The Casual Blog

Sally revives her orchids, and the new panic about Bernie and socialism

 

Sally’s three orchids are blooming!  They lost their flowers at different times last year and looked about as dead as house plants could look.  But she nursed the sad little remnants lovingly and hopefully, and a few weeks ago, they all decided to revive.  Together, as though they had planned it!   

This week the last bud burst into flower, and they spent some time modeling for me.    For each of these images, I made focus stacks with 20 shots, which I then stitched together with Helicon Focus software.

We watched the beginning of the Democratic presidential candidate’s debate on Tuesday, but neither of us could make it to the end.  What a mess! It was disappointing that the moderators didn’t ask questions about our true emergency issues, like the peril of nuclear holocaust and disastrous man-made climate change, and made the candidates look like quarrelsome children when they couldn’t keep order.  

It seemed to me plain the debating contenders were all smart and reasonably honorable people, and for this alone any would be a huge improvement over Trump.  I’m best aligned on policy issues and temperament with Elizabeth Warren, so I’ll be voting for her, but I’m coming to terms with the fact that this is not looking like her moment.

The Democratic establishment seems unhappy and uncomfortable with Bernie Sanders, and I can understand why.  His mannerisms can be grating. More important, he seems serious about shaking up the status quo, which they are part of.  The conventional establishment wisdom has it that as a self-declared democratic socialist, mainstream America won’t vote for him, but I’m not convinced that the socialist label is a serious impediment.  

There’s never been a purely capitalist system in the US.  Government subsidies for business are as American as apple pie.  The free market system has at times brought great material progress, and at times political, social, and economic disaster.  Idealizing capitalism as a perfect system is just silly, as is demonizing socialism.

I just finished rereading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, which is a brisk and spicey history of humankind.  It begins with the early hominoids of a couple of million years ago, on through the first homo sapiens of 200,000 years ago, to their departure from Africa about 70,000 years ago, and the first agricultural civilizations of 12,000 years ago.  He has a bit to say about a lot of big developments, including the industrial revolution.  

Harari views capitalism (as well as communism and other isms), as equivalent to religions, inasmuch as they’re all shared systems of ideas that are only real insofar as groups of people adopt and share them.  He points out that capitalism has been effective at producing wealth for elites, but it is essentially amoral. In its raw form, its only concern is profit.  

To serve the profit objective, early capitalism developed the African slave trade and imperialism, and the misery and death entailed were of no concern.  Only the looniest devotee of Ayn Rand views this raw form as an ideal. The rest of us think markets will not solve every problem, and that other values, like fairness and compassion, are at least as important as profit.  

A lot of our climate crisis is related to unconstrained capitalism.  The highly subsidized fossil fuel industry accounts for a good part of our greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the disinformation campaign that supports climate change denialism.

It therefore came as a pleasant surprise when Larry Fink, the chairman of Black Rock, recently issued a call to arms regarding climate change.  Fink, who may be the world’s largest investor, issues an annual letter that the captains of industry read carefully and take seriously. This year he focused on sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  He presented this as a matter of preserving profitability, which will likely eventually go down if humans destroy more of the natural world. But of course, stopping global warming would have some other benefits, like saving millions and millions of lives.

In the letter, Fink also talked about the importance of “embracing purpose,” which he contrasted with simple concern for short-term profitability.  He seemed to be saying that companies need to do more than make as much money as possible for investors, and should take account of the interests of other stakeholders.  In other words, unalloyed capitalism needs to be alloyed with other values. 

When I was a lad, part of our national religion, along with veneration of capitalism,  was hatred and fear of communism. We were taught it was an evil force that would take over the world, unless we worked tirelessly to stop it.  This fear turned out to be exaggerated, though we wasted many thousands of lives and millions of dollars before we understood that.  

The upside of this sad history:  it’s harder now to get people panicked about considering socialist policy choices.  Bernie’s detractors will try the old time red scare tactics, but they probably won’t work.  Of the possible reasons for opposing Bernie, moral panic about socialism is the weakest.

 

Skiing at Aspen-Snowmass, and a close encounter with Mikaela

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Last week Sally and I did a ski trip to Aspen, Colorado.  We had some fresh snow early in the week, and it was sunny and cold for the rest of the time — excellent ski conditions!  And we had a meaningful encounter with Mikaela Shiffrin, one of the greatest skiers in history, now at the height of her powers.

This year, as usual, we had only five days of skiing, and as usual, the first day was a bit of a question mark.  Would we remember what we learned the previous year? Would we still have the necessary strength and gumption?

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We started out in Snowmass, the largest of the four Aspen areas.  We began by testing the steeper groomers, but soon found ourselves drawn to areas of fresh snow on the ungroomed trails.  By lunchtime, we were fully back in business, carving harder on the steeps, doing bigger bumps, and exploring other demanding terrain.  

At times, skiing is like flying, a powerful sensation of freedom and joy.  At other times, such as working through a deep mogul field, it’s more like working on a complex puzzle.  There’s a brief delight in fitting in a new piece, but no time to relax with a lot of loose pieces left.   

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Skiing a big mountain is an excellent laboratory for learning about  your emotions, and particularly fear. Over the years, we’ve extended our range of competence, and we go for longer stretches without encountering situations that are seriously scary.  But the big mountains are always holding something dramatic that we haven’t seen before. Now and again there’s a moment of “Uh-oh!”  

Managing fear is integral to the sport.  Once you’re up on the mountain, strong emotions can be paralyzing, but one way or another, you need to keep going and get back down.  The mountain helps you learn to calm down enough to think about a particular threat, and consider options given your existing skill set.  It teaches you where to look for some courage. Then you ski.  

