The Casual Blog

Category: books

Getting close to big cats, a ballet Dream, transgender recognition, and Political Animals

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On Saturday morning I saw some big cats at the Conservators’ Center near Mebane, NC, where I got a tour with a group from the Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association. We got wonderfully close to lions, tigers, leopards, caracals, servals, and binturongs, as well as wolves, dingos, and coyotes. We were allowed to poke our lenses through holes in the fences, on the condition that we had to be ready to move back quickly when directed, which we were and did. A couple of times we heard several of the big cats roar together, which was a deep, rich sound. The friendly staff seemed devoted to these beautiful animals. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that their lives are unnaturally circumscribed, which made me kind of wistful.
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I got cheered up that evening by the Carolina Ballet’s last program of the season, with Robert Weiss’s Water Music and George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Water Music, with Handel’s iconic score, was at once regal and playful, danced with wonderful elegance by leads Margaret Severin-Hansen, Richard Krusch, and Alicia Fabry. Balanchine’s Dream, with Mendelssohn’s shimmering music, was gorgeous and funny. Pablo Javier Perez threatened to steal the show as an exotic Puck, and Ashley Hathaway, Lindsay Purrington, Adam Schiffer, and Oliver Beres had extended romantic complications. The children who played fireflies and ladybugs were delightful.
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With so much beauty and creativity in North Carolina, it’s particularly unfortunate that our Republican politicians continue to embarrass us on an industrial scale. We’re now known nationally and internationally for our anti-leadership in the area of transgender rights. This week they sued the Justice Department in federal court over their beloved HB 2, a/k/a the bathroom bill. I read the complaint, and I think I now understand how they can view themselves as non-discriminatory.

In a nutshell, these so-called conservatives do not believe transgender people actually exist. There are, for them, only two possible sexes, defined according to a look at the genitals of a just-emerged newborn. Any person whose behavior does not align with gender stereotypes – say, a person with a penis who likes wearing dresses – is by definition a fake and a fraud, and up to no good. We need to protect the children from them.

This binary categorization system is similar to that once widely used to marginalize and dehumanize blacks as inferior and gays as defective perverts. It is ignorant and mean. But, as I’ve noted, it is good that this prejudice is now out in the open where it can be debated and changed. The conservatives’ exclusion of gays from the joys and privileges of marriage got thrown on the ash heap of history more quickly than expected, and the view that trans people are not real people entitled to respect could change quickly, too.
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This week I finished reading Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brains Get in the Way of Smart Politics, by Rick Shenkman. It’s about how our thinking processes often lead us astray because they were developed to serve hunter-gatherers living in small groups and facing many dangers (tigers, snakes, other hominoids). These thinking processes do not always work well in the modern world. For example, we’re strongly biased, when in doubt, to prioritize and react quickly to possible threats, and so overreact to some things that are not actually threats.

Shenkman, a historian, draws ideas from Kahneman and others, and applies them to illuminate various political and historical puzzles. He demonstrates that our powers of self-deception are amazing and almost limitless. I found particularly interesting his discussion of the evolutionary roots of empathy. He proposes that it was an evolutionary advantage to empathize and support our close kin, while regarding unrelated humans with indifference. By supporting and protecting kin who share more genes, our ancestors maximized the chances that their genes would be passed on, but doing the same for unrelated persons was wasted energy from the genes’ perspective.

It’s both helpful and disturbing that think that our most natural way of thinking is far from altruistic. It certainly could explain some of our puzzling indifference to war crimes not committed against ourselves and to large-scale humanitarian disasters, like the current refugee crisis. But we also know that it’s possible to acquire moral vision and empathy that extend beyond our close kin. This is one of the challenging lessons of Christianity (“love thy neighbor as thy self”) and other religions. We may be naturally selfish and brutish, but we can become better.
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Beauty, violence, and delusions: a Macbeth ballet, a Vietnam history, and a Kenya drone strike movie

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It was raining lightly on Saturday morning when I got to Raulston Arboretum, and there were quite a few new irises and roses. I enjoyed the colors, textures, and strange architecture, as accented by the raindrops. I had to work fast, because I’d scheduled a spin class for 9:30. But I had 25 minutes of strolling, peering, sniffing, and clicking, and made it to Flywheel in good time for the spin class with the cheery, peppy, hard-driving Vashti.

