The Casual Blog

Tag: Duke Gardens

The world’s most beautiful duck, a Chopin lesson, and some thoughts on Judge Kavanaugh and patriarchy

On Saturday morning, I went over to Duke Gardens to see what was blooming and buzzing.  There were some exotic large-leaved plants in the terrace garden. I brought along my camera, hoping to shoot some butterflies, but that didn’t work out.   

I did, however, find a Wood Duck.  At the pond, there was a crowd of more ordinary ducks hoping to get fed, and among them was this spectacular creature.  The Wood Duck’s name is completely misleading. It could more aptly be called the Heart Breakingly Beautiful Hallucinogenic Duck.  Its iridescent colors and varied patterns are vivid and thrilling.

These spectacular creatures are usually shy, and I’ve only seen them a couple of times in the distance.  This one must have gotten used to people who feed the ducks. Anyhow, he swam within five feet of me, and I felt honored.

I had a piano lesson with Olga in the afternoon, and played Chopin’s haunting Nocturne in F sharp minor.   Her main comment was that the playing seemed tasteful and musical, but that I needed 1. to get a better understanding of the underlying structure and 2. get a deeper connection to the emotional substance of the piece.  

After a few minutes of analysis, I saw what she was getting at regarding the structure.  The question of how the pianist can connect to the music at a deep emotional level was more complicated, and we talked about it at length.  One of her suggestions was to spend less time playing and more just thinking about the music. One of her techniques is to go over a piece as she’s going to sleep, and let her sleeping brain experiment.  

As I did errands this weekend, I listened to podcasts about the Kavanaugh hearing, and tried to figure out what I thought.  Until this week, I had a grudging respect for Judge Kavanaugh, based on his intelligence, hard work, and apparent integrity.  Now I’ve changed my mind about the integrity. Whether or not he truthfully has no recollection of assaulting Christine Blasey Ford, it is not believable that he is unfamiliar with the problem of getting so drunk you forget things.  

The confirmation process has brought political polarization to a whole new level, which is unfortunate, because it makes it hard to have a rational discussion.  But on the bright side, it has put the issues of our sexism and misogyny squarely on the discussion agenda.

During my lifetime, women in the U.S. have made enormous progress in terms of professional opportunities and personal freedoms.  But as the Republican senators on the judiciary committee have reminded us, parts of our system continue to be staunchly patriarchal and sexist.  Discrimination against women in the workplace is still common, including in hiring and pay. Sexual harassment and sexual violence are a reality, and for a woman to speak about sexual violence is still a risky undertaking.

For some of us, and especially for privileged white males, it takes some work to understand the reality of subordination of women in our society, since it is part of the fabric of our culture.  Like our racism, it’s just part of the air we breathe, and we usually don’t even think of it as a thing.

It’s revealing that a political acid test for being a “conservative,” and a critical issue for conservatives in supporting a new Supreme Court Justice, is  opposition to abortion. I’ve spent some time reflecting on the difficult moral issues around abortion, and I have no doubt that some conservatives have surely done likewise.  

But I’ve come to think that for most abortion opponents, the driver is not really protecting fetuses. Rather, it’s a symbolic issue.  It expresses membership in the conservative tribe. It’s part of the value system espousing the need to preserve “tradition,” which requires keeping women in “their place.”   The effort to make abortion illegal is an expression of the worldview of men as superior and women as inferior.

It’s a sort of lucky accident that Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination raises both the hard-to-spot aspect of this symbolism and the impossible-to-miss problem of sexual violence, since they are related.  I am not expecting that we’ll work these issues out in the next week or so. But I do expect that there will be a long conversation, and still hope that the arc of moral history will bend toward justice.  

Spring flowers, golfing again, and a new question: is nuclear war good for us?

It is well and truly spring!  I highly recommend getting outside and looking at what’s blooming.  These pictures are ones I took on Saturday at Duke Gardens in Durham.  In the native plants area, the wildflowers did not disappoint!  The tulips were a little past their peak, but still riotously colorful.   



I read recently that learning new sports could slow down the inevitable mental decline of aging.  The idea seemed to be that new physical activities would stimulate new brain activity.  It sounded plausible, but time-consuming and potentially embarrassing.

It might be more productive and fun to improve at a sport at which you are currently mediocre.  Anyhow, that’s my working theory, as a new golf season beckons.  The last few months I played very little, owing to a series of minor injuries and uncongenial weather.  But this week I resumed my golf lessons with Jessica at GolfTec, and started practicing again, ever hopeful.