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Anyhow, on this trip, we had a lot of blissful stretches, and very few uh oh moments.  We did three days at Snowmass and two days at Aspen Highlands. I rented Nordica Navigator 85s, 172 cm, which exceeded expectations carving on the groomers, and were wonderfully responsive in moguls. They were a bit jittery at higher speeds, and not very forceful in chopped terrain.  But they covered a wide range of conditions well, and I would happily ski them again. My Dalbello Panterra 100 boots did a good job communicating with my ski edges, and also kept my feet warm enough.

We stayed at The Inn at Aspen, which was actually at Buttermilk, rather than Aspen, where most of the restaurants and shops  are. We liked our room, which was roomy and relaxing. The staff was friendly and helpful, and there were regular vans and buses to Aspen and the other areas.  

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Buttermilk is the most beginner-friendly of the Aspen areas, which probably accounts for the high proportion of families with children staying there.   There were many cute little kids, and a few spoiled brats. A group of obnoxious seven-year-old boys were in the hot tub one day, splashing and shouting, and Sally gave them a serious talking to.  Maybe they, or their parents, learned something.

Aspen has a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous, which seems fair.  At lunch one day at Snowmass, we heard that Justin Bieber had just left the lodge where we were eating a few minutes before.  On one of our lift rides, a local told us about regular visits by Michelle Obama.  untitled-4016

We aren’t big celebrity hounds, but we had one thrilling celebrity encounter:  Mikaela! Now 24 (until next month), she was recently tagged by Sports Illustrated as “the world’s most dominant athlete.”  She was at Aspen Highlands practicing off the Thunderbolt lift, where we watched her do parts of four slalom runs. By the fourth gate, she was flying!  Each turn was a thing of terrifying beauty. She was the first skier ever to give me goose bumps. 

At the bottom of the run, we (with only a couple of other civilians) stood nearby as she got out of her padded spandex and into normal travelling gear.  She had six or seven identical-looking pairs of skis (Atomic Redsters) and an entourage of perhaps eight.  

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Mikaela’s dad, who was about my age, died very recently, and I’m sure it was hard for her.  She seemed pretty serious as a coach gave her some feedback, but she flashed a big smile when she did selfies with a couple of young racers.  We were standing close enough to speak to her, but I couldn’t think of anything to say, except, “I love you!”

Each evening, after hot tubbing, we took the shuttle into Aspen, and ate at one of its many fine restaurants.  We had good success in finding delicious plant- based options at Acquolina (Italian), Mi Chola (Mexican), Jing (Asian), and Campo de Fiori (Italian), and L’Hostaria (Italian).  We especially liked the Pyramid Bistro, a small place on the second floor of a bookstore, which bills itself as the world’s first nutritarian restaurant.

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My concussion, water birds, toxic masculinity, and submitting to Trump

Tundra swans taking off at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Those are sandhill cranes in the back.

This week I got back from several days of photographing water birds in North Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware.  I still haven’t managed to look at all the thousands of images, but I thought I’d go ahead and share here a few that I liked. 

I’m happy to report that I’m substantially recovered from my concussion of three weeks ago.  I got it on my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, when I somehow fell and hit my head on the wood floor, briefly losing consciousness.  I stayed in bed for the next couple of days because I couldn’t do much else.  

But gradually the queasiness, dizziness, and lightheadedness receded, and I started getting back to normal life.  Still, the experience shook me up. You just never know when you might get struck by a bolt from the blue.   

 

I got the images here during two workshops led by Mark Buckler, a master wildlife photographer and gifted teacher.  The first was in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in eastern N.C., where there were thousands of tundra swans and hundreds of thousands of snow geese, along with many interesting ducks, such as northern shovelers, pintails, and widgeons.  

The second workshop, immediately after the first, was in Cambridge, Maryland, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  There we saw hundreds of gorgeous water birds, including canvasbacks, widgeons, scaup, buffleheads, red heads, long tailed ducks, brants, and loons.  We also saw one red breasted merganser.  

A widgeon at Cambridge, Maryland

At times it was windy and cold, but it was fun watching the birds going about their lives — flying in, eating, socializing, squabbling, and flying out.  They’re all extraordinary creatures, as shown by the fact that they manage to stay alive in challenging environments. Some of them were not shy, and swam close to us.  I felt like they taught me something about connecting to other creatures and their surroundings and accepting life as it is.

Canvasbacks

I met some nice people on the trip, though I was surprised at times how difficult it was to connect.  Especially with guys of a certain age, like me, there’s typically a reluctance to engage. We’ve been conditioned to avoid exposing ourselves emotionally.  Hard to say what we’re afraid of. Maybe it’s just not seeming like a normal guy. So even those of us who care nothing about the Super Bowl will talk about it instead of something we actually care about.

Female canvasback

Peggy Orenstein had an interesting piece recently about masculine ideals in The Atlantic: The Miseducation of the American Boy,  Her thesis seems to be that we socialize males toward an ideal that is ultimately sad and lonely.  We’re taught to be tough and unemotional. We’re not supposed to show vulnerability. And so we wall ourselves off from others, especially other males.  Over time, a lot of us end up isolated and emotionally crippled, and that’s just part of the problem. The masculine ideal for some incorporates misogyny, homophobia, and racism.  

A northern pintail at Mattamuskeet

Of course, there are plenty of males who don’t conform to the broad stereotype.  And Orenstein doesn’t seem to think that toxic masculinity is immutable. People can change.  It’s just hard. I’ve found that mindfulness meditation helps in understanding unhelpful thought patterns and developing better ones.  A useful, free resource is the Insight Timer app, which is here .

