The Casual Blog

Category: biograhies

Tree behavior, Hitler, conspiracy theories, and the truth about Hillary’s email

Big Woods Road, near Jordan Lake in Chatham County, November 5, 2016

Big Woods Road, near Jordan Lake in Chatham County, November 5, 2016

Saturday morning was brisk, sunny, and clear. I drove Clara out to Jordan Lake, where I put her in sport mode and enjoyed the winding country roads. We drove up one of my favorites, Big Woods Road, and stopped at various spots to look for birds and colorful trees.

Clara, pausing on Big Woods Road

Clara, pausing on Big Woods Road

I’ve been reading The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben. Wolleben has spent his life as a forester closely observing trees, and has also assimilated a great deal of research into their biology and behavior. As the title indicates, he contends that trees are social plants that cooperate with sophisticated systems for communication, including underground connections of roots and fungi and various airborne chemicals. They work together to ward off predators, withstand weather, and take care of the young. It’s amazing! There’s a nice overview of the book at Maria Popova’s wonderful blog, Brainpickings.
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On a more somber note, I’ve been reading the new biography of Hitler by Ullrich Volker. It covers H’s birth to the start of WWII. It’s a good read, and offers insights into (though no definitive solution to) the great mystery: how could an intellectually mediocre charlatan maniac seize and hold dictatorial power, with such dire consequences? At the end of WWI, Hitler quickly rose in political life as a popular speaker on the theme that there was a vast, powerful Jewish conspiracy that accounted for Germany’s problems.

This bizarre conspiracy theory was widespread at the time, and of course has never disappeared. How do such crazy ideas take root and propagate? There seem to be a lot of them flying around these days. A case in point: militiamen who believe the Second Amendment is under siege. The NY Times had a fascinating piece yesterday on these folks by David Zucchino, with good pics by Kevin Lyles.

They are mostly white, rural, and working class, and they like to get together on weekends to shoot their weapons. Zucchino got them to talk. They are passionately convinced of many nutty ideas: Hillary is coming to get their guns, ISIS is invading the country, the Democrats are rigging voting machines. Also, they want to make America great again. All I can say is, Yikes!
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Only slightly less bizarre is the meme, now rampant, that Hillary’s email handling shows that she is unusually dishonest and corrupt. Matthew Yglesias of Vox did a good piece unpacking this tale and showing it to be based on nothing. Hillary’s handling of email was not illegal, and there’s no basis for accusing her of dishonesty. And yet the networks have devoted more air time to this non-story than every other policy issue combined.

Yglesias concludes as follows:

One malign result of obsessive email coverage is that the public is left totally unaware of the policy stakes in the election. Another is that the constant vague recitations of the phrase ‘‘Clinton email scandal’’ have firmly implanted the notion that there is something scandalous about anything involving Hillary Clinton and email, including her campaign manager getting hacked or the revelation that one of her aides sometimes checked mail on her husband’s computer.

But none of this is true. Clinton broke no laws according to the FBI itself. Her setup gave her no power to evade federal transparency laws beyond what anyone who has a personal email account of any kind has. Her stated explanation for her conduct is entirely believable, fits the facts perfectly, and is entirely plausible to anyone who doesn’t simply start with the assumption that she’s guilty of something.

P.S. On Monday morning at the gym I listened to the podcast version of the latest This American Life, which included a segment on Hillary and the emails. Garrett Graff, a veteran reporter, came to pretty much the same conclusion as Yglesias: there’s no actual scandal. Graff noted that he, like other reporters, always hopes investigations will lead to titillating revelations of misconduct. We often see what we want to see, whether it’s there or not, which may account for some of the press’s egregiously biased “scandal” reporting of the email story. Those reports started a feedback loop that has grown very loud and shrill and overwhelmed our ability to consider the facts.

In New York — FOSS, museums, Broadway, and the marathon

A window table at Stella 34, with the Empire State Building in the background

A window table at Stella 34, with the Empire State Building in the background

New York City is still the greatest! It’s so energizing. I went up Thursday night to attend the Software Freedom Law Center’s fall conference on Friday, and for the weekend we did some fun city things – museums, Broadway, sports, and food.

The conference at Columbia Law School was in part a celebration of how far free and open source software has come, but also discussed less pleasant things, like copyright trolls and security. I enjoyed seeing a number of business friends from leading tech companies and catching up.

