The Casual Blog

Tag: David Brooks

Bears and a whale, and where bad ideas come from

I finally finished going through the pictures I took at Katmai National Park and the Alaska coast, and I wanted to share a few more that I liked.  Katmai has one of the densest concentrations of brown bears in the world, but there aren’t really very many there — about 2,200.  Each one is unique.

Along with bears, I am particularly interested in whales.  I’ve had the privilege of seeing them in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and I’ve been learning more about them in recent books by Carl Safina and Rebecca Giggs.  Humans have just started understanding the intelligence, social structures, and cultures of whales, but for centuries, we’ve been mindlessly killing them.

So during my Alaska trip, I had mixed feelings about seeing a fin whale that had died from unknown causes and washed up on the beach.  The poor creature had been there for a few days, decomposing, and had become food for other animals, including a lot of brown bears.  Despite feeling sad for the whale, I was glad it could provide calories for the bears and other  creatures.  

David Brooks is a NY Times columnist I generally respect without getting particularly excited.  He’s a sensible conservative who loathes Trump — a nice but usually predictable guy.  However, last week in his column on contemporary currents in neuroscience, he briefly pulled together some powerful ideas that I’ve been mulling over but hadn’t imagined he’d ever entertain.   

According to Brooks (and various scholars), we’ve all learned to think of seeing and imagining as entirely separate things.  But they aren’t.  Neuroscientists are finding that the brain structures and processes involved are much the same for both.  That is, from the perspective of the internal physical operation, we can’t reliably distinguish between seeing and imagining.  Seeing may be believing, but believing may also be seeing.   

Similarly, the distinctions that we draw between brain and body, between memory and experience, and between reason and emotion are nowhere near as clear and clean as most of us have assumed.  Indeed, it may not be possible to box off any half of these pairs as independent.  Like yin and yang, they are starting to look interdependent.

Even starting to think about these ideas may be disorienting, since we’ve long understood these distinctions to be rock solid.  But they may explain some widespread-but-wrong notions.  With this new perspective, we can start to understand how some people can truly believe that covid vaccines are dangerous, a newly fertilized egg is fully human, scientists are lying about climate change, and a liberal cabal is trying to take away personal firearms and legalize child abuse.

It’s probable that we all have sincere beliefs that have no basis in reality, though some of us seem to have a bigger collection.  When we’re part of communities with extreme views and bombarded with media that confirms our biases, we can dig into some sad and dangerous positions.  

There’s no simple solution here, I’m afraid.  But I find it helpful to remember that we’ve all got imperfect brains, and even the kookiest of us is not entirely personally responsible for his or her terrible ideas.  Also, people do sometimes change, and might one day be grateful for our helping them to change. 

A swimming milestone, Courage-ous soccer, deconstruction in our neighborhood, gun idealists, and nuke idealists

Looking south over Capital Boulevard at downtown Raleigh.  Our building is the big one one on the upper right.

I had the last of my eight swim lessons last week, and my teacher Eric seemed pleased with my progress.  My primary objective was learning the butterfly stroke, which I did, though Eric said it looked like I still had to think about it, which was true enough.  He said the cure for that was practice.  On freestyle, we talked about gliding and breathing, and for backstroke, we focused on keeping the head and chest up.  He liked my breaststroke!  These last weeks working on better swimming have been energizing, and I look forward to many more good laps.  

On Sunday afternoon, we got out to see our N.C. Courage play the Chicago Red Stars in the semi-finals of the National Women’s Soccer League.  These ladies can play!  The Courage had more attacks, but Chicago played almost flawless defense, and the game was scoreless through 89 minutes.  In the 90th minute, a hard, low shot from the Courage’s Denise O’Sullivan  found the net.  The crowd went wild!  The Courage, in their first season here, will be playing in the championship game in Orlando against the Portland Thorns.   

 In our neighborhood there’s a tremendous amount of construction going on, and also deconstruction.  Just a couple of blocks to the north and east, several buildings have been taken down in the last couple of weeks, including Finch’s Restaurant and my favorite photo gear and advice spot, Peace Camera (whose business is now located at Quail Corners Shopping Center).  The destroyed buildings had no particular architectural distinction, and it’s sort of exciting to see things changing and look forward to new developments, though at the moment it’s a wasteland.   I took these pictures on Saturday morning with the Tiller Quadcopter.     

