The Casual Blog

Category: travel

Reconsidering racism

A water lilly at Frank Schwartz’s Water and Garden Creations

On Saturday I visited a water lily garden in southern Wake County.  The outing was organized by the Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association, and there were some nice people there who had good cameras.  Along with the lilies and other flowers, there was a little green frog.  

As regular readers of The Casual Blog know, from time to time I express myself on political subjects, but recently I’ve had some trouble doing so. There are so many issues worthy of closer examination and critical thought.  But that’s also the problem — it’s hard to know where to start.  Issues are proliferating. Before you’ve got one terrible problem in focus, there are two more even worse.  

You can wear yourself out with fear and outrage, while accomplishing nothing.   While it’s very easy to get depressed about the state of the union and various real world problems, that doesn’t help anything.  I’ve been trying to develop a perspective that’s connected to what we know of reality, but that isn’t hopeless.  Admittedly, it’s a challenge.

Lately my non-work long-form reading has been mostly history, which I find both calming and stimulating.  It helps to take a longer view.  Stories of tyrants, like the Roman emperors who were insane and murderously sadistic, are interesting in themselves, but also put our problems in a bit of perspective — that is, there have been worse heads of state.  

I used to think of history as facts collected in history textbooks that could be known with certainty.  It turns out, though, that history is far from fixed.  It changes.  Historians can be completely blind to aspects of their subjects which later historians bring to light.  It’s a safe bet that our vision also is clouded and incomplete.  But it’s capable of improvement.  

Alan Taylor’s latest book, American Revolutions, reframes the revolutionary war from one of united American colonists against England into a multifaceted and lengthy civil war with international aspects.  It was in significant part a war between groups of colonists, many of whom favored England and were uprooted, tortured, and killed for their loyalism.  It was in part a war to maintain slavery and to seize native American lands.  The level of blood and gore was high, and the level of idealism and integrity not as high as we thought.  

I’ve also been reading Carrie Gibson’s Empire’s Crossroads:  A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day.  I came to the book with a vague idea that the islands of the Caribbean were useful as stopover points for explorers transiting the Atlantic in the age of sail.  It turns out that beginning in the sixteenth century and for hundreds of years, they were wildly successful in generating wealth for Europe.  The English considered their islands more valuable than the American colonies, and gave up those colonies in part because they thought it better to use their navy to defend the islands.  

Empire’s Crossroads tells the story of the development of hugely successful sugar plantations, which is also the story of the development of the African slave trade.  The extreme brutality of Caribbean slavery was not well understood in Europe at the time, and probably not well understood by many people today.  Gibson observes that slavery wasn’t caused by racism, but rather racism was created to justify slavery.      

It would be nice to think we’re over racism.  But we noticed quite a few Confederate flags when we were on the Outer Banks last week.  There are numerous reports from around the U.S. of displays of hangman’s nooses and swastikas.  New laws are limiting voting rights of minorities and freedom of movement of immigrants.  And of course, not all the violence is symbolic.  There seems to be a stream of racist attacks and murders, which are somehow recognized as “terrorism.”  

One good thing about the Trump presidency is that it has brought a virulent racist element of  America  into the light.  I’d thought it was almost gone, but now there’s no mistaking, it’s still there.  Encouraged by the regime, the racist minority has felt emboldened.  I suspect that explains in part Trump’s rise.  His rallies, with coded messages giving permission and encouragement to prejudices that had been held in check as shameful, sparked an enthusiasm that lots of us didn’t take seriously enough.  Now we know this racist minority are highly motivated, and they won’t give up their hateful ideology without a fight.  

But history can be inspiring.   Our ancestors, black, white, and other, finally, after hundreds of years, did away with legalized slavery.  They eventually ended the legalized racism of Jim Crow, and the housing regulations that prevented black people from buying houses in white neighborhoods. There are still living some who risked their lives in the struggle for voting rights for blacks and school desegregation.  We stand on the shoulders of moral giants, who pointed the way forward.  But there’s still some hard work to be done.  

 

My trip to Grandfather Mountain

 

A blackberry flower at Grandfather Mountain

Our mountains in  western North Carolina aren’t especially imposing, compared to the Rockies or the Alps, but there’s something moving about them.  They roll out to the horizon in waves, covered with thick forests, and topped in places with jagged cliffs and wildflowers,  They’re full of life and, for me, memories of long ago summer camps and family vacations.  

