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Please, somebody … just get us out of here

Jason Momoa in Apple’s “See”

The diagnosis, I feel sure, is chiefly Game of Thrones withdrawal. Whether you loved it or were disappointed, Game of Thrones ended, leaving us exposed and defenseless in the here and now.

Europe has been in an oven. The American heartland keeps flooding. Many farmers have been ruined. The water is waist deep in the Louisiana lowlands though hurricane season is just getting started. Wildfires have been raging in the arctic and in Hawaii. It’s summer in California, which means that California will soon have fires to go with its earthquakes. Monsoon flooding in India just killed 90 people and displaced more than a million. It’s too hot to go outside here unless you’re back indoors by 9:30 a.m. “Climate despair” is now a mental health diagnosis. Donald Trump’s approval rating rose a point or two as the scrutiny of his concentration camps intensified. The U.K. seems to want its own version of Donald Trump. The yield curve is inverted. Bees are dying faster than ever, though monster-size snakes and armadillos, like Trump’s base, feast and flourish in broad daylight.

Maintaining one’s sanity requires some escape. But where to? I spend more time surfing the streaming services looking for something fit to watch than I spend actually watching stuff. I have never been able to understand the appeal of stories set in the here and now. Where’s the escape in that? I’ve started a collection of the pathetic little blurbs that one finds in the streaming services while searching desperately for something to watch. Who writes these shows? Who watches them? Why do they bother to make them? For example:

• After a bad breakup, a struggling New York comedy writer tries to don a brave face and care for his dying mother in Sacramento.

• His wife wants out. His son’s a pothead. His rabbi can’t help him. Poor schlub. He could do worse, but not by much.

• What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas … when you can’t remember what the hell happened the night before.

If all stories were that useless, I would not have survived childhood, let alone have made it to my present considerable age.

Maybe Apple will help? Later this year, Apple’s streaming service will start. Lists of the shows that Apple has in production have started appearing, for example, this one. There is the now-obligatory dystopian thriller, “See,” but so far it looks like just another show in which half the budget is spent on body rugs and bad hair. At $15 million per episode, right up there with the last season of Game of Thrones, this series can afford a lot of bad hair. I’m intrigued, though, that Apple is taking on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.

Based on this list, I tried to do a rough count of how many of Apple’s new shows are not set in the here and now. I came up with 12, versus 25 shows that are set in the here and now.

Occasionally I do find something that is worth watching all the way to the end. “The Stone of Destiny” (2008) is particularly relevant now that talk of Scottish independence has been renewed because of Scottish exasperation with Brexit. “Crooked House” (2017) got mediocre reviews, but I thought it was a fine production of an Agatha Christie novel, and with a superb cast.

On the other hand, I watched only about two minutes of the Netflix revival of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. I had assumed that it was a proper remake, but instead it appeared to be just a sentimental wallow and a heavy new dose of Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney for those (such as Armistead Maupin) who can’t get enough. I follow Maupin on Facebook (mostly selfies), by the way. He has become a colossal boor with nothing new to say and who hasn’t done anything since Tales of the City other than pursue his climber social life.

If anyone would care to debate me, I would be willing to defend the proposition that decent human beings are now living through the most disturbing times since April 1945, when Hitler put a gun to his head. As evidence of this, you only have to look around and see who is gloating, and why. The worst among us believe themselves to be back on top again. They also believe that God sent Trump to save the world — not from climate disaster or thermonuclear destruction or another war, but from liberals like us.

Stories about Vegas and Sacramento just aren’t going to cut it for me.

The history you know without knowing you know it

The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. J.P. Mallory and D.Q. Adams. Oxford University Press, 2006. 732 pages.

I have a standard riddle that I thought of years ago. I don’t think anyone has ever gotten the answer:

Name something that you use every day and that you couldn’t get by without. It has never cost you anything. It was made by humans. It is thousands of years old. What is it?

The answer, of course, is language. We totally take language for granted, like free air, free water, and free cats — all of which we’d be willing to pay huge sums for, if they were scarce. (People are already figuring out how to get us to pay for water. As for cats, mine was free, like all the best things in life. This time of year, you can probably get as many free cats as you want, if you’re in need of some.)

Language is an incredible gift left to us by our ancestors. But even as we use that gift, we quickly forget our ancestors. In The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, David W. Anthony points out that many of us can’t even name all four of our great-grandmothers. That’s how fast we lose knowledge of the past, at least in most western cultures. As an elder, one of the things I’ve noticed about young people — for example my own great-nieces and great-nephews — is that they rarely express any curiosity about now-dead relatives that my generation remembers and could tell them about, if they cared to know. In only three generations, most of us will be forgotten. That’s our payback, I suppose, for forgetting those who came before us.

