The Casual Blog

Tag: E.O. Wilson

Resetting in retirement, new animal photos, new music, and reading The Uninhabitable Earth

A white-tailed deer at Lake Wheeler

My transition from a corporate schedule to a non-corporate one has been fairly undramatic.  I find myself smiling more and carrying around less stress. But it’s been sudden, and a little disorienting.  On Sunday night, I found myself starting to think about getting up early to get to the gym for the start of a new corporate work week, when there wasn’t going to be one.  Old habits die hard.

But I’m starting to develop some new routines that I like.  Instead of rushing out early to the gym, most days I’m starting with 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation.  Then I head out to one of our local forests and lakes with my camera and look about for animals and plants in the gentle early light.  After a couple of hours of looking, I head to the gym for various types of cardio activity, resistance training, core work, and stretching.  If it’s not a swimming day, I either read or listen to podcasts while I sweat.

Back home, I get a shower and make a green smoothie for a late breakfast.  Then I’ll download and process my latest photographs. I’m experimenting with various software tools, including especially Lightroom and Photoshop, and also Topaz, Nik, Aurora, and Helicon Focus.  

When my eyes and neck start to ache from photo processing, I usually practice the piano.  Currently on the workbench are Chopin’s first Impromptu and the Op. 27, No. 1 Nocturne, Liszt’s third Consolation, and Brahms’s Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2.  

I’ve also been working on a couple of dozen jazz standards, like Misty, Stardust, and All the Things You Are.  I got reasonably proficient at playing some of the great American songbook before law school, but afterwards put that music it in storage for most of the last 30 years.  Now I’m getting the dust and cobwebs off and enjoying it again.

A gray squirrel with a hot dog at Lake Wheeler

Speaking of music, I finished reading the new biography of the Robert Schumann by Judith Chernaik, which I found worthwhile.  Schumann (1810-1849) was a great composer, who adored and married Clara Schumann, a great pianist, and had several children. He struggled with mental illness for much of his life, but left an enduring legacy.

I also finished reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me.  It’s a sometimes funny but ultimately serious book set in the recent past but with a futuristic premise:  the protagonist buys an expensive new home gadget, which is a completely realistic super intelligent humanoid robot.  There are various practical problems with having this device, and even more moral problems. I find the trajectory of advancing artificial intelligence fairly worrisome, and McEwan gave me some new grounds for worry. 

Although I finished The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, I immediately began re-reading it.   I would not recommend this book to anyone struggling with depression. The unvarnished accounting of the global-scale disasters that, to a high degree of probability, are coming our way are hard to process.  But I’m hoping there are many healthy people who will read it and be inspired to action. As much as Wallace-Wells makes vivid and real the possibility of cascading climate disasters, he also explains that, just as this is a situation that humans have created, it is one that humans have it in their power to address.

A great blue heron at Crabtree swamp

This week there was a good Ted Radio Hour podcast on this same subject.   It was inspiring to hear 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg, and get some ideas about carbon capture, animal agricultural redirection, and addressing climate change denial.  I’d like to think the dire reality of our situation is starting to sink in to public consciousness, and we may be starting to pull out of our death spiral.

In E.O.Wilson’s recent book Half Earth, on preventing more species extinctions (which I’m also re-reading), he points out another possible name for the coming era.  Instead of the Anthropocene, which emphasizes a biological world existing “almost exclusively by, for, and of ourselves,” he suggests calling it “the Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness.”   On our current trajectory, the earth will have fewer and fewer non-human species. This is, of course, disastrous for non-domesticated animals and plants, but also tragic for the humans who remain.

Carolina wren at Yates Mill Pond

It’s always seemed to me a simple thing to enjoy being outside in nature, but it’s starting to seem less common and more worthy of attention.  Now that I have more time to get out to our local parks, I’m spending more time with our still common animal neighbors, like deer, squirrels, and birds.  The ones here are from the past week. The deer at Lake Wheeler seemed shy but interested in having a good look at me. The squirrels there were having an after-picnic picnic.  The great blue heron at Crabtree swamp spent a long time hunting, standing still for periods, moving slowly, and striking quickly. It had several little fish for breakfast.

