The Casual Blog

Category: public policy

Raleigh’s newest crane, Big Food, and getting ready for Utah

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Last Saturday afternoon, I got to watch the new construction crane go up at the old Greyhound bus station site, just southeast of us. Construction sites are fun to watch! And there’ve been a lot of them in Raleigh lately. We’re still growing.
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On Sunday I visited Raulston Arboretum, where there were fall blossoms and lots of butterflies. I got some shots I liked of an American Lady, of which these were my favorites.
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I recommend reading a new piece by Michael Pollan in the NY Times magazine about our food system and our political system. Pollan has written before about the power and nefarious influence of Big Food. Here’s his quick description:

A food system organized around subsidized monocultures of corn and soy . . . guzzled tremendous amounts of fossil fuel (for everything from the chemical fertilizer and pesticide those fields depended on to the fuel needed to ship food around the world) and in the process emitted tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas — as much as a third of all emissions, by some estimates. At the same time, the types of food that can be made from all that subsidized corn and soy — feedlot meat and processed foods of all kinds — bear a large measure of responsibility for the steep rise in health care costs: A substantial portion of what we spend on health care in this country goes to treat chronic diseases linked to diet.

His new piece is about how Big Food lobbied hard to stop every reform proposed by the Obama administration, and was generally successful. But he concludes on a somewhat hopeful note.

[B]ehind the industry’s wall of political power, there indeed lurks a vulnerability. That vulnerability is the conscience of the American eater, who in the past decade or so has taken a keen interest in the question of where our food comes from, how it is produced and the impact of our everyday food choices on the land, on the hands that feed us, on the animals we eat and, increasingly, on the climate. Though still a minority, the eaters who care about these questions have come to distrust Big Food and reject what it is selling. Looking for options better aligned with their values, they have created, purchase by purchase, a $50 billion alternative food economy, comprising organic food, local food and artisanal food. Call it Little Food. And while it is still tiny in comparison with Big Food, it is nevertheless the fastest-growing sector of the food economy.

Some large food companies are voluntarily changing their practices in response to the concerns of these consumers, whether about antibiotics, animal welfare or the welfare of farmworkers. One future of food politics may lie in grass-roots campaigns targeted not at politicians in Washington but directly at Big Food and its consumers, taking aim at its Achilles’ heel: those precious brands.

Maybe so. Anyhow, kudos to Pollan for speaking truth to power, and educating the rest of us.

Tomorrow, I’ll be heading to southern Utah and Arizona to see some of the most amazing rocks on the planet: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon, all of which I’ve wanted to see for a long time. I’ll be traveling with a small group of photographers, and taking lots of pictures. I’ve been to REI and Outdoor Provisions to get insulating layers for those cold mornings, and have made up my mind what lenses not to lug. I’m ready!
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Our nukes problem

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We live in a time of bad ideas. Not just a few bad ideas, but many, with major consequences, all around us. I used to think that the worst widely accepted and destructive ideas were mostly in the past, or at least had almost passed – the Inquisition, alchemy, witchcraft, fascism, Communism, anti-Communism, etc. I thought we had gradually gotten less likely to be swept up in a tide of confusion, fear, and hysteria. But I no longer think that.

As a passionate amateur of science, I’ve read a lot about the amazing power of the human brain, with its many billions of neurons and incredible complexity. And the human brain is a remarkable thing. But let’s not kid ourselves. All of us, including the very smartest, are full of biases, unfounded assumptions, and prejudices. Our powers of reasoning are frequently misdirected by logical fallacies and overwhelmed by our basic urges. We are prone to making poor decisions.
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But this doesn’t come close to explaining our worst ideas. Here’s a major example: holding the entire world hostage to nuclear weapons. This week the NY Times reported that the U.S. would not declare a policy of no first use, meaning that it claims the prerogative to unleash the almost unimaginable force of our nuclear arsenal without being attacked first.
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I seriously doubt that we (excepting Donald Trump) would do this intentionally. But nuclear mistakes can happen – they have happened before, with nearly disastrous consequences. See Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser. For now, it looks like we’ll continue to maintain our arsenal at the ready to obliterate entire populations, with a nuclear winter to follow that would destroy many or all of the rest of us. Thus we continue to face the risk each day that a computer glitch, mechanical malfunction, or human misjudgment could start a catastrophic chain reaction.

