The Casual Blog

Our ski trip to Switzerland and Italy

Sally and the Matterhorn

Skiing in Switzerland and Italy last week was really fun, though I had one tough fall (described below), and getting back to Raleigh was pretty brutal.  We underestimated the time it would take the train to get us to the airport, and when we got there the gate was closed (though the plane was still there).  The flight was jointly branded by United and Lufthansa, and each claimed that only the other could help us.  Surely one or both of them were wrong, but I eventually figured out that arguing was getting me nowhere.  

The online  outfit that sold us tickets, Justairtickets, also initially declined to assist us, but after I made clear that we needed reasonable customer service or we would never be doing business with them again, they stepped up to the plate.  Just kidding!  They shamelessly disclaimed all responsibility.  In the end, we had to buy new tickets from an agent in Milan (a big ouch), and it took 30 hours (including last row inside seats and a night trying to sleep on the hard floor of JFK) to get home.

But otherwise, we had a great trip.  We skied for five days in Zermatt/Cervinia, where they’ve had epic snow this winter, and had plenty when we got there.  The views of the Alps were just spectacular.  The iconic Matterhorn was really and truly there, and there were jagged snowy peaks in every direction.  

There’s a lot to ski around Zermatt.  The highest point of the resort is 12,791 feet.  There are 7,477 feet of vertical — which is big!  There are  224 miles of trails, and the longest run is 16 miles. There are lots of restaurants on the mountain, in a range of formats.  There are lifts of every description, including a funicular, various types of high-speed chairs, and enormous gondolas that hold more than 100 people.  For the most part the slopes were uncrowded while we were there, and we never had to wait in a significant lift line.  

Zermatt is mainly about marked, groomed runs.  Most of the skiers we saw were quite good, but very few ventured off piste.  This could be a function of the Swiss love of orderliness:  if a piste is marked for skiing, then that’s where you’re supposed to ski.  This is a different mind-set from the American west, where good skiers view the groomed runs as passages to the main event — the ungroomed, untracked, adventure stuff.  

Early in the week, we found the groomed runs had good snow and lots of variety, while the off-piste snow was crusty.  We found the steeper groomers lots of fun, and worked on refining our cruising skills.  We skied on the Italian side (Cervinia) on day three, where the scenery was just as beautiful, though the lifts were not as modern and the slopes were mellower.  On day four, it snowed, and visibility at times was close to nil.  That day was also cold (in the low teens) and windy.  At times we started runs in the clear above the snow clouds, then descended into the dense fog.  It cleared up for our last day, and there was some super fun off piste skiing on the soft fresh snow.  

My rented skis were Dynastar Cham 97s, 178 cm.  It was a true all mountain ski, very versatile — easy to turn, stable at speed, good in the light powder.  A little shorter might have suited me better, but still, I really liked them.  

 

We stayed at the Phoenix, a small, pleasant hotel with good breakfasts and a convenient ski gear room, which was within walking distance of both lifts and restaurants.  I’d heard that Zermatt was the model for Vail, and saw similarities in the architecture.  The village had a lot of charm, and a lot of life.  Private vehicles are not allowed, though there were many taxis, which were electric vehicles shaped like tiny UPS trucks.  The main restaurant street had many dining options, along with a lot of luxury shops:  watches, clothing, perfume, chocolate.  We had no trouble getting tables for dinner, and ate well.  

My one bad fall came on the last run of our last day.  It was late in the day, and more crowded than we’d seen for most of the week, with skiers of varying abilities winding things up.  We were coming down a steep, narrow, icy passage, with a lot of people waiting at the top.  I was making my way downward, not prettily, but under control.  

Then, near the bottom a young skier suddenly stopped, leaving me no room to get through and effectively running me into the dense snow bank on the side of the piste.  I make it a rule to give a lot of leeway to inexperienced skiers, who sometimes veer unexpectedly, but unfortunately I broke my rule.  I fell backwards and felt a snap and sharp pain in my right calf.  

As I regained my footing, my back started to spasm.  It took an act of will to get to the bottom of the mountain, and to get to the hotel I had to take baby steps.  My leg was hurting!  Sally initially diagnosed a calf muscle tear, and predicted it would take some weeks to heal.  But it turned out to be less severe —  probably a sprain.  I was significantly better by the next day, and continued to improve as we continued our trip.  

After dinner on the top floor of the Rinascente department store, near the Duomo

On Saturday, we had a pleasant train trip through the Alps and along Lake Maggiore to Milan, where we made our way to our Airbnb apartment.  The place was extremely small, but very convenient to the Duomo and other points of interest.  We had dinner in the Canal District (Naviglio Grande), where there were a lot of people promenading and a lot of moderately priced restaurants.  We enjoyed risotto Milanese and local pasta specialities.  

