The Casual Blog

Tag: Carolina Ballet

Lost and found, Hawking, Churchill, Feldman, German, Brewery Bhavana, and Bolero (the ballet)

Durant Nature Preserve on Saturday morning

It’s been a big week for domestic lost and found drama.  I lost, and eventually found, my smartphone, a glove, the battery for my camera, my wireless headphones, the front page of the New York Times, and probably some other stuff I’ve already forgotten about.  I hate that uh-oh feeling, that this-could-be-serious feeling, that tightness in the stomach as you try to stay calm and think carefully, where did I last have that thing?

Some of the losses could be attributable to task overload.  An example: on Friday morning, I drove back from a spin class listening to an audiobook, and as I started to parallel park I saw a friend and her baby on the sidewalk.  So I hurried to park, get out, and say hello. Then back in the apartment, I needed to check my schedule for the day with the phone, and realized I must have left it in the car.  

We had some cardboard boxes flattened and ready to go down to the recycling area, so I carried them along when I went to get the phone, and brought the Times to read while I waited for the elevator.  When the elevator came, inside was a young woman with a dog, and we chatted about her dog. Then I went to the recycling room and tossed the cardboard into a huge bin — along with the Times.

The bin came up almost to my shoulders, and was empty except for my cardboard and the Times.  I couldn’t reach the bottom. To get the newspaper out, I had to do some experimenting, but eventually I figured out how to hoist myself up on the front of the bin, lower myself in, grab the Times, and get back out without injuring myself or the bin.

Last week we lost Stephen Hawking, the great British astrophysicist who was paralyzed for most of his life.  He was one of my heroes. Back in the day, I read his A Brief History of Time, of which I understood not a lot.  It was Hawking’s curiosity and courage that really moved me. I always thought that his life must be as purely intellectual as any human being’s has ever been.  

But I heard an interview with one of his scientific collaborators who said that he was always accompanied by nurses, who frequently needed to help him with bodily issues.  That is, he also was a physical person. According to the interview, it was fun hanging out with him.  

We finally saw The Darkest Hour, the Winston Churchill biopic, on Amazon Prime this weekend.  Gary Oldman certainly deserved his recent best actor Oscar for his Churchill, and so did Kazuhiro Tsuji, his makeup artist.  

Churchill was in many respects a terrible person, accountable for racist imperialism and mass murder, but he also did one truly heroic thing of lasting value:  standing almost alone to rally Britain to fight Nazism. The film conveys both his ego and his understated courage. It shows the importance and potential power of public speaking.  Churchill could orate! The film made me feel gratitude for the English language and all the ancestors who created it.

Meanwhile, I’ve been having another go at learning German, using the Babbel app.  I like the Babbel system, which is well-organized, and also, at least at the beginning, free.  I’ve long been curious about German, the language of many of the great musical minds that have been a big part of my life, like Bach, Haydn, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler.  

But it’s way harder than French, Spanish, and Italian. I’m finding that getting vocabulary is not too difficult, since there are lots of cognates with English, and most of the spoken sounds are similar to English. But the German case system is for me really challenging.  Add that to having three genders for nouns and lots of rules on word order, and it can be densely frustrating. But I’m starting to see some blue sky through the clouds.

Speaking of brain work, I’ve been listening to an audiobook of How Emotions are Made, The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Northeastern University.  In recent years I’ve read a fair bit about evolutionary psychology and neurobiology, hoping to understand more about how humans work. Barrett’s book has opened some new doors for me.

She challenges the orthodox understanding of emotions as inborn, universal, and readily identifiable.  She contends that emotions are best viewed as interpretations of perceptions from inside and outside the body that are dependent on learning, context, and culture. In other words, they are fundamentally social constructions, and vary substantially from culture to culture. This understanding has a lot of implications for how to think of individuals and societies.  

We finally managed to get a reservation at Brewery Bhavana for Saturday night.  It’s a fairly new restaurant in downtown Raleigh that features dim sum and noodles, along with craft beers.  The space also has a small bookstore and flower shop. It seems an unlikely combination, but it’s been a smashing success, sold out for months. Anyhow, we tried the vegetarian dishes and found them delicious, and were happy with our beers.  