It’s a shame that Trump is such an avid golfer; it reflects badly on the game.  But the game will survive, and so will we.  I hope.  My confidence was somewhat shaken by recent reporting by Jane Mayer on the Trump circle. Her recent New Yorker piece  focused on Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire with wacky right-wing ideas and enthusiasm for politics.  He and his family funded Bannon and Breitbart News, assumed a leading role in Trump’s presidential campaign, and are now directly involved in presidential decision-making.  

It’s not surprising that there are super rich people with nutty ideas, but this seems new:  super rich loonys more or less controlling the presidency.  The Mercers have promoted the “science” ideas of a bizarre figure named Arthur Robinson who champions the nonsense of climate change denialism.  Again, we know such people exist.  But new to me was his idea that nuclear war could be beneficial to human health.

In an interview on Fresh Air (transcribed here), Mayer said that Robinson and Mercer believe that nuclear radiation is good for people, and actually benefitted the Japanese who were subjected to the first nuclear attacks.  

In this political season, we’ve learned that there is no idea so crazy that it cannot be adopted by certain large groups of Americans.  So there may already be a significant  subpopulation that believes that nuclear war might be a good thing after all, with some of them in the White House.  That’s scary!  We need to reread  Hiroshima by John Hersey, and discuss the reality of the nuclear peril, and try to contain this existentially bad idea before it spreads.  


Summer flowers, good Indian food, soccer, Chomsky, and a nuclear question

Tiller7Bug 1-2Saturday morning I went over to Durham to see what was blooming in Duke Gardens. It seemed like summer had arrived. The forest was really lush, and the birds were singing, but the riot of colorful spring flowers had passed. There were some swelling roses and irises, and lovely magnolias. I was hoping for butterflies, but saw only one, a buckeye, who declined to pose for a picture. As usual, walking through these beautiful gardens was calming and inspiring.
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That evening we tried a new south Indian vegetarian restaurant in Morrisville, Sai Krishna Bhavan. My colleague from the subcontinent recommended it as one of the best in the area, and we concurred. We had somosas, a rava masala (potato) dosa, and paneer tikka masala curry. We’d been forewarned that the food tended to be quite spicy, so we asked for a mild approach, and that worked well for us.
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We went from there to see the Railhawks play the Jacksonville Armada (soccer). The start of the game was delayed because of the threat of a thunderstorm, but we passed the time happily chatting with friends. Eventually, the Railhawks played, with moments of brilliance and moments of sheer ineptitude. The final score was 0-0, though it could easily have been 3-0, or maybe 0-3.
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We watched a documentary on Netflix, Requiem for the American Dream. It was centered around an interview with Noam Chomsky, a lefty intellectual I’ve long admired for his scholarship, courage, and honesty. In this film he addresses wealth inequality and related issues, including how government advantages the rich over the not rich. Chomsky, now 87, seems as lucid as ever.
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This week Hillary Clinton let loose a stinging attack on Donald Trump, and landed some body blows. She had some fun pointing up his more bizarre ideas, and posited that he is temperamentally unfit to have his finger on the trigger of the largest nuclear arsenal on earth.

I certainly agree, and would even agree that the thought of HC holding the nuclear football is not as alarming as DT. But here’s the thing: there’s no human temperamentally fit to wield nuclear super powers. We’re all prone to intense anger, fear, and other strong emotions that overwhelm our ability to think clearly. Every one of us has unknown biases, unfounded assumptions, and unsuspected blind-spots. Even leaving all that aside and assuming we’re able to be completely rational, our decisions can go awry because of misinformation or lack of data.

There are none of us that can be relied on with absolute certainty to make the right decision in an existential emergency. That’s one of the reasons we need to focus on reducing and ultimately eliminating nuclear stockpiles. As long as humans hold the power to unleash a catastrophic nuclear war, we are in dire peril.

I realize this is not particularly pleasant to think about. But there are uncomfortable realities of life that we have no choice but to eventually address, and this one needs to go at or near the top of the list. Of this I’m sure: we need to get over whatever is holding us back from moving forward in this discussion – maybe some combination of complacency and hopelessness. The first step is to recognize that the risks of nuclear miscalculations or accidents are real and unacceptable, and we don’t have to just accept them.
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Foolish LGBT discrimination in NC, more spring blossoms, and an excellent Barber of Seville

