The Casual Blog

Category: photography

Ereading about our bizarre President in Fire and Fury, and testing my new camera

 

Sally’s latest flower arrangement, and her iPad Mini

Wow, is it cold out there!  Raleigh didn’t get much snow this week, but was expecting to set a new record for sustained low temps.  Instead of my usual Saturday walk in one of our forests, I hunkered down and worked on getting to know my new camera, and took some pictures from and around our apartment.  

As I mentioned last week, due to a late night mental fog I left my iPad  on an airplane, and asked the American Airlines bot to please find and return it.  It has not done so so far, and I’m not feeling optimistic.  It would be hard at this point to lower my expectations as to customer service  from AA, so I’ll just note that they’re staying extremely low.  AA bot, if you’re reading this, I promise to post an appreciative remark if you return my device.

That iPad was my primary ereader, but fortunately, I also had my current books on my larger iPad pro.  I got the larger device primarily to use for downloading and reading piano music, since the larger size is helpful in reading two or more staffs covered with many notes.  The big one doesn’t feel as comfortable sitting on my lap, but it certainly works.

It was an exciting week in epublishing, with the best-selling release of Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff, a whiz bang account of Trump’s first year.  Jocelyn, working in ebook production at Macmillan, was part of the team that got the book out on an accelerated schedule after Trump’s lawyers sent a threatening letter.  She texted me a heads up that this could be big, and after reading the published excerpts, I agreed.  

You might suppose, as I did at first, that we really don’t need to read a book  about Trump, since we’ve read so much, and he really is not complicated.  But even for those of us who follow Trump reporting closely, there is just too much to fully take in.  All those oddities, shocks, and outrages form a constant and seemingly endless barrage.   

Instead of facts and logic, he emanates juvenile absurdities.  It’s hard to engage his “ideas” with ordinary rationality, and so we have a lot of extreme emotions, from fear, to rage, and sometimes helpless laughter. Our heads have been getting  slammed hard, like football players badly overmatched, and we have trouble getting oriented and making sense of it all.  

Anyhow, I downloaded the ebook of Fire and Fury and started it yesterday.  Sally, with her iPad Mini, turned out to be reading it, too.  Jocelyn and Kyle, and no doubt many thousands of others, are doing the same.  The right-wing propaganda apparatus is desperate to undermine Wolff, and I don’t count them out, since they’re really good at what they do.  

But I expect that the book will help a lot of people who have been giving Trump a benefit of a doubt to see that that was a mistake.  And perhaps the powerful politicians who, with full understanding of his unbelievable and dangerous incompetence, have supported Trump will be shamed into changing course.    

These pictures were taken with my new Nikon D850.  It’s a recently released FX digital camera with some remarkable capacities, like a large sensor with 45.7 megapixels, shooting at 7 frames per second, and ISO up to 25,600.  These specs suggested a long step forward in photographic potential, so I stopped in at B&H in New York in early November to test the beast.  I liked the ergonomics, and proposed to buy one.  They kindly said they wished they could help me, but could not.  It was on backorder for the foreseeable future. The same turned out to be true for Peace Camera, my friendly local camera shop.

On our balcony, a cold sunset

I finally got the D850 this week.  From first impressions, the image quality is fantastic, and it has many helpful conveniences, like a large viewfinder and a vivid touch screen that folds out.  It can also be operated remotely with a smartphone.  It’s  a complex tool and I expected a substantial learning curve, but happily, most of the controls and system menus are organized like my trusty Nikon D7100, so it’s not overwhelming.  The only negative I’ve found so far is no surprise:  it’s  noticeably bigger and heavier than the D7100.  A silver lining:  it will make me keep working on my upper body strength.

