The Casual Blog

Tag: flowers

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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Spring, some explosive questions, including a nuclear one, and hope

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More harbingers of spring arrived in Raleigh this week: forsythia, red buds, and more daffodils started blossoming. Those colorful little flowers will cheer you right up. Look closely and you can see more buds getting ready. The flowers do not last long, so to enjoy them you need to get outside quickly and focus intently. They remind us that life is such a precious, precarious thing.
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Last week a white policeman in Raleigh shot and killed a young black man. I felt very sad, and also concerned about possible damage, physical and mental, to our community. I’d like to think the race relations and police-black community relations here are much better than, say, Ferguson Missouri. But it’s also fair to say that there could be big problems that people like me just don’t know about. One thing I’ve learned from Black Lives Matter, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alice Goffman, and others is that while I almost never see it in its raw form, racism is real, and being black in this society is still a big health risk.

Soon after the shooting, hundreds of people marched in the street in protest. There were some traffic problems, but there was no reported harm to persons or property. Also no reports of police in military armor and tanks.
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The first descriptions of the incident featured a fleeing suspect getting shot several times in the back. The official police description differed greatly, saying the man who was killed tried to shoot the officer and was wanted for drug crimes. We tend to see these things in the way that fits most comfortably with our preconceptions. Most white people I’ve discussed this with are inclined to accept the police account as true, despite eyewitnesses who say otherwise. But just as insidious racism can shape perceptions, it’s possible that eyewitnesses who fear and distrust police conformed their memories to fit their larger life narrative. I’m consciously uncertain. Either way, any time a person is killed in the course of our misbegotten war on drugs, it’s an avoidable tragedy. We need to keep working on ending prohibition.
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Also last week, the U.S. killed 150 new recruits of al Shabaab in Somalia. Using bombs from drones and manned aircraft, we caught them standing in formation, perhaps graduating from terror school. According to Pentagon sources, they were going to be part of an imminent attack in Somalia on African soldiers and a few U.S. advisors. This is very similar to the bombing of possible terrorist recruits in Libya recently, so it seems to now be a thing – mass execution of young men who could potentially attack people we don’t know much about. Are we really sure this killing was justified? Is there no possible non-fatal way of addressing such threats? Could we be increasing the chaos and the risk of more mayhem through such attacks?

We don’t have a good track record in using our military in a carefully calibrated way, or in telling the truth about our attacks. See Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Now Libya and Somalia. Tomorrow?
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You may have missed the story, which I did not see in a major U.S. newspaper, of the trial of the Marshall Islands lawsuit in the International Court of Justice seeking to stop nuclear proliferation. The Marshall Islands were used by the U.S. as a test site for 67 nuclear explosions in the 40s-60s, which devastated the area and sickened and killed part of the population. The lawsuit is about the lack of compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, in which some nuclear powers agreed to work in good faith towards disarmament. Apparently the suit is seeking a declaration that this hasn’t been done, and must be done.

For quite a while I’ve been thinking about whether there’s any way nuclear arsenals can be justified. They need a strong justification, because the risks are extremely high – accidental explosions, theft by crazed terrorists, escalating counterattacks, all out annihilation and the end of the world as we know it.

Here’s my current view: no political dispute could possibly justify killing thousands or millions of innocent people, which is the intended purpose of our most powerful nuclear weapons. No sane person would willingly subject the planet to nuclear winter, when much of the animal and plant life that initially survived a major nuclear war would die. Deterrence only works if an adversary is sane and rational (it doesn’t work on madmen), so deterrence is either unnecessary (as to the sane), or ineffective (as to the mad). So we cannot reasonably support the state’s creating and maintaining the risk of nuclear war. That leaves disarmament as the only credible, ethical strategy.

