The Casual Blog

New construction in our neighborhood, a presidential tipping point, and great piano music in Chapel Hill

Looking north from our parking deck toward the new Publix grocery building at a parking deck under construction. This view disappeared forever later that day when a new section of wall went up.

The start of fall brought a harsh heat wave in central North Carolina, but in the past few days it’s cooled off.  The huge construction project in the two blocks north of our building is moving right along. We’re going to have a new grocery store and other businesses, as well as a lot of new apartments. 

Construction sites are noisy and dusty, and great fun to watch.  I love the big machines, like cranes, bulldozers, and dump trucks, and the heaps of building materials, and the clay at the bottom.  And I love to watch the workers, with gratitude for their tough work through the heat and other hazards.  

Change is in the air in politics, too.  With criminal investigations closing in on the President, he seems more and more desperate and crazy.  He’s intimidated ordinary, sensible Republican leaders, and it’s far from clear whether they’ll ultimately find the gumption to defend the Constitution and stop him. 

It’s possible we’ll end up with a thugocracy along the lines of Russia, China, or Turkey, but dumber. But I’m guardedly optimistic that our democratic traditions will survive, and we may soon be seeing the last of the hair-raising Trump presidency.  

Either way, life will go on, at least for some of us, for a while, and we’ll have some exciting new construction and other projects.  One of mine was finishing the book that Kyle DePew, my new son-in-law, gave me last Christmas: Alan Walker’s lengthy new biography of Frederic Chopin (1810-1849).  Chopin’s piano music has been given me great joy for substantially longer than he lived, but I knew little about his life.  

Chopin was quite sick with tuberculosis for most of his life, and even as he was hailed as a brilliant pianist and composer, struggled to make a living,  He lived in the midst of wars and revolutions, and his domestic situation was often turbulent. The body of music he bequeathed us is a testimony to his strength and courage, as well as his brilliance.  Walker’s biography is excellent, but long.  With its many musical examples, it will deepen the appreciation of musicians and probably be challenging for those without a musical background. 

The building which will have the new Publix grocery store looks like it may actually turn out handsome.

A couple of nights ago, Sally and I got to hear one of the truly great pianists of our time, Marc-Andre Hamelin.  Hamelin performed in the Chapel Hill home of Ken Gorfkle on Gorfkle’s top-of-the-line Bosendorfer concert grand before an audience of about 100. His program included works by Scriabin, Prokovfiev, and Samuil Feinberg, and Schubert’s transcendent final sonata in B flat, D. 960.  

Hamelin is a multi-faceted artist of the highest rank.  He takes on works of legendary difficulty, and finds the emotional truth within the technical fury.  He discovers and champions more or less unknown works, like Feinberg’s third sonata, and as we learned from one of his encores, is a gifted composer in his own right. 

I was overwhelmed by the poetic luminosity and magnitude of his Schubert interpretation. As I mentioned to him as we were leaving, his presentation of the Feinberg earlier in the concert helped me hear the Schubert with new ears.  After his performance, he took questions from the audience, and turned out to be very personable and articulate.  He credited his father as a major early musical influence, with his amateur piano playing and collection of 78 RPMs of great classical pianists.

Ken Gorfkle’s Bosendorfer was an extraordinary instrument, both in its delicacy and its power. The entire experience was really exhilarating.  Kudos to Gorfkle for inviting Hamelin and us into his home and curating this wonderful evening. I’m looking forward to the next concert in his series.

Looking south on Harrington Street toward Casa Tiller, which is on the far side of the building.

Beautiful birds

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

It took me a long time, but I finally faced a tough fact:  if you really want to see wildlife around here, you have to get up when it’s still dark.  I adjusted my routine recently, and instead of starting the day with a gym work out, I’ve been grabbing my camera bag and tripod and pushing up to one of Raleigh’s parks.  

Canada geese coming in low

Shelley Lake has been my primary target these last couple of weeks.  I’ve been watching squadrons of Canada geese and mallards practicing their flying, while I try to figure out how to catch them in the early light.  From time to time, a great blue heron or great egret scoots by. I heard a report of a bald eagle there last week, but haven’t yet seen it.

Great egret

There are a lot of smaller birds, which I know mostly from listening rather than seeing, since they are masters at concealing themselves in the leaves.  A few years back I put some effort into learning some birds’ songs, and with the fall migration coming soon, I’ve been refreshing on that skill.  There are several apps I’ve found helpful, including ones from Audubon, Cornell, and Merlin.  

The more I listen, the more I realize:  the birds are communicating. That is, they aren’t mechanically repeating a programmed sequence; they’re sending out messages.  Ornithologists have ideas about some of the messages, like alarm calls, but we’ve still got a lot to learn about their systems.  

Being a bird cannot be easy.  There’s always competition from other birds, and killer predators, like hawks and cats, can come out of nowhere.  And then there’s the problem of human activity.

