The Casual Blog

Our therapy dog, and addressing resegregation of schools

Sally and Mowgli at graduation. Photo by Susan Foote.

This week Sally and Mowgli (Gabe’s dog, and our granddog, a/k/a Mo) completed their  therapy dog training. They’re now qualified to visit various kinds of institutions (like assisted living facilities, hospitals, and schools) and offer residents the comfort of doing some petting.  Getting qualified as a therapy dog team has taken a full year and many hours of individual training. They passed the final exam with flying colors! I can personally attest that petting Mo is very comforting, and I’m glad he and Sally can now share that gift with others.

This week there was a big protest in downtown Raleigh by North Carolina public school teachers, and I got to see them from our offices as they marched up Fayetteville Street towards the legislature.  I read later that there were over 20,000. The march had a festive air, but of course, they’ve got some serious issues.

As a product myself of N.C. public schools, I’m forever grateful to several teachers who took a particular interest in me and helped me along the way.  It’s been painful, and also puzzling, to see teachers caught in the crossfire as our legislature here has significantly cut funding for our public schools.  See some of the background here and here.  

Teachers here and also in other states have been doing poorly in terms of pay and working conditions.  A lot of them who started with an ideal of public service leave the profession in frustration, and potential teachers choose better paid and respected professions.  It’s a vicious cycle that’s been worsening our schools. What is going on?

I’ve long assumed that Republicans and Democrats, and others, by and large agree  on the fundamental importance of public education and the moral imperative to provide a decent education to every child.  This seems foundational — a primary purpose of our democracy, and a primary force in sustaining a fair and prosperous society.  

It’s becoming clear, however, that that’s not as well settled as I thought.  The anti-public-education movement has no publicly declared objective. But there is a movement that has worked quietly for decades to undermine public schools.  It has manifested itself in various relatively benign-sounding programs– vouchers, charter schools, tax subsidies for private schools, promoting religious schools, promoting home-schooling — as well as school budget cuts at the federal, state, and local level.

One can come up with innocent-sounding explanations for some of these measures, but viewed in the context of U.S. history — that is, of hundreds of years of discrimination against blacks — there’s an unmistakable pattern.  A lot of it has to do with race. Our schools are being resegregated, with programs that encourage whites to leave the public schools and fewer and fewer resources for students left in the public schools.

Nationwide, public schools have become substantially more segregated in the last 20 years, and that pattern holds in North Carolina.     This has puzzled many, since segregation is illegal, and there have been many successful efforts at school desegregation.  We’ve largely quit using references to race in the context of education, which might have suggested we’d overcome the worst of our racial prejudices.

Recent scholarship and recent politics shows that stopping the conversation about race was premature.  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, makes a convincing demonstration of official anti-black discrimination in housing policy.  Through most of the 20th century, not only was it legal to discriminate against black people, but there were laws that effectively required it. Mortgage lending to blacks and building integrated neighborhoods was effectively prohibited.  As part of this system, white people were encouraged by financial incentives and fear mongering to move out of racially mixed inner cities and into whites-only suburbs.

The civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties was successful in stopping this legalized discrimination, but it did not eliminate the conditions it created, including segregated neighborhoods and racist ideologies.  The emergence of the Alt Right and other unapologetic proponents of white supremacy demonstrates that racist views were not defeated, and are still salient for some people. The election of a President who expresses sympathy for “some very fine people” in the Neo-Nazi ranks suggests a fairly large iceberg of latent white supremacist aspirations and racial fears.

Something has happened in our schools that resembles what happened in our housing.  By defunding public schools, governmental policies have worsened the conditions of those schools and lowered the quality of the education provided.  Parents who want the best quality education for their children may try to support the public schools, but at a certain point most will decide that the education of their own children is for them the most important thing.  So they put their kids in private schools or charter schools. Increasingly, the kids who are left in public schools are those whose parents have no other options.

This dynamic has been mostly under the radar.  It’s hard to see from up close, and even from a distance it’s complicated, with multiple elements.  Those most affected are those with the least political power. Those most in favor of it, whether because of beliefs in white supremacy, fear and hatred of blacks, or designs to profit directly or indirectly from private schools, are canny enough to keep quiet about their true objectives.   

