The Casual Blog

Category: moral causes

Reconsidering racism

A water lilly at Frank Schwartz’s Water and Garden Creations

On Saturday I visited a water lily garden in southern Wake County.  The outing was organized by the Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association, and there were some nice people there who had good cameras.  Along with the lilies and other flowers, there was a little green frog.  

As regular readers of The Casual Blog know, from time to time I express myself on political subjects, but recently I’ve had some trouble doing so. There are so many issues worthy of closer examination and critical thought.  But that’s also the problem — it’s hard to know where to start.  Issues are proliferating. Before you’ve got one terrible problem in focus, there are two more even worse.  

You can wear yourself out with fear and outrage, while accomplishing nothing.   While it’s very easy to get depressed about the state of the union and various real world problems, that doesn’t help anything.  I’ve been trying to develop a perspective that’s connected to what we know of reality, but that isn’t hopeless.  Admittedly, it’s a challenge.

Lately my non-work long-form reading has been mostly history, which I find both calming and stimulating.  It helps to take a longer view.  Stories of tyrants, like the Roman emperors who were insane and murderously sadistic, are interesting in themselves, but also put our problems in a bit of perspective — that is, there have been worse heads of state.  

I used to think of history as facts collected in history textbooks that could be known with certainty.  It turns out, though, that history is far from fixed.  It changes.  Historians can be completely blind to aspects of their subjects which later historians bring to light.  It’s a safe bet that our vision also is clouded and incomplete.  But it’s capable of improvement.  

Alan Taylor’s latest book, American Revolutions, reframes the revolutionary war from one of united American colonists against England into a multifaceted and lengthy civil war with international aspects.  It was in significant part a war between groups of colonists, many of whom favored England and were uprooted, tortured, and killed for their loyalism.  It was in part a war to maintain slavery and to seize native American lands.  The level of blood and gore was high, and the level of idealism and integrity not as high as we thought.  

I’ve also been reading Carrie Gibson’s Empire’s Crossroads:  A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day.  I came to the book with a vague idea that the islands of the Caribbean were useful as stopover points for explorers transiting the Atlantic in the age of sail.  It turns out that beginning in the sixteenth century and for hundreds of years, they were wildly successful in generating wealth for Europe.  The English considered their islands more valuable than the American colonies, and gave up those colonies in part because they thought it better to use their navy to defend the islands.  

Empire’s Crossroads tells the story of the development of hugely successful sugar plantations, which is also the story of the development of the African slave trade.  The extreme brutality of Caribbean slavery was not well understood in Europe at the time, and probably not well understood by many people today.  Gibson observes that slavery wasn’t caused by racism, but rather racism was created to justify slavery.      

It would be nice to think we’re over racism.  But we noticed quite a few Confederate flags when we were on the Outer Banks last week.  There are numerous reports from around the U.S. of displays of hangman’s nooses and swastikas.  New laws are limiting voting rights of minorities and freedom of movement of immigrants.  And of course, not all the violence is symbolic.  There seems to be a stream of racist attacks and murders, which are somehow recognized as “terrorism.”  

One good thing about the Trump presidency is that it has brought a virulent racist element of  America  into the light.  I’d thought it was almost gone, but now there’s no mistaking, it’s still there.  Encouraged by the regime, the racist minority has felt emboldened.  I suspect that explains in part Trump’s rise.  His rallies, with coded messages giving permission and encouragement to prejudices that had been held in check as shameful, sparked an enthusiasm that lots of us didn’t take seriously enough.  Now we know this racist minority are highly motivated, and they won’t give up their hateful ideology without a fight.  

But history can be inspiring.   Our ancestors, black, white, and other, finally, after hundreds of years, did away with legalized slavery.  They eventually ended the legalized racism of Jim Crow, and the housing regulations that prevented black people from buying houses in white neighborhoods. There are still living some who risked their lives in the struggle for voting rights for blacks and school desegregation.  We stand on the shoulders of moral giants, who pointed the way forward.  But there’s still some hard work to be done.  

 

Happy No Thanks Day

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I like Thanksgiving as a holiday, because it celebrates things that really matter, like loving families, without too much rampant materialism. But this year the timing was unfortunate, so close to the Presidential election, which has left us feeling shaken. It seemed like time for a different holiday — a Day of No Thanks. Rather than celebrating gratitude, No Thanks Day would be about regret, worry, and resistance.