My happy Thanksgiving: racing, reading, camera tinkering, eating, and seeing Interstellar

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Lately I’ve been consciously trying to cultivate an attitude of increasing gratitude. As is traditional at the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ll note that I have a great many things to be grateful for. For me, gratitude also means noting connections and acknowledging how very little is attributable to my independent efforts. I really owe it all to everybody and everything else. And so, to you, dear reader, and everything else, I’m grateful.

On Thanksgiving morning, I was grateful to be, at 59, sufficiently healthy to undertake the Ridge Road Turkey Trot, an 8 kilometer (4.97 mile) race. I hadn’t tried a road race with thousands of other people for a great many years. Sally sweetly lent her moral support and driving skills, and got me to the starting line five minutes before the 8:00 a.m. start.

My idea was to challenge myself without collapsing or getting sick, and that much I accomplished. I completed the course in 44 minutes, or just under 9 minutes a mile. I wasn’t particularly proud about this time, since I still imagine myself as capable of 8 minute miles, but this T-day that wasn’t happening. My heart rate was in the low-to-mid 160s for much of the race, which is pretty high, and I didn’t want to find out what would happen if it stayed higher. The hills in the middle of the course took a lot out of me, and the last couple of miles were fairly miserable. Part of me badly wanted to try a bit of walking instead of running. But I didn’t quit, and I did survive.

After the race, I took a long hot shower, and then sat down and read for a while. I finished E.O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence. Wilson, a world-renowned exert on ants and a leading theorist on evolution, is now 85, and going strong. I enjoyed reading The Social Conquest of Earth, and liked this book as well, in spite of its grandiose title. Wilson puts things in perspective, and helps us grasp that humans are just one of the millions of species on the planet. His basic message is that we can improve our chances of survival and happiness by using the tools of science and better understanding our evolutionary nature.

Wilson contends that natural selection proceeded along two paths, individual and group. He argues that this accounts for our dual nature as selfish individuals and altruistic group members. These conflicting tendencies are fundamental drivers of the human experience, which means we’ll always be in some degree of tumult in our interior emotional lives. But Wilson thinks our contradictions are essential to what it means to be human, and we need to understand them and manage them. He seems to think there’s a chance that humanity can overcome ignorance, delusion, and violence, and quit destroying the natural world.
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I spent part of the afternoon assembling and testing my new Ikelite underwater camera housing and strobe setup. I thought long and hard before buying the equipment, both because it is pricey and because it is labor intensive. But I’m really interested in sharing some of the joy of diving through images of the extreme beauty beneath the surface. Even in this time of over fishing, ocean acidification and reef destruction, there’s still an incredible profusion of life down there.

If you’re going to use an underwater housing with an expensive camera, the stakes are high. The Ikelite housing opens at the back to receive the camera and the front to receive the lens. You’ve got to be extremely careful to prevent leaks, which can easily be fatal to the equipment. And working the camera through many unlabeled buttons and levers is challenging. Just figuring out how to put it all together took me several hours. And hauling the it safely to dive spots while staying within airline weight restrictions will be challenging. But I’m looking forward to new dive photo adventures.

We had our Thanksgiving dinner at Irregardless, Raleigh’s first vegetarian restaurant, which now also accommodates meat eaters. Gabe and Jocelyn decided to wait until Christmas for a visit, so Sally and I ate with her mom and sister, Diane and Annie. We also were joined by Alyssa Pilger, the Carolina Ballet dancer we’ve been sponsoring, who is enormously talented. It was fun to hear about ballet company happenings, and about the professional dancer’s life. Professional dancers are almost by definition intensely focused people with superhuman work ethics, but Alyssa offstage seemed comfortable, relaxed and un-self-absorbed.

Sally and I saw the movie Interstellar on Friday night at the Marbles Imax theatre. I didn’t think it was particularly well constructed or acted. I found it cheering, though, that the movie has found a mass audience. The basic set up is a post-climate apocalypse world, which is something we should be trying hard to visualize and then prevent. It would be nice if a good-looking astronaut and his attractive physicist daughter could save us all, but that seems extremely unlikely. We’ve got to figure out how to repair our dysfunctional political structures so that we can get organized and address global warming and related problems with the intense commitment and resources we once used to go to the Moon.