There are very interesting parallels between what is happening today and the immediate aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision.  In 1956, North Carolina opposed desegregation with the Pearsall Plan, which allowed local districts to close schools that became integrated and provided for vouchers for white students to leave the public schools.    The Pearsall Plan was declared unconstitutional — but not until 1969.  Our current Republican-led anti-public-schools program looks like a slow motion version of the Pearsall Plan.  We may need to fight that same battle again, in much the way the victors of the Civil War had to fight another hundred years for basic civil rights.  

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong, and the Republican anti-public-schools programs has nothing to do with getting white kids separated from black kids and providing the worst services to the black kids. There’s an easy way to test that: ask your Republican representative what programs he or she favors to promote integrated schools, and what measures he or she is taking to improve program support and funding for majority black schools.  

I still think we’ve made progress toward racial equality, and I still believe we’ll eventually put white supremacy behind us.  And of course, the resegregationist project has not been completely successful — there are still good public school teachers and successful integrated schools.  But we need to stop this heartless, racist project and start moving in the right direction. Kudos for the public school teachers in N.C. and elsewhere who are marching.  More of us should be joining the parade.

Our new leaves, art, and white supremacy

 

In the last couple of weeks, the trees around Raleigh (“the city of oaks”) have leafed in, and the new leaves are really bright.  It’s a dazzling moment, and passes quickly. I took these pictures at Yates Mill Pond and Blue Jay Point.

I also got in some golfing with Gabe.  He’s been working hard on his game, and making amazing progress.  His tee shots are sailing high and long, and his short game is showing judgment and maturity.  He’s starting to look like a real golfer. It makes me want to play better, too!

Sally and I are so happy that he just started a promising new job got at Kalisher, which provides art and design services for hotels and restaurants (think Hiltons, Marriotts, Four Seasons, and Hyatts, as well as less established establishments) all around the world.  They have a lot of artists, and he’s the senior graphic designer.

Speaking of art, we bought a new Meural Canvas, which is basically a slim, high-resolution monitor with a matte and a simple wood frame.  Meural offers a huge library of old masters and contemporary art to go in it, which is easy to access with a tablet device, and easy to change, with a wave of the hand.  The images look really good, and it’s fun to sample new art.

Yates Mill Pond

We’ve been talking recently about the white supremacy art near us, including monuments on the Capitol grounds to “our Confederate dead.”  I had a closer look at them this week, and determined they were put up in 1895, 1912, and 1914 — one or two generations after the “War Between the States” (as it’s called on the largest monument).  These were probably not designed to help remember heroes, but to reinforce white supremacism and remind black people of their place.

 Last week I heard an interview on WUNC with Maya Little, a UNC grad student who protested Silent Sam, a Jim Crow statue at the University.    She poured some of her own blood and red paint on Sam, and is facing jail time for her protest.  That’s activist art. Maya Little’s got courage.

I learned this week about another subgenre of white supremacy art — picture postcards of lynchings.  On Fresh Air, the wonderful NPR show, Terry Gross interviewed James Allen about his book about the postcards, which were popular souvenirs.   I’d thought lynchings were relatively rare, and done relatively quickly and secretly, but that’s wrong.  In some cases they were advertised in advance in local newspapers, with hundreds or thousands of white people watching for hours as black victims got tortured, then killed, and their bodies were mutilated.  Local law enforcement did nothing to intervene. Starting after the Civil War, there were more than 4,000 documented lynchings. About 100 of those were in my beloved state of North Carolina.

It would be nice to think that we’ve put white supremacist violence behind us.  But we hear every week or so about another police shooting of an unarmed young black man.  Chris Rock, in his recent comedy special, manages to cause both a laugh and a stab of pain when he suggests that we could use some equality here, by having the police shoot more white teenagers.  

The NC Historical Commission recently had a public hearing on whether our Confederate memorial statues should be moved.  Most of the people who showed up and spoke were in favor of leaving them in place, which is disheartening.  With avowed white supremacists getting praise and encouragement from our highest government official, things may get worse before they get better.  Those of us who oppose racism and bigotry (still the majority, I think) have some work to do.