As I have gotten older, I have become increasingly curious about my ancestors, whose experience probably was very similar to that of your ancestors. My curiosity has been inflamed by the cultural destruction that has occurred during the Christian era, which has made it much more difficult to imagine how our ancestors lived. Those who have read this blog, or my novels, are aware of my rage at the cruelty, and ugliness, and completeness, of Christianization. Except for a very few traditions such as a midwinter pagan festival, which we now call Christmas, our memory of the pre-Christian past is gone, like the memory of our ancestors. One might accuse me of romanticizing the pre-Christian past. Not by any means do I suppose that the pre-Christian past was a utopia. But I do think it’s clear that Christianity systematically demonized and disenchanted the natural world, replacing the collective wisdom of our ancestors with theologies and texts from old cults that are shocking in their poverty and infantility. We are the way we are today because we’ve forgotten any other way to be. I strongly suspect that humanity’s survival depends on whether we can regain an awareness of our dependence on the natural world and find a way to re-enchant and preserve the natural world.

The trajectory of Christianization, unsurprisingly, included the extinction of languages. In the case of the Mayan hieroglyphs, much of the destruction was intentional and was the work of a single Catholic priest. The extinction of Gaulish probably was more a product of Romanization than of Christianization, but in the last years of the empire there was not much difference between Romanization and Christianization.

Still, even robust living languages and their words and grammars are largely fossils, with components that are extremely old. In the last 200 years, historical linguists have developed methods that are remarkably good at tracing a language backward toward its roots. This brings us to the now-extinct language that we call Proto-Indo-European. Though it is a dead language, more than half the people on the planet today speak a language that is descended from Proto-Indo-European. Modern descendants include most of the languages of Europe and some of the languages of Asia, such as Hindi. Classical languages including Greek, Latin, the Germanic languages, the Celtic languages, and Sanskrit are all descended from Proto-Indo-European. Strangely enough, Latin and Celtic are actually close cousins in the Indo-European family tree, because the Romans and the Celts were neighbors in Western Europe. It was not until the 18th Century, as Europeans started encroaching on India, that Europeans discovered that Sanskrit is a relative of Latin and Greek and of the entire Indo-European language family.

Consider the family tree of English. English is a Germanic language brought to Britain by the Saxon people, who came from what is now northern Germany and Denmark. After the Norman Conquest, as elites from what is now France gained power in old England, they brought with them a huge vocabulary of Latin words that were assimilated into English. Today, the 1,000 or so most commonly used words in English are Anglo-Saxon, but as word use expands beyond those 1,000 common words, Latin, French, and Greek start to predominate.

What makes The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European such a fascinating book is that it explains how linguists have actually reconstructed much of the grammar and vocabulary of the now-extinct Proto-Indo-European language. You’ll need to read the book to get a feel for how this is done, but obviously it involves patterns in how languages change, looking at similarities in all the surviving Indo-European languages. (Though classical Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit are considered dead languages, they are very well preserved and well understood through a large body of surviving literature.) The book actually contains lists of reconstructed words in Proto-Indo-European, with the equivalent English word. These lists run to 100 pages! Can linguists be absolutely sure that they’ve reconstructed these words? Of course not. But confidence is high. One linguist claims to have used the same techniques to reconstruct Latin by working backwards from the Romance languages, claiming to have reconstructed the Latin vocabulary with 95 percent confidence and Latin grammar with 80 percent confidence.

There are a great many reconstructed words from Proto-Indo-European that speakers of English will recognize, such as mūs for mouse, or werĝ for work. If you speak a modern Romance language, then you will recognize many more.

So, what do the fossils in our language tell us about our ancestors? We can learn a great deal, obviously, from what they did or did not have words for. We know that the people who spoke Proto-Indo-European, from about 4000 BC to about 2500 BC, had words for horses, for farming equipment such as plows, for oxen and sheep, for wool, for milk, for weapons, for barley, for beer and mead, and for wheels, axles, wagons, and for all sorts of wild plants and animals. Archeologists tell us that Europeans before 8000 or so BC were foragers. It is safe to assume that the Proto-Indo-European language spread across Europe and parts of Asia as farming and herding spread and as people stopped foraging for a living. Still, even as people settled down to farm, there was still a good deal of travel. There are Proto-Indo-European words for roads, wandering, going astray, and hospitality. As the people settled into agrarian lifestyles, and as cities developed along the rivers and coasts, the Proto-Indo-European language began to divide into Germanic, Greek, Latin, Celtic, and so on. The process must have been very similar to how Latin divided into the Romance languages after the fall of Rome.

Linguistics, then, can tell us much more about our ancestors than we might at first think. There are some questions, though, to which linguistics cannot provide a definite answer. One of those questions is where the Proto-Indo-European language originated and what the migration routes were. As far as I can tell, scholarship that combined linguistics and archeology to shed light on the lives of early Europeans was fairly late to develop. As of now, the best book I know of on this subject is from 2007: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders From the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. I’ve just started reading this book and will plan to review it later. But I want to mention four books here that I have chosen to help me get a feel for how the English we speak today can be traced backwards to the lives that our European ancestors lived up to 8000 years ago, and the languages they spoke. The other three books are listed below.

J.R.R. Tolkien, you will recall, was an Oxford philologist. It is very easy to romanticize prehistoric Europe as being a lot like Tolkien’s Shire, with the land of Rohan and its horse lords being a lot like the plains (or steppes) of eastern Europe and western Asia.