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.

New resolutions and my latest green smoothie

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I have a soft spot for New Year’s resolutions. It’s generally a good thing from time to time to think about where we are versus where we want to go. Few, if any, of us that are fully optimized. At the same time, there’s never any shortage of small feasible steps we could take to make our lives better.

But personal self-improvement resolutions usually don’t get the job done. A prime example is our most visible, common, and serious public health problem: obesity. There’s no great mystery what needs to be done (eat less and exercise more), and most of us who aren’t naturally optimized for body mass know that much perfectly well. Nevertheless, each year the incidence of obesity is about the same or worse, and the over all trend in the last thirty years is worse and worse.

Plainly this is not a simple problem with an easy solution, or we would have solved it. But part of the reason we can’t successfully address obesity and other serious behavioral problems is our poor understanding about how our own minds work — that is, our own impulses and motivations. As regular readers know, I’ve been learning more about this in the last couple of years from reading Daniel Kahneman, Michael Gazziniga, Jonathan Haidt, John Brooks, and Edward O. Wilson, and I’m currently reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. In addition to being inherently fascinating, these books have provided insights into life’s persistent problems, like over eating.

One of my main takeaways from these psychologists, biologists, and critics is that our reasoning processes, which seem at times so powerful and impressive, will get us only so far, and if we want to change behavior and minimize bad decisions we need other tools and tricks. Charles Duhigg’s book on habits and how to change them, which I wrote about recently, is a good signpost on this. If we understand our behavior in terms of the interaction of our emotional needs and our environment, we can experiment with changes.

But we may as well admit that eating is especially complicated. I’ve long been convinced that what we eat is a major component of how healthy we are and can expect in future to be. I try to keep up with current thinking about nutrition. Over the course of several years, I’ve developed a repertoire of habits that help me avoid most unhealthy foods and consume mostly things that have nutritional value.

But even so, I managed to pick up five pounds over the holidays. How did this happen? It was little things. Christmas parties and more restaurant meals, colleagues bringing to work delicious cookies that had to be sampled, and old friends sending gift baskets of treats. The combination of sweet things and childhood Christmas memories overwhelms all the circuits, and extra food is inserted in mouth, chewed, and swallowed. Of course, it was momentarily delightful, but it is so much harder to take the lbs off than to put them on.

Each year around January 2 we leave the land of the sweets and other excesses and things return to normal. New resolutions are made. Regarding eating, I’m trying some new ingredients in my breakfast green smoothies (pictured here and previously described here), including in various blendings, along with greens and fruit, hemp protein powder, marine phytoplankton, cacao nibs, and goji berries. It’s fun to mix a superdrink (as in superhero), and rewarding to be able to do something fabulously good for the body. I try to make it a point each day to be grateful for such good fortune.
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The way to San Jose, Ridge Winery, and E.O. Wilson on human nature

I missed my flight out of RDU on Tuesday morning after trying to send off one too many emails. On the drive to the airport, as reality set in, I went through the five stages of travel anxiety: concern, serious concern, alarm, panic, and finally, acceptance. By the time I made it through the American Airlines queue and the agent said I was too late, I was able to agree calmly, and ask politely what my next best option was. She put me on standby for a flight three hours later.

With my unexpected airport time, I got an excellent shoe shine and a half-hour chair massage at Express Spa. A couple of times a month I try to get a chair massage from the Red Hat massage therapist, which I had to miss because of my trip. I was interested in some work on my shoulder, where there have been minor issues. I assumed that an airport massage would be more about feeling pleasant than serious therapy, but I was not averse to a release of some endorphins.

My masseur, a small guy from China, asked how hard I liked it. I said pretty hard. He obliged with a serious deep tissue approach. It took all my determination to resist begging for mercy. At one point I took note that massage therapists are required to pass a licensing exam, as it was coming into focus that massage could cause bodily harm. Then I realized I had no way of knowing if my guy was licensed. He finished with some blows that shook me like a punching bag. It was almost frightening. But once it was over, I felt great!

