The Casual Blog

Category: moral causes

Butterflies, Vermeer, and blind spots

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After work on Friday, I zipped up to Raulston Arboretum with my camera to see what was blooming and flying. It’s a lovely place, and it’s soothing to stroll among the quiet growing things. But when you’re trying to manually focus the camera on tiny quick-moving creatures, there’s a burst of adrenaline. When it all clicks, I feel happy. This week there was a profusion of butterflies, and I had good luck in capturing images of a few.
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I’ve been reading the book Diane gave me, Travels in Vermeer, by Michael White. It’s a memoir about a tough time in White’s personal life, which was relieved by his falling in love with the art of Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch artist. I share his passion for these rare paintings, and like his accounts of his personal encounters with the master’s work.

White shows how feelings flow out of the paintings, and how they reward the viewer who keeps looking and looking. This is one way to tell when art is truly great — when you can’t exhaust it. I had the bright idea of googling the paintings as I came to his descriptions, and confirmed that Google takes far less than a second to locate a decent image of any Vermeer you care to name. It enriched the reading experience.
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As I mentioned last week, I’ve been listening to audio book lectures while working out about ancient Greece and Rome. This week I learned that as much as a third of the population of classical Athens were slaves. For all the pathbreaking philosophers among the Greeks, it appears that none of those great minds questioned the institution of slavery. Though I found this surprising, it also occurred to me that there have been and are still huge blind spots in our moral vision. I’m thinking of those things that are almost impossible to think about, let alone criticize, let alone change, because they’re so integral to the way we live. An example: our industrialized cruelty to farm animals.

Raulston Arboretum, July 24, 2015

Raulston Arboretum, July 24, 2015

But these things can seem unshakably settled and then get unsettled. Think of progress on racism, sexism, homophobia, and our heedless destruction of the natural world. This seems to be happening with our views of imprisonment. This week President Obama visited a federal prison and spoke out about some of our most egregiously cruel practices with regard to convicted criminals, including solitary confinement.

What’s wrong with solitary confinement? The NY Times nailed it.

“When they get out, they are broken,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist in California who consults on prison conditions and mental health programs. “This is permanent damage.” Cornell William Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said prolonged solitary confinement amounted to torture. “Putting someone in solitary confinement does horrible things to a person’s personality, their psyche, their character,” he said.

It seems like we’re starting to be able to see this problem and address it.
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And it seems like a good thing that Iran has agreed in principle to back off from building nuclear weapons. What’s not to like? Our usual unquestioning acceptance of the possibility of massive nuclear destruction is sort of like the Greeks and slavery – we just can’t bring ourselves to think about it. But we know, in the back of our minds, that existing hydrogen bombs, always on alert and ready for launch, always subject to human error, could quickly end life as we know it. Shouldn’t we be pushing our governments to find ways to back off the nuclear precipice? If you aren’t familiar with the science regarding nuclear winter, information is here.
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Pope Francis’s vision

It’s been ungodly hot in Raleigh this week, with a record high of Fahrenheit 99 on Tuesday. Humid, too. So instead of running on Saturday, I settled in to read some of Pope Francis’s new encyclical, Laudito Si. From newspaper reports, I’d expected a sort of primer on the perils of global warming, but it turned out to be much more than that, and I felt enriched and inspired by the experience. It’s available online here.

Even though I’m a thorough-going non-believer, I’m a big fan of Francis. He seems to be a genuinely warm, caring, and thoughtful person. What are the odds? How daunting and disorienting to be considered by many as infallible, and fully realize you aren’t. (Remember his famous words,“Who am I to judge?”) How dissonant to live amid Vatican magnificence and rock-star adulation and try to focus on the problems of the poor. And who would volunteer to be in charge of cleaning up pedophile priest networks, bishop cover ups, money laundering holy bankers, and God knows what other crimes and misdemeanors? And after all that, who would have the courage and drive to speak truths that implicitly threaten the world’s wealthiest, most powerful interests on what are, for them, as well as us, issues of existential importance? That’s right: my man Francis.