You may agree or disagree, but in either case, why aren’t we talking about this? Perhaps we assume that there’s nothing that can be done, or that it’s something we as individuals can’t effect. The Marshall Islands, a very small country, has challenged that stance. It’s election season, so let’s ask the candidates: what steps will you take to lower the risk of a nuclear holocaust and move towards a nuclear-free world?

On Friday, Bernie Sanders was speaking at noon at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, which is just a couple of blocks from where I work. It was a mild, sunny day, and so I thought it would be nice to see him, and perhaps ask him his view on the nuclear risk. By the time I got there, the line was very long. It took me ten minutes to walk to the end of it, by which time I realized there was no chance I was getting into the hall. But it was nice to see the crowd. They were very young! And, I’m guessing, hopeful. Anyhow, it made me hopeful.
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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.


Our amazing safety, veggie restaurants, blossoms, golfing hopes, and ISIS

Daffodil, Raulston Arboretum, March 21, 2015 Daffodil, Raulston Arboretum, March 21, 2015

Spring is here, with some good, and perhaps surprising, news: “America is safer than it has ever been and very likely safer than any country has ever been.” Writing in this month’s Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch drily sums up the gap between our perceptions of terrorist threats and reality: “American are about four times as likely to drown in their bathtub as they are to die in a terrorist attack.”

“Given how safe we are, and how frightened people nonetheless feel, it seems unlikely that Americans’ threat perception has ever before been quite as distorted as it is today. Never have so many feared so little, so much.” Rauch notes, “The United States faces no plausible invader or attacker. All we are really talking about, when we discuss threats from Iran or North Korea or ISIS, is whether our margin of safety should be very large or even larger.”

Why are we so scared? Rauch cites evolutionary biology, which equipped our ancestors to be hyperalert to the possibility of predators or enemies, and programmed them and us to err on the side of overreacting to threats. Part of it is also probably opportunistic politicians and sensationalistic media. Whatever it is, the cost is enormous. See, e.g., budgets of Defense Department, Justice Department, CIA, NSA, TSA, FBI, etc.

A new veggie-friendly restaurant. We tried Pho Pho Pho Noodle Kitchen, a new Vietnamese restaurant within walking distance of us on Glenwood Avenue this week. Our pho (noodle soup, basically) with tofu was tasty, and the place was lively, with a neo-Buddhist vibe. Our server must have been new, since she was a bit over eager – checking in on how we liked everything every 4.5 minutes or so – but we still liked her. Although there was only one vegetarian offering on the menu, we verified that there were several other items that could be done meatlessly. We’ll go back.

As Sally noted recently, we’ve been vegetarians now for 20 years. It’s gotten easier. There are a lot more fun vegetarian friendly restaurants these days, and we consciously try to support them. These are now quite a few good places with more than one veggie option, and vegetarians are clearly not second class citizens. My current favorites in downtown Raleigh are Fiction Kitchen, Capital Club 16, Buku, Sitti, Blue Mango, Kim Bop, and Bida Manda.

Saturday. On Saturday morning I did a sunrise five-mile run up Hillsborough Street, had a quick bowl of cereal, and went to an 8:30 yoga class with Yvonne across the street at Blue Lotus. My recent classes with Yvonne have been more about stretching and deep breathing than heavy working out, which works well after a run. Then I drove up Hillsborough to Raulston Arboretum for a slow walk with my camera.

It was a bit muddy from rain the day before, but things were quickly emerging. And also decaying: the beautiful blooms do not last long. The daffodils I saw last week were mostly gone, though there were some pretty new ones. Several oriental magnolias had particularly gorgeous blossoms. The birds were singing brightly.

In the afternoon, I practiced the piano, and then went over to RCC for some golf practice. As usually happens as spring arrives, I start thinking this could be my golf breakthrough year. Last year was pretty much a lost one for golf, due to eye, hand, and shoulder injuries, but I’ve been pretty healthy lately. And I’ve got some of the elements of a bona fide game. The thing is with golf, it’s remarkably hard to put it all together and make it happen on a consistent basis. Anyhow, I enjoy watching the little white ball fly up and away. Practice is fun.