Afterwards, we walked over to the Carolina Ballet’s Bolero program.  I slightly dreaded once again hearing Ravel’s Bolero, a great composer’s most repetitious work, but Lynn Taylor-Corbett’s new ballet turned out to be a treat.  It features a couple having a day at the beach, and addresses the reality of global warming with another unlikely combination — humor and horror.

The first ballet on the program, Zalman Raffael’s latest work, was  set to Ravel’s Piano Concerto.  It was highly kinetic, angular and energizing. The last piece was Robert Weiss’s Des Images, which was a meditation on the ballet choreographer’s art.  I found some of it a bit languid, but Alyssa Pilger’s solo in the pizzicato second movement was electrifying.

I took these pictures yesterday at Durant Nature Preserve in north Raleigh while testing out a new lens.  The weather was on the chilly side, so I brought along my photography gloves, which have cut off fingers and mitton tops that can be folded back.  I put the gloves in my jacket pockets, but ended up not using them. After walking part way around the lake and most of the way back, I noticed one glove was gone.  I really liked that glove, so I did the walk a second time, and found it.  The clouds were starting to lift at that point, and that’s when I got the shot at the top of this blog Read the rest of this entry »

Caribbean misfortunes, reconsidering Vietnam, good drug news from Portugal, and rising Carolina dancers

It’s been tough to see the devastation of the Caribbean islands by hurricanes Irma and Maria these last weeks.  I’ve got a warm connection to some of the most affected islands (Dominica, Turks and Caicos, the Virgin Islands, Key West)  from scuba trips.  I found so much beauty and joy there from both the natural world and the people.  I recently read a new history of the region,  Empire’s Crossroads, by Carrie Gibson, and discovered some unexpected complexity.  

Beginning in the late 15th century with Columbus’s voyages and extending for another three hundred some years, these islands were not vacation paradises but rather economic powerhouses for an expanding Europe.  They were  fought over repeatedly, because they produced enormous wealth, mostly from growing sugar with slave labor from Africa.  At the time of the American Revolution England and France both valued their Caribbean possessions more highly than the American colonies, and England’s need to protect those islands from the French was part of what created a power vacuum that led to the revolutionaries’ victory.  Their normally kind and beautiful exterior conceals a lot of tragedy, and they just got more.  

The people there face desperate conditions — homes and businesses destroyed, no electricity, no drinkable water.   And of course, the animals and plants there have also suffered greatly, which is seldom noted.  Our tendency as humans to forget about other species is deep seated, but not insurmountable.  It’s possible to view nature as worthy of caring and respect, rather than just something for humans to exploit.  This viewpoint makes possible a deeper engagement with nature, but it also makes natural and man-made disasters more painful.  

Speaking of painful subjects, we’ve been watching the new Burns-Novick documentary on the Vietnam war, and I highly recommend it.  It’s by no means fun, but it feels positive to get a more rounded understanding of this chapter.  There’s a lot of tension between our abiding central national narrative (we’re always on the side of good), and the death and mayhem that’s almost impossible to get our heads around (58,000 lost American lives are a lot — but we tend to forget the 3,000,000 Vietnamese ones) .  It’s amazing in a way that we’ve mostly repressed and forgotten the Vietnam experience, especially when its combination of good intentions, hubris, cynicism,  and sheer cluelessness continues to be relevant to our quagmire in Afghanistan and violence elsewhere.  

In other quagmire news, there was a relatively cheering piece by Nicholas Kristof in the NY Times today entitled How to Win a War on Drugs.  It summarizes the experience of Portugal after it decriminalized all illegal drugs fifteen years ago.  Portugal’s drug mortality rate is now the lowest in Western Europe and one-fiftieth (1/50) of that in the US.  Portugal’s rate of heroin use has dropped by seventy-five percent.  Meanwhile, deaths in the US from opioids have risen dramatically.  The core of Portugal’s approach is to devote resources to medical treatment for addiction.  Though far from perfect, this approach has been far more effective, and far less expensive, than the US’s war on drugs.  While there’s a lot we don’t understand about drug addiction, it could hardly be clearer that our war approach hasn’t worked, and that there are better alternatives.

