The Casual Blog

Category: technology

Happy gays, lowering that flag, flamenco, new reading technology, understanding consciousness

Our Jocelyn, at home

Our Jocelyn, at home

Friday was big! Jocelyn came home to Raleigh to attend an old friend’s wedding, and the Supreme Court made it legal throughout the US for gay people to get married. Jocelyn reported that the gay people she knew in New York were weeping with joy, and she was, too. I got a bit misty myself. I don’t suppose we’ll all at once get rid of anti-gay discrimination, any more than we’ll suddenly finish off racism, but this is a long step forward. It gives me hope that we can address some of other big problems that today seem caught in political gridlock, like global warming.

Speaking of racism, another fantastic development this week was the beginning of the removal of the Confederate battle flag from certain government buildings and the shelves of giant retailers. This potent symbol of unrepentant old-fashioned racism has made me queasy for years. How can it have been socially acceptable to lay out in public on a beach towel with that flag? Anyhow, last week it became dramatically less so. Sure, people are entitled to express their racist views, but they also deserve to be shamed for it.

I listened to an interesting Australian Broadcasting Service podcast called Science Vs last week on the question: does race exist? We may have assumed the answer was obvious, but it’s not. In fact, from a biological point of view, many scientists view the concept of race as meaningless. There are no consistent reliable genetic or other markers of racial boundaries. Race is a cultural construction that has been used primarily for purposes of oppression, such as slavery. Still, the idea is so familiar it seems natural, and it’s hard to let go.

At Fletcher Park, Saturday morning

At Fletcher Park, Saturday morning

There are, of course, different cultures, which is a good thing. Gabe and I got a taste of part of flamenco culture on Saturday night at an American Dance Festival performance by Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca. They performed a flamenco version of Antigone. I enjoyed Barrio’s dancing, which had strength and intensity, but found the movement vocabulary pretty limited. I enjoyed the singing and guitar playing in parts, but the melodic and harmonic vocabularies also were restricted, and the whole thing was over amplified.

In other culture/technology news, I recently discovered a new way to read: combining an ebook with an audio book. When I purchased the ebook Incognito, by Thomas Eagleton, Amazon proposed to upsell me on an Audible audio book for a few dollars more. I took the bait, and it was worth it. The great thing is that you can read a bit, then switch over to listening to it on another device, and switch back – and in either medium it picks up where you left off on the other. I really enjoyed listening to the book while working out at the gym, and reading some before bed in the evening.

Eagleton mostly synthesizes much of current psychological and neurobiological thinking and research, including work by Kahneman, Gazzaniga, and others, but he also has an interesting model of consciousness. He emphasizes that most of what we do and are is unconscious. The unconscious, as he views it, has a multitude of subparts, which generally work quite well without our ever knowing anything about them. Some subparts overlap and may disagree with others, which he refers to as a team of rivals. Eagleton suggests that consciousness is like the CEO of a large corporation, who has executive authority to intervene when there are major conflicts or new problems, but plays a limited role in ordinary activities. We’re mainly driven by unseen emotional forces, but the CEO is skilled at persuading us that she is calling the shots.

One pleasing aspect of Eagleton’s theory is that it accounts for the fact that even the most intelligent people make amazing mistakes and hold tight to beliefs that seem downright goofy. But if it’s true that we’re all fundamentally prone to errors of thinking, that must mean that the same it true of you and me. Knowing that could make you more humble and hesitant from striving to avoid the worst errors. That could be good. But all that careful thinking and hesitant uncertainty could lower your standing and influence in your tribe, which could be bad.

Finally, on a more cheerful note, let me point up one new progressive thing about my home state of North Carolina (among all the new regressive things): on-line driver’s license renewals. I was due for my five-year renewal, and dreading the slow, dull experience of the DMV, when I saw the announcement that NC was starting a new program of on-line renewals. That same day, I found the site, and completed the application in about 3 minutes. No fuss, no muss. I’m good for five more years!

Our Memorial Day weekend in New York — great ballet, art, and ethnic food

The New York Palace (that's our place on the 32nd floor) and St. Patrick's Cathedral

The New York Palace (that’s our place on the 32nd floor) and St. Patrick’s Cathedral

For Memorial Day weekend, we went up to New York City to see our sweet Jocelyn and get an infusion of arts and food. I’d bought tickets to both the NYC Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre, and wanted to see the new Whitney Museum. We designated Jocelyn as the food concierge, and she booked us into some fun ethnic restaurants. After going back and forth, I decided not to lug along my big DSLR kit, and instead took my compact Canon G16, with the results shown here.