The horrifying mass shooting in Las Vegas happened in front of the Luxor, where I stayed last year.  The national press mostly focused on the killer’s motivation, which remains unknown.  I read a couple of interesting pieces on the more important question of why a lot of Americans are passionate about guns and oppose all gun regulation.  Kurt Andersen’s piece in Slate is brilliant.  Andersen acknowledges that shooting guns can be a perfectly fine recreation, but also shows the powerful fantasies and fears that drive gun activists to extreme positions.  Somehow a significant number of people came to believe that they need a lot of powerful guns because they’re likely to be needed to fight the government that wants to take their guns.  

I also thought David Brooks’s latest NY Times  column on guns was thought-provoking.  Brooks views love of guns not so much as a product of fear or fantasy as of identity politics.  People who oppose gun regulation are demonstrating solidarity with a matrix of “conservative” issues, such as opposing abortion and immigration.  He suggests we need to end the culture wars if we want to address the gun issue.  That’s a tall order.  In the meantime, if we hear something that sounds like bullets, let’s be prepared to hit the deck.

Speaking of perils, I’d like to congratulate this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Committee for recognizing them:  the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).   Don’t feel bad if you missed the announcement of this prestigious prize, which the NY Times buried on page A10.  The risk of nuclear accidents and nuclear conflicts is so enormous that it’s almost impossible to think about, and so we generally don’t.  The situation is dire, but it isn’t hopeless.  Indeed,  ratification of the new UN treaty banning nuclear weapons is in process in at least 53 nations.  Kudos to the ICAN for continuing to sound the alarm.  

Educational opportunities

Jocelyn doesn’t use the phone for talking too much anymore, at least to her dad, but she called this week to tell me she was admitted to the Columbia University publishing program. She was thrilled, relieved, and ready to start a new chapter: life in New York City. Her boss at the apres ski bar in Telluride agreed to buy her aging Nissan Altima, and she asked me to figure out the legalities. I said I’d be happy to do so.

Whatever doubts I may have about job prospects in the publishing business, I’m keeping to myself for the time being. It’s wonderful to see Jocelyn, so smart and talented, moving forward and exploring. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all go to New York and be students again?

As a matter of fact, one of the great things about my job is that I get to talk to and learn from really interesting and gifted people. This week I had lunch with Jamie Boyle, professor of law at Duke and one of the most clear-eyed scholars of intellectual property law. His last book, The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind, explains with clarity and force some of the enormous problems with our patent and copyright systems, including how IP law can hinder innovation and creativity. He really is a brilliant guy, and a delightful conversationalist.

We ate at the Washington Duke Inn, which has a cozy clubby feel, and talked about some of the usual things, like sports and food, but also about his leading role in producing the Hargreaves Commission report, which advocated an evidence-based approach to IP protection. We discussed the possibilities for patent reform in Congress and the courts. We also talked about some of the hyper conservative activity in the N.C. legislature, and the N.C. constitutional amendment against gay marriage. We agreed that this right-wing crowd has gone beyond being embarrassing and is hurting the reputation and economy of our state. I also got to see his new car, a sporty and beautiful Jaguar XK.

In other education news, the NY Times reported this week that EdX, the online education consortium, has developed software that automatically grades students’ essays. Its new software is, it says, not perfect but about as reliable as human graders, and gives almost instant feedback to the student. This could be a game changer in education at all levels, potentially helping students with instant feedback, and also potentially eliminating a lot of teaching jobs. Will the net of it be better education at lower cost? And/or will it be another nail in the coffin of the traditional university, without a satisfactory replacement on the horizon?

David Brooks wrote a good column this week about online education and the role of the university. He proposed regarding the mission of higher education as having a technical knowledge part and a practical part. Technical knowledge is about things like formulas and facts, and practical knowledge is about skills that can’t be written down and memorized. Online outfits like EdX and Coursera can cover the technical part, but at least so far aren’t as effective at the practical part. We seem to need human-to-human interaction to learn some things.

Three Sparrows and a Cup, by Byron Gin

Three Sparrows and a Cup, by Byron Gin

At any rate, the human touch is a pleasant thing. On Friday Sally and I went out to First Friday, downtown Raleigh’s monthly art and food celebration. We stopped in the Adam Cave Gallery, where we’d bought a painting some months back, and met the painter, Byron Gin. His current show, titled Aviary, continues the theme of the work we bought, with abstract elements, rough textures, and birds. Byron was a pleasant, soft-spoken guy, who seemed happy to discuss how he made his paintings. We remembered the painting we bought, and it was good to be able to tell him how it had brought as daily joy. Among other things, we learned that we shared an interest in bird feeders and photography.

