The Casual Blog

Category: movies

Our documentary film marathon

Waiting in line for a screening in the Carolina Theater

Last week we spent four days in Durham at the Full Frame Film Festival, where we  saw a lot of documentaries.  We spent some quality time getting to know black working class families, surfers, Syrian refugees, pig farmers,  ballet dancers, Guatemalan revolutionaries, emergency room doctors, and others.  It was mind-expanding!    

Documentary filmmaking seems to be thriving as an art form.  This was Full Frame’s 20th anniversary, and all of its ticket packages sold out in advance, with large and appreciative audiences for everything we saw.  The Festival selection committee considered 1750 films, and ultimately showed about 100.  At many screenings, the directors showed up and answered questions, and added to our understanding of the films.

We stayed at the downtown Marriott, which is connected to the Festival screening rooms in the Durham Convention Center and the Carolina Theater.  The hotel staff folks were remarkably friendly, and they had a good breakfast buffet.  We got our lunches from the fine Greek folks who set up a tent on site (the eggplant stew and baklava were outstanding), and for dinners found nice places (Indian, tapas) to eat close by.   We saw 16 films, and liked almost all of them.  Here are quick notes on some favorites.

Whose Streets?  This was a street level view of protests in Ferguson, Mo. after the death of Michael Brown, including rioting and police brutality.  You could feel the anger and better understand the frustration of the black community there.

Zaatari Djinn.  A film about the daily lives of Syrian refugee children in a camp in Jordan.  It sounds depressing, but in fact it was quietly beautiful, humorous,  and touching.

Filmmakers and the Rainey family, subjects of Quest, answering questions after the film

500 Years.  An account of what just happened in Guatemala:  a revolution led by indigenous Mayan people who ousted the corrupt president.  It covered a lot of ground — 500 years of oppression of the Mayans, including genocide.  It was inspiring to see the young leaders and protesters.

Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton.  I didn’t know anything about big wave surfing or the most famous big wave surfer in the world, but I sure do now.  Amazing, exhilarating footage of the biggest waves and biggest rides you’ve ever seen, and a portrait of a flawed but remarkable person.

The Last Pig.  Bob Comis, who devoted years of his life to making the most humane imaginable pig farm, comes to the view that he can no longer make peace with the killing.  As he says, and you can see, the pigs are sentient beings — lively and curious.  Comis ultimately can’t see how we can decide not to eat our dogs, and still eat our pigs.  

Quest.  A working class black family in North Philadelphia, with a music studio, a strong community, and random violence.  We get a view of both the stresses and the richness of their lives, with some sweet and intimate moments, like braiding hair.  It took about 10 years to make this film, and it was worth it.  

Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer.  This features Marcelo Gomes, a dancer with American Ballet Theater in New York for the last 20 years.  Now a senior in dance terms, he still looks great and dances wonderfully, and seems like a nice person to boot.

Tell Them We Are Rising:  the Story of Black Colleges and Universities. Starting with the slavery era, we learn about how blacks were educated (or not) in America.  For much of the 20th century, historically black colleges were an oasis in a segregated world.  An important part of the film is about the civil rights struggle and the leadership role played by students.  

My unfortunate tendonitis, and an amazing Tarzan

Tiller7Bug 1
I got a severe case of tendonitis in my left forearm, probably from trying too hard to improve my golf swing. I can handle ordinary pain without getting too alarmed, which may have led me to ignore warning signs when I should have stopped practicing. But I felt like I was on the threshold of grooving in the new, purer swing plane. From there, who knows!

Anyhow, last week my body spoke up unmistakably, and said, No mas! It was getting hard to pick up ordinary objects and pull things out of my pockets. So my golf improvement program is temporarily on pause, and I’m doing lots of resting, icing, and Advil.
Tiller7Bug 1-12

We had our greatest ever dinner-and-a-movie experience last week at the Cinemark Movie Bistro theatre in Cary. It exceeded expectations in every way. The seats are enormous and plush, electronically adjustable, with unlimited leg room, and tables on the front and glass holders on the side. Our server was sweet and smart, and our food came without a glitch. The veggie burgers were delicious! Also, with our bottle of pretty good Chardonnay, they brought out a free-standing ice bucket!

