The Casual Blog

Tag: flowers

Flowers, birds, babies, bridges, and Bittman

Spring really showed up in Raleigh this week, with lots of flowers.  It’s always cheering, even though we know the pine pollen will soon be causing sneezes.  With several new buildings going up downtown, there are fewer trees for the birds to sing in, but there are still some singers.  I recognized several, including cardinals, robins, mockingbirds, song sparrows, and Carolina wrens.  I hope they all find mates, and have happy nests with bouncing chicks.

Jocelyn and Kyle visited here last week, and proudly announced that they were expecting a baby girl in the fall.  I was thrilled!  It is so exciting to be having a grandbaby, which I intend to spoil rotten.  Being a parent the first time round was stressful for me.  But especially with mature and loving parents taking care of the difficult things, like food, baths, diapers, and bedtime, babies are cute and fun to play with.  I’ve even started putting together a little songbook of children’s songs to play on the piano for my grandbaby and her friends, some of which I learned from my mom.  I’m also trying to decide what I’d like the new one to call me.  Poppy might be good.

I got hit by a brutal stomach flu bug early in the week, which  left me weak and shaken.  For a whole day, I couldn’t do anything but lie on my back, and the day after that, all I could manage was some reading.  

But I enjoyed reading about the roll out of several projects of our new president, including the big initiatives addressing our bridges, dams, roads, water systems, electric grids, and other infrastructure problems.  After years of extreme polarization, it now seems that a lot of people are in agreement as to this reality:  we’ve neglected basic operating needs for decades and unless we want more disasters, we’ve got to get to work.  Just weeks after the defeat of that big-mouthed lying loser, it feels like we might be starting to make real progress on some of our big problems, including climate change and racial justice.  The President’s proposal to have wealthy corporations start paying their fair share of the bills seems like it could work.  

Apropos of reading and trying to patch up our system, I strongly recommend a new book:  Animal, Vegetable, Junk, by Mark Bittman.  It is about food, and asks the seemingly simple question:  what is food for?  If you said nutrition, then you will get some new perspectives from this book.  Bittman shows that food practices explain a lot about the rise and fall of human civilizations, including our own.  

Bittman urges us to rethink some basic assumptions, such as treating the earth as an inexhaustible resource for human consumption, and treating food as an industry entitled to seek nothing other than more money.  Animal, Vegetable, Junk tells a gripping, severely under-reported story, which urgently needs our attention.

On the Blue Ridge, our caste system, and Trump’s latest doozy

The Perseid meteor shower was at its peak this week, and I was looking forward to some shooting stars.  I spent a day exploring different spots on the Blue Ridge Parkway, looking at the mountains and flowers.  I stayed at the Pisgah Inn and saw a lovely sunset, with towering clouds that lit up with pink and orange.  Around 1:00 a.m., I got up and walked outside.  It was dark and quiet, but also, unfortunately, cloudy, so I saw no meteorites,  Maybe next year.  

Sunset from my balcony at the Pisgah Inn

After photographing the sunrise and hiking to a couple of waterfalls in Brevard County, I made my way to I-40 and headed east toward Raleigh.  I turned on the radio, and caught Joe Biden and Kamala Harris giving their speeches announcing that Harris was Biden’s VP pick.  

They were good speeches!  No self-aggrandizing!  No whining!   Nothing fancy, but addressing the big issues, like climate change, police brutality against black people, the pandemic, education, health care.  And of course, the disaster in progress known as Donald J. Trump.

 

Although Trump continues to trail in the polls, it’s safe to assume he is unconstrained by any sense of honor or morality and will do anything to win, so I’m not taking anything for granted.  We watched a short Netflix documentary on him that was part of the series Dirty Money.  The film is worth seeing if you’re unfamiliar with his history as a pathetic grifter who pretends to be a super successful businessman.  

Pretending to be a businessman on TV for The Apprentice worked out much better for Trump than his various actual business ventures, which were almost all embarrassing failures, including Trump casinos, Trump Airlines, Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, Trump magazine, and Trump University.  

