The Casual Blog

Tag: birds

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.

Catching local birds flying, and considering their lives and ours (including improved eating)

We’ve been happily not traveling lately, and instead I’ve been keeping an eye out for the creatures and fall colors in the Raleigh parks.  Several mornings a week I’ve been getting up early, bundling up, and hauling my photography equipment to Shelley Lake, Umstead, Durant, or another nearby green space.  The eagles at Shelley Lake are working on a new nest, and I caught one that had just caught a fish. I enjoyed watching the Canada geese and mallards flying in groups, and blue herons working on nests.

The NY Times had a good story this week about vulturine guineaflowl and their surprising abilities.  These east African birds have relatively small brains, but surprisingly complex social organizations.  It made me think there may still be a lot to learn about the lives and talents of the birds we take for granted, like our common ducks and geese.  

It seems to me self evident that their lives have value, and as a matter of basic morality we owe them respect and consideration.  So I’ve been struggling with how to think about the current crisis. Bird populations in North America have declined by almost 30 percent in the last 50 years. That’s about 3 billion dead birds.  See the Cornell Ornithology report.  There are various factors (habitat loss, pesticides, pet cats), but the root cause is us.  Our systems and lifestyles have resulted in an ongoing bird holocaust.  

The latest Audubon magazine acknowledged the tragedy, but stressed that there’s a lot we can do save a lot of wildlife.  It discusses not just political leadership and technical initiatives, but also how we can be more responsible in our own traveling, yard care, eating, and other areas.  Things are not hopeless — just desperate — and we are not powerless.  

Apropos of change for the better, Sally and I tried a new (to us) restaurant last week:  Soca at Cameron Village, and loved it! It has great, modern-but-warm look, and features various interesting small plates (tapas).  We were delighted when our friendly waiter alerted us to the vegan menu, and found several interesting dishes to try. Everything was delicious.  N.B., prices were at the special-occasion level.

We also watched on Netflix a recent documentary on eating better:  The Game Changers. It presented some world class athletes and public figures, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had made the switch from meat to plant food, with no regrets.  It addressed some of the misunderstandings around plant-based eating, including the myth that you can’t get enough protein, and showed that living free of animal products is consistent with high-level athletic performance.  You also get a lowered risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.  

Of course, the health benefits of a plant-based diet are only one of the excellent reasons to quit eating meat.   You also reduce the torture and killing of animals and the huge amounts of greenhouse gases from factory farming. Anyhow, I recommend the film.

I also recommend Sam Harris’s latest Making Sense podcast, in which Harris interviews Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and religious skeptic.  It is really a bracing discussion of some cutting edge science.  

Dawkins is well-spoken and entertaining, and, it turns out, knows almost nothing about insight meditation.  Harris, who is also a meditation teacher, gave Dawkins an impromptu lesson which also taught me a few things.  Among other points, he noted that meditation helps us not by giving new ideas, but rather by letting us drop a lot of useless and distracting concepts, which allows us to see our reality with more clarity.  The podcast is here 

Beautiful birds

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

It took me a long time, but I finally faced a tough fact:  if you really want to see wildlife around here, you have to get up when it’s still dark.  I adjusted my routine recently, and instead of starting the day with a gym work out, I’ve been grabbing my camera bag and tripod and pushing up to one of Raleigh’s parks.  

Canada geese coming in low

Shelley Lake has been my primary target these last couple of weeks.  I’ve been watching squadrons of Canada geese and mallards practicing their flying, while I try to figure out how to catch them in the early light.  From time to time, a great blue heron or great egret scoots by. I heard a report of a bald eagle there last week, but haven’t yet seen it.

Great egret

There are a lot of smaller birds, which I know mostly from listening rather than seeing, since they are masters at concealing themselves in the leaves.  A few years back I put some effort into learning some birds’ songs, and with the fall migration coming soon, I’ve been refreshing on that skill.  There are several apps I’ve found helpful, including ones from Audubon, Cornell, and Merlin.  