Our movie was The Legend of Tarzan. It, too, exceeded all expectations, and earned a place on my list of best-ever action-and-adventure movies. Africa has never seemed more sensual and thrilling. There were all the usual excitements of an action pic – chases, shoot-outs, explosions – and of course excellent vine-swinging. But there was something a little deeper, in the loving and respectful depictions of the big animals, and of village life.
Tiller7Bug 1-13

Unlike in so many action pics, Tarzan has believable high stakes. The background of this story is real history – the late 19th century genocidal colonialist exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium – and several of the characters were based on real people. Unfortunately – reverse spoiler alert — the real-life depredations of Leopold on the Congo were unspeakably worse. See King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschold. Joseph Conrad personally witnessed this horror and turned it into immortal fiction in The Heart of Darkness, which I’m re-reading.

As Tarzan, Alexander Skarsgard manages to be both superhuman and appealingly understated. Margot Robbie is lovely and feisty as Jane. They’ve got chemistry. Christoph Waltz is a bone-chilling force of evil. The apes, wildebeests, ostriches, elephants, crocodiles, and other animals are fantastic!

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.
Tiller7Bug 1

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.
Tiller7Bug 1-6

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.
Tiller7Bug 1-5

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.
Tiller7Bug 1-3

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.
Tiller7Bug 1-4

A thought-provoking documentary film festival in Durham

Having had such a good time last year at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, this year we decided to go all in. We got a room at the downtown Marriott, which connects to the site in the Durham Convention Center, and took some vacation so we could stay all four days. We saw some excellent documentaries, met some interesting people, and had a lot of good conversations and other fun.

In high school I had a music theory teacher who was a practitioner of Eckankar, which teaches that the soul can separate from the body and travel about. I ordinarily think of Eckankar as an example of the useful rule that there’s no idea so bizarre that some subpopulation won’t believe it. Still, this weekend was soul travel of a sort. The documentaries whisked us around the world and also transported us into some remote and unfamiliar interior landscapes.

Another thing I like about documentaries is that in general they try to be truthful. Even when the filmmaker has a strong point of view, she’ll almost inevitably provide evidence for other points of view. We were particularly interested this year in the films that took on complex social issues. For several of those, the filmmakers answered questions afterwards, and the messages they thought they were sending were not always the same as the ones we took away. I viewed that not so much as an indication of the filmmaker’s weakness as of the medium’s strength.

There were more than 100 films screened, of which we saw 17, including several that I expect to be thinking about for quite a while. Here are some quick notes on my favorites.

Weiner. This was about Anthony Weiner and his New York mayoral campaign, which ended in ignominy because of his social media sexting. Weiner became a late night TV punchline, and so it was a surprise to see him presented as a complex person with a great deal of intelligence and drive. As Sally noted, it was a great reminder that headlines can be misleading. I sat next to co-director Josh Kriegman at another film, and was happy to learn from him that Weiner is still married.

Sonita. Sonita is a 15-year-old Afghan girl living in Tehran who wants to be a successful rap artist. As crazy as it sounds, she may just do it. From her first informal performance with her girlfriends, you sense a prodigious talent. The odds against her are huge at the beginning, as her poor, traditional family plans to sell her to be married, but she records Brides for Sale, which becomes a minor sensation, and things start to happen. You should check out her gut-punching music video, which is here.
Clinica de Migrantes. A clinic in south Philadelphia provides primary medical care for mostly Hispanic undocumented immigrant workers. The volunteer doctors and other personnel are overworked and overwhelmed, but they somehow soldier on, with empathy and kindness. The patients look a lot like the people we see cleaning our hotel rooms, preparing restaurant food, building our houses, and caring for our yards and our children. The film doesn’t preach about the injustice of leaving these people out of the health care system, but quietly makes you feel it. It also reminds you that there are some really good people in the world.

