The Casual Blog

Category: piano

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.

Guilty pleasures, my new grand piano, and understanding mass delusions

Daffodils at Fletcher Park, March 4, 2017

Daffodils at Fletcher Park, March 4, 2017

It’s been pleasantly mild in Raleigh this week, bringing out the early spring flowers, though it got colder this weekend.  I’ve been in good spirits, which is hard to explain.    With so many big things to worry about, I’ve felt a little guilty about this happiness.   But what can you do?

On Friday I had a successful spinning class with Matt at Flywheel. Despite a couple of weeks off, I finished with the first place score, with 320 points.  Almost everyone (or everyone)  in the class was considerably younger than me.   It’s invigorating to try to keep up with younger people, and especially fun to go faster than them!

Gabe and I had lunch this week at the Remedy Diner, and talked about the possibility of his becoming a partner in a new print-jobbing and graphic design firm.  He’s already doing web site design and related print design work, and the new business could be a good platform.  I’m excited for him, and enjoyed kicking around some of the practical aspects, like finding clients, office space, legal services, accounting, and insurance.

My new Fazioli F228

My new Fazioli F228

This week I figured out how to work forScore, an app for reading piano music on my tablet device.  There’s a massive amount of great music in the public domain and available for free on sites like IMSLP.org, but it’s cumbersome to work with unbound paper copies.  Just as my tablet has become my primary tool for reading books, it might become that for music.  Another plus is solving the problem of page turning.  In prior generations, pianists needed two hands to play the instrument and a third hand to turn pages, but I’m getting a little wireless foot pedal that should do the job.

I’m in love with my new grand piano, a Fazioli F228. The sound is amazing!  It is truly a joy to play.  It’s a 2003 instrument that I acquired from a businessman in Greenwich, Connecticut, who’d got it for his young son to learn on.  Since then, it’s been lovingly tended to by an experienced technician, but barely used.  It will certainly be used by me.  I’ve been delving into my favorite music of Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy, and discovering beautiful new prospects.  I’m selling my Steinway A, a 2004 instrument with a really lovely tone, if you know anyone who might be interested.

blogpicbug-1-5

Being of such good cheer, I’d planned to abstain from political discussions this week.  But I can’t resist sharing links to a couple of articles with very intriguing ideas about a big question:  are we losing our grip on reality?  The White House’s attacks on the media, the justice system, scientific consensus, and other institutions initially seemed to me so bizarre and ridiculous that I assumed no one would take them seriously.  But some people are.

Alexander George in the NY Times compared the situation to a famous forger of Vermeer’s work who succeeded by temporarily changing, through his own fake paintings, the understanding of what qualified as a Vermeer.  George points up that we judge the validity of new information based on our current knowledge base, including the concepts we’ve developed as to what sources are reliable.  If someone were to convince us that we could no longer trust scientists or journalists, our existing knowledge base would be undermined.  Rationality would be seriously impaired, as would political organization and action.  Query, is this the Bannon plan?

blogpicbug-1-4

Also in the sad, failing, fake news Times, Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman wrote a piece entitled Why We Believe Obvious Untruths, which centers on an idea that is both simple and profound.    The answer, they say, is not lack of intelligence.  Fernbach and Sloman point out that human knowledge is essentially collective — dependent on knowledge of other humans.  The things we think we know are for the most part actually things we’re confident somebody else knows.   While this system of collective intelligence allows for the large and long collaborations necessary for the greatest human achievements, it also accounts for our susceptibility to mass delusions.  

For better and for worse, we largely rely on our communities for knowledge, and our tools for detecting when our communities go awry are not so good.  As others have noted, we have a tendency to believe new information that fits with whatever we (and our community) already believe and ignore and suppress everything else, which has an error magnification effect.  Social media serves for many as news fast food that compounds the echo chamber problem.

Thus it turns out to be easy for groups to come to strong agreement in support of ideas overwhelmingly at odds with the weight of the evidence.  QED:  climate change is a hoax, immigrants are threatening us with terrorism, our military is too weak, etc.

