The Casual Blog

Tag: Habitat for Humanity

Hammering nails, my sweet cable repair robot, privacy concerns, and some flower pictures

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On Friday afternoon the Red Hat legal department in Raleigh worked on a Habitat for Humanity house in Apex. We met the owner to be, who sounded like he might have originally been from west Africa, and who said this was his dream house. I watched a group of colleagues get trained in installing windows, and then got drafted to do some work in the rafters, including repairing some mistakes of a previous crew.
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Hammering nails is not something I’m particularly good at, and I learned that this was even more true when standing on a ladder, reaching upward, and swinging within limited space. My wrist and arm got tired. But, though slow, I got quite a few nails well in, and avoided serious injury. I do not think the next crew will need to re-do them.
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Speaking of repair work, I had an interesting experience on the frontiers of automation this week with my cable service, Time Warner. Our on-demand movie service didn’t work properly last week. When I called TW, my call was answered by an automated female voice of the sort that usually reads service options (press 2 for billing inquiries, etc.).

It (she) asked me to describe the problem. She then correctly paraphrased it, and said she’d be right back. Then she said that she’d checked and my cable box needed to be re-set. She said she would do that. She did it! This was the first fully automated repair encounter I’ve ever had, and it was excellent! When the automated repair entity told me I could hang up, I couldn’t help myself: I thanked her.
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On Saturday morning I got up with the plan of being at Raulston Arboretum when it opened at 8:00 a.m. to walk about and take some pictures with early light. I got slowed down by some interesting stories in the Times — market reactions to the Fed’s new strategy, dysfunctional courts in the Bronx, arms for Syrian rebels, protests in Brazil and Turkey, China’s and Russia’s economic policies. And particularly by the latest on Edward Snowden and the NSA surveillance program.

I’m still trying to figure out what I think about Snowden and the NSA data collectors. Clearly, it’s wrong to break your oath and betray your employer. Clearly, it’s wrong for the government to invade our privacy without due process. Clearly, it would be a mistake to acquiesce in terrorist plotting.

These conflicting imperatives make this a tough one. I tend to focus on the high risk of governmental abuse of power. Curiously, though, for some reason I’ve felt less fear and outrage over the data mining than I would have expected. I don’t think I’m alone on this. Possibly, as my colleague David said, we exhausted our outrage muscles over the Patriot Act, and the NSA intrusions are not such a big surprise.

We may have already passed an inflection point in the history of privacy. Most of us understand that Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others are using our data in ways we wouldn’t necessarily approve, but which don’t do any noticeable harm. Is the NSA program a bigger threat to civil liberties?

Well, the government is awesomely powerful, so the risk is plainly greater. But for most of us, the harm is abstract — an automated intrusion into our personal space that we never directly perceive. Will we eventually come to accept this diminution of private space as the new normal? Probably yes. Will that change our thinking and behavior? Probably yes.

A more immediate by-product of this affair is a new round of erosion of trust between government and the governed. Privacy’s cousin, honesty, has also been compromised. Can we ever be sure that any government explanation of the project is true?
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When I finally got to the arboretum, it was cloudy, but pleasantly mild, and many flowers were blooming. It smelled wonderful! I took many deep breaths. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could record those smells?

In the meantime, we’ve got digital photography, which is itself pretty amazing. I was looking for dramatic colors and shapes, and interesting textures. I was also thinking about the complex patterns that nature made, and others that the gardeners made, and others that only I could make on that particular morning with those particular blooms. I generally focused on the flowers that were at their resplendent peaks, but I also caught a few that were well into the process of dying, and beautiful in sadder way.
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Cutting wood, not fingers, trying a good new Italian restaurant, and enjoying the Carolina Ballet’s Carmina Burana, but worrying about the dancers’ low pay

On Friday afternoon a group from the Red Hat legal department worked on a Habitat for Humanity house in eastern Raleigh. It was a warm, sunny day. I managed to work up a good sweat nailing boards together, and pulling apart ones I didn’t line up properly before I nailed them.

I also spent some time cutting boards with a circular saw. My father was a passionate woodworker, and the sound of the power saw brought back childhood memories — of trying to watch TV and not being able to hear it because of the power saw. Dad was always worried that his or someone else’s children would hurt themselves with his power tools. He did not generally encourage visits to his wood shop, and managed to implant in me the idea that little fingers can be sliced off very easily. This is a particularly horrifying thought for a pianist. Thus I was probably a more deliberate sawer than most.