I’d felt a little discouraged after my spin class last week, when I was aiming for 300 points and managed only 281. I decided on a slightly different approach this week, involving more conscious pacing and allowing for short recovery periods. My results were better, with a final score of 307, and an average heart rate for the 45 minutes of 154, tying the record.

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That evening we went over to Durham for some food and ballet. We ate at Watts Grocery, where I had a delicious asparagus salad and couscous with beets. At DPAC we saw the new Carolina Ballet production of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s play is a bloody one, dense with painful emotion. This new ballet by Robert Weiss is also violent and anguished, but with interludes of light – friendship, play, and love. It succeeds as storytelling and as dance, with many subtleties and flourishes. Unfortunately, the music was not very interesting and highly repetitious. But I really liked the dancing, the craggy set, and the costumes.
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Speaking of bloody intervals, last week I finished reading a history of U.S. misconduct in Vietnam by Nick Turse, entitled Kill Anything That Moves. It is a difficult and almost unbearable story. The catalog of American atrocities is long – wanton murder of civilians, widespread rape, torture, and mutilation, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed on a wholesale basis by massive bombing and artillery. Hardly any of those who engineered the policies behind this carnage or those who carried it out were held accountable.

This history has been substantially suppressed, ignored, and forgotten. The human capacity for sustaining ignorance and self-delusion is a remarkable thing. In general, we are amazingly adept at suppressing new information that’s inconsistent with our prior beliefs, at justifying bad conduct when it fits with our preferences and self-interest, and at repressing memories that don’t fit into our preferred narratives. For Americans, coming to grips with any story of American action where we aren’t heroes is extremely difficult.
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But doing so is important work. Understanding the conditions that give rise to cruelty can help us prevent it. Therefore, with some hesitation, I recommend Turse’s book, with the caveat that it should be read only by mature readers not currently considering suicide or other violence and that, when reading, they take frequent breaks from these dark chapters to get hugs and kisses from their loved ones. One of my takeaways was that it’s usually or never a good idea to invade distant countries where we are ignorant and contemptuous of the people and culture.
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We saw Eye in the Sky last week at the Raleigh Grande. It was our first visit to the recently upgraded theater, and we liked the soft reclining seats. The movie is about setting up a drone strike by combined British and American military leaders and technicians in Kenyan on Al-Shabab terrorists. The primary tension in the movie is whether they should fire a powerful hellfire missile when it looks like it will kill a sweet little girl.

I thought it was well-played, and it was interesting to see what may well be close to state-of-the-art spying and killing technology. It was nice, in a way, to think that some military leaders might find it hard to decide whether to kill one little girl when they had a chance to execute several terrorists. The big question I left with, though, was never addressed in the movie: why would the U.S. and Britain be devoting themselves to fighting enemies of Kenya?
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A surprise flower, Salgado photos, Mahler symphonies, stone-age brains, and bathroom fear-mongering

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Earlier this week Sally was eager to show me a flower: the first we’d ever seen on a houseplant we’d had for 20 years. It was completely unexpected, delicate, and lovely. You never know what amazing things will turn up in nature, even when it’s this highly domesticated. In photographing the plant with my macro lens and Lightroom software, I discovered new colors and textures.

Speaking of amazing nature, I’ve been spending some time looking at Genesis, a book by Sabastiao Salgado, the great Brazilian photographer. I wrote about being greatly moved in seeing his exhibition in New York last year, and I’m very glad I got the catalog. It shows some of the most pristine and awe-inspiring places on earth, such as the Antarctic,the Amazon, and West Papua, with their native animals and people. If you have a loved one interested in photography and nature, this would be a wonderful gift. It took Salgado 32 trips over 8 years to get these images. We can take it in a lot quicker, though I expect to be drawing inspiration from these photographs for decades.
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Speaking of art that is at once accessible and challenging, I’ve been gorging on the symphonies of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) for the last few weeks. I first fell in love with this music as a teenager, and I’ve returned to it every so often with great joy. I have CDs of all Mahler’s symphonies, but recently I discovered a trove of recordings unknown to me on Spotify. This was a revelation: hearing multiple recordings of a great work expands understanding.