For dinner, we tried without success to get into Bida Manda (wait time 1.75 hours), Centro (wait time 1.5 hours), and noted crammed dining rooms or lines out the door at Caffe Luna, Remedy Diner, and Sitti. It’s good to see our restaurants doing a brisk business, but when you’re hungry, you’re hungry. We finally got a table at Gravy, an Italian place, and had a pleasant meal including a Tuscan Chianti.

On Saturday, we went over to Durham to take in some of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The festival is an annual event that this year featured more than 100 documentaries, 7 different screens, and hundreds of cinephiles, which we somehow had never managed to get to in years past. The afternoon was sunny, and there was a happy energy to the crowd, an eclectic mix that reminded me of Oberlin (where the film club screened classic films once a week) and upper west side New York. The films we saw were all sold out, as were several others we couldn’t get tickets for.

Our favorites were a double bill by featured film maker Jennifer Yu: The Guide and Breathing Lessons. The first was about a park in Mozambique and a young man whose big dream was to be a tour guide. It explored serious environmental issues with a light touch. It featured E.O. Wilson, who at 82 was still charmingly fascinated by ants and other small creatures. Breathing Lessons was about Mark O’Brien, a writer who was paralyzed by polio as a child and spent most of the rest of his life in an iron lung. He seemed very honest about living with an extreme disability. Yu was in attendance, and after each film answered questions from the audience. She seemed really smart and likeable.

A lovely Friday cocktail, Bill Cunningham, the anti-gay vote, David Brooks’s The Social Animal, learning to listen while playing the piano

How nice it is to have a cocktail and relax at home on Friday evening! Of course, strong drink must be handled with care. A glass of wine with dinner is certainly a pleasure, but the habit can sneak up on you, and a glass of wine can so easily turn into three.

A few weeks back, Sally and I decided to limit drinking to weekends. Among other good effects, this makes the Friday evening drink particularly delightful. Last night, Sally made us margaritas with fresh lime. For the first time in years, I had a sudden urge to listen to Stevie Wonder hits from the seventies, which we now can easily stream from Rhapsody. I dedicated my streaming of the wonderful Signed, Sealed, Delivered to my sweet Sally.

We watched a documentary called Bill Cunningham New York. Cunningham is a photographer whose specialty is candid shots of New Yorkers wearing interesting clothes. He has a feature in the Sunday NY Times style section in which he shows this week’s street fashion trend, which, although I’m far from a fashion person, I always enjoy looking at. But I didn’t know him by name, and would have missed the documentary but for Sally’s putting it at the top of the Netflix queue.

It was sweet and kind of inspiring. Cunningham is in his mid-80s. He’s still snapping pictures all the time (using 35 mm film), publishing weekly in the Times, and travelling by bicycle on the streets of Manhattan. Age may have slowed him down a bit, but he’s still passionately creative. He’s got a great, boyish smile.

We voted in the North Carolina primary this week, which involved primary races for governor, secretary of agriculture, and various other offices, and an amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage. Why a gay marriage ban? It’s mysterious, and bizarre. I am stunned that it passed by a 20-point margin. Raleigh, the part of North Carolina in which I spend most days is multi-cultural and tolerant, with a visible and completely uncontroversial gay population. (I blogged about this visibility a while ago.) But most of the state is rural. What is going on in the heads of homophobes? I’d like to understand, but I don’t get it. It’s a different culture. I believe that that culture is eventually going to change, but for now it’s still alive and kicking.

Speaking of culture, I’ve been reading The Social Animal, by David Brooks, the NY Times conservative columnist. Brooks has collected recent ideas on psychology and culture, including those of Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt, and woven them into a readable and, in places, intriguing book. The theme, which is getting considerable attention lately, is that people are primarily driven by unconscious perceptions and desires, rather than rational thought.

But Brooks views this in a positive light, arguing that although our brains make all kinds of mistakes, they work better than a completely rational system running in real time could. He argues that behavior is best viewed as a function of those around us and our surrounding environments rather than of individual intelligence, and proposes that we think about meaning more in terms of relationships and cultural systems. I don’t much like his device of two imaginary characters who gradually discover or rub up against the various theories he explores; the characters never really come to life. But I think it’s worthwhile — I’m more than half way through, and likely to finish.