This weekend I went to Grandfather Mountain for its annual photography weekend, a gathering of perhaps 100 photographers with several lectures on techniques and time to hike about and take pictures.  

I’d always thought of Grandfather Mountain as kind of a tourist trap.  Though relatively large for the neighborhood at 5,945 feet, it isn’t much more beautiful than its surrounding mountains that don’t have names and charge admission  I always had imagined it as overrun with tourists, and so had never visited it before this weekend.

It was a big mistake to disrespect Grandfather Mountain, and I promise to never do so again. I had more fun than I expected, but also had a somewhat harrowing episode due mostly to my hubris and lack of preparation.  

I started my visit at the mile-high Swinging Bridge, a suspension footbridge that you must see if you’re there, just as if you go to Paris you must see the Eiffel Tower,  It was windy, and the bridge was squeaky, but not terrifying.  On the other side there were rocks to climb on and pretty vistas.  The red rhododendrun were in bloom, along with other wildflowers.

After doing the Swinging Bridge, I noted that that was a trailhead close by for Grandfather Trail, which was described on the sign as “advanced.” This was catnip to me, and off I strode.  In retrospect, I should have planned better for equipment (including warmer clothing and a map) and provisions (like water and food).  Once I got a good look at McCrae Peak, I wanted to climb it, and after pressing on for another hour, I mounted the various ladders and guide ropes up the rocks and saw a  beautiful vista.  

But I got lost on the way back.  The hiking was rugged, over rocks and boulders, requiring careful placement of each foot for each irregular step, and lots of hoisting up and lowering down.  There were almost no other people around.   I never had a fall, but I got some bruises on my legs, and a little bloody when I banged my hand on a rock, and a blister on my big toe.  

I got cold and thirsty and hungry.  Happily, I did not get leg tired — my early morning gym workouts, with all those squats, lunges, and step ups, paid off.  But I started to get a bit anxious by 5:00, and worried about whether I would have to break the rule about getting to your car 6:00.  I even started thinking about spending the night with the bears  Obviously, I survived, but it took almost 6 hours of hard hiking.  

The photography lectures were at a good level for me, and I learned a lot.  I decided to enter one of my shots in the competition.  It turned out that there were many highly skilled photographers competing, but after looking at some of the work, I thought I was competitive in the wildflower category.

 As the winners were announced, I thought my blackberry flower (the first one above) was stronger than the honorable mention.  It also seemed stronger than than the third place finisher, and the second place.  So for a second I thought I was going to win it all!  But  no, I didn’t, though I still liked mine quite well.  

Eno River wildflowers, a good spin, and some favorite podcasts

The Eno River, near the ruin of the old pump station

On Friday, I had a mini-adventure exploring Eno River State Park.   I asked a friendly staffer  at the park office for a good place to look for wildflowers, and so found my way to the pump station trail.  

It was a lovely calming place.   I walked slowly, looking for tiny blossoms, some of whom are shy and easy to miss.   Sometimes I got down on my belly for an extreme close up.   I heard the river and a  number of migrant warblers singing, though I couldn’t see them in the new leaves.  

On Saturday morning I did a 45-minute spin class at Flywheel, which I’ve been trying to do once a week.  As usual, it was hard.   I met my objectives of getting 300 points ( though barely, with 301), and staying out of last place.  In fact, I finished first in the class.  I also set a new record for my average heart rate, with 158, and a peak of 168.  And I didn’t die!

Eno flowers-3Most mornings I’ve been getting up at 5:05 and heading to the gym.  I’ve been swimming one day a week, and on the others I do a combination of various aerobic machines (stairs, treadmill, elliptical, bike, row) and weights.

During the non-wet workouts I’ve been listening to some stimulating and fun podcasts.  I usually start with some news in Spanish (Voz de America) and French (RFI), and then explore some history, science, or other interesting domain.  Here are some recent favorites.

S-Town.  I finished the seventh of seven episodes last week, and loved it!    This was done by  some of the same creative folks that did Serial and has a similar format.  It starts out being about a crime in a small Alabama town, but ends up being about a quirky and mercurial guy and his community.  Parts of it are shocking and tragic, but it’s also funny and compelling.     

Radiolab.  These folks focus on science and social issues, and sometimes they’re very lively.  I particularly liked their recent episode on our nuclear command structure, which gives the President complete and unconstrained control of a nuclear force that could end the world as we know it.    That is, we put the question of whether the human race survives or not in one person’s hands.  I learned there’s a pending bill that would add some congressional oversight, which could mitigate this existentially risky situation a little.

