The Casual Blog

Tag: photography

The Eno at the end of fall, meditating, a piano lesson, and a list of thought-provoking books

With a big winter storm on the way, on Saturday I drove over to Durham and hiked along the Eno River on the Cole Mill trail. The colors were muted, and I was reminded of that melancholy tune by the Mamas and the Papas:  “All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray.”  It was quiet, except for the noise of the fast-moving water.  

I’d brought along my camera equipment, planning to make some landscape images, but struggled to get inspired.  Things didn’t seem at all scenic, and in fact seemed kind of sad. But after a bit I slowed down and started noticing spots of unusual energy, like tree roots and branches, decaying stumps and pale lichens on boulders.  The shots here are what developed.

Taking in smaller wonders is one of the lessons I’ve taken from my efforts at mindfulness meditation.  Over the last few months, my 15 minutes of daily sitting have helped with managing stress, and also has given me some meaningful, though humbling, insights into my own unruly thinking processes.  I’m looking forward to learning more.

On Saturday afternoon I had a piano lesson with Olga Kleiankina over at the N.C. State music department.  As I’ve noted before, I usually think of my piano playing as music therapy, providing personal balance, flow, and happiness, without many connections to my professional or social life.  But Olga always reminds me that piano playing is also a serious undertaking, with long traditions, deep musical questions, and technical challenges that are not easily surmounted, as well as the potential for personal expression, communicating feelings, and transcendent beauty.  

This week I played a well-loved Chopin waltz (c# minor, Op. 64, no. 2).  I arrived with a good mastery of the notes and a decent understanding of the architecture.  She wanted me to incorporate some new gestural elements to improve the sound, and explained to me how she uses the legs and core for fine keyboard control.  I also played Debussy’s beautiful Bruyeres from Preludes, book 2. We talked about varying tone colors and voicing (both horizontally and vertically), and specialized pedaling challenges.  The lesson was almost two hours, and I was exhausted at the end, but also inspired.

Last week I was telling a friend about rereading (actually, re-listening to) Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari.  He noted that in the last couple of years I’d mentioned several books that relate to his interests in evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, and philosophy, and asked if I’d mind making a list of favorites.  

So I looked over what I’d read involving science topics and other big ideas in the last couple of years, and realized, it’s a lot!  For whatever it’s worth, here is a selection of books I found worthwhile and would be happy to discuss with other readers. I have not attempted to rank them, but they are roughly grouped by major subject.  

Science matters, mainly in the areas of physics, biology (including neuroscience), and psychology

The Greatest Story Ever Told — So Far:  Why Are We Here? By Lawrence Krauss

Origin Story:  A Big History of Everything, by David Christian

The Big Picture:  On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, by Sean Carroll

I Contain Multitudes:  The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong

The Moral Animal:  The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, by Robert Wright

How Emotions Are Made:  The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Behave:  The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky

Before You Know It:  The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do, by John Bargh

The Knowledge Illusion:  Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, by Jonathan Balcombe

Other Minds:  The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

The Hidden Life of Trees:  What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben

Half-Earth:  Our Planet’s Fight for Life, by Edward O. Wilson

Assorted Other Interesting Ideas

The Patterning Instinct:  A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, by Jeremy Lent

The Shape of the New:  Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott Montgomery and Daniel Chirot

Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder

The Doomsday Machine:  Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, by Daniel Ellsberg

Why Buddhism Is True:  The Science and Philosophy of  Meditation and Enlightenment, by Robert Wright

Learning photography in western N.C., and saving the wild places

Last week I went to the Blue Ridge mountains of western North Carolina for a photography workshop.  I was hoping to improve my camera and processing skills, take in some natural beauty, and meet some nice people.  That all happened, and I also made these pictures.

The workshop was led by Chas Glatzer, a master nature photographer and gifted teacher.  He was friendly, patient, and nonjudgmental. He got our group to good vantage points for sunrise and sunset and tried to make sure we didn’t slip on the rocks near waterfalls or get mauled by a herd of elk.  