Unlocking the Cage. The subject is Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project, which has brought habeas corpus petitions on behalf of caged chimpanzees. Wise has worked for 30 years for animal rights, and has succeeded in raising the profile of the issues. He maintains a remarkable air of humanity and decency even with those who think he must be crazy.

Raising Bertie. This film was made about 100 miles from here as the crow flies in Bertie Co., N.C., a poor, rural, majority African-American area. The filmmakers spent 6 years following 3 young black men trying to get through high school and become adults. They make some of the same mistakes that their parents made, such as starting families when they’re much too young, and struggle to find decent jobs. It’s a subject that we all think we know about, but have never seen this intimately, and it’s powerful. We got to meet with one of the filmmakers and a couple of the film’s subjects in the hotel bar last night.

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. This film by master documentarian Joe Berlinger follow self-help impressario Robbins through a six-day seminar for which he charges $5,000 per head. It struck me as a mix of evangelical Christian revival and new product sales force meeting, where the attendees were encouraged to get excited and emotional and commit to a better life or more productive next quarter. Robbins struck me as a snake oil salesperson, though more well-meaning than some. I was surprised to learn, when Berlinger spoke afterwards, that he had attended a Robbins seminar and found it life changing in a good way. But as noted above, this disconnect speaks well of the medium, and also of Berlinger, in allowing for different interpretations.

Don’t Blink: Robert Frank. Laura Israel, the director, worked with Frank for years as an editor before making this remarkable film. I just started looking hard at Frank’s intense, quirky photography in the last couple of years, and came to this documentary knowing nothing of his experimental films and other work. I came away with even more respect for Frank, and more curiosity. The film says something fundamental about how artists make art: they never stop experimenting.

I could go on, but, enough. Footnote: I made all these photographs except the tulips on a Samsung Galaxy S7, which I got a week ago. So far, it seems like a very smart smartphone, with a surprisingly credible camera.
Tiller7Bug 1-12

Farewell to Oliver Sacks, family health, witch trials and terror trials, and beautiful bugs

RTILLER5 (1 of 1)

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.
RTILLER6 (1 of 1)

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.
RTILLER8 (1 of 1)

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.

Seeing Mission Impossible, trying a standup desk, and diving out of Wrightsville

RTillerbutterfly (1 of 1)Last week we went to see Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and liked it. This movie isn’t designed to provoke deep thought so much as to administer a dose of adrenaline, which it does admirably. There are various fine chases and explosions, amazing disguises, shoot outs, and, of course, some heroic computer hacking. It moves right along, and has an occasional wink as if to say, we all know this is a bit over the top.

Tom Cruise is remarkable, in that somehow, despite all we know about his incredible Scientology goofiness, he brings us in and takes us right along. Rebecca Ferguson plays his female counterpart from the British secret service. She is perhaps the most accomplished hand-to-hand fighter we’ve seen on the Mission Impossible team, and she looks particularly wonderful in an evening gown.

There was a moment or two when I thought, hasn’t this been done before? Yes, of course it has. With Jim Phelps, James Bond, Indiana Jones, and numerous comic book superheros. But who cares – it’s still fun.

Though it’s worth noting that the meta conceit of this Mission Impossible is potentially thought-provoking. I’ll not spoil it by just saying: what if a spy agency of a major power got out of control? And the spies had awesomely powerful weapons and no accountability? And the spying became detached from any ordinary purposes or values, except for – spying. Of course, that could never happen.

RTillerbutterfly (1 of 1)-2
I had a major and positive transformation in my work place technology last week – I got a stand up desk. This model is sturdy, roomy enough for two monitors and a keyboard, manually adjustable between sitting and standing with ease.

I’ve been concerned about the hazards of too much sitting for a while. There’s credible research that sitting more than three or four hours a day elevates various risks, from hunched shoulders, hip and back problems to cardiovascular disease and cancer. There’s info here, here, and here. My doctor agreed and recommended more standing.