I was hoping that Laudito Si would have an executive summary, but it does not. Still, I kept reading. The prose is lucid and emphatic, with an animating passion. Francis leaves no doubt that he agrees with the scientific consensus that man-made greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are responsible for much of the global warming crisis. He states that there is an urgent need to reduce such emissions and develop renewable energy. If he accomplished nothing more than calling more attention to this issue and inspiring high level discussion and action, that would be a lot. But Laudito Si does more than that, persuasively articulating a powerful ethical vision that calls for reforming both societies and our selves.

Francis calls on the people of the world to recognize that we are in an ecological crisis, and need to expand our dialog and work together to address this crisis. The dimensions of the crisis include air and water pollution, fresh water shortages, rising oceans that threaten large cities, and increasing extreme weather events. Not to mention the extinction of many species. He states, “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”

At the same time, Francis reminds us of the vibrant beauty of the natural world. He has sections on rainforests and other wonders. On a topic particularly close to my heart, he writes of “the immense variety of living creatures” in our oceans which are threatened by uncontrolled fishing and the coral reefs that have been harmed by pollution and rising temperatures.

Early on, Francis rejects the reading of the Bible that entitles humans to dominate and exploit all earthly resources. He writes instead that humans are meant to be careful stewards of those resources, and regard them with awe and wonder, and recognize our essential connection to animals, vegetables, and minerals. “Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.” He returns a number of times to the theme of our interconnectedness to each other and the world.

An aspect of this theme is concern for both the poor and for other living creatures. He writes, “We should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights.”

Similarly, Francis draws connections between our treatment of animals and our basic humanity. Recently I’ve been feeling indignant about the new North Carolina ag gag law, which among other things protects industrial agriculture operations from those who propose to publicize their cruelty to animals. Let me just say, this is so wrong! This excerpt is apropos: “When our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one. It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is ‘contrary to human dignity.’”

Part of the ambition of Laudito Si is to reset our relationship to technology. “Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. . . . To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up it to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.” Francis envisions a world where the capitalism and technological progress are no longer allowed to drive increasing inequality and alienation, but instead are put in the service of human needs.

Of course, I don’t mean to endorse all of Francis’s views. I read the sections on God’s acts and intentions in much the spirit that I read the poetry of Milton. I think he’s quite mistaken about the value of building a market for carbon credits, which would creative incentives to reduce emissions. I also regret that he dismisses the serious risks of overpopulation, which needs to be moved way up on our list of priorities. But I’m finding the work inspiring, and hope many will read it and think about it.

Breathing better, climate change changes, and the amazing Birdman

A lot of things that are good for us are kind of tough, at least initially. I’m thinking especially of avoiding junk food and exercising, which require an up-front investment of time and energy. So I was pleased to come upon a report of a good-for-you activity that’s free, easy, and immediately rewarding. According to the Wall Street Journal this week, deep, slow breathing can help with stress, migraines, and other disorders. This stimulates the vagus nerve and causes the release of acetylcholine, which slows down the digestive system and heart rate.

This beneficial effect was not completely surprising to me, as this is the kind of breathing we do in yoga, and it feels good. At our 6:00 a.m. yoga class last Tuesday, Suzanne was coaching us to breath in on a slow count of 4, pause, then breathe out to a count of 4, and pause again. I later tried this technique when I was having trouble sleeping, and whoosh, off I went to dreamland.

I’ve been taking particular note lately of how many of our most fervent beliefs are dubious, and how resistant many of those beliefs are to change. For example, no amount of evidence seems to shake the certainties of opponents of evolution (forty some percent of Americans). I was worried that this was where we were on global warming, as we head toward the precipice.

But this week there was some good news: more people are taking the view that we’ve got to get serious about climate change. This week a NY Times poll“found that 83 percent of Americans, including 61 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of independents, say that if nothing is done to reduce emissions, global warming will be a very or somewhat serious problem in the future.” Two-thirds said they’re more likely to vote for political candidates that support addressing global warming. Even Republicans are moving in the right direction: 48 percent of them went with the majority.

