The Casual Blog

Tag: New York Times

Understanding life, or at least, trying

An osprey at Jordan Lake

It was sunny this week, and warmer.  After I recovered from my bout with the flu, I got to spend more time outside with the birds, and made a few images I liked.  

I admit, one of the things I like about nature photography is fiddling with the amazing technology, which allows for harder and closer looks at everything.  But for me, the deeper purpose is connecting with the animals, vegetables, and minerals.  It is quite possible to be surrounded by nature and barely see it, as I have done many times.  On the other other hand, if you start looking and keep looking, there’s always more to see.

Nature photographs are, of course, distinct from nature itself.  Even the best are only tiny slices of the whole, and, for better or worse, always incorporate human choices on technology and aesthetics.  At the same time, there are aspects of nature, like a bird catching a fish, that we could barely see except in a photograph. 

      

In Mark Bittman’s new book about the human food system, he makes a point I found semi-comforting about the misery that humans have inflicted on the rest of the earth:  it wasn’t planned.  There was never an evil genius or plan directing mass slaughter of animals or destruction of their habitats.  There were, of course, strong cultural forces at work, such as capitalism, religion, and imperialism, as well as greed and fear.  

At the end of the day, though, there was no conscious decision to exterminate billions of wild animals.  We just didn’t notice.  We didn’t bother to look closely at the lives of other creatures, or think.  Even as it was happening, we didn’t really understand the extent of the damage we were doing to them, and to ourselves.  

But now we are starting to understand.  Maybe.  I hope.  There could still be time to change our course.  

We’ve been thinking more about viruses, but curiously scientists are not in agreement on whether viruses are alive.  According to Carl Zimmer’s recent piece in the NY Times, there is actually no well settled definition of where life separates from non-life, and viruses can arguably fit in either category.  No one ever saw a virus until there were modern electron microscopes, and no one knew much about how they operated until the advances in understanding DNA and RNA of the late 20th century.  

We now know there are a lot of individual viruses.  According to Zimmer, there are more of them in a litre of seawater than there are humans on the planet.  And there are more species of viruses than of anything else — possibly trillions of them.  In our own guts, there are at least 21,000 viral species.

This sounds kind of scary, since the only viruses most of us have heard of are those that cause disease.  But a lot of them are harmless, and some of them are essential for life.  Some important ones assist our gut bacteria, and some of them have become part of the human genome.  

As to bacteria, we’ve come a long way from when I was a kid in the mid-20th century.  Back then, bacteria were all considered dangerous enemies.  Kitchen and bath cleaning products as well as medicine embodied the view that the only good bacterium was a dead one.  Now we understand better that bacteria are an essential part of our world, and, indeed, essential elements of our own bodies.  It sounds like we’re starting along a similar learning curve as to viruses.  

Great blue heron at Jordan Lake

Apropos of misunderstood and unfairly despised inhabitants of our home planet, I’d like to say a word on behalf of octopuses.  They are not, to human eyes, very attractive, but they have extraordinary talents, as I’ve noted before.  My Octopus Teacher, currently on Netflix, is a wonderful documentary about an octopus and a diver who develop a surprisingly intimate relationship.

I was very disappointed at the New York Times this week when it published a story whipping up octopus fears.  In a nutshell, the Times breathlessly reported that an octopus “angr[ily] lash[ed]” a tourist in Australia.  Later in the story, the Times finally made clear that the tourist was not seriously injured, and was more likely stung by a jellyfish.  

I am more grateful than I used to be for slow news days, when there is no particular political scandal, mass shooting, or other disaster, and newspaper editors are straining a bit to fill the paper.  But that doesn’t justify the Times’ tall tale of the angry lashing octopus.  

As those with any interest in the world’s deteriorating coral reefs already know, octopuses and other reef creatures have more than enough problems already.  Those who know nothing about octopuses, except that they look alien and scary, need education, rather than fear mongering.  Dear Times, such anti-nature pseudo journalism is bad for animals, humans, and your reputation, and should be discontinued.    

