The Casual Blog

Tag: ISIS

A flooring experience, kind Canadians, and one good thing about Donald Trump

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This week while the flooring guys installed our new red oak floor, we stayed at the Hyatt Place, an increasingly uncharming unvacation, with nothing excitingly foreign and lacking the sweet comforts of home. With many years of marriage under our belt, Sally and I are good at comfortably sharing space, and we had no worrying collisions or conflicts, but also no room to spread out in the usual way.

We ate lots of local ethnic food (Indian, Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Ethiopian, Italian), which was fun, though I regretted eating so much, which is so easy to do in restaurants. I stuck with my resolution of using the hotel gym early every morning, but missed the machines and equipment at my usual gym. I missed making healthy green smoothies for breakfast. I missed my piano and exploring the intoxicating music of Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy.

But enough kvetching. On Friday evening, we moved back in to our condo, and found that our Latino flooring guys had done good work. We quickly hooked up the lamps and unpacked some essentials, and walked over to Pho Pho Pho for some good Vietnamese food. The dust gradually settled over the next couple of days – really, a lot of dust.
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It was a big week for ISIS mayhem in Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad, which got lots of news coverage, and the epic humanitarian disaster of 65 million refugees and displaced persons continued, with little news coverage. There was one happy NY Times story about Syrian refugees being welcomed by Canadians. Ordinary folk have volunteered by the thousands to help unfortunates get resettled. Those Canadians are especially gifted in the way of kindness and generosity. Too bad they have such cold winters.

We could be moving there anyway if Donald Trump is elected. But happily that’s looking less and less likely, as more of his cons, schemes, and frauds come to light. Also, more and more, it looks as though he isn’t seriously working to win the election, but is primarily running to gratify his vanity and improve his personal bottom line.
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Now that he looks less like a serious threat to the Republic, it’s easier to admit that Trump has done something important and good. He brought attention to an enormous problem, which for many educated, well-off people was almost invisible before. I’m speaking of the distress, fear, and anger of millions of white working class males. It’s now clear that we ignore their welfare at our peril.

The anger and fear aren’t hard to understand. It wasn’t so long ago that these folks could play by the rules and pay a mortgage, go out to eat, go on vacations, and otherwise support their families and have a materially comfortable life. But complex forces, including globalization, automation, and institutionalized corruption have led to job losses, employment insecurity, and wage stagnation. These forces have been well described by Robert Reich (for example, here) and Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their book Winner-Take-All Politics (summarized here).

As the working class lost ground over the last few years, I’ve puzzled over why they increasingly voted Republican, while Republican policies were increasingly skewed toward the wealthy and against them. They didn’t seem to notice that Republican tax breaks were mostly going to the super rich, and changes in labor law enforcement and other areas were to their disadvantage. It seemed that they were attracted and distracted by various social issues, such as abortion, affirmative action, guns, gays, and the “War on Christmas.”

Trump has shown that white working class males weren’t so concerned about the conservative social agenda, and weren’t really buying trickle down economics. He has ditched trickle down and generally steered clear of the social agenda issues (except for guns). This demographic may have noted that the Democrats quit doing much to help labor or otherwise serve their interests, and also noted that Democratic elites viewed them mostly with indifference, if not disdain. Most likely they identified with Republicans’ emphasis on rugged individualism, and therefore viewed Republicans as the lesser of the evils.
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In Trump, this population has found an outlet for their boiling frustration and anger. They like his commitment to change. Unfortunately, they are also well pleased and energized by his fantasizing, conspiracy theorizing, and demonizing. But most important, Trump has acknowledged that they exist, and their problems are real. For the first time in a generation, a politician has put their concerns and values front and center.

Like it or not, angry, frightened, downwardly mobile voters aren’t going to go away. In fact, absent major changes, there are going to be millions more of them, as political, corporate, and technological forces continue to take away jobs and the social safety net continues to fray. Democrats need to reconfigure to acknowledge and address their grievances. Bernie made a good start, but we better keep moving forward. If Democrats don’t offer real solutions, someone else will offer imaginary ones. It is all too possible that a future Trump, smarter, better looking, and even more cynical than the Donald, could mobilize their anger into a true nightmare. Think Germany in the 1930s.

Izzie the cat, questionable executions, and ballet love

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Izzie the cat took her last trip to the vet this week. After almost 14 years together, we were sad. Our pets enrich our lives and make us better, more loving humans, even the ones with mercurial moods like Izzie. One minute, she would be seeking affection, angelically purring, and hissing like a little demon the next. Of course, we probably seemed strange to her.