Rebuilding after the big fire

Swimming with sharks and other remarkable creatures: our scuba trip to Honduras

For Christmas week, our family did a scuba diving trip to Roatan, Honduras. We saw a lot of beautiful sea creatures, and had fun hanging out together.  I managed to lose my prescription sunglasses on the way down, and was quite bummed.  Returning to Raleigh around midnight, after 13 hours of travelling, I left my iPad and book on the plane.  I’ve been in touch with American Airlines’ lost-and-found bot, which says it’ll let me know whether they can find them within 30 days.  Argh!

But we really liked staying at Coco View Resort, which is on the east side of Roatan. Coco View is perfectly arranged for diving, with rooms just a short walk from the equipment lockers and docks. Their dive staff was friendly and knowledgeable, and the dive boats were large and comfortable.

A queen angelfish

The dive sites were easy to get to with boat trips of only 10-20 minutes. We went out with the boats after breakfast and after lunch, and did two dives each trip.  Our deepest dives were around 90 feet, but more typically at 60-70 feet. The second dive was usually a drop off near a wall, and we’d work our way back to the resort.  

A school of blue tang

The waters were mostly calm, with little current and only occasional surges.  The bottom temperatures were around 81 degrees F. Visibility was generally around 40 feet. It rained heavily at times, though mostly at night.  The locals said the visibility was worse than normal because of an unusually intense rainy season.

A banded coral shrimp

We didn’t see as many big animals around Coco View as we had hoped, but there were some good ones: two spotted eagle rays,  green moray eels, a hawksbill turtle, many lobsters and crabs, some scorpionfish, and some large Nassau groupers, among others. There were schools of smaller tropicals, and occasionally one of the glamour residents, like French, gray, and queen angelfish, butterflyfish, scrawled filefish, trunkfish, trumpetfish, and porcupinefish. We also spotted some sea horses and interesting tiny shrimp.  We didn’t spot any sharks at Coco View.

A scorpionfish

But one morning we took a special trip to a neighboring resort to look for Caribbean reef sharks. We knelt on the bottom while the sharks came in. Fourteen or so females showed up, and they gradually swam in closer and closer, getting close enough to touch. Then we swam with them for a few minutes. For the final act, we hunkered down, and the guides gave the sharks a large closed paint bucket with some fish inside. The sharks worked the top off the bucket, and then there was a short but intense feeding frenzy. It was awesome.

A Caribbean reef shark

Jocelyn with the reef sharks

We worried, of course, that the reefs and resident creatures would be struggling and declining because of rising ocean temperatures, acidification, agricultural run off, or other problems.  We did see some coral bleaching and what might have been algae (fuzzy brown stuff) coating some areas. The locals said there had been a major bleaching episode earlier in the year, but much of the coral had recovered.  They hadn’t detected a general drop in fish life, though they noted that the fish seem to go elsewhere when the water is murky.  

A crab

As always, there were minor equipment problems and physical challenges.  Sally’s low pressure inflater hose went into free flow when she was starting a dive, and needed an emergency repair.  Gabe’s BC (inherited from me) didn’t fit very well.  Jocelyn’s computer was balky at one point.  My fin straps (a spring-type) were too loose, and so my fins came off a couple of times when I hit the water.  On one dive I couldn’t get my BC to inflate (probably from a poor hook up job) and was sinking too deep, so I took out my regulator and inflated with my mouth.  Sally got a lot of bites by some insect (perhaps sand fleas) and got miserably itchy.   

A seahorse

Sally, Gabe, Jocelyn, and I got better at staying together as the week went on, and had progressively fewer moments of wondering if we’d lost someone. I got worrisomely low on air on one of the early dives, and Jocelyn sweetly checked from time to time after that to make sure I had a good supply. Sally, Gabe, and Jocelyn all developed keen eyes for some of the tiny exotics, like arrow crabs, banded coral shrimp, and brittle stars. We had a lot of fun.

A green moray eel

I almost finished My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, and hope American Airlines will return it so I can read the last twenty pages.  I know a lot of people have enjoyed Ferrante, which made me somewhat resistant to reading her, but I shouldn’t have been.  She creates a compelling world, and takes you inside a rich female consciousness.  

