The Casual Blog

Tag: legalization

A piano recital, Turing’s secrets, NSA surveillance, and the cure for addiction

It was rainy and raw on Friday evening when Sally and I drove over to Durham, and the traffic kept bunching up. We were a bit anxious about being late to meet our friends at Watts Grocery, and we were late – they’d already ordered drinks and salads. But they forgave us, we caught up, had a good dinner, and made it in good time to a concert at Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium, where we heard a program by the eminent pianist Jeremy Denk.

Denk is a musician’s musician. His program was, as he put it, a mix tape of Schubert dances shuffled together with short Janacek pieces, and also some atypical Haydn, some atypical Mozart, and Schumann’s odd and powerful Carnival. Everything he played seemed thought through to the smallest detail, but at the same time full of feeling.

For encores he played the slow movement of Ives’s Concord Sonata, and one of the slower Goldberg Variations, both of which were exceptionally colorful and beautiful. Though not a particularly good-looking guy, he was also fun to watch, with gestures that accorded with the music and magnified the feelings. Later, I re-read his wonderful autobiographical essay from the New Yorker, Every Good Boy Does Fine, which I highly recommend.

We saw The Imitation Game last week, which was a bit staid but also touching. I knew something of Alan Turing, including his brilliant contributions to computing theory (including the Turing machine and the Turing test) and that he helped break the Nazi’s Enigma code. I hadn’t known how he did it, or much about him as a person. From the movie, he appeared distinctly anti-social. This being Hollywood, it seems safe to assume he was probably even harder to like in real life. But he contributed enormously to the world, before being hounded to death at age 41 for the crime of being gay.

Turing’s death was a tragedy, but in earlier chapters he was lucky, in a way. How inspiring and daunting it must have been to think that thousands of lives, and perhaps the future of western civilization, depended on whether you could succeed in an almost impossibly difficult code-breaking task. And by golly, he did it!

Indeed, although I’ve never thought of it this way before, our forebears who found themselves facing Nazism and Fascism were lucky, in a similar way. They had an unambiguous enemy, a massive threat, that could only be defeated by joining together, and with heroism and sacrifice. We seem to need big enemies to unite us as a society. That may be why, when we don’t have big enemies, we magnify smaller ones.

And so, as I discussed here last week, we push forward with the 13-year-old war on terror, which continues to morph. This week a coup in Yemen resulted in headlines suggesting we should panic over a new terror threat. The coup was actually by sworn enemies of Al Qaeda, but the fear seemed to be that increasing disorder was likely to lead to increased space for militant anti-Americanism to expand. That’s possible, I guess. But it’s possible that this is a civil war with entirely different drivers, tribal, religious, or financial. Perhaps it’s not all about us.

The thing is, when we panic we do foolish and deplorable things – domestic spying, torture, assassinations, war. This week the New Yorker has a piece by Mattathias Schwartz about the NSA’s collection of internet searches, social media, and metadata on phone calls – hundreds of billions of records, at a cost of tens of billion of dollars ($10.5 billion in 2013). Schwartz examines the question of how many terrorist attacks were stopped by this program, and finds . . . perhaps one. Not exactly saving western civilization.

Actually, the one was not so much a potential attack, and not so much in the US, as a financial contribution of $8,500 by a Somali born U.S. citizen that may have been made to Somalian guerrillas (the Shabaab) who had jihadist ambitions and Al Qaeda connections. The evidence sounds ambiguous, but there were three convictions, and rightly or wrongly, the defendants were sentenced to prison terms of up to 18 years. That’s all we got, in return for billions of dollars and constant surveillance of our everyday lives that undermines our privacy, our public discourse, and our Constitution.

As crazy and depressing as this is, it should be noted that there’s hope: our mass panics can be overcome. For example, it seems like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in our costly and tragic war on drugs, at least as to marijuana. With several states in various phases of legalization, it’s increasingly hard to argue that using pot should be punishable as a crime. But it is still being punished as a crime in places, and we’re still spending $51 billion a year on fighting drugs here and around the world.

Jocelyn pointed up a piece this week in the Huffington Post with a new, to me, take on drug addiction. A basic premise of the war on drugs is that some drugs are so fantastic that they’re irresistible, and so they take control of and destroy lives. But the piece, by Johann Hari, suggests an alternative paradigm.

Hari reexamines the famous rat-with-cocaine experiment, where the rat is alone in a cage and keeps taking cocaine until it dies. Later research by Professor Bruce Alexander focused on the environment of the rat – which was caged and alone. When rats were put in more stimulating environments, including toys and rat friends, and offered the same drugs, they mostly shunned them. Alexander found that even rats that were thoroughly addicted to heroin kicked the habit when they had the benefit of other rats to socialize with and stimulating environments.

The theory expounded by Hari is that what drives addiction is not primarily chemical hooks, but rather isolation, and that what prevents it are meaningful human connections. This may also explain some non-drug addictive behaviors, like gambling. That is, drugs or gambling may be responses to other problems, like loneliness.