 

Killdeer

I was saddened, but not really surprised, at the report last month that bird populations had dropped precipitously in the last 50 years.    In North America, there are 29 percent fewer birds, or almost 3 billion less than there were.  That’s a lot of dead birds! The reasons are complex, but ultimately they have to do with us — our destruction of habitats, our use of pesticides, and of course, the environmental changes related to our irresponsible use of fossil fuels.  All this bird destruction is terrible for the birds, obviously, but also for us and other creatures. Birds are important parts of ecosystems, spreading seeds, controlling pests, and pollinating plants. And of course, they’re beautiful. So, another wake up call to change course. 

Young deer

Jocelyn got married to Kyle! With some street photography

The Vessel at Hudson Yards. 

Our daughter Jocelyn got married in New York City last weekend.  I have a new son-in-law! That’s Kyle DePew, and he’s a good one!  It was a truly happy day, including a superfun party, though also a little drama.

Even for former New Yorkers like us, NYC is a tough town — hard to take in and hard to get around.   It’s really big and loud, and it can make you feel small. Some of it seems expressly designed to intimidate, like the new Hudson Yards high rise area on the West Side (pictured above), which I visited for the first time, and felt like the merest ant.  There are always unexpected flashes of beauty in the city, but even the intimate views tend to have some grit on them. 

Flower stand

On Friday morning I went to the Whitney Biennial, and took in some very new art.  Almost by definition, bold new art is hard to like, and there was a lot of work there that was not cheery.  There were several artists working on themes relating to racism and discrimination, and also some work relating to climate change — themes that regular readers know to be of interest to The Casual Blog.  

At the Whitney, Joe Minter’s sculpture involving racism and southern yard art

In the afternoon I walked down to Battery Park for  the NYC edition of the worldwide student strike for climate action, with tens of thousands of students and others.  I normally find large noisy crowds unsettling, but I was glad this one was large and noisy, and hoped it would be unsettling to the politicians that are still failing to mobilize to address our crisis.  The signs and chants expressed a lot of anger about the mess adults had made of the environment, but there was also hope for change.

Student protest at Battery Park

That evening, Kyle’s mom, Debbie, hosted the wedding  rehearsal dinner at San Marino Ristorante, a lovely Italian restaurant in the West Village.  The food was really good, and we enjoyed talking to some old friends, and meeting family and friends of the happy couple.

A sunny day for the protesters

The wedding was at sunset on Saturday at Sunset Terrace, at the end of Pier 61 on the Hudson.   A string quartet was playing as the 130 or so guests got seated. The groomsmen and I wore black tuxedos, and the bridesmaids had champagne colored long dresses.  Jocelyn was radiant in white! She gave Sally and I just one warning before we walked her to the front of the room for the ceremony: be sure not to step on the trailing veil, which was attached to her hair.  We walked slowly up the aisle with no accidents.  

Then, as Jocelyn turned to Kyle and we turned to find a seat, a shoe went the wrong way, and out came the veil.  In a fraction of a second, I wondered: can we get it back on, and if not, is Jocelyn going to freak out?  It took only another couple of seconds for all this to be clarified: she smiled and said, forget about it, just keep going.  I rolled up the veil and put it under my seat. I watched carefully for any signs of bridal distress, but there were none.  She seemed completely happy. I was so proud of her!

A fruit stand

The officiant was Dylan Goldberg,  a good friend of the couple’s.  His remarks were a sweet and highly personal appreciation of Jocelyn and Kyle and their love.   As he noted, the ceremony was an important symbol of the partnership they had built and the promises of their complete commitment.  It was really touching; I got pretty misty. They had a really good kiss at the end.

Then we had drinks, dinner, and an epic dance party!  Jocelyn and I managed our solo dance (to Stevie Wonder’s You Are the Sunshine of My Life) with more grace than expected, and I got some laughs in my toast to the couple.  As I meant to say (though I’m not sure I quite got out), I was grateful to our guests for serving as witnesses and helping to consecrate the new marriage. I thought about talking a bit about Martin Hagglund’s theory that love is precious not because it is eternal and unchanging, but rather because it is grounded in time, finite and fragile, and its existence depends on continuing devoted care.  But it didn’t quite fit with the vibe, so I figured we could talk about it another time.

Flowers and ice

But I must say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much radiating love!  It seemed to be coming not just from Jocelyn and Kyle, but from everyone!  I hadn’t danced to pop music since ancient times, and had almost forgotten how much fun it can be.  It was a blast. DJ Blak did a terrific job with the music, which was curated by Kyle, and managed to get just about everyone moving.  A lot of the guests boogied right up until the last song at midnight.   

While I wasn’t really surprised at how excited and happy Jocelyn and Kyle were, I was surprised at the intensity of my own happiness.  Our little girl! With Kyle now part of our family! Lives full of promise! And on the horizon — grand babies!

Crossing against the light

Elk families and photo pros, and getting Greta

Elk bull at Cataloochee, NC

I got to spend some time last week with the elk at Cataloochee, NC.  There were at least four different family groups, each with a bull who ruled over several cows and calves.  Late in the day, the bulls called to their families to gather them together, and their trumpeting was powerful, with harmonic overtones.  The elk seemed to understand each other from sounds and gestures as they slowly got organized to go from the pasture into the woods.   