On Thursday, we had a bit of both Thanks and No Thanks Day. Sally made a delicious Mexican-themed all veggie Thanksgiving meal for our extended family, and we caught up on family news. But we also talked about some of the frightening things happening in our country, including the sudden emergence from the sludge of the so-called alt right.

Until recently, unabashed white supremacists seemed to be so far out on the lunatic fringe that they could safely be ignored. But now they’ve gone mainstream, and their preferred candidate just got elected President of the United States.
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So what are these people? There was a fascinating and chilling interview this week with Richard Spencer, an alt-right leader, by Kelly McEvers on NPR, which is transcribed here. Spencer is poised and well spoken, and his ideas are absolutely poisonous. His animating political vision seemed to be apartheid — a country just for white people. He saw no problem with swastikas and Ku Klux Klan costumes.

The NY Times had a piece on the alt right this week, and tried to explain the difference between white nationalists and white supremacists. According to Eric Kaufmann, a UK scholar, “White nationalism … is the belief that national identity should be built around white ethnicity, and that white people should therefore maintain both a demographic majority and dominance of the nation’s culture and public life.

So, like white supremacy, white nationalism places the interests of white people over those of other racial groups. White supremacists and white nationalists both believe that racial discrimination should be incorporated into law and policy. . . .
Professor Kaufmann says the terms are not synonyms: White supremacy is based on a racist belief that white people are innately superior to people of other races; white nationalism is about maintaining political and economic dominance, not just a numerical majority or cultural hegemony.

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Is the “nationalist” label something more than a thin veneer for putrid racism and neo-Nazism? I doubt it. The Times reported that this week Spencer gave a speech attacking Jews and immigrants. He quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German and led cries of “Hail Trump” and “Hail Victory” (German: “Seig Heil”).

What’s this have to do with the President-elect? Well, he’s picked as his senior counselor and chief strategist Steve Bannon, who runs what he proudly claims is the leading communications outlet for the alt-right. Bannon is sly about expressing his personal views, but there is no subtlety about his Breitbart News: it’s unabashedly devoted to racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, bizarre conspiracy theories, and fear mongering.
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Bannon seems to have engineered the press campaign that ultimately resulted in the “Crooked Hillary” meme of the Republican campaign. This is laid out in an interview on Fresh Air of journalist Joshua Green. Using a “research” entity called the Government Accountability Institute, Bannon directed the collection of innuendo about the Clinton Foundation, which was then pitched to investigative journalists of the mainstream press. In effect, he hacked into the NY Times and other traditional media and planted an anti-Clinton virus. The non-stop drumbeat by Bannon and Breitbart — Benghazi! The emails! Lock her up! — unquestionably drove up Hillary’s unfavorable ratings, and arguably caused her defeat. Green’s 2015 piece on Bannon and Breitbart News is worth reading.

Coming back to Richard Spencer, at the end of the interview with Kelly McEvers, he said this: “If I had told you in 1985 that we should have gay marriage in this country, you probably would have laughed at me. And I think most people would have. Or at least – at the very least, you would have been a bit confused, and you would have told me, oh that’s ridiculous. The fact is, opinions do change. People’s consciousness does change. Paradigms are meant to be broken. That’s what the alt-right is doing.”
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Well, he’s right about one thing: people’s ideas change. They can change for the worse, but also, as his example on gay marriage shows, for the better. A lot of white people, and other people, have put behind them the worst kind of racism and are trying to be conscious of and root out the more subtle kinds. The ascendency of the alt right may just be the death throes of an old sad culture that will soon be gone. But I’m not sure. Their combination of blazing ignorance and brilliance in media manipulation is new in our country. We need to keep watch.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to stay calm. I’m doing deep breathing, and taking walks in the woods. Trees, which can live a very long time, have a kind of wisdom. Being with them is peaceful. These new pictures are from Umstead State Park.

Getting a new floor, Ethiopian food, beautiful bugs, helping refugees, and our gun problem

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We’re living in a hotel in Cary while the floor of our condo is being removed and replaced. While I’m grateful we have the means to remedy our defective flooring, this has been a major project – like moving (lots of planning, arranging, sorting, boxing, and hauling), but without the ultimate gratification of a move. Flooring is one of those things I don’t usually think much about, and I will be glad to be finished with it.
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It’s unsettling to be uprooted. Our hotel is fine, with amenities including a gym, pool, free wi-fi, breakfasts included, and best and most unusual of all, they take doggies. At first our Stuart was discombobulated by the new situation, uninterested in his food (most unlike him), listless and particularly in need of affection.

