The Casual Blog

Tag: Raulston Arboretum

Not diving, flowers, meditating, and watching 13th

Happy flowers at Raulston Arboretum, July 21, 2018

We’d scheduled a diving trip this weekend out of Wrightsville, but it got cancelled because of bad weather.  We’d been looking forward to seeing some wrecks and fish, but so it goes. Instead we had some pleasantly uncommitted and uncrowded hours.

Yesterday morning I stopped by Raulston Arboretum with my camera to see what was blooming and buzzing.  I was surprised at how many new flowers were there, including these. The rain has stopped and it was cloudy — good photography weather.

I also took a little extra time for meditating.  Lately I’ve been practicing sitting still for 15 minutes first thing in the morning, and focusing on the breath.  I find it’s helpful in reducing stress and anxiety, of which there is no shortage these days. It also unmasks some of the odd and funny things the mind will do.  I took a little refresher course on basic meditation techniques using an app called Calm, which was helpful.

We had a good dinner at La Santa, a relatively new Mexican restaurant a short walk from our apartment.  The place has a brash festive air, with murals of Santa Muerte, and current Mexican music. The menu doesn’t have a lot of vegetarian  offerings, but they had no problem making their fajitas without meat, which were tasty.

That night on Netflix we watched 13th, a documentary about the relationship of slavery and mass incarceration.  It notes that the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison population, and a disproportionate percentage of those prisoners are black.  The film also explores how politicians have encouraged and exploited fear of black people, with the wars on crime and drugs. I thought the editing was overly lively, but it was definitely worth seeing and thinking about.  

 

A wedding, glass, and unknown history

Paul after the wedding on the American Rover out of Norfolk

We went to Virginia Beach last weekend to celebrate my brother’s wedding and catch up with the Tiller clan.  The wedding was outside in a yard beside the intercoastal waterway, and it was a bit on the chilly side, but sunny.  My brother Paul played his banjo as his bride arrived, and the couple seemed very happy. Afterwards we moved inside for lunch, and caught up on family news.  

We Tillers have been fortunate in many ways, not least in that we still love each other, despite our differences in politics and religion. As my sister Jane observed, people these days are very polarized, and it’s gotten hard to communicate across tribal lines. But we still had plenty of common ground, and had some invigorating discussions.     

Sally and Jane at the Chrysler Museum

The next day we visited the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, and spent a couple of hours looking at their impressive glass collection, which we missed when we previously visited.  Much of the enjoyment for me was about history and craftsmanship, rather than individual artistic vision.  But there were some pieces that were definitely art, and were moving.  It made me look at our household glass differently, and consider it as part of a long tradition of craft and experimentation.

In iris at Raulston Arboretum

Speaking of art and history, this past week there was a significant opening:  the new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Way too few Americans know much about the terrorism against black Americans in the first half of the twentieth century.  Thousands of black people were publicly tortured and killed, some in front of crowds of white people who viewed the violence as entertainment.

The new memorial to the victims of this horrendous violence sounds powerful in just the way the D.C. Vietnam memorial is powerful:  making the suffering concrete and undeniable in a beautiful and dignified way. There was a fine description of it in the Washington Post, including good photographs.    I’ve added it to my list of places to visit.

Just one more thing about our racism, and then I’ll stop.  This week the New Yorker has a fine and unsettling piece by Alex Ross called the Hitler Vortex.    I’d recently read most of the new biography of Hitler by Volker Ullrich, which was quite good, but Ross provided new perspectives on the conflicting schools of Hitler scholarship, and the social forces that brought Germany to acknowledge its enormous crime against the Jews.  

As Ross notes, Hitler greatly admired America’s genocide of native Americans and its elaborate system for repression of African Americans.  This should give us pause. Unlike the Germans, who have acknowledged and worked to atone for the crimes of the third reich, we Americans for the most part maintain our ignorance and innocence as to these enormous racial crimes.  Perhaps one day we’ll teach our school children what really happened, how it was horribly wrong, and how we need to be continually vigilant to prevent such evil from ever recurring.

In the meantime, we need to do what we can, and stay sane.  For a dose of beauty and clarity, I recommend a walk at Raulston Arboretum, where the irises and early roses are blooming.  I took these flower pictures this weekend.

Welcome, but unsettling, early flowers

At Swift Creek Bluffs

Spring isn’t supposed to come in Raleigh in February, but it has.  The birds are singing lustily and early flowers are blooming.  It’s beautiful, though also unsettling—our climate is definitely changing.  But we still have sweet moments.  

I took a hike in Swift Creek Bluffs on Saturday morning and found some tiny wildflowers.  At one point I was on my knees in the dirt with the camera and tripod, struggling with focus and exposure, and my glasses kept slipping down my nose, so I took them off.  I did a minor adjustment, shifted position, and put a knee right on the glasses.   Dagnabit!  I’ll be taking them in to Adrienne at the Eye Care Center for repair next week.  

Speaking of plants, there was an interesting podcast from Radiolab last week on plant behavior.  For example, some trees can sense the presence of water some distance away in the soil with a sense that seems like hearing.  Also, researchers have found that some plants appear to learn about threatening human behavior and remember what they learn.  How they do this without a brain is still a mystery.   