The worst idea in history: animals and us

Canada geese at Shelley Lake near sunrise

I’m recovering just fine from my neck surgery, and the weather turned nicer, too.  For a couple of days, it felt like spring, though after that, it cooled off.  In the pleasant interval, I took my camera out to see the birds at Jordan Lake, and also stopped in to check on the bald eagles nesting at Shelley Lake.  These are some of the pictures I took.  

Spending some time with the animals, or even just standing by the water hoping they’ll show up, is very therapeutic.  Walt Whitman got it right in his famous poem; being with them is moving and soothing.  When I get out around sunrise or sunset, I’m always a little surprised when there are few or no other people looking at them, but not sorry.

Great blue herons at Jordan Lake near sunset

Apropos, there was a lively short essay in the NY Times this week on something I’ve hoped others were thinking about:  the disconnect between what we know about animals and how we treat animals.  Crispin Sartwell, a philosophy professor at Dickinson College, wrote that western philosophy has labored mightily to establish that humans are different from and superior to animals, and failed.  Perhaps this is starting to be noticed.     

Everyone who stayed awake through high-school biology learned that homo sapiens are animals, with close physical similarities to many other animals.  But most of us still think of ourselves as not actually animals, but rather, better than animals.  

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is untitled-6143.jpg

As Sartwell notes, we’ve also been taught to regard humans as distinctive and superior on account of their consciousness, reasoning abilities, and moral systems. Comparisons of humans and other animals generally focused on the things humans did best, such as human language, rather than areas where animals outperformed us, such as sight, hearing, smell, strength, speed, endurance, and memory.  Where animals showed sophistication in their communications and culture, we learned to avoid thinking about it.  

The essential lesson pounded into all of us was that human intellectual qualities justified treating other animals as mere objects to be dominated and exploited.  This idea is so familiar and deeply entrenched that it is hard to see it clearly as an idea subject to discussion.  

Bald eagle at Jordan Lake

In my student days at Oberlin College, we used to debate the extent to which ideas could affect human history.  We were thinking about whether the philosophies of canonic thinkers like Aristotle, Locke, or Marx were primary drivers of cultural change.  

We didn’t even think to consider the effects of the idea that humans are separate from, and far superior to, animals.  The idea has no known author and no supporting reasoning.  If examined with any seriousness, it falls apart as nonsense.  Yet, as Sartwell suggests, it is almost certainly the most important idea in human history. 

Sartwell raises the issue of how thinking of humans as fundamentally superior to other animals relates to other hierarchies. To justify slavery, colonialism, or other violent oppression, the groups to be dominated are characterized as beastly, wild, savage, brutal, fierce, primitive, uncivilized, inhuman, and so on — in short, “like animals.”    

Even today, discrimination follows this same basic pattern in addressing people with African ancesters, other disfavored nationalties, women, religious minorities, and LGBTQ people.  That is, these groups are defined as something less than fully human, and therefore not entitled to the highest degree of privilege. 

The hierarchies that stem from treating animals as inferior have caused enormous harm to the humans who are denied full human status.  Slavery is a dramatic example from our past, but there are many others that are very much still with us, like suppressing the votes of minorities, lower pay for women, and violence against LBGTQ people.  

As Sartwell notes, this hierarchical, exploitative way of thinking divides us both from each other and from nature.  Indeed, it has led to an existential crisis for nature.  A couple of articles this week highlighted aspects of this.

According to a new study, about one third of freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction.  Climate change, habitat loss, and pollution caused by humans accounts for much of this dire threat.  Meanwhile due to these same factors, the populations of large animals (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish) have fallen by 68 percent since 1970.  More than two-thirds of these animals.  Gone.  Since 1970.  Holy camoly!

Part of our unfolding catastrophe has to do with our view that animals are so inferior that they can properly be treated as food.  A new piece by Jenny Splitter in Vox sums up some of what’s happening.    Meat production through factory farming — that is, raising and slaughtering billions of animals each year — accounts for more than 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and also for vast losses of habitat for wild animals.  This food system is raising the threat of extinction for thousands of species.  