A scaup at Cambridge

Anyhow, if you have a child, a friend, or a self that’s a typical male, they can use your compassion.  We need to rethink how we teach our kids and quit pushing boys to be “manly” in a soul-destroying way.  Meanwhile, girls get socialized in different limiting stereotypes, while they’re taught to expect and accept toxic masculinity. Instead, we need to teach our kids and ourselves how to better understand emotions, relax gender stereotypes, and develop empathy and compassion.  

Snow geese taking off from a field at Pocosin Lakes

It’s been a tough few days for liberals — so much so that I was tempted to give up discussing politics, at least for a while.  Seeing a majority of the U.S. Senate publicly and dramatically affirm their support for the obviously corrupt and unconstitutional conduct of our unlikely President was jarring and demoralizing.  It does not inspire confidence in our system, or in our fundamental decency. And that’s putting it mildly. It makes you wonder, how much farther down can we go till we hit bottom?    

 

While I’m tempted to extend the discussion of the craven shamelessness of the Republican congresspeople, plenty of others have covered that ground.  The question that I’m interested in is, why? What accounts for a mass defection from some of our most fundamental values, like upholding the rule of law and respect for truth?

Part of the answer seems to lie in the cultural strain I was just discussing of toxic masculinity.  The prized characteristics of toughness and emotional disconnection have been fully on display. There’s a tie between bro culture and Trumpism that’s evident in the exaggerated display of virility and the hostility towards those who are different.  

For strong evidence, see a blessedly concise collection  from the vast cesspool of poisonous discharges from the man that Trump just saw fit to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Yes, Rush Limbaugh. A sample: “Feminism was established so unattractive ugly broads could have easy access to the mainstream.”

The Republican legislators are tough all right — so tough that they’ll fight reality itself!  Their anger and hatred of liberals is so strong that it defeats their own respect for truth. Of course, they’re also fearful that they’ll lose their privileged positions if they oppose Trump. 

In a recent op ed piece, James Comey, formerly of the FBI, addressed the question of how principled, decent Republicans can continue to support a President who is thoroughly unprincipled.   He pointed up the power of fear and group think.  He reminded me that that’s how people are — prone to surrender their morality to the group, forgetting that the group is often led by the loudest and worst of us.  

As Comey suggested, all or most of us have had moments when we abdicated responsibility and went along with the group doing something we ended up regretting.  Staying together with our tribe is almost instinctive. But our mothers taught us to try to think for ourselves, and not just go along with the group.  To do what’s right even when it’s scary and difficult.  Sometimes we find the strength and courage to do that.

Anyhow, I liked how Comey managed to replace some of his anger at Trumpist Republicans with an effort at understanding and compassion.  As he said, they’re just people, and their weaknesses are understandable. As I said, people can change, and there’s always some possibility that they’ll change for the better.  If not, we’ve still got some of our framework of democracy, and we can organize and vote.  

 

Farewell to Sunflower’s, the dastardly Wall project, and The Great Derangement

Snow geese at Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

I was in Raleigh this week, and didn’t take any new photographs of note, but I had quite a few to work through of the more than 5,000 I took in Bosque del Apache, NM.  It sounds like a lot, but they add up fast when you shoot at 9 frames per second. The high frame rate helps in capturing different aspects of the birds in flight, but it also means there are a lot of images to analyze, which takes time and energy.  Anyhow, here are a few more Bosque shots that I liked.

Sandhill cranes

On Friday I went over to Sunflower’s Cafe, which has for a long time been my favorite neighborhood lunch spot, and noticed that the parking lot, which was normally pretty full, was empty.  I peered inside, and saw that the furniture was gone. The place had closed.

Sunflower’s invented several marvelous  vegetarian sandwiches  that they served in a bright, friendly space.  I felt happy and healthy having lunch there. I’ll never forget when I ordered the Portobello Ellen, and the friendly young woman taking my order said, “I’m Ellen.”  Her mom, the proprietor, had invented the sandwich when she was a baby.  But Ellen said that she wasn’t a fan of portobello mushrooms.  

I later learned from the News & Observer that there are plans for a hotel to go where Sunflower’s used to be.  No hotel will give me as much pleasure as Sunflower’s did.

Speaking of construction, I heard further news of The Wall this week.  The Wall has until now been a right-wing fantasy project, with much tough talk and little actual building.  Its alleged purpose is to address a non-existent problem — hordes of invading criminal Latin Americans. Just as the premise is a lie, the solution is bogus — defensive walls have been obsolete since the Middle Ages, and this one won’t stop anyone not in a wheelchair.  

Yet the idea of The Wall does serve a purpose:  whipping up fear of impoverished and desperate Latin Americans.  Sad to say, the idea seems effective in inflaming the folks who go to Trump’s rallies.  

Trump is raiding the military budget to get more money for this sad and absurd boondoggle.   And NPR reported that the project could cost $11 billion — the most expensive wall in the history of the world.  

We could use that money to build more unnecessary weapons of war, or we could just hand out bags of public money to corrupt building contractors.  In fact, almost anything would be better than actually building The Wall. A lot of the debate about the project omits that it will be an environmental disaster.  It will affect an estimated 1,500 species of animals and plants, including some that are endangered.  Species that need to move about in that area to survive will be trapped. 

Part of The Wall project apparently involves ignoring such environmental impacts.  It’s a fair example of our leaders’ mind set — willful ignorance of climate and other looming disasters, and indifference to the lives of both humans and other species.  

Admittedly, it’s not easy to know how to think about climate change — the scale boggles and scrambles the mind.  Amitav Ghosh addressed this problem in his recent book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which I just finished reading.  

Ghosh, an Indian scholar and writer primarily known as a novelist, points out that the modern novel has largely failed to address the central issue of our time.  He has a lot of interesting things to say about the strange failure of much modern art to grapple with climate change, and also about the relation of imperialism to reckless greenhouse gas emissions. He points out that the most numerous early victims of rising sea levels will be poor people in China, India and less developed countries.  This could, he thinks, partially explain the West’s inaction — some might view the death of millions of Chinese as in the US’s interest.  