Sunset right after we checked in at the New York Palace

Sunset right after we checked in at the New York Palace

The flight up went smoothly (storage room remaining in the overhead bin, on time departure, seatmate not apparently infectious). I read a piece in the last New Yorker on Marc Andreessen, the famous Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist. It was a good primer on what VC is and does, and seemed like a fair portrait of Andreesen and his firm (Andreesen Horowitz). He is, of course, intelligent and richer than Croesus, but, it turns out, sort of inexpressive and unadventurous in his personal life. (His likes watching television.) And for all his successful bets on where technology is about to go, he seems in complete denial about the big economic changes technology is bringing, like rising inequality and unemployment. Cognitive dissonance, perhaps?

We stayed at the New York Palace on Madison and 50th. This hotel opened in 1981, when we lived in Manhattan, and was known as the Helmsley Palace, with ads that featured a then-famous dragon lady named Leona Helmsley touting its remarkable luxuriousness in a loathsome way. Now rebranded (thank goodness), it is quite a fine hotel, and from our room on the 32d floor we had good views of Manhattan towers and a sliver of the East River.
We had dinner in Curry Hill, the little Indian restaurant neighborhood at 28th and Lexington, at Chote Nawab. It’s a lively place, and the food was good, but our server was amazingly inattentive. Even so, we had fun catching up.

It was remarkably clear on Saturday morning and a bit chilly when we went down to the meat packing district to the new Whitney, which is situated on Gansevoort right where the High Line starts. It took a minute to absorb that the line to get in was a block long, and we kicked ourselves for not buying tickets in advance. But the line moved quickly, and we were inside in about 20 minutes. The place was crowded, but with a little patience we managed to get close to the pieces that interested us.

Eva Hesse's last work before her death at 34

Eva Hesse’s last work before her death at 34

The current exhibition is called America is Hard to See, which is so true, and is a loosely chronological survey of some of the key examples of the Whitney’s permanent collection. It starts on the eighth floor (the top) with the beginning of the 20th century, and comes down and toward the present. The works were given a good amount of space, and where there were narrative labels, they were helpful.

At this point in my own art historical education, Abstract Expressionism from the 50s seems more like an old friend than a shocker. But I found myself moved and shaken by some of the political art of the 60s (some of the big issues of that time are still big issues). I also engaged with the minimalism and conceptualism from more recent decades. It struck me that this was art intended to be discussed, to expand out into a social dialog. It wasn’t about just looking — it was also about talking.

The Whitney's decks

The Whitney’s decks

In addition to the fine display spaces, the new museum has large outdoor decks. We lucked out, with beautiful weather, and after each floor, we stepped out in the sun clear our heads and enjoy the wonderful cityscape views.

Looking south from the Whitney at the new Freedom Tower

Looking south from the Whitney at the new Freedom Tower

We’d thought of visiting some galleries in the area after the museum, but after two and a half hours at the Whitney I was more than sufficiently stimulated, and a bit wrung out. Jocelyn met us outside the museum, and we walked up to the Flatiron District, where we had good lunch at a Korean place called Barn Joo.

Then Jocelyn gave us a tour of her offices in the Flatiron Building. This iconic triangular building at 23d and Broadway, completed in 1902, was one of the first skyscrapers in New York. J’s employer, Macmillan Publishers, is now the sole tenant. The offices were nothing fancy, but still fun to see. It reminded me of our offices at The New Yorker in the late 70s. There was a great view of the Empire State Building from the northern point of the building.

The Flatiron Building

The Flatiron Building

We poked around in Eataly, a giant gourmet grocery and restaurants space, which was very crowded and fully of delicious smells. Jocelyn promoted the cookies at a bakery a few doors down as the best in New York, so we bought three and ordered coffee. The barista for some reason had trouble with our order, and took ten minutes to produce various beverages we had not ordered. We consumed them at a table near Madison Square Park. My cookie was a good mix of smooth and crunchy, and I enjoyed it very much.

The Empire State Building, from the Flatiron Building

The Empire State Building, from the Flatiron Building

We had dinner at Boulud Sud, a Mediterranean Restaurant at 64th St. near Lincoln Center. The place was bustling. There were no veggie options on the menu, but they proposed a gnocchi dish that was good.

We finished dinner with enough time (barely) to get to our seats at the Metropolitan Opera House to see the American Ballet Theatre perform Giselle. I was interested in Giselle in part for its historical significance as one of the oldest ballets still in the common repertoire. It was first performed in Paris in 1841, with Carlotta Grisi as Giselle and Lucien Petipa as Albrecht. It must have been astonishing at the time to see the women rise and hover en pointe.

