The Casual Blog

Tag: daffodils

Some new flowers, and a plea that we reconsider our nuclear stance

I’ve resisted the urge to post my various recent musings in an effort not to increase planetary anxiety, or my own.  I’ve also had to work my way through some health issues that took up a lot of bandwidth.  Sorry about that, and about this.  

Spring has been arriving in Raleigh in fits and starts, but the early blooms are out now.  I was happy to see the new tulips at Fletcher Park and daffodils at Raulston, and wanted to share a few pictures.  May they give a little peace.

I also wanted to share a few thoughts on the possibility of nuclear war starting in Ukraine.  As dreadful as that prospect is, there could be a silver lining:  it may help us understand the nuclear peril we face and inspire us to work for a peaceful solution.  

This week there was an op ed piece in the NY Times by Steven Simon and Jonathan Stephenson (S&S) titled Why Putin Went Straight for the Nuclear Threat.  I ended up responding to the piece with a comment in the Times’ electronic edition.  Afterwards, when I then started skimming the hundreds of other comments on the piece, I assumed my views were shared by plenty of others.  

But no.  It’s nice, in a way, to get some proof that your thinking is not entirely conventional.  It was deeply disturbing, though, to find that there were a great many Times commenters who accepted and even welcomed the prospect of nuclear war with Russia. I decided it might be worthwhile to explain a little more what I was trying to say.

S&S’s premise is that nuclear weapons are generally a good thing, in that they provide a “delicate balance of deterrence.”  That is, S&S posit an underlying rationality to the existing nuclear power arrangement in which a small group of leaders may at any time for any reason launch nuclear weapons powerful enough to end civilization.  

In the recent Times piece, S&S are concerned that this “delicate balance” may be disturbed by the U.S. announcing that it does not intend to enter into a nuclear war.  They appear to believe that Putin is bluffing with his nuclear cards, and that we should call the bluff.

Nuclear war, however, is different from poker.  In poker, an erroneous guess about a bluff may, depending on the stakes, cost a lot of money.  In nuclear war, it may mean the end of millions or billions of human lives, if not outright extinction, as well as the end of most other life on Earth.  

This catastrophic risk has been with us in varying degrees since the enormous build up of nuclear forces in the 1960s.  There have been periodic discussions of the risks of nuclear accidents,  unintentional nuclear escalations, or planned attacks.  At times, thinkers have noted the peril of keeping nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert, with one head of state entitled at any moment and with no explanation to unleash their devastating power.  

But these short spells of sanity are mostly quickly forgotten, as other policy matters seem more pressing.  The conventional narrative of “nuclear deterrence” is seldom called on to explain and defend itself.  But it should be.  In spite of its shadowy but powerful supporters – the arms manufacturers, politicians, generals, think tank scholars, and multiple layers of  bureaucracy – there is no reason to think it is at all rational.  In fact, it is both irrational and deeply immoral.       

Part of the foundational idea for nuclear forces is that they deter other nuclear powers from attacking with their nuclear weapons.  This is, of course, circular reasoning, in that it relies on the premise that nuclear weapons must exist and cannot be eliminated.  If we reduce and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons through verifiable treaties, there would be no need for this sort of deterrence. 

Moreover, there’s no reason to think that this deterrence notion is what really accounts for the lack, so far (except for the U.S. atomic bombing of Japan), of nuclear aggression.  It seems at least as likely that nuclear nations avoid nuclear attacks from a combination of various feelings and ideas, such as compassion, horror at the prospect of mass slaughter, and fear that any nuclear attack will escalate and cause a nuclear winter that will kill almost everything.  

Here, as in most human problems, it’s impossible to know exactly why people do what they do, or what they may eventually decide to do.  Rationality seldom guides our behavior.  This lack of predictability is another reason to work diligently to find a way to back off the nuclear precipice.

The other foundational idea at the heart of nuclear strategy is that having the most powerful weapons will deter non-nuclear fighting.  This deterrence idea has been repeatedly debunked by history.  

The US superiority in nuclear weapons did not deter Soviet aggression in eastern Europe or prevent national liberation movements in former colonial lands.  It did not deter Korea or Vietnam.  It did not deter Iraq or Afghanistan, or ISIS.  These and other movements won their gamble that the US  was unwilling to conduct wholesale nuclear slaughter even when fiercely opposed.