Afterwards, after knocking off some of the sawdust, a few of us had a beer at Sammy’s, a sports bar. We learned that Barrett is coming into the home stretch towards his wedding day, with a Caribbean honeymoon in St. Lucia to follow, and Madeline had decided that her next vacation will be in Curacao. I encouraged them to try some scuba diving. Madeline said that she had some claustrophobia issues and a dread of fish bites, and so she was not overly keen, but Barrett seemed game.

That evening Sally and I tried Tuscan Blu, a new Italian restaurant in the warehouse district. We got there at 6:20 with a view to finishing in good time for the ballet by 8:00, and were the first ones there. It was empty, but we quickly got a good vibe from the friendly staff. When we asked about wine, our server summoned the owner, a big, gray-headed, Italian guy, who, instead of discussing the matter, brought us out a bottle of Italian chardonnay that he said we would like. We did. People began to come in, and the place started buzzing. The olive oil in the salad dressing was excellent, as was the pear and ricotta fiochhi. We’ll be going back.

The Carolina Ballet featured a revival of Carmina Burana and three short new works inspired by a local exhibit of the art of Alexander Calder. This was our fourth Carmina, and I’ve liked it better each time. It is a rich, complex work. Lynn Taylor-Corbett’s choreography melds with Carl Orff’s powerful, strangely ancient-yet-modern choral music in a way that seems organic: it feels as though the music and dance were created together, instead of sixty some years apart. . The performance on Friday had a quasi-orchestra (two pianos and percussion) and the 140-voice Raleigh Chorale, well conducted by Al Sturges, made a big, pleasing sound.

The work opens with a group of male dancers in business suits with leather briefcases, which is both humorous and disconcerting. We quickly realize that it’s about our society, with a range of characters from Wall Street operators at the top to laborers at the bottom. The theme is the power of the goddess Fortuna — in other words, luck. Characters from all walks of life excitedly scratch lottery tickets, and are disappointed, and scratch again. Suddenly, one wins! And his life and the group’s is reorganized. One lover is discarded, another appears, then a child, who a moment later is a young woman. Temptations (lust, greed, etc.) arrive, and corruption develops, followed by pain and loss. The wheel keeps turning, with more rounds of the lottery, and eventually, there’s a new winner.

Yevgeny Shlapko played the Man Who Wins (the first lottery winner) with grace and maturity, and stylish athleticism, and paired well with Melissa Podcasy, who had beauty and depth as Woman Who Yearns. Their Daughter Who Dreams was played for the first time that night by Lola Cooper, who was both funny and graceful in conveying the excitement and storms of adolescence, including having a first cigarette. Marcelo Martinez was Man of Darkness, a personification of evil that was both frightening and seductive. I was very happy to see Alicia Fabry back after her injury as A Lost Soul, a role in which (against type) she projected a tragic neuroticism.

The first half of the program had works by Timour Bourtasenkov (a principal in the company), Zalman Raffael (a member of the corps), and Tyler Walters (now on the faculty at Duke). I particularly enjoyed Lindsay Purrington and Yevgeny Shlapko in Raffael’s piece, The Ghost, with music by Darius Milhaud. Walters’ I Mobile to music by Prokofiev was an intricate, modernist work that connected well to the mobile idea.

Afterwards, we met Lola at Humble Pie and caught up. She told us that there had not been much time to put together Carmina Burana, and she hadn’t had a chance to rehearse with the orchestra. She said she hadn’t tried smoking until the night before, and worried that she might have a coughing problem in performance. We talked about the problem of the extremely low salaries of the dancers, and particularly those in the corps.

This is something that has bothered me for a long time. These extremely gifted young people have spent most of their lives in sustained dedication to their art, and have overcome enormous odds to join the few who are paid professionals. They’re incredibly successful — sort of. They get the satisfaction of practicing their art at the highest level, but get paid at a level that is ridiculously low. Paying for the rent, the car payment, and groceries is difficult, or perhaps just not possible without a second job (which is very difficult to put on top of the time demands of the company) or help from parents or elsewhere. If we care about dance, we need to care about the dancers, and figure out a way to pay them a living wage.