Milan’s cathedral, the Duomo, is magnificent — an enormous white marble structure with flourishes everywhere.  The surrounding area has lots of stores and museums.  We were particularly interested in looking at Renaissance and early Baroque art, and there was lots of it to see.  We particularly enjoyed the Pinocoteca Ambrosiana (which had a gorgeous Caravaggio still life), the Brera (had to wait an hour to get in, but it was worth it), and the paintings at the Sforza Castle.  We couldn’t get tickets to see the Last Supper, so we’ll need to come back for that.  

Our last full day we took the train for an hour up to Lake Como, where we started by walking around Varenna and then took ferry rides to visit Menaggio and Bellagio.  There was mist and fog, but it was still very beautiful, with the enormous calm lake, charming villages and the Alps rising above.  

On the trip back, I made substantial progress in Elena Ferrante’s second Neapolitan novel, The Story of a New Name.  I’m liking it even more than the first one.  Things that initially seemed uncomplicated turn out to be quite complicated, but in a believable, human way.  I haven’t gotten pleasantly immersed in a novel this much for a very long time.  

 

Eureka! On Trump’s refusal to defend the Constitution

Sally’s orchid

I thought I’d had a eureka moment last week, when I glimpsed a rock solid case for impeaching Trump sitting in plain view.  Simply put, Trump has clearly violated his oath to “support, protect, and defend the Constitution” by refusing to recognize and defend against Russia’s attacks on our elections.  There may be other powerful reasons for ending this presidency that emerge out of Mueller’s and others’ investigations, but this one is here now.

But I haven’t seen a bandwagon, or even a small wagon, for this idea, and I started to wonder if I’d missed the boat.   So this week I did some research to make sure there wasn’t some little known legal doctrine or evidentiary issue that might require me to issue a correction and apology to Mr. Trump.  So far, I’ve seen nothing to apologize for, and discovered a bit more.

Is this this too much on Trump?  Perhaps.  I don’t want to worry you or myself  sick.  I find it therapeutic to regularly step outdoors and spend some time with the beauty of nature.  A walk in the woods helps, and so does a stroll around the block, which is what I did when we had this week in Raleigh.  Light, powdery snow, no good for snowballs, but pleasant to hike in, and it made the trees sparkle.  

While we were snowed in, I looked closely at Sally’s new orchid (which is part of nature, though also of art) and took some pictures.  I used a tripod with focusing rails to make several exposures, then figured out how to stitch them together in Photoshop.  It was more complicated than I expected, but I figured it out and liked the image above.

Anyhow, my legal research turned up no authority indicating that the presidential oath means anything other than what it says, which is that the President is constitutionally obliged to protect and defend the Constitution.  Free and fair elections are at the foundation of our constitutional system.  It’s beyond dispute that Russia interfered with our 2016 election, and we need to defend against likely future attacks.  

At sunrise by the roof top pool

This is not a Republican/Democrat issue.  In fact, a bipartisan group of Senators, including Republicans Rubio, McCain, and Graham, co-sponsored a bill last week to impose sanctions on Russia for its interference with our elections and military aggression.  In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Senators Rubio and Van Hollen put the issue squarely: 

While the 2016 election may have left our country divided on many issues, it exposed one critical problem that should unite all Americans:  Our democratic process is vulnerable to attacks by hostile foreign powers.  

As our intelligence community unanimously assessed, Russia used social media channels to influence and mislead voters.  It also hacked political campaign committees and local elections boards in a brazen attempt to undermine and subvert our elections.  There is no reason to think this meddling will be an isolated incident.  In fact, we expect the threat will grow in future years.  The United States must do everything possible to prevent these attacks in the future — and lay out the consequences well in advance of our next elections.  

The sanctions proposed by this new bill seem reasonable.  But the President is still declining to take action.  In fact, he has repeatedly attempted to divert attention from this serious problem.  Over and over, he’s called it “fake news,” a “hoax,” and a  “witch hunt.”  He’s praised Vladimir Putin as brilliant and a strong leader.  Using Stalin’s chilling phrase, he’s called the free press the enemy of the people.  

This is beyond not normal.  However innocent or not innocent his motives, he’s violated his constitutional oath.  We should not be tolerating this.  

 

What can you do when the President refuses to defend the U.S. against Russia? It’s simple.

Cold canoes at Umstead Park, January 13, 2018

“Have you heard the latest from Trump?”  Sally asked as I got home on Thursday, and my heart jumped.  It had been a few minutes since I’d last checked the news, so it was quite possible that I hadn’t.  It’s hard to keep up with the latest startling pronouncement from the White House.  Just trying can wear you out, which may be part of the idea.  