Jocelyn and Sally

Gabe is OK

Precancerousness, Eno hiking, Dolci paintings, some Debussy and Liszt, and support for a plant-based diet

The Eno River, by the Eno Trace trail

This week I got a one page report that said the polyp removed during my recent colonoscopy was precancerous.  I’m not exactly sure what that means.  It sounds better than cancerous, but definitely not as good as non-cancerous.  Do they really know when something will become cancerous, or is it more like, we aren’t exactly sure, and don’t want to say there’s nothing to worry about?  The net seemed to be, it’s good they removed it, because it might not have been harmless.  In any case, it’s gone.  But instead of the usual ten-year interval for the next colonoscopy, they want me to come back in five.  So I’m twice as valuable as the usual  patient.   

On Saturday morning I drove over to Eno River State Park and hiked in the Fews Ford area.  There was frost on the grass, and some ice on the river, but it was sunny and calm.  A flock of robins was hunting for breakfast.  I stepped carefully on the rocks and didn’t get wet or twist an ankle, and got these pictures.  

Afterwards I stopped in Durham at the Nasher Museum to see the Carlo Dolci exhibit.  Dolci was a favored court painter for the Medicis in Florence in the 1600s.  Apparently he fell out of favor among art critics in the 19th century, and this is the first major exhibit of his work.  Dolci apparently was a pious Catholic, and in his work mostly focused on the popular religious subjects of the time, usually with close attention to two or three figures.  He had a great color sense, and fanatical attention to detail. And amazing commitment and endurance:  some of these paintings took several years to paint.    

Self portrait of Carlo Dolci

The Nasher also had a fascinating exhibit of the large bird’s eye view of Venice made in 1500 by Jacopo de’ Barbari.  The general accuracy of the aerial view has been confirmed by satellite imagery, so we know this work as a stunning feat of imagination and technical wizardry.  The Nasher did a state-of-the-art presentation using several large touch screens that allowed further exploration and play.  

Dolci’s St. Matthew Writing His Gospel (1640s)

That afternoon I had a piano lesson with Olga.  At her suggestion, I’ve been working on Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse, and contrary to her suggestion, I’ve continued working on Liszt’s Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude.  The Debussy work is about atmospheres, and has some unusual technical challenges, but I can already see that with practice it can be played.  The Liszt piece is a labor of love — lots of labor that could only be justified by love.  The harmonies are deliciously rich and full of surprises, but it requires a big investment of practice time.   

It being the holiday season, we’ve been eating more with friends recently, and the subject of why we’re eating a plant-based diet comes up regularly.  It’s always a bit awkward to discuss this at meal time, since the background facts are likely to produce a less cheery vibe for the animal eaters in the group.

But I continue to think a lot about the relation between our food, our ethics, and our health, and I’m always glad to find others willing to discuss those issues.  There seems to be growing awareness of the extreme cruelty of industrial animal farming, of the enormous environmental damage this system causes, and of the damage that eating animals and animal products does to human bodies.  We recently saw two documentaries on these issues on Netflix, and found them well worth watching.  Live and Let Live is a pithy overview of the ethical and health issues involved in eating animals.    What the Health focuses on the health benefits of a plant-based diet, and the seemingly willful silence of mainstream health organizations regarding the health problems associated with animal products.  

Our sexism comes out, and the campaign to stop the Trump investigation boots up

At the edge of the marsh near the Elizabeth River

Early Friday morning, I completed my hundredth spin class at Flywheel.  I did not meet my goal of 300 points (285), but I made it in in the top three, and I certainly got my heart rate well elevated (low 160s). Afterwards I drove over to O2 gym for some upper body resistance work and stretching.  Then I came home and fixed a green smoothie for breakfast, this time with orange juice, almond milk, kale, banana, baby carrots, celery, and blueberries.  That’s a lot of health in one glass, and it was also tasty.  