A wedding, glass, and unknown history

Paul after the wedding on the American Rover out of Norfolk

We went to Virginia Beach last weekend to celebrate my brother’s wedding and catch up with the Tiller clan.  The wedding was outside in a yard beside the intercoastal waterway, and it was a bit on the chilly side, but sunny.  My brother Paul played his banjo as his bride arrived, and the couple seemed very happy. Afterwards we moved inside for lunch, and caught up on family news.  

We Tillers have been fortunate in many ways, not least in that we still love each other, despite our differences in politics and religion. As my sister Jane observed, people these days are very polarized, and it’s gotten hard to communicate across tribal lines. But we still had plenty of common ground, and had some invigorating discussions.     

Sally and Jane at the Chrysler Museum

The next day we visited the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, and spent a couple of hours looking at their impressive glass collection, which we missed when we previously visited.  Much of the enjoyment for me was about history and craftsmanship, rather than individual artistic vision.  But there were some pieces that were definitely art, and were moving.  It made me look at our household glass differently, and consider it as part of a long tradition of craft and experimentation.

In iris at Raulston Arboretum

Speaking of art and history, this past week there was a significant opening:  the new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Way too few Americans know much about the terrorism against black Americans in the first half of the twentieth century.  Thousands of black people were publicly tortured and killed, some in front of crowds of white people who viewed the violence as entertainment.

The new memorial to the victims of this horrendous violence sounds powerful in just the way the D.C. Vietnam memorial is powerful:  making the suffering concrete and undeniable in a beautiful and dignified way. There was a fine description of it in the Washington Post, including good photographs.    I’ve added it to my list of places to visit.

Just one more thing about our racism, and then I’ll stop.  This week the New Yorker has a fine and unsettling piece by Alex Ross called the Hitler Vortex.    I’d recently read most of the new biography of Hitler by Volker Ullrich, which was quite good, but Ross provided new perspectives on the conflicting schools of Hitler scholarship, and the social forces that brought Germany to acknowledge its enormous crime against the Jews.  

As Ross notes, Hitler greatly admired America’s genocide of native Americans and its elaborate system for repression of African Americans.  This should give us pause. Unlike the Germans, who have acknowledged and worked to atone for the crimes of the third reich, we Americans for the most part maintain our ignorance and innocence as to these enormous racial crimes.  Perhaps one day we’ll teach our school children what really happened, how it was horribly wrong, and how we need to be continually vigilant to prevent such evil from ever recurring.

In the meantime, we need to do what we can, and stay sane.  For a dose of beauty and clarity, I recommend a walk at Raulston Arboretum, where the irises and early roses are blooming.  I took these flower pictures this weekend.

A documentary marathon, and learning about American apartheid

 

Sally’s orchid

Last week we checked into the Marriott in downtown Durham for the Full Frame Film Festival.  We really like documentaries, but even so, sitting and watching films for four days is a test of mind and bottom.  We’d bought tickets for 15 films, and as we started I wondered if we might have bitten off more than we could chew.  

But we made it, and it felt like a quick trip around the world, which left us buzzing with new impressions.  Several of the movies we saw were about difficult subjects, like Syrian refugees, child trafficking in Ghana, Jihadist fighters, and disarming landmines in Iraq.  We got new perspectives on the 1967 civil disturbance in Detroit, the Supreme Court, American prisons, and the high-end art market. It was inspiring to see the accomplishments of so many talented filmmakers, and heartening to see a lot of people coming together to see their work.   

An iris yesterday at Raulston Arboretum

One of the films that particularly resonated for me was Owned: A Tale of Two Americas, by Giorgio Angelini.  Angelini skillfully wove together several narratives relating to housing discrimination against blacks in the US. Until recently, I’d thought of such discrimination as one of those unfortunate chapters in American history which we’d put behind us.  But I’ve been reading The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, which makes it clear that it’s a fundamental flaw in our system, and its effects are still very much with us.  

For much of the twentieth century, federal, state, and local governments actively promoted segregated housing.  There were several methods for this, including public housing programs that forbade mixing of races, federal housing loan programs that excluded blacks, and promotion of suburban development that excluded blacks.  These and other programs included official, explicit policies that intentionally discriminated based on race. They were augmented by state and local zoning and planning that isolated black neighborhoods and put industries and waste disposal operations near them. 