We went to our first Carolina Ballet performance of the new season last night, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  With all the disasters in the headlines, to find a couple of hours of nourishing, energizing beauty is particularly welcome.  Some of our favorite dancers retired last season, and they’ll be missed, but the change has brought vibrant talent from the company ranks into view.  Lily Wills was a sweet and touching Ugly Duckling.  Jan Burkhard, back from maternity leave, was exquisite in Flower Festival in Genzano, a Bournonville pas de deux.  

Dialogues, the new ballet jointly choreographed by Robert Weiss and Zalman Raffael, was bold and refreshing.  The Dialogues music, Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by Chopin, was played by pianist William Wolfram, who performed with insight, power, and passion.  With his daughter, Lauren Wolfram, now part of the company, I hope we’ll get to hear this great artist again.  We also enjoyed the angularity of Les Saltimbanques, with choreography by Weiss and music by Stravinsky.  Ashley Hathaway, Amanda Babayan, and Courtney Schenberger were striking and lovely.

Wet flowers, Vidrio, and beautiful dancing

For Earth Day on Saturday, I took a walk on the trail at Swift Creek Bluffs, and found a few late wildflowers, including the pair above.  Lots of birds were singing.  On Sunday morning I looked in at Raulston Arboretum right after it had rained and before it rained again.  I had a close look at some freshly showered irises, a few of which are below.  

 

On Saturday night, Sally and I tried a fairly new restaurant, Vidrio, on Glenwood Avenue just three blocks from us.  It was excellent!  The decor is stylish and eclectic, with an entire wall of large colorful glass serving dishes, ropes, tiles, frames, and other whimsies.  Our server from Argentina had a winning mix of personal warmth and professionalism.  We had an amazing foamy cocktail called an amortentia.  The food was a spin on tapas, with several vegetarian (though not vegan) options.  We particularly enjoyed the agnolotti and the black rice risotto.

Afterwards, we saw the Carolina Ballet do works by director Robert Weiss and choreographer-in-residence Zalman Raffael.  Weiss’s Mephisto Waltz, a pas de deux, was his last work created on Lilyan Vigo, who is retiring after nineteen years with the company.  This waltz that had the smoldering intensity of a tango.  It’s always been hard to take one’s eyes off  the beautiful Vigo, and she was magnificent.  But her partner, Yevgeny Shlapko, was highly charismatic as the Devil.  

Raffael’s Rhapsody, set to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, is a brilliant jazzy ensemble piece, with excellent solos performed that night by Jan Burkhard (back from maternity leave and most welcome), Lindsay Purrington, Marcelo Martinez, Amanda Babayan, and Miles Sollars-White.

Dance photos, octopus minds, and engineering Islamophobia

Dress rehearsal for Petit Ballet Romantique

Dress rehearsal for Petit Ballet Romantique

I took a photography lesson this week from Ted Salamone at a dress rehearsal of the Carolina Ballet.  The lighting conditions were challenging, and at first I felt well out of my depth.  It took some pressurized experimenting with ISO and shutter speed to get anything to work.   Ted gave me some great tips, and the dancers were beautiful and inspiring.    

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I just finished reading Other Minds:  the Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith.  Godfrey-Smith is a diver as well as a philosopher who has spent a lot of time watching cephalopods.  As he notes, octopuses are aliens to us, about as far removed in evolutionary terms as possible.  

Yet  they have abilities and behaviors that merit the word intelligence.  Their shape-shifting and camouflaging abilities are astonishing, of course, but they also solve problems and exhibit curiosity and affection.  Godfrey-Smith connects them, and us, to the great journey of evolution, and to a better understanding of the nature of consciousness.  There’s a good review here.  l  

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Trying to understand non-human intelligence eventually leads to the question, how well do we understand ourselves?  The question came into focus in a new way for me this week, when I read of polls indicating that a more Americans favored Trump’s new anti-Muslim measures than opposed them.  I like to think of my neighbors and fellow citizens as mostly kind, compassionate, and tolerant, and mostly willing to help others in need.  I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around the possible alternative.  