Could we really be that despicably callous?  Maybe so. Can we move from there to a mindset of caring and kindness , and of decency and generosity?  That could be the great construction project of our time.

 

Big birds in New Mexico, what we can do about climate change, and rereading Portnoy’s Compliant

Snow geese at Bosque del Apache

Last week I flew out to New Mexico for a photography workshop at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.  I stayed in the Econolodge at Socorro, NM, which was a 25 minute drive from the refuge. My primary objective was to spend time with and photograph the big flocks of sandhill cranes and snow geese that stay there for the winter.  The pictures here are a few of the ones I got.  

At the Econolodge, my room smelled a little strange, but it seemed clean and had the essentials:  towels, toilet paper, and a comfortable bed. The magnetic key cards quit working, so I had to make extra visits to the desk clerk to get remagnetized, but she was friendly.  Also, they had those anti-theft coat hangers, with hooks that won’t come off the rod. It’s a little depressing to think that your innkeeper is worried that a meaningful segment of the clientele is apt to steal coat hangers.

Sandhill cranes getting an early flight

 

Our group was led by three experienced and supportive pros:  Mark Buckler, Keith Bauer, and Don Toothaker. When we were out in the field, they solved problems and gave tips.  Once the sun was well up, we had classroom sessions at the Bosque (prevailing local pronunciation: Boss-key) visitors’ center.  I picked up a lot of helpful ideas from Mark, Keith, and Don, and also from my fellow shutterbugs.  

 

In addition to trying for sharp shots of the birds in flight, I experimented with using slow shutter speeds while panning to show some motion in the birds’ wings.  I also used some new-to-me settings to get bird silhouettes at sunrise and sunset.  

 

I tried to get something of the strange beauty of the place, with distant mountains, desert, and the streams and ponds of Bosque.  There’s a warm, glowing quality to the light there.  

After the workshop ended on Sunday afternoon, I drove a couple of hours north to visit Santa Fe.  I stayed at the Inn of the Governors, a charming hotel right downtown. The decor was affectionately southwestern (mostly Native American themes), and it had various amenities not found at the Econolodge, like a cucumber-flavored drinking water, bathrobes, and ordinary wood coat hangers.  

On Monday I walked around central Santa Fe.  There are many luxury goods shops, art galleries, and restaurants.  I visited the San Miguel Chapel, which claims to be the oldest church in the continental US (begun in 1610).  

A friendly docent told me how the church was partially destroyed when the Pueblo Indians rose up against the Spanish and drove them out in 1680.  As I told her, this was not a chapter of history that got taught in my student days.  

I also went to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum.  O’Keefe spent a fair bit of time in New Mexico and in her later years lived north of Santa Fe.  I’ve never been crazy about her paintings, but I liked her affection for nature and her story: a strong, bold, creative woman.

 

In the afternoon, I drove north to Nambe, with the idea of learning a little more about Pueblo culture.  Relying on Google navigation, I sped along US-84 through desert landscape, passing by some casinos.  The Navigator directed me off the highway and after several turns, she said I’d arrived in Nambe. It seemed to be just ordinary houses of rural working people.   I guess I learned something.  

Also, the land is mostly brown, with low, scrubby plants.  It looks dry, and it is. New Mexico does not have much water.  It reminded me of parts of Australia. And that reminded me of the horrific fires that have been burning for weeks in Australia.  So far the fatalities to birds, mammals, and reptiles are estimated at more than 1 billion.  

 

 

If what’s happening to Australia doesn’t get you thinking about climate change, what will?  Maybe nothing. As Paul Krugman pointed out last week, climate change denialists seem unmoved by this and other massive disasters.    

On a more hopeful note, Emma Marris had an op ed last week titled How to Stop Freaking Out and Tackle Climate Change.    Her basic idea is, quit feeling guilty about needing a car or heating your home and get to work with others on pushing for economic and political change — better laws, regulations, and treaties.  And remember to think about what is still possible: a greener world, with healthier humans and other life regrouping and recovering.  

Mule deer

On my last morning in Santa Fe, either my alarm didn’t go off or I turned it off without actually waking up.  Anyhow, I missed my 6:24 flight by 10 minutes. American declined to give me another ticket, which was disappointing — airlines used to at least try to be helpful.  In any case they didn’t have another flight that day. The only realistic option was a United flight out of Albuquerque through Chicago that afternoon.  

It was a little painful to have to shell out for another plane ticket and an Uber ride to Albuquerque, but I enjoyed talking to my driver.  He’d grown up in Kathmandu, Nepal, and thought I should definitely visit there. He told me about hiking in the Himalayas, doing a safari in Chitwan National Park (Bengal tigers!), and the happiest people on earth.  And hotels and food are cheap! I’m putting it on the list.

Snow geese with blackbirds

On the trip back to Raleigh I started re-reading Portnoy’s Complaint.  The novel is in the form of a monologue therapy session of a youngish man about growing up in a very Jewish, middle class family in Newark, New Jersey.  When it came out in 1969, the book was considered quite scandalous for its episodes on masturbation and other bodily functions.  

From my reading of some forty years ago, I remembered it as very funny and outrageous.  On re-reading, I still enjoyed the sex scenes, and still found the deep shame both sad and cringingly hilarious.  But this time I was more struck by Roth’s insight into the complexities of family love.  

Roth’s Alex Portnoy is a hyper-verbal, self-obsessed jerk, but he slowly recognizes that the family he finds so limited and embarrassing is part of him, and profoundly loving.  The book is far from fully enlightened in matters of race and gender. But it does what great novels do: reveal human truths that can’t be reached any other way.