Even so, I found the energy to download and read some of the new minority report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee entitled Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe:  Implications for U.S. National Security.  The report gives useful context for understanding how Putin is threatened by democracy, and how his regime has worked diligently to undermine it using, among other malign tools, cyberwarfare, disinformation campaigns, and military force.  

The report summarizes the Kremlin’s propaganda effort as involving “four simple tactics:  dismiss the critic, distort the facts, distract from the main issue, and dismay the audience.  . . . [D]isinformation operations seek to challenge the concept of objective truth . . . . [to subvert] the notion of verifiable facts and casting doubt on the veracity of all information, regardless of the source . . . .” (Report at 39)  The effort relies on high volume — “a firehose of falsehood” — that propagates faster than fact checkers can check.   (Id. at 40)

The Kremlin’s cyber arm includes carefully organized efforts by hundreds of young Russians employed as social media trolls.  In the run up to the 2016 presidential election, they were “trained on ‘the nuances of American social polemics’ . . . to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent.”  (Report at 45)  They use bot networks to quickly spread disinformation.  The Kremlin’s hackers also use “doxing” — breaking into networks, stealing private information, and leaking it publicly.  An example was the doxing of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election.  (Id. at 46)

The Senate minority report also describes how governments in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, the Baltic states, and the Nordic states have successfully responded to Putin’s program to undermine political order.  This is in contrast to the U.S., which “still does not have a coherent, comprehensive, and coordinated approach to the Kremlin’s malign influence operations, either abroad or at home.  Instead, “the U.S. President continues to deny that any such threat exists . . . .”  (Report at 3-4)  As Senator Benjamin Cardin states in the letter of transmittal, “Never before in American history has so clear a threat to national security been so clearly ignored by a U.S. president.”  

This is obviously not OK, and I checked to see if it was unconstitutional.  I think it is.  Article II, section 1 of the Constitution requires that the President take an oath saying “I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”   This is the oath Trump took at his inauguration (before an incredible crowd, in his telling).  Protecting the United States is the prime directive of the President.  You might try to argue that you could protect and defend the  Constitution while denying and trying to divert attention from the efforts of a hostile foreign power to undermine the government.  But that would not be a persuasive argument.

It would be interesting to know for sure whether the Trump campaign worked directly with the Russians during the campaign, or intended to obstruct the investigation of such efforts.  But we don’t have to know those answers to chart our course.  Never mind the corruption, for the time being. Leave to one side Trump’s cluelessness, shamelessness, and titanic incompetence.  Once we understand that we’re targets of serious and sustained aggression by Russia intended to weaken and undermine our country, and we know that the President denies that and refuses to defend against that aggression, that President should be removed from office.  That presidential failure all by itself is a violation of his constitutional oath.

In other words, it’s not only absurd that the President claims Russia’s interference in our elections is “fake news” and efforts to investigate its actions are a “witch hunt.”  It’s grounds for impeachment.   

So how can a member of Congress continue in good faith to support President Trump?  Political expediency and self-interest are tolerable to a point, but I think we’re well past that point.  Our democracy faces a serious threat from Russia, and the President’s refusal to address that threat is a violation of his constitutional oath.  

If you agree, you might call your representatives and ask them (probably via their answering machine) to focus on this problem.  Here are three questions you could ask.  1.  Do you support President Trump’s refusal to defend the United States from Russia’s interference in our elections and other aggression ?  2. Do you think a President who refuses to honor his constitutional oath should be allowed to continue in office?   3. Do you acknowledge your oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and do you intend to fulfill it?  

Ereading about our bizarre President in Fire and Fury, and testing my new camera

 

Sally’s latest flower arrangement, and her iPad Mini

Wow, is it cold out there!  Raleigh didn’t get much snow this week, but was expecting to set a new record for sustained low temps.  Instead of my usual Saturday walk in one of our forests, I hunkered down and worked on getting to know my new camera, and took some pictures from and around our apartment.  

As I mentioned last week, due to a late night mental fog I left my iPad  on an airplane, and asked the American Airlines bot to please find and return it.  It has not done so so far, and I’m not feeling optimistic.  It would be hard at this point to lower my expectations as to customer service  from AA, so I’ll just note that they’re staying extremely low.  AA bot, if you’re reading this, I promise to post an appreciative remark if you return my device.

That iPad was my primary ereader, but fortunately, I also had my current books on my larger iPad pro.  I got the larger device primarily to use for downloading and reading piano music, since the larger size is helpful in reading two or more staffs covered with many notes.  The big one doesn’t feel as comfortable sitting on my lap, but it certainly works.