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When Franklin Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” I think he meant that fear was a powerful force that could undermine us, but also that it could be overcome.  The new President has a different message:  the world is very scary and we need to be more fearful.

And that message seems to be having an effect.  Of course, humans have always been wary of those who are different.  But other forces usually counterbalance those feelings, like curiosity, generosity, and love.  We seem to be losing our balance.

Dress rehearsal for The Little Mermaid

Dress rehearsal for The Little Mermaid

Is Trump’s demonization of Muslims a deliberate strategy?  At first it just seems arbitrary and bizarre.  But Amanda Taub wrote a worthwhile piece in the NY Times this week that suggested a possible method in the madness.   

Taub points up that authoritarian politicians often exploit fears by targeting a politically powerless minority and creating an us-versus-them mentality.  By creating artificial enemies and claiming to be protecting against them, they may increase their popularity and power.  Unless such leaders are checked, they tend to expand the list of targets and dial up the level of violence.  

Of course, we have a governmental system with certain institutional checks and balances.  Are they strong enough?  We’ll find out.

Dress rehearsal for The Little Mermaid

Dress rehearsal for The Little Mermaid

 

Missing dragonflies, and welcoming motorcycles, new ballets, and Wagner

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I didn’t have any luck finding dragonflies this weekend. I tried Lake Benson, Lake Wheeler, and Yates Mill Pond, but it looks like we’ve about come to the end of another dragonfly season. I did see some butterflies and wildflowers, though, and enjoyed walking beside the calm and calming lakes. It was quiet, except for periodic thunderous roars from passing motorcycle groups.
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It was the 12th annual Capital City Bikefest in Raleigh this weekend, and on Saturday evening we walked downtown to have a look at the hundreds of bikes parked on Fayetteville Street. The bikes were mostly enormous Harleys, but with endless gleaming customizations, objects of pride and passion. Lacking tattoos and denim, we may have stood out a bit, but we didn’t notice any negative energy directed our way.
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We ate at Living Kitchen, the new vegan restaurant, where the clientele did not include any obvious biker types. I had the lunasagna, which was cool and tangy, and Sally enjoyed the living burrito, a collard green wrap. Our server, Rebecca, was friendly and efficient.
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Afterwards, we strolled over to Fletcher Hall for the first Carolina Ballet program of the season. Zalman Raffael’s new work, La Mer was a “non-linear” story ballet involving family dynamics and natural forces. We liked it a lot. I was particularly taken with Amanda Babayan’s character, the daughter with the troubles of adolescence.
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Robert Weiss’s first new piece was titled Stravinsky Pas de Deux, with highly dissonant music and angular gestures, danced with wonderful electricity by newcomers Lily Wills and Miles Sollars-White. Weiss’s The Double featured Alicia Fabry and Lindsay Purrington in startlingly close, tense unison. The final work was Weiss’s new Beethoven Piano Concerto # 5, which was very joyous and musical, with great leaps, spins, and lifts. I especially enjoyed Ashley Hathaway’s graceful solo in the second movement, and Alyssa Pilger imperial command in the finale.

Finally, I need to give a shout out to the N.C. Opera for its outstanding production last weekend of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. This little company somehow assembled a cast of world-class Wagnerians for two performances of this complex and thrilling work. Conductor Timothy Myers was masterful, and the singing was superb. Todd Thomas as Alberich managed to touch some unsettling psychological depths as he drove to his famous curse. I got goose bumps.
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Getting close to big cats, a ballet Dream, transgender recognition, and Political Animals

