The Casual Blog

Category: restaurants

Flying, flowers, a fund raiser, Pavlensky, and secret condos for the superrich

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I got a flying start on Friday at the 6:00 a.m. Flywheel spin class . Last week I had a discouraging outing (scoring 162) and wondered if I’d started the inevitable downward slide. But this week I made a comeback, getting off to a good start and staying strong for 45 minutes. After trailing just behind the pacemakers, I pulled slightly ahead with about 6 minutes to go. But the fellow just behind would not concede. I pushed hard, but he pushed a little harder. Final score, Tiller 320. Rival 321. It would have been good to get two more points, but I was happy with my performance.
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On Friday afternoon we drove over to Chapel Hill for a fundraiser for Roy Cooper, the democratic candidate for governor here in NC, fighting the good fight to unseat incumbant Pat McCrory. Roy is our attorney general, and I also know him personally a little, from sometimes having the same early morning schedule at the gym. (He’s a good stretcher.)

He seemed cheerful on Friday. I told him I was glad to see he was standing strong against HB2 (the anti-transgender bathroom bill), and referred hm to my op-ed piece on the First Amendment violations by its supporters. He said he expected a tough campaign, andd I told him I expected him to sweep in while McCrory got swept out in a massive Trumpigeddon.

We had a nice chat with one of Roy’s daughters, and caught up with some old friends. Afterwards, we had dinner on Franklin Street at Lantern, a fine restaurant. They only had one vegetarian entrée, but it was a good one: wok-seared rice noodles.
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I took most of these photos at Raulston Arboretum on Saturday morning (the others are from last week). I’d been looking forward to watching the insects there and trying to capture some images with my Tamron 180 mm lens, a hefty tool that I use with a monopod. I had some successes, but a lot of misses, with some bizarre over- and underexposures. I took the lens back to Peace Camera in the afternoon. They agreed there was a problem and said they’d send it back to the factory for repair.
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This week I learned for the first time of the shocking and awesome work of Pytor Pavlensky, a Russian dissident performance artist. In his most recent work, he set fire to the front door of Russia’s principal intelligence agency, then waited to be arrested, which he was. Per the NY Times, “He has described his art as consisting of two parts: his actions and the reactions of the government, which he says tend to be mutually reinforcing.” His Wikipedia entry describes several even more shocking gestures of protest, such as sewing his mouth shut and nailing his scrotum to a crack in Red Square.

With this strange art, the point is completely clear. Pavlensky’s combination of extraordinary courage and imaginative vision is singular. The thuggish government of Vladimir Putin is a great target, of course, though there are aspects of our own government that could benefit from the abrasion of Pavlensky’s spirit.
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Every Sunday, one of my guilty pleasures is examining the full-page condo ads in the New York Times Magazine. These super-high-rise apartments have stunning city views, exquisite modernist decor, and multi-multi-million dollar price tags. They are sprouting like mushrooms in Manhattan. Who lives in such digs? Well, the Times sent a reporter to find out, and he found out remarkably little. Some of the most expensive real estate on earth is owned by Anonymous – that is, mysterious shell corporations.

What is there to hide? Could these super-luxury apartments amount to wealth storage containers for loot from first, second, and third world countries’ assorted dictators, authoritarian party leaders, and kleptocrats, along with their families and cronies? They could. Could they be the trophies of the lucky one percent of the one percent, mostly born with money and augmenting that through procurement of favorable tax laws? They could. It’s natural to be envious of such luxury. But just think of this gift: our lives are not burdened with fear that others may learn that our wealth is unfairly grifted and throw us in prison for corruption — or worse.
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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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My Saturday: dog care, the arboretum, spinning, piano, golf, and Chinese food

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Visiting New York friends, and some new (to me) art and opera

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I got up to New York City last week for the IP Counsel conference where I did a presentation on open source software legal issues. After the conference, I spent a long weekend in the city. It was great to see my sweet Jocelyn and some old friends, and to take in some new art and opera.

Jocelyn got a promotion at Macmillan this week, and was very excited. That’s three promotions in a year! She’s now a manager, titled Ebook Production Manager. She likes the company, likes the work, and is looking forward to the new role. We talked about the being a manager, among other things, as we tried some fun bars and restaurants.