Despite its length and the technicalities of linguistics, this book is surprisingly easy to read. The only thing that stumped me — the same way that the math in books on physics stumps me — is that I mostly cannot follow the marks that linguists use to indicate pronunciation, or all the terms that linguists use for different types of vocalizations, such as labials, dentals, palatals, velars, labiovelars, sibilants, laryngeals, nasals, semi-vowels, etc. You’ll be able to follow the gist of this easily enough, though. I recommend watching some YouTube lectures on Proto-Indo-European, in which the speakers are linguists who have an incredible ability to produce the sounds that occur in human languages.

⬆︎ The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders From the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. David W. Anthony. Princeton University Press, 2007. 554 pages.

I’ve just started reading this book and will have a report later.

⬆︎ The Blackwell History of the Latin Language. James Clackson and Geoffrey Horrocks. Wiley-Blackwell, 2007. 324 pages.

I will read this book after The Horse, the Wheel, and Language. I’m curious to know how Latin differs from Proto-Indo-European, and maybe why. We do know that Proto-Indo-European had a complex case system, like Latin. But what puzzles me is why speakers of languages such as Latin put up with such complexity. We know that the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, etc.) started out as dumbed-down Latin. All, or least most, of the Romance languages trashed or greatly simplified Latin’s six cases of nouns — nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, and vocative. It makes me dizzy just to list them.

⬆︎ The French Language. Alfred Ewert. Faber and Faber, 1933. 440 pages.

I’ve had this book for a good many years. After I learned to read French, I became curious about how French had developed from Latin. For example, where did those weird nasal vowels in French come from? Ewert attributes such things to “the persistence of linguistic habits of the Celtic population,” which is hardly surprising. But you can see that I am trying to work backward on the English branch of the language tree: English -> French -> Latin -> Proto-Indo-European. I wish I could read German. Alas, I cannot.

Here’s a little puzzle for you if you’ve read this far. Do you know the meaning of the English word adumbrate? If you do, you can give yourself an “A” and skip the next paragraph. Otherwise, let’s puzzle out how you can figure out what adumbrate means without having to go look it up.

To figure it out, you don’t even need to know the meaning of the Latin infinitive adumbrare. Nor do you need to know that the Latin word adumbrate (it’s four syllables in Latin, ah-doom-brrah-tay, I think) is the masculine participle of the verb adumbrare in the vocative case. All that is good to know. But a language-lover will see the three parts of the English adumbrate without even slowing down in reading. There is the prefix ad-, the root umbra, and the suffix –ate. I bet you’re onto it already, because you know what an umbra is — that which an umbrella has underneath it. The Latinate prefix ad– means to go toward or to draw to. The root umbra means shadow. The suffix –ate turns the word into a verb. So, adumbrate means to throw something into shadow.

Meat analog update

Kentucky Fried Chicken’s “Imposter Burger.” It’s Quorn! Source: KFC

As far as I can tell, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s test-marketing of the “Imposter Burger” was only in the United Kingdom. It sold out in no time. The Imposter Burger is a faux chicken sandwich, as opposed to Burger King’s “Impossible Burger,” which is faux beef. The KFC sandwich is made of Quorn, which I have written about here before (search for “Quorn” in the search box at the top right).

My understanding is that KFC’s version of Quorn uses the same patented recipe for the seasonings and coatings that KFC uses for its chicken. But Quorn also makes a seasoned version of it’s fake chicken. More on that below.

I am excited to see corporations jumping into this market. And it’s extremely encouraging that, when fast-food mega-corporations have test-marketed meat-free alternatives, people have jumped on it. This trend is not going to be a market failure.

Earlier this month, Salon carried a piece with the headline “Is the Impossible Burger a threat to vegetarianism? The Impossible Burger is good, but it’s no substitute for creative, veggie-first vegetarian cooking.”

I would agree with that. I have been focused on vegetarian cooking for most of my life. Vegetarian cooking is not about finding substitutes for meat. Rather, it’s a cuisine in and of itself, with its own virtues. The truth is that I (and many people like me) don’t even like or crave meat all that much.

Last week (for example), I made a meat loaf out of some “Beyond Burger” fake ground beef. I didn’t like it. It was vaguely disgusting, the way undercooked meat is disgusting to vegetarians. I only partially ate it and put the rest out back for my resident opossum (who eats well). I prefer my own vegetarian high-protein loaves, which are based on soybeans and such. I don’t know what they flavor Beyond Burger with, but it has a mysterious “gamey” taste that of course is intended to make it taste like meat, but which I find repulsive. I have no idea what these ingredients are in “Beyond Burger” that are meant to make it taste like meat. The label doesn’t specify. It just says “natural flavorings.” When “Beyond Burgers” are cooked on the grill, the grilled flavor predominates. When cooked in the oven, the gamey flavor predominates.