This production had Stella Abrera as Giselle and Vladimir Shklyarov as Albrecht. Abrera was not previously known to me, but I will not forget her. She was sublime. Her gestures seemed somehow to be magnified and extended, with a remarkable emotional intensity, without being overstated. Shklyarov was also excellent. In the second act, the ethereal Wilis were spookily graceful, and when they tried to dance Albrecht to death, Shklyarov was so fervid that it seemed on the verge of real danger. The ovation was tremendous by New York standards, with the audience clapping for about 10 minutes. After I drafted this, I saw Alastair McCaulay’s review in the Times, which was a rave for Abrera.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

On Sunday morning we took a taxi up to the Metropolitan Museum. I’d been looking forward to seeing an exhibit of the art of the plains Indians, but it had, unfortunately, closed. But there is always a lot to see at the Met. We started with a tiny exhibit of Van Gogh’s irises and roses, which had four paintings. The signs explained that the red pigment in the paintings had deteriorated and changed the colors of the paintings, and a video offered an interpretation of what they must have looked like. We spent time with the Lehman collection of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, thirty or so great paintings that sum of the field amazingly well.

A Vermeer that just kills me

A Vermeer that just kills me

Then we made our way to the galleries with the Vermeers and Rembrandts. I listened to an interesting podcast the previous week with a debate on whether Rembrandt or Vermeer was the greater artist, and confirmed that I’m more of a Vermeer man. The Met has 5 of the 35 or so existing Vermeers, and I particularly love a couple of them. We also spent time looking at the pre-Colombian art, which is getting more and more interesting to me, and African art.

We met Jocelyn for lunch on the West side at Nanoosh, a Mediterranean spot, and I had some delicious falafel. Then Jocelyn came with me to Lincoln Center to see the New York City Ballet perform La Sylphide. This was, again, for me partly about ballet history, since La Sylphide is another path-breaking early work, from 1834 by August Bournonville. Lauren Lovette was the Sylph, and Anthony Huxley was James. The corps of Sylphs in Act II was, like the Wilis in Giselle, all in diaphanous white tulle, and entrancing. Lovette danced beautifully.

Jocelyn outside the David H. Koch (aka "El Diablo") Theater

Jocelyn outside the David H. Koch (aka “El Diablo”) Theater

After the ballet we went down to the west Village, where we found an outside table and sipped wine, then had dinner at Pagani, an Italian restaurant. We liked our food, and the service was good until dessert time, when things suddenly came to a halt. The staff regrouped, though, and comped our tiramisu.

On Sunday morning we checked out and took a cab out to Jocelyn’s place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Her area seemed sort of Village-like, at least on a sunny Memorial Day holiday. We met up with our and J’s old friend Kathryn M, and ate at a South African restaurant called Madiba, which had a lot of funky charm, though it took a while to get a beer. I had the vegetable Durban curry, and liked it, and heard about Kathryn’s new admin job at Victoria’s Secret.

Then we went to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, where there were things that were blooming and things that were not. I didn’t see a great diversity of species, but the landscaping was pretty. We also took a stroll through some of Prospect Park. There were hundreds of Brooklynites picnicking, playing, and soaking in the sun.

Whistler skiing, Invisibilia, and Oliver Sacks’s farewell

The new boots, after day one at Whistler

The new boots, after day one at Whistler

Early Friday morning we flew to Dallas, where we changed planes and continued on to Vancouver, where we got a car and drove to Whistler to do some skiing. The flying part of the trip was uneventful, though sitting in an economy seat for seven hours takes its toll. It’s good to have some uninterrupted time to read, listen, and think, but in the last couple of hours my bottom started to ache and my legs wanted to move.

The traffic getting out of Vancouver was terrible. With only brief prior exposure, I’d thought of Vancouver as a friendly and modern mid-size city, all of which it may be, but the traffic was more like Sao Paulo. We watched traffic lights change two and three times to progress one block. It took an hour and a half to get clear of the city, which was especially frustrating after a long flight.

The coastal road north to Whistler was curvaceous and lovely, wooded with evergreens and islands to the east. It would have been an excellent stretch of road to drive with Clara. We finally made it to Whistler Village in late afternoon, and checked in and got the key code to our condo in the upper village. We dropped our gear, picked our bunks, and went out to rent necessary equipment. I’d bought my own boots, newly purchased, but needed to rent skis and poles. By the time this got done, we were very tired and hungry, and ate at the first place we could find.

Skiing on Saturday was, ultimately, fun, though I was disappointed at first. It hadn’t snowed for some weeks, and the coverage was not good — almost nonexistent at the lower lower elevations. Higher up, there was snow, but a lot of it was very hard. Still, we found areas of good snow, and enjoyed the long runs and varied terrain. Gabe led the way, and I raised my game just by trying to keep up. The vistas were stunningly beautiful.