Although opera is not Jocelyn’s most favorite thing, she agreed to come with me to the Met to see L’elisir d’amore (The Elixor of Love) on Saturday, and we both loved it. It’s a delightful confection of melody and feeling. The subject — romantic love — is forever young, and in Donizetti’s deft hands funny, painful, and touching. In this production, the bel canto style was alive and well, with astonishing vocal agility and sweet subtlety. Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak was a saucy and savvy Adina, very musical, and tenor Vittorio Grilolo was ardent, goofy, and then transcendent. As the doctor, Adam Plachetka was sublimely funny. Kudos to maestro Enrique Mazzola, who had great rhythmic flexibility and propulsive drive, and of course, to the fabulous Met orchestra.
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Another night Jocelyn and I had a lovely dinner with my old friend Ben Brantley at Niu Noodle House in the Village. Ben and I met in junior high school and started out in NYC together, and with a happy combination of brilliance and hard work became head theater critic of the New York Times. It was good to catch up and hear his views on current shows, being a vegetarian, and other matters.

As to art, I saw several things worth mentioning. I recommend the exhibit at the Whitney by Laura Poitras, the filmmaker who made Citizen Four and other interesting works questioning the War on Terror. This exhibit is political in the sense that it puts in issue the programs of invasion, imprisonment, interrogation, assassination, and mass surveillance that grew out of the great panic following 9/11. It consists mostly of video clips, many of which must be viewed through slits in the wall that remind us of slits through prison doors. It invites us to engage with some disturbing issues, including the possibility of our being monitored at all times.

I also found enriching, if not exactly enjoyable, the exhibit at the Neue Gallery of the works of Edward Munch and German Expressionists. Munch appears to have been a tortured soul, and his works powerfully express alienation, melancholy, and angst. These are feelings that we generally try to avoid or suppress, and seldom discuss with anything but disapproval. But there’s truth in these works that we could benefit from facing. There were strong paintings of several other Expressionists who built on Munch’s bold early works, including Beckmann, Kirschner, Nolde, Kokoschka and Schiele, who were themselves iconoclasts, with energetic new psychological insights into some of our darker recesses.
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At the Edwynn Houk Gallery I saw a photography exhibit by Nick Brandt. On display were ten enormous (6-8 feet wide) black-and-white images of Africa, each with a billboard size photo of an African animal, such as a lion, elephant, or rhinoceros. The billboards were positioned where the animals used to roam, but have been replaced by human activity– factories, roads, and waste dumps. There are people in the images trying to make a living, including by picking through the waste dumps. I found the pictures very powerful, and tragic.

At the Brooklyn Museum, Jocelyn, Pam Tinnen, and I saw This Place, an exhibit of photographs about Israel and the West Bank. It included work of twelve photographers, some of whom did very large images of the people, cities, and stark landscapes. There was little direct reference to anger and armed struggle, but instead humanitarian efforts to comprehend the multiple facets of this complex situation. We also looked at the Assyrian and Egyptian art.
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Finally, I checked out the new Met Breuer, which is what the Met has done with the former Whitney museum. The main current exhibit is about unfinished works of famous artists starting in the Renaissance and coming up to now. It was interesting from a process perspective (seeing how paintings of various periods were assembled). I was surprised to learn that there were few answers on why artists chose not to finish particular works, or even how they determined what was a point of completion. But I enjoyed a lot of the art, particularly works of Rembrandt, Cezanne, and Turner.

Justice Scalia’s passing, Beethoven quartets, and Reich on the problem of extreme inequality

Raleigh at sunrise

Raleigh at sunrise

Yesterday we were getting ready to head for Durham for dinner and a concert when I learned that Justice Scalia had died. The news was unexpected, and disorienting. I spent an intense year working a few steps away from him as one of his clerks, and felt close to him in a way. He was a good boss and mentor. Despite our very different political orientations, I admired his intelligence, energy, and humor. He demonstrated (including by hiring non-conservative clerks) that engaging with people who disagreed with one’s views was not a thing to avoid, but rather to embrace — stimulating and potentially creative. I disagreed with him vigorously on many things, but I liked him, and will miss him. This will take some time to process.