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We all consoled each other, and we humans, though unsettled, did not lose our interest in food. On Friday evening we tried a new-to-us Ethiopian place called Awaze. Our servers were warm and friendly, and happy to give us coaching on the traditional forkless method of eating. You tear off a piece of injera, a spongy sort of bread that comes rolled up, pick up some of your main dish with it, then insert in mouth. We tried the vegetarian platter, a combo of most of their veggie entrees. Every bite was exotically spiced and delicious.

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On Saturday morning I visited Raulston Arboretum, as I often do. One thing you discover when you regularly visit a garden: it’s never the same twice. There are major changes every week. This week it was lush and green, with lots of insect activity, including some gorgeous butterflies. The closer you look, the more beauty there is to see.
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This week I read the latest UN Report on Refugees. Did you know that we currently share the planet with the largest number of refugees and displaced persons in history – 65.3 million? That’s up from 59.5 million a year earlier. Children make up more than half of the total. The largest source countries are Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. This short UN film (scroll down to Global Trends) highlights the human dimensions of this catastrophe.

Inasmuch as these fellow human beings are in dire straits, and particularly in consideration of our partial responsibility from our destructive decades-long war in the Middle East, it would seem we should be working hard to help. For many, though, the primary concern seems to be that there could among these unfortunates uprooted by war and terrorism be terrorists. Based on this disproportionate fear, we’re doing almost nothing, and let the devil take the hindmost. This is an ethical failure of huge proportions. Consider a gift to the International Rescue Committee or another reputable charity serving refugees.
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There are occasional shining sparks of humanity. The New Yorker this week had a harrowing/inspiring piece by Ben Taub about the work of Doctors Without Borders and others providing medical care to displaced persons in Syria. The Assad government has denied health care to millions of civilians by systematically killing hundreds of health care workers and destroying hospitals. You might think this would drive out the surviving doctors, but there are still some who will not quit, and continue to save lives under unimaginably harsh conditions. Human kindness and courage still exist!
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Speaking of moxy, House Democrats showed some backbone this week in staging a sit in in support of gun control. The NRA’s bought-and-paid-for veto power over gun legislation is an extreme example of the corruption of our political system, and although it’s grotesque, we’ve come to accept it as unchangeable.

In the wake of the Orlando massacre, as dozens of Democrats disrupted House business demanding a vote on a gun control bill, it felt bracingly close to real change. The bill at issue was underwhelming – as the gun wingnuts correctly pointed out, the no-fly list is not a reliable source for identifying bad people – but the larger point was clear and important: we can no longer treat this corruption preventing sane gun laws as business as usual.
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The New Yorker noted this week that more Americans were killed by firearms in the past decade than in all of WWII. What is the root cause of the American obsession with guns and allergy to reasonable gun control? A lot of it surely involves high levels of irrational fear. What if we tried to help people find better ways to deal with their fears, and helped them see that in general guns make them less safe, not more?

Sure, that’s a tall order, but it’s worth a shot. Here are some first thoughts to get the ball rolling. Call out fearmongering by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and many others. Give away free copies of local crime statistics showing downward crime trends. Teach stress reduction techniques. Promote visits to the local arboretum.
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Summer flowers, good Indian food, soccer, Chomsky, and a nuclear question

Tiller7Bug 1-2Saturday morning I went over to Durham to see what was blooming in Duke Gardens. It seemed like summer had arrived. The forest was really lush, and the birds were singing, but the riot of colorful spring flowers had passed. There were some swelling roses and irises, and lovely magnolias. I was hoping for butterflies, but saw only one, a buckeye, who declined to pose for a picture. As usual, walking through these beautiful gardens was calming and inspiring.
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That evening we tried a new south Indian vegetarian restaurant in Morrisville, Sai Krishna Bhavan. My colleague from the subcontinent recommended it as one of the best in the area, and we concurred. We had somosas, a rava masala (potato) dosa, and paneer tikka masala curry. We’d been forewarned that the food tended to be quite spicy, so we asked for a mild approach, and that worked well for us.
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We went from there to see the Railhawks play the Jacksonville Armada (soccer). The start of the game was delayed because of the threat of a thunderstorm, but we passed the time happily chatting with friends. Eventually, the Railhawks played, with moments of brilliance and moments of sheer ineptitude. The final score was 0-0, though it could easily have been 3-0, or maybe 0-3.
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We watched a documentary on Netflix, Requiem for the American Dream. It was centered around an interview with Noam Chomsky, a lefty intellectual I’ve long admired for his scholarship, courage, and honesty. In this film he addresses wealth inequality and related issues, including how government advantages the rich over the not rich. Chomsky, now 87, seems as lucid as ever.
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This week Hillary Clinton let loose a stinging attack on Donald Trump, and landed some body blows. She had some fun pointing up his more bizarre ideas, and posited that he is temperamentally unfit to have his finger on the trigger of the largest nuclear arsenal on earth.