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Common Sense.  From time to time, Dan Carlin does long form podcasts on public policy matters, and they are well researched and thought-provoking.   His most recent one concerns America’s health care system, which he points out is not by any measure the best in the world, but is far and away the most expensive.   Carlin has some ideas on how we got to this absurd state of affairs, and how we might get out.

Rationally Speaking.  The format here is Julia Galef interviewing smart people about social and philosophical issues.  This week I went into the archive and listened to her conversation with Peter Singer about ethics and animal rights, and liked it a lot. 

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Waking Up.  This is another podcast where a smart person, here Sam Harris, interviews another smart person.  The most recent one is a conversation with Lawrence Krauss, which covers a wide range, from quantum physics to the under-appreciated nuclear threat to the overhyped threat of Islamic terrorism.

The New Yorker Radio Hour.  Somehow David Remnick manages to edit the New Yorker, read everything, watch a lot of television, and do this podcast. Each episode has several segments, which usually include an author talking about a recent piece in the magazine.  Those are usually goods, though just as with the magazine, there are some that I would skip.  

This American Life.  Even after all these years on NPR, Ira Glass and company are still almost always fresh and original.  

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Skiing at Chamonix

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As I write this, Sally and I are on our flight back from Geneva, after a week of skiing at Chamonix, France.  The Alps in that area are spectacularly beautiful — craggy, jagged, and huge.  

The week we were there, the snow was not so great — icy in places, getting thin in places, with rocks showing through, crusty in places, and mushy at times.  That said, all the 56 lifts were operating, and for stretches the snow was perfect.  Most of the time the skies were blue.

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We skied mostly on the black (advanced) runs, and didn’t encounter anything terrifyingly beyond our ability level.  Mostly we felt challenged in a good way, absorbed.  Our skiing was happy — relaxed and free. There were, however, two difficult episodes.

On day two, we skied at Les Grands Montets, and late in the morning decided to go all the way up to the top to try Point de Vue, a long black run down the side of a glacier.  On the way up, the sky changed from clear and blue to gray pea soup.  Soon we were working our way slowly down very steep, icy, moguls, barely able to see where the next bump was.  I fell and lost a ski, and with the ice and the steeps, it was really difficult to get the ski back on.

After numerous tries of various approaches, I finally dug a level platform for the ski, which worked. This all took perhaps 20 minutes.  The combination of exertion, thin air, and stress hormones left me shaky, and at the bottom I proposed we take a break for some hot chocolate.

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On Friday, the conditions were snowy, windy, and with very poor visibility.  We skied at Le Tour, where (as elsewhere), the trails (or pistes) were marked with colored poles on either side.  In places we could see only one pole — not the next down the hill, and not the one across the slope.  Then there were no poles anywhere, and we realized we were off the piste.  

We went for a while to the left, then to the right, and saw no piste markers.  It was quiet, except for the wind.  I was starting to wonder if we were going to have to make our way on down off piste, almost blind, on difficult terrain — or worse.  Just then, a snow boarder came by above us, and we realized we just needed to climb back up 30 meters. Which was challenging, but whew!  

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Very few skiers were out that Friday, but there were a lot of them most of the other days, including the two days we skied Brevent Flegere.  It was a school holiday week, and there were lots of families skiing with young children.  I enjoyed watching the little kids, though there were times on narrow slopes when there were just too many people.

At the end of each day, we found a place at a sidewalk cafe in the charming ski village and had a beer.  It was pleasant to be surrounded by the French language.  My student French was pretty rusty, but it got better as the week went on, and people mostly understood what I was trying to say.  If they or I had no clue, no problem — most people in the hospitality line spoke serviceable English.

We stayed at a small hotel called La Vallee Blanche, which was located within an easy walk of lots of restaurants and bars, and about 4 blocks from the bus to the slopes.  Our concierges, Maria and Margo, helped us get reservations at enjoyable restaurants.  Our favorite was an Italian place called L’Impossible, which had home-made cannelloni to die for.

At dinner, we talked about family, politics, and skiing.  Sally and I were pretty much on the same level, and both still working to get better, so we talked about things we’d learned from our various teachers or were trying to figure out.  At one point I asked Sally what she wanted to improve, expecting her to say something like moguls, trees, or maybe carving.  

But her reply was more interesting:  she said she was hoping to overcome more fear.  And on reflection, that’s fundamental.  At some point, on some steep, all skiers find there’s a thing that says, don’t go, don’t point the skis downhill.  And then you’ve got to find courage.  So we try to cultivate a bit more courage, and face down fear.  