From time to time I tried to get her to do some modeling for me and my camera, but she never cared much for that. I cannot say that any of my photos quite got her essence. White with black splotches and wings, she was a strange, pretty thing. It will be a slightly different world without her.

Deciding to put down a beloved pet is a hard decision. We considered for a while the evidence of Izzie’s diminishing capacities and increasing behavioral problems, and balanced as best we could the pros and the cons. In the end, we decided it was a good time for her death. But there remains a little nagging discomfort, along with sadness. To actively take on the choice of life or death is unsettling, which it should be.
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This week U.S. fighter planes reportedly blew up several dozen people in a Libyan terrorist training camp. The target was a single Tunisian individual I’d never heard of, Noureddine Chouchane, based on his participation in terrorist attacks in Tunisia. I found this disturbing. Assuming Noureddine Chouchane was a thoroughly evil person who committed heinous acts (we couldn’t possibly get that wrong, could we?), should we be the judges and executioners for all terrorist acts, no matter how far removed from the U.S.? And even if we can justify that, how to justify taking the lives of dozens of other people who, so far as we know, committed no crimes? Do we really think it’s OK to kill all potential terrorists (who are, after all, also potential future non-terrorists)?

The Times had a story this week headlined (in the print edition) “Scars Left by American Bombs Resist Fading, 25 Years Later.” The particular scar in issue was damage from our bombing of civilians in 1991 at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War. We dropped an especially powerful bunker busting bomb on a shelter in a middle class Baghdad neighborhood and killed 408 people, most of whom were burned alive.

I can see how ordinary Iraqis could find this a moral outrage. Wouldn’t anyone? Yet I had never heard of the incident before, and after digging through 25 years of Times coverage on Iraq, couldn’t find an earlier story about it. It makes you wonder whether there are some other military atrocities that even faithful Times readers have not heard about.
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The Atlantic has a good piece by Peter Beinart titled “Why Attacking ISIS Won’t Make America Safer.” Beinart notes that most Americans favor attacking ISIS, but argues that history shows that our military actions in the Middle East have resulted in inceased, not decreased, terrorist attacks. He calls it “the terror trap”: the more terrorists we kill, the more terrorists there are trying to kill us. Beinart doesn’t say this, but I will: the military solution will not work.

On a lighter note: Saturday night we went to the new Carolina Ballet show, Love Speaks. It was delightful! The theme of romantic love never gets old, and it’s right in the sweet spot of this wonderfully talented company. Lynn Taylor-Corbett’s new work has a narrator providing some poetry of Shakespeare, and a sort of Elizabethan look, but also kind of jazzy, with quickly developing flirtations, fascinations, and jealousies. I really liked it. I also particularly enjoyed Jan Burkhard and Richard Krusch in the balcony scene of Weiss’s Romeo and Juliet. It was profoundly romantic.
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My recent reading and listening

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One thing that I hate about vacations is that I always come back heavier than I went out. It’s strange, but predictable, that a week of traveling makes me about five pounds heavier. There’s nothing particularly terrible about gaining five, but if you do it enough times, it adds up. I really prefer not to carry around excess pounds, which means, post vacation, I’ve got some reducing to do.

That requires some time exercising, which, fortunately, I enjoy, in a way. It’s a lot more enjoyable since I started combining working out with listening to podcasts and audio books. This week at the gym I’ve been listening to the new Serial, about Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, which examines the mystery of what he was really up to when he was kidnapped by the Taliban. It’s good. I also discovered WTF, an interview podcast by Marc Maron, and listened to an interview with Eric Bogosian, the actor, playwright, and author. He was a student at Oberlin when I was there. Among other impressive talents, he has an amazing voice.

Speaking of talented people I knew slightly, I saw articles in both the NYT and WSJ this week about the artist Robert Irwin. I met Irwin when I was a fact checker at the New Yorker and checked a piece about him by Lawrence (Ren) Weschler that became a book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which is still in print.

I really liked Irwin, and was affected by his vision. His work is difficult to describe, but generally involves transforming spaces so that they reveal different things. He has spent most of a restless career, based in Los Angeles and then San Diego, creating subtle, at times vanishingly evanescent, environments with plain materials — fabric scrim, glass, lights, plants and trees — “to make you a little more aware than you were the day before,” as he puts it, “of how beautiful the world is.” He’s now 87, and has various interesting works in progress. Anyhow, I recommend Ren’s book, and the articles, and I’m planning to try to get io his new show at the Hirshhorn.
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One thing I like about vacations is some time to really read. Last week I finished a couple of significant books and made substantial progress in others.