So the overwhelming majority of us agree that we’ve got to get to work on saving the planet. This is encouraging.

Still, what could explain the people who think we have a serious problem but will not support doing anything about it? Is it amoral cynicism and greed? Whatever it is, we need to make sure those people do not win.

We finally got out to see Birdman this week, and thought it was great. Michael Keaton plays Riggin Thomson, a former action movie star who’s gone downhill but has decided to take a big chance and direct and star in an angst-ridden play that’s opening on Broadway. Riggin seems to be going crazy, with bursts of despair and brilliance.

Is it a very dark comedy, or a surreal drama? It’s edgy and intense, and doesn’t fit neatly into any genre. It reminded me of the great movies of Bergman, Fellini, and Scorsese — psychological, visionary, and manic. A very interesting score (jazz drumming, Mahler), evocative photography, and very fine acting. It challenges us with ambiguities. It would like us to think.

I wish its gifted creators (including the remarkable Spanish director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) good luck at the Academy Awards (where it has 9 nominations), but I’m afraid that it will be too original and unsettling for the Academy. I note that when Sally and I went to see it at the multiplex last Thursday, we were the only ones in the theatre.

Re the pictures: Sally brought home some roses from Whole Foods and made a lovely arrangement. She’d discovered that though the cats like to eat certain flowers, and then throw up on the rugs, they were less drawn to this kind. I liked the light on Saturday morning.

Rectal feeding???

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This week I was quite shaken by the new Senate report on the CIA’s program of “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on those suspected of Jihadist terrorist intentions. I had, of course, already heard there’d been some very rough stuff, like water boarding. But I hadn’t known (and may still not, since much information is still secret) the full extent of the barbarity and depravity.

For example, the concept of “rectal feeding” was new to me. I suspected based on high school biology that it was not possible to feed humans through the southern side, and I checked – this is correct. Folks, we’re talking about our government, which is to say, humans purporting to act on your and my behalf, anally raping prisoners. It’s hard to see how we can just let this pass.

I also hadn’t known that the foundation of the program included systematic and pervasive lies not just to the public but also to Congress and the Executive. It was certainly news to me that the architects of the program were amateurs with no prior experience in intelligence. And I hadn’t previously known for certain that the program was not remotely justified by intelligence gathering achievements.

Some may say I’m just sentimental about human dignity and the concept of the rule of law, and these are notions we can’t afford when we’re in an existential battle with evil. Perhaps. But the evidence from the Senate report is that the successes of the CIA interrogators actually came from conventional, non-“enhanced” methods. The enhanced techniques produced misery, madness, and death, but did not defuse any ticking time bombs. It may be that those who directed this program were the ones who were in a dream world, imagining both an existential threat from terrorism and a simple solution to that threat.

It’s fascinating, and disturbing, to see present and former CIA and Bush administration officials stepping up to praise and defend the program. It’s no surprise that they would defend their work, and perhaps they are in some sense sincere. They’ve probably got cognative dissonance, and are managing it as best they can. They could also have more practical and selfish motives, like heading off any discussion of whether they should be tried for war crimes.

In any event, the fact that these officials are still willing to defend the CIA torture program underlines the importance of our holding accountable those who directed and participated in this abomination. We cannot leave ambiguous the question of whether it is acceptable to torture prisoners. No future official should be in doubt that this is criminal behavior, for which they are subject to imprisonment.

Of course, though I hate to say, they’ll probably get away with it. There’s no special interest that will provide campaign dollars in exchange for standing up for human rights of prisoners. There are a few, but too few, of our representatives prepared to spend political capital on an issue that none of us enjoy thinking about.

And the knowledge, thanks to Edward Snowden, that our electronic communications may well be being screened by the NSA for signs of dissent will make some of us who feel outrage and shame hesitate to speak up and demand justice and accountability. These are, after all, the people who so far have the unchecked power to make us disappear into “black sites” and rectally feed us. I don’t mean to exaggerate. Plainly, I don’t think this is an immediate threat, since I’ve just made a critical public statement about it. But I must admit, I hesitated. I’m so sorry this has happened to our country.