Chas coached us individually on composition and camera settings.  He also explained the work behind some of his stunning animal shots in harsh and remote places.  He was ably assisted by Dave Kelly, who taught us some good Lightroom processing techniques, and helped me figure out more about my Nikon D850, which he also uses.    

We stayed in the Hampton Inn in Pisgah Forest, Brevard County, N.C.  Brevard bills itself as the U.S. mecca for waterfalls, with 250 of them, and the ones we saw were beautiful  The trees were changing colors, though the colors were muted this year. We also saw an impressive herd of elk (28) and a flock of wild turkeys. 

The majority of our group was older, with several retirees, and most were quite knowledgeable and experienced in photography.  We talked a lot about equipment and techniques. I got some good tips, and also enjoyed hearing about their lives. Some were dealing with serious health conditions and other tough circumstances, but they seemed absorbed and happy in their efforts to make better photos.  There’s a lesson there on dealing with personal adversity.

The mountains of western NC, with their dense forests and wildlife, are special for me:  I always feel my head getting clearer and my heart expanding there. I remember visiting these forests as a kid and assuming they and their inhabitants would last forever, but now I’m very conscious of their fragility.  Trying to catch part of their essence in photographs and share it with others seems more urgent than in times past.

The NY Times reported on a scientific study this week on the dire situation of the world’s remaining wilderness areas.  The scientists found that humans had modified 77 percent of the earth’s surface, and the remaining wild areas could disappear in a matter of decades.  They pointed out that these areas “provide a lot of life support systems for the planet,” including storing carbon dioxide. The scientists called for urgent action to save these remaining wild areas.

This week that Hansjorg Wyss, a Swiss businessman and philanthropist, announced that he is donating $1 billion for a conservation effort aimed at protecting 30 percent of the planet’s surface.  Wyss wrote a short essay explaining that preserving wild places is necessary to prevent the extinction of a majority of plant and animal species.   

Hats off to Wyss.  Of course, most of us don’t have an extra billion dollars to contribute to the cause, but there are some things we can do.  One timely one is to vote this week in favor of politicians who recognize the urgency of our climate crisis, and oppose those who deny or equivocate on the issue.  Neither of our major political parties has been as strong as needed on behalf of environment, but one has been much worse than the other. Please let me know if you need any help in figuring out which is which.  

I learned this week about the iNaturalist project , which involves citizen-naturalists posting photographs of wildlife and plants on a site, expanding the base of knowledge and getting help in identifying the subjects.  It’s the brainchild of Dr. Rob Dunn of N.C. State. The account the project in the Times focused on the project’s work in the wonderful world of indoor insects.  I downloaded the app and am looking forward to making some observations.

Managing through some bad news, including a climate change update

Bad news has been coming in fast this week.  I usually keep a fairly even keel and manage to look on the bright side.  But with hurricane Michael wreaking havoc, the stock market tumbling, democracy on the skids, and my glaucoma medication out of stock, just for starters, I’ve been jangled.  

It cheered me up when Sally brought home a new orchid, and I enjoyed taking some pictures of the pristine beauty in the early morning light.  I found the work absorbing.  In addition to visual imagination, it takes a bunch of equipment and software: a Nikon D850 (full frame), a Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 macro lens,  focus rails on a tripod, and a cable release. I sort and process the images in Adobe Lightroom, and tweak some of them with Photoshop and Helicon Focus. I consider the images here works in progress, but I like them, and thought they were worth sharing.    

I finally confessed to Sally that I’ve become obsessed with Natalie Dessay.  The short of it is I’m in love with a recording of the French soprano called simply Italian Opera Arias, with music by Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi.  I recall listening to it some years back, when I was starting to explore bel canto opera, and thinking it was nice enough, but finding her voice a little on the light side.  