The more I listen, the more I realize:  the birds are communicating. That is, they aren’t mechanically repeating a programmed sequence; they’re sending out messages.  Ornithologists have ideas about some of the messages, like alarm calls, but we’ve still got a lot to learn about their systems.  

Being a bird cannot be easy.  There’s always competition from other birds, and killer predators, like hawks and cats, can come out of nowhere.  And then there’s the problem of human activity.

 

Killdeer

I was saddened, but not really surprised, at the report last month that bird populations had dropped precipitously in the last 50 years.    In North America, there are 29 percent fewer birds, or almost 3 billion less than there were.  That’s a lot of dead birds! The reasons are complex, but ultimately they have to do with us — our destruction of habitats, our use of pesticides, and of course, the environmental changes related to our irresponsible use of fossil fuels.  All this bird destruction is terrible for the birds, obviously, but also for us and other creatures. Birds are important parts of ecosystems, spreading seeds, controlling pests, and pollinating plants. And of course, they’re beautiful. So, another wake up call to change course. 

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Puffins

 

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An Atlantic puffin

I took these pictures of Atlantic puffins week before last at Machias Seal Island off the northern coast of Maine.  Puffins nest there for a few weeks every year, and spend the rest of their lives at sea.  It’s not easy to get to the island to see them: permits are required, and there are not a lot of permits.  Even with a permit, the seas are often too rough to get there safely.  One of our two planned trips to the island was cancelled on account of weather. But for our second trip, the skies cleared up and the seas calmed down, and we got to see the famous birds.  

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With the puffins on Machias were a lot of nesting razorbills and murres.  Both are gorgeous, though of course not as photogenic as the puffins — who is?  It was a real thrill to spend time with all these amazing birds.

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A common murre, also known as a common guillemot

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Razorbills, which are the closest living relatives to the extinct great auk

The puffins are fast fliers and skilled fishermen.  And they’re incredibly cute! We stood in small wooden blinds to photograph them.  At times the birds were so close that I couldn’t get them in focus with my big zoom lens.  

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Our group was organized by the Georgia Nature Photographers Association, which I joined to participate in this trip.  I enjoyed meeting the Georgians, who were all very nice and very experienced in nature photography. With Bill and Ken, I explored some of the area parks, and started to fall in love with the Maine.  There were lovely harbors, big forests, and many wildflowers.  The weather was mostly cool and rainy.  

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Retiring, learning nature photography, and reprioritizing, with a lesson from my mom

 

Barred owl in a cypress tree with Spanish moss

Last Friday was the one-week anniversary of my retirement, and the start of the next phase of my education in  nature and photography. I drove down to Charleston, SC for a workshop sponsored by the Carolina Nature Photographers Association.  The workshop included two one-day courses, with one led by Jamie Konarski Davidson on garden and macro photography, and the other led by Eric Horan on bird photography.  With Jamie’s group at Magnolia Plantation I battled heat and mosquitos, and with Eric’s I hand held a big lens on a rocking boat in Charleston Bay. It was challenging. I took many not-very-good pictures along with a few that I liked, including the ones here.  

Oystercatcher parent and child in Charleston Bay

My plan for the next several months is to learn a lot about nature photography and see if I can make better pictures.  I’ll be traveling both in and out of state and getting coaching from some master photographers. I’ll also be reading and watching videos on post-processing techniques, and doing a lot of trial-and-error experimenting.  We’ll see how it goes.

Osprey in Charleston Bay

Anyhow, I enjoyed the Charleston trip and got some good tips.  I traveled with Barry Wheeler, a fellow retiree with a long resume and the same camera as me (the extraordinary Nikon D850).  He posts some of his nature photography on his blog, Travels of an Old Guy, which I find well worth following.  During the drive, we had some great conversation on camera equipment and life in general.  

Great egret on a shrimp boat

As I told Barry, as I’ve started my post wage-earning life, I’ve been reflecting on some important things I learned from my mother, Zola Tiller.  She had a major hand in directing me toward the life of an intellectual, though of course I didn’t perceive that at the time, and also for a long time afterwards.   She often spoke admiringly about Albert Schweitzer, a French theologian, philosopher, humanitarian, musician, and physician. She must have read his biography.  I assumed from her account he was extremely famous, though I doubt I’ve even heard his name for at least 40 years.  