On Saturday I had my last piano lesson of the season with Olga Kleiankana, who’s headed to Moldova for the summer. We talked about some Rachmaninoff and Scriabin pieces for me to work on over the summer, and then worked on Scriabin’s second prelude (op. 11). Olga admitted that it sounded significantly better, but pointed out places where the tone seemed flat. She continued to emphasize the importance of gesture in sound production and expression, and when pedaling problems emerged she taught me how to test out pedaling improvements.

Then I played Debussy’s Second Arabesque for her for the first time. She pointed out that I seemed to be reading note by note, when many of the elements were repeated with slight variations. As she went through a quick score analysis, I had a eureka moment: score analysis was not designed to torture hapless students, but rather to make it possible to understand and learn music more quickly and effectively.

Finally I played Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, from Images, premiere serie. This is a gorgeous impressionist piece that calls to mind (especially after hearing the title) reflections in water. It has dazzling effects, some of which are difficult. Olga noticed that I got tense in my shoulders in the fast 32nd-note passages, and advised me that that could be fixed by breaking the passages into simple parts for practice. We also talked about the relationship of touch and tone color. At one point, I played a simple chord, and she said, with a pained expression, “Don’t just play the notes! You need to always think before you touch the keys!”

And she was serious. She listens with a level of concentration that’s almost scary, and expects me to at least try to do the same. I’m having occasional glimmerings of what this might be like. The sound seems richer, with more depth and detail. It’s like hearing in 3D. Of course, little flaws, like unbalanced chords or inappropriate accents, are more jarring. But when a musical statement works, it touches more deeply.

Artificial intelligence, vanishing legal jobs, and art

Is technology rendering humans obsolete? The answer is, as to some activities, yes. But could it help us better understand our true nature? It could.

Last week the NY Times reported that new computer programs were able to do legal review of electronic documents more accurately and much cheaper than human lawyers. This is a milestone in technology, and one with big implications for the legal profession, and other professions, too.

In my professional capacity at Red Hat as a purchaser of legal services, I’m happy to consider using these money-saving tools. And having as a young lawyer spent hours doing dreary document review, I’m happy to think that humans may be able to hand such drudgery off to computers and do more stimulating things with themselves. But lots of law firms survive and thrive by selling document review services. Automating such work will cause painful dislocations, as many legal jobs go down the tubes.

It’s strange to think of part of lawyering going the way of the gas station attendant. As computer-driven technology replace partially or completely entire categories of work, such as huge swathes of manufacturing, educated professionals have assumed that they were immune. But that is clearly wrong. The triumph of Watson on Jeopardy a couple of weeks ago and the success of legal document review programs shows that more change is on the way.

This is somewhat frightening. But it also forces us to confront the interesting question of what we can usefully do, other than the logic-driven work that computers are now taking over. Since Peraclesian Athens, we’ve assumed that human reasoning was the crowning glory of creation, but we need to revisit that understanding of nature, and human nature.

A few months back I read The Science of Fear, by Daniel Gardner, which offers some interesting thinking on the inherent flaws in human rationality. Gardner focuses on how we systematically underestimate some risks, like the risk of highway accidents, and overestimate others, such as the risk of terrorism and violent crime. Our journalism establishment is heavily invested in promulgating scare stories on such subjects, and we seem in general to like such stories, or at least eat them up. Gardner discusses the psychological basis of this odd characteristic, and the possibility that with more quantitative analysis we could work around the problem. I’m in favor of more careful quantitative analysis of problems, but I doubt that will much affect how human minds work.

David Brooks wrote a surprisingly thoughtful (especially for a conservative) column in the Times this week about human nature. He posited that various kinds of scientists are coming to think of humans are fundamentally social, and that it’s a mistake to think of them as isolated individuals. He also emphasized that our unconscious, emotional capacities are more important than our reasoning. In other words, the way our minds work is mostly non-rational. We aren’t just poorly fashioned reasoning machines, but a different kind of being.

This is worth a lot more exploring. There are various things that humans do that are non-rational, but not unintelligent. Artistic activity is a prime example. When we sing or dance, we’re connecting to our selves and others in a way that is richly human. Telling stories in various media is a constant of our lives. These are things that we as a species are really good at, and we enjoy. They aren’t peripheral to our lives and culture — they’re central. Our computers may get at making art, but they can’t replace us in those activities, because we realize ourselves in them.