This morning I went up to Raulston Arboretum for the first time this year and found more things blossoming, and took some more pictures.  

At Raulston Arboretum

For the last two weeks we’ve been having dinner in front of the TV and watching the Winter Olympics.  We like the skiing and skating, and for that we’ll tolerate the abusively repetitive advertising.  

This year NBC improved the quality of its on air commentators, and for a number of events had people who both knew about the non-mainstream sports and had comments that were helpful to the non-specialist.  Bode Miller was insightful on ski racing, as were Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir on figure skating.  And they let Weir be Weir, as gay as can be–a cheering step forward for tolerance and respect in American media.  

I wasn’t expecting to see outdoor flowers for at least a couple of weeks, and so I’d been working on more pictures of Sally’s orchid.  I did focus stacking with Photoshop, which took several hours of computer processing, and made a couple of images that I liked:

Our new floor, Liszt, and some ants

At Raulston Arboretum, September 3, 2017

They finished installing our new wood floor, and so we said so long to the Hampton Inn and moved back home on Friday.  There’s still a lot of unpacking, reconnecting, and rearranging yet to do, but the worst is behind us.  The new flooring is American walnut in wider planks and a more textured surface, and we really like it.

We had a special sound absorbent underlayer put under the floor, in consideration of the neighbors situated under my Fazioli 228 grand piano.  The instrument can put out a lot of sound, which I hope isn’t too annoying for them.  I was very happy to be able to play it again.

The new floor under the Fazioli

Among other things, I’ve been working on one of Liszt’s songs for piano, Oh! Quand Je Dors, from the second Buch der Lieder fur Piano Allein.  It’s so beautiful!  At times it feels a bit lonely caring about Liszt, since my friends generally don’t seem to like him nearly as much as I do.  I suppose loneliness often comes along with a passion, since caring intensely about something will separate you from others.  Of course, it also connects you to others, but they may not be close by, and may even belong to generations long gone.

My teacher lent me a book by one of Liszt’s piano students, August Gollerich, which consists of diary notes of master classes Liszt conducted in 1884-86, the last two years of his life.  The format of Liszt’s master classes was just like those today, with a series of students playing works, and then getting critical comments from the master.  Liszt was very direct about what he liked and didn’t like, but he also had a sense of humor. He mixed practical instruction on tempo and volume with notes on the animating emotions, and frequently played to demonstrate his points.  How daunting and amazing it must have been to play Liszt for Liszt! For his part, the master, nearing the end, seemed happy to be surrounded by adoring students, and still passionate about music.

Speaking of lonely passions, I heard a radio interview with Eleanor Spicer Rice, an entomologist who truly loves ants.  She pointed up their under-appreciated contributions to the environment and some wonderfully quirky behaviors.  She was so sweet and excited about these tiny creatures that I ordered and started reading her book, Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants.  For each species, she writes three or four pages about their habits, customs, and talents, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

Wet flowers, Vidrio, and beautiful dancing

For Earth Day on Saturday, I took a walk on the trail at Swift Creek Bluffs, and found a few late wildflowers, including the pair above.  Lots of birds were singing.  On Sunday morning I looked in at Raulston Arboretum right after it had rained and before it rained again.  I had a close look at some freshly showered irises, a few of which are below.  

 

On Saturday night, Sally and I tried a fairly new restaurant, Vidrio, on Glenwood Avenue just three blocks from us.  It was excellent!  The decor is stylish and eclectic, with an entire wall of large colorful glass serving dishes, ropes, tiles, frames, and other whimsies.  Our server from Argentina had a winning mix of personal warmth and professionalism.  We had an amazing foamy cocktail called an amortentia.  The food was a spin on tapas, with several vegetarian (though not vegan) options.  We particularly enjoyed the agnolotti and the black rice risotto.

Afterwards, we saw the Carolina Ballet do works by director Robert Weiss and choreographer-in-residence Zalman Raffael.  Weiss’s Mephisto Waltz, a pas de deux, was his last work created on Lilyan Vigo, who is retiring after nineteen years with the company.  This waltz that had the smoldering intensity of a tango.  It’s always been hard to take one’s eyes off  the beautiful Vigo, and she was magnificent.  But her partner, Yevgeny Shlapko, was highly charismatic as the Devil.  

Raffael’s Rhapsody, set to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, is a brilliant jazzy ensemble piece, with excellent solos performed that night by Jan Burkhard (back from maternity leave and most welcome), Lindsay Purrington, Marcelo Martinez, Amanda Babayan, and Miles Sollars-White.

Beauty, violence, and delusions: a Macbeth ballet, a Vietnam history, and a Kenya drone strike movie

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It was raining lightly on Saturday morning when I got to Raulston Arboretum, and there were quite a few new irises and roses. I enjoyed the colors, textures, and strange architecture, as accented by the raindrops. I had to work fast, because I’d scheduled a spin class for 9:30. But I had 25 minutes of strolling, peering, sniffing, and clicking, and made it to Flywheel in good time for the spin class with the cheery, peppy, hard-driving Vashti.

