The Casual Blog

Tag: North Carolina Opera

A PB spin, Goode piano, Sapiens and science, and an operatic pearl

Blooming this week at Raulston Arboretum

I had an epic personal best spin class at Flywheel on Friday morning, with a score of 360.  That’s big!  The second place finisher’s score, 342, would also have been a PB.  It was like expecting to run a 10k in 43 minutes and finishing in 33.   I’d like to thank my teacher Matt, and the other fine spin teachers over the years (Vashni, Heather, Jen, Will) who helped me along the way.   

I wish I knew for sure what produced all that energy, so I could bottle it.  It might have been a good dinner the night before (Sally’s Blue Apron Thai cauliflower rice).  It might have helped that I woke up early and did some pre-class foam rolling to loosen the muscles.  Doing more interval work recently at the gym probably contributed.  Also, there were several pretty girls in the class, which tends to increase peppiness.  And it’s possible I drew a recently serviced and well-oiled bike.  In any event, I will not be sharing the number of that bike, as I hope to get it next week.

That night we went over to Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium for a concert by master pianist Richard Goode.  He performed Bach’s sixth partita and three late Beethoven sonatas (Ops. 101, 109, and 110).  These works are well known to aficionados, but they’re also deep and mysterious.  Even after two centuries, the interpreter can still find new things, and bring new life.  Goode communicated the power and cohesiveness of the rich musical ideas, and also sang — literally!   This was musicianship of the highest order, and I felt privileged to share the experience.

At the gym, I’ve been listening to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari.  Harari challenges a lot of widely shared assumptions about our origins, such as the notion that we were the sole human species on earth when we arose some 200,000 years ago.  What happened to the Neanderthals, Denisovans,  and other non-sapien human cousins?  There are various theories, including the possibility that our ancestors exterminated them, as they killed off most of the existing species of large animals.

Harari points up that homo sapiens’ ruthless success as a species is attributable to our brilliance at social organization, and he accounts for this in part by our use of religious, economic, and other social myths. This is thought-provoking stuff, though Harari doesn’t always distinguish between matters of wide scientific consensus and ideas that are much more speculative.

I wouldn’t expect Harari to get everything right, since no one ever does.  A recent edition of the You Are Not so Smart podcast (not yet posted at the web site) noted that medical students are now taught that half of what they learn in medical school will eventually turn out to be wrong. Science is always a work in progress.  Fortunately, the scientific system is built for testing and error correction.

Not so long ago, I’d have thought the value of science was self evident and not in need of advocacy.  Was I ever wrong!  I expect that, barring nuclear catastrophe, science and reasonableness will prevail in the long run, but at the moment, we’re in trouble, with unreason ascendant on urgent questions of the environment, health, and social issues.

Raulston viewed from the Tiller quadcopter

On Sunday afternoon we went to the N.C. Opera’s production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.  It was a new opera for us, and we found the melodies very beautiful.  The principal singers were excellent, as usual, and the chorus was particularly strong.  The orchestra had a rich sonority and tonal variety.  Conductor Timothy Myers is a brilliant musician, and also a wizard, to conjure all this in little ole Raleigh, NC.  We’re really sorry he’s leaving us for bigger things next year.  It was touching when, in the final curtain call, the company threw roses at him.

A family visit, defending against motivated reasoning, Mozart’s Figaro, and swimming

Sally’s flowers, with snow falling on Sunday morning

The weather in Raleigh was sunny and mild this week, and the trees started to leaf in.  I was looking forward to some outdoor activities for the weekend, but the temperature dropped into the thirties on Saturday, and on Sunday there was light snow.  

Jocelyn came down from New York to visit us this weekend, along with her friend Kyle.  Gabe and our granddog, Mowgli, also stopped by.  We had some of Sally’s good cooking and some lively conversation.  Among other topics, we considered what’s happening to journalism, including fake news, imaginary fake news, and partisan attacks on media, and how it is possible to be both highly intelligent and deeply deluded.

