2016 election. Here is the Washington Post story. Here is a link to PDF files of the ads on a House web site.

Every reasonable American should look at these ads and study them as an exercise in understanding propaganda. What I find particularly frightening is the sharp Russian understanding of the American culture wars and the sophisticated ability to inflame the American culture wars with simple images and simple language. In short, the foreigners who created these ads have a far better understanding of the United States than Americans who watch Fox News.

That many of these Facebook ads were targeted toward fans of Fox News is not in the least surprising. Republican hunger to be deceived is so profitable that now Sinclair Broadcast Group wants to root its way into Rupert Murdoch’s trough. But the ads often worked both sides of the same issue — inflaming the grievances of African-Americans while also stoking white racism.

Will the Republicans who are addicted to Fox News learn anything about how they are manipulated, and by whom? Frankly, I doubt it. While Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are doing everything they can as the minority party to help Americans understand what happened, majority Republicans are putting all their efforts into a cover-up. Axios reported this morning on a poll commissioned by Republicans that found that unaffiliated voters are paying attention to the Mueller investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Republicans, though, aren’t budging. They still believe that Donald Trump is honest and trustworthy and that the law is being used to frame him. I continue to believe that authoritarian personalities have cognitive and moral defects that block any idea that does not fit with their defective internal wiring. These are the same kind of people, after all, who continued to send money to the Rev. Jim Bakker even after Bakker was in prison for bilking his flock of millions of dollars.

By the way, I try not to post about the Mueller investigation, though I follow the leaks and legal actions closely. I think it’s very clear where that’s heading, but unfortunately we don’t have any choice but to wait for Mueller’s report and wait for the indictments to become public.

If you have time, I also recommend Googling for collections of Nazi propaganda posters. Cheap, low-end propaganda hasn’t really changed, nor have the low-end people who are susceptible to it. Certainly, there is such a thing as high-end propaganda, which is aimed at people who actually read. But, because of television, and increasingly because of social media, presidential elections have become extremely low-end affairs.

“Youth Serves the Führer. All 10-year-olds into the Hitler Youth.”

Some nerd talk about gasoline

The gas station nearest me actually has what I need.

Liberals don’t generally talk much about gasoline. Conservatives do. But I’ve done some reading up on gasoline during the past few days, so let’s have a bit of liberal-oriented nerd talk about the technicalities of gasoline. Both for fuel efficiency and the life of your car, it does matter.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the lease recently expired on my Smart car, and I replaced it with a Fiat 500. Those two vehicles have pretty different requirements for gasoline. So I wanted to understand the factors involved in choosing the best gasoline for the Fiat.

First, here are some basics, stuff that everyone needs to know about gasoline:

• OCTANE. Everyone knows that most gas stations have gasoline of at least two types — high octane (typically 91 or 93), and low octane (typically 87). Which you should use depends on your car. But what does octane measure?

Octane is a measure of the temperature at which gasoline ignites. The higher the octane, the higher the ignition temperature.

When the piston of an engine begins its compression stroke after gasoline and air have been injected into the cylinder, the compression alone raises the temperature inside the cylinder. But you don’t want the gasoline to ignite until the spark plug ignites it. If the compression is high enough, and if the octane is low enough, then the increase in temperature as the mixture is compressed will cause some of the gasoline to ignite too soon, from the heat of compression rather than from the spark. This is what causes the “knocking” sound. The knocking can damage the engine (particularly the valves), and it wastes energy, because the fuel that burned too soon in the “knock” is not available to burn when the spark (as determined by the engine’s timing) wants it to burn.

The approved wisdom seems to be that it’s very important to honor the minimum octane requirement for your vehicle, but that you’re wasting your money if you buy gasoline with a higher octane than your engine requires.

To some degree, the computers in modern engines can detect the knock (with a microphone, basically) and retard the timing of the spark to prevent knocking. That is not an optimal solution, since the timing of the spark is not optimal. Optimal timing and optimal octane are the optimal arrangement.

I’ll have more to say about octane, but let’s move on to the next basic factor about gasoline.

• ETHANOL. Ethanol, of course, is alcohol. It’s usually made from corn. The idea of ethanol as a motor fuel has been around since the “energy crisis” of the 1970s. In 2005, the U.S. Congress enacted the Renewable Fuel Standard, requiring a certain amount of renewable fuel in gasoline sold in the United States. The Renewable Fuel Standard was part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Today, most gasoline sold in the United States contains 10 percent ethanol.