I’d like to call out The Washington Post for its extensive and clear-eyed coverage of this dark and shameful chapter. Here is a particularly helpful quick guide to the Senate report from the Post.

Sorry to be difficult, but — why I’m going vegan

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While I’ve been a vegetarian for going on 20 years, I’ve been fine tuning my approach over time, and getting my habits aligned with my health needs and values is still a work in progress. Cutting out eating animals, starting with cows and pigs, was a significant step, but only part of the story. Just as important, for health purposes, was cutting out foods that taste good but are actually bad for you, like sodas and chips. More challenging has been increasing the percentage of foods that are really nourishing, including some that I’ve long resisted.

From persistent testing and trying, I’ve finally gotten comfortable with some healthy foods I used to detest, like beets, peas, and Brussels sprouts. I’m eating lots of dark green veggies (like kale, spinach, chard, turnip greens, and dandelion greens) and fruit in my breakfast smoothies, and I’ve been getting vitamin rich cold pressed juices to sip for snacks. My repertoire of tastes has expanded.

Recently I made the shift from vegetarian to aspiring vegan. So it’s goodbye to dairy and eggs (with the understanding that there will be occasional emergencies and slips). This is partly a matter of getting healthier, but even more a matter of values. The more I learn about factory farming, the more persuaded I am that we can’t go on like this.

It is truly horrific for the farm animals, to our great shame. It’s also sickening for us (E. coli, salmonella, antibiotics, steroids). Cutting cheese from the lineup is especially challenging, both because it’s tasty and it’s everywhere. And I will miss the wonderfulness of ice cream. But I will also feel better not supporting this unconscionable cruelty and heedlessness.

Our individual eating choices may seem trivial compared to our epic social problems, like global warming, but I think they are related in a couple of ways. Industrial farming of animals is a major part element of global warming, because of the huge emissions of greenhouse gases (CO2 and methane), not to mention pollution of surface and groundwater and other environmental problems. To the extent we don’t support factory farming, we’re working on those problems. In addition, by getting ourselves healthier, we improve the chances of having the clarity of thought and strength to take on our big social and environmental problems.
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So I don’t think it’s completely self-centered to focus on the physical self. But I admit my own motives are not purely altruistic. I’m also interested in feeling good now and functioning well for a long time to come. Exercise is also an important part of this, of course. So I’ll report briefly on my current cross-training system, which I’d say is working well. I feel good.

This week I’ve done two long gym work outs (cardio and resistance), lap swimming, two yoga classes, a spin class, a visit to my personal trainer, and outdoor running. For gym cardio, I’ve done the elliptical machine, rowing, treadmill running, stairs, and jump rope. I have a wide range of functional movements in the rotation, from lunges to box jumps to balancing to shuffles, and a variety of core work, as well as stretching of the major muscle systems.

It’s strange, I know, but I actually look forward to getting up around 5:05 a.m. Every day is always a little different, with a new challenge. I enjoy being with people in the classes, and I enjoy listening to music and reading when I’m working out on my own. And getting up early isn’t as hard as I once imagined, because it has become a habit. I don’t have to think whether or not to get up, because it’s just something I just do. But it’s also fun.
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On Saturday night, Sally and I tried our first vegan pizza at Lilly’s, and saw The Theory of Everything at the Rialto. The pizza wasn’t so great – there was something a bit off with the non-dairy “cheese” — but we really liked the movie. It’s basically a biopic on the British physicist Stephen Hawking, with particular focus on his marriage. As Hawking, Eddie Redmayne’s performance is a nuanced and remarkable tour de force. His gradual loss of control of his muscles is noted without mawkishness, and his courage and perseverance are noted without huzzahs. Having lost my own father to ALS, I’m particularly conscious of the brutality of this disease, and particularly amazed that Hawking managed to become a path breaking scientist while it ravaged his body and threatened to kill him.