Our meat-based food system is not only deeply immoral, but unsustainable.  To continue along this path likely means ecological and human disaster.  Splitter’s piece notes that we may get help from technology, like lab grown meat, and from requiring more responsible farming practices.  But cutting back on eating meat and moving toward a plant-based diet is something we as a species will have to do eventually.  And we as individuals can do it now. 

If you are either on board with plant-based eating or interested in experimenting, or even if not, I recommend trying Guasaca Arepa on Hillsborough Street.  They have some outdoor picnic tables, where I ate my first ever arepa this week.  It’s a Columbian speciality that involves putting various fillings in a sort of cornmeal cake.  Guasaca has many fillings on offer, but I tried the vegan.  Though a bit messy, it was delicious!   

Pied-billed grebe at Shelley Lake near sunrise

Getting the Green New Deal

Sally’s newly revived orchid

This week Sally succeeded in coaxing an orchid back into blossoming, after several months of hibernation.  On Saturday I made a picture of it, and also took some shots of Sally’s expanding menagerie of house plants.  Outside it’s been gray and rainy, but at Casa Tiller things are green and growing. The New Yorker cover of earlier this month of a devoted indoor gardener (see below) suited Sally well, and she framed it for her desk.    

I’ve been reading a lot about the Green New Deal, and am hoping it has legs.  The foundational GND document, House Resolution 109, is not long or difficult. It starts with a clear-eyed acknowledgement of the massive environmental disaster now threatening all of us, and recognizes that it will take years of work on many fronts to combat that threat.  H. Res. 109 is primarily a call to arms, rather than a battle plan, and of course, much more planning is also needed. But it is encouraging to see at least a few political leaders putting the climate change issue front and center.  

The GND suggests a connection between our current environmental crisis and social problems of education, health, jobs, inequality, and natural resources.  It accepts that our predicament is part and parcel of our economic system, and fixing it will require systemic changes. The editorial board of the New York Times, as of today, prefers to view our rapidly degrading environment as unrelated to our economic myths and abuses.  

But the connection is getting attention. In the Times, Lisa Friedman and Trip Gabriel did a useful piece on some of the economic issues of the GND.  Robinson Meyer in the Atlantic has a good discussion of the GND and economic policy.  David Roberts, in Vox gives a useful historical overview and points up the GND’s intent to foster new social and economic relationships. Is any of this politically feasible within a viable time frame?  Maybe I’m an optimist, but I want to believe so.  

Last night we went to Durham for dinner and an extraordinary concert:  master cellist Steven Isserlis and master pianist Robert Levin in an all Beethoven program.   In Duke’s Baldwin auditorium, Isserlis and Levin played the first, third, and fifth of the five cello sonatas, along with the Op. 66 Magic Flute variations.  They presented this great music using a fortepiano, the type of instrument that Beethoven primarily used. The keyboard and cello blended wonderfully.  More than any cellist I’ve ever heard, Isserlis made me forget that the cello is very difficult to play. He seemed radiant with joy, and the music seemed to come directly from his heart.    

How important is an afterlife?

13 08 24_3953
A short essay in the NY Times today proposed an interesting thought experiment: imagine that you knew all humanity would cease to exist in 30 days after your death. Would your view of your life’s significance change? Samuel Scheffler of New York University thinks the answer is yes. Even those of us who can’t take seriously the view of an afterlife in which our own consciousness continues after death still believe in another sort of afterlife – that is, that after we die the human race will continue for a good long time. If that were not the case, would anyone bother to seek a cure for cancer, or to make great art? Big projects, and especially ones that we know might not be completed in our lifetimes, depend on the assumption that the human race will continue.