I finished Don’t Panic: ISIS, Terror and Today’s Middle East, by Gwynne Dyer. It helped me get a better grip on the geopolitics that led to ISIS, and that sustain the violence going on right now. The atrocities of ISIS are horrifying, but per Dyer we really have to quit freaking out, because it doesn’t help, and they are not an existential threat to us.

Which is not to say they aren’t wreaking havoc on the Middle East. The plight of millions of Syrian and other refugees is horrendous, and winter is just well started. I did a bit of research of what we as individuals might do to help, and ended up making a contribution to the International Rescue Committee. The Times endorsed it and some other charitable organizations. Please consider whether you might be able to help.

I also finished Black Earth, the Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder. The subject of Hitler’s genocide is, of course, tough to think about, but it turns out that there are very important aspects of it that our history professors and museums mostly missed until – Snyder. For example, most of the Jews killed in the Holocaust were victims of mass shootings, rather than gassing, and the likelihood of dying varied according to the degree to which the existing state apparatus was destroyed, as it was in Poland and the Baltic states. As depressing as it is that humans can be as depraved as the Nazis, it is also cheering that we can understand the past in new ways, and maybe change ourselves.

I made substantial progress on re-reading Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements that Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe, by Curt Stager. Stager does a good job showing how atoms relate to life as we know it, which is both well known and very difficult to grasp. He breaks the world down to its essentials, starting with hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, and shows how basic recycled elements form our bodies. I’ve finally got firmly in mind how a lot of the atoms we are made of are the products of long-dead stars. Joni Mitchell was right that we are stardust. And, just as we are continually transforming our surrounding environment, it is transforming us.

A new colleague at work, Jeff K, recommended I read Hackers, by Steven Levy. It’s a history of the computer programming pioneers of the sixties and seventies at MIT, Silicon Valley, and elsewhere. I quickly got absorbed, and have made it about halfway through so far. These people were obsessed, and in some cases brilliant, as they discovered/created the new digital world that we live in today. A lot of them were awkward and odd, and did not have normal social lives (e.g. girlfriends). I thought that seemed sad, but gradually realized how full they were of the joy of discovery. A lot of these pathfinders were making free and open source software well before anyone labelled it as such.Tiller7Bug 1-2

Finally, I made substantial progress on The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I was interested in the book initially because I love Dutch painting of the 17th Century, and I’ve seen Fabritius’s famous, gorgeous Goldfinch. I’m finding Tart’s book extraordinary, in the way Catcher in the Rye is extraordinary, with perceptions that have the freshness of youth and the risk of fatal error of youth. She’s a great novelist in the old-fashioned way, with a deft grasp of quick emotions and richness of character and incident.

While I’m thinking of brilliant artists, I’ll mention one more recent discovery: the violinist Sarah Chang. As I now know, she was a child prodigy and is now a seasoned concert artist, but I discovered her a few weeks back by chance when I felt like listening to the Brahms violin concerto, and picked her recording from those available for streaming on Rhapsody. (The same recording is available on YouTube) She’s amazing! Volcanic intensity, and yet sensitive to the finest nuance. She’s got a big, gleaming, shimmering sound. Here she is in a wonderful live performance of the Carmen Fantasy.

Saturday I drove out to Cary for my haircut with Ann S, and got caught up on her holiday doings. Afterwards I drove east to Chatham County and visited Jordan Lake. It was gray and raw, with rain threatening, and the water level was high. There were hundreds of gulls at Ebenezer Point, mostly ring-bills and a few herrings.

Our Thanksgiving – spinning, piano, football, eating, and talking about terrorism

Mowgli Tiller

Mowgli Tiller

Thanksgiving morning, after I walked the dogs and read the newspapers, Jocelyn and I went to Flywheel for a spin class – our first together, and her first Flywheel experience. After getting the bike adjusted and bike shoes clipped in, the music started, loudly. I pushed hard, in a close battle for first place, and ended with a score of 325 – 10 ahead of the nearest male competition (and well behind one amazing woman). It was my first ever first, and I was kind of proud! Jocelyn also did well, staying well out of the cellar.