Angelini’s documentary and Rothstein’s book both explain how such policies led to much lower levels of homeownership for black Americans.  This has had a ripple effect, as whites were able to accumulate wealth as home equity at much higher rates than blacks. Over the decades, this has increased wealth inequality.  There was also a ripple effect on education levels and resulting job qualifications, as segregated neighborhoods were tied to segregated schools.

State discrimination based on race was made illegal by the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1868, and civil rights legislation in the 1960s explicitly outlawed private housing discrimination.  But the American apartheid system developed in the first half of the 20th century is still pervasive. Our suburbs are mostly white, and racially mixed neighborhoods are unusual. This has come to seem so natural that we seldom even notice it, and it has hardly ever been a matter of public debate in recent decades.  

I’ve always assumed that racial segregation was more the product of ignorance rather than evil, though Angelini’s and Rothstein’s work may suggest a more disturbing explanation.  Politicians can build coalitions by exploiting fear. If white people are taught to view black people as threatening, they come to believe they need special systems for protection:  racist police, more prisons, and separate neighborhoods. They come to oppose funding for social safety net programs, since they include benefits for black people. They come to support defunding public education, to discourage participation by privileged light-skinned people and possible mixing with dark-skinned ones.

Once blacks and whites are well separated, the big lie that black people are fundamentally threatening to whites is easier to sustain, since white people have fewer close contacts with blacks that would disprove the lie.  That is, there’s a feedback loop that starts with racial fear and grows into a greater fear and more extreme policies. And so we come to our time, when police killings of unarmed black teenagers seems understandable and forgivable to some whites.

And the greater fear can be used by politicians.  Query whether this is part of the program of Trump and the alt right in characterizing inner cities as horrific war zones and people with darker skin color as menacing criminals who need to be walled off and locked up.  Could that be what the Trumpian base’s excitement for “building the wall” is really about? Whipping up a fear of black people and others so powerful that it overwhelms logic, decency, and even self-interest?  

Racial fears are very powerful, but the good news is that they can be countered.  Now that anti-black discrimination in housing and other areas is being exposed, we can understand it better.  We can see that racial fears are delusional and self-defeating. We can understand that bigotry is contrary to our highest values and aspirations.   And we can overcome it.  

The new engagement, wildflowers, and consciousness

 

At the Eno River, near the old pump house

Jocelyn and Kyle are engaged!  He popped the question on the Williamsburg Bridge, after they’d done a run together.  The wedding will be in New York in the fall of next year. Jocelyn quickly shifted into bride-to-be mode, and is considering many logistical and atmospheric issues. She checked to see if I minded if she and I did the second dance, rather than the first.  I did not see that as a problem. We started kicking around the question of what love songs the DJ would need to play.

A trout lily at Swift Creek Bluffs

It warmed up this weekend, and I got out in the woods to look for wildflowers.  You have to be attentive to find these little guys, and the effort puts me in a good mental place.  I got down on my knees in the forest mud,  using a 105mm lens on my Nikon D850 on a tripod, very low to the ground, with focus, aperture, and shutter speed set manually, and a cable release.  I usually take several shots of a subject, changing the settings for each one, experimenting. It’s a labor-intensive way to make an image, but the extra steps also leave room for looking carefully, and allows for the possibility of a subtle shift in the light that is golden.  These are very small flowers, substantially magnified.

Spring beauties

On the ride over to Eno River State Park on Saturday, I listened to an audiobook titled Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright.  I recently finished Wright’s The Moral Animal, a lively and at times unsettling take on evolutionary psychology, and was curious about how he could fit Buddhism into his framework.  Wright’s Buddhism is largely secularized (no extended discussions of reincarnation) and focused on mindfulness meditation, which is ground well-trodden by others, like Stephen Batchelor.

But Wright has some stimulating ideas about the nature of consciousness and its relation to the external world.  He posits a modular model of the mind in which conscious thought is a product rather than the producer. Conscious thought, in his view, serves various purposes, including public relations, but the primary drivers of activity are feelings.  He sees our emotions as evolutionary adaptations that we can understand and shape with the tools of meditation.

