The Casual Blog

Tag: Duke

Purity, the Montrose Trio, Gore, and Gates

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It’s been a foggy, drizzly week in Raleigh, which tends to lower high spirits, but is good for introspection. I finished Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity. The book offers several interesting characters, including social activists who think about the big issues like out-of-control surveillance and global warming. Mostly, though, the book is about close family and romantic relationships, and shame and guilt. There’s enough that’s closely observed and honest here to be affecting, and I found myself hypnotically absorbed in some sections. As I neared the end, though, it, or I, lost steam, and I was glad to be done with it.

Saturday night we went over to Durham for dinner at Watt’s Grocery with friends and a concert. It turns out Watt’s is more vegetarian friendly than shown on the menu, willing to create a custom plate of the non-meat offerings, and mine was good. At Duke’s Baldwin auditorium, we heard the Montrose Trio, a new group made up of two former members of the Tokyo Quartet and pianist Jon Kimura Parker. They performed works of Turina, Beethoven and Brahms. Turina was new to me — Spanish, 1882-1949 – and reminded me pleasantly of Ravel, while the other pieces were old friends. Montrose was truly excellent – musicianship of the highest order, applied to great music.

The November issue of the Atlantic has an interesting piece on Al Gore and his involvement with Generation Investment Management, a global equity fund. The company has significantly out-performed the market since 2005 by investing in companies that are not only well-managed compared to their competition but conscious and responsible in their social and environmental actions. This approach runs counter to the conventional wisdom that successful capitalists must place profits ahead of values. The theory of Generation is that long-term profits require long-term thinking, including thinking about sustainability.

The same Atlantic has an interview with Bill Gates on his new endeavor to address climate change. He’s of the view that we’ve got to make major technological breakthroughs relating to energy to prevent or mitigate disastrous environmental changes, which will require research to go into overdrive, and he’s committing $2 billion of his money to the effort. He’s obviously studied up on the subject, and he hasn’t lost all hope or become hysterical. As he points out, either we focus our resources on finding a solution, or we run the experiment of what happens when the planet’s temperature rises by two degrees – and then three degrees and then four.

A piano recital, Turing’s secrets, NSA surveillance, and the cure for addiction

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It was rainy and raw on Friday evening when Sally and I drove over to Durham, and the traffic kept bunching up. We were a bit anxious about being late to meet our friends at Watts Grocery, and we were late – they’d already ordered drinks and salads. But they forgave us, we caught up, had a good dinner, and made it in good time to a concert at Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium, where we heard a program by the eminent pianist Jeremy Denk.

Denk is a musician’s musician. His program was, as he put it, a mix tape of Schubert dances shuffled together with short Janacek pieces, and also some atypical Haydn, some atypical Mozart, and Schumann’s odd and powerful Carnival. Everything he played seemed thought through to the smallest detail, but at the same time full of feeling.

For encores he played the slow movement of Ives’s Concord Sonata, and one of the slower Goldberg Variations, both of which were exceptionally colorful and beautiful. Though not a particularly good-looking guy, he was also fun to watch, with gestures that accorded with the music and magnified the feelings. Later, I re-read his wonderful autobiographical essay from the New Yorker, Every Good Boy Does Fine, which I highly recommend.
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We saw The Imitation Game last week, which was a bit staid but also touching. I knew something of Alan Turing, including his brilliant contributions to computing theory (including the Turing machine and the Turing test) and that he helped break the Nazi’s Enigma code. I hadn’t known how he did it, or much about him as a person. From the movie, he appeared distinctly anti-social. This being Hollywood, it seems safe to assume he was probably even harder to like in real life. But he contributed enormously to the world, before being hounded to death at age 41 for the crime of being gay.

Turing’s death was a tragedy, but in earlier chapters he was lucky, in a way. How inspiring and daunting it must have been to think that thousands of lives, and perhaps the future of western civilization, depended on whether you could succeed in an almost impossibly difficult code-breaking task. And by golly, he did it!

Indeed, although I’ve never thought of it this way before, our forebears who found themselves facing Nazism and Fascism were lucky, in a similar way. They had an unambiguous enemy, a massive threat, that could only be defeated by joining together, and with heroism and sacrifice. We seem to need big enemies to unite us as a society. That may be why, when we don’t have big enemies, we magnify smaller ones.

And so, as I discussed here last week, we push forward with the 13-year-old war on terror, which continues to morph. This week a coup in Yemen resulted in headlines suggesting we should panic over a new terror threat. The coup was actually by sworn enemies of Al Qaeda, but the fear seemed to be that increasing disorder was likely to lead to increased space for militant anti-Americanism to expand. That’s possible, I guess. But it’s possible that this is a civil war with entirely different drivers, tribal, religious, or financial. Perhaps it’s not all about us.
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The thing is, when we panic we do foolish and deplorable things – domestic spying, torture, assassinations, war. This week the New Yorker has a piece by Mattathias Schwartz about the NSA’s collection of internet searches, social media, and metadata on phone calls – hundreds of billions of records, at a cost of tens of billion of dollars ($10.5 billion in 2013). Schwartz examines the question of how many terrorist attacks were stopped by this program, and finds . . . perhaps one. Not exactly saving western civilization.