On a cheerier note, speaking of intelligence, there was a report this week of experiments showing that insects have a lot more mental capacity than previously thought.  They aren’t just automatons operating on pure instinct, but  can learn and solve problems.  Scientists at the Queen Mary University in London taught bumblebees to roll a little ball across a platform in exchange for a reward.  Amazing!  

blogpicbug-1-2

Music therapy, and looking for new bugs

umstead-bugsbug-1-2
My work days are often nonstop meetings, calls, and electronic documents about new technologies and difficult problems, and for several hours my left brain is going at full throttle. I like the intensity, but there are a lot of stress hormones. Without a dose of classical music after work, I’d likely redline and blow up. Playing the piano, even for just a half hour, is like a warm, soothing bath.

untitledbug-1-4

One of the pieces back on my musical workbench is Liszt’s famous Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude. (There’s also some Schubert, Chopin, and Debussy.) I’ve been infatuated by the Liszt piece for a long time, but discouraged from committing to it by two things. First, it has some daunting technical demands, including reaches and stretches that are awkward and even painful. Olga, my teacher, suggested a (to me) non-obvious way of refingering to avoid the worst stretches, and I’ve been working out the details of the new approach.

The other blocker is the length. Most of the piano music I try to master and embody is on the short side by classical standards – under 6 minutes, which I view as pushing the limits of attention spans for most non-specialists. Benediction comes in at around 16 minutes. But what minutes! It’s very lyrical, elaborated by Liszt’s rich harmonies, and conceived with the piano’s singing qualities in mind. Here’s a couple of good and interestingly different performances from YouTube here and here
untitledbug-1-2

We’ve been particularly enjoying listening to music since we had our stereo system reworked last week. This was not entirely optional. Our former system involved in-wall and under-floor connections, which ceased working properly after our new floors were installed. Dr. Video, who installed the system, advised that fixing it would be quite expensive. We eventually decided to reposition the speakers on the large bookshelf, and powered them with a Yamaha R-700 receiver tucked in an adjacent closet. The speakers – two NHT Class Threes and a subwoofer – sounded good before, but with the new position and more power, they sound excellent.
untitledbug-1-6

We inaugurated the new sound set up with Harmonielehre, a piece for orchestra by the contemporary American composer John Adams. This is one of my favorite orchestral pieces of all time, and that’s including all the symphonies of Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler. It manages to cover an enormous emotional range, from a bouncy and cheery to fiery and fierce to wistful and contemplative. The harmonic language is mostly tonal, but with piquant dissonances, and the rhythm manages to seem propulsive and natural, though it is anything but simple. It takes you on the journey of discovery, much as Mahler does. I have the version by the City of Birmingham Symphony, but various other are available on Youtube and Spotify. I highly recommend giving it a listen.
untitledbug-1-7

Another great stress reliever is a walk through the woods and around a lake. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, I went to Umstead and Lake Crabtree parks and moved slowly, looking closely in the grasses and bushes for interesting insects. Most of the little creatures I saw did not hang around long enough to have their pictures taken, but I got a few shots I liked.
umstead-bugsbug-1

Enjoying the Olympics, a short scuba trip, and a piano lesson

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We can go literally for years without any special yearning to watch gymnastics, swimming, or beach volleyball. Yet every four years, like a periodic cicada, our inner fan emerges, and we are rapt before the summer Olympics. Of course, it is annoying to watch the same advertisements over and over, and listen to the commentators’ unhelpful hype and drivel. But the athletes are stupendous! It makes you proud to be part of the same species. All that drive and dedication, for years and years, and then the ultimate mastery at the decisive moment. It makes you wonder how much more each of us might be capable of.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

These photos are from our diving trip last week out of Wrightsville on the wrecks of the Gill and the Hyde. The water was murky — only 10 feet of visibility in places. But we still saw a lot of life, including sand tiger sharks, barracuda, and lots of little fish. On the Hyde, about 80 feet down, I lost Sally and Gabe near the end of the dive, as can so easily happen in poor visibility. Then I couldn’t find the anchor line, which was the planned route back to the boat. My air was getting low, and it occurred to me that things might turn out really badly. But I surfaced in an orderly manner and found the boat close by, and family safely aboard.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Last week I had my last piano lesson with Olga for a while, since her baby is soon to arrive. We worked on Liszt’s Sospiro and Chopin’s first Intermezzo. As usual, she made me listen more closely, and think about new musical possibilities. And as always, there were little technical issues to address. For a long time now, she’s been trying to make me practice each hand separately. The idea is to get out in the open the little rough spots, and also to allow for the hands to have separate personalities. I’ve quietly resisted this kind of practice, because it just isn’t that much fun. I’ve decided, though, to make a point of it. I like getting better.

