60 Beans of Genius

It is Anton Schindler who attributed Beethoven’s counting of 60 beans to an “Oriental” fastidiousness (meaning Turkish or Arabic). But what if the instructions for the newfangled brewing device said “use 60 beans.” Then it’s nothing to do with Beethoven at all, not a quirk, not a mark of personality. And Schindler says nothing about the amount of water used, or how the coffee was actually brewed, or how many cups Beethoven drank. Moreover, we know that Beethoven worried perpetually over money. Maybe he was trying to be frugal.

Fortunately, there is another source that states “glass bowl,” which is just enough information to tell us that Beethoven probably used a vacuum pot. Although worried about money, he was not poor, and this is another example, along with metronomes and the latest pianos, of his openness to new things, or at least to improvements in things. Dr. Karl von Bursy visited Beethoven in 1816, at 7 a.m., and reported, “I found Beethoven at this writing-desk with a piece of music paper in front of him and, beyond it, a glass bowl in which he was making his coffee.” (Beethoven, Letters, Journals, and Conversations, ed. Michael Hamburger).

Fastidiousness is not a quality that appears in most of first-hand accounts of Beethoven, and Schindler’s reputation as a memoirist has long been a poor one. But other sources indicate a variety of rules that Beethoven had in regard to food and household affairs, including the one that no dish of food be brought out to the table once a meal with guests had begun. Beethoven’s tendency not to trust others to do things right also supports the notion that he would count the beans out himself.

We have made coffee with 60 fastidiously counted beans, and it’s not a lot of coffee at all, nowhere near a Starbucks venti. For an excellent and detailed account of the history of coffee making, we direct the reader to Kathryn McGowan’s blog, Comestibles, and to the posts on Coffee Preparation Through the Ages.

The elegantly bound book

“1762   O. Goldsmith Citizen of World I. 49   Nothing is truly elegant but what unites use with beauty.” — Oxford English Dictionary

The idea of elegance was fixed in the vocabulary of the 18th century, but the precise form it took in the decorative arts would have changed much more frequently. A survey of the use of elegant and elegantly in various descriptive phrases and captions in the 1700s leads to the conclusion that it means “artfully decorated,” especially as opposed to plain. Equally it might intend to say “attractively decorated,” granted that what was attractive one season could be embarrassingly out of fashion the next. Handbooks were published to help people write form letters “with elegance,” and half of what is called elegant is speech or writing, but again with the intention of adding attractive decoration, then as now producing an effect called “refined.”

Therefore, we find a range of terminology for states of elegance in booksellers’ catalogues, of which binding is only one, but a very explicit one. The others were understood – finer paper, larger paper (and therefore larger margins), fine or colored illustrations, or specific presses such as the Foulis brothers’ in Glasgow, or Baskerville’s in Birmingham. One might argue that the use of elegant in this context adhered closely to the narrower, literal definition. All of this description also served to explain the prices of certain items in the catalogue. The default binding for any book was plain, and never noted. A note was given if a book was less than bound, that is, still in sheets or boards. Anything more than a plain binding also received a note, and some booksellers offered specific editions in several binding states – even when the least expensive state was well beyond the reach of most of the population. Elegantly bound could mean ordinary calfskin but with gilt tooling, or luxurious goatskin in the gemlike hues of ruby, sapphire, or emerald, or russia calfskin with gold tooling. Additional attractive features such as marbled endpapers, or marbled or gilt page edges, were encompassed in “elegantly bound,” but only the latter would be noted. The majority of uses of this marker received no elaboration, and prospective buyers must have known that elegant implied both decoration and a finer class of leather, as well as a restrained decorative style, in keeping with Dr. Johnson’s definition of elegance, “…beauty of art, rather soothing than striking.” A more thorough analysis of the descriptive terminology in these catalogues is needed not just to grasp what their readers understood by elegant, but also to shed light on what was ordinary, plain, and unstated.

elegantly bound defined by bookseller

It may be worth noting that buying books in 18th century London does not compare to buying books today. It compares more closely to what we experience when buying cars, both in terms of expense, and selection, and the range between affordable and luxury. If we can imagine not being able to pay for a car over a three year period. An elegantly bound book might be said to be comparable to a BMW or Mercedes. Anything more (goatskin, all edges gilt) would be a Bentley or a Jaguar. A Baskerville might be a Tesla.


write, then

write write write
right right right

California is weird. For example, Democrats are by far the majority of voters in California, but a majority of California counties have a Republican majority of voters.

The question of party affiliation is complicated by the large number who state “no party preference” when they register. Other sources are needed to know how these registered voters actually line up politically. Republican presidential candidates especially will need this kind of information. What type of Republican candidate could take California? A maverick, or a centrist? Establishment or libertarian? It all depends on those mysterious, unaffiliated Californians.