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Wild swans in eastern North Carolina and posthumanism

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This past weekend I drove to eastern North Carolina to see wintering tundra swans and other brilliant creatures.  The swans were there — hundreds of them!  These are majestic birds, with long necks and seven-foot wingspans.  They look quiet and elegant as they swim, but they’re very vocal, barking and squawking, sounding from a distance like a huge crowd of little kids at an exciting  sporting event.  

For part of the time I was travelling with members of the Carolinas Nature Photographers Association.  We stayed in the Holiday Inn Express in Plymouth, which was fine.  The CNPA folks were friendly and knowledgeable, and I enjoyed talking with them about such things as camera lenses, post-processing, and wildlife.  I took these pictures with my Nikon D7100 and a Sigma 150-500 lens (a beastly large piece of glass) on a Vanguard tripod.

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To get to the birdy places, we had to drive a good ways down muddy dirt roads.  I unwisely brought my sports car, and was more than a little anxious at points that we’d get stuck in the mud, with uncertain prospects of getting unstuck.  We never quite got caught, though we did get muddy.  We explored Pocosin Lakes (mostly at Pungo Lake) and Lake Mattamuskeet.

Once I got over the initial goosebumps of seeing the crowds of swans, I started looking for snow geese, but without success.  I  did see various pretty ducks, including northern pintails and northern shovelers, as well as great egrets, great blue herons, and black crowned night herons.  I also saw three black bears, including a youngster.

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It was wonderfully absorbing and calming to be beside the water, removed from civilization, relatively (my phone had 0 bars ).  Given the fraughtness of our current political drift, it was a particularly good time to be outdoors and close to all that non-human life.  Earlier in the week, I’d read an intriguing column about posthumanism, which resonated with me strongly.

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More and more, I’ve found myself unsatisfied with the common assumption that people are by definition superior to other animals, and disturbed by the dark implications of that assumption.  It turns out that these are issues addressed by posthumanist thinkers.  The column, an interview by Natasha Leonard of Cary Wolfe, is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a sample.

Humanism provides an important cultural inheritance and legacy, no doubt, but hardly the kind of vocabulary that can describe the complex ways that human beings are intertwined with and shaped by the nonhuman world in which they live, and that brings together what the humanist philosophical tradition considered ontologically separate and discrete domains like “human” and “animal,” or “biological” and “mechanical.”

. . .

So on the other hand, what one wants to do is to find a way of valuing nonhuman life not because it is some diminished or second-class form of the human, but because the diversity and abundance of life is to be valued for what it is in its own right, in its difference and uniqueness. An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal.”

. . .

My position has always been that all of these racist and sexist hierarchies have always been tacitly grounded in the deepest — and often most invisible – hierarchy of all: the ontological divide between human and animal life, which in turn grounds a pernicious ethical hierarchy. As long as you take it for granted that it’s O.K. to commit violence against animals simply because of their biological designation, then that same logic will be available to you to commit violence against any other being, of whatever species, human or not, that you can characterize as a “lower” or more “primitive” form of life. This is obvious in the history of slavery, imperialism and violence against indigenous peoples. And that’s exactly what racism and misogyny do: use a racial or sexual taxonomy to countenance a violence that doesn’t count as violence because it’s practiced on people who are assumed to be lower or lesser, and who in that sense somehow “deserve it.”

That’s why the discourse of animalization is so powerful, because it uses a biological or racial taxonomy to institute an ethical divide between who is “killable but not murderable,” those who are “properly” human and those who aren’t. So the first imperative of posthumanism is to insist that when we are talking about who can and can’t be treated in a particular way, the first thing we have to do is throw out the distinction between “human” and “animal” — and indeed throw out the desire to think that we can index our treatment of various beings, human or not, to some biological, taxonomic designation. Does this mean that all forms of life are somehow “the same”? No, it means exactly the opposite: that the question of “human” versus “animal” is a woefully inadequate philosophical tool to make sense of the amazing diversity of different forms of life on the planet, how they experience the world, and how they should be treated.

I was enough intrigued by this to download Wolfe’s latest book, but soon found it tough sledding.  Based on Wolfe’s many references to Jacques Derrida, it sounded like I might need to go back and get a deeper understanding of Derrida’s work.  I downloaded Derrida:  A Very Short Introduction, by Simon Glendinning, which at any rate hasn’t yet been hopelessly confusing.  This might be fun and illuminating (though it might not).  