As excited as I am about Quorn, Burger King’s Impossible Burger, and KFC’s Imposter Burger, these analogs will not alter my diet in any significant way. They give me new options while traveling, but that’s about it. What is truly exciting is how promising these new foods are in reducing the amount of meat in the corporate diet that so many people rely on these days. Sure, Republicans will go right on insisting on “real” meat and passing laws in Republican legislatures to protect the meat industry, animal welfare and the environment be damned. But people who are kinder and more sensible than Republicans will have new alternatives that they seem to be eager for. Guess whose health will improve and whose will go downhill?

Quorn, by the way, makes a pre-seasoned analog chicken burger that looks a lot like KFC’s Imposter Burger. KFC’s version is seasoned by KFC, whereas Quorn’s version is seasoned by Quorn. I was surprised to find that I already had some of these Quorn “chicken” burgers in my freezer than I hadn’t got around to using. They’re dry, but they’re decently tasty. If you’re looking for these at the grocery store, they’re labeled “Chik’n Patties.” They’re in the frozen foods section. Make yourself a dipping sauce to overcome the dryness.

Quorn “Chik’n Patties,” stir-fried squash from a neighbor’s garden, and guacamole that includes banana peppers from the neighbor’s garden

Update: This today from the Washington Post: Beyond Meat’s latest plant-based burger is meatier, juicier and a big step closer to beef.

An arrogant writer gets punished by readers

Neal Stephenson. Wikipedia photo.

Four years ago here, I reviewed Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. Though I gave the book four of five stars, I was turned off by Stephenson’s increasingly insufferable narcissism. I wrote:

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.

Now Stephenson’s next book is out — Fall; or, Dodge in Hell. Based on the reviews, I have my answer. Stephenson did not do something completely different in his next book. Instead, he doubled down on his insufferability.

Sixty-five Amazon reviews are in only two weeks after the book was released. I don’t think I have ever seen a popular author so savaged by Amazon reviewers. The book’s average rating is 3 stars, and there are more 1-star reviews that 5-star reviews. At Goodreads, the ratings are running higher — 3.7 stars. But that does not surprise me. Goodreads is such a hangout for vindictive brats who know nothing about literature that Goodreads ratings are often a contrary indicator — the better a book is, the more Goodread hates it, and vice versa. Whereas reviewers on Amazon are generally much more mature and well-read. Disclaimer: I have not read this book, and I’m not going to.

One of the Amazon reviewers nails it: “Unfortunately, like Robert A. Heinlein and George R.R. Martin before him, Neal Stephenson has apparently become so successful that no editor will stand up to him, and no publisher will force him to accept serious editing. That’s the only explanation for this self-indulgent, nonsensical, and boring allegory-cum-digital fairytale…. And so, the unthinkable has occurred, at least for me — I will never again pre-order a Neal Stephenson book.”

Having been an editor for much of my life, I am familiar with this phenomenon: author ego. An editor’s job is to defend the reader’s interest while remaining on friendly terms with the writer. When an editor and a writer work together to improve a piece of writing, it should be a collaborative process, and a good editor will generally be able to persuade the writer to the editor’s point of view. The editing process thus makes a piece of writing much better. But when a writer cannot accept a good editor’s judgment that the reader is being abused, and when the editor is somehow overridden, then books like this one happen.

A reviewer for the New York Times said that this book “dazzles.” Maybe the reviewer really believed that. Or maybe it was a case of a reviewer being afraid to stand up to an author. If you occupy the same coastal social world, who wants to be on Stephenson’s hit list?

It is increasingly difficult to find good science fiction. I don’t know why. Maybe my taste has changed. Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature is very helpful, because reading just the first page or two of a novel is enough to determine whether an author can write (most cannot). Then there are books such as Norman Spinrad’s The Druid King which I flung yesterday a quarter of the way into it. Spinrad — in spite of his reputation — has the writing style of an amateur, and the book reads as though it was dashed off in a hurry, with all the characters saying whatever obvious thing serves as exposition.

Finding nonfiction books is easy. I don’t have time to read all the things that I want to read. But finding fiction is hard work and leads to disappointment more often than not.

John Twelve Hawks, please come home.

Update: A day after I wrote this, the Amazon rating average has dropped to 2.9. Clearly the buzz is turning against Stephenson. Hilarious.

Things we lost when newspapers died

Rob Morse, former metro columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. Photo: Mill Valley Patch, 2011

I am the product of an almost-extinct culture: newspaper culture. I got my first newspaper job at the age of 17, as a part-time copy boy when I was still in high school. I retired as a newspaperman in 2008. Most newspapers are now zombies, but fortunately two have survived and have even kept their souls — the New York Times and the Washington Post.

There are still newspapers in other cities and towns, of course. But their business model is wrecked. Their staffs are tiny. And whatever culture now exists in newspapers other than the New York Times and the Washington Post, it’s not newspaper culture. It’s something else, something more akin to tech culture and web culture, people who use the word “content” and who probably have never even heard the old word, “copy.” The lesser newspapers have little use for old pros and the old culture. Instead they want young staffs with tech skills, tech educations, and with an unquestioned belief that the future is in social media. Blech.

It was globalization, really, that killed newspapers. Wherever globalization happens, something local is lost.

The golden era of newspapers was rooted in two monopolies or near-monopolies that were wiped out by technology.