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On Saturday morning I saw some big cats at the Conservators’ Center near Mebane, NC, where I got a tour with a group from the Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association. We got wonderfully close to lions, tigers, leopards, caracals, servals, and binturongs, as well as wolves, dingos, and coyotes. We were allowed to poke our lenses through holes in the fences, on the condition that we had to be ready to move back quickly when directed, which we were and did. A couple of times we heard several of the big cats roar together, which was a deep, rich sound. The friendly staff seemed devoted to these beautiful animals. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that their lives are unnaturally circumscribed, which made me kind of wistful.
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I got cheered up that evening by the Carolina Ballet’s last program of the season, with Robert Weiss’s Water Music and George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Water Music, with Handel’s iconic score, was at once regal and playful, danced with wonderful elegance by leads Margaret Severin-Hansen, Richard Krusch, and Alicia Fabry. Balanchine’s Dream, with Mendelssohn’s shimmering music, was gorgeous and funny. Pablo Javier Perez threatened to steal the show as an exotic Puck, and Ashley Hathaway, Lindsay Purrington, Adam Schiffer, and Oliver Beres had extended romantic complications. The children who played fireflies and ladybugs were delightful.
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With so much beauty and creativity in North Carolina, it’s particularly unfortunate that our Republican politicians continue to embarrass us on an industrial scale. We’re now known nationally and internationally for our anti-leadership in the area of transgender rights. This week they sued the Justice Department in federal court over their beloved HB 2, a/k/a the bathroom bill. I read the complaint, and I think I now understand how they can view themselves as non-discriminatory.

In a nutshell, these so-called conservatives do not believe transgender people actually exist. There are, for them, only two possible sexes, defined according to a look at the genitals of a just-emerged newborn. Any person whose behavior does not align with gender stereotypes – say, a person with a penis who likes wearing dresses – is by definition a fake and a fraud, and up to no good. We need to protect the children from them.

This binary categorization system is similar to that once widely used to marginalize and dehumanize blacks as inferior and gays as defective perverts. It is ignorant and mean. But, as I’ve noted, it is good that this prejudice is now out in the open where it can be debated and changed. The conservatives’ exclusion of gays from the joys and privileges of marriage got thrown on the ash heap of history more quickly than expected, and the view that trans people are not real people entitled to respect could change quickly, too.
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This week I finished reading Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brains Get in the Way of Smart Politics, by Rick Shenkman. It’s about how our thinking processes often lead us astray because they were developed to serve hunter-gatherers living in small groups and facing many dangers (tigers, snakes, other hominoids). These thinking processes do not always work well in the modern world. For example, we’re strongly biased, when in doubt, to prioritize and react quickly to possible threats, and so overreact to some things that are not actually threats.

Shenkman, a historian, draws ideas from Kahneman and others, and applies them to illuminate various political and historical puzzles. He demonstrates that our powers of self-deception are amazing and almost limitless. I found particularly interesting his discussion of the evolutionary roots of empathy. He proposes that it was an evolutionary advantage to empathize and support our close kin, while regarding unrelated humans with indifference. By supporting and protecting kin who share more genes, our ancestors maximized the chances that their genes would be passed on, but doing the same for unrelated persons was wasted energy from the genes’ perspective.

It’s both helpful and disturbing that think that our most natural way of thinking is far from altruistic. It certainly could explain some of our puzzling indifference to war crimes not committed against ourselves and to large-scale humanitarian disasters, like the current refugee crisis. But we also know that it’s possible to acquire moral vision and empathy that extend beyond our close kin. This is one of the challenging lessons of Christianity (“love thy neighbor as thy self”) and other religions. We may be naturally selfish and brutish, but we can become better.
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Beauty, violence, and delusions: a Macbeth ballet, a Vietnam history, and a Kenya drone strike movie

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It was raining lightly on Saturday morning when I got to Raulston Arboretum, and there were quite a few new irises and roses. I enjoyed the colors, textures, and strange architecture, as accented by the raindrops. I had to work fast, because I’d scheduled a spin class for 9:30. But I had 25 minutes of strolling, peering, sniffing, and clicking, and made it to Flywheel in good time for the spin class with the cheery, peppy, hard-driving Vashti.

I’d felt a little discouraged after my spin class last week, when I was aiming for 300 points and managed only 281. I decided on a slightly different approach this week, involving more conscious pacing and allowing for short recovery periods. My results were better, with a final score of 307, and an average heart rate for the 45 minutes of 154, tying the record.