Being on standby involves a degree of anxiety. You’re either barely making the flight, or you’re going back to square one. On this trip, the gate agent said the I had a good chance of getting on the flight out of Raleigh, but a less good chance of getting on the connecting flight in Chicago. When I felt a wave of tension, I took a few deep calming yoga breaths, and tried to stay positive. Eventually, four and a half hours late, I got to San Jose, got a rental car, and headed to the hotel.

I was assisted by a Garmin GPS device, which smoothly directed me through every turn. This little tool has greatly reduced the anxiety of travel to unknown lands. Getting lost is almost a thing of the past. I still carry printed directions as a fail safe system, but I haven’t used them in a while. Thus have I outsourced a part of my mental load, and in using this now-common tool become a little more of a cyborg. I could lament the possible loss of map-reading skills, but won’t. Thanks to Garmin and all the scientists, engineers, and technicians who’ve reduced my worry level and bestowed more creative mental space.


There’s something about northern California that I really love. It isn’t the glamor, which I was far from, but it may be something about the light. After various meetings, I got a chance to tour Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz mountains. It involved a drive ascending 2,0000 feet along narrow roads with hairpin turns. The landscape was dry and craggy.

Our tour guides were experts and scholars of wine making, and I got a deeper understanding of the significance of soil and water conditions, vine life cycles, vine placement and spacing, pests, harvesting techniques, pressing, oaking options, considerations for blending, and aging decisions. The vineyard mountain views were beautiful, and the wines were excellent. It was also a great pleasure to meet our guides and experience their joy and passion for their craft.

On the long flight home, I finished reading for the second time The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson. Wilson, a senior professor at Harvard, is one of our foremost experts on ants, but his scientific passions are wide-ranging. In this latest book, he attempts to revive and develop an approach to evolution that includes selection not only at the individual level but also at the level of groups. He argues that this accounts for some of the defining characteristics of homo sapiens, including our intense desire to be part of a tribe or group and our superlative skills at interpreting the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of others.

These skills made it possible for our ancestors to cooperate in a way that led to success versus other animals (including predators and our close relatives the Neanderthals), and to collaborate in agriculture, technology, and artistic expression. He also thinks multilevel evolution (individual and group) accounts for our never-ending interior conflicts between the urge toward cooperation and altruism (which benefits the tribe) and the opposite urge to seek competitive advantage over other individuals.

Wilson has a persuasive account of the origins and persistence of religious thought. In his view, it is characteristic for human animals to generate narratives to explain the unknown, and thus natural for communities to compose creation myths. Myths and rituals are adaptive in creating group cohesiveness, which contributes to tribal success. Religion has inspired great art and helped groups and individuals in difficult times. But Wilson ultimately concludes the costs of religion thinking outweigh the benefits, particularly once humankind acquired the tools of science.

Wilson would admit that the evidence for his multilevel approach to evolution is incomplete, and his theory is bound to be controversial. But right or wrong, I admire his willingness to engage and take some intellectual risks on the big questions, like the nature of human nature and the foundations of morality. He brings to the table spirited curiosity and the ability to draw on recent discoveries from biology, neurology, genetics, anthropology, climatology, and paleontology, not to mention, of course, myrmecology. He demonstrates the use of science as both a method and a world view — a world view that is both practical and inspiring.

My flight out of San Jose left 20 minutes late for Dallas, and my original Dallas connection was only 25 minutes. Dallas is a big airport, and getting from a gate on one side to a gate on the other can easily take 30 minutes. It seems I never leave from a nearby gate, so I had some worries, and took some yoga breaths. We came in at A37, and the flight out was at A33. I heard the announcement for final boarding for Raleigh as I stepped into the terminal, and took off in the OJ Simpson airport sprint. (I’ve noticed that gate agents sometimes look around for last second sprinters.). I was the last to board. Kind Fortuna!

Shortly after I got home, we had a thunderstorm and a strange sunset.

There were some birds this morning at the boardwalk off of Raleigh Boulevard. Most of them hid from me (like that small bird in the Frost poem), but a robin, a great blue heron, and a mallard family didn’t.