Scheffler notes that even the most selfish and narcissistic of us almost certainly share this basic concern for continued human existence, for the selfish aims would also lose most of their meaning otherwise. He wraps up his elegant essay by noting this foundational assumption gives us a powerful incentive to address the very real threats to continued human survival – climate change, environmental degradation, and nuclear proliferation. The incentive isn’t just the abstract sense of duty to future generations, but our present reliance on those future beings to give life meaning now.
13 08 24_3952_edited-2

My eye surgery is scheduled for 6:00 a.m. tomorrow. I’ve managed not to think too much about it, but for the last few days I’ve felt unsettled. The operation on my left eye (my third in the last 10 months) will involve two procedures and two surgeons. One is my rockstar retinologist, Dr. Mruthyunjaya, who will remove the silicon oil in my eye and do some retina clean up, and the other, Dr. Vann, will work on what he described as “a big, honkin cataract.” I’m confident that the surgeons know their business. I’ve been touched by the kind support of friends and colleagues. It should go all right. I hope.

I took a walk this morning along the boardwalk that goes out over the small lake off of Raleigh Boulevard, where from time to time I’ve seen herons, kingfishers, various ducks, and lots of turtles. I wanted to try out my new Sigma 150-500mm lens with my new Manfrotto monopod, but there weren’t many water birds to see this time. The lens is a four-pound behemoth, challenging to handle, but the magnification is dramatic, and the image quality seemed generally good. I started to get comfortable with it, and look forward to taking many more and better pictures of birds and other wildlife. These are a start.
13 09 21_4416
13 09 21_4435
13 09 21_4446

How to eat and sleep better, and a brief report on my golfing

Sally and I stayed up late sipping wine with friends on Saturday night, and I overslept and almost missed my golf game at Raleigh Country Club on Sunday morning. I normally like to get to the course early and warm up before a round, but that didn’t work out. The day was sunny and mild, though breezy.

I walked the course with my push cart. My first drive was weak, and the succeeding drives were mostly shorter than my average.The rough was so thick that three balls disappeared never to be found, and those I found were difficult to liberate. These misfortunes and others caused several triple bogies and a disappointing net score of 103. Yet I hit some gorgeous approach shots. I sank three long putts (20-30 feet). But I missed three or four short ones (three to four feet). Golf is a beautiful but frustrating game.

Back in my New York days, everyone I knew read the Sunday New York Times. You had to read it too if you wanted to know what people were talking about and join in the conversation. I’ve kept the habit, though the original reason for it has largely gone by the wayside. Inasmuch as some of my best informed friends no longer read the Times, I will note two articles published today worth reading.

1. How to improve your health with food. An article by Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco, provides clinical support for the kind of eating I’ve been doing in the last few years. Ornish says “patients who ate mostly plant-based meals, with dishes like black bean vegetarian chili and whole wheat penne pasta with roasted vegetables, achieved reversal of even severe coronary artery disease. . . . The program [which included moderate exercise and stress management techniques] also led to improved blood flow and significantly less inflammation” and lowered risk of various types of cancer. The program also resulted in sustained weight loss.

According to Ornish, “Your diet needs to be high in healthful carbs like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy products in natural, unrefined forms and some fish, like salmon. There are hundreds of thousands of health-enhancing substances in these foods. And what’s good for you is good for the planet.” In contrast, he cites and large Harvard study that shows that consumption of red meat “is associated with an increased risk of premature death as well as greater incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.”

“About 75 percent of the 2.8 trillion in annual heath care costs in the United States is from chronic diseases that can often be reversed or prevented altogether by a healthy lifestyle. If we put money and effort into helping people make better food and exercise choices, we could improve our health and reduce the cost of health care.”

Ornish doesn’t say this, so I’ll say it: a vegetarian diet results in increased happiness. At least it does for me. There are so many delicious things to eat that also make you feel good. I mean physically and mentally, leaving aside the ethical dimension. But to be clear, the diet needs to include the kinds of foods noted above (though I take exception to the inclusion of fish on the list).