I certainly agree, and would even agree that the thought of HC holding the nuclear football is not as alarming as DT. But here’s the thing: there’s no human temperamentally fit to wield nuclear super powers. We’re all prone to intense anger, fear, and other strong emotions that overwhelm our ability to think clearly. Every one of us has unknown biases, unfounded assumptions, and unsuspected blind-spots. Even leaving all that aside and assuming we’re able to be completely rational, our decisions can go awry because of misinformation or lack of data.

There are none of us that can be relied on with absolute certainty to make the right decision in an existential emergency. That’s one of the reasons we need to focus on reducing and ultimately eliminating nuclear stockpiles. As long as humans hold the power to unleash a catastrophic nuclear war, we are in dire peril.

I realize this is not particularly pleasant to think about. But there are uncomfortable realities of life that we have no choice but to eventually address, and this one needs to go at or near the top of the list. Of this I’m sure: we need to get over whatever is holding us back from moving forward in this discussion – maybe some combination of complacency and hopelessness. The first step is to recognize that the risks of nuclear miscalculations or accidents are real and unacceptable, and we don’t have to just accept them.
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A big spin, an op ed on free speech, Korean death fans, the unbelievable Donald, and what to say about Hiroshima

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Work bled over into Saturday, so I didn’t get outside for a photo-walk (these photos are from last week), but I did do an early spin class at Flywheel.All of my previous Flywheel spins there were 45 minutes, but this one was a full hour. I had some concerns that that extra quarter-hour could cause problems (such as woofing, or death), but I survived. Final score: 398. Finishing position: number one. Endorphins: plenty.

This week the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer published the op ed piece I co-authored with Michael Gerhardt about HB2 and the First Amendment. The thesis was that legislators who threaten retaliation for those who speak out against the transgender bathroom bill are chilling free speech guaranteed by the Constitution, and that should not be tolerated.

After I’d noticed the issue and decided it was serious, I reached out to Michael, a UNC Law professor and constitutional law expert, to see if he concurred in my analysis, and he suggested we collaborate on the piece. It was fun working together, and I got a kid-like thrill when the piece went live and people started posting reactions.
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Speaking of little newspaper pieces, there was a fascinating one in the NY Times this week about South Koreans’ fear of electric fans. South Koreans, a notably hard-working, sophisticated, tech-savvy people believe that sleeping with an electric fan blowing in the room can result in death. Fans are sold with special sleep timers. There are government warnings and media reports of fan deaths. Apparently this fear doesn’t exist outside South Korea.

We might once have thought it almost impossible for a large population to adopt an idea so comically loony, but no more. For example, right here in the USA, there are those who deny the fundamental facts of climate change or the need to do anything about it, including Donald Trump. And there is the stranger-than-truth story of Donald Trump, as of this week the official presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for president.

How could any significant number of people believe this man would make a good leader — of anything? How could anyone watch him for five minutes and fail to notice that he’s ignorant, crass, and shallow? How could large groups of people ignore the florid delusions and the almost non-stop lying, big lies, lies so blatant and transparent that they they seem proudly designed to be understood to be lies? Or the bullying, mean-spirited nastiness?

I’m not saying he’s all bad, mind you. At time he’s funny, and every now and again he says something that is not crazy. But it would be madness to entrust this guy with responsibility for addressing climate change, preventing nuclear war, or for cleaning up after himself, which is to say, any significant or insignificant responsibility. I continue to think that he will lose in a landslide that sweeps out a lot of other worse-than-useless pols. But even in that case, we’ll still have the not-so-funny, puzzling, and fairly disturbing reality that millions of our fellow citizens do not think the Donald is a contemptible joke.
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What would Trump say at Hiroshima? One shudders to think. This was clearly a problem this week for President Obama, a person in many ways Trump’s opposite. Let’s say you have sufficient moral capacity to understand it was horribly wrong to do a demo of the first atomic bomb by killing 140,000 civilians. Yet it would roil diplomatic alliances and certain important constituencies to apologize for this atrocity. So Obama, ever brilliant, delivered the most apologetic non-apology imaginable. He highlighted the horror, hugged victims, and called for movement towards a world without nuclear weapons.