During the trip out, I listened more to a marvelous podcast called Invisibilia. It’s an NPR-based show with a style that resembles Serial in tone and mindset, anchored by Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, two very smart, funny, curious women. Each episode takes on a question or oddity of human psychology or behavior. Without seeming either overly technical or overly simplistic, it manages the neat trick of being at once entertaining and thought-provoking.

The episode I listened to en route was about categories. We all have to have lots of them, and usually give them no thought. But as the show pointed out, it would be a huge problem if every time we saw a couch, we had to figure out what it was for, whether it was potentially dangerous, etc. It’s a very good thing that we recognize couches, not to mention other categories of furniture.

Much of the show concerned gender categories, and specifically a transgender person who reported the experience of switching between male and female orientations often. It focused mainly on the challenges this presented to the individual in terms of relationships and emotions, but it also pointed up how the male-female categorization affects the way we interact with the world.

I was also thinking about Oliver Sacks, who revealed in an op-ed piece in the NY Times this week that he will soon die of liver cancer. Sacks, a distinguished neurologist, has written many fascinating books and articles about psychological oddities. Now 81, he noted that he’s written 5 books since he turned 65. I was saddened to hear he wouldn’t be with us much longer, but also inspired by the courage and calmness with which he addressed the subject of dying.

He wrote:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to say the same when the time comes.

Speaking of software patents, alarming smoke alarms, and computer upgrading

_DSC8190Last week I spoke at a symposium on patent law and digital technology in Winston-Salem sponsored by the Wake Forest University Law Review. I used my air time to raise some questions about the value of software patents and the premises of the patent system. You never know when a seed may sprout. The audience seemed engaged, and the comments I got were appreciative.

It was nice to get back to my childhood stomping grounds, and nice to have a chance to see my oldest friend (going back to fourth grade), Jim P. Even as a child, he had a remarkable talent for building things, whether model planes, cars, or forts in the woods. He found his calling as a builder, and among other things has built major structures for Wake Forest U, including Farrell Hall, which he showed me around. He was in the midst of building an addition to Reynolds Gym, and I got to see the architectural and engineering drawings and scheduling boards.

It is not often that I undertake a household upgrade or repair more complicated than hanging a picture. But I’ve had to raise my game a couple of times this week.

When I got home on Friday evening, the smoke alarm began making a very loud high-pitched squeak, signalling that it needed a new battery. Sally, who had dealt with this issue before, was away visiting her sister. I got out the step ladder, climbed up, and reached high, wondering how long it would be before someone found me if I fell off. I managed to unscrew the device from the ceiling but couldn’t locate the battery, even after considerable pushing, twisting, and prodding. So I called Sally, and she gave me a couple of crucial tips.

Eventually I got the 9 volt battery out and a replacement battery in. But I put it in the wrong way, and had a tough time getting the hatch open again. After that was all done, I heard another loud squeak. It turned out I’d repaired the wrong alarm, and had to do another one. Then it turned out that that also was the wrong one, and I had to do a third one (in which I put the battery I took out of the first one).

I was quite technically proficient at smoke alarm battery replacement by the end of this process. If you have problems with a First Alert smoke detector, I may be able to help.

In fact, I’ve been on a bit of a roll with repairs and upgrades. After concluding recently that my MacBook Pro laptop needed more RAM, my first thought was to find a repair shop, but I couldn’t find one that looked self-evidently reliable. After consulting with friends and colleagues, I ordered 16 gigs of RAM from Amazon, watched a YouTube instruction video, read a couple of sets of instructions, and unscrewed the back. I wondered, would I destroy the computer? I would not! There were a few moments of pushing and poking, and then it slipped into place. I felt fairly competent. The computer seemed noticeably zippier.

I also upgraded from Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 to Photoshop Elements 13. I’ve come to respect the editing algorithms of version 11. I used to think of the auto functions as a less-than-honorable crutch, but I’ve come to view these tools as sort of a partner in making good photos from RAW format images. I’m still testing the new version, but am generally pleased so far.

A down home ski trip

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Last weekend I drove up to Massanutten, Virginia for a down home ski trip. Brother Paul is in his twenty-sixth year as a volunteer ski patroller there, and we’ve had many happy times on this unfancy mountain. This trip was especially happy, in that his three kids, my niece and nephews, were all there, with spouses and a spouse-to-be, little ones, and friends.