My initial impression is, standing is invigorating. I feel more energetic and focused. I lower the desk for intervals to do certain tasks, like taking notes on phone calls, and also to change things up, but spend a lot more time on my feet.
RTillerbutterfly (1 of 1)-3

This weekend we went down to Wrightsville for a couple of wreck diving trips with Aquatic Safari. On Saturday, the seas were choppy, but we had a good dive on the wreck of the Pocahontas. There was reasonably good visibility, manageable current, and large numbers of small and medium fish.

But I was reminded of Murphy’s law. My BC started leaking loudly as I got ready to go in, and the captain advised unhooking the low pressure inflator and regulating by oral inflation under water. I said okay and went down. But blowing up a canvas balloon while 60 feet under isn’t so easy. And I had problems with my camera. The boat was pitching dramatically when it as time to get back in, and the metal ladder came down on my head, with blood resulting. Nurse Sally examined it and commented that it didn’t look like it needed stitches.

On Sunday we did two dives on the wreck of the Liberty ship. This required only a 15 minute boat ride, and the seas were calm. Visibility was not great – perhaps twenty feet at most, but we saw two octopuses (a rare treat). Also notable were oyster toadfish, porcupine fish, jellyfish, barracuda, and one southern sting ray.

Discovering Pluto, ancient civilizations, Amy, and a rodeo

At Raulston Arboretum, July 18, 2015

At Raulston Arboretum, July 18, 2015

The well-named New Horizons space craft completed its three million mile, nine-year journey from Earth to Pluto this week. I enjoyed seeing the close-ups of the dwarf planet, and the smiling faces of the New Horizons NASA team. Asked to explain the value of the achievement, the scientists hemmed and harumphed a bit, but Stephen Hawking stated its raison well: “We explore because we are human, and we want to know.”
Raleigh Rodeo-1099

Speaking of exploring, I’ve been learning about ancient civilizations, including Mesopotamia, China, India, Greece, and Rome. Through the audio book service, I purchased one of the Great Courses, a series of lectures by Gregory Aldrete titled History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective. Aldrete does a really good job at bringing out the big currents of the first six thousand years or so of human urban culture. He’s helped me understand the relations of the major civilization as a temporal matter and in their major elements of technology, government, art, warfare, and religion. I’ve been filling in various gaps, like understanding the relationship of Alexander and the Greeks, and the relationship of the Han dynasty and the Roman empire (same time period). I’ve been listening to the book while working out at the gym, and getting a good mental work out in the process.
Raleigh Rodeo-1118

We saw Amy, the new documentary about Amy Winehouse, last week. I recommend it. I wasn’t ever a big fan of her music, but I could see that there was something original and fearless about her. The documentary has a lot of home movie type footage that is surprisingly revealing, but it doesn’t preach and leaves things open to interpretation. Here’s my interpretation: she had some serious emotional/psychological problems, including depression and bulimia, and not much of a support system. She didn’t really seek fame, and wasn’t prepared for it, and didn’t have much help managing it. I view her drinking and drugging as a kind of unsuccessful self-medication, which was dangerous and ultimately fatal.
Raleigh Rodeo-0983
We went out to Carousel Farms on Tuesday evening with some Red Hat colleagues to see the local rodeo. There were hamburgers (veggieburgers for us) and cookies. The main events were barrel racing (young women on horses on a timed course with tight turns around three barrels) and bull riding (stay on the bull at least 8 seconds and don’t get killed when you get thrown off). It was fun to see the talented, courageous young people and get a taste of country life, but I had very mixed feelings about the bull riding.
Raleigh Rodeo-1045

For one, it seems cruel to the animals. For two, the risks to the riders are just too great. On almost every ride, they fall near the feet of the powerful bull as it’s kicking. We saw one young man badly kicked this way who had to be carried off on a backboard to an ambulance. Hope he’ll be OK.
Raleigh Rodeo-1026

To Durham, for an excellent documentary festival, and Duke Gardens

This weekend we did a documentary film marathon at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham. Starting Thursday evening, we watched films, talked, ate, slept, and repeated, until Sunday. Our film days ended about midnight, and we stayed close by in the Hampton Inn. This was our third year at the Festival, and each year we’ve gotten a little more adept at getting tickets, getting good seats, getting well fed, getting shelter, and otherwise taking care of business. This year was the most entertaining and thought-provoking yet.