The same, of course, was true for the Soviet Union as its empire fell to pieces:  its nuclear arsenal, purchased at great cost, was useless.  Now we are seeing that this is true of Ukraine.  As the Ukrainians attack seemingly mighty Russian armored columns with small drones and shoulder-fired antitank weapons, they are betting that Putin will not respond with a devastating nuclear attack.

It may be that Putin believes he could intimidate Ukraine and its supporters with a small nuclear weapon that does only limited damage.  He may believe that such a smaller weapon would not be viewed as a nuclear attack requiring a response, and therefore be less likely to trigger a nuclear escalation that ends all civilization.  

Of course, to the extent Putin thinks rationally, he would recognize that he cannot positively know what either Ukrainians or the nuclear-armed western powers would do, just as they cannot know what he would do.  Heck, none of these players know what they themselves would do!  

All the actors in the nuclear drama are humans, prone to confusion, fear, and panic.  Faced with a nuclear onslaught, it is most likely they would act irrationally.  A head of state with a nuclear button could easily be as irrational as the rest of us.  Meanwhile, in a crisis, a field commander with a tactical nuclear weapon is all too likely to fire it, starting the final conflagration.  

Assuming we avoid nuclear catastrophe over Ukraine, this crisis may help us understand the urgency of resolving our perilous situation.  Policies that reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war and arms control treaties that over time eliminate nuclear weapons should be back at the top of our domestic and international agenda.  

I learned this week of Back from the Brink, a group that  advocates for these and related measures, and made a donation to support their work.  Their website is preventnuclearwar.org. 

Brave little daffodils

I went over to Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Saturday morning to check on early spring flowers.  After a mild week, the temperature dropped almost to freezing on Friday night.  It was sunny but cold and windy when I got there.  It must have been difficult for the early plants, though the daffodils and a few tulips looked cheerful.

Guilty pleasures, my new grand piano, and understanding mass delusions

Daffodils at Fletcher Park, March 4, 2017

Daffodils at Fletcher Park, March 4, 2017

It’s been pleasantly mild in Raleigh this week, bringing out the early spring flowers, though it got colder this weekend.  I’ve been in good spirits, which is hard to explain.    With so many big things to worry about, I’ve felt a little guilty about this happiness.   But what can you do?

On Friday I had a successful spinning class with Matt at Flywheel. Despite a couple of weeks off, I finished with the first place score, with 320 points.  Almost everyone (or everyone)  in the class was considerably younger than me.   It’s invigorating to try to keep up with younger people, and especially fun to go faster than them!

Gabe and I had lunch this week at the Remedy Diner, and talked about the possibility of his becoming a partner in a new print-jobbing and graphic design firm.  He’s already doing web site design and related print design work, and the new business could be a good platform.  I’m excited for him, and enjoyed kicking around some of the practical aspects, like finding clients, office space, legal services, accounting, and insurance.

My new Fazioli F228

My new Fazioli F228

This week I figured out how to work forScore, an app for reading piano music on my tablet device.  There’s a massive amount of great music in the public domain and available for free on sites like IMSLP.org, but it’s cumbersome to work with unbound paper copies.  Just as my tablet has become my primary tool for reading books, it might become that for music.  Another plus is solving the problem of page turning.  In prior generations, pianists needed two hands to play the instrument and a third hand to turn pages, but I’m getting a little wireless foot pedal that should do the job.

I’m in love with my new grand piano, a Fazioli F228. The sound is amazing!  It is truly a joy to play.  It’s a 2003 instrument that I acquired from a businessman in Greenwich, Connecticut, who’d got it for his young son to learn on.  Since then, it’s been lovingly tended to by an experienced technician, but barely used.  It will certainly be used by me.  I’ve been delving into my favorite music of Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy, and discovering beautiful new prospects.  I’m selling my Steinway A, a 2004 instrument with a really lovely tone, if you know anyone who might be interested.

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Being of such good cheer, I’d planned to abstain from political discussions this week.  But I can’t resist sharing links to a couple of articles with very intriguing ideas about a big question:  are we losing our grip on reality?  The White House’s attacks on the media, the justice system, scientific consensus, and other institutions initially seemed to me so bizarre and ridiculous that I assumed no one would take them seriously.  But some people are.