At one point a younger bull came close to an older, larger one, probably to test the hierarchy.  After a stare down, the elder turned away, and the two put off the fight till another day.  

The young buck

One day, we waited until after sunset to leave, which turned out to be a mistake.  The drive up the mountain out of Cataloochee was on a winding narrow gravel road through the woods.  It quickly got very dark. At a few hairpin turns, it was impossible to see any road to be turned into, and missing the edge of the road could mean falling a long way.  It was difficult.

I stayed in Black Mountain, NC, and went to the Smoky Mountain Foto Fest, a four-day workshop at Montreat.  The hilly wooded campus at Montreat was pretty. There were several accomplished pro photographers who gave presentations at the workshop, and I got some helpful tips and concepts.

I especially appreciated the talks by Bill Lea on wildlife and landscape photography. Lea showed some gorgeous shots  of black bear mothers and cubs.  He’d found that each bear had its own personality, with some mothers being strict but loving, and others easygoing and neglectful.  He said it was a good idea to talk calmly to the bears if they seemed unhappy with you. On the last day, I won a door prize: a calendar  with his nature photography, including some of those bears.  

I also got some new ideas from Marc Adamus, whose speciality seemed to be exotic landscape photography.  Adamus showed some fairly extreme processing techniques using Adobe Photoshop and other tools. His approach took nature to places she likely would never otherwise visit.  I found some of his images overly dramatized, but I liked his adventurous and experimental spirit.  

Red tailed hawk

There was an animal rescue specialist there with three tethered raptors.  These birds had been injured and were unable to fly and survive in the wild.  I got shots of the turkey vulture, the red tailed hawk, and the barred owl.

Barred owl

Before heading home, my friend Barry Wheeler and I went up to the Blue Ridge for sunrise.  There were wispy low clouds in the valley. Once the sun was well up, we packed up the photo gear and stopped at the Pisgah Inn for breakfast.  The mountain views and vegetarian sausage were excellent!

Back in Raleigh after the workshop, Sally and I had our customary end-of-week round up viewing of the late night comics’ highlights.  We especially like Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah. Ordinarily there’s plenty to laugh at regarding Trump’s most recent buffoonery and head-shaking craziness, and this week was no exception.

But Trevor Noah’s interview with Greta Thunberg struck a note that was more serious and moving.    Thunberg is a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, and she just crossed the Atlantic under sail to bring attention to climate issues.  She explained in simple but ringing terms that people her age are facing dire consequences of global warming, and pressed for political change.  She reminded me of King and Gandhi — a moral prodigy.

Birds at Shelley Lake

A great egret at Shelley Lake

As occasionally happens, earlier this week I had my doubts about whether I’d be able to come up with any new images or words to post on The Casual Blog.  It felt like maybe the well had finally run dry.  

The cure turned out to be simple:  just spending more time with nature.  I drove up to Shelley Lake early on several mornings.  I did some walking, but mostly I just stood looking out over the water.  It was quiet, except for animal sounds. Of course, there was also a bit of traffic noise, but it wasn’t bad.  

Canada geese

The Canada geese were the noisiest creatures at the lake, and did plenty of honking.  They used to be rare around here, but now are common, and considered by most an unwelcome nuisance.  But I think they’re handsome.  

I noticed that, along with their big honks, they make some barely audible sounds, which clearly have meaning to them.  As I watched, they made sounds and gestures as they swam slowly and organized themselves into small groups. The groups took flight for short intervals.  I’m guessing they’re practicing for the fall migration.  

A foggy morning for flying

I also saw a number of other good looking birds — great blue herons, great egrets, kingfishers, and mallards.  These are all pretty common here, but still fun to watch, and the fast-flying kingfishers and mallards are challenging to photograph. I also saw a Cooper’s hawk (at least I think it was a Cooper’s) and one bald eagle — the first one at Shelley Lake for a while. 

A kingfisher fishing

Just standing still is not something that I’ve done a lot of.  It seemed at first like I might be wasting time, which I hate to do.  But I found it soothing and nourishing to be near the water with the animals.  I had my camera with my big lens mounted and ready to go, and my senses were on high alert for possible photographic opportunities.  But for extended periods, not much happened, at least at the human scale. And that was ok.  

Mallards

This week I listened to a good podcast about animal intelligence, including communication systems and emotions, on the Ted Radio Hour.    This podcast summarizes several Ted Talks, which are already highly boiled down versions of bigger ideas, which I guess is for those with short attention spans.

In any case, simplified ideas are better than none, and of course, you can always go back to the longer versions.  I was particularly interested in hearing the voices of Carl Safina and Frans de Waal, whose recent books on animal emotions I thought were worthwhile.  As one of the speakers said (in effect), in understanding non-human animals better, we understand ourselves better.  

A Cooper’s hawk (I think)

I also pushed forward in Martin Hagglund’s new book. This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom.  Hagglund’s conception of secular faith is profound, and somewhat involved. He argues that all religious conceptions of value place their primary emphasis on achieving an unchanging, eternal state, which is involves an inherent contradiction.  