What are documentaries? They start with something real, and try to say something true. Documentarians, like all of us, have their biases and other limitations, and they sometimes make mistakes. But sometimes they’re remarkably wise and brave. The Full Frame staff screened thousands of proposed films, and from these picked 80 or so. Those we saw were almost all excellent.

We covered a lot of geography, including films set in North Korea, the Indian Himalayas, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Mexico, Russia, Finland, Utah, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and the Dark Net. The films that affected me the most were journalistic in orientation, but took on subject matter, or angles on subject matter, that don’t get much coverage in the mainstream press, either because they’re too complicated or too politically risky.

Some told stories that, without the courage and dedication of film makers willing to work for several years, would have never been told. There weren’t a lot of happy endings. But as Sally noted, there were a lot of pockets of inspiration — humans struggling valiantly against difficult natural or political circumstances.

It was also great that for most of the showings, the filmmakers were there to answer questions. Most of the showings we saw were sell outs or close, and there were rousing ovations for the creators. It was a really stimulating weekend. Here are a few of the highlights.

Deep Web. This was the story Ross Ulbricht and Silk Road, the online drug emporium. I thought I was more or less up to speed on the Dark Net, but I learned a lot, and got new perspectives on it and on the War on Drugs. The story of how the Dark Web and cryptography may affect the drug war is potentially huge. Director Alex Winter said he planned to add some material on the indicted FBI agents who worked on the case. Definitely worth seeing.

Meru. The story of the first ascent of an imposing 21 thousand foot peak in the Himalayas, and the three men who did it. I always have mixed feelngs about the sort of adventure, which is at once amazing, inspiring, and just too dangerous. But it was a thrilling cinematic experience.

Overburden. This was about the long sad relationship of Appalachia and coal. I had a particular interest in this, since I come from hearty coal mining stock, and I feel a real affinity for the beauty and pathos of this country. Overburden is the lingo of the mining companies for the plants and soil on the mountaintops that have to be stripped away to get the coal. This film focused on a couple of community activists who raised people’s consciousness on the environmental and social damage of this kind of minng.

Crystal Moselle, director of The Wolfpack, answering questions

Crystal Moselle, director of The Wolfpack, answering questions

The Wolfpack. This concerned a family in New York who kept the kids inside their small apartment for almost their entire childhoods. Something was plainly wrong with the parents, but the kids seemed lively and creative, and probably not permanently impaired. The director, Crystal Moselle, spoke afterward, and gave some added context. She’d worked on the movie for about four years.

Peace Officer. This film was about the militarization of America’s police forces. The prime subject, William “Dub” Lawrence, is a former police officer and sheriff who started SWAT team in Utah that years later murdered his son-in-law. He’s an extraordinary person, who together with the directors spoke after the film. We were particularly happy that this one won an award — for human rights.

Peace Officer co-directors Scott Chritopherson and Brad Barber, and subject Dub Lawrence (speaking)

Peace Officer co-directors Scott Chritopherson and Brad Barber, and subject Dub Lawrence (speaking)

(T)error. This was about the FBI’s campaign against Islamic radicals using informants who try to entrap them in made up jihad efforts. It was a sort of a worm’s eye view, told from the perspective of an informant and a target. It would have been comical, had the subject not ultimately been sent to prison for eight years on a trumped up charge to shut him up. This one won a grand jury award.

(T)error co-directors Lyric Cabral and David Sutcliffe

(T)error co-directors Lyric Cabral and David Sutcliffe

Tell Spring Not to Come This Year. The subject of this was the Afghan National Army operating without the direct support of the US. They didn’t seem like a very well trained or determined fighting force. The Taliban seemed to be getting the upper hand. The battle scenes were vivid and harrowing. The co-director, Saeed Taji Farouki, spoke afterwards, with intelligence and humility.