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That evening we went over to Durham for some food and ballet. We ate at Watts Grocery, where I had a delicious asparagus salad and couscous with beets. At DPAC we saw the new Carolina Ballet production of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s play is a bloody one, dense with painful emotion. This new ballet by Robert Weiss is also violent and anguished, but with interludes of light – friendship, play, and love. It succeeds as storytelling and as dance, with many subtleties and flourishes. Unfortunately, the music was not very interesting and highly repetitious. But I really liked the dancing, the craggy set, and the costumes.
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Speaking of bloody intervals, last week I finished reading a history of U.S. misconduct in Vietnam by Nick Turse, entitled Kill Anything That Moves. It is a difficult and almost unbearable story. The catalog of American atrocities is long – wanton murder of civilians, widespread rape, torture, and mutilation, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed on a wholesale basis by massive bombing and artillery. Hardly any of those who engineered the policies behind this carnage or those who carried it out were held accountable.

This history has been substantially suppressed, ignored, and forgotten. The human capacity for sustaining ignorance and self-delusion is a remarkable thing. In general, we are amazingly adept at suppressing new information that’s inconsistent with our prior beliefs, at justifying bad conduct when it fits with our preferences and self-interest, and at repressing memories that don’t fit into our preferred narratives. For Americans, coming to grips with any story of American action where we aren’t heroes is extremely difficult.
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But doing so is important work. Understanding the conditions that give rise to cruelty can help us prevent it. Therefore, with some hesitation, I recommend Turse’s book, with the caveat that it should be read only by mature readers not currently considering suicide or other violence and that, when reading, they take frequent breaks from these dark chapters to get hugs and kisses from their loved ones. One of my takeaways was that it’s usually or never a good idea to invade distant countries where we are ignorant and contemptuous of the people and culture.
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We saw Eye in the Sky last week at the Raleigh Grande. It was our first visit to the recently upgraded theater, and we liked the soft reclining seats. The movie is about setting up a drone strike by combined British and American military leaders and technicians in Kenyan on Al-Shabab terrorists. The primary tension in the movie is whether they should fire a powerful hellfire missile when it looks like it will kill a sweet little girl.

I thought it was well-played, and it was interesting to see what may well be close to state-of-the-art spying and killing technology. It was nice, in a way, to think that some military leaders might find it hard to decide whether to kill one little girl when they had a chance to execute several terrorists. The big question I left with, though, was never addressed in the movie: why would the U.S. and Britain be devoting themselves to fighting enemies of Kenya?
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Duke blossoms, rising ballerinas, AlphaGo’s victory, and the Age of Artificial Intelligence

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On Saturday morning it was overcast and threatening to rain when I drove over to Durham to see what was blooming at Duke Gardens. Did you know it’s one of the top 10 public gardens in the U.S.? It is certainly a treasure. There were new cherry blossoms, tulips, and many other delights. I shot 234 closeup images with my Nikkor 105 MM macro lens before it began to drizzle. I got a few that revealed aspects I’d never looked at as closely before, and expressed some of my own joy of the season. The images here are all from Duke, except for the daffodils, which I took late Friday afternoon at Fletcher Park.
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That evening we saw the Carolina Ballet with new works by Zalman Raffael and Robert Weiss. Raffael’s new piece was set to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. As it launched, I worried a little that 24 variations to this familiar music could easily bog down, but far from it: this was a lively, kinetic work that developed organically with continual surprises. Working in the Balanchine tradition, like Weiss, Raffael makes ballets that are abstract but intensely expressive. He’s so accomplished and assured already, and so young!

In the performance we saw, some of the younger company members who normally are in the background stepped into the spotlight, and performed beautifully. I very much enjoyed the subtle elegance of Courtney Schenberger and Rammaru Shindo in Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie. Ashley Hathaway, with Adam Crawford Chavis, was really sensual and powerful in the adagio Meditation from Thais. Amanda Babayan was a lovely Miranda in Weiss’s Tempest Fantasy. So much talent, developing quickly, like those blossoms. It’s a privilege to receive their art.
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Speaking of surprising progress, this week AlphaGo finished its five game Go match with a popular Korean grandmaster in Seoul, in which it prevailed 4-1. It was a significant moment in the advance of artificial intelligence. I learned the rudiments of Go a few years back. It seems so simple at the very beginning, as you take turns laying single stones, black or while. But it is massively more complex than chess. There are more possible moves than there are atoms in the universe.

