The Casual Blog

Category: drug war

Admiring damselflies, Colombia at peace, recognizing addicts as humans, Syria’s bizarre war, and our Saudi problem

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I’m ready for fall. It’s been a hot August here in Raleigh, and relentlessly humid. As usual, I got outside to see if I could find and photograph something beautiful in one of our parks, and found these damselflies and the dragonfly along the Buckeye Trail and at Lake Crabtree. They were very small and usually moved quickly. It took some exertion to make these images, handholding a heavy 180 mm lens, struggling to get tight focus and good exposure with sweat getting in my eyes, but I thought it was worth it.
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When there is good news, it should be noted, and there was very good news this week from Colombia. The civil war between the government and FARC was tentatively resolved with a peace accord, subject to approval in a vote of the citizenry. This war, which began more than half a century ago, has cost hundreds of thousands lives and displaced millions. Columbia has so much beauty and so much human potential, but for my entire life has seemed a scary place. Now peace, after decades of horrendous carnage, is possible.
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I also spotted some good news on the drug war out of Seattle. On Page A13 (far past where busy people normally stop skimming), the NY Times of Aug. 26 reported that an official Seattle task force established to combat the heroin epidemic has proposed establishing sites where addicts could take heroin and other illegal drugs under the supervision of trained professionals. The idea is to decrease the risk of infections and overdoses. Sites like this already exist in the Canada and the Netherlands.

This is huge! They’re thinking of addicts as human beings whose lives have value, rather than simply as worthless derelicts and criminals. That is, they’re recognizing that people who take illegal opioids are not really different from people who take legal opioids. Both groups include people with varying intensities of physical and mental pain, and also varying cravings for stimulation.

This is a big conceptual step toward the end of the drug war that has destroyed millions of lives. The idea that an arbitrarily defined group of chemicals is inherently evil has been official policy and a quasi-religion going back several generations. It’s a foolish idea, but it’s so deeply lodged in our brains that it’s going to be very hard to correct. Fingers crossed that we move forward.
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Meanwhile, the Times presented a brilliant, though far less cheering, piece by Max Fisher on the complex dynamics of the war in Syria. I started to say “the civil war in Syria,” but as I finally grasped, this is not simply a struggle between two, three, or four internal groups seeking dominance within the country, but a multi-dimensional struggle for regional dominance involving several local groups and Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and, unfortunately, the US.

There are many forces that make this conflict particularly horrendous for civilians and assure it cannot quickly be resolved. An important perpetuator is the involvement of the outside nations, who have effectively endless military resources and do not bear the pain of the constant death. I can partially understand the political and venal interests that drive some of these actors to kill each other and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The big exception is the United States of America. Why are we a primary arms supplier and dealer of death from above in this catastrophe?
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Also worth reading is a piece on Saudi Arabia by Scott Shane, which asks the question, has Saudi Arabia been the primary exporter and supporter of the version of Sunni Islam (Wahhabism) that underpins the worst of the jihadist violence afflicting many countries? It seems that it has. Shane does point out, however, that there are other causes of such violence, including extreme poverty and authoritarian rulers.

But the Saudis have a lot to answer for. And, it should be noted, their primary armorer and military mentor is the United States. So we have a lot to answer for. Without thinking it through, we have indirectly supported Saudi exports of jihadist ideology, which morphed into al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and other bloody-minded groups, which we then fight by dropping US bombs. And, of course, when we kill innocent civilians, we transform some of their relatives into vengeance-minded jihadis. To put it as mildly as possible, this is not a sensible policy.

A lovely wedding, and new books on evictions and the war on drugs

On Saturday we drove down to Charlotte and then flew to Chattanooga for my nephew’s wedding. After we checked in to the downtown Holiday Inn, we took a cab to Dalton, Georgia for the ceremony.  The venue was a converted farm, with green meadows and mountains in the distance, and the skies were sunny and blue.  It was good to see family, and good to see the loving groom and bride.

On Sunday morning we walked from the hotel down to the river, and that was all the time we had to check out Chattanooga before flying out.  We would have visited the aquarium if we’d had a little more time.  People we encountered seemed unusually friendly.