Unconnected to the movie, early this week I read an interesting story in the BBC en espagnol web site regarding Hawking and artificial intelligence. I was surprised to see him saying in an interview that he expected AI would eventually not only surpass human intelligence, but would threaten it. I can see that our AI creations may eventually begin to improve themselves and leave us behind in terms of IQ, but they will not carry the emotional components that drive humans to compete for resources and domination. So why would they threaten us?

My happy Thanksgiving: racing, reading, camera tinkering, eating, and seeing Interstellar

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Lately I’ve been consciously trying to cultivate an attitude of increasing gratitude. As is traditional at the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ll note that I have a great many things to be grateful for. For me, gratitude also means noting connections and acknowledging how very little is attributable to my independent efforts. I really owe it all to everybody and everything else. And so, to you, dear reader, and everything else, I’m grateful.

On Thanksgiving morning, I was grateful to be, at 59, sufficiently healthy to undertake the Ridge Road Turkey Trot, an 8 kilometer (4.97 mile) race. I hadn’t tried a road race with thousands of other people for a great many years. Sally sweetly lent her moral support and driving skills, and got me to the starting line five minutes before the 8:00 a.m. start.

My idea was to challenge myself without collapsing or getting sick, and that much I accomplished. I completed the course in 44 minutes, or just under 9 minutes a mile. I wasn’t particularly proud about this time, since I still imagine myself as capable of 8 minute miles, but this T-day that wasn’t happening. My heart rate was in the low-to-mid 160s for much of the race, which is pretty high, and I didn’t want to find out what would happen if it stayed higher. The hills in the middle of the course took a lot out of me, and the last couple of miles were fairly miserable. Part of me badly wanted to try a bit of walking instead of running. But I didn’t quit, and I did survive.

After the race, I took a long hot shower, and then sat down and read for a while. I finished E.O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence. Wilson, a world-renowned exert on ants and a leading theorist on evolution, is now 85, and going strong. I enjoyed reading The Social Conquest of Earth, and liked this book as well, in spite of its grandiose title. Wilson puts things in perspective, and helps us grasp that humans are just one of the millions of species on the planet. His basic message is that we can improve our chances of survival and happiness by using the tools of science and better understanding our evolutionary nature.

Wilson contends that natural selection proceeded along two paths, individual and group. He argues that this accounts for our dual nature as selfish individuals and altruistic group members. These conflicting tendencies are fundamental drivers of the human experience, which means we’ll always be in some degree of tumult in our interior emotional lives. But Wilson thinks our contradictions are essential to what it means to be human, and we need to understand them and manage them. He seems to think there’s a chance that humanity can overcome ignorance, delusion, and violence, and quit destroying the natural world.
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I spent part of the afternoon assembling and testing my new Ikelite underwater camera housing and strobe setup. I thought long and hard before buying the equipment, both because it is pricey and because it is labor intensive. But I’m really interested in sharing some of the joy of diving through images of the extreme beauty beneath the surface. Even in this time of over fishing, ocean acidification and reef destruction, there’s still an incredible profusion of life down there.

If you’re going to use an underwater housing with an expensive camera, the stakes are high. The Ikelite housing opens at the back to receive the camera and the front to receive the lens. You’ve got to be extremely careful to prevent leaks, which can easily be fatal to the equipment. And working the camera through many unlabeled buttons and levers is challenging. Just figuring out how to put it all together took me several hours. And hauling the it safely to dive spots while staying within airline weight restrictions will be challenging. But I’m looking forward to new dive photo adventures.

We had our Thanksgiving dinner at Irregardless, Raleigh’s first vegetarian restaurant, which now also accommodates meat eaters. Gabe and Jocelyn decided to wait until Christmas for a visit, so Sally and I ate with her mom and sister, Diane and Annie. We also were joined by Alyssa Pilger, the Carolina Ballet dancer we’ve been sponsoring, who is enormously talented. It was fun to hear about ballet company happenings, and about the professional dancer’s life. Professional dancers are almost by definition intensely focused people with superhuman work ethics, but Alyssa offstage seemed comfortable, relaxed and un-self-absorbed.