Jocelyn, ready for dinner

I told them about a podcast by Julia Galef called Rationally Speaking  in which Galef talks with intellectuals about their ideas.  She likes a good argument, and keeps things popping along.  I find her openness to new ideas and curiosity to be really cheering and inspiring.  

Kyle, ready for dinner

This week I came upon a talk Galef did last year at a Tedx conference titled Why You Think You’re Right, Even When You’re Wrong, in which she gives a good way of thinking about  motivated reasoning and how to do less of it.  She analogizes different thought habits to two types of army soldiers:  regular fighters and scouts. 

She summed up the idea here:

Our judgment is strongly influenced, unconsciously, by which side we want to win. And this is ubiquitous. This shapes how we think about our health, our relationships, how we decide how to vote, what we consider fair or ethical. What’s most scary to me about motivated reasoning or soldier mindset, is how unconscious it is. We can think we’re being objective and fair-minded and still wind up ruining the life of an innocent man. …

So  . . . what I call “scout mindset” [is] the drive not to make one idea win or another lose, but just to see what’s really there as honestly and accurately as you can, even if it’s not pretty or convenient or pleasant. This mindset is what I’m personally passionate about. And I’ve spent the last few years examining and trying to figure out what causes scout mindset. Why are some people, sometimes at least, able to cut through their own prejudices and biases and motivations and just try to see the facts and the evidence as objectively as they can?

And the answer is emotional. So, just as soldier mindset is rooted in emotions like defensiveness or tribalism, scout mindset is, too. It’s just rooted in different emotions.For example, scouts are curious. They’re more likely to say they feel pleasure when they learn new information or an itch to solve a puzzle. They’re more likely to feel intrigued when they encounter something that contradicts their expectations. Scouts also have different values. They’re more likely to say they think it’s virtuous to test your own beliefs,and they’re less likely to say that someone who changes his mind seems weak. And above all, scouts are grounded, which means their self-worth as a person isn’t tied to how right or wrong they are about any particular topic. So they can believe that capital punishment works. If studies come out showing that it doesn’t, they can say, “Huh. Looks like I might be wrong. Doesn’t mean I’m bad or stupid.”

Galef comes at some of these same issues from a different direction in a short (5:41) YouTube talk titled How to Want to Change Your Mind.  Here again, she proposes looking at reasoning as having an emotional component that needs to be addressed in the interest of better thinking.  We tend to get defensive and closed off when we feel threatened, and Galef has some helpful tips for counteracting that tendency.  For example, she suggests picturing your opinion as separate from your self.  She also notes that it’s possible to get comfortable and even pleased to discover your belief is mistaken — because you’ve just gotten wiser!

Gabe with beer

The Marriage of Figaro

Last week we saw and heard The Marriage of Figaro by W.A. Mozart and G. de Ponti in a performance by the N.C. Opera.  It was sublime.  The music all by itself is brilliant, well worth listening to even without benefit of story.  The story is essentially a comedy of love, but a unique and strange one — startlingly dark and cynical by moments, but also poignant by moments.

The leads all sang beautifully, and just as important, created believably human characters with their acting.  Jennifer Cherrest as Susanna brought wry saucy humor along with her tonal strength and range.  She had good chemistry with Figaro, her betrothed, the very fine Tyler Simpson.  Other standouts included D’Ana Lombard as Countess Almaviva, who had a lovely voice and musicality.  Cherubino (Jennifer Panara) was wonderfully comic.

Swimming again

Earlier in the week, I added back some lap swimming to my exercise regime.  I’d gotten out of the habit when the Pullen Park pool closed for repairs and then quit having morning hours.  The gym I joined earlier this year has a small lap pool, but I found it hard to get motivated to head toward the water in the early hours, when it’s cold and dark.  But once back in,  I quickly remembered what I like about swimming.  The water feels good on your skin.  There’s a rhythm to it, and quietness.

Our granddog, Mowgli

Charities, Allegiance, history, microbes, walks, and flying my new quadcopter

Demolition on Harrington Street

Demolition on Harrington Street

This week I wrote my annual checks to my favorite charities. Giving seemed more than usually important this year, since some of my favored causes are directly threatened by the recently elected executive — the environment, human rights, civil liberties, animal rights, family planning, and those less fortunate. I felt really lucky to be able to help, even if only a little, by giving to effective organizations.