My nephews Josh and Adam are strong boarders/skiers (turns out both can do both). (Niece Lauren is also a good skier, but is expecting and so sat this one out.) We had a blast shooting down the steep places. It was sunny and cold, and the snow was good.
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We also spent some time helping a couple of beginners in the group. Paul has helped a lot of people learn to ski or improve (including me, come to think of it), and has a really kind, encouraging way of getting across the basic concepts.
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There’s no getting around the fact that being a beginner is hard. There are various specialized physical skills that you’ve got to grasp. Then there’s the fear of falling. And a certain amount of actual falling. It takes some gumption. It was great to see our newbies progressing quickly. When hanging with them on the gentler slopes, I practiced skiing on one ski (trying to work the counterintuitive outside edge) and skiing backwards.
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On the drive back, I listened to podcasts. I’m a recent convert to this technology/medium, which I got started loving after Jocelyn recommended Serial (now the most popular podcast in the history of – podcasts). I listened to several episodes of a BBC production called A History of the World in 100 Objects. Each show discusses an object from the British Museum, and uses it as a jumping off place for probing the society in which it was created. Some are very ancient (a hand ax 1.6 million years old) and some are just ancient (Clovis points 13,000 years old). I got up to 700 B.C., found most of it fascinating.

My digital frustrations and hopes

Our new wallpaper

Our new wallpaper

We lost the internet one evening this week, and felt unsettled and frustrated. No Googling? This is not acceptable! I called Time Warner, where a computer with a female voice fielded my call. “She” understood me the first time, and figured out the problem quickly. I needed to reboot my modem, and she coached me through. Then everything worked. Another success for artificial intelligence!

I confidently predict that this will happen more and more: our computers will help us solve everyday technology problems. But for the moment, those of us lucky enough to have various digital tools and conveniences frequently find ourselves bolixed. I had a lot of little tech problems this week: email that wouldn’t work, a smart phone that wouldn’t stop buzzing, a picture file that disappeared, an external hard drive that went haywire, underwater flash units that wouldn’t fire . . . . I could go on.

For most of those, I found friendly competent humans willing to spend some time with me and my devices, and eventually we got going again. Thanks and namaste, friends and strangers. Sometimes our tech problems bring us together, which is good.
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But I continue to be concerned that advancing AI is going to eliminate a lot of jobs and change our world economy, and we aren’t even close to ready. The NY Times had a front page piece this week quoting economists who were wondering whether the humans whose jobs get taken over by AI might be facing a permanently diminished job market. Now we’ve got to start coming up with new economic and political approaches to address these changes.

Whether that’s any more likely than our doing serious work to address global warming is questionable. On that subject, how disheartening that the nations of the world would declare it a success that they agreed that they would all to do something about climate change – but not what! The arctic ice is melting now. It’s not looking good for the polar bears.

But perhaps our computers will save the day. It’s not farfetched to think that they will in due course outdistance us in intelligence. They’re already building a lot of our cars and other goods. They’re already capable of replacing drivers of trucks, taxis, and cars, not to mention airplane and ship pilots. They’re already starting to replace some journalists, teachers, doctors, and lawyers.

So maybe they can replace our politicians. Could Watson be president? Sure, we’d have to amend the Constitution, but we might get less greed, fear, and ignorance, and more good decisions. We may conclude that humans are simply not up to the task of addressing global warming, habitat destruction, species extinction, the threat of nuclear weapons, etc. – and get Ms. AI to coach us through.

I’m not saying we should quit trying. On the contrary, we should be trying harder. Our existential problems are coming at us fast, and an AI solution might not arrive in time. Believe me, I’m trying to be optimistic.

But let us not forget, we’re still here, and this is the season of hope. On a hopeful note, we got new paint and wallpaper for our bedroom this week. The wallpaper is textured, and the colors are cozy earth tones. Our neighbor and friend, the brilliant designer Blair (Sutton) Craig, coached us through. Thanks, Blair!
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In the news: some problems with our nukes

This week there was some good and some bad technology news, but first the good news. Kudos to the European Space Agency, which managed the remarkable feat of landing a robot on a modest-sized comet. Understanding and managing the risk of asteroid and comet collisions is a big challenge, and it appears we’re making progress. Also three cheers that the world’s two largest contributors to global warming (that’s us and China) officially agreed to work on it. Sure, talk is cheap, but it’s a step in the right direction.

But I wanted to call attention to a news story that you may have missed, as I almost did: two separate Pentagon studies concluded that the infrastructure of our nuclear program is in serious disrepair and will cost billions to fix. The NY Times put this on page A16 (news death valley).

Though far from the front page, the language was strong: “a searing indictment” of how nuclear weapons facilities have been allowed to decay. They described “a culture of micromanagement and attention to the smallest detail . . . creating busywork, while huge problems with equipment and readiness, most arising from the age of the systems, were ignored.” One study found that morale was low and turnover high among crews for intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers. Missile submarines were frequently out of service.

You may remember the cheating scandal involving missile crews of some months back. One of the new reports blamed not the crews but “a culture of extreme testing” in which tests were required to be near perfect so that good results could be reported up the chain of command, instead of a program to improve the crews’ readiness.

