January 2016

January 2016 letter

We have had some cold and wet weather this month but it seems we were lucky compared to friends in the UK and North America. We had snow amongst the rain and on a couple of days it looked Christmas card-ish.

Harry has been working on with the garage in spite of the weather – he has the framing almost done (see below).

I changed my diet to help my health by including more liquids, but soon ran into problems with my gut. We finally found the answer was a different brand of stock cubes which contained the dreaded wheat. I’m not quite back to normal but getting there.

We bought ourselves new mobile phones and they appear to be much easier to use. (thanks for the advice Chris) and we bought another ‘sans permit’ as the Twizy is limited we find. The Microcar seats two, is not electric so has no limit on range and is closed in rather than open to the elements. It was supposed to arrive in early January but …. now we are expecting it first week in Feb. We had to get a new steamer and it looks like we will have a get a new oven.

Ginger has learned not to run up to the mailman barking – now she barks at him from a distance, sitting down. Old dogs can learn.

Work on the garage

north gable being built

gable in place ready to be lifted

north gable in place

last few king posts going in

so close to the end of framing

But with an assembly of three pieces of wood to be added to complete the framing, we got high winds and heavy rains from the edge of a storm in the north (probably causing floods in the UK). To be continued next month.

Oral tradition – stories

The Grimm brothers collected their fairy tales from old folks in isolated German villages; the Danish Anderson wrote his. This has probably been happening since ‘once upon a time’. Some stories were retold and others were made up a fresh. So when we look at folk tales, we see stories of all ages from extremely ancient to made up yesterday. Also the stories change: in any oral tradition there is an effort not to lose the original but there is also the necessity to have the story stay understandable by using contemporary language and cultural artifacts/attitudes of the time. The stories had always to remain acceptable and entertaining.

People have lately been studying these tales by comparing stories from different places in the world and different languages. After all, both the language and the tales are part of the ‘mother tongue’ and ‘mother culture’ transmitted to children at their mother’s knee.

Analysis showed Jack and the Beanstalk was rooted in a group of stories classified as The Boy Who Stole Ogre’s Treasure, and could be traced back to when eastern and western Indo-European languages split – more than 5,000 years ago. Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to be about 4,000 years old. A folk tale called The Smith and the Devil was estimated to date back 6,000 years to the bronze age. The story, which involves a blacksmith selling his soul in a pact with the devil in order to gain supernatural ability, then tricking the evil power, is not so well known today, but its theme of a Faustian pact is familiar to many.”

I assume these stories were learning tools, lessons in how to be good, smart, successful, resourceful, alert, and so on. But also they would be used for ideas that were not easy to express. Warnings that there are evil things in the world can be important in small communities that have no seen the sort of things that we find everyday in our news, for several generations at a time. I grew up in a village in recent times (not without news for we had radio) but there were so many things that I did not know existed until I was almost an adult – the regular evil was both rare because of a small population and kept very secret when it occurred. Many of the tales were a lot more gruesome than their Disney re-makes and probably for a reason.

On the subject of folk

A little while ago, on the subject of folk tales, I was reminded of something I read once about the word ‘folk’. I found the place I had encountered it, Our Marvelous Native Tongue – Robert Claiborne. The story goes that a population of Indo-European people lived in the lower Danube about 3800 BC. They migrated to the Baltic, both the north coast and the south coast (or in modern terms: Denmark, Northern Germany, South Sweden and South Norway). And by the time they were settled in this new place, they were speaking proto-German. During this migration the Great Consonant Shift happened in three stages. The shift can be followed by the loan words into Finnish (as they passed through Finnish speaking people) – those loan words show how it happened in three stages. When they came to the Baltic coast, they borrowed a great many words from a non-Indo-European language that has died as a language long ago and is only known from its words in German. The words have to do with seafaring for this was the Germans first contact with a sea. There were also many words for new plants and animals. But surprisingly there were words for relationships, parts of the body, domestic items and so on that are not usually borrowed from other languages. They are the little conserved words in a language. This implies a very close mixing of the two populations. German acquired many pairs of words for the same thing – one with IE roots and one without. Parts of the old German religion are different from other IE ancient religions and this too was probably acquired from the native population on the Baltic coast.