It turns out that there are at least several great orchestras and conductors around the globe that perform this music splendidly. Who knew that the Tokyo Metropolitan and Seoul Philharmonic orchestras would be so excellent? If you haven’t ever explored this music, now you can, with a low barrier to entry: some time, and an inexpensive Spotify subscription. I recommend starting with Symphony No. 1, and following that with No. 4, No. 5, No. 2, No. 9, No. 6, No. 7, and No. 3. I still struggle with No. 8, and I’m just starting to learn the posthumously completed No. 10. It takes some time to grasp this music, but it is completely worth it.
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I was happy to discover this week that Bill Moyers has a podcast, and the first edition I listened to was a good one: an interview with Rick Shenkman, a historian with an interest in evolutionary biology. Shenkman thinks that a lot of our political problems stem from our having brain structures well adapted to life as hunter-gatherers of a million years ago – stone age brains. We react strongly and quickly to threats, which works well in responding to possible attacks of poisonous snakes or sabre tooth tigers. When in peril, we can’t consciously think at all – we just react.

Speedy automatic responses helped our ancestors survive, and they sometimes helps us, too. But politicians have figured out how to exploit this feature. By giving alarming messages (e.g. we’re being invaded by criminal immigrants!), they generate fear that prevents rational thought. The antidote is to somehow get past the first excited emotional reaction and to do more rational thinking, looking at the evidence and considering the most likely explanations. But that’s not so easy.
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A case in point: transgender people in bathrooms. This has suddenly become a new front in the culture wars, right here in NC, with even presidential candidates weighing in. The dominant right-wing narrative has it that trans folks are actually male sexual predators who would molest little girls in the ladies’ room absent a statute to prevent them. The child molester story has undeniable force – it’s horrible to think of – but there has yet to be a single confirmed case of a man pretending to be a woman so he can go to the ladies’ room and molest little children. It’s just raw fear-mongering.
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The mean-spirited ignoramuses who form the majority of the NC legislature are apparently impervious either to reason or economic self-interest. For the immediate future, they will continue to embarrass themselves and us, and cause increased pain and fear for unfortunate minorities. But there’s one silver lining: more people are finding out that transgender people exist, and that they are not freaky perverts. The conversation on this has really gotten started. Maybe we’ll move from ignorance and fear to tolerance quickly, as we’ve recently done for gays. Let’s hope so.

Meanwhile, let’s have a laugh when we can. Here’s a link to a wonderful mock news story about the bathroom law, including enforcement by requiring birth certificates and genital checks at public bathrooms.

Spring, some explosive questions, including a nuclear one, and hope

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More harbingers of spring arrived in Raleigh this week: forsythia, red buds, and more daffodils started blossoming. Those colorful little flowers will cheer you right up. Look closely and you can see more buds getting ready. The flowers do not last long, so to enjoy them you need to get outside quickly and focus intently. They remind us that life is such a precious, precarious thing.
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Last week a white policeman in Raleigh shot and killed a young black man. I felt very sad, and also concerned about possible damage, physical and mental, to our community. I’d like to think the race relations and police-black community relations here are much better than, say, Ferguson Missouri. But it’s also fair to say that there could be big problems that people like me just don’t know about. One thing I’ve learned from Black Lives Matter, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alice Goffman, and others is that while I almost never see it in its raw form, racism is real, and being black in this society is still a big health risk.

Soon after the shooting, hundreds of people marched in the street in protest. There were some traffic problems, but there was no reported harm to persons or property. Also no reports of police in military armor and tanks.
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The first descriptions of the incident featured a fleeing suspect getting shot several times in the back. The official police description differed greatly, saying the man who was killed tried to shoot the officer and was wanted for drug crimes. We tend to see these things in the way that fits most comfortably with our preconceptions. Most white people I’ve discussed this with are inclined to accept the police account as true, despite eyewitnesses who say otherwise. But just as insidious racism can shape perceptions, it’s possible that eyewitnesses who fear and distrust police conformed their memories to fit their larger life narrative. I’m consciously uncertain. Either way, any time a person is killed in the course of our misbegotten war on drugs, it’s an avoidable tragedy. We need to keep working on ending prohibition.
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Also last week, the U.S. killed 150 new recruits of al Shabaab in Somalia. Using bombs from drones and manned aircraft, we caught them standing in formation, perhaps graduating from terror school. According to Pentagon sources, they were going to be part of an imminent attack in Somalia on African soldiers and a few U.S. advisors. This is very similar to the bombing of possible terrorist recruits in Libya recently, so it seems to now be a thing – mass execution of young men who could potentially attack people we don’t know much about. Are we really sure this killing was justified? Is there no possible non-fatal way of addressing such threats? Could we be increasing the chaos and the risk of more mayhem through such attacks?