Hari notes that Portugal, which once had a very high rate of drug use, decriminalized all drugs 15 years ago, and invested some of the money saved from drug warring in social programs, such as housing and jobs. The rate of injected drug use has fallen by 50 percent. Fifty percent! I recommend reading Hari’s piece.

My hopeful hand checkup, a new salad restaurant, a Porsche contretemps, and discussing legalization

14 08 03_1352I was a bit anxious about my check up for the torn ligament with the hand doctor earlier last week, but it turned out fine. After the doc twisting my fingers a bit and asked if it hurt (it did), he pronounced me improved, and lowered the chance of needing surgery to 5 percent (a big improvement from his previous estimate of 50 percent). He cleared me to play the piano gently (no Rachmaninoff, he said), but to otherwise keep my fingers taped up for another month. I asked about getting back to golf, and he strongly advised me to wait. This was disappointing, as I’d felt like this could be my year for a big golf breakthrough (as, admittedly, I’ve felt in previous years). Still, I I was pleased to be heading in the right direction.

Playing the piano again was a rich, dense, textured pleasure. Going a month without playing is something that I hadn’t done for at least 30 years, and I missed it. I started gently with some Chopin mazurkas, and then some nocturnes. I couldn’t resist trying some Rachmaninoff – the Elegie, op. 3. It was all a bit rough, but I felt I was listening better, hearing more nuance, and playing with more rhythmic freedom. Perhaps the forced time off did my ears some good.

14 08 03_1277The next day I discovered Happy and Hale, a relatively new take-out restaurant on Fayetteville Street a couple of blocks from my office. It serves only three things: salads, smoothies, and juices. All are not only super healthy, but also lively, interesting combinations of ingredients. My first experience was the quinoa salad, which had quinoa, black beans, avocado, cilantro, feta cheese, and a couple of other things, with red pepper vinagrette. It was amazingly tasty. There was a long line, but I found this more cheering than annoying. It was good to see people interesting in eating something healthy, and to see this little business doing well.

The next day, I took Clara to the Porsche dealer for servicing. Her check engine light had come on, but even before the that, I’d felt something wasn’t right. Giving her more throttle in the higher RPMs yielded more noise, but not more thrust. I suspected a transmission issue, which turned out to be correct. I needed a new clutch and new flywheel, and the cost was a big ouch.

Waiting for the parts to come in, I drove a loaner Ford Explorer (a sport ute). I just don’t get why people like this type of vehicle, at least when they don’t have a big group of kids or other heavy loads to haul. To me it was not fun to drive. After my sports car, It felt lumbering and awkward. I had the impression of barely having enough road, like a truck pulling a massive mobile home, needing a “wide load” sign to warn other vehicles.

But I admit that I liked the instrumentation. It had a touch screen set up for the climate control, radio, blue tooth, etc., and a handsome virtual compass. In reverse, the touch screen showed the view behind, with the danger zone outlined in red. It had some sort of RFD key that allowed the vehicle to unlock when I pulled the handle without the need for any use of the key. A nice convenience.
14 08 03_1253
Reading the New York Times is a settled part of my morning breakfast ritual, and there is a sense in which I always enjoy it. But golly, the news has been grim! Part of it is structural: in conventional journalistic thought, information usually only qualifies as news if it involves dramatic conflict. So we don’t hear anything about the peaceful countries in, say, Africa. But the lead stories recently inspire a special mixture of horror and hopelessness, because they’re big and absolutely beyond any individual control. Examples: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, Nigeria, Washington.
14 08 03_1242
This week, though, there was a welcome exception. I was pleased to see the Times came out in favor of partially ending the war and drugs and legalizing marijuana. The editorial board had clearly had thought hard about it, and put some elbow grease into collecting the arguments: including the enormous human cost, the huge economic cost, and the relatively low risk. It felt like a watershed moment. Maybe now it will be possible that we can have a debate based more on facts and less on myth, moralism, and hysteria. I don’t think marijuana is a particularly good thing; for some people it’s surely an unhealthy thing. But criminalizing it has been an absolutely terrible thing.

So we might be close to overcoming this particular moral hysteria and to ending of prohibition. Perhaps some of our other seemingly intractable problems aren’t beyond all hope.
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Appraising the drug war

   The horrendous waste from the war on drugs is summarized by Nicholas Kristof in today’s NY Times.  With annual spending to enforce prohibition at $44 billion, we have not lessened drug use.  We have, however, increased the number of people in prison for drug offenses from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today.  We’ve created the incentives for enormous criminal enterprises that threaten the stability of entire nations, including Mexico and Afghanistan.   

   Kristof suggests that we experiment having the states at their option legalize marijuana, sell it in pharmacies, and measure the effects on crime and rates of drug use.  This seems reasonable.  An incremental approach, testing the social policy by geography and by substance, might gradually overcome the fears and foggy thinking surrounding this issue.

   Glad as I am to see a few words on this enormous problem in the Times, I’m sorry to see the opinion piece headlined “Drugs Won the War.”  That isn’t the case.  Although there are losers in the drug war, there really are no winners.  It’s confusing, if not misleading, to suggest that the drugs themselves were fighters.