We met our friends John and Laurie for dinner at Dos Perros, a stylish Mexican restaurant, where we had good food and conversation. Then we went over to Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium to hear the Danish String Quartet, three young Danish guys, and one Norwegian one. They played an all Beethoven program, including two famous late quartets (Op. 131 and 135). This is challenging, craggy music, which the Scandinavians played with fearless commitment, embracing all the extremes of angularity and the subtlety. I thought the sound of violist Asbjorn Norgaard was particularly beautiful.

Zürich at sunset

Zurich at sunset

There’s been a lot in the press recently about the extreme inequality in the U.S., and frequent references to such facts as the top .1 percent own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. This seems disturbing on its face, but I got a much better grasp of its implications from reading Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, by Robert Reich. Reich is a former Secretary of Labor (Clinton administration) and a professor of public policy at Berkeley. In Saving Capitalism, he argues that the increasing concentration of economic and political power in the hands of very wealthy individuals and corporations threatens the fabric of our society. Dramatic inequalities of wealth and opportunity strike the majority as deeply unfair, undermining the trust that’s essential for social order. Without redress, the system could fail.

Reich contends that the arguments over whether the free market is preferable to the government are based on a false premise, inasmuch as the market is created by human beings and is subject to modification, for better or worse, by those same beings. At various times in American history, the rules have been dramatically changed (the Jacksonian era, the Progressives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the New Deal), and they can be changed again. Only relatively recently have corporations been viewed as limited to serving shareholders, without regard to other stakeholders (employees, consumers, the public at large). The system can be fixed.

Reich is primarily focused on identifying the problems, rather than proposing solutions, but he does offer some preliminary thoughts on fixes. He notes that we need to get big money out of politics. Campaign finance reform is surely an important step. A more equitable tax system is another. We need to fix the rule system that applies to intellectual property, along with other legal reforms. Reich also favors a basic minimum income that guarantees everyone a minimally decent standard of living. He recognizes that automation and artificial intelligence are going to cost many more jobs, and we have to help those who get hurt. This is a timely book, well worth reading.

Our Austrian adventure, including some good ski tips

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Last week we had a skiing adventure in the Arlberg region of Austria. This was our first ski experience in the European Alps, after quite a few trips to the U.S. and Canadian West. We were curious to experience the birthplace of alpine skiing and taste a different culture. It exceeded our expectations. If you love skiing, you should go.

We arrived in Lech on Sunday afternoon to find it had snowed a lot the previous day, but the snow had just changed to rain. As we got our bearings and rented equipment, hiking the roads with slush on top of ice, we managed not to fall, but our feet got wetter and wetter. We made a note to bring some water proof boots for the next trip. But some good news: with the weak Euro, the prices for lift tickets, equipment rentals, and hotels was substantially cheaper than out West.
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The next morning it cleared up, and we took our first runs at Lech (“leck,” more or less). It was beautiful. There are spots in the Rockies that rival it for magnificence, but here the craggy peaks were everywhere, towering above us and extending on and on. The slopes weren’t cut out of the mountain forest, as in the Rockies, but rather marked with posts on the mountain as nature made it. Snow coverage was good, though the snow was a bit heavy. We quickly adjusted and had many good runs on several different slopes.
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Early on we figured out that the official ski map gives only the most general idea of the lifts and slopes. The total Arlberg ski area is huge, with 97 lifts, and we discovered that the large maps near certain lifts were essential for navigation. There seemed to be an assumption that everyone could read a map and exercise good sense; we saw no greeters or patrollers looking to help the confused. But the slopes and lifts had a kind of logic, and almost without fail we ended up where we were aiming.
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The lifts were mostly modern, high-speed, highly automated, high-capacity marvels. They had little gates, like at horse races, that let skiers onto conveyor belts, which generally deposited the skiers in the ideal spot to get gently swept onto the seat. Many of the lifts had a plastic bubble that could be lowered to protect against wind and snow, and some of the seats were heated. There were some exceptions, ranging from old school T-bars to enclosed gondolas. But over all the system was amazing. And unlike in our experience in the U.S., the lifts almost never stopped. Most of our time there, we had no lift lines, and many times had 4 or 6 chair lifts to ourselves.
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My rented skis were Atomic Vantage 90s, with wide rocker tips, some center camber, and 90 cms under foot. I found them not too stiff and not too loose — a Goldilocks all mountain ski. They performed well in both hard and soft snow, though I did not really figure out how to work them in very deep powder. I brought my own Dalbello boots, which performed well, though I got a blister on my left shin (driving those shins forward!) and a very bruised left ankle bone.