Snow geese taking off at sunrise

 

 

Our dive trip to Cozumel, and a word on behalf of science

French angelfish

For Christmas, Sally put together a scuba diving trip to  Cozumel, Mexico with our dear ones — Gabe, Jocelyn, and Kyle (our new son-in-law).   Our travel went smoothly, the weather was warm and pleasant, and the diving was revealing.

We stayed at the Hotel Cozumel and Resort, which has a large swimming pool surrounded by palm trees, as well as a small sandy area near the boat dock.  For non-diving afternoons, we lounged about, read, and enjoyed pina coladas. Jocelyn, serving as our dinner concierge, found us some outstanding restaurants, including Kinta, Kondesa, and Alfredo di Roma Trattoria, and we had some good conversations with good laughs. 

But the main event for four days was the diving.  Each morning, we took boat rides of an hour or so along the coast to the south and did two dives of about an hour each.  Our depths were mostly between 40 and 80 feet, with visibility from about 60 to 70 feet. The current was strong at times, and good for drift diving.  Water temperatures at bottom were a pleasant 81 or 82 degrees Fahrenheit.   

Gray angelfish

Even in our small area, there was a lot of variation in the marine life.  Some of the coral seemed healthy and colorful, and other parts were brown and mossy, or bleached.  There were a lot of small tropical fish with vibrant colors. Among the most enjoyable tropicals: angelfish (queen, French, and gray), butterflyfish (four-eye, banded), blue tangs, surgeonfish, durgons, trumpetfish, queen triggerfish, honecomb cowfish, balloonfish, porcupinefish, smooth trunkfish, whitespotted filefish, stoplight parrotfish, yellowtail snappers, and French grunts.  We also saw a few barricudas, a few green moray eels, a few spotted morays, a few yellow stringrays, two magnificent spotted eagle rays, and one southern stingray.

We had no turtles until the last day, and then saw four Hawksbills on one dive (which was also the one dive when my camera malfunctioned). We were hoping to see nurse and reef sharks, as we have on previous trips here, but never did.

Gabe gives a thumbs up

I’m sure being a reef fish is tough at times, but in our reef visits most of the residents seemed at ease.  Some were clearly aware of us, and while some were shy, others were curious. Spending time close to them was both thrilling and wonderfully calming.  Looking hard at the animals and trying to understand them better gives new perspectives on ourselves.    

French grunts

Of course we’re worried about the future of the Cozumel coral reef ecosystem, as many coral reefs around the world are dying.  According to the IPCC, between 70 and 90 percent of coral reefs will perish by 2052 if global warming continues at present levels.    This would have a devastating impact on all ocean life, not to mention human life that depends on ocean life.  

Queen angelfish

But nature is amazingly resilient, and it’s certainly possible that we’ll figure out a way to stop killing coral reefs and other ecosystems.  It will take some work, though, since we’ve barely begun to understand the workings of reef systems. More research is needed.

This is yet another reason why we need to boot Trump:  Trump’s war on science. As the NY Times reported last week, Trumpians are shutting down federally supported science programs left and right, and threatening scientists who call attention to climate change and other health risks.  Scientists with specialized and essential knowledge are getting let go or quitting government service, leaving us less and less able to address our emergencies. This is perverse!  

Porcupinefish

A part of the explanation is probably the drive for more profits by fossil fuel, mining, agribusiness, and other corporate interests.  Preventing greater understanding and control of the damage they’re doing to the planet is certainly in their self interest. But at the same time, corporate interests need scientific knowledge to manage risks, and the oligarchs have to live on the same planet as the rest of us.  There must be more to it.  

Very possibly Trump’s war on science is driven by the same malign impulses as has his war on the mainstream media. Both science and the media increase knowledge and understanding, which is at cross purposes with Trumpism.  Science and serious media tend to undermine the administration’s preference for hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and ignorance. They give a basis for sensible political action, while their absence leaves an information vacuum that causes mass confusion and promotes political apathy.  

Jocelyn and Kyle say hi

There are all kinds of problems inherent in science — unacknowledged bias, methodological errors, and even occasional intentional fraud.  Individual scientists are as subject to intellectual and moral failings as the rest of us. However, the community of scientists is built for self-correction, so that errors by some scientists are often called out by other scientists.  The background methods of science have been amazingly successful over the last four centuries in increasing knowledge about the natural world and increasing human well being.   

Queen triggerfish

Science as a system isn’t perfect, but it’s the best way we’ve come up with so far for understanding the world and addressing its problems.  It’s just bizarre that the richest, most technologically advanced country in history would systematically try to squelch it.  Even leaving aside every other Trump criminality, cruelty, and stupidity, Trump’s war on science is reason enough to vote him out.    

Sally says bye

 

Cold first flights, and a thought experiment — forget the rule of law

 

It was cold here this week, and it took some willpower to get up while it was still dark and roll out to check on the birds.  But I did it, making it to Shelley Lake just after sunrise to listen to the geese honking and watch them take their first flights of the day.  Each bird and each group bird is a little different. As the sunlight hits the trees on the far side of the lake, the calm dark water turns orange and green.  

As always, it was calming and invigorating to spend some time beside the still water with the geese, ducks, herons, gulls, eagles, and song birds.  But there were challenges. One day my hands got so cold I couldn’t feel the shutter button on my camera.  But fortunately, I didn’t get frostbite, and I wore heavier gloves after that.   

My more serious pain issue now is from the Trump impeachment fireworks.  Last week I suggested that too much anger, hysteria, and other strong emotions are a big part of our polarization problem, and we need to calm down.  I admit, I was thinking the Trumpians might need calming more than me, but I’ll also admit, I’m finding I greatly need it.    