In other consciousness news, this week’s New Yorker has a lively piece by Larissa MacFarquhar’s on the philosopher Andy Clark.  Clark takes issue with the idea that the mind is simply the brain, and argues that it extends outside the body. A homey example is using a pad and pen to keep notes, which augments mental capacity.  He sees our relationships to objects and to each other as essential, rather than optional. Like Feldman, Clark has modeled human activity in terms of constant predictions based on probability estimates from our experience, rather than an orderly reaction and consideration of external phenomena.     

By Yates Mill Pond, and some quartets and symphonies

Yates Mill Pond, March 24, 2018

On Saturday, the forecast was for rain, but it was dry when I went out early to Yates Mill Pond, though chilly.  It seemed like winter left last month, and then came back. There were few other humans, but lots of birds, including honking Canada geese, trilling Carolina wrens, and a quiet pair of hooded merganser ducks.

On Saturday night, we went over to Durham for the sixth concert of the Duke Chamber Music series, where we heard the Jerusalem Quartet.  I’m aware that many people think of string quartet music as per se boring, which is too bad. At its best, a string quartet is an extraordinary being: a four-person virtuoso, an entity with the sensitivity of one and the knowledge of many.  And some of the greatest music in the western classical tradition is written for this ensemble.

The Jerusalem Quartet was amazing.  These four serious-looking young men were absolute masters of their instruments, and 100 percent committed. They took a questing, energized approach to the music, and convinced me that the Beethoven op. 95 should be considered a late, rather than a middle, quartet.  Their Debussy was a sonic marvel.

I wasn’t familiar with the Shostakovich second quartet, and liked it less than other Shostakovich quartets, but it was worth hearing. Composed near the end of WWII in Stalin’s Soviet Union, it raises the question of the role of music in a world of bloody war in a society led by a murderous psychopath.    The answer seemed to be — a tenuous, strained, painful beauty.

For the last few weeks we’ve been getting to know the seven symphonies of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).  These symphonies are essentially romantic, but full of moods and questions, restless and heroic. There are numerous excellent versions available for free or almost on Spotify.   Our favorites are number two and number five, but all seven have wonderful moments.

Lost and found, Hawking, Churchill, Feldman, German, Brewery Bhavana, and Bolero (the ballet)

Durant Nature Preserve on Saturday morning

It’s been a big week for domestic lost and found drama.  I lost, and eventually found, my smartphone, a glove, the battery for my camera, my wireless headphones, the front page of the New York Times, and probably some other stuff I’ve already forgotten about.  I hate that uh-oh feeling, that this-could-be-serious feeling, that tightness in the stomach as you try to stay calm and think carefully, where did I last have that thing?

Some of the losses could be attributable to task overload.  An example: on Friday morning, I drove back from a spin class listening to an audiobook, and as I started to parallel park I saw a friend and her baby on the sidewalk.  So I hurried to park, get out, and say hello. Then back in the apartment, I needed to check my schedule for the day with the phone, and realized I must have left it in the car.  

We had some cardboard boxes flattened and ready to go down to the recycling area, so I carried them along when I went to get the phone, and brought the Times to read while I waited for the elevator.  When the elevator came, inside was a young woman with a dog, and we chatted about her dog. Then I went to the recycling room and tossed the cardboard into a huge bin — along with the Times.

The bin came up almost to my shoulders, and was empty except for my cardboard and the Times.  I couldn’t reach the bottom. To get the newspaper out, I had to do some experimenting, but eventually I figured out how to hoist myself up on the front of the bin, lower myself in, grab the Times, and get back out without injuring myself or the bin.

Last week we lost Stephen Hawking, the great British astrophysicist who was paralyzed for most of his life.  He was one of my heroes. Back in the day, I read his A Brief History of Time, of which I understood not a lot.  It was Hawking’s curiosity and courage that really moved me. I always thought that his life must be as purely intellectual as any human being’s has ever been.  

But I heard an interview with one of his scientific collaborators who said that he was always accompanied by nurses, who frequently needed to help him with bodily issues.  That is, he also was a physical person. According to the interview, it was fun hanging out with him.  

We finally saw The Darkest Hour, the Winston Churchill biopic, on Amazon Prime this weekend.  Gary Oldman certainly deserved his recent best actor Oscar for his Churchill, and so did Kazuhiro Tsuji, his makeup artist.  