2. Rethinking Sleep. This article by David K Randall calls into question the standard wisdom that we all should be getting eight straight hours of sleep a night. It notes that much of the world today sleeps in other ways, such as millions of Chinese workers who stop for after-lunch naps. It also notes historical references to alternate sleep cycles, including from Chaucer, separating “firste sleep” and subsequent sleep. The article cites a current study in which a common pattern was for patients to wake up a little after midnight, stay up a couple of hours, and then go back to sleep.

This was of particular interest to me, because this happens to me a lot: I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. I usually read something, and sometimes write. I enjoy the quiet time. But based on the received wisdom regarding how much sleep is generally needed, I’ve thought of it as sort of a health problem, and worried about it a bit. Now I’m wondering if the eight-hour sleep prescription is yet another instance of folk wisdom masquerading as medical science.

It’s reasonably clear that sleep serves some important functions for brain health, and that getting too little sleep can impair performance. But there’s evidence that power napping works well for some people. I’m hoping it gets to be more socially acceptable.

My latest piano lesson, a new Indian restaurant, and some good news in the Sunday Times

At home with Stuart and the Sunday New York Times

On Saturday morning I had my first piano lesson with Olga in several weeks. I played the second Scriabin prelude, Debussy’s Reverie, Chopin’s etude in c minor op. 25, no. 12, and Liszt’s Un Sospiro. We continued to talk about subtle aspects of touch and tone. In slow lyrical passages, she asked me to keep listening closely to tones as they decay all the way to the next note — a more intense kind of listening. She got me focused on my elbow as a tool in shaping a long melodic line. In the etude, she coached me on how to make it really loud and fast. After I played the Liszt for her last time, she was inspired to learn the piece, and this time she taught me some of the tricks she’d developed for the tricky places. By the end, I felt exhausted but inspired.

That night Sally and I had dinner at a new Indian restaurant in our neighborhood called Blue Mango. I usually like Indian food as food, but as a restaurant dining experience is often lackluster. Many dishes that I like arrive in the form of brown goop; the emphasis is not on the presentation. Mantra, another Indian restaurant close to us that opened a few months back, departed from this stereotype and presented food that was pleasant to look at as well as to eat. Blue Mango’s dishes were not as pretty, but the restaurant had a cool vibe, and the food was very tasty. Service was friendly but still getting the kinks out. The veggie samosas were excellent.

We ate early with a view to seeing an 8:00 movie at the Blue Ridge, a second run theatre where tickets cost $2. We who are normally so lucky were not so at the Blue Ridge. Every parking spot in the place was taken. We drove around for 10 minutes looking, and finally came home. We ended up watching Trading Places with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, which was kind of funny.

Early Sunday morning is the time to get a paper copy of the New York Times and a cup of coffee, and start with the front page. With the sections properly sorted and ready for perusal, I find spending some time with the paper soothing, even when the news of the day involves various disasters. The Times makes mistakes, but it never gives up, and from time to time it is enlightening. Also, it is a sort of barometer of ideas that are getting solidified in public consciousness, and thus a leading indicator of possible social change.

Today I was happy to see a front-page story on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. Erica Goode writes that the supermax prison model that has grown in the last three decades and kept prisoners in nearly complete isolation has resulted in increased prison violence, increased recidivism, and, for the prisoners, increased mental illness — all at enormous expense to the government (i.e. your and my tax dollars at work). There was an excellent piece on psychological costs of solitary confinement by Atal Gawande in the New Yorker some months back. Anyhow, Goode reports good news: several states have been reducing the numbers of prisoners in solitary confinement. The motivation appears to be more cost savings in tough budget times than humanitarian concerns, but still, progress is progress.

On the cover of the Sunday Review section is a piece by Mark Bittman on the problems of eating chickens, and alternatives to doing so. Bittman asks, “Would I rather eat cruelly raised, polluting, unhealthful chicken, or a plant product that’s nutritionally similar or superior, good enough to fool me and requires no antibiotics, butting off of heads or other nasty things?” Or putting it another way, “If you know that food won’t hurt your body or the environment and it didn’t cause any suffering to an animal, why wouldn’t you choose it?” According to the story, there are new fake chicken products that are perfectly fine. That sounds like good news for the chicken species, and for humans.