Jocelyn picked out some fun places to eat, including Stella 34, which is on the fifth floor of Macy’s. The Italian food was good, and we had an epic view of the Empire State Building.
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On Saturday morning Sally and I went to the Metropolitan Museum and saw two special exhibits – Kongo: Power and Majesty (art of central Africa), and Ancient Egypt Transformed: the Middle Kingdom. After our recent Africa trip, I’ve been listening to African music, and was eager to learn more about its art.

Slavery and horrendous colonial exploitation is what I think of first when I think of central and western Africa, but the exhibit demonstrates that there was an elaborate and well-developed culture and artistic tradition before Europeans arrived. There was extraordinary craftsmanship in their carvings and weaving, and something powerful in their religious objects. If you can’t get to the Met, you can see all the objects here.
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As for Egypt, the Middle Kingdom ran from 2030-1650 BC and from the 11th through the 13th dynasties. This exhibit also changed the way I thought of this society. It’s strange, of course, to think that pharaohs were viewed as gods, but all religions have their quirks. I’d thought of the sculpture as normally cold and formulaic, if well crafted, but was struck by how tenderly human and individual some of it was. Here again, you can check it all online.
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I’ve generally avoided museum audio guides, on the theory that it’s good to struggle with finding the message of objects than to be spoon fed. But it was well worth using the Met’s audio guide for these exhibits. The commentary was usually intelligent, and it was helpful to hear the pronunciation of the unfamiliar African and Egyptian words.
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Afterwards, I went down to the Museum of Modern Art to see a special exhibit of the sculpture of Picasso. Apparently Picasso did not think of himself as a sculptor, but used sculptural tools for exploring new ideas. These were often witty and lively works, in a variety of styles and media. Picasso is really inspiring in his never-ending curiosity and energy.
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That evening we went to see Hamilton, a big hit on Broadway about the life of Alexander Hamilton told in the hip hop vernacular. Jocelyn had seen it twice off-Broadway, and was hugely excited about seeing it again. Her enthusiasm had motivated me to do a bit of homework beforehand, including reading the Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton, listening to the cast recording, and listening to some of the big hip hop hits of the last three decades.

I really liked the show. Hamilton’s life story is richly dramatic, and his achievements were extraordinary. That’s a good start, but to bring them into the present with an urban vernacular is such a great idea! At the same time, to take on some complicated history, with a spirit that is both playful and serious, is remarkable! The creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda is surely brilliant, and seems to understand that history is not something that is fixed, but rather always subject to reexamination and new understandings. Anyhow, it’s both a fun show, and richly thoughtful. How often does that happen?
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On Sunday morning we walked up to Central Park South to see the New York City Marathon. It is, of course, remarkable that people can run 26.2 miles at any speed, much less the pace that the elite athletes do. We were privileged to see the top finishers approaching Columbus Circle, close to the end. They looked focused, but not miserable. I read the next day that the men’s winner, Stanley Biwott of Kenya, ran mile 21 in 4:24, and only a few seconds slower for the next two miles. That is beyond amazing!

Winner Mary Keitany of Kenya, with about a third of a mile to go

Winner Mary Keitany of Kenya, with about a third of a mile to go

Hitting the little white ball, the appalling debate, ocean concerns, and reading Hamilton

At Raulston Arboretum, September 18, 2015

At Raulston Arboretum, September 18, 2015

On Wednesday after work, I went over to Raleigh Country Club and practiced on the range for a bit. Lately I’ve been trying to get out to practice a couple of times a week, with a view to making prettier and longer parabolas. It looks so much easier than it is. The late afternoon was peaceful and mild.

Sally was waiting on the terrace looking out on hole number 10 when I finished, and we had dinner there. It was overcast, and looking west we couldn’t see the sun directly as it was setting. But suddenly the clouds lit up a bright orange-pink, and for a few minutes the colors were amazing.

After dinner, Sally had to go to her mom’s apartment to take care of Diane’s two greyhounds, and so I watched the Republican presidential debate alone. It was, of course, appalling, though also by moments fascinating. The eleven candidates were all, in their various ways, intelligent and well spoken, and also in varying degrees bizarre or utterly benighted. I watched a good chunk of the three-hour spectacle, and kept waiting for a serious treatment of the serious issue of climate change. From press accounts, it appears I missed a few brief comments on the subject, to the effect that either it’s a liberal conspiracy or there’s just nothing to be done about it, so there’s no point in thinking or talking about it. Appalling.