His speech was in places Lincolnesque – moving, stirring, and inspiring — though also in places oddly ambiguous, disjointed, and restrained. Here are some of the good parts:

Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner. Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become. . . .

Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.

That I why we come to this place. We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. . . .

Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again. . . . The memory of the morning of Aug. 6, 1945 must never fade. That memory allows us to fight complacency. It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change. . . .

Among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them. We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe. We can chart a course that leads to the destruction of these stockpiles. . . .

It’s clear that Obama understands the enormity of the nuclear peril, including the risk that our gigantic stockpile of nuclear weapons could end up destroying most every living thing on the planet including us. He’s repeatedly called attention to this existential risk. But he hasn’t made much progress in actually reducing it.

There are, of course, powerful institutional forces supporting the status quo of standing on the nuclear precipice – the military-industrial complex, now much more powerful than when President Eisenhower named it, and the fearful conservative mind set that exaggerates possible threats and reflexively resists reform. What if Obama just ordered destruction of half of our nukes? Would the missile officers refuse the order? Would there be impeachment proceedings, or a coup?

I doubt it, but there’s something that holds him back. Anyhow, he has made a judgment that he needs to change minds to prepare the way for a changed reality, and perhaps his speech will help with that.
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Foolish LGBT discrimination in NC, more spring blossoms, and an excellent Barber of Seville

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North Carolina is my home, and I love it very much. There is a lot of natural beauty, and there are a lot of smart, warm people. But boy, we’ve got some really ignorant political leadership. It is hard to believe, at this point in history, anyone would truly fear gay and transgender folks. And it’s just shameful to start a fear mongering campaign about the risks posed by improper usage of bathrooms. Has anyone ever heard of an LGBT bathroom attack, or even an awkward moment? Unfortunately, the stupidity and/or cynicism of our legislative Republicans has brought cascades of ridicule on our state, and it looks like there could be real economic damage. Eventually we’ll vote those rascals out (maybe in November?), but meanwhile, it’s painful and embarrassing.
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But again, this is a good place to live, and a good time. The azaleas blossomed this week in pinks, whites, and purples, and the delicate dogwoods (our state tree) flowered. It was rainy on Saturday morning, when I went to Raulston Arboretum, and it was awkward holding an umbrella over the camera while taking some of these pictures, but I liked the water on the flowers. On Sunday morning, I went over to Duke Gardens. It was sunny, but breezy, and the flowers tended to move about when I got ready to take their pictures.
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On Sunday afternoon, we went with Diane to the N.C. Opera’s production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. It was wonderful! There was so much life, so much warmth and humor. Previous productions I’ve seen were mostly about delivering those blockbuster arias, but this one was as much about the characters. Stage director Stephanie Havey made it as much fun to watch as it was to listen to, with lots of comedy, some of it Marxist madcap, but some of it almost Shakespearean. The period costumes had elements of whimsey. It took me a while to warm up to the sets, which were sort of postmodern antique facades that rolled in and out, but in the end they worked.Tiller7Bug 1-9

The singing was all very good, and some was superb. I adored the lovely Cecilia Hall as Rosina. She had a richness and fluidity to her mezzo, and she was a fine actress, with intelligence and quick wit. Tyler Simpson as Dr. Bartolo was hilariously grumpy and obtuse, and also a wonderful low baritone, with marvelous diction in the patter songs. Troy Cook as Figaro was instantly likeable, and highly musical. Conductor Timothy Myers led with musical insight. He knew when to take some luxurious time, and when to push quickly forward. The orchestra sounded really good. There were quite a few moments when I had goosebumps and watery eyes at so much rare beauty. It was a privilege.
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A few chimney swifts, fine Fiction Kitchen, finishing physical therapy, the fossil fuel endgame, and a fishing blue heron

A spicebush swallowtail at Ralston Arboretum on September 11, 2015

A spicebush swallowtail at Ralston Arboretum on September 11, 2015

According to Sally’s calendar, this week should have been a good one to see the chimney swifts in downtown Raleigh. Last year at this time there were thousands, swarming and swirling, and eventually shooting down a large chimney to roost for the night. So we went downtown with our binoculars on Wednesday night and waited at sunset. There were some mini-flocks flying, and we kept hoping for the grand congregation, but it didn’t happen. We saw dozens of swifts, rather than thousands.