Dogwood at Duke Gardens, April 12, 2015

Dogwood at Duke Gardens, April 12, 2015

On Sunday morning, we took a break to check out the Duke Gardens. It was a lovely, clear day, and lots of things were blooming, including early azaleas and rhododendrons. The tulips were spectacular. Sally noted that this garden, too, was a pocket of beauty that, in spite of everything, gave us hope for humanity.

Azalea at Duke Gardens

Azalea at Duke Gardens


First Friday gallery hopping, new wildflowers, and tolerating Scientology

Dogwood blossom on Blount Street

Dogwood blossom on Blount Street

This week the big trees in Raleigh started to shoot out baby leaves, and the horizon got green. The mild temperatures encouraged me to walk to work, and on the way there were cherry blossoms on Lane Street and the season’s first blossoming dogwoods on the Capital grounds.

Cherry blossoms on Lane Street

Cherry blossoms on Lane Street

On First Friday evening we went out to visit some galleries. We particularly enjoyed the photographs of Simon Griffiths at 311 West Martin Street. There were Raleigh street scenes, landscapes, and portraits of workers in small businesses. The works were clearly subject to extensive post-production work, which caused the views to seem at once familiar and unfamiliar, somewhere between hyper-reality and a dream. His work can be seen here.

I would have loved to learn some technical details, but didn’t have a chance to ask him, because we were cutting it close for our dinner reservation and had to start walking. There were a lot of people out strolling. We ate Lebanese food at Sitti, where the baba ghanoush was delicious, but the falafel was a bit dry. Service was great, and the vibe was lively.

Spring beauty

Spring beauty

Over the weekend I went out to Cary’s Swift Creek Bluffs park to check for wildflowers. There were thousands of little white ones (spring beauties) and a few other interesting species. It was windy, so these guys were moving around. I had to get down on the ground with them to take their pictures, and got a bit muddy, but I thought it was worth it. These little wildflowers do not last long. If you’re interested, the time to see them is now.

We watched Going Clear, the much-discussed documentary on Scientology, on HBO this week, and liked it. It included both historical footage of L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer and founder, and other movement leaders, as well as interviews with several ex-Scientologists. It recounted without particular ridicule the foundation myth, which involves beings from outer space and nuclear bombs exploding in volcanos, and its pseudo-scientific technique of E-meter auditing.

Although it’s tempting to make fun of the wackiness, many better established myths are no less untrue, and many long-established customs and rituals are unsupported by science. Tolerance of other beliefs (and non-beliefs) is a good and vitally important thing. The film focused on what deserves to be criticized: the group’s paranoia, abuse, and thuggery. Apparently it secured its US tax exempt status by harassing individual IRS officials with lawsuits. !!! It has harassed and intimidated many others, though not me (at least so far). _DSC8863_edited-1

Our amazing safety, veggie restaurants, blossoms, golfing hopes, and ISIS

Daffodil, Raulston Arboretum, March 21, 2015 Daffodil, Raulston Arboretum, March 21, 2015

Spring is here, with some good, and perhaps surprising, news: “America is safer than it has ever been and very likely safer than any country has ever been.” Writing in this month’s Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch drily sums up the gap between our perceptions of terrorist threats and reality: “American are about four times as likely to drown in their bathtub as they are to die in a terrorist attack.”

“Given how safe we are, and how frightened people nonetheless feel, it seems unlikely that Americans’ threat perception has ever before been quite as distorted as it is today. Never have so many feared so little, so much.” Rauch notes, “The United States faces no plausible invader or attacker. All we are really talking about, when we discuss threats from Iran or North Korea or ISIS, is whether our margin of safety should be very large or even larger.”