But for the last several months, I’ve been listening to Italian Opera Arias over and over, and amazed at her vocal facility, the intelligence of her interpretations, and the unique beauty of her voice.  Listening closely to the nuances of phrasing and tonal color, part of me is a student, looking to enrich my own musical vocabulary and insight But mostly it’s pure joy. The recording is available on Spotify, Amazon Music, and iTunes.  

I was glad to hear on the BBC’s morning newscast this week that they are planning to do more stories about climate change, since it’s a big problem, to put it mildly.  The climate report last week by the United Nations’ scientific panel was clear: we’re almost out of time.  Unless we act quickly, many of us alive today could see the start of the greatest disaster in the last 66 million years.  It’s a break-glass emergency. We need to move quickly, shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy, instituting carbon taxes, mobilizing our research capabilities, and then looking at what else is possible. And to state the obvious, there’s good reason to doubt that our leaders and systems are up to such a task.  

The situation is truly terrifying, and it’s hard not to despair.  I found it helpful to talk to Jocelyn about this. She recommended 1. taking deep breaths, 2. compartmentalizing, and 3. not getting obsessed.  She pointed out that we might find a way out, but in any case we need to live our lives.

I appreciated her reminding me that there are sometimes unexpected solutions to big problems.  An example: at the beginning of the 20th century, it appeared that Manhattan would become uninhabitable because of the mountains of horse manure.  Many horses were needed for transportation in the densely populated city, and there was no known practical way of managing the piles of excrement. And then from nowhere came a new technology that took care of the horse manure problem:  the automobile.

So  there may be a new and unexpected technology just in time.  You never know what may come next.  But it’s foolish and beyond irresponsible to count on it. We need to use every social, political, economic, and technical capacity we have right now, right now.  

 

My trip to Grandfather Mountain

 

A blackberry flower at Grandfather Mountain

Our mountains in  western North Carolina aren’t especially imposing, compared to the Rockies or the Alps, but there’s something moving about them.  They roll out to the horizon in waves, covered with thick forests, and topped in places with jagged cliffs and wildflowers,  They’re full of life and, for me, memories of long ago summer camps and family vacations.  

This weekend I went to Grandfather Mountain for its annual photography weekend, a gathering of perhaps 100 photographers with several lectures on techniques and time to hike about and take pictures.  

I’d always thought of Grandfather Mountain as kind of a tourist trap.  Though relatively large for the neighborhood at 5,945 feet, it isn’t much more beautiful than its surrounding mountains that don’t have names and charge admission  I always had imagined it as overrun with tourists, and so had never visited it before this weekend.

It was a big mistake to disrespect Grandfather Mountain, and I promise to never do so again. I had more fun than I expected, but also had a somewhat harrowing episode due mostly to my hubris and lack of preparation.  

I started my visit at the mile-high Swinging Bridge, a suspension footbridge that you must see if you’re there, just as if you go to Paris you must see the Eiffel Tower,  It was windy, and the bridge was squeaky, but not terrifying.  On the other side there were rocks to climb on and pretty vistas.  The red rhododendrun were in bloom, along with other wildflowers.

After doing the Swinging Bridge, I noted that that was a trailhead close by for Grandfather Trail, which was described on the sign as “advanced.” This was catnip to me, and off I strode.  In retrospect, I should have planned better for equipment (including warmer clothing and a map) and provisions (like water and food).  Once I got a good look at McCrae Peak, I wanted to climb it, and after pressing on for another hour, I mounted the various ladders and guide ropes up the rocks and saw a  beautiful vista.  

But I got lost on the way back.  The hiking was rugged, over rocks and boulders, requiring careful placement of each foot for each irregular step, and lots of hoisting up and lowering down.  There were almost no other people around.   I never had a fall, but I got some bruises on my legs, and a little bloody when I banged my hand on a rock, and a blister on my big toe.  

I got cold and thirsty and hungry.  Happily, I did not get leg tired — my early morning gym workouts, with all those squats, lunges, and step ups, paid off.  But I started to get a bit anxious by 5:00, and worried about whether I would have to break the rule about getting to your car 6:00.  I even started thinking about spending the night with the bears  Obviously, I survived, but it took almost 6 hours of hard hiking.  