I’m exercising to feel good and increase the chances that I’ll still be here when Donald Trump is gone.  It helps my mood, which needs all the help it can get these days.  In particular, the recent flood of stories of powerful men sexually harassing women is depressing.  It suggests our problem is a lot worse than I thought, and we may well have not hit bottom yet.  

It’s no surprise that some percentage of males are dangerous sexual predators, and that there’s a larger percentage prone to crossing the line.  What’s new is the level of tolerance for such behavior. Last year almost half the population voted for a presidential candidate who bragged on tape about sexual assault.  Now a candidate in Alabama with a well documented record of molesting young teenage girls and lying about it stands a good chance of being elected to the United States Senate.

I formerly assumed that we all — Republican, Democrat, or other —  would agree that it is beyond the pale for middle-aged men to sexually assault fourteen-year-old girls.  That is, there are plenty of close questions when it comes to the boundary areas of sex, but there are some, like that one, that I thought were beyond debate. But apparently not.

What does this mean?   I think we’re seeing something that has been right in front of our noses all our lives but seldom noticed.  That is, we have a system in which women formally have equal rights, but in certain respects are regarded as unworthy.  In the US, we allow women to vote, attend school, work, and wear what they want. But we also systematically pay them less, give them less authority, and accept as normal that they’ll be subject to some degree of sexual misconduct.  

Ferguson and Black Lives Matter began a wrenching process that exposed a  hidden strain of racism.  Similarly, the disgusting and illegal behavior of Trump, Weinstein, Moore, and others  may be the start of a process that shines the light on our entrenched sexism.  We may expand the dialogue and expand the population that considers and treats women as fully human, and get to the point that nothing less will be tolerated.      

I hope so.  Meanwhile, I’m worried by the new effort to discredit and undermine the investigation of Russia’s interference in the last presidential election.  The evidence of Russian assistance to the Trump campaign is already extensive, and the evidence of ties between Trump’s top aides and the Russians is growing.  Now, as the plot thickens, Robert Mueller and the FBI are being accused of being partisan hacks out to get the President for no good reason. 

This campaign of slime is being led by Trump, Fox, and several Republican Congressmen.  There’s a good Washington Post piece on this by Paul Waldman here.  There’s also an account of the House Judiciary Committee’s work along this line here.  

I was sufficiently astonished by this idea that I decided to get out of my own bubble and watch, for the first time ever, an hour of Fox News.

So we saw Sean Hannity’s show on Thursday night, and it was both better and worse than expected.  Hannity and his guests are very skilled at weaving together uncontested facts with unfounded speculation and outright falsehoods so that they’re hard to distinguish.  The people are well-dressed and look serious and intelligent, and they all agree with each other on their key points.  

Thus several people at once will assent verbally and non-verbally to a proposition like “Hillary is the real criminal.”  They repeat their basic points over and over, but with enough variations that it isn’t completely obvious.  Unless you bring to the table a body of background knowledge, you might not notice the leaps in their reasoning, or the lack of any supporting evidence.    

So if you were to get all your news from Hannity, you might well believe that Trump is basically a good guy doing his level best and being unfairly thwarted by evil liberals.  And you might end up thinking that there’s no reason to worry about Russia taking over our political process.  At the same time, you might not be much concerned about electing sexual predators to high office.  

Hannity and Fox are really good at big lie propaganda.  Ordinary journalists can’t counter them as long as they are constrained by honesty and actual facts.  Reality based reporting doesn’t always fit neatly with our prejudices, and it just isn’t as exciting.  

Despite the effectiveness of Fox and Hannity, Trump’s poll numbers continue to sink.  I was heartened to read last week that his support among evangelical Christians had dropped by 17 percent since February.   Maybe it’s a trend.

I took these pictures last weekend when we visited my brother in the Virginia Beach area.  We got out on the Intercostal Waterway and did some kayaking.  The water was smooth and peaceful.  

A swimming milestone, Courage-ous soccer, deconstruction in our neighborhood, gun idealists, and nuke idealists

Looking south over Capital Boulevard at downtown Raleigh.  Our building is the big one one on the upper right.