Women’s Equality Writ in the Stars

Shortly after Caroline Herschel’s discovery of Comet C/1786 P1, her brother William Herschel went to Windsor Castle to provide a viewing to King George III and the royal family. Novelist Frances Burney, who had just begun several years’ service as a companion to Queen Charlotte, noted the event in her diary.

The way in which she chose to mark the event is moving. “We found him at his telescope, and I mounted some steps to look through it. The comet was very small, and had nothing grand or striking in its appearance; but it is the first lady’s comet, and I was very desirous to see it. Mr. Herschel then showed me some of his new-discovered universes, with all the good humour with which he would have taken the same trouble for a brother or sister astronomer…”



A depiction of Caroline Herschel.

The BBC radio and podcast series In Our Time recently devoted an episode to Frances Burney.

Xenokin and Haplotribes

“Dear Customer! 56 new relatives have joined 23andMe in the last 58 days!”

I still wonder if we don’t need a new vocabulary to better talk about DNA relationships. For a variety of reasons. In Winnie the Pooh we learned the category “friends and relations” which I always thought summed things up rather well. It was based on personal acquaintance, but varying degrees were implied, and it helped one realize that not all relations were necessarily friends, and that that’s OK.

In some places, the old Gaelic communities in Scotland and Ireland for example, you might very well know some 4th or 5th cousins, and how you are related to them.

Now that we have technology to reunite co-descendants, we should think about expanding the language a little bit. I have a hard time thinking of people I’ve never even met as cousins, and to call them relatives suggests that I grew up knowing them. Even “distant cousins” has that effect on me. On the other hand, I didn’t really meet one second cousin until he was almost grown up, but we are now both friends and relations.

I think there are now regular reunions for descendants of my 4x great grandparents (on my maternal-maternal-maternal side). This is a celebration of heritage, I suspect, more than family, but I won’t really know without attending one. Are there reunions for genetically confirmed, but genealogically undocumented, distant cousins? “Sniplings” comes to mind. Then there are tribe, kin, words out of which new words could be coined. Xenokin, for instance. The genes relate us, but we are strangers in every other way, foreign to each other even as we exchange surname lists and puzzle over pedigree charts.

Drought plus disaster would be, er, a disaster

30 years ago, when it became inevitable that we would move west, I begged my mom, “Please, not on the San Andreas Fault.” So of course, she found a place to live where the San Andreas and the Banning and the San Jacinto fault all converge, ticking away, deep underground. Brilliant.

I’ve been in Los Angeles for 16 years, now. At the moment I live near a major terrorist target, above the only tsunami zone in the city, on a few small earthquake faults, and still way too close to the San Andreas Fault. I’ve tried to pay attention to the geologists. And to the first responders, who tell us, “We’ll be way too busy. Plan to take care of yourself.”

Oh, did I mention the fires? There are lots of wildfires. Even when there’s no major drought, there are wildfires. So there is always a good chance of a huge earthquake coinciding with fires and no water to fight them with. So, even as goofy and fake as the disaster prepping show on TV was, the truth is that disaster prepping isn’t a waste of time here. I just have to figure out how to make all the 5-gallon containers fit in with the furniture.


How to get the water out of a water heater

Is it interference or oversight?

One of my favorite podcasts takes a look at one of my favorite subjects, personal genome testing and 23andMe and the FDA… one good point is that doctors are more restricted than such companies, and that the ethics of providing this testing needs to be closely reviewed by everyone involved – it really is a public policy question that the FDA, or somebody, should probably be engaged in. Listen in!


What I’m reading these days

For a number of years after becoming a librarian, I actually didn’t read much. One reason was the amount of time and effort I was expending on learning Scottish Gaelic, and then my changing eyesight after age 40 also put me off. Lately, though, I’ve been reading a lot. Over the past two years, I’ve become intensely, almost obsessively curious about a number of subjects. There are always a dozen books piled up on my desk and next to the sofa. I’ve even been dipping into fiction again, after more than a decade of disinterest.

The first John Murray and the late eighteenth-century book trade, by William Zachs. Over the holidays last December, my efforts to make some progress in family history led to the discovery that my 4x great grandfather was a famous London bookbinder. Famous in some circles, anyway. For a librarian, that’s a pretty big deal. Especially if you originally went to library school with a big interest in rare books. Publishers, printers and booksellers have left some records behind, but bookbinders not so much, except the artifacts themselves. So any books that focus on the late eighteenth century book trade in London are really important for understanding the life and times of my ancestor. This is also one of the most interesting periods in the history of London. John Murray was a Scot who entered the book trade almost randomly. His shop was not far from my ancestor’s shop off The Strand. The lucky thing for historians is that Murray’s archives remained intact, and provide enough material with which to set out his biography and provide a detailed checklist of his business partners and complicated business arrangements throughout Britain.