Also in the Review section, Tom Friedman writes about the greatest non-natural resource a country can have — a good education system. He cites a recent study comparing the wealth of countries according to their natural resources such as oil and metals and the education level of their citizens. More oil resources do not lead to higher levels of knowledge and skills, but knowledge and skills are tied to countries’ economic success. Friedman is surely right that education should take pride of place as a societal focus.

One story I expected to see in the Review section, but didn’t, was the report earlier in the week that the televangelist Pat Robertson had spoken in favor of legalization of marijuana. My comment on Twitter (see @robtiller) was: Pigs fly! Robertson’s positions are generally consistent with the “conservative” “Christian” “family values” camp, and I would have guessed that even if he privately concluded that prohibition was a failure, he would be the last person to speak out on the subject. But he has acknowledged that the war on drugs has failed, after enormous expenditures and a huge toll of imprisoned victims. He proposes that we treat marijuana like we treat alcohol. It pains me to say so, but for once, I strenuously agree with the man. The important question, though, is will his followers?

Artificial intelligence, vanishing legal jobs, and art

Is technology rendering humans obsolete? The answer is, as to some activities, yes. But could it help us better understand our true nature? It could.

Last week the NY Times reported that new computer programs were able to do legal review of electronic documents more accurately and much cheaper than human lawyers. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/05/science/05legal.html?scp=1&sq=computer%20legal%20document%20review&st=cse This is a milestone in technology, and one with big implications for the legal profession, and other professions, too.

In my professional capacity at Red Hat as a purchaser of legal services, I’m happy to consider using these money-saving tools. And having as a young lawyer spent hours doing dreary document review, I’m happy to think that humans may be able to hand such drudgery off to computers and do more stimulating things with themselves. But lots of law firms survive and thrive by selling document review services. Automating such work will cause painful dislocations, as many legal jobs go down the tubes.

It’s strange to think of part of lawyering going the way of the gas station attendant. As computer-driven technology replace partially or completely entire categories of work, such as huge swathes of manufacturing, educated professionals have assumed that they were immune. But that is clearly wrong. The triumph of Watson on Jeopardy a couple of weeks ago and the success of legal document review programs shows that more change is on the way.

This is somewhat frightening. But it also forces us to confront the interesting question of what we can usefully do, other than the logic-driven work that computers are now taking over. Since Peraclesian Athens, we’ve assumed that human reasoning was the crowning glory of creation, but we need to revisit that understanding of nature, and human nature.

A few months back I read The Science of Fear, by Daniel Gardner, which offers some interesting thinking on the inherent flaws in human rationality. Gardner focuses on how we systematically underestimate some risks, like the risk of highway accidents, and overestimate others, such as the risk of terrorism and violent crime. Our journalism establishment is heavily invested in promulgating scare stories on such subjects, and we seem in general to like such stories, or at least eat them up. Gardner discusses the psychological basis of this odd characteristic, and the possibility that with more quantitative analysis we could work around the problem. I’m in favor of more careful quantitative analysis of problems, but I doubt that will much affect how human minds work.

David Brooks wrote a surprisingly thoughtful (especially for a conservative) column in the Times this week about human nature. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/opinion/08brooks.html?_r=1&src=me&ref=homepage He posited that various kinds of scientists are coming to think of humans are fundamentally social, and that it’s a mistake to think of them as isolated individuals. He also emphasized that our unconscious, emotional capacities are more important than our reasoning. In other words, the way our minds work is mostly non-rational. We aren’t just poorly fashioned reasoning machines, but a different kind of being.

This is worth a lot more exploring. There are various things that humans do that are non-rational, but not unintelligent. Artistic activity is a prime example. When we sing or dance, we’re connecting to our selves and others in a way that is richly human. Telling stories in various media is a constant of our lives. These are things that we as a species are really good at, and we enjoy. They aren’t peripheral to our lives and culture — they’re central. Our computers may get at making art, but they can’t replace us in those activities, because we realize ourselves in them.