I had the last of my eight swim lessons last week, and my teacher Eric seemed pleased with my progress.  My primary objective was learning the butterfly stroke, which I did, though Eric said it looked like I still had to think about it, which was true enough.  He said the cure for that was practice.  On freestyle, we talked about gliding and breathing, and for backstroke, we focused on keeping the head and chest up.  He liked my breaststroke!  These last weeks working on better swimming have been energizing, and I look forward to many more good laps.  

On Sunday afternoon, we got out to see our N.C. Courage play the Chicago Red Stars in the semi-finals of the National Women’s Soccer League.  These ladies can play!  The Courage had more attacks, but Chicago played almost flawless defense, and the game was scoreless through 89 minutes.  In the 90th minute, a hard, low shot from the Courage’s Denise O’Sullivan  found the net.  The crowd went wild!  The Courage, in their first season here, will be playing in the championship game in Orlando against the Portland Thorns.   

 In our neighborhood there’s a tremendous amount of construction going on, and also deconstruction.  Just a couple of blocks to the north and east, several buildings have been taken down in the last couple of weeks, including Finch’s Restaurant and my favorite photo gear and advice spot, Peace Camera (whose business is now located at Quail Corners Shopping Center).  The destroyed buildings had no particular architectural distinction, and it’s sort of exciting to see things changing and look forward to new developments, though at the moment it’s a wasteland.   I took these pictures on Saturday morning with the Tiller Quadcopter.     

The horrifying mass shooting in Las Vegas happened in front of the Luxor, where I stayed last year.  The national press mostly focused on the killer’s motivation, which remains unknown.  I read a couple of interesting pieces on the more important question of why a lot of Americans are passionate about guns and oppose all gun regulation.  Kurt Andersen’s piece in Slate is brilliant.  Andersen acknowledges that shooting guns can be a perfectly fine recreation, but also shows the powerful fantasies and fears that drive gun activists to extreme positions.  Somehow a significant number of people came to believe that they need a lot of powerful guns because they’re likely to be needed to fight the government that wants to take their guns.  

I also thought David Brooks’s latest NY Times  column on guns was thought-provoking.  Brooks views love of guns not so much as a product of fear or fantasy as of identity politics.  People who oppose gun regulation are demonstrating solidarity with a matrix of “conservative” issues, such as opposing abortion and immigration.  He suggests we need to end the culture wars if we want to address the gun issue.  That’s a tall order.  In the meantime, if we hear something that sounds like bullets, let’s be prepared to hit the deck.

Speaking of perils, I’d like to congratulate this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Committee for recognizing them:  the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).   Don’t feel bad if you missed the announcement of this prestigious prize, which the NY Times buried on page A10.  The risk of nuclear accidents and nuclear conflicts is so enormous that it’s almost impossible to think about, and so we generally don’t.  The situation is dire, but it isn’t hopeless.  Indeed,  ratification of the new UN treaty banning nuclear weapons is in process in at least 53 nations.  Kudos to the ICAN for continuing to sound the alarm.  

Our new floor, Liszt, and some ants

At Raulston Arboretum, September 3, 2017

They finished installing our new wood floor, and so we said so long to the Hampton Inn and moved back home on Friday.  There’s still a lot of unpacking, reconnecting, and rearranging yet to do, but the worst is behind us.  The new flooring is American walnut in wider planks and a more textured surface, and we really like it.

We had a special sound absorbent underlayer put under the floor, in consideration of the neighbors situated under my Fazioli 228 grand piano.  The instrument can put out a lot of sound, which I hope isn’t too annoying for them.  I was very happy to be able to play it again.

The new floor under the Fazioli

Among other things, I’ve been working on one of Liszt’s songs for piano, Oh! Quand Je Dors, from the second Buch der Lieder fur Piano Allein.  It’s so beautiful!  At times it feels a bit lonely caring about Liszt, since my friends generally don’t seem to like him nearly as much as I do.  I suppose loneliness often comes along with a passion, since caring intensely about something will separate you from others.  Of course, it also connects you to others, but they may not be close by, and may even belong to generations long gone.