That afternoon, I practiced the piano with a view to getting ready for a lesson with Olga on Sunday. I’ve been working on several challenging and beautiful pieces, including Liszt’s Un Sospiro, Debussy’s Reflets dans l’Eau, and Schumann’s Arabesque. I’ve also finally felt strong enough to take on Liszt’s powerful Vallee d’Oberman. I think I’ve gotten off a plateau and climbed a bit higher. My playing lately feels more technically secure, and also more fluid and imaginative. Olga has certainly been a wonderful guide and inspiration. The meta lesson she gives is simple in concept, but hard to do: listen, listen, listen, more closely, and then more closely still.
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Then Jocelyn and I watched most of the Carolina Panthers v. Dallas Cowboys. The Panthers were 10 and 0 coming in to the game, a streak that had caught my interest and turned me into a fair weather fan. Jocelyn said that the Panthers were considered underdogs, which we agreed seemed disrespectful, and we were particularly happy to see them score early and go on to win decisively. Eleven and 0!

For Thanksgiving dinner, Jocelyn, a former professional bartender, created a new cocktail that she dubbed Apple Pie Manhattan, which involved infusing bourbon with apple, vanilla and cinnamon, and adding maple syrup, and dry Vermouth. It was delicious! Sally’s sister, Annie, brought Diane and her friend Debbie over, and Sally served a righteous butternut squash soup, black rice, and Mexican lasagna. Just like the Pilgrims!
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We spent part of the meal discussing politics, and debated whether Obama had been sufficiently forceful in opposing the anti-refugee backlash, and whether Trump had gone from being a mildly entertaining fool to being an instrument of evil. By using his media platform to demonize Muslims, he’s giving permission and energy to a large racist element of the population. The Times had a report on New Yorkers harassing and spitting on Muslim women, which is appalling and frightening.

At the same time, there seems to be a growing consensus that the solution to the terrorist threat is a coalition of nations to wipe out ISIS. This seems to me a bad strategy. We’ve spent the last 14 years using bullets and bombs trying to wipe out al Qaeda and the Taliban, without success. Indeed, our military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq helped spawn al Qaeda v. 2 – ISIS.

The source of terrorist violence is not particular individuals who can be killed, but social conditions, like poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of education, corruption, violence, and authoritarianism, which produce feelings of alienation, desperation, and rage. When we kill one terrorist, we inspire new ones to swear vengeance and take up arms, and the cycle repeats. If we obliterate ISIS, without social change, there will be a successor to ISIS. Bullets and bombs will never work.

I wonder if there is already a good name for our tendency to insist on a direct or even violent solution to a scary problem, even when part of us can recognize that there’s no quick fix. If not, there should be, because we do it over and over. I suggest calling it Fear Control Activity Disorder. The person or society with this disorder seeks to overcome a feeling of fear with a feeling of control by taking action that is dramatic though unlikely to address the actual source of the fear. We crave the feeling of being in control, and insist on seeking control even when it’s objectively unachievable. The disorder could account for a lot of our military adventures, our overimprisonment of criminals, and our overspending on medical goods and services.
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My surefire tax cut system, and some thoughts on the military and terrorism

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake, November 15, 2015

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake, November 15, 2015

Gabe had his birthday this week, and we went out for dinner at An to celebrate. Diane, who’s not been well recently, joined us, and seemed in good form, as did Gabe’s sparky redheaded girlfriend, Clark. I had a lychee cosmopolitan and veggie ramen, and enjoyed everything.

Gabe is about two-thirds through his first semester as an on-line grad student in graphic design at Parsons, and seems to be kicking it. Initially I was dubious about the on-line approach, but it’s working well for him. He’s getting challenging assignments and feedback that keeps him focused and motivated, working really hard. His projects look fantastic. He’s played some of the audio critiques he’s received from teachers and students, and they are trenchant and highly positive.
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Because of the birthday dinner, we missed the Republican debate, which I wanted to catch, because I really would like to understand the Republican mindset better. But from reading the press accounts, it didn’t sound like I missed much that was ground breaking. The candidates all are in favor of lower taxes, and most are in favor of a stronger military.

One exchange between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul was particularly revealing. I strongly agree with Paul on a couple of things (and disagree on many), and could probably agree with Rubio on something. But I was stunned to learn that Rubio wants to raise the military budget by a trillion dollars.

Our current military budget is around $615 billion , so raising by a trillion would be a 162 percent increase. Leaving to one side the obvious impossibility that this could be paid for while lowering taxes, there’s the question of why anyone would think this a good idea. We have the most expensive military in the world by far. Our military expenditures are currently greater than the next seven countries in the world combined. To state the obvious, our relative military power is unparalleled.
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Our military strength is wonderful, in a way, but also useless, in a way. It is of no help at all against a disciplined, determined cell of terrorists. Indeed, it could well be that our military activities of recent decades have inspired and invigorated more terrorists than they’ve destroyed. In any case, there’s no basis for thinking that even massive amounts of bombs and bullets could ever eliminate a fanatical, violent ideology. We’ve already tried that, and it doesn’t work.