Anyhow, the swans made me think of  The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B. Yeats, just as Yeats had helped draw me towards the swans.  I once memorized these stark and poignant lines and enjoyed rereading them, and hope you will as well.  It’s an amazing feat to combine with seeming simplicity such wonderful sensuality and the steady-eyed confrontation of  death, that most difficult of subjects.

 

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

 

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

 

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

 

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

 

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

Ringing out the old year with a diving trip to Cozumel

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We flew back from Cozumel on New Year’s eve, which was a good excuse for doing what we usually do at the end of the calendar year: nothing special. We changed planes in Charlotte, but didn’t have time to get food there, so after we unpacked, I walked over to get bean burritos at Armadillo Grill. Glenwood Avenue was hopping with lots of young people going to the bars and clubs, all dressed up and ready to party! Lots of happy energy.
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So we begin another calendar year, with a clean slate, sort of. I began my Sunday as I usually do, with breakfast, coffee, and the big ole Sunday New York Times. I read an affecting piece on the lives of several New Yorkers over age 85. They had their problems, but most were still hopeful about the future. One noted that as farmers choose to cultivate different crops, we can choose what to cultivate in ourselves, like appreciation of science, art, and nature.
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We had a great time scuba diving in Cozumel on the coral reefs. There are still so many beautiful and amazing living things there. Highlights for me included seeing 7 octopuses on a single night dive), a nurse shark sleeping with a giant green moray eel (didn’t know they did that), a moray eating a lionfish (offered by the divemaster), a big goliath grouper, a bat fish, numerous Hawksbill turtles, and several spotted eagle rays. And of course the many varied tropical fish. Seeing a queen angel fish always makes me happy.
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I made my 286th dive, with Sally’s tally not far behind. Jocelyn and Gabe are still fairly new divers, but you wouldn’t have known it. They looked relaxed and in control, and were finding some hard-to-spot creatures, including splendid toadfish, scorpion fish, and arrow crabs.
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Our days were mostly sunny and mild, with some clouds. We stayed at Hotel Cozumel, which was great for our purposes, with had adequate rooms and a staff that was friendly and responsive. In the afternoons it was pleasant to sip a pina colada and read by the pool. We went out every morning with Dive Paradise, which has a shop on the hotel premises. Their boats and equipment were just fine, and we adored Santos and Victor as divemasters. Boat rides were mostly about 30 minutes. We did drift diving, at times in strong currents, which made photography challenging. The water was a pleasant 81 degrees F, and visibility was generally good (50-70 feet).
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Jocelyn took the lead in arranging our dinners. We particularly liked Kinta and Kondesa, with contemporary Mexican cuisine, and met the warmest, sweetest waiter in the world, Ray, at El Moro. We had a long and frustrating wait for a table at Casa Mission — no one would acknowledge our presence for 40 minutes — though we enjoyed the food. We liked the Italian food and margaritas at Rinaldi, and Le Chef, another Italian place, was also good. We had good talks, and also good cab rides. I was happy to hear the family speaking some Spanish, and to do a bit myself.
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On Broadway, fake news, and some new (to me) art

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Last week I went to a conference in New York and stayed for the weekend to see loved ones and take in some culture. Midtown was decorated for the holidays, including wreaths, angels, and a very big evergreen with ornaments at Rockefeller Center. It was cheering. Crowded, though. We finally gave up on taxis, on the grounds of slowness, and embraced the subway.

On Broadway we saw The Encounter, a one-man show starring Simon McBurney as a nameless storyteller. His story is about a solo expedition in the Amazon to contact the Mayoruna people, and it’s engrossing. But the performance is as much about the power of our imagination as about the story. The audience members wear headphones, bringing us into an intimate relationship with the storyteller’s voice and the exotic sounds of the jungle. The storyteller repeatedly reminds us that we are in a story, but even with this warning, we can’t help becoming immersed. McBurney manages to get us to look at ourselves in the act of being manipulated.

Fake News
As fake news came into better focus over the last couple if weeks, I’ve felt dread and wonder at how easily people can be deceived by various hoaxes, and then become passionately committed to remaining in their deceived state. At its most bizarre and extreme (as in, the hoax that the Clintons are running a child sex slave business in a D.C. pizzeria), many enthusiasts cannot be dissuaded by reports debunking the tale in the mainstream media. They view these as part of the conspiracy — a cover up.