As the Talking Heads once waggishly observed, “heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”  Not such an interesting place, much less an ideal. For there to be meaning and value in our lives, life must be finite — fragile and subject to loss.  Hagglund thinks the real source of hope and meaning in our lives is misidentified by conventional religions, and is inseparable from time and our finite existence.

Hagglund’s ideas are truly iconoclastic, and worth engaging.  They aren’t easy to engage in his book, which at times seems lacking in forward motion.  I suspect that their most natural format would be not a whole book but rather something like one of Plato’s dialogues.  Fortunately, Hagglund sums up some of his key ideas in a recent interview in Jacobin

Spirit bears, dental hygiene, and why our eating matters

A rare spirit bear, also known as a Kermode bear, near Klemtu, British Columbia

During my recent trip to the wilds of British Columbia, I didn’t have room for all my new photo files on my hard drive, so this past week I bought a massive (14 TB) new one.   Once I got the new device running, I edited more of my wildlife photos. Those included shots of the very rare spirit bear, an osprey that had caught a salmon, and a humpback whale, some of which are here.  It was a moving experience to share space for a little while with these creatures.  

This week it was time for my six-month dental check up. I’m a big believer in good tooth care, since we each get only one set of teeth, and it’s much more difficult to eat without them.  So I put some effort into rinsing, brushing, and flossing, since if I don’t, who will? Well, actually, it kind of takes a village. I’ve got a whole team giving advice, encouragement, and occasional repairs at Dr. Williams’s general dentistry practice.  

Of course, my tooth health depends on a lot of others.  I’m thinking of all the hardworking folks who make the dental floss, toothbrushes, and tooth paste, who wire the building and and keep the electric grid working, who put in the plumbing, who operate the water system, and trusted teachers from my childhood, especially my Mom.  

An osprey and its prey. Moments later, the fish got loose, and was caught mid-air by a bald eagle.

But of those closest to my mouth now, I want to thank  D, my latest dental hygienist, who pushed me hard to add a Waterpik to my routine, which I did a few months back.  I used to think Waterpiks were silly and useless gadgets, but I’m now a believer. D says my Waterpiking has been very good for my gums.  

I like that D is truly passionate about tooth care, and I always learn some interesting tooth facts in our cleaning sessions.  She pointed out that TV and movie people all whiten their teeth nowadays, whereas in older movies teeth are grayer. She told me that drugstore whitening products use the same chemical as custom work (that is, peroxide) and generally work fine, but they likely won’t go on as evenly. 

In moments of existential dread, I’ve sometimes wondered what’s the use of worrying about teeth, or any bodily maintenance issues.  With all the enormous risks on our horizon, including nuclear weapons, asteroid strikes, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, runaway superintelligent artificial intelligence, and of course the dire effects of global warming, it’s difficult to factor in individual bodily worries.  The vastly different scale of the two sorts of problems prevents comparisons.

But we can’t help but feel that we as individuals have some significance, and our lives are worth taking some trouble over.  Along this line, I’m reading This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, by Martin Haaglund, a Swedish philosopher at Yale.  Haaglund suggests that each individual carries various identities, such as parent, child, professional, church goer, and customer, which may be added to or fluctuate over time.  Part of the essential work of living a life is choosing how to realize the goals associated with those identities and prioritizing when the identities conflict. Haaglund’s theory is thought-provoking, and I expect to have more to say about it in a future post.  

But for now, I’m comfortable that having serviceable teeth is not inconsistent with trying to stop environmental degradation or prevent nuclear accidents.  Our identity as caretakers of our bodies is entirely reconcilable with our identity as citizens trying to avoid catastrophe.  

Grizzly bear cub

 In fact, the issues of personal health, societal well being,  and the environment are interconnected.  One of the great ironies of modern first world life is how, with all our wealth and knowledge, and with the miracles of modern dentistry, we eat so poorly.  Most of our deadliest health risks, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and obesity, are closely related to our typical food choices.  

In my nature photography travels over the last few weeks, I’ve shared meals with a lot of prosperous, well-educated, and gifted people, who have traveled widely and made some beautiful photographs.  Much as I enjoyed our talks, I was really saddened to see how poorly a lot of them nourished themselves. Offered a choice between French fries and fruit, most always took the fries.

Grizzly mom getting a plant food snack

 I’d have to be nuts to think of taking away anybody’s French fries (and I admit, I enjoy them from time to time), but I’m just saying, fruit is generally the better choice.  Given how important eating is to our health, it’s remarkable how little most of us think about it, and how many of us do it unwisely. How well or poorly we nourish ourselves is a major determinant of the length and quality of our lives.  It’s a really big deal.  

So I was glad to see this was the subject of a recent op ed  piece in the NY Times entitled Our Food Is Killing Too Many of Us  The authors explained that our typical diet accounts for elevated death rates, and noted that this is a political issue that is not being discussed by politicians.   They proposed thinking of how we eat as a medical issue, and encouraging healthy eating as a fundamental part of a healthy life. They had several practical ideas for new policies, including getting doctors to put an emphasis on nutrition and discouraging junk food with taxes.  They suggest that improvements to our eating would simplify the problem of how we provide health care, since we wouldn’t have to provide so much of it.   