Defending the faith: nineteenth-century American Jewish writings on Christianity and Jesus, by George L. Berlin. This book is on my sofa at the moment due to one of those odd bits of thought that gets into my brain and, while not occupying too much time, never really goes away. In broad terms my interest is in the question of the Jewish response to the appropriation of their religion and scriptures by another faith that grew much more powerful and dangerous. In the twentieth century, Christians seem to have decided on the whole to respect and support Judaism and Jewish people (never more so than after Hitler and the Holocaust). At the same time, mainstream society remains biased and in many ways disrespectful. Standard library terminology, just to take one example, still denominates the Hebrew scriptures as “The Old Testament, (O.T.)” This book deals with an additional issue: that of Jewish people living in a republic that has struggled since its founding with a difficult question. How much freedom of conscience and belief is its Christian majority willing to tolerate? These questions are still very timely.

Genes vs. genealogy


We are supposed to be 5th or 6th cousins. Some of our ancestors lived in the same area of far western North Carolina at the right time. Back then, the entire western tip of the state around Asheville was a single, large county by the name of Buncombe County. But despite our having well-documented family trees, the common ancestors will not show themselves, and the actual connection pointed to by the genetic data can’t be established.

I have to guess this is a common story for everyone who is attempting to add DNA to the genealogical toolbox.  In this case, « we » are three people, previously unknown to each other. As usual for me with 23andMe, this match appears to be related to the frontier zone where my maternal grandmother’s ancestors mixed, met and married before the move to Missouri that created her own family community. I suppose more data from more participants, especially from cousins like the Justices who remained in the Asheville area, would help us figure out who swapped DNA with whom.

The search for this connection did turn up an interesting bit of trivia, though. Elvis Presley’s ancestors lived there in Buncombe County, too.

Photo of Cold Mountain: Ken Thomas

The Taste of Brussels Sprouts

A few quick notes on the results of my DNA analysis from 23andMe

23andMe got back to me a couple weeks ago, my account automatically loaded with information about health and haplotypes. There’s been a lot to digest, and a weird sort of social media experience, like being on a facebook where people only care about surnames and SNPs and only poke you to suggest sharing genomes.

And oddly, my main recurring thought has been, « but I like Brussels sprouts! »

The first thing I checked was the Y-DNA haplogroup, the clue to my paternal ancestry across the millennia. Haplogroup R1a1a. Spent the last glacial maximum in the Black Sea refuge. The most common haplotype in Eastern Europe. No surprise there, but a lot of material to cover in future posts. Since I spent most of my life not even knowing what my father looked like, I tend to be obsessively curious about his background.

Then the traits – that lactase question. Genetically, milk has no quarrel with me. If there are issues when I eat dairy, it’s not my ancestors’ fault. Bitter taste sensitivity was a surprise, because I’ve always loved broccoli, and at least as an adult, I’ve been a fan of Brussels sprouts. It’s true they can be bitter. In fact, I realized that they taste a lot like a pint of Guinness. That this trait is genetic has actually been understood since the 1930s, and actually used to be used as a paternity test!  What doesn’t make any sense to me is the absence of discussion about olives. People with this bitterness sensitivity can’t possibly like olives, but certain green vegetables are always held up as the main victim of this trait. I actually feel guilty about not liking olives, because they’re supposed to be so good for you, and it’ll be a relief to blame this on a genetic trait.

Finally health, or really, threats to health. 23andMe won’t let you see the Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s risk until you read yet more info and deliberately « unlock » the file. My risk for Alzheimer’s is 4 in 100, as compared to your average American’s 1in 100 risk. That was the worst of it. With a pretty clean family record in dementia of any kind in my long-lived grandparents and near relatives, it’s not something that will worry me. There were slightly elevated risks for Parkinson’s, heart disease, and Type 1 diabetes. Thankfully, most of my lifestyle choices are ones that should allow nurture to offset nature. Coffee drinking, for example, has been found to correlate with later onset of dementia, and better memory retention even if it does set on. And my doctors are always happy with my calm heartbeat and healthy blood pressure.

Where is the less than average risk? Most of the conditions my hypochondria throws at my imagination when I’m not feeling well. So much for that.

The last category of information, the least relevant to me since I don’t have kids, is the part about what your genes carry and may pass on. In my case, zilch. No congenital defects, no quirks, none of the stuff that made House so fascinating to watch (hemochromatosis, for example).