We don’t have a good track record in using our military in a carefully calibrated way, or in telling the truth about our attacks. See Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Now Libya and Somalia. Tomorrow?
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You may have missed the story, which I did not see in a major U.S. newspaper, of the trial of the Marshall Islands lawsuit in the International Court of Justice seeking to stop nuclear proliferation. The Marshall Islands were used by the U.S. as a test site for 67 nuclear explosions in the 40s-60s, which devastated the area and sickened and killed part of the population. The lawsuit is about the lack of compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, in which some nuclear powers agreed to work in good faith towards disarmament. Apparently the suit is seeking a declaration that this hasn’t been done, and must be done.

For quite a while I’ve been thinking about whether there’s any way nuclear arsenals can be justified. They need a strong justification, because the risks are extremely high – accidental explosions, theft by crazed terrorists, escalating counterattacks, all out annihilation and the end of the world as we know it.

Here’s my current view: no political dispute could possibly justify killing thousands or millions of innocent people, which is the intended purpose of our most powerful nuclear weapons. No sane person would willingly subject the planet to nuclear winter, when much of the animal and plant life that initially survived a major nuclear war would die. Deterrence only works if an adversary is sane and rational (it doesn’t work on madmen), so deterrence is either unnecessary (as to the sane), or ineffective (as to the mad). So we cannot reasonably support the state’s creating and maintaining the risk of nuclear war. That leaves disarmament as the only credible, ethical strategy.

You may agree or disagree, but in either case, why aren’t we talking about this? Perhaps we assume that there’s nothing that can be done, or that it’s something we as individuals can’t effect. The Marshall Islands, a very small country, has challenged that stance. It’s election season, so let’s ask the candidates: what steps will you take to lower the risk of a nuclear holocaust and move towards a nuclear-free world?

On Friday, Bernie Sanders was speaking at noon at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, which is just a couple of blocks from where I work. It was a mild, sunny day, and so I thought it would be nice to see him, and perhaps ask him his view on the nuclear risk. By the time I got there, the line was very long. It took me ten minutes to walk to the end of it, by which time I realized there was no chance I was getting into the hall. But it was nice to see the crowd. They were very young! And, I’m guessing, hopeful. Anyhow, it made me hopeful.
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Justice Scalia’s passing, Beethoven quartets, and Reich on the problem of extreme inequality

Raleigh at sunrise

Raleigh at sunrise

Yesterday we were getting ready to head for Durham for dinner and a concert when I learned that Justice Scalia had died. The news was unexpected, and disorienting. I spent an intense year working a few steps away from him as one of his clerks, and felt close to him in a way. He was a good boss and mentor. Despite our very different political orientations, I admired his intelligence, energy, and humor. He demonstrated (including by hiring non-conservative clerks) that engaging with people who disagreed with one’s views was not a thing to avoid, but rather to embrace — stimulating and potentially creative. I disagreed with him vigorously on many things, but I liked him, and will miss him. This will take some time to process.

We met our friends John and Laurie for dinner at Dos Perros, a stylish Mexican restaurant, where we had good food and conversation. Then we went over to Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium to hear the Danish String Quartet, three young Danish guys, and one Norwegian one. They played an all Beethoven program, including two famous late quartets (Op. 131 and 135). This is challenging, craggy music, which the Scandinavians played with fearless commitment, embracing all the extremes of angularity and the subtlety. I thought the sound of violist Asbjorn Norgaard was particularly beautiful.

Zürich at sunset

Zurich at sunset

There’s been a lot in the press recently about the extreme inequality in the U.S., and frequent references to such facts as the top .1 percent own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. This seems disturbing on its face, but I got a much better grasp of its implications from reading Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, by Robert Reich. Reich is a former Secretary of Labor (Clinton administration) and a professor of public policy at Berkeley. In Saving Capitalism, he argues that the increasing concentration of economic and political power in the hands of very wealthy individuals and corporations threatens the fabric of our society. Dramatic inequalities of wealth and opportunity strike the majority as deeply unfair, undermining the trust that’s essential for social order. Without redress, the system could fail.