This is obviously nutty, and it would be nice to think you and I could never be taken in by such craziness. Or would it? Recently I’ve found myself wondering more about whether particular news reports are correct, and even whether my most basic assumptions are reliable. This is uncomfortable, but it’s actually a good thing. Always keeping in view the possibility that we may be wrong makes us more likely to consider new information and open to revising our beliefs — updating our credences, as Bayesians say. It also fosters a degree of humility, as we recognize that none of us has perfect knowledge, and all of us are prone to error.

That said, some descriptions of events are more wrong than others, and certain wrong ones are dangerous — like one inspiring an armed man showing up at a pizza parlor to avenge an made-up crime against children. In the long term, better education may be the way to address the mass hoax problem. There are various mental resources involved in assessing possible new facts, which include a good fund of background knowledge, evaluation of the reliability of sources, and weighing of evidence.

These resources and skills take time to acquire. In the short term, we need to use our best hostage negotiation skills with people seized by a dangerous conspiracy theory — try to keep the conversation going, and if they’re armed, be prepared to dive for cover.


New (to me) art

While in New York, I saw a lot of interesting art, including video work. At the New Museum, there was an exhibit of the work of Pipilotti Rist, a Swiss artist, who used video technology to explore nature. There were early works designed for a single viewer to insert her head up through a hole in a pyramid with the base on a wall to watch a screen and be surrounded by sound. Her more recent works are large-scale installations intended for groups of viewers.

In one work, she placed beds on the gallery floor and watery images on the ceiling, surrounded by meditative music, which led strangers to lie down together, look upwards, and relax. The images weren’t all that interesting, but the experience was. We were taken both inward and outward, into our feelings and out into relationships, as the artist made us into part of the art.

Video art is challenging, in that it resists skimming. You have to give it some time. And a given work may be boring, or anyway, not for you. But unlike painting, which lives most comfortably in a private dwelling, video’s natural home can be in a museum, where it can keep on playing and waiting for the right people to watch it. And those people can share it, and have a communal experience.

Also at the New Museum, I spent some time with the Cheng Ran’s work, Diary of a Madman, which is an outsider’s view of the gritty side of New York. Where Rist was loosely improvisatory and mostly cheerful, Ran was focused and melancholy, with exquisite technique and tight control. He visibly struggled to extend the expressive possibilities of new technology and embrace the world of humans and their detritus.

At the Whitney, I took in Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, which had a lot of video artists’ work displayed on large screens and other surfaces. A lot of the work was interesting mainly as art history, rather than as a provocative message for right now, but there were some provocations. My favorite piece was by Andrea Crespo, titled Neurolibidinal Induction Complex 2.2. It used words (isolated emotions, for example) and colors to give us a reboot. I also particularly liked the work of Lynn Hershmann Leeson, which included female cyborgs and bots, including one with an unsettling holographic gaze who could do an irritating conversation with you.

I also spent some time looking at Bruce Conner’s Crossroads, It’s a slow motion depiction of U.S. nuclear tests off Bikini Island in 1946. If you tend to think that nuclear weapons are an existential threat to the human species, you will continue to think that after seeing the film. Seeing the images is sobering, and may make us think more about stopping the madness, which we clearly need to do.

We went out to the Brooklyn Museum to see the work of Marilyn Minter, known for her explorations of female faces and forms and of the dark underside of fashion. I wasn’t crazy about her monumental paintings, but I liked her quirky videos. At MOMA, we saw the Francis Picabia exhibit, which we liked. He had a great visual imagination, great technical ingenuity, and a willingness to continually experiment. His was a questing spirit.

Finally, while Sally went to the Breuer and saw (at my recommendation) the fine Kelly James Marshall exhibition, I went to the Met to see Beyond Caravaggio — paintings of Valentin de Boulogne, a French artist who worked in Rome in the early 1600s. I really liked Valentin! The paintings had much of the intensity of Caravaggio, with his amazing understanding of light and the human figure, but had a broader emotional range, including people who were clearly individuals, with secrets and regrets.

What just happened? My working theory

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Up until recently, I woke up every morning with a sense of pleasant anticipation. Chances were good that in the course of the day the Republican candidate for President would speak, act or Tweet so as to further demonstrate his ignorance, poor judgment, lack of impulse control, racism, or dishonesty. And I was seldom disappointed!