The first monopoly was that communications bandwidth was very scarce and very expensive. In the days of the telegraph, it was only the newspapers that could support the costs of gathering news and sending it over the wires. When telephones came along, long distance calls were very expensive, but newspapers easily made enough money to bear the cost. Later, Teletype machines, operating over long-distance phone lines (and later, the early satellites), carried the “copy.” In a city of any size, the newspaper had a room full of Teletype machines. (My job as a copy boy included the care and feeding of a room full of Teletypes. What amazing machines they were!) That room full of Teletypes was pretty much the only channel into a city carrying news about events elsewhere in the world. This monopoly slowly evaporated as the Internet was born and millions of miles of fiber-optic cable was laid.

The second newspaper monopoly was local advertising. Stores and businesses bought the “display ads.” But anyone could afford a classified ad. The classified ads were where everyone went when looking for a job, or buying a house or a car. Almost overnight, craigslist killed newspapers’ monopoly on classified ads. Other sorts of advertising moved to the Internet more slowly. But even by the time I retired in 2008, newspapers’ advertising revenue had collapsed.

The cost of subscribing to a newspaper was roughly enough to pay for the paper it was printed on. All the profit was in advertising. Though there was some competition — many cities had more than one newspaper — the pie was plenty big enough to divide two or even three ways.

For a while, it was not clear whether even the New York Times would survive. It did. I was very surprised that the Washington Post has survived, because I thought we had lost it. But the Post has survived. Those are the last real newspapers standing in the U.S., and I believe it was the demand for professionally reported news that saved them.

Unless you’ve seen a budget for big-city newspaper, you might be shocked at how expensive it is to gather and print the news. Once upon a time, even the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle, where I used to work, had foreign bureaus. Now, as far as I know, only the New York Times and the Washington Post do. I’m going to list those foreign bureaus, for both papers, just to help make the point that a real news operation is very expensive:

New York Times foreign bureaus: Baghdad, Beijing, Beirut, Berlin, Cairo, Caracas, Dakar, Istanbul, Kabul, Jerusalem, Johannesburg, London, Mexico City, Moscow, New Delhi, Ottawa, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Shanghai, Sydney, Tehran, Tokyo, Toronto, and Warsaw. The Times also has domestic bureaus in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington.

Washington Post foreign bureaus: Berlin, Brussels, Cairo, Dakar, Hong Kong, Islamabad, Istanbul, Jerusalem, London, Mexico City, Miami, Moscow, Nairobi, New Delhi, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo.

Yes, as the Internet grew, a new niche opened up for online publications such as Politico or the now-in-decline Salon. Other online publications are mostly link aggregators that produce little or no “content” on their own, such as Huffington Post on the left and the Drudge Report on the right. But there is no substitute for a real newspaper. That’s why I have paid subscriptions to both the New York Times and the Washington Post. There are many niche sites that are worth looking at, but no one considers them worth paying for. And I think I’ll lay off of Twitter, which I find completely useless, no matter how “well curated” one’s “feed” is. Even if there’s a needle on Twitter, it’s lost in a globalized haystack.

My larger point here is that as globalization and globalized technologies killed newspapers, things that are local were lost. It’s easier now to find out about a fire at Notre Dame than a fire in your own county. Yes, local news weeklies are still around. But they’re lucky if they can afford even one reporter, and most of them fill their columns with stuff they can get for free, such as “neighborhood news” sent in by the elderly, or rubbishy little business features that they get from “partnering” with self-serving entities such as chambers of commerce. There is a frightening scarcity of coverage of local news anymore, particularly local government. Even state government flies under the news radar most of the time in most places. I live in a news desert where local news is concerned, and the odds are that you do, too. When I look at the web site of my last employer, the San Francisco Chronicle (, I am disgusted by what I see: fluff, food, technology, and traffic. It’s not a newspaper anymore. Even Politico now covers California politics better than the Chronicle does (not least because an old colleague from the Examiner and Chronicle, Carla Marinucci, now works for Politico).

But as I write this, I’m more in a sentimental mood than a grouchy mood. And that brings me at last to Rob Morse.

It wasn’t just local news that newspapers used to bring us. Most newspapers also had a local columnist. Some newspapers had a very good local columnist. (In larger cities, they were called metro columnists.) Local columnists helped to give a newspaper its personality. When collective grouching needed to be done, the columnist would lead the grouching. When local celebrating needed to be done, they’d lead the celebrating. In times of collective grief and trauma, they would provide collective therapy. I remember morning rush-hour buses in San Francisco creeping down Market Street, and virtually everyone who didn’t have to stand and hold a strap would be holding a Chronicle, reading Herb Caen. When Herb Caen died (in 1997 at age 80), all the church bells of San Francisco rang for his funeral. The Examiner’s metro columnist, Rob Morse, wrote, “We’re on our own now.” Indeed we were, and just look what has happened to San Francisco since 1997. Herb Caen had once written, “One day if I do go to heaven…I’ll look around and say, ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.'” These days, I think Caen might prefer heaven.