The photography lectures were at a good level for me, and I learned a lot.  I decided to enter one of my shots in the competition.  It turned out that there were many highly skilled photographers competing, but after looking at some of the work, I thought I was competitive in the wildflower category.

 As the winners were announced, I thought my blackberry flower (the first one above) was stronger than the honorable mention.  It also seemed stronger than than the third place finisher, and the second place.  So for a second I thought I was going to win it all!  But  no, I didn’t, though I still liked mine quite well.  

In Antelope Canyon

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Each week for the Casual Blog I try to make some new photographs that I like well enough to share. This forces me to get outside and explore, which is fun. To avoid the obvious and keep from repeating myself, I have to keep experimenting and learning. It’s challenging, and also sort of a virtuous cycle. At any rate, I enjoy it, and feel like I'm getting better.
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But I’m departing from custom this week. I’ve been sorting through photos from my photo workshop trip to Utah and Arizona (described in my last post), and post processing some of them.
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The ones here are from lower Antelope Canyon. It’s a narrow slot canyon with red sandstone cliffs of flowing serpentine shapes. The location is in the Navaho Nation, near Page, Arizona. You may have seen a popular Windows screen saver that depicts one of the areas we passed. There were so many amazing spots.
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Our group was privileged to be led by local Navaho guys who knew the terrain well and understood the needs of photographers. We were working with tripods and taking long exposures, which required patience of both us and other visitors.
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In places the passage was only wide enough for one person. There were stairs that were almost ladders. Getting ourselves and gear along was challenging, particularly with other visitors coming in the opposite direction. But by golly, we did it!
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During the Southwestern workshop, leaders Scott and Phil helped me up the learning curve in photo processing with Lightroom and Photoshop. In Lightroom, my RAW images are getting more vivid and closer to my impressions and intentions. I still find Photoshop daunting in its complexity, but I’ve got a better understanding of the key photography tools, and am getting proficient in doing some kinds of repairs. I’m looking forward to learning more.

Admiring damselflies, Colombia at peace, recognizing addicts as humans, Syria’s bizarre war, and our Saudi problem

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I’m ready for fall. It’s been a hot August here in Raleigh, and relentlessly humid. As usual, I got outside to see if I could find and photograph something beautiful in one of our parks, and found these damselflies and the dragonfly along the Buckeye Trail and at Lake Crabtree. They were very small and usually moved quickly. It took some exertion to make these images, handholding a heavy 180 mm lens, struggling to get tight focus and good exposure with sweat getting in my eyes, but I thought it was worth it.
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When there is good news, it should be noted, and there was very good news this week from Colombia. The civil war between the government and FARC was tentatively resolved with a peace accord, subject to approval in a vote of the citizenry. This war, which began more than half a century ago, has cost hundreds of thousands lives and displaced millions. Columbia has so much beauty and so much human potential, but for my entire life has seemed a scary place. Now peace, after decades of horrendous carnage, is possible.
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I also spotted some good news on the drug war out of Seattle. On Page A13 (far past where busy people normally stop skimming), the NY Times of Aug. 26 reported that an official Seattle task force established to combat the heroin epidemic has proposed establishing sites where addicts could take heroin and other illegal drugs under the supervision of trained professionals. The idea is to decrease the risk of infections and overdoses. Sites like this already exist in the Canada and the Netherlands.

This is huge! They’re thinking of addicts as human beings whose lives have value, rather than simply as worthless derelicts and criminals. That is, they’re recognizing that people who take illegal opioids are not really different from people who take legal opioids. Both groups include people with varying intensities of physical and mental pain, and also varying cravings for stimulation.