Sure, it was disturbing that there were hollering crowds enthused by his racist taunts and taken in by his ridiculous lies. But coming down to election day, I was confident they were in the minority. I still think that. Now I’m struggling to understand how a lot of others, including people whom I know to be decent and upstanding, people who are neither racists nor ignorant, saw their way clear to vote for him.

My working theory is that there were three main justifications. 1. Tribalism (such as, I’m a Republican, and he’s a Republican). 2. Optimism (his extreme and off-the-wall statements can’t be serious). 3. It’s a package deal (like with the cable company, to get the channels you like, you’ve got to take on board some channels you don’t care for).
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Last week I was called for jury duty in N.C. state court. The case was an ordinary criminal one — a DWI charge. It took the lawyers about three hours to pick a jury. They settled on twelve before my number came up, so I was never called up to the box for questioning. As a former litigator, I enjoyed watching the lawyers trying to ferret out the jurors’ biases and other proclivities. But with limited time and the limits of language, they weren’t able to get very deep. Watching them and thinking of my own experience in front of juries reminded me of how hard it is to understand or predict the thinking of others.

Anyhow, whatever the reasoning, I continue to think voting for the President-elect was a terrible mistake. But it happened, and we need to carry on with our lives.
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I’ve almost finished Level 2 of the Rosetta Stone course in German, which I like. In preparation for our ski trip in February, I’ve been refreshing my French by listening to the news podcasts from Radio France Internationale, and continuing with the news in Spanish from Voz de America. On the piano, I’m practicing new pieces by Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy. Their music is transporting.

I’ve seen struggling, though, with pain in my right hand, and finally went to see my hand doctor this week. According to his reading of the X-rays, the arthritis in the area of my middle finger had gotten worse, and he recommended surgery to replace the knuckle joint. Surgery! This shook me, since cutting there could end badly, such as, no more piano. I declined the surgery, and asked for a Plan B. He recommended Aleve. It does help.
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It’s especially good for jangled nerves in these parlous times to spend some time walking in the woods. On Saturday I took a hike in Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area, which is near Hillsborough. There was a bit of smoke in the air from the big forest fires in the western part of North Carolina, but it was mild and sunny. I took the Mountain Loop trail, which went up for a while and then down to the Eno River. The leaves were mostly yellow, with bits of orange and red, and some were falling.
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It could be worse

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On Saturday, still in shock from the election, I took a longish drive over to Hanging Rock State Park. It was sunny and brisk, and the last leg of the drive was hilly and twisty. At the park, the trail went upwards quickly. The trees were getting ready for winter. There were sweet waterfalls and cliffs, and sweeping vistas.
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On the drive back, I listened to some Liszt, and continued to mull. How much should we be worried that the President-elect will keep his campaign promises?  Americans of color, immigrants, and Muslims are understandably uneasy, as are transgender people, gays, and women. Indeed, anyone with an interest in avoiding devastating climate change and nuclear catastrophe should be concerned. 

But with all those risks, there’s a strong mitigator. The President-elect is a man who has based his career on deceiving people and who is indifferent to ordinary standards of truth and honesty. There’s a long list of his victims – investors in his projects, ordinary contractors, students hoping to learn the secrets of his supposed success.

As despicable as his dishonesty is, we can now see an upside to it: his campaign promises can be significantly discounted.  For him, promises are simply words that are useful in manipulating people. He is unlikely to view any recent promises as binding. 

As to his deplorable racist language, as best we can tell, he is no ideologue. His primary driver is to be admired. He probably has no other agenda. Thus he is probably not determined to stop and frisk minorities, deport immigrants, and bar Muslims. He will probably not actively promote torturing those suspected of terrorism or killing their families. He doesn’t actually hate minorities, or care much about them one way or the other.

Of course, there are some of his supporters who are driven by hate. They are angry people. They’ll probably get angrier still when they realize that those promises that inspired them –- bringing back the good manufacturing jobs, more steel, more coal, and so forth – were just empty words, and he won’t be bringing back the jobs. His supporters could turn on him.

Same with the promises of populist change. Most likely, he’ll find the actual business of understanding government and making policy intolerably boring, and leave the real work to the traditional power elite — that is, establishment “conservatives” primarily concerned with not paying taxes and otherwise feathering their own nests, while hoping the base will be distracted by symbolic “conservative” social policies. In other words, the usual Republican playbook.
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This is, to be sure, all very bad. Our structural economic problems, including inequality of opportunity, will not be addressed. Our systemic health care problems will probably get worse. Our education system problems will not be fixed. Our environmental problems will probably get worse. The threat of war, including cyber war, will increase. The existential threats from global warming – hurricanes, draughts, floods – will get worse, as will the existential threat of the nuclear holocaust hair-trigger – if we’re lucky.