At the time, I thought The Apprentice seemed bogus, but it was a big hit.  There’s a fine article by Patrick Radden Keefe from the New Yorker about the making of The Apprentice, which explains how hard the producers had to work to make Trump seem reasonably sane and competent.  Let’s just say the show was heavily edited.

Sunrise on the Blue Ridge

The Trump presidency closely resembles a reality TV show, with its hype and hoked up drama, but unfortunately, off camera, there are real people suffering.  We’ve got huge unemployment, a health care crisis, a housing crisis, a pandemic, climate change bringing one weather disaster after another, and so on.  So, true to form, rather than acknowledging our serious problems and trying to help fix them, Trump has once again played the race card.   

Last week he tweeted that that “people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream” would “no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.” 

This is racism that barely pretends not to be; the racist dog whistle is more like a train whistle.  For most of the 20th century, the United States prevented racial integration in housing through governmental programs, including discriminatory FHA loans.  This appalling history is examined in some detail in Richard Rothstein’s important book, The Color of Law.  

The subject of Trump’s racist train whistle was a program called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, or AFFH, which was instituted under Obama, and directed at getting municipalities to identify and address patterns of discriminatory segregation.  Trump seems to think that there are a lot of white suburbanites fearful of invading black people, and he can exploit that fear and get their votes.

Once again, Trump is betting big, hoping that the shameful longings for sustaining white supremacy will be stronger than opposing feelings, like hope for justice and fairness.  It probably won’t work.  But as with other failed Trump experiments, the failure will teach us something about our beliefs on race, and also our concern for justice.

In Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, Caste, she argues that the American system of racial oppression is similar to other caste systems like those in India and Germany before WWII.  She explained the idea on several podcasts this week, and I think she’s on to something.  

As Wilkerson notes, an individual American may or may not have racial animus, but everyone of us is enmeshed in a system that involves distinguishing black from white and conferring certain benefits based on that distinction.  Using the vocabulary of caste may help depersonalize the problem.  Although the system has deep roots, recognizing it as a system (as opposed to simply an individual moral failing) may make it easier to change. 

For a man with such a big mouth, Trump has been strangely quiet about the recent news of Russian aggression against the United States.  When reports emerged of Russia giving bounties to fighters in Afghanistan who killed US and allied forces, he claimed to be unaware of it.  More important, he didn’t propose doing anything about it.  And weeks after the news became public, he is still taking the position he hadn’t been informed, and still not doing anything.  In fact, he’d had a chat with Vladimir Putin, and admitted he hadn’t brought up the matter.  This is appalling and disgusting.

If this were the only instance of Trump declining to oppose clear Russian aggression, I might chalk it up to his lack of interest in anything other than his own aggrandizement or progressive dementia.  But this has been a pattern. When the Russians worked to defeat Hillary Clinton and help Trump, he refused to acknowledge their success, and also invited them to continue hacking.  He seems indifferent or hostile to the many warnings that the Russians are again working to undermine fair US elections.  He has little to say about Russian interference in other countries, and nothing but compliments for Putin.  

I very much doubt that Trump is actually a paid Russian agent.  Putin, though not necessarily a stable genius, is smart enough to recognize that Trump lacks anything like the discipline, drive, and intelligence to be a worthwhile spy.  Trump doesn’t like taking orders, and he would have trouble remembering them.  He’s also not very good at keeping secrets, other than his own financial shenanigans.

It’s much more likely that Trump fears Putin for personal or financial reasons, and understands that crossing Putin would put him in peril.  Could Trump’s not-so-enormous fortune be dependent on Russian loans and money laundering?  Of course it could.  Think of how convenient it could be for Russian oligarchs to stash their ill-gotten gains in Trump high-rise condos, and how a salesman like Trump known mainly for lying  would struggle otherwise to sell high-end property. Also, how likely is it that Trump could resist an offer of an attractive Russian prostitute with an advanced degree in political  black mail?  

Of course, I don’t personally know, and perhaps Trump somehow avoided his characteristic corruption and moral degradation with regard to the Russians.  Maybe we could clear all this up if the President would quit concealing his tax returns and related financial records.  