My Saturday: dog care, the arboretum, spinning, piano, golf, and Chinese food

Tiller7Bug 1
Sally went to Greensboro this week with her tennis team to play in the state championship, so I took over the primary dog duties – walking, feeding, and petting. Stuart, our friendly Beagle-Bassett mix, dropped into our life as a rescue pup 13 years ago, and grew up to become the best dog ever. In the last few months he has lost a lot of his sight and almost all of his hearing. But he still loves his walks, his food, and being petted. And I like petting him. It’s warm and calming.
Tiller7Bug 1-3
On Saturday morning, after taking care of Stuart and Rita (the cat), I went up to Raulston Arboretum with my camera. It had rained all night and stopped shortly before I got there. The garden was very lush, and the plants were glistening. There was hardly anyone else there, so I felt particularly privileged to see these beautiful blooms at their moment of perfection.

From the arboretum, I drove to Cameron Village to take a spin class at Flywheel with the peppy Vashti. She announced she was getting married next week, and seemed particularly energized. I battled hard with another rider for second place. My final score was 311, two points ahead of my rival. My average heart rate at 155, and my sweat was copious.
Tiller7Bug 1-2

That afternoon I worked on my photos in Lightroom, started writing an op-ed piece about transgender issues, and practiced the piano. I’m memorizing some gorgeous lyrical music by Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, and trying to master some challenging flying Chopin, Liszt and Debussy. For some time, I’ve been meaning to do some recording of my interpretations, which I will share on YouTube if I ever do.
Tiller7Bug 1-5

Afterwards, I went up to Golftec to practice my swing and check the results on their video monitors. After several weeks of lessons with Jessica, I’ve succeeded in eliminating some of my old, bad habits, and I understand a lot more about the elements of an effective swing, but my muscles are resistant to doing what’s needed. It’s discouraging. It could be that I’m close to the promised land, but I also might just be starting out on a long sojourn in the wilderness. It has occurred to me that it might be best to chuck it. But I still enjoy practicing and the beauty of the game, so I’m planning to forge on, at least for a while.
Tiller7Bug 1-6

Sally’s team won some and lost some, finishing in the middle of the pack, and she came home in the afternoon. For dinner we tried out a new restaurant in the neighborhood, China-O. Back in the day, Chinese was our favorite ethnic food, but then we moved on to other ethnicities, like Thai, Japanese, and Indian. China-O seems to be a sister of the adjacent Sushi-O, with similar mod decor, and seems to be emphasizing the Szechuan style. There were plenty of vegetarian options. Our dishes were spicy and delicious, and we’ll be going back.
Tiller7Bug 1-4

Our Thanksgiving – spinning, piano, football, eating, and talking about terrorism

Mowgli Tiller

Mowgli Tiller

Thanksgiving morning, after I walked the dogs and read the newspapers, Jocelyn and I went to Flywheel for a spin class – our first together, and her first Flywheel experience. After getting the bike adjusted and bike shoes clipped in, the music started, loudly. I pushed hard, in a close battle for first place, and ended with a score of 325 – 10 ahead of the nearest male competition (and well behind one amazing woman). It was my first ever first, and I was kind of proud! Jocelyn also did well, staying well out of the cellar.