If you’re interested in the politics of this, then it’s important to keep in mind that the Energy Policy Act of 2005 was signed by a Republican president — George W. Bush. Though the legislation had bipartisan support, both the 108th Congress (2003-2005) and the 109th Congress (2005-2007) had Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. I’ll have more to say about the politics in a second.

Chemically, there are three important things to know about ethanol.

First, ethanol contains less energy than gasoline made from petroleum — about 7 percent less, I believe. Because it contains less energy, ethanol cannot deliver as many miles per gallon as gasoline made from petroleum.

Second, ethanol, when exposed to the air, will suck moisture from the air. Over time, this thirst of ethanol for water will cause water to be absorbed into the gasoline. Engines don’t like that! The water absorption takes time. If you use up the gasoline quickly, it probably won’t be a problem. But if the gasoline sits in the tank for too long (for example, in a lawn mower, all winter), then the water in the fuel will be a problem.

Third, ethanol has a higher ignition temperature than gasoline made from petroleum. It’s harder to light. For that reason, ethanol can be used to raise the octane of gasoline.

• ADDITIVES: The Environmental Protection Agency requires that gasoline contain certain additives (such as detergents) that help keep the engine’s valves, combustion chamber, and fuel injectors clean. The EPA’s requirement has to do with emissions control. However, many car manufacturers recommend (but don’t necessarily require) more of these detergent additives to maximize the life of the engine and to reduce maintenance. These manufacturers include BMW, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Audi. Gasoline distributors adopted the automakers’ recommendations and call it “Top Tier Gasoline.” That’s a trademarked gasoline standard and may involve some marketing hype. But if the car manufacturers support the Top Tier standard, then it seems legit enough to me. Here’s the Wikipedia article.

So then, keeping those factors in mind, and trying to be as scientific as possible, what would be the ideal gasoline for my Fiat 500 (or for your car)?

A key piece of information will be found in your owner’s manual, and probably on your gas cap. My Fiat requires a minimum octane of 87, with 91 octane preferred. My ideal gasoline would look like this:

• 91 octane

• Top-Tier

• No ethanol

There’s room for argument on whether Top-Tier gasoline is worth the extra cost. My opinion, since I want to maximize the life of my car, is that Top-Tier gasoline is worth the cost.

There’s also room for argument on ethanol. The environmental issues are complicated. Yes, ethanol is renewable. But how many square miles of farmland are being devoted to growing corn for ethanol? Where does the fuel come from for distilling the ethanol? Some of it is coal. I prefer non-ethanol gasoline, if I can get it, for three reasons: Because I’m skeptical about the environmental issues; because ethanol contains less energy (and is therefore less efficient); and because the tendency of ethanol to draw water into the fuel cannot be a good thing.

Here in Trump country, if I asked the average person pumping non-ethanol gasoline into his SUV why he’s using non-ethanol gasoline, the odds are that he would say that ethanol in gasoline is a boondoggle brought to us by liberals and environmentalists. He would be wrong. He probably wouldn’t even believe me if I told him that ethanol was forced on us by a Republican Congress and a Republican president.

So you can make a better argument that ethanol in gasoline is a Republican boondoggle. Why would they do that? Well, what’s in it for farmers is obvious.

But what’s in it for the oil companies? It’s in the chemistry. Ethanol has a higher ignition temperature and therefore a higher octane than gasoline made from petroleum. It’s a cheap (and nontoxic) way of raising gasoline’s octane rating. Oil companies would almost certainly be adding ethanol to gasoline even if a Republican Congress hadn’t enacted regulations that require it. (Remember when gasoline contained lead? It’s now banned, but “tetraethyl lead” was an octane-raiser that is not chemically dissimilar from alcohol. It’s a lead atom bonded to an ethyl substance.)

Before we leave the subject of gasoline, let’s take note of how complicated the issue is, and how politically fraught it is. As for the complications, I need to add one more:

As far as I can determine, all petroleum gasoline manufactured in the United States is made to the exact same standard, though many different companies make it. It’s generic, and it’s shipped around the country mainly by pipelines. Gasoline is not branded until it’s loaded onto tanker trucks to be delivered to retail gas stations. As far as I can determine, both the ethanol and the detergent additives are mixed into the gasoline when the gasoline goes onto the tanker trucks. Or, to say it slightly differently, the gasoline you buy is not branded until it’s loaded onto a tanker truck for delivery to gas stations. The tanker trucks normally deliver two types of gasoline — high octane, and low octane. If a station sells a middle grade, then the two grades are mixed at the pump.