I read most of the World Wildlife Fund’s report this week on the state of the world’s oceans, and recommend it. The news, of course, is not good. About half the population of creatures that live in, on, and over the oceans have disappeared since 1970. Coral reefs, on which much ocean life depends, have likewise diminished, and may disappear by 2050. But the report presses the point that the situation is not hopeless. There are ways we can address the over fishing and climate change problems that largely account for the crisis.

Through diving dive on some of the world’s most beautiful coral reefs, I’ve developed a deep love for reef ecosystems, and will be seeing another one next week. Sally and I are leaving next Friday for a trip to see the reefs and animals of Mozambique. We’re hoping to see whale sharks, manta rays, humpback whales, and many other remarkable creatures. We’ll also be doing a land based photo safari in Kruger Park in South Africa. This trip has been a big dream, and has taken a lot of planning, but it should be amazing. Anyhow, I expect to be offline for a couple of weeks, but hope to have some good stories and pictures to post after that.

For this long trip, I’ll need some good books to read, and I’d expected I’d be working my way through Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, a biography of the Founding Father who was our first Secretary of the Treasury. But I’ve been so fascinated by the book that I may finish it before the trip. The Times review is here.

Hamilton, it turns out, was a brilliant, energetic, and passionate person, who accomplished an amazing amount in his short life. Among other things, he helped win the Revolutionary War as Washington’s most trusted aide-de-camp, played a primary role in fashioning the Constitution, wrote most of the Federalist to win passage of the Constitution, established a financial system for the new republic, and served as President Washington’s primary advisor. And he was handsome and well-liked by the ladies, and also the gentlemen. Of course, he had his flaws of character, and his enemies, including the sainted Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The politics of the time were at least as ungentle as now. This is a remarkable and remarkably relevant book, which I highly recommend.

Recovering, reading about B. Franklin, and addressing climate change

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This week the weather in Raleigh was mild, and it was pleasant to walk to work. The walk takes 15-20 minutes, depending on how I catch the lights and whether I’m trying to get there for an early meeting. When I wasn’t especially pressed, I made a few pictures of people working and playing.
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Now, after two weeks from our return from Dominica, my various wounds (assorted bruises, scrapes, and blisters) are mostly healed up. The most worrisome, my severely sprained right hand, is still swollen and sore, but hurting less, and I’m able to play octaves on the piano, though not loudly. It reminded me of when I first tried to learn to catch a football as a little kid, and jammed up my fingers.
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It is remarkable how the body can overcome and regenerate. In fact, did you ever notice how sometimes a new injury seems to help an old one to heal? My nagging shoulder issues, which I’ve been trying to get over for several months, seem to have gone away, cured or obscured by the addition of new, more pressing discomforts.
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It’s Memorial Day weekend, and we’re still full of memories of our friend Scott, who shuffled off this mortal coil right after leading our Dominica trip. He managed, by being an unusually vibrant and generous person, to hook himself into the fabric our lives, and his departure has ripped that fabric. We’ve been talking about him, his good deeds and his goofiness, and looking back at photos. For therapy and comfort, I’ve been rereading some of In Memoriam, Tennyson’s poetic memorial to his beloved friend Arthur Hallam. Yes, it rhymes, in a style that’s way out of fashion now, but it can still speak to us. It takes grief and loss seriously, and delves deep.
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As I’ve noted before, my favorite founding father is Benjamin Franklin. Last week I finished another biography of him, by H.W. Brands. Franklin was a protean genius with many aspects, and so the biographer will inevitably neglect some of them. Brands is most interested in the political and literary Franklin, and less in the scientist and philosopher. But in describing Franklin’s diplomatic efforts in England prior to the revolution and his diplomacy in France during it, he gave me new perspectives on the war. For those of us who cut our historical teeth on revisionism, it is reassuring that Franklin, who loved England dearly, could conclude that there was no alternative to war.

For all Franklin’s enormous fame during his lifetime, it’s interesting that there are significant gaps in the record, and much we don’t know about his inner life. But what keeps shining through is his insatiable curiosity about the natural world and his constant effort to make the human world better. It’s also inspiring to me, as I get on in years, that a good portion of his greatest achievements, including helping invent and establish American democracy, were in the last quarter of his long life.
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Apropos of making things better, there’s a good short op ed piece on climate change by Tom Friedman in the NY Times, which poses a question I’ve been wondering about: “How do we do something about [global warming] at the scale required, when many remain skeptical or preoccupied with the demands of daily life[?] He also quickly hones in on the central moral and political quandary – the conflict between the welfare of this generation and future generations: “our ethical values point one way, towards intergenerational responsibility, but our political system points another, towards the short-term horizon of the next generation.” (Quoting Thomas Wells, a Dutch philosopher.) Friedman argues for urgent change, including a carbon tax and energy efficiency standards. This seems sensible, at least as a starting place.
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On Sunday I took a walk through Raulston Arboretum, which I try to do once a week, but missed recently. I completely missed the irises — they’d come and gone while I was traveling. But the roses are in full bloom, and there are some remarkable lilies.
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A beautiful Nutcracker, Xmas spinning, and getting ready for Fiji (including ebooks)