Churchill was in many respects a terrible person, accountable for racist imperialism and mass murder, but he also did one truly heroic thing of lasting value:  standing almost alone to rally Britain to fight Nazism. The film conveys both his ego and his understated courage. It shows the importance and potential power of public speaking.  Churchill could orate! The film made me feel gratitude for the English language and all the ancestors who created it.

Meanwhile, I’ve been having another go at learning German, using the Babbel app.  I like the Babbel system, which is well-organized, and also, at least at the beginning, free.  I’ve long been curious about German, the language of many of the great musical minds that have been a big part of my life, like Bach, Haydn, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler.  

But it’s way harder than French, Spanish, and Italian. I’m finding that getting vocabulary is not too difficult, since there are lots of cognates with English, and most of the spoken sounds are similar to English. But the German case system is for me really challenging.  Add that to having three genders for nouns and lots of rules on word order, and it can be densely frustrating. But I’m starting to see some blue sky through the clouds.

Speaking of brain work, I’ve been listening to an audiobook of How Emotions are Made, The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Northeastern University.  In recent years I’ve read a fair bit about evolutionary psychology and neurobiology, hoping to understand more about how humans work. Barrett’s book has opened some new doors for me.

She challenges the orthodox understanding of emotions as inborn, universal, and readily identifiable.  She contends that emotions are best viewed as interpretations of perceptions from inside and outside the body that are dependent on learning, context, and culture. In other words, they are fundamentally social constructions, and vary substantially from culture to culture. This understanding has a lot of implications for how to think of individuals and societies.  

We finally managed to get a reservation at Brewery Bhavana for Saturday night.  It’s a fairly new restaurant in downtown Raleigh that features dim sum and noodles, along with craft beers.  The space also has a small bookstore and flower shop. It seems an unlikely combination, but it’s been a smashing success, sold out for months. Anyhow, we tried the vegetarian dishes and found them delicious, and were happy with our beers.  

Afterwards, we walked over to the Carolina Ballet’s Bolero program.  I slightly dreaded once again hearing Ravel’s Bolero, a great composer’s most repetitious work, but Lynn Taylor-Corbett’s new ballet turned out to be a treat.  It features a couple having a day at the beach, and addresses the reality of global warming with another unlikely combination — humor and horror.

The first ballet on the program, Zalman Raffael’s latest work, was  set to Ravel’s Piano Concerto.  It was highly kinetic, angular and energizing. The last piece was Robert Weiss’s Des Images, which was a meditation on the ballet choreographer’s art.  I found some of it a bit languid, but Alyssa Pilger’s solo in the pizzicato second movement was electrifying.

I took these pictures yesterday at Durant Nature Preserve in north Raleigh while testing out a new lens.  The weather was on the chilly side, so I brought along my photography gloves, which have cut off fingers and mitton tops that can be folded back.  I put the gloves in my jacket pockets, but ended up not using them. After walking part way around the lake and most of the way back, I noticed one glove was gone.  I really liked that glove, so I did the walk a second time, and found it.  The clouds were starting to lift at that point, and that’s when I got the shot at the top of this blog Read the rest of this entry »

My new crown, and notes on health and violence

 

New construction on Hillsborough Street

This week I bit the bullet and went to the dentist to get a crown on my bottom left molar (tooth number 18).  The filling in that tooth was worn out and starting to crack, and a replacement was needed. The procedure involved a lot of drilling.  The anesthetic worked, and the drilling wasn’t painful, but the noise, the burning smell, and the uncertainty were not pleasant. But it’s good to have operational teeth, and I am  grateful for modern dentistry.  

I took my first yoga class in many moons last Tuesday morning.  I’ve been working out at the gym most mornings, but yoga fell out of my routine after a teacher I’d liked left.  Returning to Blue Lotus, just across the street from our building, I was reminded vinyasa is harder than it looks, but also more calming than it looks.  It’s good to contract and stretch, to move in sync with others, and to be reminded to breath deeply.

I suppose we could spend too much time on our bodily health, but for most of us, that risk is theoretical; we usually err in the other direction.   At times our bodies seem so solid, and at times so fragile.