Anyhow, I tweeted congratulations to the Google team, though with mixed feelings. The Age of AI is on its way, and the prospects are both good and bad. Computers are mastering tasks that we thought impossible for them a few years ago, like driving, reading MRIs, and reviewing legal documents. In the new Age of AI, there will be safer cars, more reliable medical care, and cheaper legal services. On the down side, a lot of jobs are going to disappear forever. We’re going to need to figure out what to do about having a lot of redundant humans. We’ll probably need to come up with a system with a guaranteed minimum wage, which seems impossible at present from a political perspective.
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But maybe the AI on the way can help with some of our political and mental problems. I’m thinking particularly of our magical thinking – areas where our biases and received ideas prevent us from seeing what’s right in front of us. The drug war is an example. After several decades of being taught that particular plants and chemicals are inherently evil and threatening, and that we need to fight those drugs, we have trouble conceiving of any alternative. It makes no difference that the drug war never moves any closer to victory, and that the human collateral damage is enormous. The facts that do not fit with our long held beliefs are suppressed or ignored.

Climate change denialism is another example of magical thinking. Another one: the Republican mainstream belief that cutting taxes will lead to increased growth, higher tax revenues, and balanced budgets. The New Yorker had a good essay by James Surowiecki this week explaining that decades of evidence now show that, as you might initially expect, cutting taxes leads to lower tax revenue. But current Republican leaders and followers, like those before them, devoutly and streadfastly deny the obvious.
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The WSJ had a must-read essay this week by David Gelernter on AI. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, argues that the intelligence of our machines will inevitably surpass our own, and we cannot reliably predict what will happen after that. Thinks of machines with IQs of 500, or 5000. They could be dangerous, perhaps viewing us as we view houseplants. Gelernter suggests that in experimenting we exercise the kind of caution we use with biological weapons.

But hey, assuming that the machines do not decide to enslave or kill us, they could really be helpful. They would almost surely see more possible moves in addressing difficult problems, like global warming. Perhaps it would be so obvious that they’re reliable authorities that we would give up on magical thinking. Then again, such thinking is almost perfectly hermetic and impervious.
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Izzie the cat, questionable executions, and ballet love

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Izzie the cat took her last trip to the vet this week. After almost 14 years together, we were sad. Our pets enrich our lives and make us better, more loving humans, even the ones with mercurial moods like Izzie. One minute, she would be seeking affection, angelically purring, and hissing like a little demon the next. Of course, we probably seemed strange to her.

From time to time I tried to get her to do some modeling for me and my camera, but she never cared much for that. I cannot say that any of my photos quite got her essence. White with black splotches and wings, she was a strange, pretty thing. It will be a slightly different world without her.

Deciding to put down a beloved pet is a hard decision. We considered for a while the evidence of Izzie’s diminishing capacities and increasing behavioral problems, and balanced as best we could the pros and the cons. In the end, we decided it was a good time for her death. But there remains a little nagging discomfort, along with sadness. To actively take on the choice of life or death is unsettling, which it should be.
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This week U.S. fighter planes reportedly blew up several dozen people in a Libyan terrorist training camp. The target was a single Tunisian individual I’d never heard of, Noureddine Chouchane, based on his participation in terrorist attacks in Tunisia. I found this disturbing. Assuming Noureddine Chouchane was a thoroughly evil person who committed heinous acts (we couldn’t possibly get that wrong, could we?), should we be the judges and executioners for all terrorist acts, no matter how far removed from the U.S.? And even if we can justify that, how to justify taking the lives of dozens of other people who, so far as we know, committed no crimes? Do we really think it’s OK to kill all potential terrorists (who are, after all, also potential future non-terrorists)?