The author refers to these two populations, prior to mixing, as the Danubian and the Ertbollian. Another author refers to “the language fusion of an IE population and a northern Megalithic culture giving rise to proto-German around 1600 BC.” This ‘Nordish’ people are known to have emerged between 3500 – 2800 BC and are responsible for the megalithic stone circles, tombs and so on.

Claiborne describes ‘folk’ this way. “We can even make a guess at what these people called themselves: the same thing that scores of other primitive people call or called themselves - “The People” (which is the meaning, for instance, of “Bantu”, “Navaho” and “Inuit”). The Germans’ own ancestral word for “people” was ‘manni’ – which shows up in historical tribal names such a Alemanni (“all the people”, whence the French word for Germany, Allemagne) and Marcomanni (“border people” - the “mark” being a landmark or boundary). But the Germans somewhere acquired an exotic term for “people”, “folkam”, which quite possibly represents the tribal name of the indigenous Scandinavians they met and merged with. Eventually, of course, the Indo-European elements in the language prevailed, whether because the Germans dominated the natives as conquerors or simply because they outnumbered them, or both. The aboriginal, Folkish element survived only in bits and pieces in the merged vocabulary.

So folk tales may have started as actual tales told by the folk.

Change in diet recommendations

The Edge question is publish and here is one of the interesting answers.


To me, the most interesting bit of news in the last couple of years was the sea-change in attitude among nutritional scientists from an anti-fat, pro-carbohydrate set of dietary recommendations to the promotion of a lower-carbohydrate, selectively pro-fat dietary regime. The issue is important because human health and, indeed, human lives are at stake.

For years, Americans had been told by the experts to avoid fats at all costs and at every opportunity, as if these foodstuffs were the antichrists of nutrition. A diet low in fats and rich in carbohydrates, supposedly, was the way to go in order to achieve a sleek and gazelle-like body and physiological enlightenment. In consequence, no-fat or low-fat foods became all the rage, and for a long time the only kind of yogurt you could find on grocery shelves was the jelly-like zero-fat variety, and the only available canned tuna was packed not in olive oil but in water, as if the poor creature was still swimming.

Unappetizing as much of it was, many Americans duly followed this stringent set of low-fat, high-carbo dietary dos and don’ts. But we did not thereby become a nation of fit, trim, and healthy physical specimens. Far from it. Instead, we became a nation that suffered an obesity epidemic across all age groups, a tidal wave of heart disease, and highly increased rates of Type 2 diabetes. The reason for this was that once they were digested, all those carbohydrate-rich foods got converted into glucose, which raised insulin levels and, in turn, caused storage of excess bodily fat.

Nutritional scientists thus learned the dual lesson that a diet high in carbohydrates can in fact be quite hazardous to your health, and that their alarmist fat phobia was in fact unjustified by the evidence. In reality there are good fats (such as olive oil) and bad fats, healthy carbs and unhealthy carbs (such as refined sugars). As a result, many nutritionists now favor a diametrically opposite approach, allowing certain fats as wholesome and healthy, while calling for a reduction in carbohydrates, especially refined sugars and starches.

A corollary of this about-face in dietary wisdom was the realization that much of so-called nutritional “science” was actually bad science to begin with. Many of the canonical studies of diet and nutrition were flawed by selective use of evidence, unrepresentative sampling, absence of adequate controls, and shifting clinical trial populations. Furthermore, some of the principal investigators were prone to selection bias, and were loath to confront their preconceived viewpoints with contrary evidence. (These and other failings of the discipline are exhaustively documented in journalist Nina Teicholz’s book The Big Fat Surprise [2014].)  

Unfortunately, nutritional science still remains something of a backwater. NASA’s Curiosity rover explores the plains, craters, and sand dunes of Mars, and the New Horizons spacecraft takes exquisite pictures of the former planet Pluto. Molecular biologists wield superb gene-editing tools, and are in the process of resurrecting extinct species. Nevertheless, when it comes to the relatively prosaic task of telling us what foods to put in our mouths to achieve good health and to avoid heart disease, obesity, and other ailments, dietary science still has a long way to go.”