I was stunned and sickened when the Republican legislators repeatedly declared this week that the investigation of Trump  was a sham. They said it was a hoax, a witch hunt, and a dastardly sneak attack on America. They compared their Democratic colleagues to those who crucified Jesus!  What they did not do was acknowledge the voluminous evidence of Trump’s serious misconduct, much less attempt to rebut it.  

I keep trying to understand this world view, in which Trump is the innocent victim of the evil Democrats.  As I’ve said before, part of the explanation seems to be tribal loyalty and fear of being cast out of the tribe, but a big part of it seems to be raw anger and hatred of Democrats, fueled by the Fox-led propaganda machine and reinforced by group-think.  The Republicans seem to be projecting their hatred of Democrats onto Democrats. That is, they seem to think the real problem is Democrats’ blind hatred of Trump, rather than what Trump did.  

Perhaps in the Republican mind this justifies dismissing the evidence against Trump as a sham.  In this mind, their obstruction of the process, obfuscating, repeating diversionary lies, and promoting wingnut conspiracy views are all the lesser of evils, necessary to combat the greater of evils (that is, Democrats).

Whatever the causes, I’ve been expecting the Republican fever to break (as Michelle Goldberg put it in her column yesterday).  I’ve thought that eventually the dissonance between reality and their alt-reality would become untenable.  Surely loyalty to the nation, honesty, and honor would eventually prevail. But the hearings this week and the lack of any indication of diverging views among Senate Republicans have made me think (along with Goldberg), that I may have been mistaken.  We may be starting a new normal.

The Republicans’ unqualified support for Trump is probably more corrosive of our democracy than Trump’s own misconduct.  Let me explain.  We’ve only got two major parties, and one of them is signaling that there is nothing — no crime or constitutional violation — that a president of their party can commit that they will deem disqualifying.  If that turns out to be their final position, the president will no longer be subject to our traditional system of checks and balances. That is, the president will not be subject to the rule of law. That would be a big change in the very idea of law.  

Great blue heron

So it doesn’t seem premature to consider the possibility that without much reflection we’re about to dramatically change our system of government.  How will life be different if the legislature and the courts exert no authority over the supreme leader, and the law has force and meaning only when it suits the leader?

In fact, there are already a number of systems like that.  I’m thinking of China, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and the list goes on.  And more appear to be coming on line. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen to democracy in India, Hungary, Brazil, Poland, the Philippines, and that list also goes on.  

I wouldn’t volunteer to be a citizen of China or other authoritarian, but of course life in any of those places wouldn’t be all bad.  There would be many of the things we enjoy and value now, like friends and family, art and entertainment, adventures and sports, good food and wine.  There would be beautiful forests, mountains, and ocean waves. The swans would still swim in lakes and mount the air.

Hooded mergansers

But without protections for a free press or free speech, opposition to the regime would gradually fall silent.  Normal life would not include any meaningful political participation. There would be no limits on arbitrary state violence.  

Just as now, our leaders would act out of ordinary human impulses like greed and the lust for power, but unlike now, there would be nothing to check those impulses.   Just as now, our leaders could harbor racism, misogyny, xenophobia, anti-gay bias, and hatred of political opponents, but unlike now, no law would generally prevent violent action against targeted groups.  Just as now, there would be powerful propaganda and wacky conspiracy theories, but fewer and fewer rebuttals based on reality.  

Mallards

This is depressing, I realize.  So I should also say I don’t think any of this is inevitable.  I heard a podcast recently recounting a few cases where people had fallen out of planes for thousands of feet, hit a kindly tree branch or a snowbank, and survived.  Sometimes, even when it looks like all is lost, you catch a lucky break.  

But rather than count on a long-shot miracle, we’d better start coping with the reality we’ve got — the reality that is obscured by overwhelming fear and hatred.  Unless we figure out a way to overcome that fear and hatred, we’re in big trouble. The place to start is with ourselves. In first aid training, they teach you that the first thing to do in an emergency is stop and think.  Take a moment to calm down. Take some deep breaths.

New bird views, meditating for health, and the Trumpian take on liberals

 

With the chilly and rainy weather this week, I didn’t get out for any nature photography.  I missed seeing the birds, but was glad to have some extra time to experiment with photo processing. I’ve been improving my Lightroom and Photoshop skills, and learning how to use Nik, Topaz, and Luminar software.  Along with various failures and frustrations, I’ve discovered some new possibilities.  

These images are revisions of recent shots.  When I first made them, I was excited to be able to see details that were generally invisible to the human eye.  Looking at them again reminded me of the joy of just looking at the birds and sharing their world.  Trying out new software tools to the images made me look at the animals in new ways.  

Like most everyone, I generally think of reality as fixed and solid, though I also try to keep in mind that there are other ways to think about it.  Along that line, I’m currently reading Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime, by Sean Carroll. Carroll is a research professor of theoretical physics at CalTech.  He gives a lively account of the main ideas of quantum theory, including the mind-bending oddities, such as entanglement (particles affecting the behavior of distant particles).  

For all its remarkable theoretical and practical achievements, Carroll admits that quantum physics is incomplete, lacking in a broadly accepted paradigm.  He is supportive of the Many Worlds theory, which holds that the best explanation of quantum phenomena is that our universe is only one of a great many. I’d thought that Many Worlds was some sort of game for deep science nerds, but he convinced me that it’s more than that. 

More research is required.  Anyway, along with our enormous universe, there could be many others, some with beings like us that we can never communicate with.  That seems less farfetched after experiencing the polarization of US politics, and most recently the Trump impeachment hearings.

 

Watching Republican legislators last week was, for me, surreal.  Asked to address hard evidence that Trump had acted in direct opposition to US policy on Ukraine in order to benefit himself, they tried various maneuvers, including objecting to procedures, talking about conspiracies, and babbling and shouting incoherently — seemingly anything to avoid the issue.