Even without them, it’s clear that Putin could hardly have been more successful in creating political chaos that threatens the continued existence of American democracy than if he had managed to get a Russian spy elected president.  Trump has been Putin’s dream come true.

On any given week it’s usually difficult to say what was the craziest, most disturbing thing Trump just did, but we certainly had a doozy this week.  Trump indicated that he was withholding funds from the Postal Service so that they wouldn’t be able to deliver mail-in ballots for the presidential election.  Meanwhile, the Postmaster General he just appointed is shaking up top staff, decommissioning sorting machines, and assuring that delivery is slowing to a crawl.

With the pandemic still raging, mail in ballots are looking like a great option for getting rid of Trump.  Unless Trump can manage to keep them from being delivered!  He seems to assume most of those inclined to use the mail to vote would vote against him.  Maybe this is because he’s encouraged his supporters to ignore the pandemic, so they can (in the Trumpworld of alternative facts) vote in person without risking illness and death.  

I’m still socially distancing and trying not to catch the coronavirus, so I sent in my request for an absentee ballot, and was feeling a little sick at the thought that Trump and his minions might prevent delivery.  So I checked the NC voting procedures, and learned that I can personally deliver the completed ballot to the county board of elections.  If you live in NC and certain other states, you can, too.  Good luck!

 

Some photography, a piano lesson, and the pain of golf

The weather here is getting hotter, but the last few days have been pleasantly mild.  I’ve been getting out early with my camera most mornings to see what’s going on in our local parks and gardens.   In the last few days I’ve been to Shelley Lake, Durant Park, Lake Johnson, Lake Wheeler, and Yates Mill Pond, as well as Raulston Arboretum and Duke Gardens. I didn’t see any uncommon animal or plant life, but I thought some of the dying flowers looked pretty.  As is my usual procedure, I’m sharing here photos I made this week that were my favorites for the week.

I had my first post-retirement piano lesson with Professor Olga Kleiankina at her studio at NC State on Sunday.  I’ve been working on Brahms’s Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2, with its thundering intensity and exotic lyricism. Olga coached me on touch and sound production, including more use of the back muscles, but she also diagnosed a fundamental problem: I was hearing things as I imagined them rather than as they were.  She thought I had failed to completely and fully listen. She noted that this is sometimes true of professional musicians, and further observed that if ever I learned to truly listen, I would no longer need a teacher.

As I told her, the idea of full on listening reminded me of a central aspiration of mindfulness — being fully present and attentive — which is also difficult to achieve.  Anyhow, I found helpful her ideas around listening and practicing slowly and carefully. She suggested that rather than a two hour lesson once a month, we meet for an hour every other week.  I was grateful that she doesn’t think it’s hopeless to try to help me, and am looking forward to climbing up to the next level.

I also took a golf lesson with Mike Sullivan at 401 Par Golf.  I hadn’t seen Mike since last fall, and in the meantime had developed a fairly bad case of the yips in trying delicate shots close to the green.  Mike is a very upbeat guy and knows a lot about golf.  He had some good ideas for chipping, and I’m hoping to see improvement now that I have a more time to practice.

My feelings about golf are certainly mixed. It is, of course, associated with privilege and elitism, and so sits uncomfortably with my concerns for fairness and social justice.  It is far from eco-friendly. It is generally expensive. It’s frustrating. And it sounds like a sad cliche for a guy to be retiring to play golf.

But, that said, there are things about the game that are worth defending.  Like every sport, it has its moments of drama and humor. Unlike most sports, it has as an essential component the values of honesty and integrity.  It can help build friendships and cooperation. It is beautiful, both in its landscapes and kinetic arcs.

And at every level of play, it demands of the player a mix of intellectual, physical, and moral qualities.   It poses challenges that potentially make us better. It’s unfortunate for the game that the current American President is such a golf lover and super-sized example of dishonesty, immorality, and stupidity, but let’s just consider him the exception that proves the rule. 

Gabe and I have been getting out for a game most weekends, and it’s been inspiring to see him dramatically improve his game.  With some putting improvements, he may soon be breaking 80.  For me it will be a longer, tougher journey, but still, I look forward to it.