Why are we so scared? Rauch cites evolutionary biology, which equipped our ancestors to be hyperalert to the possibility of predators or enemies, and programmed them and us to err on the side of overreacting to threats. Part of it is also probably opportunistic politicians and sensationalistic media. Whatever it is, the cost is enormous. See, e.g., budgets of Defense Department, Justice Department, CIA, NSA, TSA, FBI, etc.

A new veggie-friendly restaurant. We tried Pho Pho Pho Noodle Kitchen, a new Vietnamese restaurant within walking distance of us on Glenwood Avenue this week. Our pho (noodle soup, basically) with tofu was tasty, and the place was lively, with a neo-Buddhist vibe. Our server must have been new, since she was a bit over eager – checking in on how we liked everything every 4.5 minutes or so – but we still liked her. Although there was only one vegetarian offering on the menu, we verified that there were several other items that could be done meatlessly. We’ll go back.

As Sally noted recently, we’ve been vegetarians now for 20 years. It’s gotten easier. There are a lot more fun vegetarian friendly restaurants these days, and we consciously try to support them. These are now quite a few good places with more than one veggie option, and vegetarians are clearly not second class citizens. My current favorites in downtown Raleigh are Fiction Kitchen, Capital Club 16, Buku, Sitti, Blue Mango, Kim Bop, and Bida Manda.

Saturday. On Saturday morning I did a sunrise five-mile run up Hillsborough Street, had a quick bowl of cereal, and went to an 8:30 yoga class with Yvonne across the street at Blue Lotus. My recent classes with Yvonne have been more about stretching and deep breathing than heavy working out, which works well after a run. Then I drove up Hillsborough to Raulston Arboretum for a slow walk with my camera.

It was a bit muddy from rain the day before, but things were quickly emerging. And also decaying: the beautiful blooms do not last long. The daffodils I saw last week were mostly gone, though there were some pretty new ones. Several oriental magnolias had particularly gorgeous blossoms. The birds were singing brightly.

In the afternoon, I practiced the piano, and then went over to RCC for some golf practice. As usually happens as spring arrives, I start thinking this could be my golf breakthrough year. Last year was pretty much a lost one for golf, due to eye, hand, and shoulder injuries, but I’ve been pretty healthy lately. And I’ve got some of the elements of a bona fide game. The thing is with golf, it’s remarkably hard to put it all together and make it happen on a consistent basis. Anyhow, I enjoy watching the little white ball fly up and away. Practice is fun.

We had delicious Thai food for dinner at Sawasdee on Glenwood Avenue, and went to the Raleigh Grande to see a documentary called Red Army. It tells the story of the Soviet hockey team that dominated the world in the 70s and 80s. The Soviet system was brutal, but they played brilliant hockey. I thought the subject was interesting, but the ex-players were not very expressive or insightful, and the analysis didn’t get much below the surface.

More on ISIS. I mentioned last week that we don’t know much about ISIS, but thanks to Graeme Wood I now know a good deal more. Wood wrote a piece for the Atlantic titled What ISIS Really Wants, which is well worth reading in its entirety. In a nutshell, ISIS takes the Koran completely literally, including the parts about militarily establishing and expanding a caliphate that applies Sharia law. It believes in requiring the allegiance of all Muslims, killing apostates, and enslaving non-believers.

Unlike Al Qaeda, they have no current interest in attacking western nations, but rather want the west to attack them. This would both help recruitment and gibe with their end-of-days theology. In fact, they don’t get along with Al Qaeda, which they view as insufficiently Islamic. As with other fervid fringe religious movements, for whatever reason this appeals to some, but a majority of Muslims and everyone else reject it as nutty, and the atrocities will always limit its appeal. Also, the ISIS ideology rules out cooperating or having diplomatic dealings with any who disagree even slightly with their views. Thus they can never have allies, which limits the possibilities for expansion.

Clearly, ISIS is a serious, and perhaps existential, threat for people who live within its range and disagree with it. But we should distinguish between possible terrorist threats to our lives and property, and the humanitarian concerns relating to the people of Iraq and Syria.