My teacher lent me a book by one of Liszt’s piano students, August Gollerich, which consists of diary notes of master classes Liszt conducted in 1884-86, the last two years of his life.  The format of Liszt’s master classes was just like those today, with a series of students playing works, and then getting critical comments from the master.  Liszt was very direct about what he liked and didn’t like, but he also had a sense of humor. He mixed practical instruction on tempo and volume with notes on the animating emotions, and frequently played to demonstrate his points.  How daunting and amazing it must have been to play Liszt for Liszt! For his part, the master, nearing the end, seemed happy to be surrounded by adoring students, and still passionate about music.

Speaking of lonely passions, I heard a radio interview with Eleanor Spicer Rice, an entomologist who truly loves ants.  She pointed up their under-appreciated contributions to the environment and some wonderfully quirky behaviors.  She was so sweet and excited about these tiny creatures that I ordered and started reading her book, Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants.  For each species, she writes three or four pages about their habits, customs, and talents, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

Is it OK if our President supports neo-Nazis?

Dragonfly near Booth Amphitheater, Cary, NC, August 19, 2017

Last week it seemed like we might be ready to start a serious conversation about how to get out of our nuclear predicament, while we worried about a possible war with North Korea.  Now that all seems long ago.  Those hopes and worries were preempted by news feeds of marching, chanting, menacing neo-Nazis.  

Of course, we always knew there were such people, but we understood that they were a small minority that posed little risk beyond being disgusting and offensive.  Then the President announced that he thought neo-Nazis  were OK, or at least no worse than the people opposing the neo-Nazis.  The neo-Nazis were enraptured. 

If you haven’t already watched the short Vice News documentary on this, you should.  It brings home that these guys are real, and scary.  They are not ashamed of their racism; they’re proud of it.  And they are definitely not non-violent.  

What is the matter with these people?  There was an interesting interview on NPR last week with Christian Picciolini, who was a neo-Nazi leader as a young man.  He eventually renounced the movement and  founded a group to work for peace and help young people looking to get out of such groups.  

In his view, all people seek three things:  identity, community, and a sense of purpose.  Hate groups are good at providing these.  The young men who are vulnerable to being recruited by such groups generally have an underlying issue, such as psychological difficulties, or past trauma or abuse.  

We can all hope that these guys get their issues addressed, but in the meantime, let’s not be encouraging them to act out!  They could so easily get out of control.  It is despicable that the President has knowingly inspired them.  

On a related subject, what to do about confederate memorial sculptures, Trump’s commentary  (suggesting they’re comparable to statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) is ill-informed, but raises interesting issues. These founding fathers were indeed slave owners, and that doesn’t fit well with our tradition of venerating them.  As I’ve learned more about them and their time, I’ve found my admiration for their courage and intelligence tempered by disgust for their willing participation in the slave system.  

But, obviously, individuals are complicated, and history even more so. As to the confederacy memorial statues, I didn’t learn until this past week that  most if not all of those currently being discussed do not date from the generation that experienced the Civil War.  Rather, these statues were put up decades later,  well into the shameful era of the Jim Crow, when blacks were suppressed by law, custom, and mob violence. Those statues were not put up as reminders of beloved fallen ancestors, but rather to terrorize and subjugate living black Americans.   

Maybe on the race issue, the debacle of Trump will ultimately do some good, by highlighting history that we might have preferred to forget and forcing us to grapple with unresolved problems of prejudice and inequality.  But in the meantime, we need to get past Trump.  He still has fervent supporters, including some who are not committed racists or otherwise crazy.  For them, perhaps this latest outrage will bring home that he is a national disgrace and morally unfit to be president.    