Caen was a relentless extravert. He was always out and about, relishing the social status that his job gave him. Over at the Examiner, Rob Morse was an introvert. His columns were very much grounded in San Francisco life, but Morse was a ruminant, not a butterfly.

Morse and I were friends. He would often come and sit in my office, where he could escape the din of the newsroom, and talk with a fellow ruminant. Often his thoughts would be about whatever was in his next column. He was a touch awkward and tentative in conversation, frankly. But in writing he never was. Morse was among the very last of the great metro columnists.

I’m not the only person who wondered what happened to Morse after he took a buyout and vanished. In 2011, more than three years after I left San Francisco, the Mill Valley Patch, a little online publication, carried a piece with the title, “Rob Morse, Please Come Home.” I sometimes ask former colleagues if they ever hear from Morse, but no one ever does. He lives a very private life now, I think.

I live a pretty private life, too, and in a much remoter place than Mill Valley, California. Until my trip to the U.K. last year, I had not even done any traveling after I left San Francisco. One of the things I found shocking, whether in airports or on the street, was that these days everyone has their face in a phone almost all the time (and never a newspaper). There must be some kind of local life in those phones, but I don’t think it’s a community life. I don’t think there’s anyone in all those phones who leads the local grouching, or the local celebrating, or who provides group therapy for a group as large as a city. I don’t think there is anyone in those phones for whom all the church bells of San Francisco, or any city, will ring someday.

As Rob Morse said, we’re on our own now. Are our phones really that compelling? Or are they a poor but addictive substitute for something that has gone extinct?

Sometimes I ask myself, as a thought experiment, what I would do if I had a magic button that, if I pushed it, would take us back to the days of Teletypes. I think I would. We’d still know what was happening in Moscow. We’d still know that Notre Dame is on fire. But a now-lost local world might magically reappear.

Two lemons a day keep the doctor away

It’s a miracle of nature that the best summer drink of all — homemade lemonade — also is some of the best medicine you can get.

If you do some Googling and reading on the virtues of lemons, you’ll find plenty of people who swear that lemons can cure arthritis. Surely that’s too good to be true. But there can be little doubt that lemons are very good for not only your joints, but for all of the soft tissues of the body.

Consider the symptoms of scurvy, which the British navy famously discovered can be cured by lemons, limes, and oranges. In scurvy, pretty much all the soft tissues of the body start to fall apart and are unable to heal — gums, muscles, joints, skin, even the blood vessels. Fortunately for me, I learned about the virtues of oranges and lemons more than 40 years ago, from Jethro Kloss’ classic back-to-the-earth book on natural healing, Back to Eden. Kloss prescribed up to a dozen oranges a day any time the body has a healing job on its hands.

Though I am past 70, I don’t have any joint problems or even any foreshadowing of arthritis. I want to keep it that way. I’m resolved to have two lemons a day this summer while building myself up for hiking in Scotland. Hiking will do no harm to the muscles, heart, or lungs of an older person who is reasonably fit. It will just make you stronger. It’s the joints that are most at risk, especially with a heavy pack on your back. The stress on one’s joints must not exceed the speed at which joints can heal. Lemon juice, I very much believe, improves the ability of joint tissues to heal and to strengthen. I had a touch of shin splits after returning from Scotland last year. That resolved after about a week, but part of my experiment with lemons this summer is to see if lemons can ward off shin splints. Shin splints, I believe, are caused by micro-tears in leg tissue. It seems reasonable to me that lemons should help.

Wherever the virtue of lemons comes from, I’m convinced that it goes way beyond just vitamin C. When any kind of juice is put up in cartons, most of its virtue is gone, and the juice becomes just another sweet drink with empty calories. It’s almost magical or mystical, as though there is some mysterious life force in living fruit, but there is no substitute for the just-squeezed juice of still-living citrus fruit.

The biggest challenge with lemonade is how to sweeten it. Adding a lot of sugar will counteract the alkalizing effect that lemons have on body chemistry and will reduce lemons’ anti-inflammatory benefits. I use stevia with lemons. It’s hard to believe that anything can be so sweet and also so harmless. But as far as I can tell stevia gives no cause for worry if you don’t overdo it. There is some disagreement about whether stevia lowers blood pressure. Just for the fun of it, I took my blood pressure last night after having lemonade sweetened with a generous 3ml of stevia extract. I got 101 over 63, compared with 112 over 66 the last time I took my blood pressure a couple of months ago. One measurement doesn’t prove anything, of course. But it may well be true that stevia lowers your blood pressure.

You can order stevia extract from Amazon. Trader Joe’s sells a very nice organic stevia extract in 2-ounce bottles. Stevia is made from the leaves of a plant. It has been used as a sweetener in South America, and I believe in Japan as well, for hundreds if not thousands of years.

This just in from California

iPhone XS photos by JMG

Regular readers know that I have been breathlessly following Burger King’s rollout of the Impossible Whopper. The rollout started in the St. Louis area. After meeting with great success there, and an 18 percent increase in same-store sales, Burger King rolled out the Impossible Whopper in the San Francisco Bay Area.