We stayed in Hotel Knappaboda, a 22-room family-run hotel that felt cozy and friendly, like the ideal bed-and-breakfast. The manager/owner, Gertrude Walch, also served as our concierge, recommending a new restaurant each night, securing reservations, and giving directions. It was not quite, as advertised, ski-in ski-out — the lift was about an 8-minute walk — but no matter. Our room had all the modern conveniences, including free and fast wi-fi, and was pretty and comfortable. It was also quiet. Especially after it started snowing again, at night we heard nothing from the street, nothing from neighbors, and practically nothing from the building itself. So peaceful!

Ready for breakfast at the Knappaboda

Ready for breakfast at the Knappaboda

We hired a teacher-guide for Wednesday, when it started to snow again (and continued to snow until mid-Friday). Our ski guru was Walter Goggelmann. He turned out to be quite an accomplished person: a 20-year professional instructor who also worked in the off-season as a critic for a Berlin magazine, who spoke German, English, French, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, some Italian, and some Turkish. He also was an experienced scuba diver with good knowledge of Indonesia.

Walter watched us ski briefly, and identified three things we needed to work on. 1. Press into the snow with the downhill big toe. 2. Turn the uphill knee out. 3. Turn the head 45 degrees toward the next turn. The toe trick works to get your weight forward and the front edge better engaged. You should try it! We also learned that on the flats, you go faster if you press down with all ten toes. After a few hundred more turns, our skiing was both stronger and more relaxed.
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Walter took us on der Weisse Ring, a signature tour route which started at Lech and ended a couple of hours later with a very long run at Zurs. Walter stopped at one point at did a bit of yodeling where there was a long echo. At the end of the day, Walter suggested we check with him the next day, since he suspected his afternoon client might cancel, and he’d enjoy skiing with us at no charge. It was a nice compliment — hey, we must be pretty good! — though in the end he couldn’t make it.

We also skied two days at St. Anton. It was gorgeous there on Tuesday, and though the snow was hard (not quite ice) in the morning, we liked the steep long runs. When we returned on Friday, it was snowing hard, and visibility was very limited — we really couldn’t see the snow underneath us, and could barely see the next piste markers. With no beautiful views to distract us, we concentrated on polishing our technique. At midday we went over to the Steuben area for lunch. The lifts there were old-school, slow fellows, but the visibility got better, and the snow was good.
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I felt a certain reverence for Arlberg, like a golfer might for St. Andrews. The people looked a lot like us, but there was a different culture, which we enjoyed observing. There was a certain formality, and less extrovertedness — not much apparent interest in engaging strangers. There was a certain pushiness in the few lift lines we had. At the same time, people laughed a lot, and quickly responded when a skier fell or had problems. People seemed to particularly love little kids.

The restaurants we tried all had carved wooden ceilings, interesting fabrics, figurines, and a dramatic crucifix in one corner. We’d worried a bit about finding vegetarian food, but this generally worked out fine, though with more pasta and other carbs than I’d want to eat all the time. Our favorites were the Kroner and the Omesberg.

People speak German. I note this, because, before we went, several people said to me, well, everyone speaks English. Not exactly. Of those in the hospitality business, most speak some English, but there’s a wide range of skill levels. We could have gotten along with English only, but I was glad to have a little very basic German. We enjoyed being surrounded by the language, which made it very clear we were somewhere different.

One thing that was the same: pop music. At the apres skis bars, we heard almost all U.S. rock from various eras, and in the restaurants there was classic jazz. Since we seldom listen to this music at home, this was a change for us. We also noted that fewer Austrians are overweight. Unfortunately, more people smoke.
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I had only one real fall all week. On Thursday near Warth, after perhaps two feet of new snow had fallen, and with visibility still quite limited, I felt moved to test the deep powder. A few turns later I went down, and my face ended up under the snow. Nothing was hurt, but getting out was a problem. At first I tried hiking, but this was not possible, since the snow was almost up to my waist. Eventually I used a ski to pound the snow into a little platform that would hold the skis while I got remounted.