Alexander George in the NY Times compared the situation to a famous forger of Vermeer’s work who succeeded by temporarily changing, through his own fake paintings, the understanding of what qualified as a Vermeer.  George points up that we judge the validity of new information based on our current knowledge base, including the concepts we’ve developed as to what sources are reliable.  If someone were to convince us that we could no longer trust scientists or journalists, our existing knowledge base would be undermined.  Rationality would be seriously impaired, as would political organization and action.  Query, is this the Bannon plan?

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Also in the sad, failing, fake news Times, Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman wrote a piece entitled Why We Believe Obvious Untruths, which centers on an idea that is both simple and profound.    The answer, they say, is not lack of intelligence.  Fernbach and Sloman point out that human knowledge is essentially collective — dependent on knowledge of other humans.  The things we think we know are for the most part actually things we’re confident somebody else knows.   While this system of collective intelligence allows for the large and long collaborations necessary for the greatest human achievements, it also accounts for our susceptibility to mass delusions.  

For better and for worse, we largely rely on our communities for knowledge, and our tools for detecting when our communities go awry are not so good.  As others have noted, we have a tendency to believe new information that fits with whatever we (and our community) already believe and ignore and suppress everything else, which has an error magnification effect.  Social media serves for many as news fast food that compounds the echo chamber problem.

Thus it turns out to be easy for groups to come to strong agreement in support of ideas overwhelmingly at odds with the weight of the evidence.  QED:  climate change is a hoax, immigrants are threatening us with terrorism, our military is too weak, etc.

On a cheerier note, speaking of intelligence, there was a report this week of experiments showing that insects have a lot more mental capacity than previously thought.  They aren’t just automatons operating on pure instinct, but  can learn and solve problems.  Scientists at the Queen Mary University in London taught bumblebees to roll a little ball across a platform in exchange for a reward.  Amazing!  

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Spring, some explosive questions, including a nuclear one, and hope

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More harbingers of spring arrived in Raleigh this week: forsythia, red buds, and more daffodils started blossoming. Those colorful little flowers will cheer you right up. Look closely and you can see more buds getting ready. The flowers do not last long, so to enjoy them you need to get outside quickly and focus intently. They remind us that life is such a precious, precarious thing.
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Last week a white policeman in Raleigh shot and killed a young black man. I felt very sad, and also concerned about possible damage, physical and mental, to our community. I’d like to think the race relations and police-black community relations here are much better than, say, Ferguson Missouri. But it’s also fair to say that there could be big problems that people like me just don’t know about. One thing I’ve learned from Black Lives Matter, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alice Goffman, and others is that while I almost never see it in its raw form, racism is real, and being black in this society is still a big health risk.

Soon after the shooting, hundreds of people marched in the street in protest. There were some traffic problems, but there was no reported harm to persons or property. Also no reports of police in military armor and tanks.
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The first descriptions of the incident featured a fleeing suspect getting shot several times in the back. The official police description differed greatly, saying the man who was killed tried to shoot the officer and was wanted for drug crimes. We tend to see these things in the way that fits most comfortably with our preconceptions. Most white people I’ve discussed this with are inclined to accept the police account as true, despite eyewitnesses who say otherwise. But just as insidious racism can shape perceptions, it’s possible that eyewitnesses who fear and distrust police conformed their memories to fit their larger life narrative. I’m consciously uncertain. Either way, any time a person is killed in the course of our misbegotten war on drugs, it’s an avoidable tragedy. We need to keep working on ending prohibition.
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Also last week, the U.S. killed 150 new recruits of al Shabaab in Somalia. Using bombs from drones and manned aircraft, we caught them standing in formation, perhaps graduating from terror school. According to Pentagon sources, they were going to be part of an imminent attack in Somalia on African soldiers and a few U.S. advisors. This is very similar to the bombing of possible terrorist recruits in Libya recently, so it seems to now be a thing – mass execution of young men who could potentially attack people we don’t know much about. Are we really sure this killing was justified? Is there no possible non-fatal way of addressing such threats? Could we be increasing the chaos and the risk of more mayhem through such attacks?