Afterwards we went a few blocks south to Fiction Kitchen, Raleigh’s best vegetarian restaurant. The last few times we’d tried to get in, the place had been full with many people waiting. This time it was full, but the wait was only a few minutes. The waiters we liked were still there. There were some new menu items, along with familiar favorites. We started with squash and zucchini cakes appetizer, which was delicious. For entrees, Sally had the succatash farro risotto. I had the mock pork BBQ, a tempeh-based dish that was so outrageously good that, as a vegetarian, I felt a bit guilty.
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The next day I had my graduation session from physical therapy. For the last few weeks, I’ve been trekking out to Cary to see Geert Audiens a couple of times a week to get treatment for my torn rotator cuff. As ordered, I’ve been doing my shoulder exercises twice a day (most days). The exercises were not too interesting at the start, and have gradually become a huge bore.

But most of the discomfort in my shoulder is gone, and the strength is improved. To complete the program, Geert directed me to continue doing the exercises for 25 minutes a day every day for the next three months. Then I should call him and give a report. This is a big assignment, but I’m going to try, since I am still motivated to get better. I expect to be using that shoulder for quite a few years yet.

Driving back to Raleigh, I saw a bald eagle fly across the beltline into the trees. There are some that live a bit west of here at Jordan Lake, but this was the first one I’d seen in Raleigh.
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On Saturday morning, I read a piece in the NY Times ran a piece on a new climate study that projected a more-than-200-foot rise in sea levels if we continue to use fossil fuels until they are used up in the 22nd century. That would mean no more New York, Amsterdam, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Beijing, Sydney, and Tokyo, among other nice places. All the ice on earth would melt, with half of that occurring in the next thousand years, and seas rising at 10 times the current rate. The study out of the Potsdarm Institute for Climate Impact Research was published in the journal Science Advances.

Curiously, the Times put this horrifying news on the bottom of page A10 of the print edition, rather than the top of page 1. It was similarly buried in the online edition. Did the editors think it wasn’t important? That’s doubtful. Did they think their readers are tired of bad climate news and would prefer not to hear more? Perhaps, but in whatever case, we’ve got to get our minds around this, and get to work, or things are going to get grimmer. We’ve had a good run with fossil fuels, but that’s over. It’s time to get serious about the alternatives.
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After reading of this and other unsettling things and finishing my coffee, I drove up to Falls Lake to look for birds and insects. I hadn’t been there in a while. My plan was to explore several spots, but I discovered they now charge $6 for the main areas. I found my way to a non-charging spot in the Beaverdam reservoir area, where the road was almost too rough and rutted for low-slung Clara. I spent twenty minutes or so watching this blue heron move very very slowly. I kept hoping she’d catch a fish, but she didn’t.
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Farewell to Oliver Sacks, family health, witch trials and terror trials, and beautiful bugs

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Oliver Sacks, one of my heroes, died last week, and I’ve been thinking about what he bequeathed. In his many articles and books on psychological problems, oddities, and exceptionalities, he covered the extremes of human mental experience, from savants to the severely impaired. Reading about his subjects, I felt gratitude for being relatively normal and wonder at the range of human perceptual experience. He showed in his work and by his work that much more was possible than I’d thought.

Some months back I heard Sacks interviewed in a program about prosopagnosia, a rare condition involving the inability to recognize faces. Sacks had a severe version of the condition, such that he couldn’t recognize the faces of people he’d known for years. This made social interactions very challenging for him. It may have accounted in part for his amazing literary output, by keeping him home and working evenings rather than socializing.

Sacks, then 82, announced his terminal metastatic cancer seven months ago in the Times, and published additional reflections as recently as three weeks ago. Hes faced his end with calm dignity, intelligence, and gratitude for life, without metaphysics, and without bitterness at the reality of death. This was a wonderful final gift. RTILLER4 (1 of 1)

Diane got discharged from the hospital this week and was taken to a live-in rehabilitation facility for more therapy. She continues to struggle with weakness, dizziness, and confusion. Sally has been busy giving her support and being her advocate. A major problem was what to do with Diane’s two greyhounds, but with the help of the local greyhound rescue society she located a kind-hearted person willing to be a foster dog parent until Diane regroups.
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Jocelyn called early this week from Brooklyn during her walk to the subway. She reported that she’d improved her mile-run time (7:26, I think) and was finding longer runs more fun. She’s also eating healthy food and consciously avoiding junk. I was proud of her! This was a girl who seemingly had an allergy to exercise, and is now taking really good care of herself. I’ve tried to set a good example for her, and now she’s doing it for me.