Anyhow, we got a taste of the culture, and a taste of the skiing — enough to want to come back. Early Saturday morning, we sadly bid Gertrude auf wiedersehn (she waved as our taxi pulled off), and took the bus to the Zürich airport. From there we took the train to the main station in Zürich and explored the winding cobblestone streets of the old part of the city.
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Zürich was quite charming. The high point for us was the Kunsthaus art museum, which has an excellent Impressionist and Post Impressionist collection, as well as some interesting old masters and current exhibits. We walked along Bahnhofstrasse and went into the Teuscher chocolate store, and after some looking, purchased their smallest box of truffles (two for each). We sat by the river and had cappacinos, and watched the gulls, ducks, and swans. Then we had a look at the famous Marc Chagall stained glass in Fraumunster church. After more strolling, we ate at a nice Mediterranean restaurant called Mere Catharine.

More leaves, Beethoven ballet, and fear of refugees

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Last week Jocelyn took over her cell phone account, thereby cutting the last part of the financial cord from home. Oh happy day! The timing was good, in that she’d recently gotten a promotion and a substantial salary increase. She asked me for my Verizon password to do the changeover, and I told her I didn’t believe I had one. But she found out that I did, and hacked into it after correctly answering my security question. I was both proud and a little unsettled.

On Saturday morning I went up to Durant Park and took the trail around the lower lake. It was chilly, still, and very clear. I was looking for leaf colors and patterns, and particularly for some reds and oranges , of which there were only a few. I got close to another great blue heron, but unlike the one last week, this one flew off as soon as I came into sight.

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Saturday evening we had dinner with friends at Sono and then went to see the Carolina Ballet’s Beethoven Ninth program. The dancer we’ve been sponsoring, Alyssa Pilger, was recently promoted from the corps to soloist, and she had good solos in the Beethoven. There’s an ethereal quality to Alyssa’s dancing – light and evanescent – but at the same time commanding and incisive. The Beethoven was powerful, and she delivered, brilliantly.
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The famous choral Ode to Joy at the end of the Beethoven is always inspiring, and the message of the universal brotherhood seemed particularly timely this week, when a lot of U.S. politicians responded to the Syrian refugee crisis by seeking to keep them out. This is disgraceful. I thought the New York Times editorial on Saturday put the problem well:

After the attacks in Paris, the world is again challenged by fear. With every bombing, beheading and mass shooting, the dread spreads, along with the urgency of defeating this nihilism.
But no less a challenge for the civilized world is the danger of self-inflicted injury. In the reaction and overreaction to terrorism comes the risk that society will lose its way.
History is replete with examples of the power of fear and ignorance, to which even the great can fall prey. Franklin Roosevelt calmed a nation in bleakest days of the Depression, but he also signed the executive order imprisoning tens of thousands of American citizens for the crime of Japanese ancestry.
In our time, disastrous things have been done in the name of safety: the invasion of Iraq, spawned by delusion and lies; the creation of an offshore fortress, sequestered from the Constitution, to lock up those perceived as threats, no matter the cost and injustice; an ever-expanding surveillance apparatus, to spy on the people, no matter the futility.
Al Qaeda and the Islamic State did not compel us to shackle ourselves to a security state, or to disgrace our values by vilifying and fearing. refugees and immigrants.

Along this same line, Nicolas Kristof had a good column in today’s Times. Kristof calculates that the risk of a refugee turning out to be a terrorist attacker is about 100 times smaller than that the a given resident of Florida will turn out to be a murderer in a ten-year period. He notes, “When we’re fearful we make bad decisions. That was true around World War II, when we denied refuge to European Jews and interned Japanese-Americans. That was true after 9/11, when we invaded Iraq and engaged in torture.”
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Purity, the Montrose Trio, Gore, and Gates

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It’s been a foggy, drizzly week in Raleigh, which tends to lower high spirits, but is good for introspection. I finished Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity. The book offers several interesting characters, including social activists who think about the big issues like out-of-control surveillance and global warming. Mostly, though, the book is about close family and romantic relationships, and shame and guilt. There’s enough that’s closely observed and honest here to be affecting, and I found myself hypnotically absorbed in some sections. As I neared the end, though, it, or I, lost steam, and I was glad to be done with it.

Saturday night we went over to Durham for dinner at Watt’s Grocery with friends and a concert. It turns out Watt’s is more vegetarian friendly than shown on the menu, willing to create a custom plate of the non-meat offerings, and mine was good. At Duke’s Baldwin auditorium, we heard the Montrose Trio, a new group made up of two former members of the Tokyo Quartet and pianist Jon Kimura Parker. They performed works of Turina, Beethoven and Brahms. Turina was new to me — Spanish, 1882-1949 – and reminded me pleasantly of Ravel, while the other pieces were old friends. Montrose was truly excellent – musicianship of the highest order, applied to great music.