I would add that there are reasons why nutrition is so badly served. There are enormous amounts of money at stake for the producers of food and the manufacturers of food products. Some stakeholders literally buy or bully ‘data’ and ‘opinion’. (political lobbies by sugar producers and Coke’s financing of university groups are examples.) There are a lot of non-experts writing articles on nutrition because such articles are popular and sell magazines/papers. Many articles are just crap but have large readership. Good scientific studies in the area of nutrition are actually difficult and expensive to mount and nutrition is not a science that gets big money. All together we should not be surprised that the discipline is a mess.

Belief in the center is fading

In politics, the center left and the center right seem to be losing credibility in a lot of countries. And the more strident left and right seem to be gaining. Also gaining at their expense are separatists and greens.

A few years ago Sanders could not have been a viable contender for nomination and neither could most of the Republican lineup. 2016 was billed as a Clinton-Bush contest but the center is not so attractive these days. In Canada’s recent election, the Liberals managed to slip past the NDP by appearing more radical. In Spain, brand new parties on the left and right severely reduced the votes for the two centrist parties. Greece elected a far left party (but the far right also became stronger) and even when the government failed in its negotiations with the European bankers, the voters backed them in a referendum. The center left in France had to stand down some of its candidates in the recent regional election to stop the surge of the extreme right FN. The British Labour Party has been pushed (kicking and screaming) to the left by its grass roots; and the Conservative Party appears to be pushing its centrist core to the right. Right extremist are gaining in Eastern Europe (Hungary, Poland, Czech Rep). Even Germany is seeing right wing gains against the huge center coalition. All over over Europe the extremes are winning ground.

Why, after years of the center being elected, are the centrist parties in trouble? It used to be that only the center could win an election – now the center is not getting the votes. The center plainly is not delivering the goods. They have had years to deliver meaningful changes for ordinary people and they have not been able to do it. They are in a neo-liberal economic straight jacket that leads to austerity, they cannot protect their populations from bad times, they are hemmed in by the power of corporations, and on and on. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The huge corporations get more powerful and sovereign governments get less able to control them. Voters tend to be frightened, angry, alienated, and suspicious. The people are ready for new ideas that would not have been entertained in good times. And the center is unable or unwilling to change their ways. It is obvious to many voters that the center just will not change how the economy works and so they are starting to vote for people who say they will shake things up.

The old boogymen do not work either, because they have been overused. All of a sudden, being socialist is not the kiss of death in the US. The press has been calling perfectly normal governments socialist because they have universal medical systems or other types of welfare. They have devalued the scare factor in the word. The Soviet Union called perfectly normal democracies fascist and they devalued the scare factor of that word so that former part of the eastern block are quite happy with being labeled fascist. It is harder to keep people from abandoning the center when the radical edges are no longer frightening.

Oh we live in interesting times.

Jean de Berry

We have received our copy of ‘Le Cher’ for January and it has a celebration of the 600 th anniversary of the death of Jean de Berry (or John of Berry or John the Magnificent), one of the richest and most powerful man of his time. He was Duke of Berry & Auvergue and Count of Poitiers & Montpensier, but ruled many other parts of France from time to time. He was son of a king, Jean II of France or John the Good, bother of a king, Charles V of France and uncle of another king, Charles VI of France. He ruled for Jean II during the time that the king was a prisoner of the English and was regent for Charles VI when that king was young and later when he had mental illness. During the hundred years war, he convinced Charles VI and his heirs not to be present at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Berry was afraid that if the crown of France was captured, the English would have France on a platter. He was proven right in his assessment that the battle would be a disaster for the French side. He died a few months later, at 76. All this and his importance in church affairs is not why he is remembered. He is remembered for scholarship and the patronage and collection of art. Bourges was is his capital, chief residence and where his is buried.

One of his most famous treasures is the ‘Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry’. Here is the January page. It is a Christmas season celebration and the Duke is in blue on the right. I intend to have each month panel here on its month.


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About Janet Kwasniak

Retired pensioner, raised in Canada but UK citizen living in France, interested in Science and many other things.

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