All this seems sensible, but somehow our nutrition system is harder to talk about than our healthcare system (which is also hard).  The food industry has done an amazingly effective job at conditioning us to think of food as primarily about fun, rather than survival.  Even suggesting that we should eat more plant foods and less processed junk sounds kind of grumpy and unfun. At parties, insisting on talking about healthy eating is a good way to get some alone time.

But this mindset may be slowly changing.  There was a report this week that the meat industry is fighting the growing popularity of plant-based meat-like products, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat.    The industry is pushing for new state laws to outlaw using the word meat to describe these products.  My first reaction to this was outrage, but then I realized, it’s kind of good news: leaders of possibly the cruelest business on the planet are worried about their continued profitability.  They must view plant food as serious competition.

And there’s increasing awareness  (though still not enough) that better diets are good not just for individual human bodies, but for the planet.  For example, industrialized meat production is a significant contributor to global warming. As the Times noted this week, even reducing our meat consumption by 25% would significantly lower our collective carbon footprint.    

But while I was organizing these thoughts, the Washington Post reported that in connection with  the next version of the federal dietary guidelines, the Trump administration has prohibited the use of scientific studies likely to support eating less meat, dairy, sugar, and processed food.    There is, of course, a lot of science that points in that direction, and it’s beyond irresponsible not to at least take a close look at it.  If your objective were to destroy more of the natural world and maximize people’s likelihood of an early death, one way to get there is exactly this:  suppress the science.

Near where we saw the spirit bear

Canadian forests and bears, and where we got our racism

Last week I went out to the west coast of Canada to photograph bears.  I stayed in Klemtu, B.C., a small community in Great Bear Rainforest, which is the largest temperate rainforest on the planet.  It was vast and beautiful there, with evergreens covering mountainous islands surrounded by intricate waterways. The area is home to the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation, members of which served our group as guides.

The travel involved some bumpy boat trips, hiking, and sitting for hours, often in the rain, watching hopefully for bears.  I found the waiting challenging, especially when the rain got heavy, but also learned some things. Sitting in the woods or on the boat watching and listening very closely for long periods became a type of meditation.  Getting really externally focused helped in making a good shot.  

We had good close views of  black bears, grizzlies, and a rare spirit bear, a white relative of the black bear which is found only there.  We also watched humpback whales and orcas diving and occasionally breaching. There were lots of bald eagles and ospreys.  One day we saw an osprey that had caught a fish drop it, and then an eagle caught the unfortunate fish in mid-air.

The trip was organized by Muench Workshops and led by Kevin Pepper, who gave me friendly encouragement and guidance.  The six other amateur photographers in the group were very well traveled and experienced. We were all surprised to find that every one of us, including Kevin, had the same camera:  the excellent Nikon D850.  My equipment worked well, except that I maxed out my hard drive halfway through the trip.  I ordered a new one, and should have a few more wildlife photos to share next week.  

It was a long trip home, starting from Klemtu by boat, then a cab to the Bella Bella airport, and a prop plane to Vancouver, and the next morning a flight to Seattle, and nearly missing the connection to Raleigh.  

 

One thing I like about long travel days is the chance to get immersed in books.   On the trip home, I finished Bill McKibben’s recent book, Falter:  Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? The book is about the existential risks that we’re now facing, especially climate change.  McKibben strongly lays out the imminent threats of rising temperatures, storms, fires, droughts, ocean acidification, and others. His account of how the fossil fuel industry consciously misled the public and prevented remedial action is clear and infuriating.  Some of the factual information was familiar, but I still found McKibben’s framing readable and worthwhile, and appreciated his note of hope. 

It was good to get back to North Carolina.  On Friday, I stopped by Jersey Mike’s for lunch.  I like their veggie sandwich (the number 14), which I get dressed “Mike’s way.”  They know me there, and I usually get a smile when I order. But this time I noticed a young black man behind me did not get such a friendly reception when he ordered.  The woman at the counter, who’d been friendly and warm to me, turned sour and cold to him.  

Did it have to do with his color?  I’m pretty sure that it did. Of course, there’s nothing unusual about this:  in our racial caste system, a lot of people treat others less well based on skin color.  Sometimes it’s subtle, and for those of us in the privileged caste, it’s easy not to see.

Grizzly cub

As I noted here recently, I’ve been thinking about some of the non-obvious effects of American racism, including its polarizing impact on our politics.  I learned more about those issues this week from the 1619 Project, an excellent series of essays in the NY Times on American slavery and racism.  The series makes a strong case for viewing slavery not as a momentary aberration in the American experience, but a central element of our foundation that continues to affect us today.   

The 1619 Project notes how the heritage of slavery explains many of the problems in our housing, schools, employment, health care, and criminal justice systems.  The essay by Matthew Desmond  was particularly intriguing.  Desmond points out that the version of capitalism that Americans think of as normal is actually quite different from capitalism in most countries in that it largely ignores concerns for workers’ welfare.  He argues that this is the result of attitudes and practices worked out in the extremely profitable cotton plantations of the early 19th century. Plantation owners pioneered many modern business and financial systems, and also developed a mindset that tolerated extreme inequality with wealth and privilege only for a lucky few.  Their success depended on the brutal exploitation of kidnapped Africans.  