Black skimmer

Anyhow, according to mom, he was a good role model.  From these and other examples I absorbed a value system that placed great weight on high intelligence and professional achievement.  For most of my career, I did business where smartness was the coin of the realm, with other human qualities valued much less. And my mom was never an intellectual.  It’s embarrassing to admit, but when I was a young man this bothered me.

It wasn’t until near the end of her life that I realized she was exceptionally gifted in another way, which was relating to people with kindness, compassion, generosity, and love.  I used to think that those qualities were common, but I’ve come to see them as relatively rare, and worth noting and extolling. I suppose it would be good to be a Schweitzer, a formerly famous humanitarian.  But it would also be good to be a Zola Tiller — a person who gave warmth and caring to those in her circle and others fortunate enough to cross paths with her.

Hydrangea at Magnolia Plantation

On Wednesday, Sally and I celebrated our anniversary — the 37th!  She has made me the happiest of men! She gave me a very sweet card, and we had a good dinner at Bloomsbury Bistro.

Orchid at Magnolia Plantation

Chilly birds, a friendly fish in hot water, and a successful cell phone repair

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

Saturday morning was overcast and chilly.  I put on some layers and warm gloves and went up to Shelley Lake to check on the birds and take some pictures.

Ring-billed gull

  There were a few dozen ring-billed gulls that mostly bobbed on the lake, but occasionally took to the air for some fast acrobatic flying.  Back home, when I looked at my pictures, I saw a pattern: when there were groups of gulls, they were usually chasing a gull that had some food.  That seems mean! A friendly passerby pointed out a couple of eagles sitting in a tree on the other side of the lake. I also enjoyed seeing the double-crested cormorants, Canada geese, and great blue herons.  The shots here were taken with big heavy lenses (Nikkor 80-400mm, and Sigma 150-500mm), and no tripod.

Chasing gulls

Why are some birds so beautiful?  This weekend I read a really good piece in the NY Times on this by Ferris Jabr:  How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution.  Some birds, like peacocks, are extravagantly gorgeous, with colors and shapes that seem to make them easy targets for predators.   This seems to contradict some of Darwin’s theory of natural selection (“survival of the fittest”), and after 150 years scientists have still not agreed on an explanation.

But there’s modern support for the view that natural selection is supplemented by sexual selection (usually, females preferring males that look or sound better).   This implies that the animals have preferences that aren’t purely functional — that is, aesthetic preferences. Jabr’s piece gives a sense of the strong passions of the scientists involved. It’s well worth reading.

Double-crested cormorants

Speaking of animal intelligence, I want to make a note about a particular fish who captured my heart when we were scuba diving in the Bahamas.  As we prepared for a dive onto a ship wreck, our leader recommended we look around for a friendly grouper they called Binks, who she said liked to be petted.  Near the end of the dive, I looked over the top edge of the wreck and saw a little grouper (perhaps 18 inches) watching me. I extended my arm, and he came up and nuzzled my hand.  I petted him with gentle strokes, like a dog. Binks was such a sweet little fish!

I was startled at Washington Post’s report this week that recent studies have found oceans are warming significantly faster than had been thought.  Oceans cover 70 percent of the earth.  Warmer oceans mean rising sea levels, more severe weather disasters (hurricanes, cyclones, droughts, etc.). This is terrible for many living creatures, including humans, and fish, including Binks.

The Sierra Club magazine this month had an encouraging piece titled There Is No Planet B:  It’s Up to Us to Craft the Shape of the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson.   Robinson acknowledges the possibility of mass extinction, but outlines the possibility that we can still reverse course.  He notes that need to rethink some of our traditional capitalist assumptions, which will not be easy. But those assumptions were created by humans, and they can be changed.  