That afternoon, I practiced the piano with a view to getting ready for a lesson with Olga on Sunday. I’ve been working on several challenging and beautiful pieces, including Liszt’s Un Sospiro, Debussy’s Reflets dans l’Eau, and Schumann’s Arabesque. I’ve also finally felt strong enough to take on Liszt’s powerful Vallee d’Oberman. I think I’ve gotten off a plateau and climbed a bit higher. My playing lately feels more technically secure, and also more fluid and imaginative. Olga has certainly been a wonderful guide and inspiration. The meta lesson she gives is simple in concept, but hard to do: listen, listen, listen, more closely, and then more closely still.
Tiller6Bug 1-5

Then Jocelyn and I watched most of the Carolina Panthers v. Dallas Cowboys. The Panthers were 10 and 0 coming in to the game, a streak that had caught my interest and turned me into a fair weather fan. Jocelyn said that the Panthers were considered underdogs, which we agreed seemed disrespectful, and we were particularly happy to see them score early and go on to win decisively. Eleven and 0!

For Thanksgiving dinner, Jocelyn, a former professional bartender, created a new cocktail that she dubbed Apple Pie Manhattan, which involved infusing bourbon with apple, vanilla and cinnamon, and adding maple syrup, and dry Vermouth. It was delicious! Sally’s sister, Annie, brought Diane and her friend Debbie over, and Sally served a righteous butternut squash soup, black rice, and Mexican lasagna. Just like the Pilgrims!
Tiller6Bug 1-4

We spent part of the meal discussing politics, and debated whether Obama had been sufficiently forceful in opposing the anti-refugee backlash, and whether Trump had gone from being a mildly entertaining fool to being an instrument of evil. By using his media platform to demonize Muslims, he’s giving permission and energy to a large racist element of the population. The Times had a report on New Yorkers harassing and spitting on Muslim women, which is appalling and frightening.

At the same time, there seems to be a growing consensus that the solution to the terrorist threat is a coalition of nations to wipe out ISIS. This seems to me a bad strategy. We’ve spent the last 14 years using bullets and bombs trying to wipe out al Qaeda and the Taliban, without success. Indeed, our military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq helped spawn al Qaeda v. 2 – ISIS.

The source of terrorist violence is not particular individuals who can be killed, but social conditions, like poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of education, corruption, violence, and authoritarianism, which produce feelings of alienation, desperation, and rage. When we kill one terrorist, we inspire new ones to swear vengeance and take up arms, and the cycle repeats. If we obliterate ISIS, without social change, there will be a successor to ISIS. Bullets and bombs will never work.

I wonder if there is already a good name for our tendency to insist on a direct or even violent solution to a scary problem, even when part of us can recognize that there’s no quick fix. If not, there should be, because we do it over and over. I suggest calling it Fear Control Activity Disorder. The person or society with this disorder seeks to overcome a feeling of fear with a feeling of control by taking action that is dramatic though unlikely to address the actual source of the fear. We crave the feeling of being in control, and insist on seeking control even when it’s objectively unachievable. The disorder could account for a lot of our military adventures, our overimprisonment of criminals, and our overspending on medical goods and services.
Tiller6Bug 1-3

Processing a hand problem, Shen Wei dance, and The Unpersuadables

Raulston 6-12-15-0039
It’s been more than a year since I injured my right hand in Dominica, and though it got better for a while, it still does not feel right. I was trying to play Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu recently, and just could not get the loud, fast parts to go loud and fast. I made an appointment with Dr. Edwards at the Raleigh Hand Clinic, with a view to getting a referral to an occupational therapist I’d heard about, and getting some helpful exercises to fix me up. I saw him on Friday, and got some bad news.

Based on X-rays (which he showed me on his iPhone), Dr. E quickly diagnosed osteoarthritis. This is one of those things that don’t get better, and generally get worse. He could not say how quickly it would progress. The doc recommended Aleve for pain. He mentioned that if it got a lot worse, I could eventually be a candidate for finger joint replacement surgery. Yikes!

As a youth, I tended to view intellectual pleasures as superior to physical ones, but eventually I came to welcome the physical side of life as a glorious thing. I’ve taken great satisfaction in dexterous use of my hands, on the piano keys, the computer keys, the camera buttons, and many other places. This diagnosis will take some time to process. Though, of course, life will go on.
Raulston 6-12-15-0050

On Saturday we met up with some friends in Durham and had fine dinner at Rue Cler. Then we walked over to DPAC and saw a modern dance program by Shen Wei, the first show of the season at the American Dance Festival. The first SW piece, Untitled No. 12-2, started slowly: the curtain came up to reveal gray fog, and there was silence and blankness happened for a surprisingly long interval. Then we saw projections of abstract paintings by Mr. Wei. Eventually the troop began a slow traverse of the stage, with accents by individuals. The music was sparse percussion sounds. I found the piece overly spare and intellectual and underly physical.