The November issue of the Atlantic has an interesting piece on Al Gore and his involvement with Generation Investment Management, a global equity fund. The company has significantly out-performed the market since 2005 by investing in companies that are not only well-managed compared to their competition but conscious and responsible in their social and environmental actions. This approach runs counter to the conventional wisdom that successful capitalists must place profits ahead of values. The theory of Generation is that long-term profits require long-term thinking, including thinking about sustainability.

The same Atlantic has an interview with Bill Gates on his new endeavor to address climate change. He’s of the view that we’ve got to make major technological breakthroughs relating to energy to prevent or mitigate disastrous environmental changes, which will require research to go into overdrive, and he’s committing $2 billion of his money to the effort. He’s obviously studied up on the subject, and he hasn’t lost all hope or become hysterical. As he points out, either we focus our resources on finding a solution, or we run the experiment of what happens when the planet’s temperature rises by two degrees – and then three degrees and then four.

In New York — FOSS, museums, Broadway, and the marathon

A window table at Stella 34, with the Empire State Building in the background

A window table at Stella 34, with the Empire State Building in the background

New York City is still the greatest! It’s so energizing. I went up Thursday night to attend the Software Freedom Law Center’s fall conference on Friday, and for the weekend we did some fun city things – museums, Broadway, sports, and food.

The conference at Columbia Law School was in part a celebration of how far free and open source software has come, but also discussed less pleasant things, like copyright trolls and security. I enjoyed seeing a number of business friends from leading tech companies and catching up.

Jocelyn picked out some fun places to eat, including Stella 34, which is on the fifth floor of Macy’s. The Italian food was good, and we had an epic view of the Empire State Building.
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On Saturday morning Sally and I went to the Metropolitan Museum and saw two special exhibits – Kongo: Power and Majesty (art of central Africa), and Ancient Egypt Transformed: the Middle Kingdom. After our recent Africa trip, I’ve been listening to African music, and was eager to learn more about its art.

Slavery and horrendous colonial exploitation is what I think of first when I think of central and western Africa, but the exhibit demonstrates that there was an elaborate and well-developed culture and artistic tradition before Europeans arrived. There was extraordinary craftsmanship in their carvings and weaving, and something powerful in their religious objects. If you can’t get to the Met, you can see all the objects here.
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As for Egypt, the Middle Kingdom ran from 2030-1650 BC and from the 11th through the 13th dynasties. This exhibit also changed the way I thought of this society. It’s strange, of course, to think that pharaohs were viewed as gods, but all religions have their quirks. I’d thought of the sculpture as normally cold and formulaic, if well crafted, but was struck by how tenderly human and individual some of it was. Here again, you can check it all online.
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I’ve generally avoided museum audio guides, on the theory that it’s good to struggle with finding the message of objects than to be spoon fed. But it was well worth using the Met’s audio guide for these exhibits. The commentary was usually intelligent, and it was helpful to hear the pronunciation of the unfamiliar African and Egyptian words.
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Afterwards, I went down to the Museum of Modern Art to see a special exhibit of the sculpture of Picasso. Apparently Picasso did not think of himself as a sculptor, but used sculptural tools for exploring new ideas. These were often witty and lively works, in a variety of styles and media. Picasso is really inspiring in his never-ending curiosity and energy.
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That evening we went to see Hamilton, a big hit on Broadway about the life of Alexander Hamilton told in the hip hop vernacular. Jocelyn had seen it twice off-Broadway, and was hugely excited about seeing it again. Her enthusiasm had motivated me to do a bit of homework beforehand, including reading the Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton, listening to the cast recording, and listening to some of the big hip hop hits of the last three decades.