A few months back I wrote about reading Eric Schlosser’s excellent book, Command and Control, Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. The book cites chapter and verse of major problems in our nuclear program, including some that put Americans at serious risk of a catastrophic accidental nuclear explosion. Schlosser found there had been important improvements in safety, but the Times story made me worry.

The Times also reported that the President had told the Pentagon to plan for 12 new missile submarines, up to 100 new bombers, and 400 land-based missiles. Holy kamoly! I thought we were at least keeping in sight the possibility of reducing our nuclear stockpiles and the threat of nuclear war.

Before we spend billions or trillions more, I’d like to hear a good answer to the question, what is the purpose of our nuclear weapons? What good do they do?

The conventional wisdom, more or less, is that we need them to deter nuclear attacks and maintain our prestige. But no nation is currently threatening us, or anyone, with a nuclear attack. Only one nation has ever been the victim of a nuclear attack (by us, on Japan). All other nations without nuclear weapons – that is, those with no deterrence forces – have not come under nuclear attack. That includes ones that got us and other nuclear powers really mad, like North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

Furthermore, even if North Korea or Iran somehow managed to destroy one of our cites with a nuke, does anyone seriously think we’d retaliate against their civilians with a massive nuclear attack? I submit that deterrence, whatever its validity as a theory in the cold war, is valid no longer.

As to prestige, our nuclear weapons have not appeared to strengthen our negotiating power with enemies or friends. Iran and North Korea have been notably unimpressed. And our nukes certainly haven’t saved us the trouble of fighting conventional wars. We have surely not won the contest of who can spend the least on actual war fighting, having spent over a trillion dollars fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The nation with the most nuclear weapons is also the nation that has lost the most treasure through conventional warfare.

A major nuclear war would not only destroy millions of lives directly, but would alter the earth’s ecosystem so as to cause untold additional deaths. As Jonathan Schell explained in The Fate of the Earth, it could amount to the end of human civilization, not to mention the extinction of countless other animals and plants.

It would be nice to think that mismanagement of our nuclear force has reduced this risk, but I’m afraid that it suggests an increased risk of nuclear accidents, and an uncertain capacity for disaster. I submit we need to change our direction, and recommend a visit to

Let me close on a positive note: civilization still exists! In fact, right here in Raleigh, NC, there is great music making and art. Last Sunday, the N.C. Opera did an excellent concert presentation of part of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. This is very dramatic, romantic music. They did the prelude and second act, which focuses on the intoxicating love story of the title characters. Jay Hunter Morris, who was a sensation in the Met’s recent Siegfried, was a sensitive and moving Tristan, and Heidi Melton was an Isolde for the ages. Her voice was amazingly powerful, but also warm, flexible, and true. Conductor Timothy Myers seemed to have a real feeling for this strange and irresistible music, and he had a good band. Thank you N.C. Opera!

I should also give a plug for the current exhibits at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art, which we visited on Sunday afternoon. We started with the late works of Joan Miro. I liked his sculptures, better than his paintings. It was inspiring to see him continuing to experiment with new ideas into his 70s and 80s. There was also a strong exhibit of the work of Robert Rauschenberg. I never quite got Rauschenberg before, but it really helped seeing the wide range of techniques and concepts he worked with. It turns out he was serious about his photography, as well as his painting and constructions. I liked it.

Some new bug pics, a new smartphone friend, and more on robotization

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This week I had a bit of a photography breakthrough. The books I’ve been reading advised against it, but I decided to experiment with the high-end ISO settings of my Nikon D71000.
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Even at levels up to 5,000, I could not detect degradation in the image quality. This made it possible to use much smaller apertures with my 105 mm macro lens to get improved depth of field, while keeping shutter speeds high enough to capture some quickly moving insects. Here are a few of the images I got at Raulston Arboretum on Saturday morning. Thank you, brilliant sensor engineers of Nikon. Your technology is amazing and liberating.