Sally and I saw the movie Interstellar on Friday night at the Marbles Imax theatre. I didn’t think it was particularly well constructed or acted. I found it cheering, though, that the movie has found a mass audience. The basic set up is a post-climate apocalypse world, which is something we should be trying hard to visualize and then prevent. It would be nice if a good-looking astronaut and his attractive physicist daughter could save us all, but that seems extremely unlikely. We’ve got to figure out how to repair our dysfunctional political structures so that we can get organized and address global warming and related problems with the intense commitment and resources we once used to go to the Moon.

In the news: some problems with our nukes

This week there was some good and some bad technology news, but first the good news. Kudos to the European Space Agency, which managed the remarkable feat of landing a robot on a modest-sized comet. Understanding and managing the risk of asteroid and comet collisions is a big challenge, and it appears we’re making progress. Also three cheers that the world’s two largest contributors to global warming (that’s us and China) officially agreed to work on it. Sure, talk is cheap, but it’s a step in the right direction.

But I wanted to call attention to a news story that you may have missed, as I almost did: two separate Pentagon studies concluded that the infrastructure of our nuclear program is in serious disrepair and will cost billions to fix. The NY Times put this on page A16 (news death valley).

Though far from the front page, the language was strong: “a searing indictment” of how nuclear weapons facilities have been allowed to decay. They described “a culture of micromanagement and attention to the smallest detail . . . creating busywork, while huge problems with equipment and readiness, most arising from the age of the systems, were ignored.” One study found that morale was low and turnover high among crews for intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers. Missile submarines were frequently out of service.

You may remember the cheating scandal involving missile crews of some months back. One of the new reports blamed not the crews but “a culture of extreme testing” in which tests were required to be near perfect so that good results could be reported up the chain of command, instead of a program to improve the crews’ readiness.

A few months back I wrote about reading Eric Schlosser’s excellent book, Command and Control, Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. The book cites chapter and verse of major problems in our nuclear program, including some that put Americans at serious risk of a catastrophic accidental nuclear explosion. Schlosser found there had been important improvements in safety, but the Times story made me worry.

The Times also reported that the President had told the Pentagon to plan for 12 new missile submarines, up to 100 new bombers, and 400 land-based missiles. Holy kamoly! I thought we were at least keeping in sight the possibility of reducing our nuclear stockpiles and the threat of nuclear war.

Before we spend billions or trillions more, I’d like to hear a good answer to the question, what is the purpose of our nuclear weapons? What good do they do?

The conventional wisdom, more or less, is that we need them to deter nuclear attacks and maintain our prestige. But no nation is currently threatening us, or anyone, with a nuclear attack. Only one nation has ever been the victim of a nuclear attack (by us, on Japan). All other nations without nuclear weapons – that is, those with no deterrence forces – have not come under nuclear attack. That includes ones that got us and other nuclear powers really mad, like North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

Furthermore, even if North Korea or Iran somehow managed to destroy one of our cites with a nuke, does anyone seriously think we’d retaliate against their civilians with a massive nuclear attack? I submit that deterrence, whatever its validity as a theory in the cold war, is valid no longer.

As to prestige, our nuclear weapons have not appeared to strengthen our negotiating power with enemies or friends. Iran and North Korea have been notably unimpressed. And our nukes certainly haven’t saved us the trouble of fighting conventional wars. We have surely not won the contest of who can spend the least on actual war fighting, having spent over a trillion dollars fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The nation with the most nuclear weapons is also the nation that has lost the most treasure through conventional warfare.

A major nuclear war would not only destroy millions of lives directly, but would alter the earth’s ecosystem so as to cause untold additional deaths. As Jonathan Schell explained in The Fate of the Earth, it could amount to the end of human civilization, not to mention the extinction of countless other animals and plants.