I have written before about the havoc wrought by our military misadventures, and I still think there’s a huge disconnect between our ideals and our misdeeds in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. But for argument’s sake, forget all that, and just look at the finances. We’ve spent a huge portion of our wealth on those unnecessary and unsuccessful wars. And we continue to to spend sums that are barely conceivable on them. There’s an interesting graphic showing how we’re hemorrhaging money for military purposes here.

So, for those who believe the most important possible political reform is to lower taxes, wouldn’t it be appealing to take the largest single item of nonrecurring expenses – defense – and cut it by, say, twenty-five percent? Could anyone seriously doubt that there’s at least that much waste and useless spending in the existing defense budget? Admittedly, we might need to think more carefully before embarking on and continuing unnecessary wars, but that would not be a bad thing. So, for my friends who view the issue of lowering taxes as the preeminent public policy, could we agree on this: we’d be better off, in a lot of ways, if we stopped the financial bleeding of an out-of-control military?
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I wrote most of these thoughts before the horrible carnage this week in Paris, where the death toll from 8 suicide attackers now stands at 129. I lived in Paris for several months years ago, and feel a special affection for the city, and like everyone, I’m in the midst of shock and sorrow at the attacks.

We should be outraged. But these strong emotions may lead France and other countries to policies that cause many more deaths and ultimately increase the risk of terrorism, as happened after 9/11. Already President Hollande has characterized the attackers as “a terrorist army” that committed “an act of war,” and Nicolas Sarkozy has called for “extermination” of ISIS. But it wasn’t an army, and we can’t end jihad fanaticism by killing all the jihadists. As I learned in my rescue diver course, in an emergency, the first thing to do is stop, and think.

On Saturday I went out to Cary for a haircut with Ann, my longtime hair cutter, and then went for a walk in Swift Creek Bluffs park. The path was covered with brown leaves, and they crunched as I walked. A few leaves were falling. The colors were mostly yellows, browns, and pale greens.
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The terrification of our intelligence

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We learned this week that Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, died. Two years ago. And we didn’t realize it. We’re still in Afghanistan, still waging the longest war in American history (14 years and counting), at a cost of several trillion dollars and thousands of lives, so you’d think this would be something we’d definitely want to know. I realize that getting good intelligence in a hostile land if not so easy, but still, it’s staggering to think we couldn’t figure out that the leader of a foe for which we sacrificed all that treasure and life was defunct.

It raises serious questions, like, are there some other fundamental realities we’re missing? Are there, along with the unsung heroes in our spy corps, too many unexposed incompetents? We seem to have gotten pretty good at spying on leaders of allied nations, not to mention ordinary Americans, but maybe not so great at learning about our declared adversaries. Here’s an idea: why not take the NSA’s mass domestic surveillance division and repurpose it towards actual threats from our enemies?
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Although our enemies keep changing. According to the papers, ISIS is now our main enemy, though I’d note that it has not attacked the United States. They’re definitely fighting against Iraq, our former enemy and now a quasi-client that mostly hates us. They’re also fighting our current enemy Syria, which does not seem entirely a bad thing. Attacking the US is not on ISIS’s priority list. Could they ever be a threat to our physical safety? Sure, just as is possible from any number of countries, but it isn’t now. So why are spending billions fighting them? What are our objectives?

The FBI acknowledged this week that ISIS “has shown no ability to stage significant attacks inside the United States.” But, per a NY Times story, the Bureau is devoting massive resources to detecting and arresting “sympathizers” who express “a willingness to undertake small-scale attacks, such as stabbings and shootings that require little planning.” That is, the FBI has taken on the mission of stopping “shootings and stabbings . . . on a scale that is common in major American cities.” What makes these so important? Why, they’re inspired by ISIS, don’t you see.
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This is part of continuing fallout from our post-9/11 moral panic about terrorism. Those who are victims of mass violence motivated by old-fashioned racism feel slighted that those criminals aren’t usually called terrorists, and they have kind of a point. A mass shooting has come to seem more serious if we call it terrorism. And I would agree that we need to deplore and work to prevent all mass shootings. Footnote: can we talk about better gun control laws?
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On final word about terrorism, and then I’ll stop. Glen Greenwald wrote this week about the prosecution of animal rights activists on charges of “domestic terrorism.” The crime in issue was releasing minks from fur farms. The point of the activity was political protest – nonviolent, mind you – against the cruelty of fur farming. The protesters are facing 10 years in federal prison. Prosecutions of political protesters as terrorists are apparently on the rise. This is ironic, but also frightening. If the actual terrorists, like bin Laden, ultimately make so fearful and obsessed with terrorism that we sacrifice our most cherished civil liberties, they will have succeeded in their destructiveness beyond their wildest dreams.