I couldn’t watch for long — it was just too painful.  But I saw enough to conclude that these Republicans had very strong feelings.  They were very emotional. I had been assuming that they were cynical hypocrites, with little regard for the public interest or much of anything other than their own selfish interests.  

But their anger seemed sincere.  So I decided to work with the assumption that they sincerely believed that Trump had done nothing wrong and was the victim of an evil witch hunt by liberals.  I wondered how, in spite of a mountain of evidence pointing in the opposite direction, such a belief could arise.

Part of the story is surely Trump’s attacks on the mainstream press.  By calling every report that is unfavorable to him “fake news,” Trump seems to have thought that he could create doubt and confusion about facts that were otherwise uncontested.  And, amazingly, he may have been right.

I originally assumed that no thinking person would buy the fake news idea.  After all, Trump has such a long record of compulsive lying on matters large and small that the most reasonable assumption about his latest statement is that it is false.  He also reflexively resorts to the schoolkid move of flipping any attack, as in, “You can’t say I’m a bully — you’re the bully!” As his preferred “news” organ, Fox News, beams out praise for him and attacks on his opponents without regard to reality, it makes a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland sense that he’d call all other news “fake.”  

The traditional media has struggled to survive in an online world, with newspapers closing left and right.  But other than the Trumpian claims, there’s no reason to think that our long established and respected media organs, like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, have switched from their traditional business of reporting on actual events in a relatively balanced way to just making things up.  The charge of fakeness generally comes with no back up evidence or proposed corrections.  But the claim of “fake news” seems to really resonate with Republicans.

Why?  I have some ideas.  First, there’s the information bubble.  Our online world has made it easy to surround oneself entirely with information sources that fit one’s own preferences and biases, and avoid any contrary information.  Fox News has been a trailblazer in the dark art of stylish disinformation, while Facebook, Twitter, and others have enabled the creation of alternative realities.

At the same time, human thought processes are far from reliable.  Our brains are generally subject to confirmation bias, which makes us tend to believe what fits with our prior beliefs.  We avoid cognitive dissonance, or information that calls into question those beliefs.  We are prone to mistakes based on our likes and dislikes.  We’re also inclined to think whatever the tribe says we should think.  Even with the calmest, most rational among us are subject to these tendencies. 

And Trumpism does not encourage calmness and rationality.  It encourages fear and anger. Trumpism sounds the alarm as to various non-existent threats that are declared to be dire:  hordes of brown-skinned people invading across the southern border so they can rape and pillage and take over jobs, minorities that are predominantly criminals, child molesting gays, secularists destroying traditional religion, Jews, etc.  

But the most dire, most hated threat in the Trumpian universe is liberals.  This is so bizarre that it took a long time for liberals to see it.  Liberals thought they were engaged in ordinary life and politics, in which having diverse views was normal.  That is, liberals thought of themselves as normal people, and of Trumpian Republicans as basically normal people who just disagreed with them.  Liberals assumed the feeling was mutual. 

That turned out to be wrong.  In the Trumpian world view, liberals are not just ordinary political opponents.  They are a threat to the social  order and basic values. They are subhuman animals. They are evil.  

As Michelle Goldberg recently pointed out in a good op ed piece, Trump treats liberals as “the enemy” and subjects them to a constant barrage of dehumanizing propaganda.  Liberals are “scum.” Repetition and amplification by Fox News and its allies fills the Trumpians’ information bubble.  

So the Republican legislators’ recent behavior — the lies, the insults, the shouting — probably seems to them well justified.  Fearful for their careers and their tribe, they feel that they’re under violent attack and must defend themselves.  For them, facts that implicate Trump are ipso facto just “fake news.” Those who say otherwise are evil liberals. 

When we get excited or scared, it’s much harder to think reasonably and to be our best selves.  This is one of the reasons I spend some time every day doing mindfulness meditation.  It settles me down emotionally. It also helps in understanding more about how the mind works, and recognizing that it is just the mind.  For a timer, I use a free app called Insight Timer,  which also has a collection of good instructive talks.  I’ve also benefited from the guided meditations from an app called Calm.  

 

The end of fall, a photo contest, a piano event, and considering impeachment

 

The fall colors have faded here in recent days, and the trees have dropped most of their leaves.  Most mornings I stood in the cold by Shelley Lake with my camera waiting for the first light and the birds. A few minutes after sunrise, the Canada geese took off with much honking and splashing.  For a few minutes, the calm water reflected the forest colors. Every so often, a bald eagle swept over the water, probably looking for a fish, but not catching one when I was looking. The great blue herons changed fishing spots every ten or fifteen minutes, while flocks of ring billed gulls wheeled about.  I enjoyed watching the birds and got a few shots I liked, which are here.  

I’ve been looking at a lot of nature photography as part of the Carolina Nature Photographers Association annual members’ choice contest, which I entered this year.  I certainly learned something in the process of choosing and polishing a few images, and am learning more from reviewing hundreds of competing landscapes, wildlife shots, and macro subjects.  It would be gratifying to place in this competition, but I’m not counting on it, since there are quite a few excellent images that could arguably be viewed as the best.

 

I also learned some things from my first piano performance at Presto, a group of amateur pianists that regularly play for each other in members’ houses.  While playing the piano has been one of the joys of my life, I’ve had few opportunities to share the music that I’ve loved with people who feel similarly.  I’ve viewed engaging with Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and others primarily as music therapy, bringing me happiness and sanity.  But music is inherently social, and sharing it is important.

The Presto group in Raleigh includes some nice people who enjoy classical music and play at various levels, including some who are highly accomplished.  I felt some trepidation as I took on a fairly demanding piece, Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat, Op. 27, No. 2. But preparing helped me see some new aspects of it.  The actual performance was not entirely fun. At one point I felt like the hands attached to my arms were not my own, and they were not playing my best. But it wasn’t a disaster, and I appreciated several kind words.    