It was an exciting week in epublishing, with the best-selling release of Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff, a whiz bang account of Trump’s first year.  Jocelyn, working in ebook production at Macmillan, was part of the team that got the book out on an accelerated schedule after Trump’s lawyers sent a threatening letter.  She texted me a heads up that this could be big, and after reading the published excerpts, I agreed.  

You might suppose, as I did at first, that we really don’t need to read a book  about Trump, since we’ve read so much, and he really is not complicated.  But even for those of us who follow Trump reporting closely, there is just too much to fully take in.  All those oddities, shocks, and outrages form a constant and seemingly endless barrage.   

Instead of facts and logic, he emanates juvenile absurdities.  It’s hard to engage his “ideas” with ordinary rationality, and so we have a lot of extreme emotions, from fear, to rage, and sometimes helpless laughter. Our heads have been getting  slammed hard, like football players badly overmatched, and we have trouble getting oriented and making sense of it all.  

Anyhow, I downloaded the ebook of Fire and Fury and started it yesterday.  Sally, with her iPad Mini, turned out to be reading it, too.  Jocelyn and Kyle, and no doubt many thousands of others, are doing the same.  The right-wing propaganda apparatus is desperate to undermine Wolff, and I don’t count them out, since they’re really good at what they do.  

But I expect that the book will help a lot of people who have been giving Trump a benefit of a doubt to see that that was a mistake.  And perhaps the powerful politicians who, with full understanding of his unbelievable and dangerous incompetence, have supported Trump will be shamed into changing course.    

These pictures were taken with my new Nikon D850.  It’s a recently released FX digital camera with some remarkable capacities, like a large sensor with 45.7 megapixels, shooting at 7 frames per second, and ISO up to 25,600.  These specs suggested a long step forward in photographic potential, so I stopped in at B&H in New York in early November to test the beast.  I liked the ergonomics, and proposed to buy one.  They kindly said they wished they could help me, but could not.  It was on backorder for the foreseeable future. The same turned out to be true for Peace Camera, my friendly local camera shop.

On our balcony, a cold sunset

I finally got the D850 this week.  From first impressions, the image quality is fantastic, and it has many helpful conveniences, like a large viewfinder and a vivid touch screen that folds out.  It can also be operated remotely with a smartphone.  It’s  a complex tool and I expected a substantial learning curve, but happily, most of the controls and system menus are organized like my trusty Nikon D7100, so it’s not overwhelming.  The only negative I’ve found so far is no surprise:  it’s  noticeably bigger and heavier than the D7100.  A silver lining:  it will make me keep working on my upper body strength.

Rebuilding after the big fire

Swimming with sharks and other remarkable creatures: our scuba trip to Honduras

For Christmas week, our family did a scuba diving trip to Roatan, Honduras. We saw a lot of beautiful sea creatures, and had fun hanging out together.  I managed to lose my prescription sunglasses on the way down, and was quite bummed.  Returning to Raleigh around midnight, after 13 hours of travelling, I left my iPad and book on the plane.  I’ve been in touch with American Airlines’ lost-and-found bot, which says it’ll let me know whether they can find them within 30 days.  Argh!

But we really liked staying at Coco View Resort, which is on the east side of Roatan. Coco View is perfectly arranged for diving, with rooms just a short walk from the equipment lockers and docks. Their dive staff was friendly and knowledgeable, and the dive boats were large and comfortable.

A queen angelfish

The dive sites were easy to get to with boat trips of only 10-20 minutes. We went out with the boats after breakfast and after lunch, and did two dives each trip.  Our deepest dives were around 90 feet, but more typically at 60-70 feet. The second dive was usually a drop off near a wall, and we’d work our way back to the resort.  

A school of blue tang

The waters were mostly calm, with little current and only occasional surges.  The bottom temperatures were around 81 degrees F. Visibility was generally around 40 feet. It rained heavily at times, though mostly at night.  The locals said the visibility was worse than normal because of an unusually intense rainy season.

A banded coral shrimp

We didn’t see as many big animals around Coco View as we had hoped, but there were some good ones: two spotted eagle rays,  green moray eels, a hawksbill turtle, many lobsters and crabs, some scorpionfish, and some large Nassau groupers, among others. There were schools of smaller tropicals, and occasionally one of the glamour residents, like French, gray, and queen angelfish, butterflyfish, scrawled filefish, trunkfish, trumpetfish, and porcupinefish. We also spotted some sea horses and interesting tiny shrimp.  We didn’t spot any sharks at Coco View.