The brutality of that system was justified by the pseudo-science of racism, with otherwise respectable scientific minds purporting to show that Africans and their American descendants were inherently inferior.  Ian Frazier has a very fine piece in this week’s New Yorker on that subject, including the early 20th century work of Madison Grant and his popularizer, Lothrop Stoddard. 

Reading this history is helpful in showing that our racism is not natural.  It was a human invention. It’s turned out to be surprisingly durable, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be undone.  Since we had the power to set it up, we clearly have the power to undo it. But plainly, fixing it will take hard work.  For most of my life, I thought that the system was gradually disappearing on its own, but recent events have shown how wrong I was.  

Grizzley mom

If we take on the hard work of breaking down our caste system and its underlying psychology, it’s bound to make us better, at least a little.  Less hatred and fear equal more happiness. Our current system requires that we accept as normal unfairness, injustice, and brutality. It desensitizes us and leaves us morally numb.  As we overcome that system, we’ll be better able to connect with people different from ourselves, and even with ourselves.  

The moral numbness of our racist system may also account for part of our problems connecting with other living things in the natural world.  As we clear away racist ways of thinking, we may find ourselves seeing more of the beauty and wonder of nature, and how fragile it is. It might motivate us to get to work on mitigating the existential threats facing our planet.  

Getting ready for bears, finding butterflies, more mass shootings, and how racism affects us


Next week I’ll be going to Klemtu, British Columbia for a photography workshop involving bears.  I’m excited, but also a little daunted, since there’s a lot I don’t know about bears. This week I’ve been shopping for expedition clothing and equipment.  I’d like to thank Peace Camera, my local photo shop, for their patience and good advice, and REI, Great Outdoor Provision Co., and L.L. Bean for their high quality products and friendly service.    

Trying to get ready for the bears, I got outside a few times with my camera, but the only photogenic animals I saw were butterflies.  Those here were in Raulston Arboretum, where they were working hard in the flowers. Though they had no interest in posing for me, they didn’t seem to mind my shooting them.  Anyhow, there were many shots I didn’t get, but I did get these which I liked.  

I’m generally hesitant to refer to taking pictures as shooting, because the term is ambiguous, and I’m definitely not referring to using guns.  Mass shootings were once again in the news this week, causing fresh horror and renewed calls for reasonable gun control. It is sad and remarkable that our politics prevents fixing this relatively simple problem.   

I’ve been reading a lot lately about racial bias and wondering how much of our gun proliferation problem relates to our racism problem.  There’s a lot of evidence that white people unthinkingly and wrongly associate black people with negative qualities, including criminality.  How much of the drive to own firearms comes from an irrational fear of black criminals? A goodly amount, I’d wager. To judge from the crowds at Trump rallies, the folks most enthusiastic about guns are the ones that are most supportive of Trump’s racism.  They may well think they need guns to fend off black criminals.  

I think it’s a mistake to blame Trump for our racism.  His incitement of racist violence is revolting and scary, but the American system of white supremacy was in place long before he was born. And to fathom it requires looking well beyond the President’s outrages.  I even give Trump credit for a possible silver lining: his grotesque and overt racism takes the issue out from under the covers and makes it somewhat easier to see and work on.  

I used to think that the main problem with white racism was the disadvantages it created for black people.  Those disadvantages, from limiting job, housing, and educational opportunities on down to emotional and physical violence, are wrong, and we need to fix them.  But our traditional racism has ripple effects that are related to a host of other problems.  

The meta problem is our political polarization, which makes it almost impossible to work on other major problems (like gun control, population control, deindustrialization, fair elections, the social safety net, health care, and climate change).  This polarization is in large part a product of our racism.  

Nixon’s “southern strategy” in 1968 was to use racist dog whistles and fearmongering to get southern Democrats to vote Republican, and succeeding generations of Republican politicians have followed the same playbook with varying degrees of subtlety.  As Sahil Chinoy pointed out in the NY Times this week, race and attitudes toward race are a strong predictor of whether we call ourselves Republicans or Democrats.

Unless you just arrived here from outer space or Honduras, you probably know that Republicans are a mostly white party, and Democrats are a more racially mixed party.  This division wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if we viewed race as merely a physical difference, like height or eye color.  But we’re deeply conditioned to associate blackness with fearsome things. The political party that doesn’t much care for blacks not only disagrees with the other party; it believes it to be dangerous.  It’s hard to work cooperatively with people you think are a threat to peace and order.  

So a lot of our political disagreements that seem to have nothing to do with race are the progeny of racism.  I should note that I’m talking here about systems and tendencies. I don’t at all mean to suggest that all Republican individuals are racists, or that all Democrats are not.  On the contrary, I think a lot of us in both parties think that racism is wrong and want to end it.  But not a lot of us fully appreciate how thoroughly our racist culture has conditioned us, how much our lives today are affected by that culture, and how much work we have to do, both as individuals and as a society, for real change.      