It would be nice to think that mismanagement of our nuclear force has reduced this risk, but I’m afraid that it suggests an increased risk of nuclear accidents, and an uncertain capacity for disaster. I submit we need to change our direction, and recommend a visit to

Let me close on a positive note: civilization still exists! In fact, right here in Raleigh, NC, there is great music making and art. Last Sunday, the N.C. Opera did an excellent concert presentation of part of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. This is very dramatic, romantic music. They did the prelude and second act, which focuses on the intoxicating love story of the title characters. Jay Hunter Morris, who was a sensation in the Met’s recent Siegfried, was a sensitive and moving Tristan, and Heidi Melton was an Isolde for the ages. Her voice was amazingly powerful, but also warm, flexible, and true. Conductor Timothy Myers seemed to have a real feeling for this strange and irresistible music, and he had a good band. Thank you N.C. Opera!

I should also give a plug for the current exhibits at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art, which we visited on Sunday afternoon. We started with the late works of Joan Miro. I liked his sculptures, better than his paintings. It was inspiring to see him continuing to experiment with new ideas into his 70s and 80s. There was also a strong exhibit of the work of Robert Rauschenberg. I never quite got Rauschenberg before, but it really helped seeing the wide range of techniques and concepts he worked with. It turns out he was serious about his photography, as well as his painting and constructions. I liked it.

Is delusional thinking driving us once again to war in the Middle East? And reading Eating Animals.

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I used to think that mass delusions were historically rare and unlikely to recur, but I’m coming to think they’re common and unlikely to ever cease. We seem to have largely gotten over ideas like witches’ spells are dangerous and stars determine our fates, but we’re constantly exposed to and threatened by ideas that are just as loony.

It would be interesting to work out a taxonomy of mass delusions, from those that are usually harmless to those that may cause death. The classification system could also identify the strength of the delusion, from ones, like fear of black cats, that are persistent but not really serious, to those that are sometimes subject to reconsideration, to those whose adherents will kill to establish them as eternal truths.

Yesterday I learned that the President has ordered more troops into Iraq to fight ISIS. This is clearly premised on the view that this crazy outfit is bent on the destruction of our way of life, and will in due course attack us. There is, to be sure, some support for this view in their rhetoric and brutality, but it may be totally wrong. Remember, they haven’t attacked us, and it is entirely possible that their strategy is to provoke us to fight them so as to inspire their supporters. And if they aren’t really a threat to us, the idea that we must wipe them out to survive should be classed among the most pernicious of delusions – ones that seems so reasonable as to be beyond question, and that lead inexorably to violence and mass death.
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Tom Friedman wrote an unusually thoughtful column a week or so back comparing ISIS and North Vietnam. He reminded me that in the 1960s, US leaders, and presumably a majority of the electorate, were convinced that the Communists in North Vietnam were primarily motivated by an anti-capitalist ideology and a willingness to fight along with other Communists for world domination. Thus we pursued a war that led to the deaths of some 58 thousand of our soldiers and more than a million Vietnamese. We now know, or at least are starting to understand, that the Vietnamese were primarily driven by nationalist concerns. They weren’t a domino.

Friedman suggests that the success of ISIS may similarly be attributable less to religious or political ideology than to nationalist concerns and anger at Sunni oppression by Shiites. There clearly are some jihadists with dreams of regional, if not world, domination, but their numbers are probably much smaller than those who back them out of more pragmatic and local concerns. In short, this looks more like a civil war with mainly regional implications, not an existential threat to the western way of life. If this is correct, there is no way the US can wipe out this enemy, and it would be a horrific folly to try.
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While I’m talking about uncomfortable subjects, I’ll mention I just finished reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. The book is part factual reportage, part memoir, and examines what factory farming means to the animal victims and to human society. I knew something about this subject beforehand, but learned a lot from the book. It’s written in an easy-going, thoughtful, personal voice, but includes some very disturbing subject matter, particularly the accounts of routine corporatized animal torture and abuse.

Here are some sample facts: “Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change.” “More than ten billion land animals [are] slaughtered for food every year in America.” “We know, at least, that [not eating animals] will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural America, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history.”

Here is a sample aspirational thought: “What kind of world would we create if three times a day we activated our compassion and reason as we sat down to eat, if we had the moral imagination and the pragmatic will to change our most fundamental act of consumption?”