We had delicious Thai food for dinner at Sawasdee on Glenwood Avenue, and went to the Raleigh Grande to see a documentary called Red Army. It tells the story of the Soviet hockey team that dominated the world in the 70s and 80s. The Soviet system was brutal, but they played brilliant hockey. I thought the subject was interesting, but the ex-players were not very expressive or insightful, and the analysis didn’t get much below the surface.

More on ISIS. I mentioned last week that we don’t know much about ISIS, but thanks to Graeme Wood I now know a good deal more. Wood wrote a piece for the Atlantic titled What ISIS Really Wants, which is well worth reading in its entirety. In a nutshell, ISIS takes the Koran completely literally, including the parts about militarily establishing and expanding a caliphate that applies Sharia law. It believes in requiring the allegiance of all Muslims, killing apostates, and enslaving non-believers.

Unlike Al Qaeda, they have no current interest in attacking western nations, but rather want the west to attack them. This would both help recruitment and gibe with their end-of-days theology. In fact, they don’t get along with Al Qaeda, which they view as insufficiently Islamic. As with other fervid fringe religious movements, for whatever reason this appeals to some, but a majority of Muslims and everyone else reject it as nutty, and the atrocities will always limit its appeal. Also, the ISIS ideology rules out cooperating or having diplomatic dealings with any who disagree even slightly with their views. Thus they can never have allies, which limits the possibilities for expansion.

Clearly, ISIS is a serious, and perhaps existential, threat for people who live within its range and disagree with it. But we should distinguish between possible terrorist threats to our lives and property, and the humanitarian concerns relating to the people of Iraq and Syria.

Buds, laughs, and cries, including Romeo and Juliet (the ballet)

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Sally’s taking a flower arranging class at Wake Tech, and here is her latest project, which I really liked. With spring officially here, I’m very much ready for the big blossoming , and took a Saturday morning walk through Fletcher Park and Raulston Arboretum to see what was up. They’re not here in numbers just yet. But it was fun to take a close look at some things on the point of bursting out.
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Is there anything more boring than people bragging about their marvelous kids? Perhaps hearing people complain about their aches and pains. But other people’s impressive kids are still a serious problem, conversation-wise. Why is it, then, that stories about my own kids are so interesting?

So, sorry, but here goes a proud papa: Jocelyn, having conquered the book publishing business in Manhattan (i.e. getting an entry-level job in ebooks at Macmillan), has now published her first professional writing. It’s a humorous essay about getting the fun of a good cry, which you may read at Quarterlette, a site for twenty-something women. The pay was not good (zero), but she was very excited to be a beginning author. Who knows what comes next? She’s got a piece on online dating in the works, and we kicked around ideas for a funny piece about the annoyances of Facebook.
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At an opposite extreme, there’s a piece in last week’s New Yorker by Andrew Solomon about Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza. Remember Adam, the Sandy Hook killer, who took the life of 26 little kids, his mom, and himself? This is worse than a parent’s worst nightmare. I hadn’t known that he was a high functioning autistic kid who may also have been psychotic. We want to know why he did what he did or what might have made things unfold differently, but there are no full, satisfying answers. Nobody saw Adam’s potential for horrific violence, including the mental health professionals who examined him or his parents. I was moved by Peter Lanza’s struggle with both the pain of loss and profound guilt.
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There’s another good story about death and love called Romeo and Juliet, which the Carolina Ballet performed on Saturday night. We’ve seen Robert Weiss’s choreographed version several times over the past 15 years, and it’s one of my favorites. Shakespeare’s story, it turns out, works quite well without words. The language of ballet is fully sufficient to convey the richness of the trembling, tingling ecstasy of first love, and the explosive violence of feuding clans.