With the benefit of all that happiness, I was able to have a look at some counterbalancing sad truths, including finishing reading Evicted, by Matthew Desmond.  It’s a close up view of the lives of poor people in Milwaukee who can sometimes barely, and sometimes can’t, make rent.  The problems related to housing insecurity are basic but also big — joblessness, poor nutrition, poor education, and lack of community.  It’s an eye- opening  and disturbing portrait, and a call for reform. I highly recommend it.

I also finished a Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari, a book about our war on drugs.  The book focuses on a few individuals who were either drug warriors (government officials, drug logs) or victims. I hadn’t known the story of Harry Anslinger, a primary architect of the federalization and internationalizing of the war on drugs starting in the 1930s. In this telling, he is a ignorant, peculiar man, but, unfortunately, highly effective in promoting the idea that some drugs are inherently evil, and the people who take them should be treated as criminals.

Hari offers the alternative view that illegal drugs are not inherently different from legal ones, and although they can be harmful, we’ve inherited a greatly exaggerated view of their harmfulness.  Drug addicts are not zombie monsters, but rather troubled human beings who can be helped.  He examines the results of the legalization programs in Portugal and elsewhere, and looks at how we might get to legalization in the U.S.  I thought the book was a bit heavy on the human interest anecdotes and sometimes light on the science, but still well worth reading.

There was also a good short primer this week on the history of the war on drugs in the Huffington Post by Tessie Castillo. Castillo makes a good case that the main reason we treat certain drugs as illegal was economics and cultural prejudice, and particularly fear of immigrants.  Opium was perfectly legal and widely available until Chinese workers were demonized as taking American jobs, at which point it was criminalized.  Similarly, marijuana was legal until it became associated with Mexican immigrants and other minorities, at which point it became “dangerous.”  The myths required to sustain this view, including explicitly racist nonsense, eventually began to seem real.  

Richard Nixon has been treated unfairly by history in some respects, such as our tendency to forget his progressive social programs, but he deserves disdain and disgust for his whipping up the hysteria on drugs.  According to reporting by Dan Baum, John Ehrlichman, White House counsel to President Nixon, fessed up as follows: “The Nixon campaign in 1968 and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar Left and black people… We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black. But by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Political cynicism? Perhaps a wee bit. But note, President Reagan followed suit, and President Clinton, and …. Well, we’re still fighting a war on drugs that with enormous costs in dollars and lives, based on fundamentally false premises. I think we’re starting to realize this is crazy, but we’ve still got a ways to go.

Duke blossoms, rising ballerinas, AlphaGo’s victory, and the Age of Artificial Intelligence

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On Saturday morning it was overcast and threatening to rain when I drove over to Durham to see what was blooming at Duke Gardens. Did you know it’s one of the top 10 public gardens in the U.S.? It is certainly a treasure. There were new cherry blossoms, tulips, and many other delights. I shot 234 closeup images with my Nikkor 105 MM macro lens before it began to drizzle. I got a few that revealed aspects I’d never looked at as closely before, and expressed some of my own joy of the season. The images here are all from Duke, except for the daffodils, which I took late Friday afternoon at Fletcher Park.
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That evening we saw the Carolina Ballet with new works by Zalman Raffael and Robert Weiss. Raffael’s new piece was set to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. As it launched, I worried a little that 24 variations to this familiar music could easily bog down, but far from it: this was a lively, kinetic work that developed organically with continual surprises. Working in the Balanchine tradition, like Weiss, Raffael makes ballets that are abstract but intensely expressive. He’s so accomplished and assured already, and so young!

In the performance we saw, some of the younger company members who normally are in the background stepped into the spotlight, and performed beautifully. I very much enjoyed the subtle elegance of Courtney Schenberger and Rammaru Shindo in Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie. Ashley Hathaway, with Adam Crawford Chavis, was really sensual and powerful in the adagio Meditation from Thais. Amanda Babayan was a lovely Miranda in Weiss’s Tempest Fantasy. So much talent, developing quickly, like those blossoms. It’s a privilege to receive their art.
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Speaking of surprising progress, this week AlphaGo finished its five game Go match with a popular Korean grandmaster in Seoul, in which it prevailed 4-1. It was a significant moment in the advance of artificial intelligence. I learned the rudiments of Go a few years back. It seems so simple at the very beginning, as you take turns laying single stones, black or while. But it is massively more complex than chess. There are more possible moves than there are atoms in the universe.