Reich contends that the arguments over whether the free market is preferable to the government are based on a false premise, inasmuch as the market is created by human beings and is subject to modification, for better or worse, by those same beings. At various times in American history, the rules have been dramatically changed (the Jacksonian era, the Progressives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the New Deal), and they can be changed again. Only relatively recently have corporations been viewed as limited to serving shareholders, without regard to other stakeholders (employees, consumers, the public at large). The system can be fixed.

Reich is primarily focused on identifying the problems, rather than proposing solutions, but he does offer some preliminary thoughts on fixes. He notes that we need to get big money out of politics. Campaign finance reform is surely an important step. A more equitable tax system is another. We need to fix the rule system that applies to intellectual property, along with other legal reforms. Reich also favors a basic minimum income that guarantees everyone a minimally decent standard of living. He recognizes that automation and artificial intelligence are going to cost many more jobs, and we have to help those who get hurt. This is a timely book, well worth reading.

My recent reading and listening

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One thing that I hate about vacations is that I always come back heavier than I went out. It’s strange, but predictable, that a week of traveling makes me about five pounds heavier. There’s nothing particularly terrible about gaining five, but if you do it enough times, it adds up. I really prefer not to carry around excess pounds, which means, post vacation, I’ve got some reducing to do.

That requires some time exercising, which, fortunately, I enjoy, in a way. It’s a lot more enjoyable since I started combining working out with listening to podcasts and audio books. This week at the gym I’ve been listening to the new Serial, about Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, which examines the mystery of what he was really up to when he was kidnapped by the Taliban. It’s good. I also discovered WTF, an interview podcast by Marc Maron, and listened to an interview with Eric Bogosian, the actor, playwright, and author. He was a student at Oberlin when I was there. Among other impressive talents, he has an amazing voice.

Speaking of talented people I knew slightly, I saw articles in both the NYT and WSJ this week about the artist Robert Irwin. I met Irwin when I was a fact checker at the New Yorker and checked a piece about him by Lawrence (Ren) Weschler that became a book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which is still in print.

I really liked Irwin, and was affected by his vision. His work is difficult to describe, but generally involves transforming spaces so that they reveal different things. He has spent most of a restless career, based in Los Angeles and then San Diego, creating subtle, at times vanishingly evanescent, environments with plain materials — fabric scrim, glass, lights, plants and trees — “to make you a little more aware than you were the day before,” as he puts it, “of how beautiful the world is.” He’s now 87, and has various interesting works in progress. Anyhow, I recommend Ren’s book, and the articles, and I’m planning to try to get io his new show at the Hirshhorn.
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One thing I like about vacations is some time to really read. Last week I finished a couple of significant books and made substantial progress in others.

I finished Don’t Panic: ISIS, Terror and Today’s Middle East, by Gwynne Dyer. It helped me get a better grip on the geopolitics that led to ISIS, and that sustain the violence going on right now. The atrocities of ISIS are horrifying, but per Dyer we really have to quit freaking out, because it doesn’t help, and they are not an existential threat to us.

Which is not to say they aren’t wreaking havoc on the Middle East. The plight of millions of Syrian and other refugees is horrendous, and winter is just well started. I did a bit of research of what we as individuals might do to help, and ended up making a contribution to the International Rescue Committee. The Times endorsed it and some other charitable organizations. Please consider whether you might be able to help.

I also finished Black Earth, the Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder. The subject of Hitler’s genocide is, of course, tough to think about, but it turns out that there are very important aspects of it that our history professors and museums mostly missed until – Snyder. For example, most of the Jews killed in the Holocaust were victims of mass shootings, rather than gassing, and the likelihood of dying varied according to the degree to which the existing state apparatus was destroyed, as it was in Poland and the Baltic states. As depressing as it is that humans can be as depraved as the Nazis, it is also cheering that we can understand the past in new ways, and maybe change ourselves.

I made substantial progress on re-reading Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements that Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe, by Curt Stager. Stager does a good job showing how atoms relate to life as we know it, which is both well known and very difficult to grasp. He breaks the world down to its essentials, starting with hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, and shows how basic recycled elements form our bodies. I’ve finally got firmly in mind how a lot of the atoms we are made of are the products of long-dead stars. Joni Mitchell was right that we are stardust. And, just as we are continually transforming our surrounding environment, it is transforming us.