This is a big conceptual step toward the end of the drug war that has destroyed millions of lives. The idea that an arbitrarily defined group of chemicals is inherently evil has been official policy and a quasi-religion going back several generations. It’s a foolish idea, but it’s so deeply lodged in our brains that it’s going to be very hard to correct. Fingers crossed that we move forward.
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Meanwhile, the Times presented a brilliant, though far less cheering, piece by Max Fisher on the complex dynamics of the war in Syria. I started to say “the civil war in Syria,” but as I finally grasped, this is not simply a struggle between two, three, or four internal groups seeking dominance within the country, but a multi-dimensional struggle for regional dominance involving several local groups and Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and, unfortunately, the US.

There are many forces that make this conflict particularly horrendous for civilians and assure it cannot quickly be resolved. An important perpetuator is the involvement of the outside nations, who have effectively endless military resources and do not bear the pain of the constant death. I can partially understand the political and venal interests that drive some of these actors to kill each other and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The big exception is the United States of America. Why are we a primary arms supplier and dealer of death from above in this catastrophe?
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Also worth reading is a piece on Saudi Arabia by Scott Shane, which asks the question, has Saudi Arabia been the primary exporter and supporter of the version of Sunni Islam (Wahhabism) that underpins the worst of the jihadist violence afflicting many countries? It seems that it has. Shane does point out, however, that there are other causes of such violence, including extreme poverty and authoritarian rulers.

But the Saudis have a lot to answer for. And, it should be noted, their primary armorer and military mentor is the United States. So we have a lot to answer for. Without thinking it through, we have indirectly supported Saudi exports of jihadist ideology, which morphed into al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and other bloody-minded groups, which we then fight by dropping US bombs. And, of course, when we kill innocent civilians, we transform some of their relatives into vengeance-minded jihadis. To put it as mildly as possible, this is not a sensible policy.

A photo contest, getting shoulder therapy, trying fasting, and not debating climate change

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Sally spotted a notice in the local paper of a nature photography contest at Raulston Arboretum. The theme was gardens and plants, which you may have noticed I have an interest in, and so I decided I might as well have a go.

Competition is a good way to make yourself try a little harder. With the thought of critical judging, I took a careful look through some of my favorite images, and found little disqualifying problems on most of them. Of those still left, some just didn’t touch me. That exercise alone was worthwhile, good for my eye and mind, win or lose. Ultimately, I settled on the two bees shown here, worked on them for a bit with Lightroom software, and got them printed on metallic paper nearby at JW Image. Still to do: getting them framed, submitted, back, and hung in the apartment.

Speaking of self-improvement, I finally decided this week to get physical therapy help for my left shoulder. I’d tried letting the thing heal itself with several weeks of relative rest (no heavy weight lifting), but that didn’t work. I got in to see Geert Audiens at Results Physiotherapy, who’d helped me with back and shoulder issues before. Geert quickly diagnosed a torn rotator cuff, which, he said, would get worse if not attended to. He predicted it would take several weeks of specialized exercises, but it would likely get better. It’s good to have well-functioning arms and shoulders. And so we began, with simple little exercises, antiinflammatories, and icing four times a day. It’s a substantial commitment, which I hope will be worth it.

I’ve also been experimenting for a few weeks with a modification of my food consumption. I’d somehow picked up 5 pounds that would not come off, even with hard cardio work outs and careful healthy eating. I saw a story on alternate day fasting for the weight control, which basically means eating very lightly (500 calories) every other day. I decided to have a go for two days a week, a variation which, I just learned by googling, has been promoted elsewhere by others.

My method was my normal greens-and-fruit smoothie for breakfast, salad for lunch, and nothing for dinner. The no eating intervals were challenging, especially at dinner time with Sally eating. But it helped clear the mind, and made me more conscious of eating well on the normal eating days. And I did get rid of those 5 pounds in about 3 weeks.
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The debate of the Republican presidential contenders this week promised to be rich with irony and ridiculousness, with the numerous conventional candidates facing off with the loutish Donald Trump. As a Democrat, I’d never looked forward to a Republican debate so much. There were, as it happened, no meltdowns. In fact, I was surprised at how articulate and intelligent most of the field seemed (with the Donald as usual the big exception).