Anyhow, I tweeted congratulations to the Google team, though with mixed feelings. The Age of AI is on its way, and the prospects are both good and bad. Computers are mastering tasks that we thought impossible for them a few years ago, like driving, reading MRIs, and reviewing legal documents. In the new Age of AI, there will be safer cars, more reliable medical care, and cheaper legal services. On the down side, a lot of jobs are going to disappear forever. We’re going to need to figure out what to do about having a lot of redundant humans. We’ll probably need to come up with a system with a guaranteed minimum wage, which seems impossible at present from a political perspective.
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But maybe the AI on the way can help with some of our political and mental problems. I’m thinking particularly of our magical thinking – areas where our biases and received ideas prevent us from seeing what’s right in front of us. The drug war is an example. After several decades of being taught that particular plants and chemicals are inherently evil and threatening, and that we need to fight those drugs, we have trouble conceiving of any alternative. It makes no difference that the drug war never moves any closer to victory, and that the human collateral damage is enormous. The facts that do not fit with our long held beliefs are suppressed or ignored.

Climate change denialism is another example of magical thinking. Another one: the Republican mainstream belief that cutting taxes will lead to increased growth, higher tax revenues, and balanced budgets. The New Yorker had a good essay by James Surowiecki this week explaining that decades of evidence now show that, as you might initially expect, cutting taxes leads to lower tax revenue. But current Republican leaders and followers, like those before them, devoutly and streadfastly deny the obvious.
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The WSJ had a must-read essay this week by David Gelernter on AI. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, argues that the intelligence of our machines will inevitably surpass our own, and we cannot reliably predict what will happen after that. Thinks of machines with IQs of 500, or 5000. They could be dangerous, perhaps viewing us as we view houseplants. Gelernter suggests that in experimenting we exercise the kind of caution we use with biological weapons.

But hey, assuming that the machines do not decide to enslave or kill us, they could really be helpful. They would almost surely see more possible moves in addressing difficult problems, like global warming. Perhaps it would be so obvious that they’re reliable authorities that we would give up on magical thinking. Then again, such thinking is almost perfectly hermetic and impervious.
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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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A piano recital, Turing’s secrets, NSA surveillance, and the cure for addiction

It was rainy and raw on Friday evening when Sally and I drove over to Durham, and the traffic kept bunching up. We were a bit anxious about being late to meet our friends at Watts Grocery, and we were late – they’d already ordered drinks and salads. But they forgave us, we caught up, had a good dinner, and made it in good time to a concert at Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium, where we heard a program by the eminent pianist Jeremy Denk.

Denk is a musician’s musician. His program was, as he put it, a mix tape of Schubert dances shuffled together with short Janacek pieces, and also some atypical Haydn, some atypical Mozart, and Schumann’s odd and powerful Carnival. Everything he played seemed thought through to the smallest detail, but at the same time full of feeling.

For encores he played the slow movement of Ives’s Concord Sonata, and one of the slower Goldberg Variations, both of which were exceptionally colorful and beautiful. Though not a particularly good-looking guy, he was also fun to watch, with gestures that accorded with the music and magnified the feelings. Later, I re-read his wonderful autobiographical essay from the New Yorker, Every Good Boy Does Fine, which I highly recommend.

We saw The Imitation Game last week, which was a bit staid but also touching. I knew something of Alan Turing, including his brilliant contributions to computing theory (including the Turing machine and the Turing test) and that he helped break the Nazi’s Enigma code. I hadn’t known how he did it, or much about him as a person. From the movie, he appeared distinctly anti-social. This being Hollywood, it seems safe to assume he was probably even harder to like in real life. But he contributed enormously to the world, before being hounded to death at age 41 for the crime of being gay.

Turing’s death was a tragedy, but in earlier chapters he was lucky, in a way. How inspiring and daunting it must have been to think that thousands of lives, and perhaps the future of western civilization, depended on whether you could succeed in an almost impossibly difficult code-breaking task. And by golly, he did it!

Indeed, although I’ve never thought of it this way before, our forebears who found themselves facing Nazism and Fascism were lucky, in a similar way. They had an unambiguous enemy, a massive threat, that could only be defeated by joining together, and with heroism and sacrifice. We seem to need big enemies to unite us as a society. That may be why, when we don’t have big enemies, we magnify smaller ones.

And so, as I discussed here last week, we push forward with the 13-year-old war on terror, which continues to morph. This week a coup in Yemen resulted in headlines suggesting we should panic over a new terror threat. The coup was actually by sworn enemies of Al Qaeda, but the fear seemed to be that increasing disorder was likely to lead to increased space for militant anti-Americanism to expand. That’s possible, I guess. But it’s possible that this is a civil war with entirely different drivers, tribal, religious, or financial. Perhaps it’s not all about us.

The thing is, when we panic we do foolish and deplorable things – domestic spying, torture, assassinations, war. This week the New Yorker has a piece by Mattathias Schwartz about the NSA’s collection of internet searches, social media, and metadata on phone calls – hundreds of billions of records, at a cost of tens of billion of dollars ($10.5 billion in 2013). Schwartz examines the question of how many terrorist attacks were stopped by this program, and finds . . . perhaps one. Not exactly saving western civilization.

Actually, the one was not so much a potential attack, and not so much in the US, as a financial contribution of $8,500 by a Somali born U.S. citizen that may have been made to Somalian guerrillas (the Shabaab) who had jihadist ambitions and Al Qaeda connections. The evidence sounds ambiguous, but there were three convictions, and rightly or wrongly, the defendants were sentenced to prison terms of up to 18 years. That’s all we got, in return for billions of dollars and constant surveillance of our everyday lives that undermines our privacy, our public discourse, and our Constitution.

As crazy and depressing as this is, it should be noted that there’s hope: our mass panics can be overcome. For example, it seems like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in our costly and tragic war on drugs, at least as to marijuana. With several states in various phases of legalization, it’s increasingly hard to argue that using pot should be punishable as a crime. But it is still being punished as a crime in places, and we’re still spending $51 billion a year on fighting drugs here and around the world.

Jocelyn pointed up a piece this week in the Huffington Post with a new, to me, take on drug addiction. A basic premise of the war on drugs is that some drugs are so fantastic that they’re irresistible, and so they take control of and destroy lives. But the piece, by Johann Hari, suggests an alternative paradigm.

Hari reexamines the famous rat-with-cocaine experiment, where the rat is alone in a cage and keeps taking cocaine until it dies. Later research by Professor Bruce Alexander focused on the environment of the rat – which was caged and alone. When rats were put in more stimulating environments, including toys and rat friends, and offered the same drugs, they mostly shunned them. Alexander found that even rats that were thoroughly addicted to heroin kicked the habit when they had the benefit of other rats to socialize with and stimulating environments.

The theory expounded by Hari is that what drives addiction is not primarily chemical hooks, but rather isolation, and that what prevents it are meaningful human connections. This may also explain some non-drug addictive behaviors, like gambling. That is, drugs or gambling may be responses to other problems, like loneliness.

Hari notes that Portugal, which once had a very high rate of drug use, decriminalized all drugs 15 years ago, and invested some of the money saved from drug warring in social programs, such as housing and jobs. The rate of injected drug use has fallen by 50 percent. Fifty percent! I recommend reading Hari’s piece.

Some edited bug photos and a new way of thinking about organized crime

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It’s challenging to capture a convincing image of a fast-moving insect. It takes patience and also decisiveness. For these I was using a 105 mm lens with all manual settings, so I had to focus and adjust shutter speed quickly. My heart was going quickly, too – it was exciting to go after these little guys. These were shots I took late Friday afternoon at Raulston Arboretum.

It was also fun to examine the results in Photoshop Elements after the fact. To state the obvious, you can’t really see much detail in little insects with the unaided human eye. To me, it’s fantastic what you discover about these creatures with the aid of magnifying lenses and sensors. I’ve also been experimenting with improving the raw image with the Elements editing program. Typically I do some cropping and minor adjustments to the lighting and contrast. This week I decided to start working with the “expert” user interface and figured out (with help from some YouTube instructors) how to work with layers.
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Is such editing somehow dishonest? I don’t think so. A photograph is always a combination of technology and human feeling, which is to say it is never purely objective. The sensor in my Nikon D7100 is amazing (24 million pixels!), but it is not God. My own vision has its imperfections and biases both from ocular structural issues and brain processing. Yours, too. We see through a glass darkly. But if we use our best tools as well as we can, we’ll see some new things and some amazing things.
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How many of our fundamental assumptions are seriously flawed? Every so often, I get spun around when I find that an idea that I had thought was beyond question is far from it. This week in the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell’s piece titled the Crooked Ladder, destabilized my assumptions about the Italian mafia and inner city drug gangs. I thought I knew that the mafia was a serious threat to the social order that was barely contained by virtue of strenuous law enforcement efforts. Gladwell cites scholarship indicating that the early mafia was generally less violent and lawless than the Godfather movies and journalism have led us to think. For some waves of new immigrants (including Irish and Jews), crime was a route to family stability and assimilation taken by relatively innovative community members. And it isn’t a curse on subsequent generations. On the contrary, the grandkids of mafia dons turn into ordinary suburbanites.

But Gladwell finds this pattern depended in part on societal tolerance, including relaxed policing during the liquor prohibition era. Few mafiosi went to jail. Gladwell suggests that what I always thought of as police corruption could have positive effects, in that it allows immigrants to feed their families, prosper, and gradually evolve and assimilate. But this process has not taken place for our inner city drug gangs. Instead, intense policing has resulted in mass incarceration at a terrible human cost.

Gladwell relies primarily on a new book titled On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, by Alice Goffman. Goffman was an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania when she began tutoring a Black student in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood she calls 6th Street. She eventually spent several years living in the neighborhood and getting to know the young men who survived as minor league criminals, as well as their girlfriends, moms, and others. The young men generally had spent time in juvenile detention, jail, or prison, and were often on the run from the police for such wrongs as nonpayment of $173 in court costs or minor parole violations. They were constantly the targets of police harassment. It is no exaggeration to say they lived in a police state.

After I finished Gladwell’s article, I downloaded Goffman’s book and quickly read the first couple of chapters. It is vivid and hair-raising. It puts a human face on the urgent need to end the war on drugs, and more generally address the problem of overly severe policing and penal policies. Goffman illuminates a world that few middle-class white Americans have ever seen close up, or even learned about through books or newspapers. It seems particularly timely and important after the racial conflict this week in Ferguson, Missouri.

My hopeful hand checkup, a new salad restaurant, a Porsche contretemps, and discussing legalization

14 08 03_1352I was a bit anxious about my check up for the torn ligament with the hand doctor earlier last week, but it turned out fine. After the doc twisting my fingers a bit and asked if it hurt (it did), he pronounced me improved, and lowered the chance of needing surgery to 5 percent (a big improvement from his previous estimate of 50 percent). He cleared me to play the piano gently (no Rachmaninoff, he said), but to otherwise keep my fingers taped up for another month. I asked about getting back to golf, and he strongly advised me to wait. This was disappointing, as I’d felt like this could be my year for a big golf breakthrough (as, admittedly, I’ve felt in previous years). Still, I I was pleased to be heading in the right direction.

Playing the piano again was a rich, dense, textured pleasure. Going a month without playing is something that I hadn’t done for at least 30 years, and I missed it. I started gently with some Chopin mazurkas, and then some nocturnes. I couldn’t resist trying some Rachmaninoff – the Elegie, op. 3. It was all a bit rough, but I felt I was listening better, hearing more nuance, and playing with more rhythmic freedom. Perhaps the forced time off did my ears some good.

14 08 03_1277The next day I discovered Happy and Hale, a relatively new take-out restaurant on Fayetteville Street a couple of blocks from my office. It serves only three things: salads, smoothies, and juices. All are not only super healthy, but also lively, interesting combinations of ingredients. My first experience was the quinoa salad, which had quinoa, black beans, avocado, cilantro, feta cheese, and a couple of other things, with red pepper vinagrette. It was amazingly tasty. There was a long line, but I found this more cheering than annoying. It was good to see people interesting in eating something healthy, and to see this little business doing well.

The next day, I took Clara to the Porsche dealer for servicing. Her check engine light had come on, but even before the that, I’d felt something wasn’t right. Giving her more throttle in the higher RPMs yielded more noise, but not more thrust. I suspected a transmission issue, which turned out to be correct. I needed a new clutch and new flywheel, and the cost was a big ouch.

Waiting for the parts to come in, I drove a loaner Ford Explorer (a sport ute). I just don’t get why people like this type of vehicle, at least when they don’t have a big group of kids or other heavy loads to haul. To me it was not fun to drive. After my sports car, It felt lumbering and awkward. I had the impression of barely having enough road, like a truck pulling a massive mobile home, needing a “wide load” sign to warn other vehicles.

But I admit that I liked the instrumentation. It had a touch screen set up for the climate control, radio, blue tooth, etc., and a handsome virtual compass. In reverse, the touch screen showed the view behind, with the danger zone outlined in red. It had some sort of RFD key that allowed the vehicle to unlock when I pulled the handle without the need for any use of the key. A nice convenience.
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Reading the New York Times is a settled part of my morning breakfast ritual, and there is a sense in which I always enjoy it. But golly, the news has been grim! Part of it is structural: in conventional journalistic thought, information usually only qualifies as news if it involves dramatic conflict. So we don’t hear anything about the peaceful countries in, say, Africa. But the lead stories recently inspire a special mixture of horror and hopelessness, because they’re big and absolutely beyond any individual control. Examples: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, Nigeria, Washington.
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This week, though, there was a welcome exception. I was pleased to see the Times came out in favor of partially ending the war and drugs and legalizing marijuana. The editorial board had clearly had thought hard about it, and put some elbow grease into collecting the arguments: including the enormous human cost, the huge economic cost, and the relatively low risk. It felt like a watershed moment. Maybe now it will be possible that we can have a debate based more on facts and less on myth, moralism, and hysteria. I don’t think marijuana is a particularly good thing; for some people it’s surely an unhealthy thing. But criminalizing it has been an absolutely terrible thing.

So we might be close to overcoming this particular moral hysteria and to ending of prohibition. Perhaps some of our other seemingly intractable problems aren’t beyond all hope.
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Fireworks, wildlife, and Carl Hart’s book debunking drug myths

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Fourth of July fireworks are hard not to like. As a friend once observed of sex, even when it’s not particularly well done, it’s magnificent. On Friday we were planning to walk a few blocks to see the one of the two downtown Raleigh fireworks shows, but Sally was not feeling well, so we got some takeout Indian food from Blue Mango and watched from our twelfth-floor balcony.
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That afternoon I’d Googled how to take good fireworks photos, which is a bit involved (use a tripod, remote control, bulb setting, manual focus, etc.), but I found it interesting. I got a few images I liked of the display at Red Hat Amphitheater. I could also see parts of the display at Memorial Auditorium, which appeared to be more magnificent, but this could be the grass-is-greener effect.
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I continued exploring local parks, looking for dragonflies and other wildlife, this time stopping at Shelley Lake. There were lots of mallards and geese, but the one below, by herself, got my attention. I also stopped in at Raulston Arboretum on Sunday morning and focused on some little creatures communing with the flowers.
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On Saturday I finished reading an unusual and worthwhile book: High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, by Carl Hart. Hart is a professor at Columbia University who’s devoted his scholarly career to studying the effects of illegal drugs on the brain. His book is an autobiography of growing up poor and black in south Florida, and somehow not getting shot, becoming a dropout, becoming a hardened criminal, becoming an addict, or going to jail (which were common outcomes of his friends and family), and instead somehow getting an education, becoming a respected scientist, and learning to question his own assumptions. It’s remarkably honest.

I was particularly interested in his take on the war on drugs. As I’ve noted before, I view the drug prohibition regime as a terrible social policy from every perspective. Hart focuses particularly on the costs to the black community, with draconian laws resulting in mass long-term imprisonment and destruction of the social fabric. He combines an overview of the human toll with his own drug experiences.
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Like almost all of us, he initially accepted uncritically the media/government claims that crack cocaine was a menace that threatened to make addicts of everyone who tried it and turn them into zombies who cared for nothing but the next high. He gradually realized, based on his own experience and his research, that this was a wild distortion of reality. Crack cocaine is chemically almost identical to cocaine, and the effects on the body are basically the same. The primary difference is social: crack cocaine is cheaper and marketed more to black communities, while cocaine is an expression of wealth and status. And crack prison sentences are much more severe.

This has become almost common knowledge, and the sentencing disparities have been substantially reduced (but not eliminated, unfortunately). For me, Hart’s account highlights how media and politics can create a moral panic, and even otherwise responsible scientists can get swept along. Thus the famous example of the experimental rats that can’t resist crack, which supposedly proved that crack was uniquely addictive. Hart explains that the rats, which are social creatures, were unhinged by isolation, and had no alternative activities to getting drugs.
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Hart did experiments with human subjects who were in fact crack addicts, and offered them a choice of getting high or getting $5. They took the money frequently enough to disprove the idea that addicts cease caring about anything but drugs.

Hart contends that the problem of drugs in poor communities is complex, and viewing drugs as the primary source of social ills is mistaken. The kinds of social problems that he grew up with – domestic violence, petty crime, an extreme culture of honor magnifying violence, teenage pregnancy, and unemployment – preceded the arrival of crack. The central problem of poor communities is poverty. It’s not surprising that people with few other entertainment options are more prone to entertaining themselves with drugs.

Hart finds that the great majority of people who use drugs, including crack and heroin, are in no sense addicted. Most users have jobs, families, and orderly lives. The notion that addiction always results from exposure is simply false. This doesn’t mean that addiction never happens, or that it is not a serious medical and social problem. There are addicts who need help. But we need to get our facts straight, quit moralizing, and quit punishing people for addiction.

The war on drugs is a fascinating case study of how fantastically wrong ideas with horrendous consequences can propagate and take over entire societies. We tend to think of this happening in the distant past (think of witchcraft) or foreign lands (murderous religious extremists). But it happened to us! With all our wealth, education, science, and technology, we were still overpowered by groupthink that stopped critical thought. And while we may be winding down the war on drugs, it is definitely not over.

Thus it took courage for Hart to write this book. With an entire population raised on constant messages of moral panic, to challenge the basic foundations of the war on drugs is risky. You will be viewed by many as dangerous and immoral, which could be career-limiting.

But this book may help shift the debate. I was a little disappointed that Hart didn’t follow his sound reasoning all the way on the question of legalization, and ended up promoting instead decriminalization. As the Economist has repeatedly pointed out, decriminalization leaves the drug markets in the hands of criminals, whereas legalization with careful regulation would deprive criminals of a major source of revenue. But never mind. I’m grateful for Hart’s book.
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Warning: contains political content, and flowers

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There was a triathelon in Raleigh this morning, and the route included a road I was planning to take up to Raulston Arboretum to see the blossoms. So no go. I tried again in the late afternoon, and got to see the flowers in some wonderful golden sunlight. I’ve been learning to use the DSLR in manual mode without autofocus, and am just starting to feel comfortable taking full responsibility for the exposure. Most of these photos were taken with my Nikon 60 mm 1:2.8 macro lens. There was no postproduction Photoshopping of any sort. Pretty nice, huh?
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Being the President has got to be a pretty hard job. In addition to being hated with a white-hot hatred by many no matter what you do, your inner critic is also always there. You want to do the right thing, but what is the right thing? And when you’re reasonably sure you know the right thing, what if you can’t do it by yourself? Which of course is always the case.
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I really have many warm feelings for President Obama, and one of things that makes me proud of this country is that we elected him. But I’m so frustrated and disappointed with him. We’re still in Afghanistan, killing and being killed without any reasonably achievable objective, still brutalizing prisoners in Guantanamo, still imprisoning people and destroying families for victimless drug crimes, still running headlong toward climate apocalypse. We’ve instituted a surveillance state with the potential to rival Orwell’s darkest visions.

There are, no doubt, many forces quite separate from the President’s own desires that are driving these horrors and disasters. He probably regrets them. But like it or not, he’s the President, and that’s where the buck stops.
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The President’s speech at West Point this week proposed to reframe our global mission for the foreseeable future as stamping out terrorism. Is this less absurd than fighting to obliterate communism, or more? Is there any chance that we will ever kill every crazy fanatic that would like to do us harm? Does it really make sense to make this our mission?

So, you ask, have I got a better idea to address the real menace of the homicidal religious fanatics? I thought a bit, and had an idea: we change their minds. We get them to see things from our point of view. That would about do it, wouldn’t it? We help them to see that the idea of blowing up people as a suicide bomber and then being a martyr and having the 72 virgins in paradise is just nutty, and so they stop murdering people.
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You see the problem, of course: how do we change their minds? True, we do not currently have the technology to do this. We have amazingly little knowledge of why people think the way they do about the need for Sharia law, jihad, or most anything else. We assume it has to do with their culture and upbringing, with economic disadvantage and resentments, but we can’t frame those out with precision. More important, we have no precise knowledge of how to address and prevent really bad ideas, like racism or religious intolerance, or really bad acts, like suicide bombing.

Or anything else, for that matter. But what if we created a major program with some billions of dollars to figuring this out? And we’re already spending millions and millions to understand the brain and human behavior. If we treated it like the Apollo program, eventually we might get there. Instead of killing terrorists, and thereby creating new terrorists, we’d change their minds.
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This sounded like a good idea, but after a little more thinking, I realized it would probably be disastrous. If we replaced our vast ignorance of the causes of human behavior with perfect knowledge, we’d be even worse off.

Think about it. What if we figured out how to make everyone agree with us? What if our government, or any government, had the necessary tools to prevent opposing thoughts and eliminate all anger? Would that government happily tolerate reasonable people who advocate, say, a major change in abortion policy, or drug policy, or climate policy? Has there ever been a government that happily tolerated opposition? Once we got the terrorists minds under control, who would be next? Overly vocal dissidents?

Lincoln, political courage and pragmatism, and the war on drugs

As my Twitter followers (awful expression, sorry) and Facebook friends (also awful) already know, we saw the new movie Lincoln over the holiday, and really liked it. It works like a good old-fashioned Hollywood movie, which is to say it can be enjoyed as pure entertainment, but it does a lot more. It takes on a huge and deeply embarrassing subject, one that we still can barely bring ourselves to acknowledge or discuss a century and half later — American slavery — and contributes meaningfully to the dialog. This is remarkable. Kudos to Steven Spielberg and a great cast (especially Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sally Field) and production team.

The movie reminds us that there are crucial moments when individual courage and moral vision matter. It concerns the last few weeks of the Civil War (1865) when the burning issues of how to stop the carnage and how to stop slavery were both pressing and pulling in opposite directions. About half of the members of Congress thought black people were subhuman and were opposed to recognizing them as in any sense equals. If the war ended, the matter of passing the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery would become less politically pressing, and could conceivably not happen at all. The President was under great political pressure to end the horrific war, but insisting on abolition of slavery looked likely to prolong it. Resolving this dilemma required both courage and political genius.

David Brooks wrote an interesting column on Lincoln noting that the political solution required the President to act in ways that were, well, ethically questionable. That is, he engaged in tactics that could easily be viewed as bribery and other dishonesty. Brooks suggests that this is characteristic of politics — pure moral vision has to be balanced with pragmatic compromise to get anything done. Is some degree of dishonesty inescapable and even necessary for normal, effective politicians? I truly hope not, but it’s an interesting idea. In any case, the movie makes the case that Lincoln’s ethical compromises were justified.

Another theme of Lincoln is that words matter. The abolitionists, led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) clearly saw the evil of slavery, and were prone to use language that prevented dialog with those that hated blacks, and also with those that saw slavery as a complex issue. Stevens could verbally disembowel his political opponents, but it just made them more determined to fight abolition. Persuading him to soften the rhetoric was a key part of the strategy for passing the Thirteenth Amendment.

And then there are the iconic words of Lincoln. The movie strains a little to get the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural into the story, but the strain is worth it: these words are among his proudest accomplishments, now with quasi-Consitutional status, and are still inspiring. Listening to them again, I was struck by their chiseled beauty, but also their combination of directness with artful ambiguity. They start with a factual and moral premise that almost all could agree on — many have died, and it cannot be they have died in vain. The concept of equality is discussed, but the in terms that seem classical rather than radical. The idea of full equal rights for slaves is not explicitly mentioned, presumably because it would make political compromise impossible.

Speaking of issues that require some amount of political courage and some amount of pragmatism, here’s one: the war on drugs. There was good news a few weeks back when Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use. They expect to regulate and tax it and raise substantial revenue as a result. This seems rational in these tough budgetary times. As I’ve said before, it seems like terrible public policy to put people in prison for smoking marijuana. The drug war costs us more than $76 billion a year, including the costs of police, courts, prison buildings, guards, services, and foregone revenue. At the same time, we create an entire criminal economy that not only corrupts our society but wreaks violence across the globe.

Much of this is to discourage pot smoking. We’ve been trying it for several decades and it hasn’t work! Instead it has destroyed individual lives, families, communities, and governments. No matter how bad an idea you think pot smoking is (and I agree it can be bad for some people), you might still agree that the cost of the drug war is wildly disproportionate to its positive achievements. I”ve thought for a long time that the practical need to address budget woes and the huge economic upside of taxing marijuana might eventually overcome the moralism of those who support the drug war path. The votes in Colorado and Washington suggest on this I might be right.