The Casual Blog

Tag: Gregory Aldrete

Snow geese and tundra swans, Roman history, and another wall problem

Tundra swans at Pungo Lake

Each winter thousands of migrating tundra swans and snow geese stop in eastern North Carolina for a while to collect themselves and eat what’s left in the farm fields.  For a human, all that bird life is a thrilling sight.

In addition to the thrill, I was hoping to capture some images of the birds in flight.  In preparation, I did some research on optimal settings and customized some of my camera buttons.  This process was involved and confusing, and I thought it possible I would end up with a hard-to-repair mess.  I also decided to try wielding my Sigma 150-500mm, a beastly large lens, free hand (no tripod).

Pungo Lake, where I saw most of snow geese and most of the tundra swans, is about 2.5 hours east of Raleigh.  For part of the time I traveled with other members of the Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association, including some friendly and very well-traveled shutterbugs.  I got to hear some of their stories and picked up some helpful tips.

I saw thousands of big white birds, as well as several species of ducks, waders, and one black bear.  We had good weather until Saturday afternoon, when the rain came in and the temperature started to drop.  I was happy with some of the shots I got before then.

On an ordinary day, I check the digital news headlines frequently, which  rarely puts me in a more relaxed, pleasurable state of mind. So it was good to unplug for the weekend and concentrate on the beauty of the natural world.  

I also spent some of the driving time learning about the classical world.  I finished listening to a series of lectures titled The Rise of Rome, by Gregory Aldrete, from the Great Courses series.  It traces the rise of Rome from a settlement to the Western world’s first superpower.

Aldrete is a good teacher and a good story teller, and mixes broad themes with interesting anecdotes.  The Romans were certainly great engineers and organizers, as well as fearsome warriors. In the late Roman Republic, the levels of corruption, extreme inequality, and political dysfunction were even worse than our own, which I found somewhat comforting.  Leaving aside the lives and civilizations destroyed by Rome, life went on.

Snow geese coming in for a landing near Pungo Lake

I’ve been trying to avoid spending too much time obsessing over the latest Trump conflagration, since it does little or no good.  But I have been keeping a sharp eye on the presidential approval poll numbers, hoping to see a change in the national mood, and possibly our direction.  Even though Trump has been generally unpopular almost since day 1, his Republican base has been mostly steadfast.

I know some sane, well-informed, thoughtful, kind and generous Republicans, and have found it hard to understand how people like them could support a President with none of those virtues.  Trump, it seemed, might have been right when he said that no matter how crazy or heinous his acts, his base would never abandon him. But in the latest polling, after his reckless government shut down and non-stop nonsense about the Wall, the polls indicate some of his loyalists may be rethinking their position.

Although Trump has a gift for bringing out the worst in people, at times he inadvertently brings out better things.  For example, his racist language encourages the no-holds-barred racists, but it also makes others think more and talk more about the hard-to-see realities of our longstanding, everyday privileging of whiteness.  His climate change denialism is getting harder for the base to swallow as they face more frequent droughts, floods, fires, hurricanes, and other storms.

Even the Wall discussion seems to have crossed a threshold.  For many, it seems to have gone from being primarily a fun slogan to yell at a Trump rally to looking like a nutty and wasteful boondoggle.  There’s an aspect of the Wall idea that hasn’t gotten much attention, which I was glad to see noted in the  news  recently: the harmful effects on non-human life. The 650 miles of wall already in existence is very bad for the hundreds of species of animals and plants that live in the vicinity. Many of these need to travel north and south for food, water, and mating.  We need to take their needs into account.

Discovering Pluto, ancient civilizations, Amy, and a rodeo

At Raulston Arboretum, July 18, 2015

At Raulston Arboretum, July 18, 2015

The well-named New Horizons space craft completed its three million mile, nine-year journey from Earth to Pluto this week. I enjoyed seeing the close-ups of the dwarf planet, and the smiling faces of the New Horizons NASA team. Asked to explain the value of the achievement, the scientists hemmed and harumphed a bit, but Stephen Hawking stated its raison well: “We explore because we are human, and we want to know.”
Raleigh Rodeo-1099

Speaking of exploring, I’ve been learning about ancient civilizations, including Mesopotamia, China, India, Greece, and Rome. Through the audio book service Audible.com, I purchased one of the Great Courses, a series of lectures by Gregory Aldrete titled History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective. Aldrete does a really good job at bringing out the big currents of the first six thousand years or so of human urban culture. He’s helped me understand the relations of the major civilization as a temporal matter and in their major elements of technology, government, art, warfare, and religion. I’ve been filling in various gaps, like understanding the relationship of Alexander and the Greeks, and the relationship of the Han dynasty and the Roman empire (same time period). I’ve been listening to the book while working out at the gym, and getting a good mental work out in the process.
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We saw Amy, the new documentary about Amy Winehouse, last week. I recommend it. I wasn’t ever a big fan of her music, but I could see that there was something original and fearless about her. The documentary has a lot of home movie type footage that is surprisingly revealing, but it doesn’t preach and leaves things open to interpretation. Here’s my interpretation: she had some serious emotional/psychological problems, including depression and bulimia, and not much of a support system. She didn’t really seek fame, and wasn’t prepared for it, and didn’t have much help managing it. I view her drinking and drugging as a kind of unsuccessful self-medication, which was dangerous and ultimately fatal.
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We went out to Carousel Farms on Tuesday evening with some Red Hat colleagues to see the local rodeo. There were hamburgers (veggieburgers for us) and cookies. The main events were barrel racing (young women on horses on a timed course with tight turns around three barrels) and bull riding (stay on the bull at least 8 seconds and don’t get killed when you get thrown off). It was fun to see the talented, courageous young people and get a taste of country life, but I had very mixed feelings about the bull riding.
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For one, it seems cruel to the animals. For two, the risks to the riders are just too great. On almost every ride, they fall near the feet of the powerful bull as it’s kicking. We saw one young man badly kicked this way who had to be carried off on a backboard to an ambulance. Hope he’ll be OK.
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