The anti-Scout, and Dunkirk

Great blue heron at Apex Community Park, August 5, 2017

Being a Boy Scout was never cool, but I look back on my Scouting days with gratitude.  It was good to go camping with friends and learn to  paddle a canoe.  In fact, I learned a lot of little skills that could someday come in handy, like first aid, basket weaving, and wood carving.  

As a grown up, I’ve had issues with some of the Scouting lessons, like uncritical obedience, and I’ve been disappointed when Scouting’s leadership has been intolerant of minorities.  But I’ve always valued the core  lessons of integrity, decency, and caring for others.  

And so  I was dismayed when  Trump addressed the Boy Scouts at the annual national jamboree.  The surprise was not the content, since his once shocking dishonesty, ignorance, and vulgarity are now depressingly familiar.  Rather, it’s hard to see how any responsible adult would think it appropriate to put Trump in front of Scouts.  Trump is the anti-Scout, with a lifetime record of the exact opposite of Scouting ideals — not trustworthy, not loyal, not helpful, not kind, etc.  

It looked like Trump had a good time giving the campaign-type speech.  Perhaps his handlers and the Scouts viewed the performance as less likely to do harm than letting him sit around tweeting out attacks on the press and unexpected major policy changes.  Maybe in the aftermath some Scouts and others will examine more deeply Scouting values, and their relation to political life.  

Bravery of the heroic sort is not something one sees often in ordinary life, but it does exist.  I was reminded of this when we saw Dunkirk this weekend.  The movie was stunning.  It managed to communicate some of the terror of warfare, like the possibility of dying at any moment from bombing and artillery, and the reality of death.  But there were inspiring moments, like the bravery of the small boat crews and the fighter pilots.  When the last fighter plane ran out of gas, I got a little misty.  

Learning new things, including the butterfly stroke and about our worst tendencies

It was brutally hot here in Raleigh this weekend, which made me consider breaking my commitment to getting outside with my camera at least once a week and trying to see something fresh in the natural world.  But I ultimately hung tough and did a short photo safari at Raulston Arboretum, which was not as miserable as I expected.  I was happy I got these pictures.

Learning new things is sometimes fun, and sometimes hard, but always important, to keep our brains from turning to mush.  And so I decided to take some swimming lessons, and had my first one this week.  As I told my teacher, a young woman named Deanna, I would like to try to learn the butterfly stroke.  It’s one of those things I’ve always wondered if I could do, and it would add another variation to my lap swimming.  My first efforts were awkward, but by the end of the lesson, I had a version of the dolphin kick going.  I found it hard and fun.  

In these tumultuous times, we’re learning a lot about our weaknesses and strengths.  Under a constant deluge of lies, vulgarities, and mad fantasies, it’s more difficult to be open and curious, to think rationally and critically.  Panic and anger seem natural, and at times overwhelming.  We’re seeing how some of our worst tendencies, like intolerance and bigotry, are unleashed and encouraged.  

It’s not exactly cheering news, but at least we have a more realistic idea of the extent of our ignorance, intolerance, and susceptibility to manipulation.  We’ve gotten these and other  problems out in the open where we can potentially address them.  Eventually we might figure out how to be better people.

In the policy area, we’re learning more about our health care system.  Repealing Obamacare somehow became a mantra for the right — a symbolic acid test for signalling membership in the conservative tribe.  It’s hard to feel great about the enormous waste of time, energy, and public funds from the repeal effort, and the failure so far to address pressing problems, but there is a slightly bright side.    

It’s looking like some delusions are getting cleared up.  We now know that the mantra of repeal had almost no relation to the real issues of our health care system.  Some who liked the mantra have belatedly realized that cutting off insurance means real humans die prematurely. It appears that even the most committed ideologues, or at least the majority, get uncomfortable once we reach a certain level of cruelty.    

This debate has cleared the landscape like a forest fire, and some fresh ideas are starting to germinate.  For the first time in a couple of generations, we’re starting to widen the discussion about health care.  It’s starting to be more widely understood that we pay way too much for it, and the quality of care is bad in comparison with our peers.  There’s a new openness to the possibility of a sensible single payer system, such as an expanded version of Medicare.  