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We were on the fence about whether to go to the Carolina Ballet’s Nutcracker ballet this year. There have been many lovely Nutcrackers, even enchanting Nutcrackers, but after many years of cracking, I worried that the magic might be wearing a little thin for me. That Tchaikovsky music is great, but also very, very familiar. It would be a shame to find that the thrill was finally gone. But Will Levine, son of our friends David and Maggie, dancing the nephew/nutcracker/prince, we decided to go again.

I’m so glad we did. It was a particularly touching and magical Nutcracker. Having a live orchestra to play that delicious music really helped, and this was a good band, ably led by Al Sturges. There were the cute little kids and sumptuous costumes and settings. But most of all, there were the dancers. The Carolina Ballet has so many talented artists just now. They looked like they loved their work.

The star of the evening was Lara O’Brien as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Her SPF was elegant and assured, highly musical, with a slight note of tragic grace. Her pas de deux with Marcelo Martinez was beautiful and moving — so passionate – I got a bit misty.

Also especially wonderful was Alicia Fabry as Butterfly (the lead in the Flowers waltz), and newcomer Alyssa Pilger as the lead Ribbon Candy. Young Will did well, to the relief of his parents, and us, too. As in past years, there were a couple of little kids who could do fantastic handsprings, and big boys whose leaps seemed to defy gravity. It was all delightful. It took me into a magical place, in equal parts childhood fantasy and nostalgia, and reminded me of many happy times gone by.

In other Xmas news, I had an holiday-themed spin class at O2 this week led by the fabulous Jenn. She announced at the start that she just loved Christmas, and she’d made a special Christmas tunes mix for our spinning pleasure.

It turned out to be some hard-driving rock songs of the season, and she kicked us into a very high gear. There was lots of sprinting (including a killer sequence of fast, faster, and fastest) and intense climbing. One new trick – she can ride out of the saddle with no hands, and she thinks we can, too. I gave it a shot, and verified that it is not easy. Anyhow, the class was fun, in a brutal kind of way. I knew for certain at the end I had worked out.

For our holiday, Sally and I are heading out for a scuba diving trip to Fiji on Monday, which should be incredible. It’s taken a lot of planning, and the logistics are complicated. There are quite a few important pieces of dive gear, photo gear, and other stuff that must not be forgotten (some of which is pictured above).

In addition to all those details, I’ve given some thought to what books I want to read. Reading time is one thing to like about long flights. My tablet device makes it easier (less heavy) to carry a lot of books, but pre-loading was necessary, since I don’t expect to have much if any internet connectivity. Also, the tablet is not a good reader in direct sunlight, so I need some old-fashioned paper books as well.

Here’s a quick listing of my current books-in-progress and new ones that I may get going. The are ebooks unless otherwise noted.
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., by Ron Chernow. I figured it would be fairly interesting to find out how the Rockefeller became the most successful monopolist in history, and it has been, fairly. Rockefeller was a very driven person, with a high standard of personal morality (a lifelong Baptist) and a low standard of business morality. His trust was a primary inspiration for the beginnings of modern antitrust law.

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier. I’m about done with this one. I don’t think the title is much of an exaggeration – big data is transforming many fields, including retail, finance, education, and medicine. definitely worth thinking about.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – but Some Don’t, by Nate Silver. The creator of the FiveThirtyEight blog and impressively successful political prognosticator talks about his methods and related things. Based on the first chapter, it appears somewhat padded as a book.

The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business, by Eric Schmnidt and Jared Cohen. I picked this up out of curiosity regarding what the chairman of Google was thinking would come next. I’m about half way through, and finding it not particularly well organized, but there is interesting reporting and thinking on how technology is reshaping our lives. The portion on hacker-terrorist is hair-raising.

Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals, by Steven Wise. The author recently brought a habeas corpus action on behalf of a champanizee, which struck me as a legal long shot, but interesting, and I was curious about his theory.