But it could be worse. At the moment, the plumbing and electricity still work. There’s food in the stores and medicine in the hospitals. We’re not in a state of war, or a condition of near anarchy.

I don’t rule out the possibility that our traditional protections for free expression and limits on state power could go by the wayside. Thug paramilitaries could be unleashed, with dissidents disappearing, and ever more intrusive state surveillance.  We could become a kleptocratic thugocracy, like Russia, or some new species of fascism.  And then you and I would find out how much courage we really have.
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But we’re not there yet, and we may not get there. In his latest NY Times column, David Brooks predicted that the President-elect would “probably resign or be impeached within a year.”

Anyhow, we survived the Reagan years (though we wreaked considerable havoc). We survived the George W. Bush years (though wreaking more havoc). We will probably survive the years (or months) of the Orange One.  

Going to a new gym, the battle for truth in Trumpworld, and intelligent animals

Sunrise at Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Sunrise at Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Last week I got a new gym membership at Lifetime Fitness at Six Forks. Why? I needed to get out of a workout rut and push forward. The cardio and weight equipment at Lifetime is more plentiful than at O2, and the space is larger. It also has a pool. It’s a little farther, but still easy to get to. I think I will like it.

My usual early morning workout starts with 10 minutes on the stairs machine, then 10 on the treadmill. Then I do core work (planks, leg lifts, etc.), balance, and flexion for 10-15. The next 25 is for resistance training, doing upper body and lower body on alternating days. Then 10 intense minutes of intervals on the elliptical or bike. At the end I stretch for 5-10 minutes. The numbers don’t quite add up, but it covers a lot of systems, and takes about an hour and a half.

Speaking of exercise, I want to give a little shout out to my new heart rate monitor, the Polar M400. Keeping track of my cardio effort level when exercising sometimes inspires me to work harder, and at least shows something is happening. The new device has a chest strap with a small snap-on Blue Tooth transmitter that signals a wrist monitor. In addition to showing current heart rate, it calculates average and maximum heart rate, steps, calories burned, and (with GPS) speed and distance traveled. It comes with some easy-to-use software for saving results on a smart phone or a laptop. There’s a little stick figure salutes you and congratulates you enthusiastically. My former device, a low-end Garmin, was less reliable, less entertaining, and more costly, so in hindsight I’m glad it finally broke down and needed replacing.

Waiging for sunrise at Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Before sunrise at Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

While working out, I’ve been listening to various podcasts, including the latest This American Life. This show just keeps getting better – taking on some big subjects, with insight and dark humor. This week Ira Glass looked at Trumpworld, where lying is non-stop and shameless. We know this now, but we’re still struggling with something even more disturbing than pathological lying: that in Trumpworld, truth has no force.

It doesn’t matter that clearly indisputable facts show that crime is down, immigration is under control, our military is by far the strongest in the world, election fraud is incredibly rare, and the President is not a Muslim who founded ISIS – the true believers will not believe it. Until recently, I thought that these bad ideas were a problem of ignorance – just not having the right facts – but it turns out that that’s not it. For these folks, if evidence contradicts their beliefs, the evidence must be disregarded. We know that some of these people are intelligent, generous, and well-meaning, but they live in an alternative reality.

Sunset at Horseshoe Bend, Navaho Nation

Sunset at Horseshoe Bend, Navaho Nation

Speaking of unconventional psychology, I finished reading Jonathan Balcombe’s recent book What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins. I liked it. Balcombe challenges the conventional wisdom regarding fish intelligence, which has it that their lives are largely automatic and instinctual, without consciousness or creativity. There’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. Some species have astonishing memories, the ability to plan, and to use tools. They experience fear and pain, and also pleasure. They have complex social relationships, and form groups both for hunting and protection. And they have an incredible range of skills in sensing and responding to their environment.

I also recommend Frans de Waal’s new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? De Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, debunks with overwhelming evidence the old chestnuts that only humans use tools, cooperate in social groups, and recognize individual identity. He presents an array of fascinating examples of non-human cognition, and invites us to use our imaginations to enter those other worlds. After reading De Waal, it is hard to view humans as entirely distinct from other animals and inherently privileged to exploit them. The gifts of other creatures are awe-inspiring.

Sunset at Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, Utah

Sunset at Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, Utah