We don’t have a good track record in using our military in a carefully calibrated way, or in telling the truth about our attacks. See Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Now Libya and Somalia. Tomorrow?
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You may have missed the story, which I did not see in a major U.S. newspaper, of the trial of the Marshall Islands lawsuit in the International Court of Justice seeking to stop nuclear proliferation. The Marshall Islands were used by the U.S. as a test site for 67 nuclear explosions in the 40s-60s, which devastated the area and sickened and killed part of the population. The lawsuit is about the lack of compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, in which some nuclear powers agreed to work in good faith towards disarmament. Apparently the suit is seeking a declaration that this hasn’t been done, and must be done.

For quite a while I’ve been thinking about whether there’s any way nuclear arsenals can be justified. They need a strong justification, because the risks are extremely high – accidental explosions, theft by crazed terrorists, escalating counterattacks, all out annihilation and the end of the world as we know it.

Here’s my current view: no political dispute could possibly justify killing thousands or millions of innocent people, which is the intended purpose of our most powerful nuclear weapons. No sane person would willingly subject the planet to nuclear winter, when much of the animal and plant life that initially survived a major nuclear war would die. Deterrence only works if an adversary is sane and rational (it doesn’t work on madmen), so deterrence is either unnecessary (as to the sane), or ineffective (as to the mad). So we cannot reasonably support the state’s creating and maintaining the risk of nuclear war. That leaves disarmament as the only credible, ethical strategy.

You may agree or disagree, but in either case, why aren’t we talking about this? Perhaps we assume that there’s nothing that can be done, or that it’s something we as individuals can’t effect. The Marshall Islands, a very small country, has challenged that stance. It’s election season, so let’s ask the candidates: what steps will you take to lower the risk of a nuclear holocaust and move towards a nuclear-free world?

On Friday, Bernie Sanders was speaking at noon at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, which is just a couple of blocks from where I work. It was a mild, sunny day, and so I thought it would be nice to see him, and perhaps ask him his view on the nuclear risk. By the time I got there, the line was very long. It took me ten minutes to walk to the end of it, by which time I realized there was no chance I was getting into the hall. But it was nice to see the crowd. They were very young! And, I’m guessing, hopeful. Anyhow, it made me hopeful.
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Welcoming daffodils, and re-starting golf lessons

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This week I saw the first daffodils! I just love those little guys, especially the early ones –- the harbingers. On Sunday, I got up to Raulston Arboretum, where the daffs were exuberant, while most other occupants were still slumbering.

Through the long winter nights, I spent some time learning more about photography and adding to my tool kit. I’ve got some new tools to try out, including a nice flash (the Nikon SB-910) and a new macro lens (Tamron 180 MM) that should be great for closeups of insects. I’ve got new software (the CC versions of Lightroom and Photoshop) and have been experimenting with image healing, filters, and focus stacking. I’m ready for the great blossoming of spring.
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Partly with spring in view, I began taking golf lessons a couple of weeks ago. A golf course is a type of garden, and we are privileged to have a good number of such extraordinary gardens in piedmont North Carolina. It seems a waste not to explore and enjoy them. And so I’ve vowed once again to try to get over the hump that separates me from playing golf at a better-than-mediocre level. I’m healthy, fit, and mentally able, so it’s not implausible. I just have to improve my technique – by a lot.

As I’ve noted before, when there’s something difficult to be learned, I’m a big believer in finding a gifted teacher and doing what she says. The teacher-student relationship can be rich human experience, but even when it isn’t, it’s generally the most efficient way to get a skill set. When you don’t know how to do something, it’s hard to teach yourself. This is especially true of complex physical endeavors.
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I found my way to GolfTEC in north Raleigh, and Jessica Yadlocsky. Jessica is an ex NCAA all American and a former touring professional on the European tour, so she knows something about the game. She’s patient and encouraging, and has a good supply of tricks and strategies for addressing common problems.

At our first lesson, she said my set up was fantastic – tour quality. The problems began, however, when I put the club in motion. I have a bad habit of coming over the top, a not uncommon swing flaw. I found her diagnosis persuasive, and her suggested treatments made sense. She stipulated that I should practice at least two hours a week.