Yet collectively they have such enormous blind spots. It’s difficult to see how you could propose to govern or even talk seriously about social policy without quickly getting to the issue of what to do about CO2-caused global warming and the many related problems, like rising oceans, mass extinctions, famine, resource-related wars, mass population dislocations, destructive storms, drought, etc. These related disasters are front page news now. Yet this issue doesn’t appear on the Republican agenda, except for opposing whatever action the President proposes. This is wildly irresponsible. The situation is dire, and getting worse.

Rolling Stone published a good piece featuring new climate change research by James Hansen and others, which I recommend. It isn’t easy to think about this problem, which makes us uncomfortable and unhappy, but we’ve got to do it. I was glad to see that Hansen thinks a carbon tax could potentially pull us out of our present suicidal course. Anyhow, we all need to get more educated on this, and to keep pressing our politicians for action.

Some edited bug photos and a new way of thinking about organized crime

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It’s challenging to capture a convincing image of a fast-moving insect. It takes patience and also decisiveness. For these I was using a 105 mm lens with all manual settings, so I had to focus and adjust shutter speed quickly. My heart was going quickly, too – it was exciting to go after these little guys. These were shots I took late Friday afternoon at Raulston Arboretum.

It was also fun to examine the results in Photoshop Elements after the fact. To state the obvious, you can’t really see much detail in little insects with the unaided human eye. To me, it’s fantastic what you discover about these creatures with the aid of magnifying lenses and sensors. I’ve also been experimenting with improving the raw image with the Elements editing program. Typically I do some cropping and minor adjustments to the lighting and contrast. This week I decided to start working with the “expert” user interface and figured out (with help from some YouTube instructors) how to work with layers.
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Is such editing somehow dishonest? I don’t think so. A photograph is always a combination of technology and human feeling, which is to say it is never purely objective. The sensor in my Nikon D7100 is amazing (24 million pixels!), but it is not God. My own vision has its imperfections and biases both from ocular structural issues and brain processing. Yours, too. We see through a glass darkly. But if we use our best tools as well as we can, we’ll see some new things and some amazing things.
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How many of our fundamental assumptions are seriously flawed? Every so often, I get spun around when I find that an idea that I had thought was beyond question is far from it. This week in the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell’s piece titled the Crooked Ladder, destabilized my assumptions about the Italian mafia and inner city drug gangs. I thought I knew that the mafia was a serious threat to the social order that was barely contained by virtue of strenuous law enforcement efforts. Gladwell cites scholarship indicating that the early mafia was generally less violent and lawless than the Godfather movies and journalism have led us to think. For some waves of new immigrants (including Irish and Jews), crime was a route to family stability and assimilation taken by relatively innovative community members. And it isn’t a curse on subsequent generations. On the contrary, the grandkids of mafia dons turn into ordinary suburbanites.

But Gladwell finds this pattern depended in part on societal tolerance, including relaxed policing during the liquor prohibition era. Few mafiosi went to jail. Gladwell suggests that what I always thought of as police corruption could have positive effects, in that it allows immigrants to feed their families, prosper, and gradually evolve and assimilate. But this process has not taken place for our inner city drug gangs. Instead, intense policing has resulted in mass incarceration at a terrible human cost.

Gladwell relies primarily on a new book titled On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, by Alice Goffman. Goffman was an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania when she began tutoring a Black student in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood she calls 6th Street. She eventually spent several years living in the neighborhood and getting to know the young men who survived as minor league criminals, as well as their girlfriends, moms, and others. The young men generally had spent time in juvenile detention, jail, or prison, and were often on the run from the police for such wrongs as nonpayment of $173 in court costs or minor parole violations. They were constantly the targets of police harassment. It is no exaggeration to say they lived in a police state.