A word about the pictures: these were taken at Raulston Arboretum on Saturday, August 1, at about 8:30 a.m. It smelled a bit like a barnyard this Saturday, which I’m guessing had to do with application of fresh animal-based fertilizer. There were many small butterflies, most of which did not care to be photographed.
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Our anniversary – Astonishing cave paintings – Our TSA – Fear itself

Performers on West Martin Street at sunset, June 5, 2015

Performers on West Martin Street at sunset, June 5, 2015

Friday was our 33rd anniversary. Yes, that is something. What amazing good fortune to find my beloved, to persuade her I was the one for her, and to get her to make me the happiest of men. We don’t usually do anniversary gifts, but we gave each other a kiss and affectionate cards, and I gave Sally a little heart-shaped stone, which she said she would treasure always. We had a fine Italian dinner at our old standby, Caffe Luna, where they had good pesto linguine and sweetly treated us to dessert.
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Then we looked in some galleries that were open late for First Friday. At ArtSpace, there were several engaging paintings that had been in a competition, and also some old friends to chat with. In the warehouse district, there was a mini-street fair, with circus performers and musicians. 311 Gallery had some colorful abstract paintings by Joseph DiGiulio that we particularly enjoyed.
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On Saturday evening, we cocooned at home: Indian takeout food from Blue Mango (delicious!) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams on Netflix. This documentary by Werner Herzog examines the Chauvet Cave paintings in Southern France. I’d been very curious to see these paintings, and since they are firmly closed to the public, this is likely the closest I’ll ever get. Herzog’s narration is rather stolid, but the paintings are thrilling. Painted some 30 thousand years ago, they depict bison, horses, rhinos and other creatures with astonishing freedom and vigor. Pictures are here.

At the gym, making my rounds among the various weight systems and cardio machines, I’ve been listening to a podcast called You Are Not So Smart. Its subject is human psychology, and particularly the biases and systemic flaws that our thinking is subject to. We tend to feel that our thinking is usually rational and objective, but this is very often not even close to true. Knowing this may sometimes help us avoid grievous mistakes. At any rate, it’s worth a shot.

Case in point: we learned last week that the TSA (the airport screening folks) performed quite badly in tests of their systems. When the testers impersonated potential terrorists, they were able to get forbidden items, like fake bombs and guns past the screeners in 95 percent of the cases. 95 percent! Let it be noted, however, that the screeners might have done better had they been tested on seizing expensive moisturizers and nail clippers.

Seriously, at first, I found this disturbing. And annoying! Think of almost every American air traveler, for years and years, all those hours, waiting anxiously in line – all the taking off your shoes, jackets, and belts, emptying all your pockets, pulling out laptops (but, oddly, not tablets), getting your privates exposed by scanning machines, and sometimes your stuff rifled through, and your self physically groped and interrogated, and occasionally missing your flight – and all of it accomplishing nothing.

The massive inconvenience that the TSA process imposes on the flying public looks like a huge waste of taxpayer dollars and time. But then I realized, we haven’t heard of any airplanes blowing up for a long time. If the TSA isn’t stopping would-be terrorists, and no planes are blowing up, that’s probably because there aren’t many terrorists trying to blow up planes. That’s a good thing! But it also suggests that the terrorist threat is way overblown (as I’ve long maintained).
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So why do we put up with this absurd system? The You Are Not So Smart podcast introduces various interesting terms for the psychological syndromes that lead us astray. I’m thinking there should be a name for the particular glitch in the human thinking system that inclines us to widespread panic once exposed to a dramatic dangerous event, like 9/11. Fourteen years after that horrible disaster, we’ve not seen anything remotely close to another such dangerous terrorist attack, and yet we’re obsessed with the idea.

What is the thing that makes us exaggerate our fear so much that we tolerate the TSA’s groping, the NSA’s incursions on our privacy, and invasions and occupations of countries that are not threatening us? Fearophilia? Politicians’ and journalists’ fear mongering helps produce it, so perhaps – mongerization? Probably not. Whatever we call it, it spreads rapidly through a population like a virus, and once an infection occurs it is devilishly hard to cure. For years now, we’ve seen the world through fear-colored glasses.