I was especially mindful of the dire plight of refugees from the Middle East, Africa, Central America, and elsewhere, and so want to mention for your consideration the work of the International Rescue Committee and Doctors Without Borders. I’ll also note that in these tumultuous times we need more than ever the wisdom and beauty of the arts, and hope others will join me in supporting the wonderful North Carolina Ballet and North Carolina Opera.
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On Tuesday, Sally and I saw Allegiance, a movie of a show recently on Broadway about the experience of Japanese-Americans in WWII. It was inspired by experiences of George Takei (Star Trek), whose family, along with many others, was held in a grim internment camp. At one level, it was a normal Broadway show, with pretty songs and kinetic dances, which were enjoyable if not especially original. But it was ambitious in taking on a big and tragic subject and expressing some of its complexity. While the so-called alt right has found new methods for inspiring fear and hatred of minorities, Allegiance does the opposite — it inspires caring.
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The movie of Allegiance was a one-time-only, nationwide event that I learned about from the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, which I’ve been listening to at the gym. Stuff You Missed often take on subjects that our American history textbooks played down or left out, because they don’t fit comfortably into a triumphalist national narrative. For example, recent ones I’ve liked have treated the Dakota War of 1862, George Wallace, the Reynolds pamphlet of Alexander Hamilton, the first transatlantic cable, and the Palmer raids. They segments are lively and have a nice balance between serious academic history and the personal, emotional implications of some dire events. The hosts, Tracey V. Wilson and Holly Frey are starting to feel like friends — really smart, curious, and hardworking, with a sense of humor. You can check it out here.
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THe spirit of curiosity and engagement with new things has been upon me, and so I finished reading, and started re-reading, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong. It’s a lively and convincing view of the bacteria that live in us, on us, and all around us. This is a really exciting area of science, and developing fast. I like that Yong’s title used a line from Walt Whitmans’ Leaves of Grass, which also can change how we see ourselves.

When I was a child, I was taught that “germs” were bad, and the best thing to do was avoid them or eliminate them. As Yong makes clear, this was both silly and dangerous. Our bodies contain more bacterial cells than human cells, which calls into question who really owns those bodies. There are some 39 trillion bacterial cells in and on us, and thousands of species, though the particular kinds in each of us varies greatly, and the varieties are constantly changing. They are vital to our well-being. Without them, we could not grow or thrive. Each one of us is an ecosystems — microbiomes, as they now say. Without those multitudes, we could not grow, and could not continue to live. They are vital, for example, for digesting food, producing vitamins, breaking down toxins, and killing more dangerous microbes. DCIM100MEDIADJI_0017.JPG

I also finished reading On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, by Alexandra Horowitz. Horowitz, who teaches psychology and animal behavior at Barnard, writes well about who she sees, hears, smells, and touches in walking around New York. After an initial walk by herself considering how much there was to see in a city walk, she also realized how little she normally perceives. She does the other 9 walks with experts in some aspect of the urban environment, like a geologist, a paleontologist, an architect, a wild animal expert, a sound designer, and her dog (an expert in smells). She gives short by credible accounts of the relevant science, and makes us consider the urban environment as full of non-human life and history.

The demolition photographs here are from just down the block on Harrington Street, where they just knocked down a former furniture store that sat next to the old Board of Elections Building. They didn’t fence off the site, so I was able to take a good look around on Saturday. I look forward to more new construction in the neighborhood, including (can’t wait for this one) a grocery store.
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Finally, this weekend I added a new line to the c.v.: quadcopter pilot! I took my first flight with my new DJI Phantom 4 quadcopter, a/k/a drone (a term I don’t really like, at least as applied to my aircraft) at Fletcher Park, where it was cold and gray. It was awesome! There is a learning curve, and I’m climbing it. I’m very excited about exploring aerial photography. These ones are my beginnings.
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