This is a dire situation. You might think that even if people were not so prone as they are to being easily panicked, they would still be terrified. Unlike many of low probability events we greatly and pointlessly fear (shark attacks, random terrorists, men in women’s restrooms ), this risk is truly existential. Yet amazingly we somehow mostly ignore it.
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To some extent it has surfaced recently because of North Korea’s recent nuclear tests and missile tests. It is, of course, frightening to think that the bizarre dictator of that unfortunate country might target us or our friends with nuclear missiles, or use them to threaten and extort. And I hope we can find a way to stop the North Korean program.

But it’s hard to hold the moral high ground against the unlovely Kim Jong-Un, when our government, the only one ever to use nuclear weapons, continues to maintain on hair-trigger alert an arsenal big enough to destroy the planet and claim the right to wreak mass destruction at will. We ourselves pose an enormous threat, to the rest of the world and to ourselves.
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I was surprised that President Obama decided not to embrace no first use , because he clearly understands the nuclear peril and has spoken passionately about reducing it. Perhaps he felt constrained by military leaders and the other stakeholders in the status quo, like the arms manufacturers and their politicians. At any rate, maintaining the nuclear hair-trigger that could so easily destroy the world is not acceptable. We’ve got to de-escalate.

For me, when I am shaken by the nuclear risk or other bad ideas, it is both calming and motivating to do some hiking and focus on the fragile beauty of the natural world. Nature is such a great artist of life. There are so many tiny, beautiful things flying, crawling, growing. May they live in peace. Let us work for life and peace.
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Admiring damselflies, Colombia at peace, recognizing addicts as humans, Syria’s bizarre war, and our Saudi problem

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I’m ready for fall. It’s been a hot August here in Raleigh, and relentlessly humid. As usual, I got outside to see if I could find and photograph something beautiful in one of our parks, and found these damselflies and the dragonfly along the Buckeye Trail and at Lake Crabtree. They were very small and usually moved quickly. It took some exertion to make these images, handholding a heavy 180 mm lens, struggling to get tight focus and good exposure with sweat getting in my eyes, but I thought it was worth it.
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When there is good news, it should be noted, and there was very good news this week from Colombia. The civil war between the government and FARC was tentatively resolved with a peace accord, subject to approval in a vote of the citizenry. This war, which began more than half a century ago, has cost hundreds of thousands lives and displaced millions. Columbia has so much beauty and so much human potential, but for my entire life has seemed a scary place. Now peace, after decades of horrendous carnage, is possible.
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I also spotted some good news on the drug war out of Seattle. On Page A13 (far past where busy people normally stop skimming), the NY Times of Aug. 26 reported that an official Seattle task force established to combat the heroin epidemic has proposed establishing sites where addicts could take heroin and other illegal drugs under the supervision of trained professionals. The idea is to decrease the risk of infections and overdoses. Sites like this already exist in the Canada and the Netherlands.

This is huge! They’re thinking of addicts as human beings whose lives have value, rather than simply as worthless derelicts and criminals. That is, they’re recognizing that people who take illegal opioids are not really different from people who take legal opioids. Both groups include people with varying intensities of physical and mental pain, and also varying cravings for stimulation.

This is a big conceptual step toward the end of the drug war that has destroyed millions of lives. The idea that an arbitrarily defined group of chemicals is inherently evil has been official policy and a quasi-religion going back several generations. It’s a foolish idea, but it’s so deeply lodged in our brains that it’s going to be very hard to correct. Fingers crossed that we move forward.
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Meanwhile, the Times presented a brilliant, though far less cheering, piece by Max Fisher on the complex dynamics of the war in Syria. I started to say “the civil war in Syria,” but as I finally grasped, this is not simply a struggle between two, three, or four internal groups seeking dominance within the country, but a multi-dimensional struggle for regional dominance involving several local groups and Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and, unfortunately, the US.

There are many forces that make this conflict particularly horrendous for civilians and assure it cannot quickly be resolved. An important perpetuator is the involvement of the outside nations, who have effectively endless military resources and do not bear the pain of the constant death. I can partially understand the political and venal interests that drive some of these actors to kill each other and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The big exception is the United States of America. Why are we a primary arms supplier and dealer of death from above in this catastrophe?
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Also worth reading is a piece on Saudi Arabia by Scott Shane, which asks the question, has Saudi Arabia been the primary exporter and supporter of the version of Sunni Islam (Wahhabism) that underpins the worst of the jihadist violence afflicting many countries? It seems that it has. Shane does point out, however, that there are other causes of such violence, including extreme poverty and authoritarian rulers.