On Friday morning I went to a spin class at Flywheel, where I achieved two of my three objectives. The Friday crowd is a fit-looking group, most of whom are my juniors by two or three decades. I was looking to: 1. not come in last in the men’s group (as happened last time), 2. hit 300 points, and 3. end the week at my target weight. I managed number one, though it was close: I was trailing the pack with 5 minutes to go, and had to push hard to edge ahead of the next guy. I didn’t achieve number two, finishing at 295 – which actually wasn’t bad. Finally, I made my weight goal of 155.
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The Salem witch trials have fascinated me since I was a kid. As you may recall, the Puritans in New England in 1692 tried, convicted, and executed 20 people based on the crime of witchcraft. The New Yorker had a piece last week on the event by Stacey Schiff that walked through the facts in a way that was engaging, even as the events were appalling.

There was a time, long ago, when I wondered whether there were true witches with magical powers, but I’ve long since concluded not. Since then, my interest in the witch trials has been in what it shows us about flawed thinking and group behavior. Some very smart, well-meaning people did some terrible things. The episode shows both the power of ideas and the danger that truly bad ideas may, at least temporarily, triumph.

Schiff’s piece doesn’t attempt to relate the witch trials to current events, but the piece seems timely. As religious fundamentalist groups like ISIS wreak violent havoc in the Middle East, we might reflect that we’ve had our own murderous fundamentalists right here in New England in days gone by. And eventually the fever broke, and the extreme craziness stopped.

At the same time, we’ve had something very like witch trials in living memory. The trials based on allegations of ritual Satanic abuse of children in the 1980s turned out to be products of children’s imaginations inspired and guided by quack therapists. But our tendency to attribute awesome diabolical power to various unfamiliar foes (immigrants, Communists, jihadists) is in some ways similar to the Puritans’ hysteria. We imagine scary ghosts and goblins attacking us when they’re doing nothing of the kind. As long as our leaders maintain that ISIS is an existential threat to America, and continue a campaign of brutal executions, the spirit of 1692 lives on.

There was a good piece in the NY Times magazine last week on Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who became a popular Muslim cleric and was executed by drone. After the FBI discovered that he had an addiction to prostitutes, fearing exposure he fled the country and went to Yemen, where he became a became an Al Qaeda leader. Since his execution, he’s been hailed as a martyr, and his radical teachings are more popular now than in his lifetime. It seems that killing Awlaki was yet another self-inflicted wound in our war on terror.

This weekend we watched The Newburgh Sting, a documentary about an FBI sting operation centered on the Mosque of a poor community in New York. An undercover FBI agent offered some poor black guys an enormous amount of money ($250,000) to do some bomb attacks. There was no indication that the guys were radical, or even particularly religious, or that it had ever occurred to them to conduct a violent attack, or that the attack had any jihadist purpose. Apparently all that money was just too tempting for people that had almost none. Anyhow, this FBI operation was hailed as a great victory in the war on terror, and the guys were sentenced to 25 years. This is another data point suggesting that our anti-terror efforts have come off the rails.

On Saturday, I went up to Durant Park with my camera and took a slow walk around the lower lake. I was especially on the look out for butterflies, dragonflies, and spiders. Most of the large butterflies were gone, but I got a few images of tiny (less than .5 inch wingspan) skippers. There were quite a few of the locally common dragonflies. Most were flying fast, but an Eastern Pondhawk posed for me. A few leaves were falling.

Will we help the refugees?

A new apartment building south of us is coming along in downtown Raleigh. Send us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses ....

A new apartment building south of us is coming along in downtown Raleigh.

It’s hard to read about, and hard to think about, the refugee crisis now unfolding in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Millions of people are desperate and fleeing their homelands. Thousands are dying. When misery reaches a certain size, it overwhelms our powers of understanding and sympathy. It’s easy to become numb.