A new colleague at work, Jeff K, recommended I read Hackers, by Steven Levy. It’s a history of the computer programming pioneers of the sixties and seventies at MIT, Silicon Valley, and elsewhere. I quickly got absorbed, and have made it about halfway through so far. These people were obsessed, and in some cases brilliant, as they discovered/created the new digital world that we live in today. A lot of them were awkward and odd, and did not have normal social lives (e.g. girlfriends). I thought that seemed sad, but gradually realized how full they were of the joy of discovery. A lot of these pathfinders were making free and open source software well before anyone labelled it as such.Tiller7Bug 1-2

Finally, I made substantial progress on The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I was interested in the book initially because I love Dutch painting of the 17th Century, and I’ve seen Fabritius’s famous, gorgeous Goldfinch. I’m finding Tart’s book extraordinary, in the way Catcher in the Rye is extraordinary, with perceptions that have the freshness of youth and the risk of fatal error of youth. She’s a great novelist in the old-fashioned way, with a deft grasp of quick emotions and richness of character and incident.

While I’m thinking of brilliant artists, I’ll mention one more recent discovery: the violinist Sarah Chang. As I now know, she was a child prodigy and is now a seasoned concert artist, but I discovered her a few weeks back by chance when I felt like listening to the Brahms violin concerto, and picked her recording from those available for streaming on Rhapsody. (The same recording is available on YouTube) She’s amazing! Volcanic intensity, and yet sensitive to the finest nuance. She’s got a big, gleaming, shimmering sound. Here she is in a wonderful live performance of the Carmen Fantasy.

Saturday I drove out to Cary for my haircut with Ann S, and got caught up on her holiday doings. Afterwards I drove east to Chatham County and visited Jordan Lake. It was gray and raw, with rain threatening, and the water level was high. There were hundreds of gulls at Ebenezer Point, mostly ring-bills and a few herrings.

Older athletes, my 5K race, working out with audio books, CRISPR, and Uber

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I like stories of successful athletes who have passed the normal age for athletic achievement, for obvious reasons. There was a good one this week in the WSJ, which featured Klaus Obermayer, founder of an outdoor clothing company. At 95, he lives in Aspen, skis whenever there’s snow, does Akido, and swims, along with getting gym workouts, and eats a mostly vegan diet. I’ve previously challenged myself to still be skiing the big mountains at 85, but it looks like I may need to raise the bar.

On Saturday morning I ran a 5K race in downtown Raleigh – the Jingle Bell Run, a charity event for the Arthritis Foundation. It was a beautiful fall day, clear and chilly, and a lot of my Red Hat colleagues showed up at Saint Mary’s School. Jonathan C, an accomplished runner, let me tag along as he did his warm up routine. Sally came along with Stuart and lent moral support.

The route was up and back on Hillsborough Street, which is a long climb going out, but it went OK. On the home stretch, as I passed the International House of Pancakes, I had a shot of pain in my left hamstring, and struggled to the finish. But I still ended up with an official time of 25:12. That’s average miles of 8:10, which was close to my planned best case scenario. Jonathan came in third, at 18:02 (5:49/mile). Sally said Stuart had a nice time: lots of people petted him, and asked his name and how old he was (13).

At the gym lately, I’ve been dividing my time among the various cardio machines – treadmill, elliptical, stationary bike, rowing, and stairs – putting in about 45 minutes of total sweat time, plus core work, resistance training, and stretching. Listening to audiobooks and podcasts makes this a lot more fun. This week I discovered News in Slow Spanish, which is exactly what it sounds like – a podcast for intermediate Spanish learners who like to listen to the news. My comprehension went way up when the announcers slowed way down.

I’ve also been listening to Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science, by Steven Gimbel. Gimbel has really helped me with the last 100 years of physics. I’m not prepared to claim deep understanding, but I’m getting more comfortable with, for example, the idea of gravity as a bend in space-time, and matter as just an expression of energy.

We like magazines, but it’s hard to keep up with them. In the last couple of weekends I made good progress in dealing with the pile of New Yorkers, Economists, Atlantics, Opera Newses, and Scientific Americans (but didn’t get to the pile of golfing, photography, and scuba magazines). I finally got a fix on what CRISPR is from a New Yorker piece by Michael Specter, and realized this is a technology that is going to change the world as we know it. The CRISPR tools allow biologists to edit DNA relatively simply and cheaply. This holds the potential for understanding and treating various serious diseases, and also improving food and industrial products. And, of course, there’s the possibility of creating Frankenstein monsters. Anyhow, for better or worse, or both, the genie is out of the bottle.