The Times had a story this week headlined (in the print edition) “Scars Left by American Bombs Resist Fading, 25 Years Later.” The particular scar in issue was damage from our bombing of civilians in 1991 at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War. We dropped an especially powerful bunker busting bomb on a shelter in a middle class Baghdad neighborhood and killed 408 people, most of whom were burned alive.

I can see how ordinary Iraqis could find this a moral outrage. Wouldn’t anyone? Yet I had never heard of the incident before, and after digging through 25 years of Times coverage on Iraq, couldn’t find an earlier story about it. It makes you wonder whether there are some other military atrocities that even faithful Times readers have not heard about.
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The Atlantic has a good piece by Peter Beinart titled “Why Attacking ISIS Won’t Make America Safer.” Beinart notes that most Americans favor attacking ISIS, but argues that history shows that our military actions in the Middle East have resulted in inceased, not decreased, terrorist attacks. He calls it “the terror trap”: the more terrorists we kill, the more terrorists there are trying to kill us. Beinart doesn’t say this, but I will: the military solution will not work.

On a lighter note: Saturday night we went to the new Carolina Ballet show, Love Speaks. It was delightful! The theme of romantic love never gets old, and it’s right in the sweet spot of this wonderfully talented company. Lynn Taylor-Corbett’s new work has a narrator providing some poetry of Shakespeare, and a sort of Elizabethan look, but also kind of jazzy, with quickly developing flirtations, fascinations, and jealousies. I really liked it. I also particularly enjoyed Jan Burkhard and Richard Krusch in the balcony scene of Weiss’s Romeo and Juliet. It was profoundly romantic.
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Delicious pears and a magnificent Sugar Plum

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One of my favorite things in the holiday season is Harry and David’s Royal Riviera Pears. Every year, we get a box from Sally’s dear godmother (whom I’ve never met), and every year they are incredibly sweet and dripping with deliciousness. So it was this week. You may have seen the Harry and David’s ads and wondered whether a mere fruit could ever be an appropriate holiday gift. Well, my view is yes. They are amazing: the fruit of the gods!

The Nutcracker ballet is another great seasonal treat. It endures because there are a lot of things to like: a great Tchaikovsky score, a story with recognizable characters, a bit of naughtiness, and a lot of sweetness. The Carolina Ballet production has gorgeous costumes and sets. There are a lot of children in the production, who seemed particularly young and touching this year. But the main reason I go to see it is for the wonderful dancers in solos, small ensembles, and choruses.
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Saturday evening Alyssa Pilger, our pointe shoe sponsoree and friend, made her debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy on Saturday. As a dancer, Alyssa has a natural elegance about her. She seems at first delicate, but then there is also a quality that’s almost fierce. Her moments of stillness don’t seem like rests or pauses, but rather radiate energy. She has a musician’s musicality, which goes beyond just staying with the basic rhythmic framework, to understanding it deeply and realizing when and how it can be creatively opposed.

Sugar Plum is a big role. It makes little girls want to be ballerinas, while transporting the big boys and girls to transcendent place. Alyssa rose to the occasion. Her technique was impeccable, as fluent in adagio as in allegro. And there was that extra something, that expressive spark. I got goosebumps, and, I admit it, tears from both eyes. It was so beautiful!

It was, for me, Alyssa’s night, but I need to mention that Adam Crawford Chavis as her partner, the Cavalier, was also wonderful. He’s big and handsome, and amazingly poised and strong. Their pas de deux was intensely romantic. The crowd gave them long and loud hurrahs.
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Re the pictures, this weekend I continued, and concluded for the year, my project of visiting and photographing local parks I didn’t already know well. I went up to Falls Lake on Saturday morning to Blue Jay Point, and then again on Sunday to Rolling View. It was clear and bright and cold both days, and there were almost no people. I also spent some time experimenting with my new Nikon SB910 speedlight in making the portrait here of a Harry and David’s pear sitting on my piano. Afterwards, I ate that pear, which was delicious.

The Casual Blog will be on a holiday break for the last couple of weekends, while we’re traveling. I’m hoping to have some pictures of pretty tropical fish when we return. For my dear readers who celebrate Christmas, I wish you a merry one.
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