 

Meanwhile, I’ve been following the Trump impeachment proceedings with a particular question in mind:  what is the deal with Republican leaders? For my friends who are occupied with matters more important than American politics, here’s the nutshell from the new House impeachment report:

The impeachment inquiry has found that President Trump, personally and acting through agents within and outside of the U.S. government, solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, to benefit his reelection.  In furtherance of this scheme, President Trump conditioned official acts on a public announcement by the new Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, of politically-motivated investigations, including one into President Trump’s domestic political opponent.  In pressuring President Zelensky to carry out his demand, President Trump withheld a White House meeting desperately sought by the Ukrainian President, and critical U.S. military assistance to fight Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine. 

As my friend, Michael Gerhardt of UNC Law School, said (roughly), if Trump’s conduct is not impeachable, nothing is.   His written statement is here.   Key comments from the other testifying law professors are here.    On Friday a group of more than 500 law professors issued an open letter supporting impeachment. 

 

And the key facts really aren’t in dispute.  But Republican legislators are, at least publicly, united in support of doing nothing.  Trying to fathom what may be in their heads, I’ve considered various motives, but the most persuasive to me is fear.  Cory Booker mentioned this in a podcast interview with David Remnick a few weeks back.  Asked to explain why his Senate colleagues didn’t speak out, he said they were afraid.

I think what Booker meant was that they feared that their careers would be destroyed by Trump forces if they departed from Trumpism.  But there may be a related and deeper fear:  being separated from the tribe.  

For social animals, including humans, the need to be part of the tribe, herd, or flock is fundamental.  The individual cannot survive except as part of the group. Members of the tribe will tolerate bad leadership, as long as it’s not as bad as the highly risky alternative of isolation.

Of course, people do sometimes leave their tribes, and tribes splinter and re-form.  The really interesting question is how bad does it have to get?  In particular, what would the Trumpians have to do to exceed ordinary Republicans’ boundaries of tolerance?   I would have thought that subverting U.S. foreign policy for personal gain would qualify. But then again, I used to think that obvious fraud (like Trump University and the Trump charity), encouraging racist violence, bragging about sexual assault, and separating immigrant children from parents each would each be more than enough.  And that’s before we get to the attacks on the free press, undermining our traditional alliances like NATO, supporting recognized enemies like Russia, and threatening nuclear annihilation.  The list goes on.  

So it’s really hard to say.  But I’m trying to keep in mind that, even if we go over the constitutional cliff, it’s not because the Trumpian legislators are evil.  They’re just humans. And they might be persuaded to change course. That means it’s worth continuing the conversation.  

Some flying birds, and some Thanksgiving myth-busting

 

This Thanksgiving week I’ve been trying hard to get to Shellie Lake at sunrise.  The birds usually start flying shortly after that in the warm fall colors. As I went to the same place every day, it seemed like the birds seemed to be getting used to me.  One group of geese swam to the shore close to me and started out of the water. Just then a jogger came along the path, and they retreated.  I didn’t necessarily think they liked me better, but most likely they  preferred the familiar to the unfamiliar — just like us.  

We had a happy Thanksgiving dinner with family, and of course thought about some of the many things we had to be grateful for.  One of those things was new this year: I was grateful that there were several pieces of mainstream journalism on the truth behind the traditional Thanksgiving story—  in the NY Times (here and here), the Washington Post (here), and elsewhere.   They pointed out that the story most of us were taught significantly distorts the history of early English colonialists and their relation to North America’s indigenous peoples.  

This is a chapter of American history that still gets little attention in our basic history courses, and it’s uncomfortable. It’s hard to feel good about the colonists’ attacking and in some cases destroying civilizations.   But pretending it was otherwise is even more problematic. 

The traditional Thanksgiving story is tricky, because the superficial lesson is a sweet one of racial harmony.  But the more subtle message is about the racial superiority of the colonists and the inferiority of the “savages.”  That second message — that the white race is superior — continues to infect our society. Some of its victims (surviving Native Americans) are still with us.  We owe Native Americans a lot, as the traditional story acknowledges. We can cultivate respect for them, and work towards realizing the racial harmony of that story.  

President Trump has issued a call to arms against those who supposedly want to declare a “War on Thanksgiving.”  The point seems to be sort of like the supposed “War on Christmas” — that is, generating fear and outrage in the Republican base at any challenges to traditional practices, be they religious, consumerist, or just old habits.

 

It took me a long time to realize that there are real people who are genuinely triggered by this bogus fearmongering.  They are highly susceptible to false claims that their values and way of life are under attack by liberals. When they watch Fox News, they hear such claims all the time, and they get angry and afraid.  They are encouraged to believe that the true cause of their anger and fear is liberals. So they really hate liberals!

This is the best explanation I can come up with for a good portion of Republicans continuing to support Trump.  No matter how clear the evidence of his high crimes and misdemeanors, they see him as a lesser evil than the evil liberals.  

There’s no clear path out of this level of polarization, which calls to mind the dehumanization of wartime enemies (remember “Krauts” and “Japs”?).  But I’m still hopeful that the fever will eventually break. After all, we’re now pretty good friends with the Germans and Japanese.

Anyhow, just so we’re clear, I’m not suggesting a war on Thanksgiving.  And I’d like to throw out a few last notes of respect and gratitude for people who are risking much struggling for human dignity and the planet, including students fighting for democracy in Hong Kong, Europeans protesting consumerism and environmental irresponsibility, South Americans protesting corruption and inequality, and many others.  Let us all give thanks for those brave souls, and perhaps find in ourselves something of their courage.