Ordinary Men, by Christopher Browning. A history of a small group of regular joes who worked at ground level as part of Hitler’s final solution. For a long time I’ve been interested in the question of how otherwise normal people could participate in mass murder on an industrial scale, and Browning sheds some light on this.

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, by H.W. Brands. Franklin is by far my favorite founding father, and I’ve read most if not all of the other major contemporary biographies of him. Earlier this year I read Brands’s American Colossus: The Triumph of American Capitalism 1865-1900, and thought it was quite good, so I’m looking forward to getting his view of Franklin and his world.

Reef Fish Identification (Tropical Pacific), by Allen, Steen, Humann, and Deloach (in paper). There are an amazing number of amazing reef fish in the Pacific, and it’s fun to know a bit about them.

Zukerman Bound, by Philip Roth. I got this as a used paperback (price $4.50) of the three Zuckerman novels (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and the Anatomy Lesson). Roth is my favorite living novelist, and for some reason I hadn’t read these key works of his early middle period. It will be a great pleasure.

The Odyssey, by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles. A classic, obviously.

Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman (paper). The embodiment of what is great – and strange – about America. It seems like a good time to read it again.

A dive trip to Hatteras with a harrowing episode, visiting Manteo, and reading Robot Futures

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We undertook a four-day dive trip out of Cape Hatteras beginning last Thursday, but the weather didn’t cooperate. We made it OK to our base at Hatteras Landing, but high seas prevented our going out for the first three days. We made the best of things, enjoying some time together, exploring the local points of interest, listening to music, and reading.
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For us the most interesting non-diving local point was the N.C. Aquarium at Manteo. I particularly liked the sting ray encounter tank, where Atlantic and cownose rays came up to be petted. There was a large tank with several sand tiger and sand bar sharks, which are impressive. Their keeper got in the tank in scuba gear with a full face mask and speaking equipment, and answered questions as they swam around her. Her high degree of comfort with these fierce-looking creatures was, I’m sure, an educational moment for the kids and adults in attendance.
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While in Manteo, we also visited the Elizabethan Gardens. Sally remembered my mother had talked about how beautiful it was, and we found it so. The first part is a formal garden with ornamental hedges, but the greater part of it is wooded, with enormous oaks and shade loving plants.
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With no other pressing business, I did some walking on the Hatteras beach, and took some pictures of the birds at work there. I got a few of sanderlings and willets on the edge of the surf that I liked.
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As for reading, I started a biography of John D. Rockefeller, Titan by Ron Chernow, which seems lively so far. And I finished Robot Futures by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh. Nourbakhsh is a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon, and his book describes the current state of the art in robotics and also gives a forward projection of what several decades might bring. Some of it seems science fictiony, but that may be unavoidable – technology has already surpassed some of the science fiction of my youth.

Nourbakhsh describes robots as “a new form of living glue between our physical world and the digital universe we have created.” He gently makes clear that robots are not limited in their mental or physical abilities to what humans can do. Forget the Jetson and their butler robot. Real robots can be stronger and faster, and move in different ways (like flying, or crawling like a snake). They can perceive parts of the visual spectrum we can’t, and hear pitches that we can’t. They can connect to the internet more efficiently than humans, and potentially process information from numerous sources that are far beyond our capacities.

Robot Futures recognizes that there will be many different types of robots with widely varying abilities, including ones that are closely controlled by humans and others which will be partially or entirely autonomous. It will not be easy for humans to tell the difference. Autonomous robots with access to robot Google and links to other robot databases may well know more about us when we encounter them than we about them.

Nourbakhsh imagines a distant future where we can smoothly enter the consciousness of various robot agents that in effect teleport us to different places and allow interactions with multiple people and environments at once. He also has a darker vision of a possible world where human bodies are purchased for use as the physical casing for robot intelligence. Impossible? Let us hope so. But there is little doubt in my mind that, barring global catastrophe, the world of intelligent robots is taking shape. Robot Futures does a good job at starting the conversation of what that might mean for humans.

We finally got to dive on Sunday with Captain J.T. Barker on his dive boat, the Under Pressure. As I noted last year, J.T. designed and built an elevator on the back for getting divers out of the water. This comes in very handy in rough seas. The vessel has a large air-conditioned cabin, which permits some relaxing on long boat rides. Some video of the boat and our dives in early August last year is on his web site.
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We did two wrecks: the Proteus and the Dixie Arrow. The first was, for me, nearly disastrous. Immediately after I reached the bottom (118 feet), I paused briefly to clear water from my mask and tune my buoyancy. Visibility was limited to about 20 feet at that point. Then I looked around and saw no one and nothing. In just seconds, the current had carried me out of sight of the anchor line.