After I finished Gladwell’s article, I downloaded Goffman’s book and quickly read the first couple of chapters. It is vivid and hair-raising. It puts a human face on the urgent need to end the war on drugs, and more generally address the problem of overly severe policing and penal policies. Goffman illuminates a world that few middle-class white Americans have ever seen close up, or even learned about through books or newspapers. It seems particularly timely and important after the racial conflict this week in Ferguson, Missouri.

Cityscapes, intelligent plants, and weight loss work and play

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I got up a little after 6:00 on Saturday morning to allow time for walking Stuart, feeding him and the cats, breakfast, newspaper, and a little neighborhood photo safari at sunrise before yoga class. I’m still figuring out all the buttons, dials, numbers, icons, and graphs on my Nikon D7100, and experimenting with my new 10-24mm (wideangle) Nikkor lens. Adding to the challenge – wearing gloves. It was overcast, with temperature in the mid-30s.
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My neighborhood in downtown Raleigh has some stylish, pretty spots, and my usual way of seeing is to pay the most attention to those. But this morning I forcefully looked at older, grittier thing, and their shapes, patterns, and textures. I always enjoy construction sites, where you can see the innards of a building-to-be, but it was interesting looking at the opposite – destruction sites, and places where humans had run out of money or just don’t care anymore how things look. In those places, there’s nature: plants competing with concrete, pushing into cracks and crevices, revealing and exploiting areas that humans neglect.
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I read an interesting article this week by Michael Pollan on recent research into plant biology, and specifically neurobiology – how plants sense their environment and exchange information. Plant biologists are sharply divided on whether to call these abilities intelligence. Some scientists insist there cannot be intelligence unless there’s a brain, while others define it in terms of the ability to solve problems, which plants can do. But there seems to be general agreement that plants have some remarkable perceptual abilities.

Pollan describes plants’ “unique existential predicament as their being rooted to the ground and therefore unable to pick up and move when they need something or conditions turn unfavorable. The ‘sessile life style,’ as plant biologists term it, calls for an extensive and nuanced understanding of one’s immediate environment, since the plant has to find everything it needs, and has to defend itself, while remaining fixed in place. A highly developed sensory apparatus is required to locate food and identify threats. Plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty distinct senses, including analogues of our five . . . .”

Plants have also developed some remarkable chemical methods of defending against marauding insects and communicating with others of their species regarding threats and food opportunities, and even recruiting other species to perform services. One researcher estimated that a plant has three thousand chemicals in its vocabulary. Researchers have also found examples of plant learning and memory. Most plant behavior is either invisible or happens too slowly for humans to perceive, but time-lapse photography is opening new windows.
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One of the challenges of this research is the ethical implications. One scientist, Stefano Mancuso of the University of Florence, argues that “because plants are sensitive and intelligent beings, we are obliged to treat them with some degree of respect. That means protecting their habitats from destruction and avoiding practices such as genetic manipulation, growing plants in monocultures, and training them in bonsai.” Mancuso doesn’t go so far as to avoid eating them. He contends they have evolved to be eaten, which accounts for their modular structure and lack of irreplaceable organs.

Most of this research was news to me, but I didn’t find it hard to believe that plants have extraordinary abilities, or that humans might find this hard to accept. Some people have the same problem dealing with the existence of (non-human) animal intelligence. I guess it’s insecurity. To me, learning about and appreciating the abilities of other species of life makes the world that much more amazing.
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In health news, I’m happy to say I finally got back to my fighting weight of 155 lbs this week (that’s a BMI of 22), after gaining 5 during our Xmas holiday travels. It is certainly harder to take them off than to put them on. I did it by working more interval training into my workouts, like jumping rope or rowing as part of a weight circuit, and lengthening my longer cardio work (elliptical, stairs, and such) from 30 to 40 minutes. Also, of course, eating sensible portions of healthy things (fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains).