It was interesting that a photograph of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy galvanized public opinion last week, but not really surprising. The elemental horror of the scene is arresting. It came at a moment when we could no longer avoid seeing the crisis. Thousands of desperate refugees are looking for safety in Europe. But suddenly we saw, it’s not just a mass of thousands – it’s about a child. It’s great when images can help us understand. With Google’s assistance, I found a few other images that helped me grasp a little more of what’s happening, and might help you here, here, and here.

Europeans are struggling with this. They’ve got problems of their own in terms of resource limitations, logistical problems, neo-Nazi constituents, etc. Kudos to Angela Merkel for her brave leadership. Maybe other leaders will distinguish themselves.

In any case, the United States needs to pitch in and help. We can’t pretend this has nothing to do with us. The US played a leading role in some of the political and military misadventures that have caused this mass migration, including invading and destabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan. It bears some responsibility.

But let’s not argue about that — assume we’re innocent bystanders. Even then, our basic values of decency and fairness require that we do something to help innocent people in peril. We’ve done it before, in times of war and crisis. At our best, we don’t ignore people in desperate need. We help them. Make it even simpler – there’s one dying child. We need to help that child.

I’m reaching out to my representatives and President Obama and asking for action, because, you never know, it might do some good. Will you join me?

In Durant Park, 5 September 2015, 11:30 a.m.

In Durant Park, 5 September 2015, 11:30 a.m.

The terrification of our intelligence

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We learned this week that Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, died. Two years ago. And we didn’t realize it. We’re still in Afghanistan, still waging the longest war in American history (14 years and counting), at a cost of several trillion dollars and thousands of lives, so you’d think this would be something we’d definitely want to know. I realize that getting good intelligence in a hostile land if not so easy, but still, it’s staggering to think we couldn’t figure out that the leader of a foe for which we sacrificed all that treasure and life was defunct.

It raises serious questions, like, are there some other fundamental realities we’re missing? Are there, along with the unsung heroes in our spy corps, too many unexposed incompetents? We seem to have gotten pretty good at spying on leaders of allied nations, not to mention ordinary Americans, but maybe not so great at learning about our declared adversaries. Here’s an idea: why not take the NSA’s mass domestic surveillance division and repurpose it towards actual threats from our enemies?
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Although our enemies keep changing. According to the papers, ISIS is now our main enemy, though I’d note that it has not attacked the United States. They’re definitely fighting against Iraq, our former enemy and now a quasi-client that mostly hates us. They’re also fighting our current enemy Syria, which does not seem entirely a bad thing. Attacking the US is not on ISIS’s priority list. Could they ever be a threat to our physical safety? Sure, just as is possible from any number of countries, but it isn’t now. So why are spending billions fighting them? What are our objectives?

The FBI acknowledged this week that ISIS “has shown no ability to stage significant attacks inside the United States.” But, per a NY Times story, the Bureau is devoting massive resources to detecting and arresting “sympathizers” who express “a willingness to undertake small-scale attacks, such as stabbings and shootings that require little planning.” That is, the FBI has taken on the mission of stopping “shootings and stabbings . . . on a scale that is common in major American cities.” What makes these so important? Why, they’re inspired by ISIS, don’t you see.
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This is part of continuing fallout from our post-9/11 moral panic about terrorism. Those who are victims of mass violence motivated by old-fashioned racism feel slighted that those criminals aren’t usually called terrorists, and they have kind of a point. A mass shooting has come to seem more serious if we call it terrorism. And I would agree that we need to deplore and work to prevent all mass shootings. Footnote: can we talk about better gun control laws?
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On final word about terrorism, and then I’ll stop. Glen Greenwald wrote this week about the prosecution of animal rights activists on charges of “domestic terrorism.” The crime in issue was releasing minks from fur farms. The point of the activity was political protest – nonviolent, mind you – against the cruelty of fur farming. The protesters are facing 10 years in federal prison. Prosecutions of political protesters as terrorists are apparently on the rise. This is ironic, but also frightening. If the actual terrorists, like bin Laden, ultimately make so fearful and obsessed with terrorism that we sacrifice our most cherished civil liberties, they will have succeeded in their destructiveness beyond their wildest dreams.

A word about the pictures: these were taken at Raulston Arboretum on Saturday, August 1, at about 8:30 a.m. It smelled a bit like a barnyard this Saturday, which I’m guessing had to do with application of fresh animal-based fertilizer. There were many small butterflies, most of which did not care to be photographed.
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