But the Saudis have a lot to answer for. And, it should be noted, their primary armorer and military mentor is the United States. So we have a lot to answer for. Without thinking it through, we have indirectly supported Saudi exports of jihadist ideology, which morphed into al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and other bloody-minded groups, which we then fight by dropping US bombs. And, of course, when we kill innocent civilians, we transform some of their relatives into vengeance-minded jihadis. To put it as mildly as possible, this is not a sensible policy.

Wildflowers, bug bites, and why I’m getting behind Hillary

Wrightsville divingBug 1-2It’s been unpleasantly hot and humid this week. On Saturday I got out early to avoid some of the heat and visited the park at the art museum and hiked in Schenk Forest. I enjoyed seeing and photographing the wildflowers and butterflies.
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Taking this kind of pictures involves getting heading into the woods and pushing through the high grass. On Saturday I was still recovering from fifteen or so bug bites on my legs from an outing at Jordan Lake two weeks ago. These were no ordinary mosquito bites. They were much bigger, itchier, and longer lasting. Some of them were probably chiggers, but I have no idea what creatures did the others. I also had a couple of tick bites.

There is a real risk of Lyme disease and other insect-borne illnesses in these parts, and I’ve made up my mind to take more care. No more wearing shorts on these kinds of outings, and more systematic insecticiding. I tried out Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus, which includes SPF 30 sunscreen. I got no new bites, though of course it’s possible the biting bugs were busy elsewhere.
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There’s an interesting recent essay by Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, explaining the rising tide of anti-immigrant paranoia in terms of the psychology of authoritarianism. Authoritarians, defined according to child-rearing preferences like prioritizing obedience, are in Haidt’s view not naturally intolerant, but become more so when they perceive a threat to their values and culture.

For example, Muslims who insist on their own distinctive customs pose an implicit challenge to traditional mainstream customs and values, and the authoritarian personality reacts with alarm and anger. This alarm isn’t so much fear of mass killings as of dilution of the values that bind together families and communities. Liberals don’t understand or sympathize with those feelings, but right wing demagogues understand and exploit them.

It’s an interesting theory, and seems to explain some of the weirdness now in the air. Even if not completely right, it reminds us how complicated and varied humans are, and how little we really understand about the drivers of our behavior as either individuals or groups. More study is needed, as the scholars say.
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Anyhow, many Democrats, including me, can affirm that perceived threats can draw us together. So it was this week that many of us, disturbed and mildly traumatized by the anger and barely repressed violence of the Republican Convention, decided it was time to put aside our differences and pull for Hillary. Whatever else, she is the lessor of the evils, by at least an order of magnitude.

I truly respect and admire Hillary Clinton for her intelligence, strength, and discipline, and her long record of public service. At the same time, I worry that her natural instincts will dispose her to continue the status quo of wide income inequality and destructive militarism. But there’s a possibility she can change. And there is no imaginable scenario in which she is the author of the kind of disasters and self-inflicted wounds surely in store under President Trump. We need to work together for a massive Hillary victory that leaves no question that the great majority of us completely reject him and his ideas.
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Butterflies, and constructing terror narratives

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On Saturday morning I ran 5 miles, up Hillsborough Street and back. It was humid. I went slower than usual, and struggled to finish. That afternoon I went out to Cary for my monthly haircut with Ann, and we talked about our families and cars. Then I drove west to Jordan Lake. I stopped at Horton Pond and took some pictures of a spicebush swallowtail (above). (The other butterflies here were taken this week at Raulston Arboretum.) Afterwards, I put Clara in sport mode and had a lively drive on the winding country roads.
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It’s so interesting how intensely we insist on fitting disasters into familiar narratives. After the horrible Bastille Day truck massacre in Nice this week, leading politicians immediately dubbed the act “terrorist,” despite knowing nothing of the driver’s motivations. Now, three days later, there is still no evidence that the driver had any particular ideology, and there’s some evidence that he was just a sad, mentally disturbed, violent loner. Yet the press, including the NY Times, continues to characterize the mayhem as “terrorism” and to raise the alarm on the need to escalate the war on it.