A scorpionfish

But one morning we took a special trip to a neighboring resort to look for Caribbean reef sharks. We knelt on the bottom while the sharks came in. Fourteen or so females showed up, and they gradually swam in closer and closer, getting close enough to touch. Then we swam with them for a few minutes. For the final act, we hunkered down, and the guides gave the sharks a large closed paint bucket with some fish inside. The sharks worked the top off the bucket, and then there was a short but intense feeding frenzy. It was awesome.

A Caribbean reef shark

Jocelyn with the reef sharks

We worried, of course, that the reefs and resident creatures would be struggling and declining because of rising ocean temperatures, acidification, agricultural run off, or other problems.  We did see some coral bleaching and what might have been algae (fuzzy brown stuff) coating some areas. The locals said there had been a major bleaching episode earlier in the year, but much of the coral had recovered.  They hadn’t detected a general drop in fish life, though they noted that the fish seem to go elsewhere when the water is murky.  

A crab

As always, there were minor equipment problems and physical challenges.  Sally’s low pressure inflater hose went into free flow when she was starting a dive, and needed an emergency repair.  Gabe’s BC (inherited from me) didn’t fit very well.  Jocelyn’s computer was balky at one point.  My fin straps (a spring-type) were too loose, and so my fins came off a couple of times when I hit the water.  On one dive I couldn’t get my BC to inflate (probably from a poor hook up job) and was sinking too deep, so I took out my regulator and inflated with my mouth.  Sally got a lot of bites by some insect (perhaps sand fleas) and got miserably itchy.   

A seahorse

Sally, Gabe, Jocelyn, and I got better at staying together as the week went on, and had progressively fewer moments of wondering if we’d lost someone. I got worrisomely low on air on one of the early dives, and Jocelyn sweetly checked from time to time after that to make sure I had a good supply. Sally, Gabe, and Jocelyn all developed keen eyes for some of the tiny exotics, like arrow crabs, banded coral shrimp, and brittle stars. We had a lot of fun.

A green moray eel

I almost finished My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, and hope American Airlines will return it so I can read the last twenty pages.  I know a lot of people have enjoyed Ferrante, which made me somewhat resistant to reading her, but I shouldn’t have been.  She creates a compelling world, and takes you inside a rich female consciousness.  

Jocelyn and Sally

Gabe is OK

Precancerousness, Eno hiking, Dolci paintings, some Debussy and Liszt, and support for a plant-based diet

The Eno River, by the Eno Trace trail

This week I got a one page report that said the polyp removed during my recent colonoscopy was precancerous.  I’m not exactly sure what that means.  It sounds better than cancerous, but definitely not as good as non-cancerous.  Do they really know when something will become cancerous, or is it more like, we aren’t exactly sure, and don’t want to say there’s nothing to worry about?  The net seemed to be, it’s good they removed it, because it might not have been harmless.  In any case, it’s gone.  But instead of the usual ten-year interval for the next colonoscopy, they want me to come back in five.  So I’m twice as valuable as the usual  patient.   

On Saturday morning I drove over to Eno River State Park and hiked in the Fews Ford area.  There was frost on the grass, and some ice on the river, but it was sunny and calm.  A flock of robins was hunting for breakfast.  I stepped carefully on the rocks and didn’t get wet or twist an ankle, and got these pictures.  

Afterwards I stopped in Durham at the Nasher Museum to see the Carlo Dolci exhibit.  Dolci was a favored court painter for the Medicis in Florence in the 1600s.  Apparently he fell out of favor among art critics in the 19th century, and this is the first major exhibit of his work.  Dolci apparently was a pious Catholic, and in his work mostly focused on the popular religious subjects of the time, usually with close attention to two or three figures.  He had a great color sense, and fanatical attention to detail. And amazing commitment and endurance:  some of these paintings took several years to paint.    

Self portrait of Carlo Dolci

The Nasher also had a fascinating exhibit of the large bird’s eye view of Venice made in 1500 by Jacopo de’ Barbari.  The general accuracy of the aerial view has been confirmed by satellite imagery, so we know this work as a stunning feat of imagination and technical wizardry.  The Nasher did a state-of-the-art presentation using several large touch screens that allowed further exploration and play.  

Dolci’s St. Matthew Writing His Gospel (1640s)

That afternoon I had a piano lesson with Olga.  At her suggestion, I’ve been working on Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse, and contrary to her suggestion, I’ve continued working on Liszt’s Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude.  The Debussy work is about atmospheres, and has some unusual technical challenges, but I can already see that with practice it can be played.  The Liszt piece is a labor of love — lots of labor that could only be justified by love.  The harmonies are deliciously rich and full of surprises, but it requires a big investment of practice time.   