Two bald eagles on the far side of the lake

Finally, I need to give a shout out to CPR — that is, Cell Phone Repair, a local business at Holly Park, off Wake Forest Road.  I discovered last week that I’d broken the camera in my Samsung Galaxy S7 device. The guys at CPR said they could get it fixed in 3 hours.  I asked if there was anything to be done about my weakening battery, and they said, sure, they could help me out with a new battery. They got it done in 2 hours, and everything worked great!  

 

How important is an afterlife?

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A short essay in the NY Times today proposed an interesting thought experiment: imagine that you knew all humanity would cease to exist in 30 days after your death. Would your view of your life’s significance change? Samuel Scheffler of New York University thinks the answer is yes. Even those of us who can’t take seriously the view of an afterlife in which our own consciousness continues after death still believe in another sort of afterlife – that is, that after we die the human race will continue for a good long time. If that were not the case, would anyone bother to seek a cure for cancer, or to make great art? Big projects, and especially ones that we know might not be completed in our lifetimes, depend on the assumption that the human race will continue.

Scheffler notes that even the most selfish and narcissistic of us almost certainly share this basic concern for continued human existence, for the selfish aims would also lose most of their meaning otherwise. He wraps up his elegant essay by noting this foundational assumption gives us a powerful incentive to address the very real threats to continued human survival – climate change, environmental degradation, and nuclear proliferation. The incentive isn’t just the abstract sense of duty to future generations, but our present reliance on those future beings to give life meaning now.
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My eye surgery is scheduled for 6:00 a.m. tomorrow. I’ve managed not to think too much about it, but for the last few days I’ve felt unsettled. The operation on my left eye (my third in the last 10 months) will involve two procedures and two surgeons. One is my rockstar retinologist, Dr. Mruthyunjaya, who will remove the silicon oil in my eye and do some retina clean up, and the other, Dr. Vann, will work on what he described as “a big, honkin cataract.” I’m confident that the surgeons know their business. I’ve been touched by the kind support of friends and colleagues. It should go all right. I hope.

I took a walk this morning along the boardwalk that goes out over the small lake off of Raleigh Boulevard, where from time to time I’ve seen herons, kingfishers, various ducks, and lots of turtles. I wanted to try out my new Sigma 150-500mm lens with my new Manfrotto monopod, but there weren’t many water birds to see this time. The lens is a four-pound behemoth, challenging to handle, but the magnification is dramatic, and the image quality seemed generally good. I started to get comfortable with it, and look forward to taking many more and better pictures of birds and other wildlife. These are a start.
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The way to San Jose, Ridge Winery, and E.O. Wilson on human nature

I missed my flight out of RDU on Tuesday morning after trying to send off one too many emails. On the drive to the airport, as reality set in, I went through the five stages of travel anxiety: concern, serious concern, alarm, panic, and finally, acceptance. By the time I made it through the American Airlines queue and the agent said I was too late, I was able to agree calmly, and ask politely what my next best option was. She put me on standby for a flight three hours later.

With my unexpected airport time, I got an excellent shoe shine and a half-hour chair massage at Express Spa. A couple of times a month I try to get a chair massage from the Red Hat massage therapist, which I had to miss because of my trip. I was interested in some work on my shoulder, where there have been minor issues. I assumed that an airport massage would be more about feeling pleasant than serious therapy, but I was not averse to a release of some endorphins.

My masseur, a small guy from China, asked how hard I liked it. I said pretty hard. He obliged with a serious deep tissue approach. It took all my determination to resist begging for mercy. At one point I took note that massage therapists are required to pass a licensing exam, as it was coming into focus that massage could cause bodily harm. Then I realized I had no way of knowing if my guy was licensed. He finished with some blows that shook me like a punching bag. It was almost frightening. But once it was over, I felt great!

Being on standby involves a degree of anxiety. You’re either barely making the flight, or you’re going back to square one. On this trip, the gate agent said the I had a good chance of getting on the flight out of Raleigh, but a less good chance of getting on the connecting flight in Chicago. When I felt a wave of tension, I took a few deep calming yoga breaths, and tried to stay positive. Eventually, four and a half hours late, I got to San Jose, got a rental car, and headed to the hotel.