These photos arrived by text message today from a friend in California. The Burger King was in San Jose. These are his comments:

“I just had the Impossible Whopper at Burger King. It was even better than Beyond Meat burgers…. I really couldn’t tell the difference between it and regular meat…. The only difference is that it has less grease, which is a plus…. A lot less…. I went there while waiting to get my Prius serviced at Stevens Creek Toyota.”

So there you have it, including the surprising revelation that Prius drivers are into Impossible Whoppers.

The headquarters of Impossible Burger is in Redwood City, California, not far from San Jose. Their first manufacturing plant is in Oakland, just across San Francisco Bay from San Francisco. Burger King has said that all Burger Kings will have Impossible Whoppers by the end of the year. I’m breathlessly waiting. Whether Priuses, Impossible Burgers, or compostable plastic, corporate America will give it to us if we demand it.

Why is Mexican so hard?

A very inauthentic chili relleno

Other than those Americans who live close to the Mexican border, or in California, most Americans know very little about good Mexican cuisine. Readers in Europe: Do you have Mexican restaurants at all? I’m guessing not.

At the risk of being snobbish about restaurants in America, there is low Mexican cuisine, and there is high Mexican cuisine — just as there is a low and high Chinese cuisine, and a low and high Italian cuisine. Americans by the millions love Mexican, Chinese, and Italian restaurants. But what millions of Americans don’t know is that what they’re getting is a low cuisine. Most Americans wouldn’t be willing to pay for truly good cooking, nor do they necessarily like good cooking if they’re exposed to it. Most Americans just want low cuisines and big servings. When I was living in San Francisco, I’ve taken visitors to superb Italian restaurants in North Beach, and the visitors didn’t even recognize the food as Italian. It went way over their heads, because it wasn’t the usual spaghetti and lasagna.

At the grocery store a couple of days ago, I came across some beautiful, and perfectly fresh, poblano peppers. I bought some, and I resolved to go home and try to make chili rellenos. As I looked at recipes, I realize that there was no way that I was going to go to all that trouble. The peppers are supposed to be fried in a batter that includes whipped egg whites re-mixed with the yolk. There is just no way I was going to do so much work to add so many calories. I ended up grilling the pepper, doing my best to peel it. I stuffed the pepper with grated cheese and some leftover hummus. There was nothing authentic about my chili relleno other than a stolen concept. Then again, lots of cuisines stuff peppers.

I did not cheat on the salsa, though. I made it from a grilled tomato and onion, chopped in the blender, seasoned with garlic and cilantro, and heated just short of a simmer. Mexican cooking from scratch is hard. That’s why people buy it in kits. The low-end Mexican restaurants also buy things in kits from food services, which is why, if you’ve been to one low-Mexican restaurant, you’ve been to them all.

The best Mexican cuisine I’ve ever had was in San Diego. (It has been 40 years since I was in Mexico, and I don’t remember much other than the refrescas, which I believe have now been corporatized. When I was there, they were made fresh by the roadside.) San Diego is just across the Mexican border, and the San Diego population can support good restaurants. The San Francisco Bay Area had a reasonably good chain of middle-brow Mexican cuisine, Chevy’s Fresh Mex. But I ate at a Chevy’s once in provincial Sacramento and was shocked how different (and low-cuisine) it was compared with the same chain in San Francisco. What can I say. Provincial Americans love their low cuisine and actually don’t like what more demanding foodies like.

I know nothing about the history of Mexican cuisine. I wish I did. But my guess would be that it’s a fusion of a Mediterranean sensibility with an Indian sensibility, with lots of New World ingredients. How could you beat that?

Nancy Pelosi tips her hand

Twitter, Christine Pelosi

“I don’t want to see him impeached, I want to see him in prison.”

A lot of people who want justice for Donald Trump have been grumbling about Nancy Pelosi, because Pelosi seems to be dragging her feet on impeachment. However, I don’t see anything to grumble about. A lot of politics is tactical and scripted. My interpretation of Pelosi’s tactics is that she wants a widespread, bottom-up outcry for impeachment. The more she seems to be resisting impeachment, the harder she is pushed. That’s exactly what she wants. She wants history to record that, as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, she brought justice to the most dangerous and most criminal president in history.

This morning, in Politico, Pelosi revealed — and I believe she is serious — what she really has in mind for Trump: prison.

The Politico article is Pelosi tells Dems she wants to see Trump in prison.

Republicans just naturally assume that because Republicans try to inflict political damage on Democrats with endless witch-hunt investigations, that that’s what Democrats are doing. Republicans, as usual, are delusional. The difference is that Republicans never had anything on Hillary Clinton, and the investigators knew it, even if the ignorati didn’t. Lock-her-up Republicans are quick to gloat, but slow to learn. Whereas Trump is not just a criminal, he’s a crime lord who must be held responsible for a long list of state and federal crimes — financial crimes, tax crimes, obstruction, conspiracy, and, in my opinion, treason. His financial crimes aren’t just about real estate. Trump also is deeply and criminally involved in the financial crimes of the global billionaire oligarchy, to whom he clearly owes dirty money, and lots of it.