Canoes at Umstead Park

 

Retiring, learning nature photography, and reprioritizing, with a lesson from my mom

 

Barred owl in a cypress tree with Spanish moss

Last Friday was the one-week anniversary of my retirement, and the start of the next phase of my education in  nature and photography. I drove down to Charleston, SC for a workshop sponsored by the Carolina Nature Photographers Association.  The workshop included two one-day courses, with one led by Jamie Konarski Davidson on garden and macro photography, and the other led by Eric Horan on bird photography.  With Jamie’s group at Magnolia Plantation I battled heat and mosquitos, and with Eric’s I hand held a big lens on a rocking boat in Charleston Bay. It was challenging. I took many not-very-good pictures along with a few that I liked, including the ones here.  

Oystercatcher parent and child in Charleston Bay

My plan for the next several months is to learn a lot about nature photography and see if I can make better pictures.  I’ll be traveling both in and out of state and getting coaching from some master photographers. I’ll also be reading and watching videos on post-processing techniques, and doing a lot of trial-and-error experimenting.  We’ll see how it goes.

Osprey in Charleston Bay

Anyhow, I enjoyed the Charleston trip and got some good tips.  I traveled with Barry Wheeler, a fellow retiree with a long resume and the same camera as me (the extraordinary Nikon D850).  He posts some of his nature photography on his blog, Travels of an Old Guy, which I find well worth following.  During the drive, we had some great conversation on camera equipment and life in general.  

Great egret on a shrimp boat

As I told Barry, as I’ve started my post wage-earning life, I’ve been reflecting on some important things I learned from my mother, Zola Tiller.  She had a major hand in directing me toward the life of an intellectual, though of course I didn’t perceive that at the time, and also for a long time afterwards.   She often spoke admiringly about Albert Schweitzer, a French theologian, philosopher, humanitarian, musician, and physician. She must have read his biography.  I assumed from her account he was extremely famous, though I doubt I’ve even heard his name for at least 40 years.  

Black skimmer

Anyhow, according to mom, he was a good role model.  From these and other examples I absorbed a value system that placed great weight on high intelligence and professional achievement.  For most of my career, I did business where smartness was the coin of the realm, with other human qualities valued much less. And my mom was never an intellectual.  It’s embarrassing to admit, but when I was a young man this bothered me.

It wasn’t until near the end of her life that I realized she was exceptionally gifted in another way, which was relating to people with kindness, compassion, generosity, and love.  I used to think that those qualities were common, but I’ve come to see them as relatively rare, and worth noting and extolling. I suppose it would be good to be a Schweitzer, a formerly famous humanitarian.  But it would also be good to be a Zola Tiller — a person who gave warmth and caring to those in her circle and others fortunate enough to cross paths with her.

Hydrangea at Magnolia Plantation

On Wednesday, Sally and I celebrated our anniversary — the 37th!  She has made me the happiest of men! She gave me a very sweet card, and we had a good dinner at Bloomsbury Bistro.

Orchid at Magnolia Plantation

Not diving, flowers, meditating, and watching 13th

Happy flowers at Raulston Arboretum, July 21, 2018

We’d scheduled a diving trip this weekend out of Wrightsville, but it got cancelled because of bad weather.  We’d been looking forward to seeing some wrecks and fish, but so it goes. Instead we had some pleasantly uncommitted and uncrowded hours.

Yesterday morning I stopped by Raulston Arboretum with my camera to see what was blooming and buzzing.  I was surprised at how many new flowers were there, including these. The rain has stopped and it was cloudy — good photography weather.

I also took a little extra time for meditating.  Lately I’ve been practicing sitting still for 15 minutes first thing in the morning, and focusing on the breath.  I find it’s helpful in reducing stress and anxiety, of which there is no shortage these days. It also unmasks some of the odd and funny things the mind will do.  I took a little refresher course on basic meditation techniques using an app called Calm, which was helpful.

We had a good dinner at La Santa, a relatively new Mexican restaurant a short walk from our apartment.  The place has a brash festive air, with murals of Santa Muerte, and current Mexican music. The menu doesn’t have a lot of vegetarian  offerings, but they had no problem making their fajitas without meat, which were tasty.