I also am grateful to my health and fitness guides, especially Larisa Lotz, who meets me each Thursday at 5:30 a.m. at Studio Revolution with several mind and body surprises. This week, for example, her latest workout creation had me lunging and twisting, slamming down a heavy medicine ball, squatting with a sandbag, old school dead lifts, rowing with kettle bells in plank position, and fast agility movements through a rope ladder, among several other aerobic and anaerobic activities. She didn’t have a new balance activity this week, but she’s got me working on several, including balancing on my knees on an exercise ball.

This week I also tried a new morning exercise class at O2 Fitness called Chisel. I’ve been enjoying/enduring the spinning class there on Fridays with Jenn, who is funny, inspiring, and relentless, and she told me I should give it a try. I hadn’t previously done gym classes other than spinning, in part because I’ve got plenty of other things I like to do, but also in part because of shyness – a little bit of fear of the unknown, of confusion and possible embarrassment.

But with Jenn’s encouragement, I showed up last Monday. She was, as usual tough and inspiring, and funny. The hour-long class involved a background of driving dance club music and foreground of intense intervals both with and without dumbbells. Hardest for me were the jumping lunges. I found it very sweat inducing, and after hanging on for dear life, I felt great afterwards – an endorphin surge.

On Saturday morning as usual I went to Blue Lotus Yoga for Yvonne Cropp’s open level Vinyasa class. This weekend is Blueversary – the seventh birthday for the studio – which made me particularly conscious of how grateful I am that it’s there. There were several new people in the class, which may have accounted for Yvonne’s keeping things relatively low-keyed, well within normal yoga conventions. It was good, as always, to really stretch and to breathe together with the class. Afterwards, there was a drawing for special prizes, and I won one – a basket with lavender-scented soap and such. I didn’t really need the lavender, but still, I felt lucky.

Amazing drawings, the N.C. Zoo, and some photos of butterflies

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Congratulations, to Jocelyn, who just graduated from the Columbia University publishing program. Now she’s hunting for a publishing job in New York, and we’re hopeful that she’ll quickly find one. (If you have any leads, please let me know.)

This week she sent me this link to a group of drawings and paintings that are astonishing in their photographic realism. Truly, the work is uncanny. I had no idea that there were humans with such technical facility.

But after the initial shock of astonishment wore off a bit, I wondered a little what was the point. If you could do the same thing with a camera, why wouldn’t you just use the camera? I suppose it might be like deciding to hike when you could drive, or building furniture with hand tools rather than power tools. There could be joy in the activity.

At any rate, I’m so glad I’ve got a camera, because it would take me at least another lifetime to learn to draw like these artists. Lately I’ve been learning more about my Nikon D3200, and having fun with it.
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Week before last, I took the Sally and the camera over to the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro. We took in most of the Africa section, which features a spacious layout for such iconic species as elephants, giraffes, and rhinos, and relatively humane enclosures for the lions, chimps, baboons, lemurs, and exotic birds.
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We saw an adorable and sociable ostrich (above). I was also particularly touched by a baby baboon, just 6 months old, who rode about on mama, dropped off to bother brother, and hitched another ride on top of an aunt. We also enjoyed the many swimming turtles, including snappers, we saw from the bridge at the entrance.

I generally associate zoos with children, and recalled with pleasure taking my kids years ago, but also was reminded of the many challenges of young children and their needs (“I’m thirsty.” “I’m hungry” “I’m tired.” “I’m bored.”) It was good for a change to have no worries of that sort, and freedom to just enjoy the animals and environments.
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Of course I have mixed feelings: it doesn’t feel quite right to cage these creatures up, even in nice cages. In the best of worlds they’d be free to live as best they could in habitat unmarred by humans. But in an imperfect world, I appreciate the chance to get close to these marvelous creatures.
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As a birthday present to myself I recently got a new tool: AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105 mm f/2.8G IF-ED. It’s a high quality macro lens suitable for extreme closeups. I’m interested in doing more with flowers and insects. Yesterday morning I got to Raulston Arboretum just after it opened at 8:00 a.m., and had good light, and proceeded thereafter to Fletcher Park. There were bees and butterflies hard at work, including these.
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