The second piece, Map, was much livelier, with music of Steve Reich and large helium balloons. The choreography seemed well atuned to the energetic music, with sweeping gestures and twists, and small groupings moving in and out of phase. We liked it.

Afterwards, we walked over to 21C, the new luxury hotel in the former SunTrust building, and looked at their bold and brash collection of contemporary art. It’s open to the public, and free, and fun. Afterwards we stopped in a new place, Bar Lusconi, for an exotic beer.
Raulston 6-12-15-0062

Today I finished reading The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, by Will Storr. Storr narrates his encounters with intelligent people who believe crazy things, such as Holocaust deniers, past life regressionists, alien abduction experiencers, climate change deniers, and young earth creationists. In interviews, Storr challenges these folks, and confirms that they are impervious to reason and facts. Nothing can shake their beliefs. By way of partial psychological explanation, he draws on the work of Kahneman, Haidt, Ariely, Gazzaniga, Tavris, and Aronson regarding the inherent flaws in our mental processes, such as cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and unstable memories.

Storr is a journalist rather than a scientist, but he incorporates good source material and has genuine insight into the powerful illusions of consciousness. The book is also surprisingly personal, as Storr unflinchingly addresses his own biases and weaknesses. He recognizes that scientists can at times be highly unscientific, engaging in groupthink and suppression of evidence that doesn’t fit their world view. Perhaps most amazingly, as he engages with individuals who construct bizarre and odious theories, he manages to subject their ideas to fair scrutiny and at the same time respect their humanity.
Raulston 6-12-15-0082

This Saturday: irises, exercise, protest riots, Schoenberg, Indian food, and soccer

Iris, Raulston Arboretum, May 2, 2015

Iris, Raulston Arboretum, May 2, 2015

As usually happens when I travel, I picked up about three pounds, which I’d very much like to drop. Three isn’t a lot, but it can so easily become six, or twelve. And it’s so much easier to add than to subtract! With reducing in view, I’ve been focussing my exercise recently on fat burning, adding 15 minutes to my usual 30 of morning cardio, along with the usual resistance, core, and stretching. I’ve been doing various combinations of machines (elliptical, stairs, rowing, treadmill), classes (spinning, yoga), and outdoor running. On Saturday morning, I considered spinning at Flywheel or yoga at Blue Lotus, and decided to go to O2 for an aerobic martial arts-type class.

But first I went up to Raulston Arboretum, getting there a few minutes after 8:00 a.m. The big story this week was irises of various colors, boldly blooming, and still dewy when I got there. I spent an hour strolling and trying to capture their spirit, and then headed to the gym.

The exercise class was called Body Attack, and involved an hour of rhythmic footwork, punching, and kicking, to a throbbing club-type beat. I’m a highly non-violent person in real life, but I must admit, shadow boxing with a group is fun. I succeeded in sweating a lot and getting my heart rate into the mid-150s, and avoided either accidentally kicking or being kicked.
_DSC9536_edited-1

After showering back home, I drove out to Cary for a haircut with Ann S, my hair cutter of many years. I always enjoy talking with Ann about our families and doings. Part of her news this time was sad: their 14-year-old dog had to be put to sleep this week. The diagnosis was liver failure. I mentioned that I’d been thinking of our sweet Stuart’s mortality (as I noted last week), and we both struggled to articulate what is lost when a beloved pet goes.
15 05 02_5011_edited-1

On the way back to Raleigh, I stopped at Swift Creek Bluffs for a walk in the woods. It was muddy from recent rains, and most of the wildflowers were gone, but things were green and lively. The creek was burbling, and a wood thrush sang brilliantly. I ran into Matt J., a fellow photographer who knows a ton about wildflowers, and we talked about plants and cameras. I saw this little guy:

Swift Creek Bluffs, May 2, 2015

Swift Creek Bluffs, May 2, 2015

On the drive back, I made a stop at the Washaroo to get Clara a shower, and listened to NPR reports on the protest violence in Baltimore. I was not aware, since I almost never watch TV news, that the right-wing media had been demonizing the protests. That’s crazy! I think I have a pretty good idea why Baltimore’s poor blacks (like those in Ferguson and many other cities) were angry. I learned a lot from Alice Goffman’s excellent book, On the Run, which vividly lays out what it means to live in a city (in her case, Philadelphia) where the police take the view that you are either a criminal or potential criminal and constantly harass and intimidate you.