Part of this syndrome is a tendency to think violent radical ideologies are all focused on us, in a kind of mass egocentrism. This week the advances of ISIS gave strong evidence to the contrary, as these kooks with a surprising talent for horrific executions advanced in Syria and Iraq. As radical Sunnis, they’re eager to fight less radical Sunnis, Shiites, and any other Muslims or others that care to disagree with them, so they can establish the Caliphate. Do we care what their theological thinking is on this? Hardly. Who doesn’t have more interesting, pressing, and sane things to think about? It’s not our problem, or our world.

Last week there was NY Times reported that ISIS has been attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan. Which is worse? Before you answer, remember, we’ve been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2001, the longest war in American history. The Times also reported that Syria’s thuggish president Assad, a presumed target of ISIS, was coordinating with ISIS in giving air support for attacks on other rebel groups.

This seemed contrary to all previous reporting, and I wondered if it was pure propaganda (perhaps by another rebel group, or Assad, or ISIS, or – us?). But even if false, it reinforces that we cannot begin to fathom the complexity of the variables in this war, and so cannot reasonably hope to have a positive effect, let alone win it. It is just outside our realm, and our weapons will not resolve it.

Apropos of that, the Atlantic has a good piece by Dominic Tierney on the paradox of American military power: with the most powerful military on earth, we keep getting into military quagmires we cannot win. Tierney notes that we have failed to recognize that almost all modern wars are civil wars, in which our military advantage is less effective than in wars between nation states. And because we still think we cannot be defeated, we cannot admit defeat. The piece is bold, and worth reading.

Gabe, testing out new glasses

Gabe, testing out new glasses

Gabe normally resists being photographed, but he agreed to let me take a few shots on Saturday at sunset. My favorite was one of him shirtless, looking handsome, but he did not want it published. I’ve also been trying to get a good shot of his golden retriever, Mowgli. He’s an affectionate dog, surprisingly laid back. This is the best pic so far.

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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.
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Spring blossoms, a new Rossini opera, and good news re ISIS

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It’s been a tough winter, and I’ve been on the lookout for forsythia and daffodils, our early declarants that winter is done. I spotted a few on Saturday, and on Sunday I got up to Raulston Arboretum, where there were blooms and buds, and I took these pictures. Happy spring! _DSC8519_edited-1

Actually, Diane pointed out the first daffodils, when I picked her up to take her to North Hills Cinema to see the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD Production of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago. As usual, Diane had vetted the reviews, and filled me in on the major points. This was the first ever production by the Met of this 1819 work, and was the result in part of a campaign by its star, mezzo Joyce DiDonato.

I’ve never seen a Rossini opera I didn’t like, and I liked this one, too. The story concerns competing lovers against a background of Scottish clans battling the king. The vocal pyrotechnics that are characteristic of the bel canto style were carried to an extreme in this work, and the principal singers were all virtuosos up to the challenge. I was awed by Juan Diego Florez and John Osborn as the dueling tenors, and also by mezzo Daniela Barcellona as Malcolm. As Elena, Joyce DiDonata had charisma and amazing vocal agility, though I was bothered by her tendency to sing sharp. Conductor Michele Mariotti was young, good-looking, and completely a master of this style.
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As Diane and I compared notes afterwards, we agreed there were some odd moments. Who were those kneeling men with blue faces? What were those metal poles in the battle camp? Why did the cloudy horizon cover only half the background? Even with belief well suspended, the plot has some bumpy parts. But we loved the music, and the production worked.
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There was more news of mayhem in the Middle East this week, as seems to be true most weeks. This is an area of the world that I do not feel a great affinity for. I’m sure there are some good and interesting people there, but their countries have lots of history, culture, and conflicts I never learned much about.

I don’t think I’m unusual in any of this. Those political leaders with the greatest interest in showing deep knowledge of the Middle East to promote their preferred programs, such as war, almost never say anything non-obvious. This makes me tend to believe that despite our massive intelligence programs, we still have little understanding of the drivers of Middle East conflict. This is serious, because we cannot have a reasonable plan for solving a problem we do not understand.
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We generally default to the belief that violent actors all hate all Americans and are primarily concerned with destroying it. But even with the limited information we get from daily journalism, we should know that things are a lot more nuanced than that. The Sunnis hate the Shiites, this kind of Sunnis hate that kind of Sunnis, and moderates hate the Jihadists. Some Jihadists want to wreak worldwide havoc, and others want to build a fundamentalist Islamic state (which is ISIS’s declared objective). And as always, there are people driven primarily by love of power and greed.