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North Carolina is my home, and I love it very much. There is a lot of natural beauty, and there are a lot of smart, warm people. But boy, we’ve got some really ignorant political leadership. It is hard to believe, at this point in history, anyone would truly fear gay and transgender folks. And it’s just shameful to start a fear mongering campaign about the risks posed by improper usage of bathrooms. Has anyone ever heard of an LGBT bathroom attack, or even an awkward moment? Unfortunately, the stupidity and/or cynicism of our legislative Republicans has brought cascades of ridicule on our state, and it looks like there could be real economic damage. Eventually we’ll vote those rascals out (maybe in November?), but meanwhile, it’s painful and embarrassing.
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But again, this is a good place to live, and a good time. The azaleas blossomed this week in pinks, whites, and purples, and the delicate dogwoods (our state tree) flowered. It was rainy on Saturday morning, when I went to Raulston Arboretum, and it was awkward holding an umbrella over the camera while taking some of these pictures, but I liked the water on the flowers. On Sunday morning, I went over to Duke Gardens. It was sunny, but breezy, and the flowers tended to move about when I got ready to take their pictures.
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On Sunday afternoon, we went with Diane to the N.C. Opera’s production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. It was wonderful! There was so much life, so much warmth and humor. Previous productions I’ve seen were mostly about delivering those blockbuster arias, but this one was as much about the characters. Stage director Stephanie Havey made it as much fun to watch as it was to listen to, with lots of comedy, some of it Marxist madcap, but some of it almost Shakespearean. The period costumes had elements of whimsey. It took me a while to warm up to the sets, which were sort of postmodern antique facades that rolled in and out, but in the end they worked.Tiller7Bug 1-9

The singing was all very good, and some was superb. I adored the lovely Cecilia Hall as Rosina. She had a richness and fluidity to her mezzo, and she was a fine actress, with intelligence and quick wit. Tyler Simpson as Dr. Bartolo was hilariously grumpy and obtuse, and also a wonderful low baritone, with marvelous diction in the patter songs. Troy Cook as Figaro was instantly likeable, and highly musical. Conductor Timothy Myers led with musical insight. He knew when to take some luxurious time, and when to push quickly forward. The orchestra sounded really good. There were quite a few moments when I had goosebumps and watery eyes at so much rare beauty. It was a privilege.
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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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Our old friend Stuart, rainy Duke Gardens, N.C. Opera, and Snowden reconsidered

Stuart Tiller, April 26, 2015

Stuart Tiller, April 26, 2015

This week I was particularly aware that our sweet Stuart is getting grayer and slower. He’s almost thirteen, so this is no great surprise. But I had a sudden pang when I realized he will not be with us too much longer. He still likes eating and going for walks, and from time to time wants to play with the tennis ball, but only for a bit. He still really likes being petted, as I like petting him. It’s a good thing now and again to pause to note how precious this short time together with a good friend is.

Azalea at Duke Gardens, April 25, 2015

Azelea at Duke Gardens, April 25, 2015

Duke Gardens. On Saturday morning I drove over to Durham to visit Duke Gardens. It started to rain just after I arrived, so I took along an umbrella and tried to keep my Nikon from getting too wet. The rain fell gently, and the gardens were very peaceful and beautiful. This is a place I would love to live if I were a plant. The azaleas were spectacular. In the terrace garden, the tulips were gone, replaced by a wild profusion of white irises, orange poppies, and many colorful spiky and flowing flowers I could not name.

N.C. Opera. On Sunday we saw and heard the final performance of N.C. Opera’s new production of Don Giovanni. It was excellent! It really is hard to believe that we’ve got opera of this quality right here in the Piedmont. The singers were all young, but they all were well-trained musicians with depth and maturity.

I was particularly struck that all three sopranos had gorgeous and powerful voices, and big personalities. Hailey Clark (Donna Elvira) was probably my favorite for the beauty of her tone, but Alexandra Loutsion (Donna Anna) was also a wonderful singer, and Jennifer Cherest (Zerlina) was quite charming. Adam Lau (Leporello) had a fine bass-baritone and good sense of humor. Jeongchelo Cha was Don Giovanni, and ultimately delivered a convincing performance of this deeply flawed but fascinating character.
Snowden reconsidered. I finished reading No Place to Hide, by Glen Greenwald, about breaking the Edward Snowden story. Parts of it read like a Le Carre thriller, but the main points are highly thought-provoking. As the real events began unfolding almost two years ago, it was unclear to me whether Snowden was a kook or fanatic, and whether his disclosures had done more harm to America than good. Greenwald’s book makes clear that Snowden was careful, thoughtful, and idealistic, and his revelations were considered ones that showed that our security apparatus has pushed aside and undermined some of our most important constitutional values. He makes a strong argument for viewing Snowden as a patriot.

It may well be that the NSA folks looking at our personal electronic information mean well, supposing that they might find hidden terrorist threats and suchlike. But even if their work was productive and effective (which it hasn’t been), it is corrosive.

The consciousness that we might be being watched is very close to the consciousness that we are being watched. In either case we lose an important component of personal freedom. Consciously or not, as we come to understand our electronic lives may be constantly monitored, we modify our thoughts and behaviors. We become more passive and compliant. Both our inner lives and our social lives are deprived of oxygen. This is a psychological force that is hard to resist, though of course we need to try.