It being the holiday season, we’ve been eating more with friends recently, and the subject of why we’re eating a plant-based diet comes up regularly.  It’s always a bit awkward to discuss this at meal time, since the background facts are likely to produce a less cheery vibe for the animal eaters in the group.

But I continue to think a lot about the relation between our food, our ethics, and our health, and I’m always glad to find others willing to discuss those issues.  There seems to be growing awareness of the extreme cruelty of industrial animal farming, of the enormous environmental damage this system causes, and of the damage that eating animals and animal products does to human bodies.  We recently saw two documentaries on these issues on Netflix, and found them well worth watching.  Live and Let Live is a pithy overview of the ethical and health issues involved in eating animals.    What the Health focuses on the health benefits of a plant-based diet, and the seemingly willful silence of mainstream health organizations regarding the health problems associated with animal products.  

Our sexism comes out, and the campaign to stop the Trump investigation boots up

At the edge of the marsh near the Elizabeth River

Early Friday morning, I completed my hundredth spin class at Flywheel.  I did not meet my goal of 300 points (285), but I made it in in the top three, and I certainly got my heart rate well elevated (low 160s). Afterwards I drove over to O2 gym for some upper body resistance work and stretching.  Then I came home and fixed a green smoothie for breakfast, this time with orange juice, almond milk, kale, banana, baby carrots, celery, and blueberries.  That’s a lot of health in one glass, and it was also tasty.  

I’m exercising to feel good and increase the chances that I’ll still be here when Donald Trump is gone.  It helps my mood, which needs all the help it can get these days.  In particular, the recent flood of stories of powerful men sexually harassing women is depressing.  It suggests our problem is a lot worse than I thought, and we may well have not hit bottom yet.  

It’s no surprise that some percentage of males are dangerous sexual predators, and that there’s a larger percentage prone to crossing the line.  What’s new is the level of tolerance for such behavior. Last year almost half the population voted for a presidential candidate who bragged on tape about sexual assault.  Now a candidate in Alabama with a well documented record of molesting young teenage girls and lying about it stands a good chance of being elected to the United States Senate.

I formerly assumed that we all — Republican, Democrat, or other —  would agree that it is beyond the pale for middle-aged men to sexually assault fourteen-year-old girls.  That is, there are plenty of close questions when it comes to the boundary areas of sex, but there are some, like that one, that I thought were beyond debate. But apparently not.

What does this mean?   I think we’re seeing something that has been right in front of our noses all our lives but seldom noticed.  That is, we have a system in which women formally have equal rights, but in certain respects are regarded as unworthy.  In the US, we allow women to vote, attend school, work, and wear what they want. But we also systematically pay them less, give them less authority, and accept as normal that they’ll be subject to some degree of sexual misconduct.  

Ferguson and Black Lives Matter began a wrenching process that exposed a  hidden strain of racism.  Similarly, the disgusting and illegal behavior of Trump, Weinstein, Moore, and others  may be the start of a process that shines the light on our entrenched sexism.  We may expand the dialogue and expand the population that considers and treats women as fully human, and get to the point that nothing less will be tolerated.      

I hope so.  Meanwhile, I’m worried by the new effort to discredit and undermine the investigation of Russia’s interference in the last presidential election.  The evidence of Russian assistance to the Trump campaign is already extensive, and the evidence of ties between Trump’s top aides and the Russians is growing.  Now, as the plot thickens, Robert Mueller and the FBI are being accused of being partisan hacks out to get the President for no good reason. 

This campaign of slime is being led by Trump, Fox, and several Republican Congressmen.  There’s a good Washington Post piece on this by Paul Waldman here.  There’s also an account of the House Judiciary Committee’s work along this line here.  

I was sufficiently astonished by this idea that I decided to get out of my own bubble and watch, for the first time ever, an hour of Fox News.

So we saw Sean Hannity’s show on Thursday night, and it was both better and worse than expected.  Hannity and his guests are very skilled at weaving together uncontested facts with unfounded speculation and outright falsehoods so that they’re hard to distinguish.  The people are well-dressed and look serious and intelligent, and they all agree with each other on their key points.  

Thus several people at once will assent verbally and non-verbally to a proposition like “Hillary is the real criminal.”  They repeat their basic points over and over, but with enough variations that it isn’t completely obvious.  Unless you bring to the table a body of background knowledge, you might not notice the leaps in their reasoning, or the lack of any supporting evidence.    

So if you were to get all your news from Hannity, you might well believe that Trump is basically a good guy doing his level best and being unfairly thwarted by evil liberals.  And you might end up thinking that there’s no reason to worry about Russia taking over our political process.  At the same time, you might not be much concerned about electing sexual predators to high office.  