Narratives are our way of making sense of the world. We create meaning by imposing a cause-and-effect ordering on events. But our compulsive drive for understandable narratives can also cause us to see things that aren’t there. When acts of deranged individuals or small, not-very-powerful groups are attributed to a single powerful force of evil, our fear level rises. Strong emotions make us less capable of careful analysis, more susceptible to demagogues, and more liable to overreact and do harm to others and ourselves.
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This is, in fact, what the real terrorists, like Osama bin Laden, hope: that we’ll react to their crimes by killing innocent people, whose relatives will swear vengeance on us and join the radical cause. Al Qaeda had remarkable success in provoking us this way. Our endless war in the Middle East allowed them to extend their influence and spawned even more bloody-minded imitators.
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In the face of a heinous mass killing, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by grief and fear, and hard not to grab at a handy possible explanation. But more times than not, we can’t really know all the causes of such crimes, and sometimes we can’t pin down any of them. As much as we like stories, we need to accept that some things don’t fit into our familiar narratives. Fear narratives may feel satisfying, but by not exaggerating fear and avoiding overreacting, we are less likely to cause harm, and ultimately safer.
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A flooring experience, kind Canadians, and one good thing about Donald Trump

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This week while the flooring guys installed our new red oak floor, we stayed at the Hyatt Place, an increasingly uncharming unvacation, with nothing excitingly foreign and lacking the sweet comforts of home. With many years of marriage under our belt, Sally and I are good at comfortably sharing space, and we had no worrying collisions or conflicts, but also no room to spread out in the usual way.

We ate lots of local ethnic food (Indian, Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Ethiopian, Italian), which was fun, though I regretted eating so much, which is so easy to do in restaurants. I stuck with my resolution of using the hotel gym early every morning, but missed the machines and equipment at my usual gym. I missed making healthy green smoothies for breakfast. I missed my piano and exploring the intoxicating music of Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy.

But enough kvetching. On Friday evening, we moved back in to our condo, and found that our Latino flooring guys had done good work. We quickly hooked up the lamps and unpacked some essentials, and walked over to Pho Pho Pho for some good Vietnamese food. The dust gradually settled over the next couple of days – really, a lot of dust.
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It was a big week for ISIS mayhem in Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad, which got lots of news coverage, and the epic humanitarian disaster of 65 million refugees and displaced persons continued, with little news coverage. There was one happy NY Times story about Syrian refugees being welcomed by Canadians. Ordinary folk have volunteered by the thousands to help unfortunates get resettled. Those Canadians are especially gifted in the way of kindness and generosity. Too bad they have such cold winters.

We could be moving there anyway if Donald Trump is elected. But happily that’s looking less and less likely, as more of his cons, schemes, and frauds come to light. Also, more and more, it looks as though he isn’t seriously working to win the election, but is primarily running to gratify his vanity and improve his personal bottom line.
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Now that he looks less like a serious threat to the Republic, it’s easier to admit that Trump has done something important and good. He brought attention to an enormous problem, which for many educated, well-off people was almost invisible before. I’m speaking of the distress, fear, and anger of millions of white working class males. It’s now clear that we ignore their welfare at our peril.

The anger and fear aren’t hard to understand. It wasn’t so long ago that these folks could play by the rules and pay a mortgage, go out to eat, go on vacations, and otherwise support their families and have a materially comfortable life. But complex forces, including globalization, automation, and institutionalized corruption have led to job losses, employment insecurity, and wage stagnation. These forces have been well described by Robert Reich (for example, here) and Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their book Winner-Take-All Politics (summarized here).

As the working class lost ground over the last few years, I’ve puzzled over why they increasingly voted Republican, while Republican policies were increasingly skewed toward the wealthy and against them. They didn’t seem to notice that Republican tax breaks were mostly going to the super rich, and changes in labor law enforcement and other areas were to their disadvantage. It seemed that they were attracted and distracted by various social issues, such as abortion, affirmative action, guns, gays, and the “War on Christmas.”

Trump has shown that white working class males weren’t so concerned about the conservative social agenda, and weren’t really buying trickle down economics. He has ditched trickle down and generally steered clear of the social agenda issues (except for guns). This demographic may have noted that the Democrats quit doing much to help labor or otherwise serve their interests, and also noted that Democratic elites viewed them mostly with indifference, if not disdain. Most likely they identified with Republicans’ emphasis on rugged individualism, and therefore viewed Republicans as the lesser of the evils.
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In Trump, this population has found an outlet for their boiling frustration and anger. They like his commitment to change. Unfortunately, they are also well pleased and energized by his fantasizing, conspiracy theorizing, and demonizing. But most important, Trump has acknowledged that they exist, and their problems are real. For the first time in a generation, a politician has put their concerns and values front and center.