I struggled against the current for a bit, then relaxed and started working on plan B – ascend and find the boat. I began to slowly go up, then at 80 feet I suddenly noted that the air was not working at all well. The air pressure gauge showed zero. This seemed impossible – I had been under for only about 20 minutes, and usually the air lasts two or three times that long. Anyhow, it happened. Plainly, I should have checked the gauge earlier.

Although I thought it unlikely I could make an emergency ascent on one breath from 80 feet, I saw no choice but to have a go. I really didn’t feel panic, even at this point, though I was seriously concerned. I remembered my PADI training and exhaled gradually as I kicked upward. I ran out of air at about 30 feet, and hoped very much there was one last breath in the tank. I breathed in, and there was a tad — just enough to make it the rest of the way.

On the surface, I felt relief, but also concern that I might well have some degree of decompression sickness, a/k/a the bends. I was hoping to get some oxygen, but the boat, with oxygen, was far away.

As I started kicking against the current toward the board and watching to see if I was going to get sick, I felt something bump me. I reached down and felt a firm, smooth animal. A shark? I thought how really unfair it would be, after all my speaking up in defense of sharks, to end up as shark food. I finally figured out it was a ramora, which apparently wanted to attach itself to me.

I swam for quite a while with little progress, until at last Bobby, the mate, came out with a line. As we kicked, our divermaster Jim reeled us in. It was, of course, embarrassing. But I was grateful to be alive and not even ill, and it certainly was a learning experience.

During our surface interval, Captain J.T. put out some fishing lines, and hooked a fish. As the fish came near the boat, J.T. Announced with excitement that it was a wahoo, and grabbed a hook, with which he impaled the fish and hauled him aboard. The wahoo was about 3 feet long and about 30 pounds – a fine specimen.

Several folks commented on what a delicious meal he would make. Then J.T. and others observed Sally crying. These were tears for the wahoo. Our fellow divers were concerned but really puzzled. They just couldn’t comprehend Sally’s sadness at the brutal torture and death of this creature.

Our second dive, the Dixie Arrow, was less exciting, thank God. I had only a minor equipment problem: the wire to my strobe came loose – so no pictures. We got close to a lot of sand tiger sharks (maybe 10), a lot of Atlantic sting rays (maybe 12), a number of barricuda and thousands of minnows in shimmering thick clouds. It was fantastic.

Cultural diversity: yoga, Gambia, Lucretius, hockey, and Wagner

Looking west from the balcony

Daylight savings time ended this morning, and so we gained back the hour we lost in the spring. It’s strange that hours can be moved from one season to another. Anyhow, the leaves are changing, with yellows, oranges, and reds, and the temperatures are cooler. It’s fall.

Tuesday is my usual day for the Early Bird Yoga class at Blue Lotus with Suzanne. I normally get up at 5:30, do half an hour of interval work on the elliptical machine in my building, change out of my sweaty tee shirt into a fresh one, grab my yoga mat, and get to the 6:30 class in good time. Some yoga breathing, lowering, lifting, balancing and stretching is a good way to start the day.

Suzanne’s instructions are direct and clear, and her strength and grace are beautiful and inspiring. Each class is different, and lately she’s been taking us noticeably beyond our comfort zone. She seemed really pleased last week when she got us all up in tripod headstands. This week she had us all try side crow. This did not work at all for anyone (except her). Lately I’ve been working on front crow, and making progress, so perhaps we’ll do side crow one day.

Early Wednesday morning (5:40) I got in a cab to go to the airport. The cab driver was winded, and said he’d been doing jumping jacks to stay awake while waiting for me. It was better, he said, not to drink too much coffee. I agreed. He asked me where I was going, and I told him the bare fact (Boston), thinking I’d rather not get involved in a chat. There’s effort involved, and no guaranteed reward. But after a couple of minutes of silence, I relented. I figured I would try to be a decent chap and throw a lifeline to a lonely soul, so I asked him where he was from. Answer: Gambia, a tiny country in west Africa which I knew almost nothing about, and which he dearly loved.