To Durham, for an excellent documentary festival, and Duke Gardens

This weekend we did a documentary film marathon at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham. Starting Thursday evening, we watched films, talked, ate, slept, and repeated, until Sunday. Our film days ended about midnight, and we stayed close by in the Hampton Inn. This was our third year at the Festival, and each year we’ve gotten a little more adept at getting tickets, getting good seats, getting well fed, getting shelter, and otherwise taking care of business. This year was the most entertaining and thought-provoking yet.

What are documentaries? They start with something real, and try to say something true. Documentarians, like all of us, have their biases and other limitations, and they sometimes make mistakes. But sometimes they’re remarkably wise and brave. The Full Frame staff screened thousands of proposed films, and from these picked 80 or so. Those we saw were almost all excellent.

We covered a lot of geography, including films set in North Korea, the Indian Himalayas, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Mexico, Russia, Finland, Utah, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and the Dark Net. The films that affected me the most were journalistic in orientation, but took on subject matter, or angles on subject matter, that don’t get much coverage in the mainstream press, either because they’re too complicated or too politically risky.

Some told stories that, without the courage and dedication of film makers willing to work for several years, would have never been told. There weren’t a lot of happy endings. But as Sally noted, there were a lot of pockets of inspiration — humans struggling valiantly against difficult natural or political circumstances.

It was also great that for most of the showings, the filmmakers were there to answer questions. Most of the showings we saw were sell outs or close, and there were rousing ovations for the creators. It was a really stimulating weekend. Here are a few of the highlights.

Deep Web. This was the story Ross Ulbricht and Silk Road, the online drug emporium. I thought I was more or less up to speed on the Dark Net, but I learned a lot, and got new perspectives on it and on the War on Drugs. The story of how the Dark Web and cryptography may affect the drug war is potentially huge. Director Alex Winter said he planned to add some material on the indicted FBI agents who worked on the case. Definitely worth seeing.

Meru. The story of the first ascent of an imposing 21 thousand foot peak in the Himalayas, and the three men who did it. I always have mixed feelngs about the sort of adventure, which is at once amazing, inspiring, and just too dangerous. But it was a thrilling cinematic experience.

Overburden. This was about the long sad relationship of Appalachia and coal. I had a particular interest in this, since I come from hearty coal mining stock, and I feel a real affinity for the beauty and pathos of this country. Overburden is the lingo of the mining companies for the plants and soil on the mountaintops that have to be stripped away to get the coal. This film focused on a couple of community activists who raised people’s consciousness on the environmental and social damage of this kind of minng.

Crystal Moselle, director of The Wolfpack, answering questions

Crystal Moselle, director of The Wolfpack, answering questions

The Wolfpack. This concerned a family in New York who kept the kids inside their small apartment for almost their entire childhoods. Something was plainly wrong with the parents, but the kids seemed lively and creative, and probably not permanently impaired. The director, Crystal Moselle, spoke afterward, and gave some added context. She’d worked on the movie for about four years.

Peace Officer. This film was about the militarization of America’s police forces. The prime subject, William “Dub” Lawrence, is a former police officer and sheriff who started SWAT team in Utah that years later murdered his son-in-law. He’s an extraordinary person, who together with the directors spoke after the film. We were particularly happy that this one won an award — for human rights.

Peace Officer co-directors Scott Chritopherson and Brad Barber, and subject Dub Lawrence (speaking)

Peace Officer co-directors Scott Chritopherson and Brad Barber, and subject Dub Lawrence (speaking)

(T)error. This was about the FBI’s campaign against Islamic radicals using informants who try to entrap them in made up jihad efforts. It was a sort of a worm’s eye view, told from the perspective of an informant and a target. It would have been comical, had the subject not ultimately been sent to prison for eight years on a trumped up charge to shut him up. This one won a grand jury award.

(T)error co-directors Lyric Cabral and David Sutcliffe

(T)error co-directors Lyric Cabral and David Sutcliffe

Tell Spring Not to Come This Year. The subject of this was the Afghan National Army operating without the direct support of the US. They didn’t seem like a very well trained or determined fighting force. The Taliban seemed to be getting the upper hand. The battle scenes were vivid and harrowing. The co-director, Saeed Taji Farouki, spoke afterwards, with intelligence and humility.

Dogwood at Duke Gardens, April 12, 2015

Dogwood at Duke Gardens, April 12, 2015

On Sunday morning, we took a break to check out the Duke Gardens. It was a lovely, clear day, and lots of things were blooming, including early azaleas and rhododendrons. The tulips were spectacular. Sally noted that this garden, too, was a pocket of beauty that, in spite of everything, gave us hope for humanity.

Azalea at Duke Gardens

Azalea at Duke Gardens