Last week came the end of driving as we know it – the beginning, for us, of the age of Uber. We scheduled a trip to our old favorite, Caffe Luna, and with a view to avoiding post-wine driving, I downloaded the Uber app. Our first experience was entirely friction free – no telephone call, no waiting, no tipping, and automatic payment, at an entirely reasonable rate. We gave our drivers high ratings, and hoped they did the same for us. I’ve been tracking the progress of driverless cars closely, but had sort of ignored Uber. Now I get it – it’s fantastic.
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Purity, the Montrose Trio, Gore, and Gates

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It’s been a foggy, drizzly week in Raleigh, which tends to lower high spirits, but is good for introspection. I finished Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity. The book offers several interesting characters, including social activists who think about the big issues like out-of-control surveillance and global warming. Mostly, though, the book is about close family and romantic relationships, and shame and guilt. There’s enough that’s closely observed and honest here to be affecting, and I found myself hypnotically absorbed in some sections. As I neared the end, though, it, or I, lost steam, and I was glad to be done with it.

Saturday night we went over to Durham for dinner at Watt’s Grocery with friends and a concert. It turns out Watt’s is more vegetarian friendly than shown on the menu, willing to create a custom plate of the non-meat offerings, and mine was good. At Duke’s Baldwin auditorium, we heard the Montrose Trio, a new group made up of two former members of the Tokyo Quartet and pianist Jon Kimura Parker. They performed works of Turina, Beethoven and Brahms. Turina was new to me — Spanish, 1882-1949 – and reminded me pleasantly of Ravel, while the other pieces were old friends. Montrose was truly excellent – musicianship of the highest order, applied to great music.

The November issue of the Atlantic has an interesting piece on Al Gore and his involvement with Generation Investment Management, a global equity fund. The company has significantly out-performed the market since 2005 by investing in companies that are not only well-managed compared to their competition but conscious and responsible in their social and environmental actions. This approach runs counter to the conventional wisdom that successful capitalists must place profits ahead of values. The theory of Generation is that long-term profits require long-term thinking, including thinking about sustainability.

The same Atlantic has an interview with Bill Gates on his new endeavor to address climate change. He’s of the view that we’ve got to make major technological breakthroughs relating to energy to prevent or mitigate disastrous environmental changes, which will require research to go into overdrive, and he’s committing $2 billion of his money to the effort. He’s obviously studied up on the subject, and he hasn’t lost all hope or become hysterical. As he points out, either we focus our resources on finding a solution, or we run the experiment of what happens when the planet’s temperature rises by two degrees – and then three degrees and then four.

In Boston, seeing Dutch masters, Four Big Ideas, and some problems in Afghanistan

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I was in Boston this week for the annual meeting of the Association of Corporate Counsel, where I was a presenter in a session on open source software licensing, and a student at various other continuing legal education sessions. Boston was having its first cold snap of the season, and I had neglected to bring a coat. Brrr!

I managed a quick visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, which I’d only visited once before a long time ago. It’s a really good museum! I was keen to see an exhibit called Class Distinctions, Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. I mainly wanted to see the two Vermeer works, A Lady Writing and the Astronomer. The Lady, who sits at her desk in a yellow fur-trimmed jacket, was ravishing. There were several excellent Rembrandts.

The exhibit was organized in sections according to the social classes depicted, starting with the nobility, through the merchants, and on down to the poorest. When they were made, the paintings served some of the same purposes as paintings today (e.g. status symbols for the high born), and sent elaborate social signals through the clothing, settings, and objects. My art history education was more oriented toward the formal properties of the works (color, line, texture, composition). This was instead approaching art more as anthropology, which seemed worthwhile.

One evening I met up with a couple of old friends from student days for a dinner at Puritan & Company on Cambridge Street. Through the years of career building and child raising, we’d almost lost touch. It was really gratifying to find that we could quickly reconnect. There was, naturally, news: jobs, travels, civic activities, kids, kids’ girl and boyfriends, parents, funny stories. The food (a southern, organic vibe) was good, too.

On the flight back, I was happy to see that I’d finally made it up the airline classification food chain at Delta to Zone 1 for boarding – that is, the first group (after families with children, business, first class, elite, diamond, service members, and others specially designated or needing special consideration). Well, it’s still good. I really like not having to worry whether there’s a place in the overhead bin for my carry on bag.