By way of advancing the discussion, I’ve been reading, and hope others will read, White Fragility:  Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by Robin DiAngelo. DiAngelo’s message is particularly important and helpful for white people who consciously support racial equality but don’t realize how they too have been deeply conditioned by a racist system.  She pulls no punches, and makes a convincing case that those of us who consider ourselves progressives as to racial matters still have a lot of interior work to do.  

I’m also reading and recommending Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, by Jennifer Eberhardt.  Eberhardt is a black social psychologist whose work involves studying racial bias. The book is part autobiography and part science. With moving and personal stories, she shows how deeply seated racism is in our culture, and how much work it will take to undo it. 

Putting some art in artificial intelligence, cheering debate points, and some helpful English history

 

Sunflowers--6It’s well and truly summer in North Carolina, and plenty hot and humid.  If I have a nature photography project or want to practice golf, I try to finish up by 10:00 a.m. to avoid the full-on heat.  Back in the air conditioning, I’ve been spending more time at the computer with my photo processing software.

I made these images using my own recent photos and Topaz Impressions.  TI has numerous templates for getting started, and then you can modify the virtual brushes, brushstrokes, amount of paint, and other parameters.  Figuring out the basics for working it takes just a few minutes, though I’m sure achieving mastery takes a good deal more.

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I’m not sure whether I’ll be committing long term to this kind of image making, but it’s fun to experiment with it.  It’s hard to believe that a relatively inexpensive consumer software product can persuasively reproduce artistic effects that once took years of training.  This artificial intelligence is empowering and exciting.  

There are, of course, other aspects of AI that are worrisome, including automated warfare and elimination of large swathes of human employment, along with the associated economic activity (like the ability to buy groceries).  I’ve been reading Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, which includes a surprisingly dispassionate appraisal of the likelihood that our AI will in due course far outstrip our intellectual abilities, and the dark implications of that fundamental change.  There is, of course, a reasonable possibility that we will blow ourselves up or otherwise destroy civilization as we know it before we reach the AI tipping point, but in case we don’t, we need to be figuring out how to contain the AI risks.

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I was pleased to see the issue of AI’s eliminating jobs getting attention at the Democratic presidential candidate debate this week.  Andrew Yang was really impressive in explaining in simple terms how our amazing technology is transforming our economy to produce increasing inequality.  His proposed solution of a universal basic income is sensible, though I very much doubt it will be adequate.  

I was also happy to see most of the Democratic candidates talking seriously about some of our other tough problems, including the climate crisis (global warming and environmental destruction), pervasive racism, pervasive sexism, mass incarceration, militarism and arms racing, and the corruption of a political system dominated by corporations and the super wealthy.  These issues have been festering for a long time, and addressing them won’t be easy. But they were hardly mentioned in the last presidential election cycle, or several before that. It’s encouraging that at least now they’re on the discussion agenda.  

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For some perspective on living in a time of great social upheaval and numerous dire problems, I recommend Robert Morrison’s new book, The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern.  As the full title indicates, Morrison examines a small slice of the history of a small country, and finds transformational developments in the business, war, and culture.

The Regency refers to England’s government between 1811 and 1820.  It was still early in the industrial revolution, which produced both great wealth and massive social dislocations.  Inequality was extreme, with wealth and political power highly concentrated, and the poor in dire straits. Crime was rampant.  The Luddites were destroying factories, while Napoleon seemed to be taking over Europe.

Then Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, and the British imperial project took off.  There were new fashions (Dandyism), sports, and broadening sexual mores, with venereal diseases running rife. It was a time of remarkable achievements in science (Babbage, Davy, and Faraday), engineering (Telford), social reform (Frye and Owen), literature (Keats, Shelley, and Byron), and painting (Constable and Turner). 

Perhaps the most influential writer from that time for our time was Jane Austen.  As Morrison notes, her great novels (such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma) treat issues of romance and domesticity in a way that barely suggests the numerous intellectual and social revolutions that surrounded her.  She was in many ways conservative. Yet she called into question traditional assumptions about the role of women and the larger social order. At the same time, she distilled, with insight, elegance, and humor, timeless truths about human emotions and relations.  

Looking through Morrison’s lens reminded me of what history at its best can do.  What we see in the past depends on where we look and how carefully, and what we know and care about at a given moment.  That is, history changes over time as we (as societies and as individuals) change. It is never a completed project, because the knowledge we bring to research is always a work in progress, and in any case, we can never know everything.  But when we carefully examine the past with good faith, we can better understand both the past and the present.  

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Keeping in focus both the vast sweep of the industrial revolution and Austen’s brilliant tiny dramas is tricky.  But we have just that kind of problem every day. How much energy should we spend addressing our climate catastrophe and other huge problems, and how much about the completely personal, like improving a golf shot or piece of music or having a pleasant Saturday night dinner with friends?  Of course, we need to do both, and do.   

I had a piano lesson last week with the fabulous Dr. Olga Kleiankina, and was again reminded of the big commitment great music requires.  When I lamented my struggles to get control of Brahms’s Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2, she pointed out that it would take a professional concert pianist months to prepare the piece for performance.  And of course, I’m not looking to play at Carnegie Hall. I’m just hoping to understand the music better, enjoy it more, and give some healthy musical nourishment to myself and interested friends.  