There was a fascinating, though also gut wrenching, piece in the NY Times this week about the effects of an assault rifle shooting into a human body.  Guns like the AR-15 propel bullets at two or three times the speed of a handgun, and so unleash exponentially greater energy.  Five trauma surgeons described the gruesome effects of such bullets. They make a small entry wound, then tumble, exploding bones and causing widespread tissue and organ damage, and then tear a large exit wound.  One surgeon noted that seeing a victim of such a shooting is traumatizing for bystanders.

Kudos to the high school students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and elsewhere who have been making themselves heard on the  subject of assault weapons and other guns.  A lot of us who think the lack of reasonable gun laws is very bad policy have gotten discouraged and wondered if we’ll ever get anything positive done. These students are righteously angry, and they are hard to ignore.  They may be changing the terms of the debate.

Now if we could just get some of that energy focused on addressing the risks of thermonuclear weapons.  While assault weapons on public streets are very dangerous, the destructive potential of the world’s nuclear stockpiles, including the US’s, is incomparably worse.  Apropos, recently there was a short interview with Daniel Ellsberg, who worked as a nuclear strategist in the 1960s.  In Ellsberg’s view, only amazing luck accounts for our not already having had a nuclear apocalypse.

I started reading Ellsberg’s recent book, The Doomsday Machine, in which he recounts learning that in the early 60s, US war planners expected in case of any nuclear war to kill several hundred million people.  We know now that they underestimated, and that the blasts, fires, pulses, fallout, and famine from nuclear winter could well mean the extinction of all humans, not to mention many other life forms.

There are serious voices trying to get this issue on the table, though they get little play in US mainstream media.  A few weeks ago, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists put the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight   signalling the closest we’ve been to disaster since 1953 and the height of the cold war.   Last year 122 nations in the United Nations voted in favor a new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.  This year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.   

This essay by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is well worth reading.  It explains that we need to de-escalate international conflicts and enter into nuclear control diplomacy. As the Scientists note, humans created this problem, and they can solve it.  

Rising like the phoenix from the ashes — new construction viewed from Casa Tiller

 

Brave little daffodils

I went over to Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Saturday morning to check on early spring flowers.  After a mild week, the temperature dropped almost to freezing on Friday night.  It was sunny but cold and windy when I got there.  It must have been difficult for the early plants, though the daffodils and a few tulips looked cheerful.

Welcome, but unsettling, early flowers

At Swift Creek Bluffs

Spring isn’t supposed to come in Raleigh in February, but it has.  The birds are singing lustily and early flowers are blooming.  It’s beautiful, though also unsettling—our climate is definitely changing.  But we still have sweet moments.  

I took a hike in Swift Creek Bluffs on Saturday morning and found some tiny wildflowers.  At one point I was on my knees in the dirt with the camera and tripod, struggling with focus and exposure, and my glasses kept slipping down my nose, so I took them off.  I did a minor adjustment, shifted position, and put a knee right on the glasses.   Dagnabit!  I’ll be taking them in to Adrienne at the Eye Care Center for repair next week.  

Speaking of plants, there was an interesting podcast from Radiolab last week on plant behavior.  For example, some trees can sense the presence of water some distance away in the soil with a sense that seems like hearing.  Also, researchers have found that some plants appear to learn about threatening human behavior and remember what they learn.  How they do this without a brain is still a mystery.   

This morning I went up to Raulston Arboretum for the first time this year and found more things blossoming, and took some more pictures.  

At Raulston Arboretum

For the last two weeks we’ve been having dinner in front of the TV and watching the Winter Olympics.  We like the skiing and skating, and for that we’ll tolerate the abusively repetitive advertising.  

This year NBC improved the quality of its on air commentators, and for a number of events had people who both knew about the non-mainstream sports and had comments that were helpful to the non-specialist.  Bode Miller was insightful on ski racing, as were Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir on figure skating.  And they let Weir be Weir, as gay as can be–a cheering step forward for tolerance and respect in American media.  

I wasn’t expecting to see outdoor flowers for at least a couple of weeks, and so I’d been working on more pictures of Sally’s orchid.  I did focus stacking with Photoshop, which took several hours of computer processing, and made a couple of images that I liked: