The Casual Blog

Category: education

Good grad school news, reading Coates and considering our racism, and some butterflies

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Gabe got into grad school! Whew! We’ve all been waiting anxiously to hear from Parsons School of Design, and thank goodness, the news was good. As is his wont, Gabe had considered the issue of grad school carefully, and had worked on his application carefully, and ended up getting the application in rather late. But it worked!

The Parsons program may be done either online or in the classrooms in New York, and Gabe is leaning towards doing the first semester online from here in Raleigh. This would avoid the stress of a last-minute apartment hunt, and would also allow him to work on his promising new relationship. Is this a good idea? The question is not an easy one. For motivated, self-directed learners, on-line can work. These past few months, both he and I have been studying photography and design subjects on-line (e.g. Lynda, Udemy, and free YouTube videos), and learning a lot.
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Considering how important education is, it’s remarkable how little we know about what works and what doesn’t. This week I listened to a couple of podcasts from This American Life on the educational effects of desegregation and resegregation, which were bracing. I wasn’t surprised to learn that desegregation improves the educational outcomes of minorities, but I didn’t know that since the mid-80s, our schools have been increasingly segregated. This is another indicator that we haven’t worked all the way through our problems with racial distinctions.

I’ve been reading Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s currently high on the best seller list, which ordinarily means I’m not in the target market, but this was a big exception. It is a black man’s jeremiad on what slavery really means for our country’s past and present. I’ve found it painful and difficult, but also helpful in understanding our bizarre situation with respect to “race.” I use quotes because evidence is accumulating that race is a social, rather than a biological, construct. Coates argues that it was created to justify oppression, and I believe he’s right.
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The legacy of our long history of slavery is unquestionably still with us. As recently as two weeks ago, there was a rally near here in support of the Confederate battle flag. And every day black people are stopped for “driving while black.” Coates makes us understand that those who are stopped believe that the police might well kill them without justification, and if they do, they might well get away with murder. Recent headlines corroborate his view.

We’ve come a long way in my life time in addressing the massive injustice of slavery and racism, but it’s taken a long time, and we’re not done yet. It saddens and shames me to admit it, but as a child in the 60s, I was taught that Negroes were inferior. Not bad, mind you, but lesser. Everyone I knew, good people and bad, thought that and taught that. I remember at first thinking it strange that little children, who called all white adults Mr. and Mrs., all called our black elementary school janitor by his first name. He was Preston. Preston was a sweet, kindly man, but I’m guessing he would have preferred Mr.
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Getting that early, deep, wrong imprinting straightened out has been a long journey for me. Along the way getting to know some great black people was critical, but so was literature and film. Reading Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright helped. William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner definitely helped. Life on the Run, by Alice Gorman, opened my eyes. Karl Hart’s recent book, High Price, did as well. Hollywood had helped, at times – Amistad, Twelve Years a Slave. Watching the PBS series Eyes on the Prize about the Civil Rights movement helped. And Coates, with his hot burning anger, is helping me, too. I recommend his book.

Some evidence that we’re at least trying to sort this out: the end of Jefferson-Jackson dinners. The Times reported this week that although these dinners have been a traditional fund-raising bonanza, the Democrats are quietly dropping the association to these unrepentant racist, slave-owning presidents. Jefferson has gotten a huge pass from subsequent generations based on his ability to turn a soaring, inspiring phrase (“all men are created equal”), but it looks like he’s finally being held accountable for the things he did to hundreds of humans that were horribly wrong. That’s good.

This is the time of year for butterflies, and I spent some time in the area parks this weekend looking for them. I took the photos here at Raulston Arboretum on Friday after work. Back home, when I got the images onto my laptop, I realized that some of them had been knocked around a bit by life. I considered repairing some of the damage to their wings with the Lightroom healing tool, but decided I liked seeing them as individuals.
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A forced break from piano playing, and thoughts on autodidacts and other learners

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After work on Friday I drove up to Raulston Arboretum to check on the flowers and insects. The rose garden was gone – nothing there but dirt. But there were still plenty of things growing, and bees and other insects hard at work. I particularly liked this uninhibited butterfly.
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It’s been a whole month now that I’ve been unable to play the piano. I’ve been following my hand doctor’s orders and keeping my fingers taped up, hoping that the torn ligament serving the middle finger of my right hand will heal. Practicing the piano every day is a habit of many years. While I wouldn’t say I’m going through withdrawal, I certainly don’t feel as happy and balanced as usual. Piano music is a big part of my life, and I miss it.

But I’m trying to stay positive. The hand will get better eventually, probably. And I’ve used some of the time freed up from practicing to do ear training exercises that should make me a better musician. I had some exposure to these in my student days, and learned enough to pass the theory course, but not enough to feel really competent. The reason I didn’t do more was, it’s more work than fun. But I see now how a richer understanding of intervals and harmony could help me as a sight reader and interpreter.

Anyhow, I’m learning something. It feels normal to me to continually be learning new things. I tend to think that being curious and having the stamina and gumption required to take on new intellectual challenges is itself a gift, bequeathed by my parents and their ancestors, and also a product of my friends, teachers, and the books and other information that shaped me. But how it works, and why not everyone gets it, are mysteries.
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There was a piece in Slate this week about education that suggested folks like me were outliers, “autodidacts,” and part of a minority able to learn without teachers, classrooms, and surrounding students. I suppose that’s possible. But I did not agree with the author’s premise that schools as they currently exist are optimal learning environments for most people. I suspect that as often as not schools destroy kids’ natural love of learning and at the same time fail to give them the tools they need to pursue their own learning paths.

So what is the best way to learn? Scientific American this month had a piece on recent research on this. The central idea was that we’ve done very little research into the most effective methods of helping people to learn. Instead we simply keep repeating traditional methods. The field of science-based education methods is still in its infancy, but there’s already enough to suggest that a lot of our methods are not very effective, and that we’ve got a lot of work to do.
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Helping bluebirds, and some good and not-so-good internet experiences


Since 2004, Sally has tended a group of bluebird houses in Cary on the Lochmere golf course, near where we used to live.  She keeps fourteen houses in good working order and keeps track of the numbers of eggs and numbers of hatchlings, then passes the data along to the North Carolina Bluebird Society.  Bluebird rely on human-built boxes for breeding spaces, and Sally likes helping them.  It’s the breeding season, and this week she invited me to come along after work to see the activity.

She already had secured a golf cart when I arrived.  It was a sunny, mild afternoon, and there were plenty of golfers out on the course.  She started with hole number 1, where Sally opened the door, pulled out the nest of pine straw, and found several dark gray nestlings, which snuggled together quietly.  Their mama was not at home, but at the next house, the mama bird shot out as we got close to the house and nearly hit my face.  

At the third house there were both bluebird and chickadee eggs. We saw several others populated by hatchlings and eggs that must have been close to hatching. In one, where there had been eggs the week before, there were none.  Sally said a snake had probably got them.  It seemed sad, though not, I guess, for the snake.  Anyhow it was most pleasant to see the birds and birds-to-be with my dear one, and learn more about their lives.

We have tickets for a trip to Cozumel next week for several days of scuba diving, and this week we met with our group at Down Under Surf and Scuba to get briefed on drift diving and other procedures.  Back home, we began our preparations — checking over the gear, refreshing on protocols, and paging through our sea creature identification books.  My underwater strobe wasn’t working properly, so I’ll need to get that over to the dive shop for a consult.  

Cozumel is English-language friendly, but even so I’ve been inspired to try to advance my Spanish.  In addition to Rosetta Stone, I’ve been working on verb conjugation at a very helpful web site that generates drills for every tense. I’ve been focusing on the preterite and the imperfect, and improving.

I’ve also been sampling lessons at Livemocha.  This service invites native speakers of one language, like Spanish, to help those interested in learning their language, like me, and they may also get help in another language, like English, from someone like me. I’ve gotten useful written feedback from folks in Columbia and Mexico, and have tried to give others some helpful tips on English.

The idea of the internet connecting language students is exciting. At the same time, it’s a little unsettling. Livemocha allows for “friending” requests, and I’ve gotten a few of these, but so far I haven’t accepted. I’m not quite clear on what the responsibilities, and risks, might be. I’m more or less constantly overcommitted already, and I would be sorry to disappoint my as yet unknown “friends” in, say, Columbia. And I would be particularly sorry if they turned out to be violent sociopaths of some sort.

Speaking of internet risks, I had an odd experience this week. I finished The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, by Bruce Hood, which I’d purchased from Amazon in the Kindle edition to read on my tablet device. The next day, I got an email from Amazon asking me how I liked The Self Illusion. !!! I hadn’t realized that Amazon had invited itself quite so intimately into my reading life. Of course, I didn’t read whatever they required me to click on (does anybody?), so it’s possible that I in some hyper legal sense agreed to let them monitor my reading. But really! That’s just icky!

What do we do? Good and bad habits

Periodically I get the bug to improve my Spanish, which has been stuck for a while at the low intermediate level. Rosetta Stone’s relentless marketing finally overcame my defenses, and I found myself signing up for its web-based offering on an all-you-can-eat-in-one-year basis. I like it.

It’s all in Spanish (no translations), with photographs to guide you toward basic vocabulary, and is broken into little bite-size challenges. It works well on my tablet device. Part of the genius is that it constantly quizzes you, asking you to think and make your best guess as to each new bit of vocabulary, and gives a small musical reward (a harp arpeggio) for a correct answer. (Wrong answers are punished with a less pleasing sound.)

When you’re a beginner at Spanish, or anything else, you have to exert a lot of conscious effort to accomplish anything. This “beginner’s mind” (see Zen) is fun, in a way. It’s involving. But eventually, if you keep at it, you advance, and you are no longer a beginner. Conscious incompetence changes gradually to unconscious competence — a habit. You can communicate more successfully, but without any particular feeling of accomplishment. Then you’re ready to begin German, or whatever. Education is, in part, the accretion of useful habits.

I wrote a bit last week about developing the habit of exercise, and have been thinking more about the significance of habits. A few moths back I read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. It has the air of one of those airport bookshop books that’s more like a padded-out magazine article, but it has a few worthwhile ideas.

According to Duhigg, hundreds of our everyday activities are just chunks of behavior that require no conscious thought. We may think that our days are spent considering and deciding on our actions, but typically we spend lots of time on autopilot. Think of getting up, showering, eating, brushing teeth, walking, driving, saying good morning, turning on your computer, web surfing & etc.

This is not in itself a bad thing, because it’s energy efficient. Once we’ve learned to drive and gotten to be experienced drivers, we don’t need to think about driving our daily commute, which frees up energy for other things — like texting. Just kidding! Kids, please don’t text while driving. But seriously, as much as I think conscious thinking is a worthwhile thing, life as we know it would be impossible without a large repertoire of behaviors that require no conscious thought.

Habits, like bacteria, get a bad rap because we forget about the good ones and mostly notice the bad ones. And we should give attention to those bad ones. Over and over, we do things that we know very well are bad for us, and it doesn’t help that we know it. Some bad habits just waste time, but others, like smoking or overeating, can take years off your life. What to do?

Duhigg proposes a simple approach to changing bad habits. Researchers have found that all habits have three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. For example, you feel bored and fidgety (the cue), you go to the snack station and grab a candy bar (the routine), and devour the sweet gooey thing and feel a moment of bliss (the reward). Then you feel unhappy that you ate something against your better judgment.

According to Duhigg, the trick to changing a bad habit is recognizing the routine, and experimenting with substituting a new routine that gives the same reward. He gives the example of his own snacking, which he thought was a function of hunger, but realized had more to do with needing social interaction. So instead of having a cookie, he started having a chat with a colleague, which yielded the same psychic reward.

This seems like a reasonable approach. Good intentions and raw willpower are usually not enough to dislodge entrenched bad habits. A bit of playful experimentation is worth a try.

Code Orange: Superstorm Sandy, climate change, and security threats

When Superstorm Sandy devastated the northeast earlier this week, Sally, Gabe, and Jocelyn were caught in New York City. Their planned short fun visit turned into a week-long ordeal. They were staying in SoHo when the storm hit and their hotel lost power and water, and stores, restaurants, and transportation systems all closed down. Thousands of flights, including theirs, were cancelled.

My sweet Tillers eventually made their way to the upper West Side and found a down-market hotel to stay in until LGA came back online and they could get flights out. As I write this, millions are still without electricity, water, food, and transportation, and dealing with enormous personal and financial losses.

I expected that the superstorm would get climate change and what to do about it onto the front page. Could there be any more dramatic example of what rising seas and increasingly severe storms could do to our coastal population centers? Wouldn’t the climate change-deniers find it impossible to deny the reality of such a catastrophe?

But the superstorm showed once again how difficult it is to get this difficult conversation going. It is not an issue politicians or editors, or ordinary people for that matter, usually like to talk about. Why? Because it is disturbing and depressing. We don’t have a comprehensive solution, but we can be pretty sure addressing it will require massive funding and considerable sacrifice. Some are receptive to voices that tell us we don’t need to sacrifice, because science is not 100% certain (which it never is). Humans in general, and Americans in particular, are usually good at recognizing and addressing emergencies like sinking ships and burning buildings. But if we’re not entirely convinced there’s a real emergency that has a direct impact on us, we generally prefer to kick the can down the road, and think about more cheerful things.

While New York was in the midst of the huge storm, it struck me that this disaster could be compared to a terrorist attack, and that it might be a good idea to use that comparison as a conceptual tool. It seems reasonable to think of climate change as a security issue. Massive storms threaten our lives and economy in much the way that bombs do. In terms of financial loss and dislocation, Sandy was far worse all of the terrorist attacks we’ve ever seen.

And the vocabulary of security seems to be one that gets people’s attention and inspires action. We’ve probably gone overboard in exaggerating the threat of terrorist attacks, as I’m reminded every time I get on an airplane, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to address it.

To be sure, as to climate change, an important part of the worry is about the well-being of future generations, and it’s likely that most people give greater weight to the lives of living humans than to future ones. But as Superstorm Sandy showed dramatically, it’s also affecting us today.

Another thing that might help is basic science education. A lot of people don’t understand that science is in an important sense probabilistic. The most accurate conception we can ever form of nature includes a considerable range of uncertainty. There will never be a day when we can say with certainty that climate change was the sole or primary cause of a particular weather event, because of the inherent complexity of the ecosystem. But probabilities are also realities. Once the probability of rain gets high enough, we’ll take along an umbrella. If we can get a reasonable level of scientific literacy, we won’t use lack of complete certainty as an excuse for kicking the can down the road.

Great N.C. wreck diving, compassion for sea creatures, and collective intelligence

For Labor Day weekend, Sally and I went down to Wrightsville Beach, NC, for some wreck diving and extended our lucky streak of exceptional coastal dives. Our trip was organized by our friends at Down Under Surf and Scuba, and we went out on the Aquatic Safaris I. The 48-foot boat I carried 19 divers.

Saturday was warm and clear, with mild breezes and fairly calm seas. We dove the City of Houston, a passenger-freighter that foundered in a storm in 1878. She lies about 50 miles from Wrightsville. It took two and a half hours of hard traveling to get there. Shortly after we anchored and I visited the head, I felt queasy and promptly got sick. Then I felt mostly better, and we jumped in and headed down the anchor line to the wreck.

The Houston lies at about 95 feet down. Visibility was good (perhaps 60 feet) and the water temperature was a comfortable 82 degrees. There was a mild amount of current on the bottom. There were thousands of small fish. Our most dramatic sighting of the day was a goliath grouper, an enormous fellow, almost six feet long. My camera battery gave out when I tried to get a picture. I did, however, get some other pictures, including Sally examining something tiny with her magnifying glass (above) and great clouds of small fish.

After a second dive on the Houston, we headed in. Our seats were metal benches along the sides, in front of our tanks, so we couldn’t lean back and sleep. Some of our dive mates stretched out and slept on the deck, so it was difficult to move about as the boat sped along at a quick 25-knot pace. Diving sometimes takes fortitude.

We had a good Italian dinner with Sally’s sister in Wilmington at Nicola’s. There were a number of appealing vegetarian offerings. I had the eggplant rollatini with pink sauce, which was quite tasty. We had a lively conversation about, among other things, the automation of higher education, and how it is threatening the traditional university.

On Sunday we went out again on the Aquatic Safaris I, this time for a two-hour trip to the Normannia, a Danish freighter that foundered in 1924. The seas were calm and the trip went smoothly. I didn’t get sick. The wreck is about 115 feet deep. Like the previous day, the visibility was about 60 feet and the water was comfortable.

Even more than at the Houston, the Normannia had an amazing profusion of life. Along with thousands of small fish, we saw barracuda, a couple of gigantic lobsters, a well camouflaged frogfish, and my favorite, queen angelfish (several). I went to some trouble trying to get a good picture of one, and though these don’t really do it justice, they were the best I could do.

It is such a great pleasure to swim among fish. At times we were completely surrounded by thousands of small ones, and at times we swam alongside large ones. As I dive more, I feel increasingly touched by their beauty. They are amazingly varied in size, shape, color, and ways of moving about. Recent research indicates that they are much smarter than we’ve thought. For example, some can very quickly learn complex topography of a reef environment.

As I’ve spent more time with these creatures, I’ve come to consider them sentient beings worthy of respect and compassion. I regret to say I’m in a minority on this point. Among my fellow divers were some with spear guns and one who was capturing lobsters. I found it really painful to see him take an enormous lobster, perhaps decades old, and break off its antenna and shove it into an ice chest to suffocate.

My shipmate seemed otherwise a decent and friendly fellow. I’m certain he was not trying to torture the creature, though that was what he did. He didn’t derive pleasure from being cruel. He simply couldn’t comprehend that the animal was capable of suffering. I think he and others would find that expanding the circle of compassion to more animals is a happier and more fulfilling way to live.

Speaking of intelligence, I read recently that the human brain was unlikely to get larger in the normal course of future evolution, because it would serve no purpose. Brains working in isolation are not how things get done. Instead, as E.O. Wilson has pointed out, it’s humans’ ability to connect their individual brains that has been the secret to their evolutionary success. We keep getting better at that, developing over the millenia the tools of gesture, spoken language, and written language, with the internet being the latest game-changing technology.

In the midst of the depressing mendacity and nonsense of the Republican convention, I find it somewhat consoling to look at intelligence as potentially expanding through better networks. The Republicans are profoundly mistaken in thinking that entrepreneurs act primarily as fully independent rugged individualists. It’s more accurate, and also more useful, to look at achievement in terms of groups cooperating and competing. Our future success, and perhaps our survival, depends on our ability to improve our systems of cooperation, including our politics.

Science news — the Higgs boson, global warming, the nature of consciousness

I’ve been trying to follow the story of the search for the Higgs boson for a long time, and so I felt excited by reports this week that scientists at CERN have discovered a new particle that could be it. Quantum mechanics is not something I would ever aspire to have a deep grasp of, but even skimming the surface is mind bending. The subatomic world has different rules from ours.

I also really like the purity of the enterprise. It’s primarily driven by curiosity, rather than motives of profit or power. These scientists aren’t much interested in practical applications; they want the truth. (Of course, they also may want tenure, grants, Nobel Prizes, dates, etc.) It’s cheering that there is still, in some places, political and financial support that makes their (very expensive) experiments possible.

Another thing that’s particularly cool about the Higgs search is that it is a massive collaboration. Thousands and thousands of scientists are involved. According to the Times account, there were two teams of 3,000 physicists each analyzing the data from hundreds of trillions of proton collisions in the latest round of the CERN effort. They’ve found ways, which I’m sure involve the Internet and massive computing power, to share their knowledge and coordinate their efforts. This is very different from the model of scientific discovery I was taught as a kid, where individuals worked by themselves in their laboratories until their eureka moment. It’s encouraging that scientists are learning to collaborate better just as they take on ever larger problems.

The practicality of the Higgs work may be to the researchers’ advantage in making them a low-value political target. This contrasts sharply with global warming research. In my home state of North Carolina, a majority of our legislators (mostly Republicans) embarrassed themselves again this week by enacting legislation designed to suppress, or at least defer, scientific reports of rising sea levels caused by global warming.

The coastal development lobby seems to have been involved. As my friend and House representative Deborah Ross cleverly observed, putting our heads in the sand is not really doing property owners any favors — they need real information. I’d also note that the sea is not going to read the study anyway. It is both funny and scary that a significant portion of our political leaders (for now a majority in NC) are either willfully ignorant or cynically determined to oppose science where it conflicts with their self-interest.

Yet science hasn’t thrown in the towel yet, and I’ve got to think that the truth will out. Speaking a little more of science, I’ve been reading a new book by Michael Gazzaniga titled Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. It’s about recent discoveries and theories in neuroscience, and parts of it are mind boggling. Gazzaniga is a distinguished professor (University of California) and researcher in cognitive neuroscience who made ground-breaking discoveries in the area of split-brain research.

Gazzaniga covers a lot of territory, and I will not attempt to summarize (indeed, I’m not certain I completely grasp) his view of free will. For me, the most stimulating sections had to do with his his model of conscious thought. At least since the time of the Periclean Athens, we’ve thought of our conscious experience as objective — that is, what you see is what there is to see, what you hear is objectively present in nature, and so on as to other senses and perceptions. In everyday life, we experience all these sensations predictable and reliable, and have difficulty imagining them as error prone and misleading.

I’ve read several interesting books recently discussing research on this, including Jonathan Haidt’s, Daniel Kahneman’s, and Jonah Lehrer’s, but Gazzinaga seems to have the clearest theoretical model and best supported theory for why we can’t accept that our conscious perceptions are at best an incomplete and fallible approximation of physical reality. His model of the mind involves hundreds or thousands of modules working on, say, vision, and forwarding their data to a module in the left brain which he calls The Interpreter.

The Interpreter takes in what it can (not everything), makes some quick guesstimates as to what data is reliable and what should be tossed out, fills in any gaps in the data with best guesses, and presents the result to consciousness as reality. Despite all the guesswork and potential for errors, the result feels to us instantaneous, smooth, continuous, and objective. If there are glaring problems or inconsistencies, The Interpreter comes up with a narrative or story that “explains” them. We are, in a really fundamental sense, story-telling animals.

Another aspect of Gazzaniga’s model struck me as particularly thought-provoking was his discussion of emergence theory. While giving respect and consideration to the researchers working at the scale of neurons and brain structures, Gazzinaga deems it unlikely that that approach will never explain conscious experience. The brain is just too complex.

Emergence theory addresses itself to phenomena are matters that arise out of inputs so numerous as to be incalculable. Examples include snowflakes, traffic jams and weather, which are in the aggregate clearly products of much simpler phenomena (hydrogen atoms, carburetors and other auto parts, breezes etc.), but which contain too many variables to be predictable. The brain’s 100 billion neurons and vastly larger number of synapses far exceeds the complexity of our analytical tools.

Finally, I was intrigued that Gazzaniga suggests the possibility that the basic unit of analysis for the study of human consciousness should not be an individual brain, but rather, groups of brains. That is, intelligence may be best understood as emerging from humans interacting with each other. The individual brain in isolation knows nothing that we would call intelligence, but needs other brains to develop. Prisoners in prolonged isolation quite literally lose their minds. We’ve barely begun to consider consciousness in terms of systems of brains, rather than individual brains. It could change the way we approach education, law, and most everything else.

My latest piano lesson, a new Indian restaurant, and some good news in the Sunday Times

At home with Stuart and the Sunday New York Times

On Saturday morning I had my first piano lesson with Olga in several weeks. I played the second Scriabin prelude, Debussy’s Reverie, Chopin’s etude in c minor op. 25, no. 12, and Liszt’s Un Sospiro. We continued to talk about subtle aspects of touch and tone. In slow lyrical passages, she asked me to keep listening closely to tones as they decay all the way to the next note — a more intense kind of listening. She got me focused on my elbow as a tool in shaping a long melodic line. In the etude, she coached me on how to make it really loud and fast. After I played the Liszt for her last time, she was inspired to learn the piece, and this time she taught me some of the tricks she’d developed for the tricky places. By the end, I felt exhausted but inspired.

That night Sally and I had dinner at a new Indian restaurant in our neighborhood called Blue Mango. I usually like Indian food as food, but as a restaurant dining experience is often lackluster. Many dishes that I like arrive in the form of brown goop; the emphasis is not on the presentation. Mantra, another Indian restaurant close to us that opened a few months back, departed from this stereotype and presented food that was pleasant to look at as well as to eat. Blue Mango’s dishes were not as pretty, but the restaurant had a cool vibe, and the food was very tasty. Service was friendly but still getting the kinks out. The veggie samosas were excellent.

We ate early with a view to seeing an 8:00 movie at the Blue Ridge, a second run theatre where tickets cost $2. We who are normally so lucky were not so at the Blue Ridge. Every parking spot in the place was taken. We drove around for 10 minutes looking, and finally came home. We ended up watching Trading Places with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, which was kind of funny.

Early Sunday morning is the time to get a paper copy of the New York Times and a cup of coffee, and start with the front page. With the sections properly sorted and ready for perusal, I find spending some time with the paper soothing, even when the news of the day involves various disasters. The Times makes mistakes, but it never gives up, and from time to time it is enlightening. Also, it is a sort of barometer of ideas that are getting solidified in public consciousness, and thus a leading indicator of possible social change.

Today I was happy to see a front-page story on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. Erica Goode writes that the supermax prison model that has grown in the last three decades and kept prisoners in nearly complete isolation has resulted in increased prison violence, increased recidivism, and, for the prisoners, increased mental illness — all at enormous expense to the government (i.e. your and my tax dollars at work). There was an excellent piece on psychological costs of solitary confinement by Atal Gawande in the New Yorker some months back. Anyhow, Goode reports good news: several states have been reducing the numbers of prisoners in solitary confinement. The motivation appears to be more cost savings in tough budget times than humanitarian concerns, but still, progress is progress.

On the cover of the Sunday Review section is a piece by Mark Bittman on the problems of eating chickens, and alternatives to doing so. Bittman asks, “Would I rather eat cruelly raised, polluting, unhealthful chicken, or a plant product that’s nutritionally similar or superior, good enough to fool me and requires no antibiotics, butting off of heads or other nasty things?” Or putting it another way, “If you know that food won’t hurt your body or the environment and it didn’t cause any suffering to an animal, why wouldn’t you choose it?” According to the story, there are new fake chicken products that are perfectly fine. That sounds like good news for the chicken species, and for humans.

Also in the Review section, Tom Friedman writes about the greatest non-natural resource a country can have — a good education system. He cites a recent study comparing the wealth of countries according to their natural resources such as oil and metals and the education level of their citizens. More oil resources do not lead to higher levels of knowledge and skills, but knowledge and skills are tied to countries’ economic success. Friedman is surely right that education should take pride of place as a societal focus.

One story I expected to see in the Review section, but didn’t, was the report earlier in the week that the televangelist Pat Robertson had spoken in favor of legalization of marijuana. My comment on Twitter (see @robtiller) was: Pigs fly! Robertson’s positions are generally consistent with the “conservative” “Christian” “family values” camp, and I would have guessed that even if he privately concluded that prohibition was a failure, he would be the last person to speak out on the subject. But he has acknowledged that the war on drugs has failed, after enormous expenditures and a huge toll of imprisoned victims. He proposes that we treat marijuana like we treat alcohol. It pains me to say so, but for once, I strenuously agree with the man. The important question, though, is will his followers?

Work, Pilates, Bjork, and musical play time

Nocturne in D flat major by Frederic Chopin

It was another busy week of many meetings, calls, and issues, with business dinners almost every night, and my email backlog continuing to pile up. But interesting, always interesting. On Friday I was scheduled to go to the coast for two days of wreck diving, but bad weather arrived and the trip was cancelled. I was not heartbroken. It was good to get some down time.

On Saturday morning it was cold and rainy. I thought of taking Yvonne’s open level Vinyasa yoga class at Blue Lotus, but learned from the web site that someone else was filling in for her. I check for alternatives, and found an early Pilates class at the Y. And so it was that I had my first Pilates experience. It was similar to yoga, with its emphasis on breathing throughout a series of exercises with unusual stretches and contractions. I found this particular class less strenuous than my normal yoga classes, and also less serenity-inducing. Still, I would do it again, especially if there’s no yoga available.

Other new things: earlier in the week I read a news story about Biophilia, the new multimedia production of Bjork, the Icelandic singer-songwriter, and downloaded the work to my iPad. Biophilia is in part a collection of songs about nature and science, but rather than being an album, it’s something we don’t have a word for yet. Bjork worked with scientists and artists to make interactive productions that allowed the listener to participate actively in the music by adding notes and altering images. After a few minutes of experimenting, I could make a bit of music with the tools provided, and participate in some of Bjork’s visions of microscopic, geologic, and celestial phenomena.

The idea of sharing a vision this way — not just providing passive entertainment, but inviting participation as a way of inspiring and teaching — is exciting, and the NY Times story took the view that it was ground breaking. For me, the experience was intriguing but not really thrilling. I liked being allowed to work with Bjork’s electronic instruments and play with her, but the musical possibilities were narrowly circumscribed and not expressive enough to satisfy me.

For example, by using the touch screen, in various songs you can add to Bjork’s fairly simple musical backdrop more harp notes or more synth notes, and play faster or slower, but so far as I could figure out without taking any new harmonic direction. The videos were in some cases beautiful, but the songs themselves were more performance art than either art music or dance music. Still, I liked the ideas, and I will probably play some more with Biophilia.

Phoebe, Holtkotter lamp, and music technology

The idea of using technology to express new musical thoughts has interested me for a while. This past spring, I began playing with the instruments built into GarageBand (a Mac application), and eventually purchased a cheap electronic keyboard and a cheap auxiliary speaker to experiment with. One of my ideas was to translate early music (1500s) through synthesizer voices to see what new things emerged. The sheet music came with a lot of interpretive problems, so I didn’t get far on the vector. But I had fun improvising with various synthesizer personalities using various systems, like Greek modes and pentatonic scales. I thought of it as playing, in the sense of playing a game. It’s a different kind of musical outlet.

Bjork’s idea of engineering a collaboration with an unknown audience has a distinguished heritage. It’s what we do when we open a volume of Chopin nocturnes and start to play. Chopin left us the architectural drawings, which the pianist uses to create musical in real time, while at the same time personalizing the structure with thousands of unwritten details according to the pianist’s experience, intelligence, and feelings.

This system — master composer, written music, trained pianist — has worked amazingly well for a couple of hundred years. It does, however, depend on musical education — there has to be a support system for training pianists, and also listeners. For music with the harmonic complexity of the great Western tradition, you have to learn a lot before you can interpret it, and you have to learn a fair bit to get deep enjoyment from listening to it. It is worth the effort.

I sometimes worry that there is a long historic curve in which our music devolves from the complex and brilliant to the simple and sweet, and from there to the just plain dumb. The traditional system of classical music education and performance is not in good health. But perhaps humans are just getting started in discovering what music can do. Who knows where it goes? We have to keep experimenting, keep creating. That’s what Bjork is doing, and good for her.

My budget solution: end the wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Drugs)

Yesterday the newspapers reported that the last U.S. soldiers would be out of Iraq by the end of this year. When the U.S. invaded Iraq eight years ago, I thought it was a terrible mistake, and everything I’ve learned about it since has strengthened that conviction, as thousands of U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives, and as we increased our exposure to financial collapse by spending more than 800 billion borrowed dollars.

It’s good news that it’s over, and I wish I could feel happier about it. We’ve wreaked a lot of havoc in Iraq, and now we’re stopping. Have we learned anything? That’s doubtful. As a society, we’ve hardly thought about it at all.

As an undergraduate at Oberlin College, I had a concentration in political theory. I read Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Montesqieu, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Adams, Marx, Nietzche, Bentham, Mill, Arendt, Rawls, and a lot of other interesting and challenging thinkers. For a long time, though, I had my doubts as to whether I’d learned anything at all useful.

Eventually, I came to the view that I learned one very useful thing: critical thinking. Engaging with lots of powerful ideas that were all, at least to some degree, wrong or unworkable helped develop a mental toolbox. This toolbox is useful in recognizing the weak points in arguments, discarding unfounded assumptions, and sometimes in making better decisions.

War is powerfully attractive at certain times and places. I am not immune to that attraction. Like lots of kids, I’m fascinated by weaponry (especially tanks and fighter jets), and I find military history interesting. But something in my moral education left me with the settled view that killing sentient beings is deeply tragic, and in most cases morally wrong.

Add this ethical orientation to a skeptical turn of mind, and maybe I can see through the attractions of war to the underlying horror more easily than most. Or perhaps I’m kidding myself. In any case, I have a high degree of confidence on the right way to go on this. While we’re wrapping things up in Iraq, let’s also quit sending our kids to kill and be killed in Afghanistan. There is no good reason for that war, either. We’ve spent more than $450 billion on it. Let’s stop the physical and financial bleeding.

Ditto on the war on drugs. This week’s (Oct. 17) New Yorker has a piece on the subject by Michael Specter. (Unfortunately only the first few paragraphs are available without charge online.) It starts with a discussion of Portugal’s experience of decriminalizing drugs ten years ago and treating addiction as a medical problem. “In most respects, the law seems to have worked: serious drug use is down significantly, particularly among young people; the burden on the criminal-justice system has eased; the number of people seeking treatment has grown; and the rates of drug-related deaths and cases of infectious diseases have fallen.”

Specter gives a balanced account of Portugal’s experience, and including quotes from critics of the change. Their criticisms seem mostly based on their belief that drugs are evil. Fine. But in Portugal lots of law enforcement and political leaders have given up on the idea that treating drug use as a crime can possibly succeed.

There was another good anti-drug-war piece this week by Doug Bandow, a fellow at the conservative a Cato Institute published in Forbes and republished by the Huffington Post.
According to Bandow,

Perhaps the most obvious cost of enforcing the drug laws is financial. Government must create an expansive and expensive enforcement apparatus, including financial and military aid to other governments. At the same time, the U.S. authorities must forgo any tax revenue from a licit drug market.According to Harvard’s Jeffrey A. Miron and doctoral candidate Katherine Waldock, in the U.S. alone “legalizing drugs would save roughly $41.3 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition” and “yield tax revenue of $46.7 billion annually.”

This cost is appalling, and it doesn’t even count such costs as ever expanding prison systems, corruption of law enforcement and government, breeding organized crime, and of course the human costs of broken families and lives.

But I see a little ray of hope. The national debt problem has come to be viewed as both serious and impossible to solve. However true that may be, it has created a sense of desperation in Washington. It’s just possible that drug war diehards could come to accept drug legalization as a necessary revenue-generating measure. This was part of what led to the repeal of Prohibition — the realists won the argument that we needed the tax revenues from liquor. Legalization, combined with a sensible regulation and taxation system, could make a significant dint in our budget shortfalls. Add that to ending unnecessary wars, controlling excessive military costs, cutting farm subsidies, getting health care costs under control, and voila!