In this production, Margaret Severin-Hansen played Juliet with sweet innocence, and her Romeo, Sokvannara Sar, was strong and sensitive. Their balcony scene was complete, unmitigated, overwhelming love — love that obliterates everything else. Eugene Barnes was a smoldering, intimidating Tybalt. I thought the group sword fights could have used a bit more edge and brio, though I hesitate to say so – I wouldn’t want any dancers to actually get hurt.

Lindsay Turkel was radiant in the trio of gypsy street dancers. We were also happy to see Alyssa Pilger, a corps member and our pointe shoe sponsoree, get a high-profile solo as the Mandolin Girl. She rocked! I’d previously been struck by her beautiful technique, but last night she danced with amazing power, impassioned and electrifying.

Fresh produce, flowers, and an iPad problem

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Saturday morning I took my camera over to the N.C. Farmers Market. The weather was drizzly, but the scene was festive, with many colorful baskets of vegetables and fruits and many shoppers. I wasn’t sure about the etiquette of photographing the sellers and visitors: would people consider it an improper intrusion? Maybe, but some sellers might appreciate the potential publicity. Uncertain, I focused primarily on the beautiful produce.
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I also got a few images I liked at Raulston Arboretum, including some bees at work.
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Our personal portable technology, like my DSLR camera, not to mention my Android phone, MP3 player, lap top, and tablet, generally works great and keep getting more amazing, and we can’t help but get more dependent on them. This we hardly notice, until something goes wrong.
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My iPad tablet suddenly quit working a few days back, which reminded me forcefully how much it has insinuated itself into my life. Its most used function is as an interface with ebooks, which have in a surprisingly short period become my dominant reading format. The iPad is wonderfully light and portable, and the screen works well for reading ebooks.
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At a given time, I may have four or five books going – typically some history or biography, some science or technology, some public policy, and some literature. Exploring through reading is such a basic part of my life that I generally take it for granted. There is not a lot of time in a normal day to do it, but what there is is precious.

The failure of my iPad gave me the shock of sudden withdrawal from my various reading projects. Then I realized I had no idea whether the books I’d downloaded could be recovered, and if they could, whether my highlighting and notes would be lost forever.
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Most of my reading uses the kindle reader app with books from Amazon, and I eventually learned that I could load the kindle software on my MacBook Pro and read with the laptop. My bookmarks, highlights and notes were still there. This was good news, mostly. That is, it’s good to have the books, but at the same time, should I be worried that my various private thoughts on books are floating somewhere in the Amazon cloud and available for NSA examination? I decided there was no point in worrying, since there is truly nothing I can do about it. Though I still feel a bit uneasy.
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Meanwhile, I took the iPad to Raleigh Geeks, a small computer and smart phone repaid shop on Glenwood Avenue. My Geek diagnosed a failed on button, and determined that it would cost about $90 to get a new part and take a week. I thanked him and said I’d first check to see if they had the part at the Apple store. At the Apple Genius Bar, my Genius agreed that the switch was broken. His proposed solution was for me to buy a new iPad I for $250.

I decided to order the new part from the Geeks. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the device can be saved, but also doing a bit of research on possible alternatives, and particularly the Samsung Android tablets.

Amazing drawings, the N.C. Zoo, and some photos of butterflies

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Congratulations, to Jocelyn, who just graduated from the Columbia University publishing program. Now she’s hunting for a publishing job in New York, and we’re hopeful that she’ll quickly find one. (If you have any leads, please let me know.)

This week she sent me this link to a group of drawings and paintings that are astonishing in their photographic realism. Truly, the work is uncanny. I had no idea that there were humans with such technical facility.

But after the initial shock of astonishment wore off a bit, I wondered a little what was the point. If you could do the same thing with a camera, why wouldn’t you just use the camera? I suppose it might be like deciding to hike when you could drive, or building furniture with hand tools rather than power tools. There could be joy in the activity.