With some time for travel reading, I finished The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, and I recommend it. The four ideas are the thought systems of Adam Smith (classical capitalism), Karl Marx (communism), Charles Darwin (evolution), and Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton (American democracy). Montgomery and Chirot do a good job giving lively short bios and summarizing the thought systems. They also give helpful context, including predecessors and successors. The second half of the book discusses the counter-enlightenment, including fascism, Christian fundamentalism, and Islamic fundamentalism. There’s a lot here to chew on.

Speaking of chewing, a few days ago, the President announced that instead of wrapping up the long war in Afghanistan, as previously promised, he’s sending more troops there. I was really sorry to hear this, as I’d say our Afghan adventure has been mainly a disaster, but my view seems to be in the minority. For anyone who cares to think more about this, I recommend a piece by Jeff Vaux in the Huffington Post, which is a bit of a rant, but not uncalled for.

Here are some excerpts: “After 14 years of fighting -at a cost of over 2200 American lives, 20,000 seriously wounded, countless mentally damaged and a trillion dollars – it is obvious that we cannot accomplish our stated objectives. The Taliban cannot be destroyed and the Afghan people will not support a US-imposed government. …

“Today the Taliban controls or is contesting more territory than at any time since the war began. Outside Kabul and a few other areas where mountains of our money buy molehills of temporary allegiance, the government’s army and police are hated for their oppression and human right abuses. Its courts are crooked and criminally unresponsive, while Taliban justice — although harsh — is swift, works without bribes and legal fees, and is honestly administered. Warlords, paid for and armed by the CIA and the Pentagon, indulge in brutal behavior toward their people, including a delight in raping children, which the US army orders its soldiers to ignore.”

Is this being unfair? Are we forgetting some benefits that could possibly justify all this wreckage and pain? Are we Americans (or anyone else) somehow safer, or have we just provided more inspiration and anger to those inclined to hate us?

Diane’s fall, ignorance, our industrial food system, and butterflies

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On Thursday, Diane (Sally’s mom) had a bad fall while walking her greyhounds and got an ambulance ride to Rex Hospital. One of the EMTs on the ambulance somehow got our number out of her phone and let us know. Diane’s symptoms included short term memory loss, dizziness, weakness, and confusion. She thought it was 1929.

After various tests, including a CAT scan, the neurologist concluded that she had a mild concussion. After a few hours, she started improving, but she’s still feeling very weak. Sally has been spending most of the last couple of days with her in the hospital, where she was generally impressed with the professionalism of the staff.
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Our brains are so complicated, and yet so delicate. And there’s so much we don’t know . An op-ed piece in the NY Times this week made a case for teaching ignorance. It sounds odd, but actually make sense: we need to understand better how much we don’t know. Relatively little in our world is known with scientific certainty. As we learn more, we also see how much we have to learn. Creativity lies in this ambiguous territory where the known meets the unknown.
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This week in the gym during an early morning workout I finished reading (actually, listening to the audiobook of) Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It’s a serious but elegant book about food, from the production to the harvesting to the consuming.

Pollen does a great job in the early chapters of summarizing the bizarre state of our food system, with its extensive dependence on corn, which is grown with big government subsidies and without normal market pressures and then transmuted into high fructose corn syrup and hundreds of other ingredients in our food, not to mention our meat.

He does a good job sketching out the problems of our industrial production of chicken, beef, and pork, including the cruelty to the animals, the spread of disease, the massive greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental problems. He ends up feeling badly about meat eating, but not badly enough to quit. I wasn’t much enchanted with his final chapters about hunting and killing a wild pig and serving it and other forest foods to his accomplished foodie friends.
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We all have difficulty with seeing things we don’t want to see, even when they’re right in front of us. That is, most of what we see and think we know is what we already believe. So it’s remarkable when someone questions the well-settled status quo. Last week his week the NY Times had a piece on judges who are questioning long prison sentences and other inhumane features of our criminal justice system. It’s good to see those involved in running the system are having their doubts.
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For the first time this week I went up to Durant Park. It’s in far North Raleigh, a 25-minute trip from here, but I was glad I made the effort. By a small lake there were many active butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies, including quite a few that didn’t mind having their picture taken.