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But even achieving that takes sustained commitment, which means certain other worthwhile endeavors will not get done.  I occasionally ask myself whether using a meaningful portion of my finite life energy on music is the sanest, most responsible choice.  Though without it, I’d probably be somewhat less sane and happy.  

Anyhow, I am completely unconflicted about one new project:  learning to cook with a slow cooker. With encouragement from Jocelyn, I bought a Crock Pot a few weeks ago, and have been improving my slicing and spicing skills.  Yesterday I made a vegetarian coconut quinoa curry, which simmered for 7 hours. Sally pronounced it delicious! And though I did a lot of cubing of veggies, I managed not to cut myself!Sunflowers--5.jpg

Considering sunflowers, and a proposal for survival: population control

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This week I spent some more time with the sunflowers at Dix Park.  There were a lot of pretty ones, including some at least eight feet tall, and others that had passed their prime.  I learned from signs there that sunflowers are the only flowers with flower in their name, and that they point themselves toward the sun during the day.  

Dix Park was formerly the site of Dorothea Dix Hospital, North Carolina’s first institution for the mentally ill, which was progressive when it was opened in 1856 and not so much so when it was finally closed in 2012.  The sunflower field is on top of a former garbage dump (officially, a “landfill”). The sunflowers are grown as an industrial crop that provides fuel for city vehicles.  

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The connections between mental illness, institutions, garbage, and urban transport take us in one direction, but sunflowers take us in another.  They stand up tall and shine, and without any effort, cheer us up.  I put one on my phone for a new screen saver.

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Last night Sally and I watched The Inventor, a documentary about Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos.  Holmes recruited investors with promises of revolutionizing medical testing with new technology. It turned out that the technology was not actually in existence.  There were hundreds of employees, including some trying to build a testing machine that corresponded to Holmes’s idea, but they never made a successful model.  

In the documentary, we see Holmes presenting herself and her idea, and she’s undeniably attractive and impressive.  It’s easy to see how a lot of successful and sophisticated people believed in her.  It isn’t altogether clear what she herself was thinking. The human mind has an amazing capacity for self delusion, so Holmes may have believed a lot of her own baloney.  It may be that she started out as a cockeyed big dreamer and, as the impossibility of the dream became clear, ended up as a wanton fraudster.    It’s an interesting psychological puzzle.Sunflowers-0431Speaking of puzzles, I finished Christine Korsgaard’s important  but sometimes difficult book, Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals.  Korsgaard is a brave soul. She challenges the almost-never-questioned assumption that humans have a right to do whatever they want to non-human life.  If there is no such right, what humans are doing to non-human life is monstrously evil.  For example, we kill more than 50 billion farm animals a year.  It’s not an easy subject.

Korsgaard suggests that the earth would be much better off without so many humans, which is almost certainly true.  I was surprised, though, that she doesn’t press more on the issue of restraining population growth as a bridge to a less broken world.  

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Our politicians’ ridiculous fearmongering over immigrant invasions is a distorted-mirror reflection of a real problem:  there are too many people on the earth, and many more are coming soon. There are not enough natural resources to sustain all the people that are here with their existing and hoped for consumption patterns.  Those consumption patterns are already disrupting non-human life on a massive scale, including widespread extinction of entire species. At the same time, resource conflicts are disrupting various countries, creating millions of refugees, and undermining governments.

And the problems are getting worse.  The population, which is now around 7 billion, is still growing.  For all our current global population to have the American level of consumption would require the resources of 4 earths.  And we’re expecting 4 billion more humans by the end of this century, so we’ll be needing almost two additional earths.  

But we only have the one.  Climate change and other environmental problems, such as air pollution, fresh water loss, and soil erosion are all exacerbated by increasing populations in a negative feedback loop.  

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Here’s a simple example:  as there are more people who need more food, a changing climate and environmental degradation will make it harder or impossible to grow enough food for all.  And industrialized agriculture, already a major contributor to climate change, in attempting to produce more food, will likely further degrade the environment.  For a fuller accounting of very possible near term environmental destruction mechanisms, read The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells.

At present, our default mode for addressing this population problem is to pretend it doesn’t exist.  There is, to be sure, a sense in which it could take care of itself: people in excess of the earth’s carrying capacity will likely die by the millions or billions.  However, adopting this solution would be horrible, not only for humans, but for all the non-human life that the desperate humans would extinguish in their losing struggle to survive.  

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Beginning with better education on family planning, we could slow the pace of population growth, and eventually arrive at a population that could exist without irreversible planetary destruction.  Korsgaard suggests the possibility that reproduction might be regulated with some sort of licensing scheme. As she notes, we don’t let people drive cars without demonstrating the necessary skill set, but we have no skills requirement for parenting.  

Any change like that would be controversial, of course, and perhaps we’d conclude that’s not a good approach.  But if we’re hoping to avoid horrendous destruction of human and non-human life,  we need to get creative and get to work; there’s no time to waste.  At present, our governments aren’t working on the population problem, or even talking about working on it.  How can that be OK?