At any rate, I’m so glad I’ve got a camera, because it would take me at least another lifetime to learn to draw like these artists. Lately I’ve been learning more about my Nikon D3200, and having fun with it.
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Week before last, I took the Sally and the camera over to the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro. We took in most of the Africa section, which features a spacious layout for such iconic species as elephants, giraffes, and rhinos, and relatively humane enclosures for the lions, chimps, baboons, lemurs, and exotic birds.
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We saw an adorable and sociable ostrich (above). I was also particularly touched by a baby baboon, just 6 months old, who rode about on mama, dropped off to bother brother, and hitched another ride on top of an aunt. We also enjoyed the many swimming turtles, including snappers, we saw from the bridge at the entrance.

I generally associate zoos with children, and recalled with pleasure taking my kids years ago, but also was reminded of the many challenges of young children and their needs (“I’m thirsty.” “I’m hungry” “I’m tired.” “I’m bored.”) It was good for a change to have no worries of that sort, and freedom to just enjoy the animals and environments.
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Of course I have mixed feelings: it doesn’t feel quite right to cage these creatures up, even in nice cages. In the best of worlds they’d be free to live as best they could in habitat unmarred by humans. But in an imperfect world, I appreciate the chance to get close to these marvelous creatures.
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As a birthday present to myself I recently got a new tool: AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105 mm f/2.8G IF-ED. It’s a high quality macro lens suitable for extreme closeups. I’m interested in doing more with flowers and insects. Yesterday morning I got to Raulston Arboretum just after it opened at 8:00 a.m., and had good light, and proceeded thereafter to Fletcher Park. There were bees and butterflies hard at work, including these.
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Farewell to Cory Monteith of Glee, and a new pop science book on the unconscious

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Last week I was greatly saddened to hear of the death of Cory Monteith, the actor who played Finn in the TV show Glee. For a couple of years (though less so recently), Glee was one of my happiest guilty pleasures, a sweet spot on the largely mindless and boring TV firmament. I wouldn’t care to defend Glee as wholly original. It is, at one level, mostly about recycled pop songs, dance video conventions, and predictable plot lines. But they sing and dance with more than just precision. The total effect is of youthful energy and exuberance. Pop music that I never much cared for when it was new becomes fun and sometimes even moving.
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The existence of gays who were sweet, talented, and creative has been a major point of Glee, and it has pressed for tolerance for gays as a central value. How much has this affected the American zeitgeist? Some, I’ve got to think. The poll numbers of Americans supporting gay marriage have gone from negative to positive during the show’s run. Gay marriage is legal in several states, and the Supreme Court has gotten on board. Making anti-gay jokes and comments is becoming less socially acceptable. This is progress.
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Cory Monteith was probably the least flashy of core Glee cast in terms of good looks and song-and-dance talent. But he served as the anchor, allowing those around him to emote without floating into outer space. His relative normalcy gave the show more texture and sweetness than a simple music video. He was a point of stability.
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It was surprising, at least to me, to learn in his obituary that he “struggled with substance abuse,” and his death was attributed to a combination of alcohol and heroin. Plainly, he was a talented and hard-working actor. It simply is not possible to put out a weekly TV show without lots of hard work, and the supercharged Glee production numbers have got to be incredibly taxing on actors and crew alike. Monteith performed consistently at a high level, so it seems safe to say that he was not completely controlled by addiction. I don’t know more than that about his back story, and I won’t speculate. As I said, I’m sad such a talented young actor is gone.

I hope his death will encourage others to avoid addiction to dangerous drugs, but I also hope it will nudge forward the shift from a moralistic view of addiction. The “struggling with addiction” language in the news reports suggests a more medical view of the problem, instead of the traditional junkies-are-evil-zombies view. Glee reruns will give testimony for years to come that Monteith was so much more than that.
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There’s still a lot we don’t understand about our brains, but also so much we’re learning. I just finished a new book on this fascinating subject this week: Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, by Leonard Mlodinow. Mlodinow, a physicist by training, covers some of the same territory as Kahneman and Gazzaniga, taking an evolutionary perspective on the brain and describing research into conscious versus unconscious processes and the social nature of the human brain. But his emphasis is different, and in some ways more practical.