It won’t be easy to get from here to there.  Even leaving aside our dysfunctional political leadership, there are powerful institutional forces supporting the status quo.  Here’s how the Economist recently put it:  If the amount the U.S. spends on health care were reduced to the level of France, Germany, or Switzerland, we would save a trillion dollars, or $8,000 per family.  “Much of that trillion dollars goes to enrich the owners and executives of drug companies, device manufacturers, and relentlessly consolidating hospitals.  This rent-seeking is supported by an army of lobbyists:  there are more than twice as many lobbyists for the pharmaceutical and health-products industry than there are Congressmen.”  

Indeed, there are quite a few other blockers, like doctors, many of whom would be resistant to having their incomes reduced, and insurers, with similar issues.  Real improvements don’t seem likely in the near term, but I’m not giving up hope that eventually we’ll make progress.

Dragonflies, On Tyranny, and the strange reverence for Putin

 

A dragonfly at Apex Community Park

On Saturday morning I had to drive out to Apex for a haircut with Ann, who’s been cutting my hair ever since we lived there.  I asked Sally if she had any good ideas for nearby places to hike and look for dragonflies, and she suggested the reservoir at Apex Community Park.  I spent an hour and a half there before my haircut, and took these pictures.  It was quite hot and muggy, and with my 180 mm lens and tripod, I managed to work up a considerable sweat, as Ann noted.  

 

This week I read On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder’s latest book.  Snyder, a history professor at Yale, has  a deep knowledge of the authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century, and perspectives on how they bring civic life to an end.  He points up that these developments have been the product of many individual choices, including choices to quietly compromise, let go of moral principles, obey orders,  and submit.  His book is short and unsystematic, but full of sparky insights and practical advice on opposing authoritarianism.

Do we need such advice?  Yes.  I’d been starting to think once again that Trump was more a disturbed clownish bumbler than a genuine threat to our democracy.  But even after several months of failures, embarrassments, and scandals, he’s still popular with conservative Republicans (90 percent of them approve, according to one poll last week), which is making me wonder.  

I felt a cold chill when I read in the NY Times yesterday that there’s a prominent branch of conservative Republicans that are aligned with  Trump in admiring Vladimir Putin.  The Times cited several high-profile ideologues like Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, and Pat Buchanan as viewing Putin as the kind of leader it would be nice to have here.  Apparently they admire his “Christian” values (such as criminalizing homosexuality) and manly aura, and aren’t much bothered by his murdering of opponents, military invasions of neighbors, looting of his own country, or his subverting of elections here and elsewhere.  I somehow had missed that this point of view existed, and found it shocking.  

Snyder’s book shows how the personal is related to the political:  authoritarian systems invade the personal realm and then undermine it.  Accordingly, there is a political aspect to maintaining personal integrity and ordinary human relationships.  Eye contact, smiles, and small talk have a deeper meaning  and value when the government is unleashing attacks on minorities or suppressing dissent.  Part of resisting is maintaining human contact.  

Snyder observes that constant grandiose lying is a common thread of the successful authoritarian regimes in Germany, Russia, and elsewhere.  But we now have a related problem never seen before:  the internet echo chamber, filled with bots, which create and amplify illusions, and make it hard to distinguish true from false.  The very concept of truth is at risk.  For some, facts seem to be irrelevant.  It is both ironic and scary that Trump and his minions have repurposed the term “fake news” to mean news they dislike.   Part of resisting is serious reading, evaluating evidence, and applying reason.  

Of course, it’s still possible that our institutions will work as intended and our traditional liberties will survive without permanent damage.  The recent demonstrations of the weaknesses in our systems could teach us some lessons, and we might even emerge stronger and wiser.  But it’s a good idea to do some contingency planning and worst case modeling.  We may  need all of our courage.