The Casual Blog

Tag: Just Mercy

Spring, the morphing pandemic, meditating, and catching up on movies

Looking southwest from our apartment at new construction

It’s definitely spring.  It always amazes me how fast the hardwood trees here leaf in, once they get started.  Just in the last week, things have gotten very green. 

Looking west from our apartment

Raulston Arboretum is closed because of the pandemic, and so I won’t be seeing the big irises this year.  I did spend some time with the tulips in Fletcher Park, and made a few images I liked. I experimented with intentional camera movement to get an impressionistic effect.

The pandemic seems to morph every few days into a more severe disaster, with a mounting death toll and more severe disruptions to ordinary life.  It’s painful to see a very big chunk of our nest egg disappear as the stock market plummets. It’s painful to be isolated from loved ones and unable to do our usual activities.  

I’ve been clearing some extra time for meditation and listening to some new lessons on managing thoughts and feelings.  Just sitting still and observing the breath can go a long way toward calm and peace. There are free lessons on the free app, Insight Timer.  

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is normally a highlight of early spring for us, and we were sorry it was cancelled.  But on the bright side, we’ve been seeing some good movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Last night, we watched Just Mercy, a fictionalized version of the non-fiction book of that title by Bryan Stephenson.  It’s about a young black lawyer with a Harvard Law degree who sets up a non-profit practice in Alabama to help prisoners on death row.  

The dramatic elements come from the racists who threaten him with violence and his clients with execution.  It’s never emphasized, but worth noting, that the real Stephenson, with his talent and a Harvard degree, could have made a fortune in a big law firm, rather than take big risks for almost no money.  He had extraordinary courage and compassion.

This week we also watched Harriet, a biopic about the great abolitionist Harriet Tubman.  Slavery is something we know about, but the more I learn, the more I find I still need to know.  Tubman was an extraordinary person who managed to get herself out of slavery and then risk death to free dozens of others.  Cynthia Erivo is a powerful and touching Tubman.  

We also saw Bombshell, a fictionalized account of Fox News under Roger Ailes and his culture of exploitation, sexual and otherwise.  John Lithgow is a wonderfully evil Aisles, and Charlize Theron is a convincing, bombshellish Megyn Kelly. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News is an amazingly effective propaganda organ, and getting some perspective on its workings is worthwhile.  

 

The case of the missing lake, making paintings out of photographs, fake videos, Harari’s 21 Lessons, and Stevenson’s Just Mercy

 

On Saturday morning I went up to Durant Park to see how the leaves were doing.  It was a brisk 51 degrees, and the light was undramatic, without a cloud in the sky. I was sorry to find they’d drained the lower lake to repair the dam, and the mud in the lake bed wasn’t so pretty.  But the upper lake was still a lake, and it was good to be outdoors, smelling the fallen leaves.

I took a few pictures, including some with my 10 stop filter for long exposures that smoothed out the lake surface.  I wasn’t especially enamored of any of them, but I did enjoy experimenting on them with Topaz Studio. This software will turn photographs into many different styles of paintings.  A few of my initial efforts with the tool are paired here with their source photos.  

Is it OK to make an impressionist painting in a few minutes, without a paintbrush?  I say yes, with this qualification: we should be honest and forthright about what we’re doing.  We’re interacting with nature using our own imagination, aided by our DSLR cameras and our processing software, which draws on manifold technical and creative sources, including the artistic geniuses of times past.  That said, if the images work — touching us, moving us — they work.

There is certainly the possibility of artistic fraud, and it should give us pause.  This week we’ve seen the White House promoting fake video of a reporter assaulting a press office person.  It wasn’t a particularly good fake, so it was quickly detected. But it’s getting so easy to make reasonably convincing fake video that you and I could do it.  This technology will surely change the way we think about the images, and probably make us trust our eyes less. There’s a good piece by Joshua Rothman in this week’s New Yorker about the people who are advancing this technology, including some who worry about its implications.  

That said, photographers will continue to seek interesting subjects, and interesting things to do with those subjects.  On the way back from Durant, I stopped at Peace Camera. The store used to be on Peace Street, a couple of blocks from our building, but it’s now in north Raleigh.  I was sorry when it moved, but I really like the new store, and the sales people were friendly and helpful. I found a couple of new gadgets I liked, and enjoyed talking shop with one of the sales guys about practical photography challenges, like finding a good storage bag for circular filters.  

On the trip home, I listened to the latter part of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli history professor, and also a vegan and dedicated meditator. The title is unfortunate, since it sounds like it might be a self-help or text book.  In fact, it’s a bracing discussion of serious global problems, including racism, authoritarianism, robotics and AI, genetic engineering, economic dislocation, climate change, and nuclear war.

Harari takes a very long historical view, starting prior to homo sapiens, and has broad geographic and intellectual scope.  He moves along quickly (sometimes too quickly), but of course, some of the issues he addresses are existential, with short deadlines.  Among other minor points, he notes that there is nothing new about fake news. The earliest civilizations were organized around animating myths with no factual basis, and generally speaking this is true of us as individuals.  This could be viewed as depressing, but I prefer to take it as a foundation for humility and tolerance.

I finally finished Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.  Stevenson started the Equal Justice Initiative, and has spent decades seeking justice for row inmates and others.  He provides new perspectives on the death penalty, mass incarceration, and racial bias in the American legal system.  He has a really big heart. Given the brutality of his chosen for his battleground and the long odds against success, it’s remarkable that he has not given in to cynicism and despair.   I found his book an inspiring source of hope.

Sunrise this morning, looking northeast toward Raleigh, with the new Metropolitan apartment building in the foreground nearing completion