He was a lively guy, and much more interesting than NPR. He described the government in terms that sounded benign though authoritarian, and improvements in roads, schools, and hospitals. He said that most people were at least part-time farmers and described how they stored crops in their own warehouses. When I asked him about his languages, he said he spoke seven, including three from Gambia and French, Spanish, and German. His English was accented but just fine.

The weather was clear and mild in northern Massachusetts, but there was still snow on the ground from an early season storm that had left many thousands without power. I did a bunch of meetings in Westford and then went down to Cambridge for more. On the flight back I read How to Read Montaigne by Terence Cave. Montaigne (1533-1592) is a startlingly original, modern thinker.

I was inspired to start exploring Montaigne by a few comments in an excellent book I finished a couple of weeks back: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. The Swerve recounts the discovery in a monastery in 1417 of a copy of an ancient Roman manuscript, and explains how that discovery changed history. The discoverer, Poggio Bracciolini, was a former apostolic secretary for a deposed Pope with a classical education and passion for finding and saving ancient books. The book that was almost lost, On the Nature of Things, was written by Lucretius about 50 BCE. It’s an epic poem that describes the philosophy of Epicureanism. Greenblatt covers a lot of ground, from the philosophers of Greece and Rome, the creation of libraries, the fanaticism of early Christianity, the preservation of books in medieval monasteries, the intrigues of the popes, religious wars, the intellectuals of the Renaissance (including Montaigne), and onward.

In addition to a lot of lively history, there’s a pithy account of the ideas of Epicurus (b. 342 BCE), including the notion that the entire universe is constructed of tiny indivisible building blocks called atoms. This carried with it a view of the world as a natural phenomenon, not something magical created and controlled by gods. Epicurus espoused freedom from superstition and the pursuit of pleasure.

By pleasure he meant not pursuit of wealth or debauchery, but something more nuanced that included a sense of wonder at the beauty of the natural world.. According to Philodemus, a follower of Epicurus, “It is impossible to live pleasurably … without living prudently and honourably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously, and without making friends, and without being philanthropic.” The Epicureans celebrated friendship, emphasized charity and forgiveness, and were suspicious of worldly ambition.

According to Greenblatt, Epicureans, including Lucretius, believed that the gods existed, but that they couldn’t possibly be concerned with human beings. Along with atoms, Lucretius’s ideas encompassed the notion that living beings have evolved through a long process of trial and error, that the world exists for reasons that have nothing to do with humans, that humans are not unique but rather linked to all other life forms and to inorganic matter, there is no afterlife, that religions are superstitious delusions based on longings, fears, and ignorance, and that by fashioning gods humans became enslaved to their own dreams. Happiness could be attained through discarding delusions through reasons, looking squarely at the true nature of things, and discovering a sense of wonder.

These ideas were, of course, not congenial to early Christians, who almost succeeded in stamping them out. But somehow a copy survived, which Poggio discovered and copied, and which is recopied many times, and ultimately influenced thinkers in subsequent generations up to our own. Greenblatt’s book is a true pleasure.

We saw some professional hockey on Friday night: the Caroline Hurricanes vs. the Washington Capitols. I’d learned from my new assistant about a free bus that runs between downtown and the hockey games, and it turned out that it made a stop right at our building. The bus arrived on time, with many cheerful fans dressed in Hurricanes red and white. We had a good view from box seats.

The Hurricanes started strong but collapsed in the third period and got trounced. As long as the game was close, it was fun. As with soccer, the more hockey I watch, the more I see and appreciate the incredible athleticism. The drama is simple, but effective: there’s a surge of great joy at every goal our team makes, and stab of pain at a goal of the opponents. The bus trip back home seemed slower and much less cheerful.

On Saturday we saw quite a different sort of drama, Siegfried, the third opera of Wager’s Ring cycle, broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera to all over the world, including the North Hills Cinema. I know the music well from CDs, and love it, but had some qualms about the amount of sitting required: five and a half hours. Wagner is musically dense, and that’s a lot of Wagner. It was, it turned out, for us, incredibly powerful.

The story is about courage. Siegfried is a callow young hero who forges a magic sword and uses it to slay a dragon and an evil dwarf, then travels though a ring of fire to save and win a beautiful maiden. In pre-broadcast comments, Renee Fleming (a great soprano who would know) described Siegfried as the most difficult tenor role in the world. Our Siegfried was Jay Hunter Morris, a relative unknown who subbed in at the last moment and had a total of three performances under his belt when he performed before a worldwide audience of many thousands yesterday. This took true courage. Morris gave a performance for the ages, vocally powerful but nuanced throughout. The entire cast was superb, and the technical effects (especially the ring of fire) were impressive. Fabio Luisi conducted brilliantly. The famous horn solo, the exciting few bars that horn players test and polish their whole lives, was perfect.