In the case of my Fiat, my solution worked out very well. Marathon gasoline is Top Tier gasoline, and a local Marathon station carries 91 octane, no-ethanol gasoline. It’s not cheap. But I don’t use much of it, and I’ll pay what it costs. Gasoline like this is considered conservative gasoline (even if it costs more), so that’s why it’s so easy to find here in Trump country. I’m pretty sure that this is the only advantage I’ve ever been able to discover from living around a bunch of Trump voters and their big engines — good gas, but no good restaurants or good groceries.

For a list of Top-Tier gasoline brands, see the Wikipedia article or the Top-Tier web site.

For a state-by-state list of local stations that sell no-ethanol gasoline, go to There’s also a smart-phone app called “Pure Gas” that will show you the nearest stations on a map, along with what types of gasoline the station sells.

If I’ve made any errors in this post, please let me know.

What’s blooming at the abbey

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A remarkably unpleasant winter (and lingering) winter has turned into a remarkably pleasant spring.

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A knot for all seasons

How many people know lots and lots of knots, know just what knot is needed for a particular situation, and know how to tie it? Not many people, I’d imagine.

One of the many things you can find on the Internet is just the knot you need, with instructions on how to tie it. I needed the knot above to join two lengths of new clothesline. I Googled for “knots to join two pieces of rope.” I chose the “Carrick Bend” and followed an animated illustration on how to tie it.

The mission was to replace the clothesline and double its length. Mission accomplished, with new clothespins to boot.

Bears in the woods

I’ve always assumed that, at the very least, transient juvenile bears sometimes wander up the creek from the Dan River. That’s because I saw the tracks of a small bear in the mud six or seven years ago, down by the creek, about a quarter of a mile below the abbey.

Today, a neighbor with land in that area gave me photos of an adult bear that his game camera caught yesterday. The bear had raided a deer feeder. The abbey is pretty much down in a forest, in a little valley surrounded by ridges, with a creek passing through the valley. It’s not surprising that we have bears. As I said to the neighbor, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? We wanted to live where the bears live.

A visit to Vade Mecum

Robin and Owen. Click here for high-resolution version.

I had a personal tour of Vade Mecum this morning with Robin, superintendent of Hanging Rock State Park. With Robin in the photo is Owen, who is campaign manager for a candidate for the North Carolina Senate for this district. The campaign is interested in having a campaign event at the park to which the governor would be invited.

Four years ago, I posted this about Vade Mecum, with lots of photos.

Vade Mecum, which is near Danbury (Stokes County’s county seat), was built in 1902 as a mountain springs resort. After a long and complicated history, it is now owned by the state of North Carolina and is a part of Hanging Rock State Park. The plan for its renovation and how the lodge and its 700 acres will be adapted for public access is still in the works. I’m dreaming of a restaurant and hotel similar to the Wowona Hotel at Yosemite National Park. There is a huge gym at Vade Mecum suitable for large indoor events, though I think of it more as an open-floor auditorium, with a stage, an enormous fireplace, and a big portico.

If a restaurant ever opens at Vade Mecum, it will be impossible to keep me (and many others) away. If the state of North Carolina is willing to invest the money, Vade Mecum could be in the same league as the Wowona, where I had a very memorable lunch some years ago. Not many old resorts of this type have survived. They were very susceptible to fire. Vade Mecum already had a sprinkler system, and new fire-detection equipment was recently installed at state expense.

Vade Mecum is one of the few lucky old resorts not only still standing, but in a decent state of repair. It’s a huge asset not only to the county, but to the state. Lots of local people moved heaven and earth to get Vade Mecum into the hands of the state of North Carolina as part of a state park.

“Vade Mecum” means “go with me” in Latin.

The Wowona Hotel at Yosemite National Park

At last, lilacs

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I have been waiting for years for the lilac bush to bloom for the first time. This year it finally did, though only in a small way.

The apple trees are looking great. There was a chance of frost on April 16, which I was afraid would ruin the apple blooms when they were most vulnerable. But the the frost didn’t happen. Here’s hoping for a good apple year.

Click here for high-resolution version.

Click here for high-resolution version.