Actually, the one was not so much a potential attack, and not so much in the US, as a financial contribution of $8,500 by a Somali born U.S. citizen that may have been made to Somalian guerrillas (the Shabaab) who had jihadist ambitions and Al Qaeda connections. The evidence sounds ambiguous, but there were three convictions, and rightly or wrongly, the defendants were sentenced to prison terms of up to 18 years. That’s all we got, in return for billions of dollars and constant surveillance of our everyday lives that undermines our privacy, our public discourse, and our Constitution.
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As crazy and depressing as this is, it should be noted that there’s hope: our mass panics can be overcome. For example, it seems like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in our costly and tragic war on drugs, at least as to marijuana. With several states in various phases of legalization, it’s increasingly hard to argue that using pot should be punishable as a crime. But it is still being punished as a crime in places, and we’re still spending $51 billion a year on fighting drugs here and around the world.

Jocelyn pointed up a piece this week in the Huffington Post with a new, to me, take on drug addiction. A basic premise of the war on drugs is that some drugs are so fantastic that they’re irresistible, and so they take control of and destroy lives. But the piece, by Johann Hari, suggests an alternative paradigm.

Hari reexamines the famous rat-with-cocaine experiment, where the rat is alone in a cage and keeps taking cocaine until it dies. Later research by Professor Bruce Alexander focused on the environment of the rat – which was caged and alone. When rats were put in more stimulating environments, including toys and rat friends, and offered the same drugs, they mostly shunned them. Alexander found that even rats that were thoroughly addicted to heroin kicked the habit when they had the benefit of other rats to socialize with and stimulating environments.
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The theory expounded by Hari is that what drives addiction is not primarily chemical hooks, but rather isolation, and that what prevents it are meaningful human connections. This may also explain some non-drug addictive behaviors, like gambling. That is, drugs or gambling may be responses to other problems, like loneliness.

Hari notes that Portugal, which once had a very high rate of drug use, decriminalized all drugs 15 years ago, and invested some of the money saved from drug warring in social programs, such as housing and jobs. The rate of injected drug use has fallen by 50 percent. Fifty percent! I recommend reading Hari’s piece.

A sweet but sick dog, a touching movie, and a concert of Renaissance music

Stuart Tiller feeling better

Sally believes that Stuart has the most friends of anyone in our building, and from our elevator rides down to take him out to pee, I’m certain that more people know his name than know mine. He’s a Bassett-Beagle mix, with short legs, long ears, and big brown eyes. He’s nine now, and not as athletic a leaper as he used to be, but he still has a lively step and a perpetually wagging tail. He’s a sweet, curious, affectionate little dog. His three great passions are eating, going for walks, and being petted. Yes, he’s prone to barking loudly when visitors first arrive, but nobody’s perfect.

Earlier this week Stuart got very sick. We’re familiar with bouts of digestive problems when he eats something inedible off the street, but this was different. In the afternoon, he seemed subdued, moving about very slowly with his back arched and his tail down. That night, he woke us in the wee hours with high-pitched whining — a sound he’d never made before. When I got up and knelt beside him to pet him, he suddenly let out a loud bark that sounded like a scream. He seemed to be in agony.

The sweetest dog not feeling at all well

We discussed taking him to the emergency vet and decided to wait until morning. He still seemed to be in pain when we got up, but Sally doubted that the vet would be able to easily diagnose the problem, and might cause additional discomfort from probing and testing. By that evening, he had quit whining and seemed to be out of the crisis. He seems to be most of the way back to normal now.

On the subject of caring for those less fortunate, on Friday night we watched a Netflix move — What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Released in 1993, it stars Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio and Juliette Lewis. Depp plays Gilbert Grape, who lives a hardscrabble life in a small town with his family and is charged with caring for Arnie, his retarded younger brother played by DiCaprio. I missed it when it originally came out, when I think I thought it was about something else. It was surprisingly honest about the deceptions and indignities of small town life, and also about the hates and loves of family life.

DiCaprio, who got an Academy Award nomination, is completely believable, and somehow manages to give the younger Grape a sweetness and inherent dignity beneath the surface of unregulated id. I have a hard time putting to one side his character in Titanic, but this is a reminder that he’s a actor with considerable range.

On Sunday afternoon we went over to Durham to hear a concert by the Tallis Scholars in Duke Chapel. The outstanding group of ten singers and director Peter Phillips did a program of music of William Cornysh and Jean Mouton, court composers of Henry VIII and Francis I respectively. The monarchs met in June 1520 for political discussions and a festival that featured their finest music. In short, it was early Renaissance music. The concert was a time machine that brought to life an ancient world.

The music was gorgeous. The Scholars blended into one extremely subtle instrument. The prevailing mood was more melancholy and introspective than I expected from the description of the Henry-Francis summit, but that was OK. I was happy to hear these great musicians and this rich, almost unknown repertoire. I was also happy to see that several hundred people showed up to hear this out-of-the-mainstream entertainment.