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I got a Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone this week, and I’m a little in love. It’s a marvelous device in most every way. The screen is a little larger than the S3 and a lot larger than the iPhone, but still fits in pants pockets. The screen is brighter and more vivid than leading competitors. It responds to you quickly, and gets things done more reliably. The voice recognition technology is improving, and sometimes works great. It is water resistant. It has biometric (finger swipe) security. Battery life is longer, and the battery is replaceable. (I always carry a backup.) And needless to say, as an effective interface to the internet, it can help answer any question that has an answer.
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As with every new device, there are switching costs and learning curves, but for me they turned out to be minor. My existing apps switched over automatically as soon as I followed the new phone protocol. I then spent a chunk of last weekend going through my apps, deleting those I never used, getting resituated with services I used (including hunting down old passwords), and getting the rest into new folders.
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I kept the S5’s new health app, which can monitor your heart rate and count steps and calories, and experimented with its phone, which is surprisingly good – not not as good as my Nikon D7100, but also way less bulky. It took a few tries, but I eventually got my personal photos of roses and lilies on as wallpaper, found new ringtones that I kind of liked, got a pretty and practical new font. I put it in a handsome blue rubber case to protect against the inevitable jars, jolts, and plops. Even with the case, she’s amazingly thin and light.
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As I started to get to know her better, I noticed that the autofill feature of Swiftkey, which anticipates either the rest of a word I’m typing or the next word I was going to type, was getting more accurate. I’d type something like “Let’s” and up would pop “go.” Sure, that may seem obvious, but there were some that suggested a deeper understanding of my psyche, occasionally connecting words in a way that sounded like my own voice. This could be fun for a while, but it could also be heading towards a dark place. What if, when I typed I, it autofilled “worried that you might have taken my awkwardness for something more sinister, and resented it, when actually, I adore you.” And that was what I was starting to say? What if it allowed for the outsourcing not just of spelling and grammar, but actual feeling? Impossible? We shall see.

The effort, the struggle to communicate feeling in language is part of what I like about writing, and if that struggle were not so necessary our lives would be different, and possibly poorer. Could technology change the game on that? Of course.
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Speaking of the transformative force of technology, this week I read the 2013 paper of Carl Frey and Michael Osborne out of Oxford on the continuing effects of computerization and roboticization. They draw on the work of Brynjolfsson and McAfee, which I’ve written about before, and add interesting historical and social context.

They find that 47% of American jobs are at risk of vanishing in the next decade or two as a result of increasing automation and artificial intelligence. That’s almost half! Jobs in manufacturing, transportation, logistics, office work, and administrative support are all at substantial risk, while jobs requiring creativity and social intelligence are less so. Big economic changes are coming, folks, just as big climate changes are coming, and we need to be preparing for both.
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Warning: contains political content, and flowers

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There was a triathelon in Raleigh this morning, and the route included a road I was planning to take up to Raulston Arboretum to see the blossoms. So no go. I tried again in the late afternoon, and got to see the flowers in some wonderful golden sunlight. I’ve been learning to use the DSLR in manual mode without autofocus, and am just starting to feel comfortable taking full responsibility for the exposure. Most of these photos were taken with my Nikon 60 mm 1:2.8 macro lens. There was no postproduction Photoshopping of any sort. Pretty nice, huh?
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Being the President has got to be a pretty hard job. In addition to being hated with a white-hot hatred by many no matter what you do, your inner critic is also always there. You want to do the right thing, but what is the right thing? And when you’re reasonably sure you know the right thing, what if you can’t do it by yourself? Which of course is always the case.
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I really have many warm feelings for President Obama, and one of things that makes me proud of this country is that we elected him. But I’m so frustrated and disappointed with him. We’re still in Afghanistan, killing and being killed without any reasonably achievable objective, still brutalizing prisoners in Guantanamo, still imprisoning people and destroying families for victimless drug crimes, still running headlong toward climate apocalypse. We’ve instituted a surveillance state with the potential to rival Orwell’s darkest visions.

There are, no doubt, many forces quite separate from the President’s own desires that are driving these horrors and disasters. He probably regrets them. But like it or not, he’s the President, and that’s where the buck stops.
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The President’s speech at West Point this week proposed to reframe our global mission for the foreseeable future as stamping out terrorism. Is this less absurd than fighting to obliterate communism, or more? Is there any chance that we will ever kill every crazy fanatic that would like to do us harm? Does it really make sense to make this our mission?

So, you ask, have I got a better idea to address the real menace of the homicidal religious fanatics? I thought a bit, and had an idea: we change their minds. We get them to see things from our point of view. That would about do it, wouldn’t it? We help them to see that the idea of blowing up people as a suicide bomber and then being a martyr and having the 72 virgins in paradise is just nutty, and so they stop murdering people.
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You see the problem, of course: how do we change their minds? True, we do not currently have the technology to do this. We have amazingly little knowledge of why people think the way they do about the need for Sharia law, jihad, or most anything else. We assume it has to do with their culture and upbringing, with economic disadvantage and resentments, but we can’t frame those out with precision. More important, we have no precise knowledge of how to address and prevent really bad ideas, like racism or religious intolerance, or really bad acts, like suicide bombing.

Or anything else, for that matter. But what if we created a major program with some billions of dollars to figuring this out? And we’re already spending millions and millions to understand the brain and human behavior. If we treated it like the Apollo program, eventually we might get there. Instead of killing terrorists, and thereby creating new terrorists, we’d change their minds.
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This sounded like a good idea, but after a little more thinking, I realized it would probably be disastrous. If we replaced our vast ignorance of the causes of human behavior with perfect knowledge, we’d be even worse off.