Hannity and Fox are really good at big lie propaganda.  Ordinary journalists can’t counter them as long as they are constrained by honesty and actual facts.  Reality based reporting doesn’t always fit neatly with our prejudices, and it just isn’t as exciting.  

Despite the effectiveness of Fox and Hannity, Trump’s poll numbers continue to sink.  I was heartened to read last week that his support among evangelical Christians had dropped by 17 percent since February.   Maybe it’s a trend.

I took these pictures last weekend when we visited my brother in the Virginia Beach area.  We got out on the Intercostal Waterway and did some kayaking.  The water was smooth and peaceful.  

Thankfulness, and un-thankfulness

At Durant Nature Park, November 24, 2017

We had a good Thanksgiving with some beloved family members, and I was grateful, as was appropriate.  But it struck me that Thanksgiving needs a little balancing.  Along with things to be thankful for, most of us have a good number of things to mourn or regret, and these too should be acknowledged.  To balance our feasting, we could have an annual day of fasting, and focus a bit on the things that we’re sorry about and unhappy with.  It could be therapeutic.  

Flying at Durant

I got to try the fasting part this weekend in preparation for an ordinary course colonoscopy scheduled for tomorrow.  I normally maintain a decent level of skepticism regarding the medical-industrial complex’s  expensive procedures for apparently healthy people.  But I’m also fairly terrified of cancer.  So I followed the dietary recommendations, including several days with no fiber and a final day with no solid food.  I will spare you the details.  Fun it is not.  

At Umstead Park

It was mostly clear and mild this weekend, and I enjoyed doing some hiking through the woods and around the local lakes.  I took these pictures with the Tiller Quadcopter and the terrestrial Nikon D7100. 

Missing meteors, fall colors, robot love, the end of nature, and Grosvenor the pianist

Flying over Blue Jay Point, November 18, 2017

Coming home from the concert in Durham on Friday night, I stopped to look for the Leonid meteor shower.  I hiked into the fields at the N.C. Museum of Art, which were dark enough to hope for good sightings, and also isolated enough to give a little twinge of fear.  But it was peaceful looking into the clear eastern part of the night sky, with stars shining bright.  I didn’t have much luck spotting meteors, which may have been shooting to the west where it was more cloudy.  

On Saturday morning I went up to Blue Jay Point to see some fall colors and take some pictures.  The dying leaves have not been very bright this year, but there was still some beauty there.  It was calming to walk in the woods and along the shore of Falls Lake, which was very quiet apart from a couple of passing motor boats.  It can be tricky keeping on the path this time of year, with everything covered in brown leaves, and I did in fact get off track on the way back, though I wasn’t lost for long.  I also took a fall when I tripped over a tree root that appeared out of nowhere.  My right hip got bruised, but fortunately the camera was OK.   

Sally and I finally got to the movie theater to see Blade Runner 2049.  I really liked the original Blade Runner, which had a visionary quality (though a fairly grim vision) folded into an intense sci-fi story, and had high hopes for the sequel.  The new movie was likewise a disturbing prophecy — a world where natural resources have been exhausted, inequalities have widened, violence is endemic, and humans lord over a race of human-like robot slaves.  But there was a strange beauty to it, and an oddly hopeful theme about new and unexpected kinds of love, including robot love.  

The end of nature in the movie, with no trees growing and no birds singing, doesn’t seem too far from where our current trend line could take us.  The situation is dire.  This was the view of a letter  published this week and signed by 15,366 scientists from 184 countries, which I hope will be widely read.  The scientists outlined damages and risks that you probably already know about ( though many still do not), including potentially catastrophic climate change, overpopulation (35 percent more humans since 1992), and mass extinction of “many current life forms.”  They note that time is running out.  

But the scientists also note that it is still possible for us to course correct with adoption of sustainable levels of consumption, preserving natural resources, promoting family planning, eating less meat, respecting nature, and prioritizing green technologies.

There are some signs that more of us are waking up.  199 of 200 nations have signed up for the Paris climate accord.   In the U.S., more states and cities are taking action, as Jerry Brown and Michael Bloomberg recently noted  in a NY Times piece, and so are more big businesses.  Despite the ascendance of Trumpanical contempt for nature,  government scientists recently issued a comprehensive climate assessment report that very frankly set out the dire threats to our dear planet.   There’s still hope.  