I was assisted by a Garmin GPS device, which smoothly directed me through every turn. This little tool has greatly reduced the anxiety of travel to unknown lands. Getting lost is almost a thing of the past. I still carry printed directions as a fail safe system, but I haven’t used them in a while. Thus have I outsourced a part of my mental load, and in using this now-common tool become a little more of a cyborg. I could lament the possible loss of map-reading skills, but won’t. Thanks to Garmin and all the scientists, engineers, and technicians who’ve reduced my worry level and bestowed more creative mental space.


There’s something about northern California that I really love. It isn’t the glamor, which I was far from, but it may be something about the light. After various meetings, I got a chance to tour Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz mountains. It involved a drive ascending 2,0000 feet along narrow roads with hairpin turns. The landscape was dry and craggy.

Our tour guides were experts and scholars of wine making, and I got a deeper understanding of the significance of soil and water conditions, vine life cycles, vine placement and spacing, pests, harvesting techniques, pressing, oaking options, considerations for blending, and aging decisions. The vineyard mountain views were beautiful, and the wines were excellent. It was also a great pleasure to meet our guides and experience their joy and passion for their craft.

On the long flight home, I finished reading for the second time The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson. Wilson, a senior professor at Harvard, is one of our foremost experts on ants, but his scientific passions are wide-ranging. In this latest book, he attempts to revive and develop an approach to evolution that includes selection not only at the individual level but also at the level of groups. He argues that this accounts for some of the defining characteristics of homo sapiens, including our intense desire to be part of a tribe or group and our superlative skills at interpreting the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others.

These skills made it possible for our ancestors to cooperate in a way that led to success versus other animals (including predators and our close relatives the Neanderthals), and to collaborate in agriculture, technology, and artistic expression. He also thinks multilevel evolution (individual and group) accounts for our never-ending interior conflicts between the urge toward cooperation and altruism (which benefits the tribe) and the opposite urge to seek competitive advantage over other individuals.

Wilson has a persuasive account of the origins and persistence of religious thought. In his view, it is characteristic for human animals to generate narratives to explain the unknown, and thus natural for communities to compose creation myths. Myths and rituals are adaptive in creating group cohesiveness, which contributes to tribal success. Religion has inspired great art and helped groups and individuals in difficult times. But Wilson ultimately concludes the costs of religion thinking outweigh the benefits, particularly once humankind acquired the tools of science.

Wilson would admit that the evidence for his multilevel approach to evolution is incomplete, and his theory is bound to be controversial. But right or wrong, I admire his willingness to engage and take some intellectual risks on the big questions, like the nature of human nature and the foundations of morality. He brings to the table spirited curiosity and the ability to draw on recent discoveries from biology, neurology, genetics, anthropology, climatology, and paleontology, not to mention, of course, myrmecology. He demonstrates the use of science as both a method and a world view — a world view that is both practical and inspiring.

My flight out of San Jose left 20 minutes late for Dallas, and my original Dallas connection was only 25 minutes. Dallas is a big airport, and getting from a gate on one side to a gate on the other can easily take 30 minutes. It seems I never leave from a nearby gate, so I had some worries, and took some yoga breaths. We came in at A37, and the flight out was at A33. I heard the announcement for final boarding for Raleigh as I stepped into the terminal, and took off in the OJ Simpson airport sprint. (I’ve noticed that gate agents sometimes look around for last second sprinters.). I was the last to board. Kind Fortuna!

Shortly after I got home, we had a thunderstorm and a strange sunset.

There were some birds this morning at the boardwalk off of Raleigh Boulevard. Most of them hid from me (like that small bird in the Frost poem), but a robin, a great blue heron, and a mallard family didn’t.





Our Outer Banks weekend

For Memorial Day weekend we drove to the Outer Banks to visit my sister Jane and her family. Their beach house in Corolla was comfortable and relaxing, with lots of seashells and board games. There were family dramas to discuss, as well as books to read, food to eat, and wild horses, shore birds, and other beach creatures to see. I also had a few new thoughts on economics and employment, as noted below.