That night on Netflix we watched 13th, a documentary about the relationship of slavery and mass incarceration.  It notes that the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison population, and a disproportionate percentage of those prisoners are black.  The film also explores how politicians have encouraged and exploited fear of black people, with the wars on crime and drugs. I thought the editing was overly lively, but it was definitely worth seeing and thinking about.  

 

Welcome, but unsettling, early flowers

At Swift Creek Bluffs

Spring isn’t supposed to come in Raleigh in February, but it has.  The birds are singing lustily and early flowers are blooming.  It’s beautiful, though also unsettling—our climate is definitely changing.  But we still have sweet moments.  

I took a hike in Swift Creek Bluffs on Saturday morning and found some tiny wildflowers.  At one point I was on my knees in the dirt with the camera and tripod, struggling with focus and exposure, and my glasses kept slipping down my nose, so I took them off.  I did a minor adjustment, shifted position, and put a knee right on the glasses.   Dagnabit!  I’ll be taking them in to Adrienne at the Eye Care Center for repair next week.  

Speaking of plants, there was an interesting podcast from Radiolab last week on plant behavior.  For example, some trees can sense the presence of water some distance away in the soil with a sense that seems like hearing.  Also, researchers have found that some plants appear to learn about threatening human behavior and remember what they learn.  How they do this without a brain is still a mystery.   

This morning I went up to Raulston Arboretum for the first time this year and found more things blossoming, and took some more pictures.  

At Raulston Arboretum

For the last two weeks we’ve been having dinner in front of the TV and watching the Winter Olympics.  We like the skiing and skating, and for that we’ll tolerate the abusively repetitive advertising.  

This year NBC improved the quality of its on air commentators, and for a number of events had people who both knew about the non-mainstream sports and had comments that were helpful to the non-specialist.  Bode Miller was insightful on ski racing, as were Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir on figure skating.  And they let Weir be Weir, as gay as can be–a cheering step forward for tolerance and respect in American media.  

I wasn’t expecting to see outdoor flowers for at least a couple of weeks, and so I’d been working on more pictures of Sally’s orchid.  I did focus stacking with Photoshop, which took several hours of computer processing, and made a couple of images that I liked:

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.  

 

Wildflowers, bug bites, and why I’m getting behind Hillary

Wrightsville divingBug 1-2It’s been unpleasantly hot and humid this week. On Saturday I got out early to avoid some of the heat and visited the park at the art museum and hiked in Schenk Forest. I enjoyed seeing and photographing the wildflowers and butterflies.
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Taking this kind of pictures involves getting heading into the woods and pushing through the high grass. On Saturday I was still recovering from fifteen or so bug bites on my legs from an outing at Jordan Lake two weeks ago. These were no ordinary mosquito bites. They were much bigger, itchier, and longer lasting. Some of them were probably chiggers, but I have no idea what creatures did the others. I also had a couple of tick bites.

There is a real risk of Lyme disease and other insect-borne illnesses in these parts, and I’ve made up my mind to take more care. No more wearing shorts on these kinds of outings, and more systematic insecticiding. I tried out Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus, which includes SPF 30 sunscreen. I got no new bites, though of course it’s possible the biting bugs were busy elsewhere.
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There’s an interesting recent essay by Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, explaining the rising tide of anti-immigrant paranoia in terms of the psychology of authoritarianism. Authoritarians, defined according to child-rearing preferences like prioritizing obedience, are in Haidt’s view not naturally intolerant, but become more so when they perceive a threat to their values and culture.

For example, Muslims who insist on their own distinctive customs pose an implicit challenge to traditional mainstream customs and values, and the authoritarian personality reacts with alarm and anger. This alarm isn’t so much fear of mass killings as of dilution of the values that bind together families and communities. Liberals don’t understand or sympathize with those feelings, but right wing demagogues understand and exploit them.