The Big Lake at Umstead Park, November 19, 2017

On Friday night, Sally had a conflict, so Olga Kleiankina, my piano teacher,  joined me at Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium to hear the young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.  For what it’s worth, the program director pronounced the artist’s name “Grovner” (with no sounding s).   Grosvenor was praised in the New York Times last week as perhaps the most cultivated pianist of his generation (he’s 24), and he did not disappoint.  

In the first half, his Bach, the fifth French Suite, was fast moving and elegant, with creative ornamentation,  and his Mozart sonata (K333) was well conceived and elegantly executed.  I think I liked it more than Olga, who did not dispute his technical excellence, but felt that the performance lacked heart.  She may well have heard things I didn’t or expected things I didn’t,  since she is unquestionably an artist.  

For the second half, I very much enjoyed Grosvenor’s performance of an Alban Berg’s Sonata op. 1 and of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.  Gaspard is a quintessential impressionistic piece, and I thought he fully grasped the spirit, with striking virtuosity.  Olga liked it as well.  We ran into a number of our musical friends there, so it was an enjoyable social event, too.

 

Visiting the Lower East Side, Turandot, recent Chinese art, and The Patterning Instinct

Looking southwest from the Sixty on Allen Street

Friday before last I went to the Software Freedom Law Center conference, and afterwards Sally and I stayed on in New York to see friends and take in some art and music.  We stayed at the Sixty LES (Lower East Side) near Jocelyn and Kyle’s new apartment.  Back in the day, we viewed this neighborhood as a place to be avoided after dark, but now it’s what Soho and Chelsea used to be — a lively and relatively affordable area where young people live and new art can be made.  It hasn’t yet been completely gentrified — there’s graffiti and trash, and little Bohemian businesses.  I enjoyed walking around early in the morning and taking pictures, including the street scenes here.

We Are Moving

We went to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoon and saw Puccini’s last opera, Turandot.  My only prior experience with Turandot was from recordings, and I had not particularly loved  the music.  The story,  involving a Chinese princess who murdered all her suitors, seemed far from alluring.

Nevertheless, I absolutely loved it.  Opera is a hydra-headed art with many elements, and here the music, sets, costumes, and acting made a compelling whole.  For this story, Puccini’s music worked brilliantly.  The Zeffirelli production looked fantastic, the orchestra sounded great, and the chorus was excellent.  Sopranos  Oksana Dyka and Maria Agresta sang beautifully, and the tenor, Aleksandrs Atonenk, absolutely killed in the famous Nessun Dorma aria.  

Also on Saturday, we spent some time at the Met Breuer looking at  the photographs of Raghubir Singh and at the Met looking at the old masters drawings exhibit, Leonardo to Matisse.  On Sunday, while Sally went with Jocelyn to see the NYC marathon, I went up to the Guggenheim to see Art in China after 1989.  In that year a decade of relative political freedom in China ended with the Tiananmen Square massacre.  Young Chinese artists went in various directions, with many leaving China, and in various landing spots looking to express their political and personal concerns. There were 71 artists and groups represented, and multiple media and approaches.  Not all of them spoke to me, but a few did, powerfully.  

Ai Weiwei breaking a Han dynasty urn

One of the best known artists in the show is Ai Weiwei, whom I’ve found inspiring as a dissident thinker and conceptual artist.  One of his works here was a room that brought to light thousands of  unnecessary deaths of school children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due to a corrupt system and  shoddy construction of schools.  The work was as much journalism as art, but that was not by accident.  In the exhibition notes he is quoted as saying, “Fight for freedom.  Forget about art.”   I don’t think he means to be taken literally on the forgetting part, but he’s serious about the fight.   

Chen Zhen’s dragon

The big hanging sculpture  by Chen Zhen of a dragon made of bicycle tires and parts was delightful and thought-provoking, invoking China’s shift from bicycles to cars and other technology.  I also liked Chen Zhen’s upside down Buddha room which had little Buddha statues, parts of old computers and other detritus hanging underneath a suspended garden.   Liu Dan had a large work that evoked traditional landscape painting but with a severe twist.  Others used video with varying degrees of success.  I liked the one that had a dozen or so monitors showing people scratching.  

Chen Zhen’s upside down Buddhas

Most of these Chinese artists had been influenced both by their traditional culture and by Western culture, just as we in the West are absorbing Asian influences. I’ve been reading a new and intriguing book about how cultures are made and evolve:  The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent.  Lent traces the development of several Eastern and Western foundational ideas, including Taoism and neo-Confucianism, which he argues have been successful and remain vital.  He also contends that certain core ideas of monotheism and science, including the mandate to dominate nature, are closely related to each other and are drivers in our global ecological crisis.  There’s a lot in the Patterning Instinct to process, which is why I’m now working my way through it for a second time.