As the name suggests, GolfTEC has a technology angle, with lots of video equipment and measurement algorithms. Jessica set up a space just for me on their website with video of my lesson and video drills. As her student, I’m entitled to practice in their shop, which allows viewing every swing from two angles in slow motion. That feedback is revealing and helpful, although also a bit humbling. Already, thanks to Jessica and the video feedback, I’ve made progress addressing some of my swaying, overswinging, and going off plane. I’m optimistic.
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Spring blossoms, a new Rossini opera, and good news re ISIS

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It’s been a tough winter, and I’ve been on the lookout for forsythia and daffodils, our early declarants that winter is done. I spotted a few on Saturday, and on Sunday I got up to Raulston Arboretum, where there were blooms and buds, and I took these pictures. Happy spring! _DSC8519_edited-1

Actually, Diane pointed out the first daffodils, when I picked her up to take her to North Hills Cinema to see the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD Production of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago. As usual, Diane had vetted the reviews, and filled me in on the major points. This was the first ever production by the Met of this 1819 work, and was the result in part of a campaign by its star, mezzo Joyce DiDonato.

I’ve never seen a Rossini opera I didn’t like, and I liked this one, too. The story concerns competing lovers against a background of Scottish clans battling the king. The vocal pyrotechnics that are characteristic of the bel canto style were carried to an extreme in this work, and the principal singers were all virtuosos up to the challenge. I was awed by Juan Diego Florez and John Osborn as the dueling tenors, and also by mezzo Daniela Barcellona as Malcolm. As Elena, Joyce DiDonata had charisma and amazing vocal agility, though I was bothered by her tendency to sing sharp. Conductor Michele Mariotti was young, good-looking, and completely a master of this style.
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As Diane and I compared notes afterwards, we agreed there were some odd moments. Who were those kneeling men with blue faces? What were those metal poles in the battle camp? Why did the cloudy horizon cover only half the background? Even with belief well suspended, the plot has some bumpy parts. But we loved the music, and the production worked.
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There was more news of mayhem in the Middle East this week, as seems to be true most weeks. This is an area of the world that I do not feel a great affinity for. I’m sure there are some good and interesting people there, but their countries have lots of history, culture, and conflicts I never learned much about.

I don’t think I’m unusual in any of this. Those political leaders with the greatest interest in showing deep knowledge of the Middle East to promote their preferred programs, such as war, almost never say anything non-obvious. This makes me tend to believe that despite our massive intelligence programs, we still have little understanding of the drivers of Middle East conflict. This is serious, because we cannot have a reasonable plan for solving a problem we do not understand.
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We generally default to the belief that violent actors all hate all Americans and are primarily concerned with destroying it. But even with the limited information we get from daily journalism, we should know that things are a lot more nuanced than that. The Sunnis hate the Shiites, this kind of Sunnis hate that kind of Sunnis, and moderates hate the Jihadists. Some Jihadists want to wreak worldwide havoc, and others want to build a fundamentalist Islamic state (which is ISIS’s declared objective). And as always, there are people driven primarily by love of power and greed.

In the NY Times this morning, there was a story about how Al Qaeda came to have a lot of money from the CIA. The main story concerned an Afghan hostage situation, but it also discussed how the CIA delivered large bags of cash to then-President Hamid Karzai, in amounts up to $1 million per bag, for him to use to bribe others as he saw fit. Is this not outrageous? Surely we stopped this practice after the odious Karzai left? Well, the report today said … “The cash [is] still coming in . . . .”

Having gone many years without anything like an existential threat from a Jihadist group from the Middle East, you’d think we might be ready to put that behind us and focus on things that are much more serious threats. But the appearance of ISIS has reignited old fears and restarted the drumbeat of war.
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We learned some new things about the war against ISIS this week. Iran is fighting them hard, and with some success. This puts the US in the impossible position of trying to fight ISIS without effectively supporting declared enemies Iran and Bashar al-Assad. We also learned that ISIS is not only losing some battles, but losing some supporters, because of increasing corruption and cruelty. I was glad to hear it, for I wish the homicidal fanatics of ISIS nothing but ill.

But none of this alters my view that this is not our war. I still do not understand why we would sacrifice the life of a single American young person in a fight against them, unless they become an actual threat to us. The countries ISIS now threatens or worries are not our good friends. This is not a situation we understand or can solve.