It’s a harsh reality. It is unusual to be able to have a normal job, a loving family, and a comfortable place to live, and usual to face violence from both police and gangs, poverty, and betrayal. A legal system organized around criminalizing recreational drugs and draconian punishment for violators is a basic part of the problem, but there are other layers, including police militarization and racism. The people who are the victims of this system mostly suffer in silence, and so middle class America is mostly oblivious to the depth of the problem.

But that may be changing. When people destroy their own neighborhoods, it’s a wake up call – we at least know something is very wrong, and maybe we wonder what it is. I was cheered this week to read a news story that the leading presidential candidates on both sides agree that the system of mass incarceration for minor crimes needs to be turned around. Can our political system fix this humanitarian disaster? Repealing overly harsh sentencing laws and ending the war on drugs would be a good start.
_DSC9545_edited-1

In the afternoon, I read some and practiced the piano. At the moment, I’ve got on the workbench polishing and memorizing Chopin’s Preludes in C and G, Schubert’s G-flat Impromptu, Schumann’s Arabesque, Debussy’s Reverie, and Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 1, while working on my first music by Arnold Schoenberg – his Six Little Piano Pieces. Schoenberg wrote this in 1911 and uses his famous twelve-tone system, which systematically avoids traditional harmony. It’s highly angular music, and not easy to love, but seems much more approachable to me now. I’m finding strangely haunting melodies, and a sensuality not so far from Debussy’s.

On Saturday evening we went to see the Carolina Railhawks play Tampa Bay at the soccer park in Cary. We enjoy our soccer outings, but figuring out a food option has been challenging. There is no healthy vegetarian food on sale, and our system of smuggling in a sandwich went down last season when they began checking in bags at the gate (and we had to consume our Jimmy John’s veggie special standing in the parking lot). Sally had read a review of a new southern Indian vegetarian restaurant on Chatham Street just past the soccer park, and we tried it out before the game. At Sri Meenakshi Bhavan, the chaats were delicious, and there was a great selection of dosas. The décor was purely functional, and there was no alcohol, but the price for this marvelous food ($35 for two) was most definitely right.

At the game, it was a bit chilly, and we were glad we’d brought our sweaters. There were some exciting sequences, but I left displeased with the Railhawks’ sloppiness. We were fortunate to get away with a 1-1 tie. I’m hoping it was just an off night, and not a step down from the high level of play of last season. I was also displeased with the broadcasting of local advertising by a booming PA system during the course of play. There were several such ads in the second period, which were very annoying. Who thought this was a good idea? I intend to complain.

A piano recital, Turing’s secrets, NSA surveillance, and the cure for addiction

_DSC8060_edited-1
It was rainy and raw on Friday evening when Sally and I drove over to Durham, and the traffic kept bunching up. We were a bit anxious about being late to meet our friends at Watts Grocery, and we were late – they’d already ordered drinks and salads. But they forgave us, we caught up, had a good dinner, and made it in good time to a concert at Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium, where we heard a program by the eminent pianist Jeremy Denk.

Denk is a musician’s musician. His program was, as he put it, a mix tape of Schubert dances shuffled together with short Janacek pieces, and also some atypical Haydn, some atypical Mozart, and Schumann’s odd and powerful Carnival. Everything he played seemed thought through to the smallest detail, but at the same time full of feeling.