A new crane, a wrongful execution avoided, and factoring in dissonance

14 09 17_2621_edited-1I like watching work at construction sites, and I particularly like cranes. They denote strength and optimism. So it was a particular treat this week to get a close view of some hardworking guys putting up a big crane on a building site one block up from, and almost level with, our apartment. It took two guys about a day a a half to put up the structure, and a group of five worked on the cabling for another day and a half.
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There are lots of good arguments against the death penalty, including that it doesn’t deter crime, it costs way too much, and it conflicts with the fundamental moral rule against killing. Recently I was powerfully reminded of another one: our criminal justice system inevitably gets some cases wrong and convicts innocent people.

It was front page national and local news recently that Henry Lee McCollum was found innocent after 31 years on death row. As a younger attorney, I volunteered to represent McCollum in one of his appeals (to the N.C. Supreme Court). He’d been convicted – found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a unanimous jury – of a horrible crime – a particularly gruesome rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl. After I’d spent many hours studying the record and the elaborate constitutional doctrines surrounding the death penalty, I pulled together a lengthy brief of what I thought were the best arguments for not executing him.

In my brief, I did not mention the possibility of innocence. Truly, despite McCollum’s innocence claims, I never seriously considered the possibility. He’d made an elaborate, detailed, signed confession. Why would anyone confess to a crime they didn’t commit?

Of course, we know now that this is all too possible. Coerced confessions happen. The case of the Central Park five, young men convicted of a brutal rape of a young woman jogging in the park back in the 80s, is a dramatic example. Just this month New York City agreed to a settlement of $41 million to compensate the young men for their wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

McCollum was and is a mentally disabled person (IQ of around 60, as I recall), and when I met him, in the visiting room at Central Prison, he seem gentle and soft spoken. He was still a teenager at the time of the crime. It’s not hard to imagine that he could be coerced into doing something contrary to his interests. Apparently after the interrogation and confession were complete, he asked, Can I go home now?
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I’d thought about him from time to time over the years, and figured he would probably escape execution because of later developing Eighth Amendment (“cruel and unusual punishment”) law barring execution of the severely mentally disabled. It was cheering to hear that a team from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation had worked diligently on his behalf. But it’s also horrible to think of the injustice our state (that is, us) inflicted. Putting a man on death row for 31 years is, in a very real sense, robbing him of his life.

We now know that eye witness identifications are far from completely reliable. Confessions are not always reliable. Memories can seem absolutely certain, and still be wrong. We are inevitably going to make some mistakes in on the basic question of guilt or innocence. This argues strongly against punishing people with death.

Mistakes Were Made

The more I learn about how error-prone our thinking processes are, the more I think we should be a little more humble about the power of our brains and the reliability of our notions. I’m re-reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), by Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson. Tavris and Aronson are social psychologists, and their book is a lively guide to the systemic flaws in our perceptions and theorizing. Their primary subject is cognitive dissonance, and the comedy and tragedy of self-justification that flow from it.
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Dissonance occurs when we try to hold two conflicting ideas in our heads at once. It causes us discomfort, and we will perform remarkable mental gyrations to avoid it. Thus it is amazingly hard to talk someone out of strongly held beliefs. Dissonance makes us ignore and suppress facts and arguments that don’t fit with those beliefs. To avoid dissonance, we come up with justifications for our most egregious mistakes.

Tavris and Aronson convinced me that this is not something that happens only now and then, but rather is pervasive. One of their numerous examples is police coercion. The police “know” (strongly believe) that a suspect is guilty, and therefore feel justified in using extreme coercion to extract a confession. The innocent suspect is confronted with powerful dissonance – actual innocence and authority figures forcefully insisting on guilt. One path to eliminating dissonance is to confess. It isn’t that hard to imagine that a young or weak person could go that way.

They note that even scientists are vulnerable to this basic mechanism, but suggest that science itself can help us address our inborn tendency to avoid dissonance. The ability to allow for the possibility that we might be wrong is incredibly valuable. It can keep us from making terrible mistakes.
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Fireworks, wildlife, and Carl Hart’s book debunking drug myths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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