In the NY Times this morning, there was a story about how Al Qaeda came to have a lot of money from the CIA. The main story concerned an Afghan hostage situation, but it also discussed how the CIA delivered large bags of cash to then-President Hamid Karzai, in amounts up to $1 million per bag, for him to use to bribe others as he saw fit. Is this not outrageous? Surely we stopped this practice after the odious Karzai left? Well, the report today said … “The cash [is] still coming in . . . .”

Having gone many years without anything like an existential threat from a Jihadist group from the Middle East, you’d think we might be ready to put that behind us and focus on things that are much more serious threats. But the appearance of ISIS has reignited old fears and restarted the drumbeat of war.
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We learned some new things about the war against ISIS this week. Iran is fighting them hard, and with some success. This puts the US in the impossible position of trying to fight ISIS without effectively supporting declared enemies Iran and Bashar al-Assad. We also learned that ISIS is not only losing some battles, but losing some supporters, because of increasing corruption and cruelty. I was glad to hear it, for I wish the homicidal fanatics of ISIS nothing but ill.

But none of this alters my view that this is not our war. I still do not understand why we would sacrifice the life of a single American young person in a fight against them, unless they become an actual threat to us. The countries ISIS now threatens or worries are not our good friends. This is not a situation we understand or can solve.

Is delusional thinking driving us once again to war in the Middle East? And reading Eating Animals.

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I used to think that mass delusions were historically rare and unlikely to recur, but I’m coming to think they’re common and unlikely to ever cease. We seem to have largely gotten over ideas like witches’ spells are dangerous and stars determine our fates, but we’re constantly exposed to and threatened by ideas that are just as loony.

It would be interesting to work out a taxonomy of mass delusions, from those that are usually harmless to those that may cause death. The classification system could also identify the strength of the delusion, from ones, like fear of black cats, that are persistent but not really serious, to those that are sometimes subject to reconsideration, to those whose adherents will kill to establish them as eternal truths.

Yesterday I learned that the President has ordered more troops into Iraq to fight ISIS. This is clearly premised on the view that this crazy outfit is bent on the destruction of our way of life, and will in due course attack us. There is, to be sure, some support for this view in their rhetoric and brutality, but it may be totally wrong. Remember, they haven’t attacked us, and it is entirely possible that their strategy is to provoke us to fight them so as to inspire their supporters. And if they aren’t really a threat to us, the idea that we must wipe them out to survive should be classed among the most pernicious of delusions – ones that seems so reasonable as to be beyond question, and that lead inexorably to violence and mass death.
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Tom Friedman wrote an unusually thoughtful column a week or so back comparing ISIS and North Vietnam. He reminded me that in the 1960s, US leaders, and presumably a majority of the electorate, were convinced that the Communists in North Vietnam were primarily motivated by an anti-capitalist ideology and a willingness to fight along with other Communists for world domination. Thus we pursued a war that led to the deaths of some 58 thousand of our soldiers and more than a million Vietnamese. We now know, or at least are starting to understand, that the Vietnamese were primarily driven by nationalist concerns. They weren’t a domino.

Friedman suggests that the success of ISIS may similarly be attributable less to religious or political ideology than to nationalist concerns and anger at Sunni oppression by Shiites. There clearly are some jihadists with dreams of regional, if not world, domination, but their numbers are probably much smaller than those who back them out of more pragmatic and local concerns. In short, this looks more like a civil war with mainly regional implications, not an existential threat to the western way of life. If this is correct, there is no way the US can wipe out this enemy, and it would be a horrific folly to try.
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While I’m talking about uncomfortable subjects, I’ll mention I just finished reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. The book is part factual reportage, part memoir, and examines what factory farming means to the animal victims and to human society. I knew something about this subject beforehand, but learned a lot from the book. It’s written in an easy-going, thoughtful, personal voice, but includes some very disturbing subject matter, particularly the accounts of routine corporatized animal torture and abuse.

Here are some sample facts: “Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change.” “More than ten billion land animals [are] slaughtered for food every year in America.” “We know, at least, that [not eating animals] will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural America, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history.”

Here is a sample aspirational thought: “What kind of world would we create if three times a day we activated our compassion and reason as we sat down to eat, if we had the moral imagination and the pragmatic will to change our most fundamental act of consumption?”