Nancy Pelosi, we should keep in mind, has access to more information about what’s going on behind the scenes than any Democrat in the country. Her strategy, I believe, is to first politically destroy Trump by exposing Trump’s criminality in televised House hearings. She has about nine months to do that, because Trump must be politically destroyed before next year’s presidential primaries, so that the Republican Party can pick another candidate. I continue to believe that the odds are close to zip that Trump will be around to run for a second term. Rather, I think Trump will resign once 60 percent or more of the American population see his criminality, and once the Republican Party sees that Trump is doomed and turns on him. Trump will try to cut a deal for his resignation. But even if Trump manages to evade prosecution for his federal crimes, New York State has enough on him to lock him up for the rest of his miserable life.

Nancy Pelosi does not need to bluff, because she has more power here than Trump does, and she knows it. Trump, propped up by Republican propaganda and by stooges (such as William Barr) in key positions, has enough power to slow things down and to throw sand in the works, but ultimately it’s Trump’s criminal guilt that will take away all his power and ensure his doom. Pelosi’s task is that she must expose Trump’s crimes for all to see, on television. She has everything she needs to do that. She has the power of Congress, and the law, behind her. State law — not only in New York but probably also in other states — are a backstop against Republican dirty tricks and presidential pardons.

When Nancy Pelosi used the word “prison” yesterday, she knew exactly what she was saying and what she was doing. Now we get to watch as she plays her hand.

Update: Jennifer Rubin, at the Washington Post, drawing on another article by constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, describes an actual legal structure for what Nancy Pelosi may have in mind. The article is, Forget impeachment. Tee up prosecution.

Part of the argument is that the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has already prejudged the case for impeachment. Republicans would look the other way and blame Democrats no matter what Trump has done. So, by this kind of road map, the House would investigate Trump’s crimes, concluding with a resolution referring the case and all the evidence to prosecutors as soon as Trump is out of office.

That sounds like a plan to me.

A training ground for Highland hiking

Looking south from the crest of Hanging Rock, with mist, just before rain

Though North Carolina’s Hanging Rock State Park is only a 15-minute drive from Acorn Abbey (through the picturesque little colonial town of Danbury), I don’t think I’ve ever written about the park here. These are iPhone photos that I took this morning.

The northern border of Stokes County, North Carolina, is formed by the state line between the states of Virginia and North Carolina. Just north of the Stokes County line, in Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachian chain, rise out of the foothills. Stokes County is a foothills county, but it has its own little mountain range — the Saura mountain range. Two mountains in this range are state parks — Pilot Mountain, and Hanging Rock. Both are fantastic promontories with extraordinary views from the top.

Like Pilot Mountain in the Yadkin Valley, Hanging Rock is a monadnock. Hanging Rock rises steeply out of the Dan River valley. Hanging Rock stands about 1,700 feet above the surrounding terrain. You could almost throw a rock from the top and have it land 1,700 feet below. The surrounding terrain — though you can see well into the Yadkin River valley — is the Dan River valley. The average altitude in the Dan River valley is about 800 feet above sea level. (We are about 265 miles from the Atlantic coast.) When you drive into Hanging Rock State Park, your car will get you to the visitors center at an altitude of about 1,700 feet. Then an uphill hike of about 1.3 miles will get you to the highest point in the park — Hanging Rock itself — at an altitude of 2,139 feet. The top photo was taken right on top of the USGS marker that officially marks the altitude.

The mountain is called Hanging Rock not because anybody was ever hanged there, but because a large outcropping of rock hangs out over the terrain below.

Last summer, when I was training for a hiking trip to the Scottish highlands and islands, Hanging Rock was my go-to place. At only 2.6 miles round trip, it’s not a long hike, but it’s intense. My Apple watch shows an altitude gain of 50 floors in only 1.3 miles. Most of the trail is uphill through woodland. But the last half mile or so is very steep, over a rough terrain of rocks and soil. Finally you reach the crest, the top of the monadnock. The top is fairly flat, a wooded acre or so with views in all directions.

As you might have guessed, I’m training again for another trip to Scotland, this time to the Outer Hebrides, in August. I’ve already hiked enough in the Scottish islands to know that, as in Stokes County, there is no such thing as flat land. It’s up and down, and always over uneven terrain. The only thing that a place like Hanging Rock cannot prepare you for is hiking in a bog. Nothing but hiking in a bog is like hiking in a bog. Still, uneven terrain in a bog, with lots of ankle-breakers, is a lot like uneven terrain over rocks, bog or no bog. If you’re my age, a hiking stick is an essential item.

The August trip to Scotland will include a couple of days in Edinburgh. Then the itinerary is Inverness, Ullapool, Stornaway, Mangersta, Aird a’ Mhulaidh, Lickisto, Tarbert, Kilmuir, Edinburgh. Though I’m flying into Heathrow, I’ll be bypassing London this trip and traveling through Oxford instead. I’ve never been to Oxford. Oxford will be one of the settings in my third novel, so I need see the place and do a little pub-hopping.

Part of the final ascent to the crest of Hanging Rock