Think about it. What if we figured out how to make everyone agree with us? What if our government, or any government, had the necessary tools to prevent opposing thoughts and eliminate all anger? Would that government happily tolerate reasonable people who advocate, say, a major change in abortion policy, or drug policy, or climate policy? Has there ever been a government that happily tolerated opposition? Once we got the terrorists minds under control, who would be next? Overly vocal dissidents?

Bluebird skiing in Telluride, a brief briefing, and reading The Second Machine Age

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Last week Sally and I joined Gabe and several friends in Telluride, Colorado, for a few days of skiing, eating, and talking. When I describe Telluride, I always mention how beautiful it is, but when I got there, I realized I’d forgotten how massive and magnificent the mountains are. The craggy alpine vistas surround you, regal and timeless. And the town itself has a friendly, unassuming charm. I tried to capture some of these feelings, but was uncomfortable taking my D7100 onto the slopes, and so used my little Canon point-and-shoot up there.
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Telluride has a lot of challenging terrain, and the question always is, can you handle it? Gabe Tiller has been living here five years, and he can answer that question with a yes. On our first day, he took me down a double black diamond mogul run called spiral stairs, which, once we were committed, he told me was “really steep.” He wasn’t kidding! He also led me into a tree run called Log Pile. These were pressing the outer edge of the envelope for me. Getting through in one piece was a great happiness!
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Moguls — aka bumps, or areas of irregular snow that form in steep areas — are terrifying for beginners, frustrating for intermediates, and challenging in varying degrees for those more advanced. If you want to ski the steep wild places, you just need to figure out moguls, and there’s no simple solution. It’s like three-dimensional chess – or make that speed chess. We complimented Gabe on how smooth and strong he looked in the tough mogul runs, and he noted, with admirably humility, that it only took him five years of work.

There is no way I’ll ever reach Gabe’s level, but I got a bit stronger and more stylish this week. I averaged three falls a day, which I take as an indicator that I’m still pushing my limits and improving. I also found new joy in the gladed runs – basically moguls with trees. These require creativity and intense concentration. We did on called Captain Jack’s, which Gabe told me would get “kind of loggy.” Indeed. I had only one scary crash, after I saw Gabe flash by doing hyperspeed turns, and was inspired to give chase. I made the first three turns, but missed the fourth and ran into a tree. I did some minor damage to my left shoulder, but I think it will heal up OK. My worst injury was sunburn on my lips. I got everything except the lips protected with sunblock – a rookie mistake.
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Our four ski days were all remarkably clear and sunny, with pleasant ski temperatures in the mid-30s. The snow was generally good – not too hard and not too soft – Goldilocks snow. Of course, it’s always a treat to get fresh light powder, but if it doesn’t happen, I’ll take bluebird days and Goldilocks. We were on the lifts almost as soon as they opened at nine and went at it hard until 3:30 or so. Then hot tub, relaxing, cocktails, and dinner. We particularly enjoyed eating at the Telluride Bistro, Siam, 221, and Hongas.
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I had one important work project: an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank. The case involves a patent concerning financial intermediation, and presents the question of when software is patent eligible under 35 U.S.C. Section 101. I’ve thought about the paradox of software patents for a long time: how a system meant to foster innovation ends up hindering it. I was happy to take on the out-of-ordinary-course assignment of writing the brief myself, but the due date fell in the middle of the ski trip. With hard work, I got most of the writing done before the trip, and while my colleagues took care of cite checking and filing mechanics, I took responsibility for the needless worrying. In the end, I was reasonably happy with the brief, which I hope will help move the debate in the right direction. It can be downloaded here.
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For leisure reading, I made it most of the way through Brynjolfsson & McAfee’s new book , The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. Their subject is how robots and automation are dramatically changing the world. Technology tends to provide more and more extraordinary wealth for the lucky few and the risk of redundancy for the rest. It’s a good introduction to the subject. They explain with clarity and verve why technological change is accelerating, point up examples of the disruptive technologies just starting to take over human work, and play out some of the economic implications.

They seem determined to be optimistic about the future, with examples of how humans and machines can each complement the other. I didn’t think some of their policy prescriptions (e.g. improved education, improve infrastructure, immigration reform, IP reform ) matched up very well with the long-term risks they identified (that is, machines becoming better than humans at almost everything and destroying the labor market). They give some weight to the idea of a guaranteed basic income, which would serve the purpose of preventing mass starvation, but they worry that it might result in dysfunctional communities. The identify employment as a social good, and like the idea of a negative income tax, because it would subsidize and encourage employment. This seems worth thinking about.