This Siegfried, the opera, moved me deeply (tears). Driving home afterwards, I felt wrung out but exhilarated. Sally also loved it, and announced that she was now a Wagnerian. I found this very cheering.

Benjamin Franklin, my hero

Benjamin Franklin is my favorite founding father.  There are chapters in the lives of others that I admire — Washington’s bravery, Jefferson’s eloquence, Madison’s political vision — but even these giants had glaring flaws and failures.  But Franklin’s life as a whole is extraordinary, with many varied chapters — printer, author, scientist, inventor, politician, revolutionary, diplomat.  He was, truly, a Renaissance man.

I’ve been reading, or re-reading, his Autobiography.  I have a memory of reading it as a sixth grader, but the book must have been a simplified and expurgated children’s version.  Franklin’s writing is mostly plain and direct, not much concerned with literary effect.  His writing hurries toward his main objective, which is to tell what he has learned about how to live.  He believes unequivocally in the virtue of hard work, honesty, frugality, and temperance.  He very much wants to communicate the value of these habits and attitudes.  But he does not appear dour or gloomy.  Rather, he seems mostly cheerful.  He strikes me as lively and always curious, a person who enjoyed both people and ideas, who had fun.

How did he manage to be so accomplished and productive?  I think a large part of it was due to the old-fashioned virtues he promotes, like diligence and honesty.  The man worked very hard and mostly kept to the straight and narrow.  But another quality, which he does not (at least so far as I’ve read) discuss, was also important: unselfish caring.  Franklin cared about other people, both as individuals and as communities, and dedicated much of his life to helping them.  He was generous with his gifts.  That generous spirit made him a happy, productive person.

In the Autobiography, Franklin does not conceal his moments of weakness and mistakes.  He’s human — but a really remarkable human.  I’ve been realizing how much his example impressed me as a child and influenced my development.  For a role model, one could do much worse.

Revisiting Lincoln

   I finally made it to the end of A Lincoln, by Ronald White, and I’m about halfway through Lincoln by David Herbert Donald.  It seems like a good time  to think more about Lincoln.  He’s near the heart of the American civil religion  (along with Washington, the Constitution, and the flag).  And like us with our times of many troubles (wars, financial crisis, global warming, extinction of many species, etc.), he faced enormous challenges. In 1860, the year of he was elected president, slavery looked like a problem that that had no imagineable tolerable solution.  In 1865 it was (at least in legal terms) over.  

    It’s hard to spend time with a Lincoln biography without feeling awed and inspired.   We used to teach our fifth graders a few bumper sticker-size Lincoln facts, which have been lodged in my head since I was a kid.  The log cabin.  The rail splitter.  The love of reading and learning.  The frontier lawyer.  Honest Abe.  Political opponent of slavery.  Savior of the union.   The kid’s version is simplified, of course, but the bumper stickers aren’t seriously misleading.

    Yet many of his contemporaries thought him an uncouth backwoods fellow.  Apparently he had a high, annoying voice, dressed poorly, and was considered more-than-usually ugly.  His early career was a checkered effort to make ends meet in frontier towns, and he experienced job loss, unemployment, bankruptcy, and uncertain prospects.  He was reasonably successful as a lawyer, but he didn’t make a lot of money.   As a new president, he was in way over his head, and he made many costly mistakes.  He had views on race and other subjects that seem today retrograde.  He was not a saint.

   Even so, he continues to inspire us.  His willingness to confront long odds and to reach for the best and highest are still moving.  He was a man of many virtues.  There are two that I take as as exemplary — honesty and intellectual curiosity.

    Lincoln made sure that the individuals he dealt with were fairly treated even when it was to his disadvantage.  I believe his reputation for exceptional honesty was a critical factor to his success.  He won authority because people believed he was honest, that he was not corrupt, and that he would do what he believed in good faith was the right thing.  

   Lincoln was also unusual in his passion for  learning.  As a boy growing up on homestead in the frontier, Linconln got almost no formal schooling.  He attended school for less than 12 months over his lifetime. How did he get so smart?  Simple: he read omniverously.  (Apparently he did most of it out loud, which must have been annoying at times.)  He believed it was possible to transform himself, to become better.  His story reminds us of how much a single human can achieve.