For encores he played the slow movement of Ives’s Concord Sonata, and one of the slower Goldberg Variations, both of which were exceptionally colorful and beautiful. Though not a particularly good-looking guy, he was also fun to watch, with gestures that accorded with the music and magnified the feelings. Later, I re-read his wonderful autobiographical essay from the New Yorker, Every Good Boy Does Fine, which I highly recommend.
_DSC8033-1_edited-1

We saw The Imitation Game last week, which was a bit staid but also touching. I knew something of Alan Turing, including his brilliant contributions to computing theory (including the Turing machine and the Turing test) and that he helped break the Nazi’s Enigma code. I hadn’t known how he did it, or much about him as a person. From the movie, he appeared distinctly anti-social. This being Hollywood, it seems safe to assume he was probably even harder to like in real life. But he contributed enormously to the world, before being hounded to death at age 41 for the crime of being gay.

Turing’s death was a tragedy, but in earlier chapters he was lucky, in a way. How inspiring and daunting it must have been to think that thousands of lives, and perhaps the future of western civilization, depended on whether you could succeed in an almost impossibly difficult code-breaking task. And by golly, he did it!

Indeed, although I’ve never thought of it this way before, our forebears who found themselves facing Nazism and Fascism were lucky, in a similar way. They had an unambiguous enemy, a massive threat, that could only be defeated by joining together, and with heroism and sacrifice. We seem to need big enemies to unite us as a society. That may be why, when we don’t have big enemies, we magnify smaller ones.

And so, as I discussed here last week, we push forward with the 13-year-old war on terror, which continues to morph. This week a coup in Yemen resulted in headlines suggesting we should panic over a new terror threat. The coup was actually by sworn enemies of Al Qaeda, but the fear seemed to be that increasing disorder was likely to lead to increased space for militant anti-Americanism to expand. That’s possible, I guess. But it’s possible that this is a civil war with entirely different drivers, tribal, religious, or financial. Perhaps it’s not all about us.
_DSC8016-1_edited-1

The thing is, when we panic we do foolish and deplorable things – domestic spying, torture, assassinations, war. This week the New Yorker has a piece by Mattathias Schwartz about the NSA’s collection of internet searches, social media, and metadata on phone calls – hundreds of billions of records, at a cost of tens of billion of dollars ($10.5 billion in 2013). Schwartz examines the question of how many terrorist attacks were stopped by this program, and finds . . . perhaps one. Not exactly saving western civilization.

Actually, the one was not so much a potential attack, and not so much in the US, as a financial contribution of $8,500 by a Somali born U.S. citizen that may have been made to Somalian guerrillas (the Shabaab) who had jihadist ambitions and Al Qaeda connections. The evidence sounds ambiguous, but there were three convictions, and rightly or wrongly, the defendants were sentenced to prison terms of up to 18 years. That’s all we got, in return for billions of dollars and constant surveillance of our everyday lives that undermines our privacy, our public discourse, and our Constitution.
_DSC8025-1_edited-1

As crazy and depressing as this is, it should be noted that there’s hope: our mass panics can be overcome. For example, it seems like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in our costly and tragic war on drugs, at least as to marijuana. With several states in various phases of legalization, it’s increasingly hard to argue that using pot should be punishable as a crime. But it is still being punished as a crime in places, and we’re still spending $51 billion a year on fighting drugs here and around the world.

Jocelyn pointed up a piece this week in the Huffington Post with a new, to me, take on drug addiction. A basic premise of the war on drugs is that some drugs are so fantastic that they’re irresistible, and so they take control of and destroy lives. But the piece, by Johann Hari, suggests an alternative paradigm.

Hari reexamines the famous rat-with-cocaine experiment, where the rat is alone in a cage and keeps taking cocaine until it dies. Later research by Professor Bruce Alexander focused on the environment of the rat – which was caged and alone. When rats were put in more stimulating environments, including toys and rat friends, and offered the same drugs, they mostly shunned them. Alexander found that even rats that were thoroughly addicted to heroin kicked the habit when they had the benefit of other rats to socialize with and stimulating environments.
_DSC7995-1_edited-1

The theory expounded by Hari is that what drives addiction is not primarily chemical hooks, but rather isolation, and that what prevents it are meaningful human connections. This may also explain some non-drug addictive behaviors, like gambling. That is, drugs or gambling may be responses to other problems, like loneliness.