I really liked the show. Hamilton’s life story is richly dramatic, and his achievements were extraordinary. That’s a good start, but to bring them into the present with an urban vernacular is such a great idea! At the same time, to take on some complicated history, with a spirit that is both playful and serious, is remarkable! The creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda is surely brilliant, and seems to understand that history is not something that is fixed, but rather always subject to reexamination and new understandings. Anyhow, it’s both a fun show, and richly thoughtful. How often does that happen?
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On Sunday morning we walked up to Central Park South to see the New York City Marathon. It is, of course, remarkable that people can run 26.2 miles at any speed, much less the pace that the elite athletes do. We were privileged to see the top finishers approaching Columbus Circle, close to the end. They looked focused, but not miserable. I read the next day that the men’s winner, Stanley Biwott of Kenya, ran mile 21 in 4:24, and only a few seconds slower for the next two miles. That is beyond amazing!

Winner Mary Keitany of Kenya, with about a third of a mile to go

Winner Mary Keitany of Kenya, with about a third of a mile to go

In Boston, seeing Dutch masters, Four Big Ideas, and some problems in Afghanistan

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I was in Boston this week for the annual meeting of the Association of Corporate Counsel, where I was a presenter in a session on open source software licensing, and a student at various other continuing legal education sessions. Boston was having its first cold snap of the season, and I had neglected to bring a coat. Brrr!

I managed a quick visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, which I’d only visited once before a long time ago. It’s a really good museum! I was keen to see an exhibit called Class Distinctions, Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. I mainly wanted to see the two Vermeer works, A Lady Writing and the Astronomer. The Lady, who sits at her desk in a yellow fur-trimmed jacket, was ravishing. There were several excellent Rembrandts.

The exhibit was organized in sections according to the social classes depicted, starting with the nobility, through the merchants, and on down to the poorest. When they were made, the paintings served some of the same purposes as paintings today (e.g. status symbols for the high born), and sent elaborate social signals through the clothing, settings, and objects. My art history education was more oriented toward the formal properties of the works (color, line, texture, composition). This was instead approaching art more as anthropology, which seemed worthwhile.

One evening I met up with a couple of old friends from student days for a dinner at Puritan & Company on Cambridge Street. Through the years of career building and child raising, we’d almost lost touch. It was really gratifying to find that we could quickly reconnect. There was, naturally, news: jobs, travels, civic activities, kids, kids’ girl and boyfriends, parents, funny stories. The food (a southern, organic vibe) was good, too.

On the flight back, I was happy to see that I’d finally made it up the airline classification food chain at Delta to Zone 1 for boarding – that is, the first group (after families with children, business, first class, elite, diamond, service members, and others specially designated or needing special consideration). Well, it’s still good. I really like not having to worry whether there’s a place in the overhead bin for my carry on bag.

With some time for travel reading, I finished The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, and I recommend it. The four ideas are the thought systems of Adam Smith (classical capitalism), Karl Marx (communism), Charles Darwin (evolution), and Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton (American democracy). Montgomery and Chirot do a good job giving lively short bios and summarizing the thought systems. They also give helpful context, including predecessors and successors. The second half of the book discusses the counter-enlightenment, including fascism, Christian fundamentalism, and Islamic fundamentalism. There’s a lot here to chew on.

Speaking of chewing, a few days ago, the President announced that instead of wrapping up the long war in Afghanistan, as previously promised, he’s sending more troops there. I was really sorry to hear this, as I’d say our Afghan adventure has been mainly a disaster, but my view seems to be in the minority. For anyone who cares to think more about this, I recommend a piece by Jeff Vaux in the Huffington Post, which is a bit of a rant, but not uncalled for.

Here are some excerpts: “After 14 years of fighting -at a cost of over 2200 American lives, 20,000 seriously wounded, countless mentally damaged and a trillion dollars – it is obvious that we cannot accomplish our stated objectives. The Taliban cannot be destroyed and the Afghan people will not support a US-imposed government. …

“Today the Taliban controls or is contesting more territory than at any time since the war began. Outside Kabul and a few other areas where mountains of our money buy molehills of temporary allegiance, the government’s army and police are hated for their oppression and human right abuses. Its courts are crooked and criminally unresponsive, while Taliban justice — although harsh — is swift, works without bribes and legal fees, and is honestly administered. Warlords, paid for and armed by the CIA and the Pentagon, indulge in brutal behavior toward their people, including a delight in raping children, which the US army orders its soldiers to ignore.”

Is this being unfair? Are we forgetting some benefits that could possibly justify all this wreckage and pain? Are we Americans (or anyone else) somehow safer, or have we just provided more inspiration and anger to those inclined to hate us?