Like it or not, angry, frightened, downwardly mobile voters aren’t going to go away. In fact, absent major changes, there are going to be millions more of them, as political, corporate, and technological forces continue to take away jobs and the social safety net continues to fray. Democrats need to reconfigure to acknowledge and address their grievances. Bernie made a good start, but we better keep moving forward. If Democrats don’t offer real solutions, someone else will offer imaginary ones. It is all too possible that a future Trump, smarter, better looking, and even more cynical than the Donald, could mobilize their anger into a true nightmare. Think Germany in the 1930s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure, that’s a tall order, but it’s worth a shot. Here are some first thoughts to get the ball rolling. Call out fearmongering by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and many others. Give away free copies of local crime statistics showing downward crime trends. Teach stress reduction techniques. Promote visits to the local arboretum.
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Finding hope after the Pulse massacre in Orlando

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It is not easy to see a bright side in the horrendous massacre last week at Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando, but it does force us to think. The wounds are still very raw, and the shock and sorrow are still overwhelming. But partly because this tragedy cannot be ignored, it may take us forward.

In the last few years, we have come a long way in coming to terms with the reality of alternative sexuality. More and more, people understand that LGBT people exist, that they have integrity, and that they are entitled to the same rights and same respect as others. There are, obviously, some who disagree, of which a few are hate-filled maniacs. But for most of us, gays are no longer the other. We love them, or not, for who they are.
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We should be grateful to LGBTs for many transformative contributions, but here’s one that’s not often noted: in proudly accepting their differentness, they help us do the same. As we gradually accept their variations, we more easily accept that we ourselves are each a little different. Those of us somewhere outside the mainstream, in our interests, passions, and styles, may especially feel this.
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Back in 1980 or so, my dear friend Tom Sulerzyski, who died in the first onslaught of AIDS, tried to explain to me what Stonewall meant, in terms of gay liberation. It took me some years before I understood what he was saying. At Stonewall, gay people stood up to mainstream power, and changed their state. They would no longer be subservient, mostly invisible victims.

I think the Pulse massacre and its aftermath will come to be seen as another milestone in gay liberation – when the murder of gays was finally, fully settled as being intolerable, beyond any debate. Acceptance of LGBTs and their communities will continue to increase.

This week there were a few voices trying to acknowledge the tragedy while avoiding references to the sexual orientation of the victims, but they were called out as ridiculous in the mainstream press. Even a lot of conservatives – even the Donald! – acknowledged that the tragedy was about gays. Even the Security Counsel of the UN, which includes countries where it is dangerous to be gay, deemed it unacceptable to target gays in condemning the massacre. United States diplomats led the effort on this resolution, for which U.S. citizens can be proud.
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For all the progress in tolerance and respect, there are still obvious dangers. The NY Times reported that LGBTs are still the most likely targets of hate crimes in the U.S. The Times story suggests that increasing tolerance may have the perverse effect of increasing hate crimes, as the hate-filled minority feels embattled and threatened.

There’s no quick fix for such mental problems. But here’s an idea: what if we kept powerful weapons designed expressly to kill many human beings out of the hands of everyone who might become mentally ill (that is, everyone)? And what if we made it a major priority to improve the quality and availability of health care available for mental illness?
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Not surprisingly, there is much confusion about how to interpret this heinous act. It has been seized on as an occasion for fear mongering and for demonizing Muslims by some (including, vociferously, the Donald). Did the Pulse massacre have anything to do with ISIS? The perpetrator apparently thought so. But is he actually a reliable source?

How often do people really understand why they do what they do? Much of what drives us is unconscious, and even the conscious part is highly unreliable, featuring narratives that serve to resolve interior conflicts and to rationalize imperfect perceptions. It seems unlikely that we can ever fully and truly understand human motivation, including our own.

The killer here was a violent, disturbed person, apparently guilty of spousal abuse, possibly a closeted, confused, self-hating gay. He is probably best viewed as pathetically deranged. There is no evidence so far that he was part of any large anti-western movement, or even of a tiny conspiracy of violent radicals. Certainly nothing we’ve learned would justify us in thinking these murders could possibly justify continuing our quixotic war on terror.

Summer flowers, good Indian food, soccer, Chomsky, and a nuclear question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I doubt it, but there’s something that holds him back. Anyhow, he has made a judgment that he needs to change minds to prepare the way for a changed reality, and perhaps his speech will help with that.
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