Hari notes that Portugal, which once had a very high rate of drug use, decriminalized all drugs 15 years ago, and invested some of the money saved from drug warring in social programs, such as housing and jobs. The rate of injected drug use has fallen by 50 percent. Fifty percent! I recommend reading Hari’s piece.

My three-hundredth post

Yates Mill Pond, October 11, 2014

Yates Mill Pond, October 11, 2014

Early Wednesday morning I saw the lunar eclipse. On Thursday I reinstituted my meditation practice after a long sabbatical. On Friday evening I attended an inspiring recital by the great pianist Richard Goode, and reconnected with several of my good piano friends. On Saturday, for the first (and possibly last) time, I finished first in my spin class at Flywheel, and happily read the front page headline of the first gay couples in North Carolina to experience legal wedded bliss. These would ordinarily be potential subjects for this week’s post. But this week is special, inasmuch as it’s the 300th edition of the Casual Blog.

Many moons ago, I set myself the goal of writing one post a week on my non-professional activities and thoughts, and that’s pretty much what I’ve done. I’ve been trying to think what to say about this milestone, and it occurred to me to explain why I create the Casual Blog, or what I get out of it. But if I’m honest, which I try to be, I must admit I’m still not completely sure.

I enjoy finishing a post, but starting one always involves a degree of existential dread. Once a week, I ask myself, do I have anything else worth saying/sharing, and I always worry that the answer is no, I’ve run dry. And so it was this week. But I’ve already succeeded in writing three paragraphs!

I generally dislike writing about writing, and now I’ve gone and done it. But onward! There’s some odd part of me that enjoys the exertion of forcing the buzzing blooming flood of experience into the narrow channel of language. Writing about an experience usually shows me something about the experience I hadn’t known before. And there is at times a joy in language that has less to do with the meaning than with pure sound.
14 10 11_3469_edited-1

Then there’s always the struggle for understanding, for meaning. Things happen. Events flow out of other events, sometimes cohering in an orderly way, with pleasing patterns, and other times cracking and scattering. What does it all mean? Blogging will likely not yield an ultimate answer, but it creates a platform, a workbench for reviewing experience that yields new perspectives.

As with Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle, we can’t observe and record our lives without changing them. That is, writing about one’s life changes the life. The imperative to make a post non-boring could lead to inauthenticity, but not necessarily. It could also inspire curiosity and get you out of your shell. The blogging commitment could lead to adventure!

Most important, there’s also the complicated sensation of communicating with another human. For the writer, the reader is ever-present as an as idea and concern, but almost never physically present. Without the reader, the writer would never write, but the connection is always tenuous. Who is the reader? Open or closed? Friend or foe? Can we connect? The writer in the act of writing is never certain.

And whenever we reach out to another human, trying to be honest, showing something about ourselves that’s real, there’s an element of risk. There’s a chance we’ll make total fools of ourselves. This gets the juices going. It’s kind of exciting. Actually, it is exciting!
14 10 11_3463

But it is also difficult. Whatever words are chosen means other words are not chosen. So many possible words, and possible choices, but whatever the choices, however good they are, others just as good will be excluded, sacrified. You know this when you start. But something still causes you to reach out, to explore, to experiment. There are satisfying little discoveries, and sometimes there’s evidence that you got through, made a connection.

So, you ask, what lies ahead for the Casual Blog? I really don’t know. Part of what I like about it is it’s voluntary, unnecessary, and contingent. It doesn’t have to be any particular thing, and could cease at any time. As I said, I’m always aware of the possibility of running dry, and I would stop posting if it stopped being fun. Or if my readers disappeared.

But part of me feels that I’m just getting well started, and I’m still enjoying experimenting and learning. If there were somehow more hours in the day, I could imagine writing a number of more specialized blogs, in addition to my professional writing. It would be fun to tend blogs on scuba diving, playing the piano, travel, global warming, opera, golfing, animal rights, ballet, political corruption, vegetarian restaurants, exercise, neuroscience, nuclear weapons, nature photography, poetry, artificial intelligence, the surveillance state, migratory birds, history, books I’m reading, etc. We shall see.

A monarch in downtown Raleigh, October 8, 2014

A monarch in downtown Raleigh, October 8, 2014