It’s an interesting theory, and seems to explain some of the weirdness now in the air. Even if not completely right, it reminds us how complicated and varied humans are, and how little we really understand about the drivers of our behavior as either individuals or groups. More study is needed, as the scholars say.
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Anyhow, many Democrats, including me, can affirm that perceived threats can draw us together. So it was this week that many of us, disturbed and mildly traumatized by the anger and barely repressed violence of the Republican Convention, decided it was time to put aside our differences and pull for Hillary. Whatever else, she is the lessor of the evils, by at least an order of magnitude.

I truly respect and admire Hillary Clinton for her intelligence, strength, and discipline, and her long record of public service. At the same time, I worry that her natural instincts will dispose her to continue the status quo of wide income inequality and destructive militarism. But there’s a possibility she can change. And there is no imaginable scenario in which she is the author of the kind of disasters and self-inflicted wounds surely in store under President Trump. We need to work together for a massive Hillary victory that leaves no question that the great majority of us completely reject him and his ideas.
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Beauty, violence, and delusions: a Macbeth ballet, a Vietnam history, and a Kenya drone strike movie

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It was raining lightly on Saturday morning when I got to Raulston Arboretum, and there were quite a few new irises and roses. I enjoyed the colors, textures, and strange architecture, as accented by the raindrops. I had to work fast, because I’d scheduled a spin class for 9:30. But I had 25 minutes of strolling, peering, sniffing, and clicking, and made it to Flywheel in good time for the spin class with the cheery, peppy, hard-driving Vashti.

I’d felt a little discouraged after my spin class last week, when I was aiming for 300 points and managed only 281. I decided on a slightly different approach this week, involving more conscious pacing and allowing for short recovery periods. My results were better, with a final score of 307, and an average heart rate for the 45 minutes of 154, tying the record.

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That evening we went over to Durham for some food and ballet. We ate at Watts Grocery, where I had a delicious asparagus salad and couscous with beets. At DPAC we saw the new Carolina Ballet production of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s play is a bloody one, dense with painful emotion. This new ballet by Robert Weiss is also violent and anguished, but with interludes of light – friendship, play, and love. It succeeds as storytelling and as dance, with many subtleties and flourishes. Unfortunately, the music was not very interesting and highly repetitious. But I really liked the dancing, the craggy set, and the costumes.
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Speaking of bloody intervals, last week I finished reading a history of U.S. misconduct in Vietnam by Nick Turse, entitled Kill Anything That Moves. It is a difficult and almost unbearable story. The catalog of American atrocities is long – wanton murder of civilians, widespread rape, torture, and mutilation, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed on a wholesale basis by massive bombing and artillery. Hardly any of those who engineered the policies behind this carnage or those who carried it out were held accountable.

This history has been substantially suppressed, ignored, and forgotten. The human capacity for sustaining ignorance and self-delusion is a remarkable thing. In general, we are amazingly adept at suppressing new information that’s inconsistent with our prior beliefs, at justifying bad conduct when it fits with our preferences and self-interest, and at repressing memories that don’t fit into our preferred narratives. For Americans, coming to grips with any story of American action where we aren’t heroes is extremely difficult.
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But doing so is important work. Understanding the conditions that give rise to cruelty can help us prevent it. Therefore, with some hesitation, I recommend Turse’s book, with the caveat that it should be read only by mature readers not currently considering suicide or other violence and that, when reading, they take frequent breaks from these dark chapters to get hugs and kisses from their loved ones. One of my takeaways was that it’s usually or never a good idea to invade distant countries where we are ignorant and contemptuous of the people and culture.
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We saw Eye in the Sky last week at the Raleigh Grande. It was our first visit to the recently upgraded theater, and we liked the soft reclining seats. The movie is about setting up a drone strike by combined British and American military leaders and technicians in Kenyan on Al-Shabab terrorists. The primary tension in the movie is whether they should fire a powerful hellfire missile when it looks like it will kill a sweet little girl.

I thought it was well-played, and it was interesting to see what may well be close to state-of-the-art spying and killing technology. It was nice, in a way, to think that some military leaders might find it hard to decide whether to kill one little girl when they had a chance to execute several terrorists. The big question I left with, though, was never addressed in the movie: why would the U.S. and Britain be devoting themselves to fighting enemies of Kenya?
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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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