My brother Paul and his wife Jackie came out from Virginia Beach on Saturday afternoon. Paul, in training for a marathon, ran the last seven miles, and arrived looking thinner than he has for at least a decade. The next morning I did my first outside run in a long time, a three-mile run along US 12. After persistent knee problems a few years back, I finally quit running and switched to low-impact activities like elliptical machines and stationary bikes. But I’ve recently seen running is good for bone density, and so have begun running a bit on the treadmill. The run along US 12 went well for a half hour, until I got a cramp in my calf.

I took a break from practicing the piano, but enjoyed the musical activities of the rest of the family. Kylie is making good progress on the violin, as is David on the cello, and Jane has just started teaching herself piano. Paul is quite accomplished on the banjo, and played his version of the Star Spangled Banner in honor of memorial day.

Keith cooked non-stop all weekend. On Saturday morning, he cooked gluten-free waffles with blueberries and strawberries, which were marvelously light. Soon after we cleaned up, he started to work on lunch, wonderful grilled vegetable sandwiches, and soon after that, he got to work on a vegetarian Mexican dinner, which was a complete success. The man loves to cook, and he’s really creative. We were all grateful.

In the Sunday Times, there was an op ed piece by Tim Jackson about how the drive for ever-increasing productivity was resulting in increased unemployment. This was a different lens on a problem I’ve pondered before — what should humans do when computer brains and robots render them redundant? Jackson proposes that the answer is to forget about increasing productivity and embrace lessening productivity.

Jackson broached a critical problem. As I’ve noted before, although we’ve hardly noticed it, robots and artificial intelligence are transforming the human world in fundamental ways. More and more of the manufacturing work that people used to do is now done by robots, and AI is starting to impinge on areas that we used to think of as forever and irreducibly human, such as medicine, law, and education. This is big. As far out in the future as we can see, we will need fewer and fewer people to make our products and perform our services.

We once thought of this as utopia: a world of plenty which required less and less labor to produce goods and services. We assumed it would result in more and more pleasant leisure. But this vision failed to take into account that we aren’t comfortable paying wages to people who aren’t working in a way that contributes meaningfully, and those without work do not feel at leisure.

Jackson suggests reorienting away from simple increases in productivity and towards activities involving caring, craft, and cultural activities, like art. This sounds promising. These are activities that humans have done as long as the species has existed. Once our ancestors had taken care of food, clothing, and shelter, they made jewelry, painted on cave walls, beat on drums, played lacrosse, or otherwise entertained each other. Caring for each other, making things, and making art are things we like to do. But we need to figure out how to associate these activities with fair wages.

On Sunday afternoon we went four-wheeling northward to look for wild horses. Driving on the beach is fun, though I feel a bit guilty at what people like us do to the beach and its creatures. We saw lots of sanderlings and grackles in the shallows, and flying pelicans, gulls, terns, and one snowy egret. We drove through the narrow sandy pathways that wind through the marine forest, working our way around occasional pools of standing water. We finally found three groups of horses, and got close views of two of them.

We sat on the porch for a while and read and talked. Over the weekend, I dipped into the following books: I Am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter, This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin, The Short Game Bible, by Dave Pelz (golf), Indignation, by Philip Roth, Winner Take All Politics, by Jacob Hacker, and The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edwin O. Wilson.

Sunday evening Sally mixed cocktails for the adults using cucumber vodka, ginger infused simple syrup, lime juice, and elderberry liquor. Keith made gluten-free vegetarian lasagna, which he had to complete with penne pasta because there were no lasagna noodles, but which turned out great. He’d also made vanilla ice cream and peach-and-blueberry cobbler. We played a game called “left right center” which involved rolling dice and losing or acquiring chips. It was a game requiring no skill, but gave the enjoyment of possible good fortune without exacting much pain for bad fortune. There was merriment. After dinner, we lit sparklers and set off some fireworks rockets.