For example, he spends little time lamenting how little of our lives are lived at a conscious, rational level, instead emphasizing how useful and efficient our unconscious processes are. Yet we normally overlook this part of life or deny the extent to which it is critical. We trust our reasoning processes without noting their common biases and errors. We rely on our memories without accounting for their imprecision and shifts. Even our most basic perceptions and emotions are prone to manipulation and error. But Mlodinow is not a pessimist. Like Kahneman, he is ultimately hopeful that understanding how prone we are to mistakes and delusions can help us improve our lives.
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The photos above are from my latest photo safari to Raulston Arboretum on Saturday morning. As usual, there were new things blooming, including some spectacular lilies. Also there were quite a few butterflies, including a gorgeous tiger swallowtail.
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Flowers, robotic challenges, and a note on this blog

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On Saturday morning as I drove up to Raulston Arboretum to look at the blooms and take some pictures, it began to drizzle, and I considered scrubbing the mission. But I decided instead to take my golf umbrella. Working the camera while sheltering it from the rain was awkward, but I got a few images of flowers with raindrops that I liked, which are above and below.
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You may have missed, as I almost did, an interesting story this week about the DARPA robotics challenge. DARPA is holding a humanoid robot competition similar to its contest that pushed forward the boundaries for autonomous vehicles. Teams of technologist will compete for a $2 million prize with a robot that will be able to perform rescue functions in difficult conditions and do things like climb into a vehicle, drive it, get out, walk on uneven ground, open doors, operate power tools, and shut off valves. A prototype called Atlas is being provided by the Pentagon to teams of programmers, while other teams are building their own devices.

While the Pentagon is emphasizing the humanitarian possibilities of such a device, it could obviously have less benign military applications. And, as the Times notes, the new robots could also work in department stores. Or, I’d add, just about any place that humans work. As I’ve noted before, the quick advance of such technology is going to cause unemployment and economic dislocation, which we need to be thinking about. Along with these public policy issues, there are existential ones. In the not-too-distant world of brilliant and powerful computers and robots that can do almost any human activity better than humans, what does it mean to be human? What is the point of being human? What is our highest and best use?
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I was pleased to see that yesterday The Casual Blog set a new record: 251 views. Most of those views had to do with a post about getting older, Gary Player’s diet and exercise routine, and yoga. I wrote the thing a couple of years ago, and I have no idea why it is suddenly getting attention.

One of my self-imposed rules for The Casual Blog is that I do not actively promote it. Some of my friends have never heard of it. I am fortunate in not needing to make money from it. I don’t need to worry about whether something that seems interesting to me will appeal to anyone else. I’m free, in theory, to say whatever I think, and it matters not if no one reads it.

Except that it does. There is no doubt that I like having readers. This is slightly embarrassing, but I’ll confess: I check my blog stats every day, and feel pleased when the number is above average and less-than-pleased when it’s below. There’s a little frisson of pleasure when someone I know mentions something they read in TCB, and a particular thrill when I meet a new person who has read it. Would I continue to write it if the readership fell to zero? Possibly, but only if I thought some future person would one day read it.

Of course, much (though as noted not all) of my satisfaction in TCB is the self-contained but complex pleasure of writing. Taking the raw material of a particular part of my experience – the things I do for fun in non-working hours – and molding it into something coherent and possibly interesting is an absorbing challenge.

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There was an interesting recent essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the NY Times defending the humanities as an educational objective, which drew a connection between learning to articulate experience and general life satisfaction. I thought Klinkenborg put it well:

Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.
No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it — no matter how or when it was acquired — knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.

A rare and precious inheritance indeed.
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