I’d felt a little discouraged after my spin class last week, when I was aiming for 300 points and managed only 281. I decided on a slightly different approach this week, involving more conscious pacing and allowing for short recovery periods. My results were better, with a final score of 307, and an average heart rate for the 45 minutes of 154, tying the record.

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That evening we went over to Durham for some food and ballet. We ate at Watts Grocery, where I had a delicious asparagus salad and couscous with beets. At DPAC we saw the new Carolina Ballet production of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s play is a bloody one, dense with painful emotion. This new ballet by Robert Weiss is also violent and anguished, but with interludes of light – friendship, play, and love. It succeeds as storytelling and as dance, with many subtleties and flourishes. Unfortunately, the music was not very interesting and highly repetitious. But I really liked the dancing, the craggy set, and the costumes.
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Speaking of bloody intervals, last week I finished reading a history of U.S. misconduct in Vietnam by Nick Turse, entitled Kill Anything That Moves. It is a difficult and almost unbearable story. The catalog of American atrocities is long – wanton murder of civilians, widespread rape, torture, and mutilation, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed on a wholesale basis by massive bombing and artillery. Hardly any of those who engineered the policies behind this carnage or those who carried it out were held accountable.

This history has been substantially suppressed, ignored, and forgotten. The human capacity for sustaining ignorance and self-delusion is a remarkable thing. In general, we are amazingly adept at suppressing new information that’s inconsistent with our prior beliefs, at justifying bad conduct when it fits with our preferences and self-interest, and at repressing memories that don’t fit into our preferred narratives. For Americans, coming to grips with any story of American action where we aren’t heroes is extremely difficult.
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But doing so is important work. Understanding the conditions that give rise to cruelty can help us prevent it. Therefore, with some hesitation, I recommend Turse’s book, with the caveat that it should be read only by mature readers not currently considering suicide or other violence and that, when reading, they take frequent breaks from these dark chapters to get hugs and kisses from their loved ones. One of my takeaways was that it’s usually or never a good idea to invade distant countries where we are ignorant and contemptuous of the people and culture.
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We saw Eye in the Sky last week at the Raleigh Grande. It was our first visit to the recently upgraded theater, and we liked the soft reclining seats. The movie is about setting up a drone strike by combined British and American military leaders and technicians in Kenyan on Al-Shabab terrorists. The primary tension in the movie is whether they should fire a powerful hellfire missile when it looks like it will kill a sweet little girl.

I thought it was well-played, and it was interesting to see what may well be close to state-of-the-art spying and killing technology. It was nice, in a way, to think that some military leaders might find it hard to decide whether to kill one little girl when they had a chance to execute several terrorists. The big question I left with, though, was never addressed in the movie: why would the U.S. and Britain be devoting themselves to fighting enemies of Kenya?
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Foolish LGBT discrimination in NC, more spring blossoms, and an excellent Barber of Seville

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North Carolina is my home, and I love it very much. There is a lot of natural beauty, and there are a lot of smart, warm people. But boy, we’ve got some really ignorant political leadership. It is hard to believe, at this point in history, anyone would truly fear gay and transgender folks. And it’s just shameful to start a fear mongering campaign about the risks posed by improper usage of bathrooms. Has anyone ever heard of an LGBT bathroom attack, or even an awkward moment? Unfortunately, the stupidity and/or cynicism of our legislative Republicans has brought cascades of ridicule on our state, and it looks like there could be real economic damage. Eventually we’ll vote those rascals out (maybe in November?), but meanwhile, it’s painful and embarrassing.
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But again, this is a good place to live, and a good time. The azaleas blossomed this week in pinks, whites, and purples, and the delicate dogwoods (our state tree) flowered. It was rainy on Saturday morning, when I went to Raulston Arboretum, and it was awkward holding an umbrella over the camera while taking some of these pictures, but I liked the water on the flowers. On Sunday morning, I went over to Duke Gardens. It was sunny, but breezy, and the flowers tended to move about when I got ready to take their pictures.
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On Sunday afternoon, we went with Diane to the N.C. Opera’s production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. It was wonderful! There was so much life, so much warmth and humor. Previous productions I’ve seen were mostly about delivering those blockbuster arias, but this one was as much about the characters. Stage director Stephanie Havey made it as much fun to watch as it was to listen to, with lots of comedy, some of it Marxist madcap, but some of it almost Shakespearean. The period costumes had elements of whimsey. It took me a while to warm up to the sets, which were sort of postmodern antique facades that rolled in and out, but in the end they worked.Tiller7Bug 1-9

The singing was all very good, and some was superb. I adored the lovely Cecilia Hall as Rosina. She had a richness and fluidity to her mezzo, and she was a fine actress, with intelligence and quick wit. Tyler Simpson as Dr. Bartolo was hilariously grumpy and obtuse, and also a wonderful low baritone, with marvelous diction in the patter songs. Troy Cook as Figaro was instantly likeable, and highly musical. Conductor Timothy Myers led with musical insight. He knew when to take some luxurious time, and when to push quickly forward. The orchestra sounded really good. There were quite a few moments when I had goosebumps and watery eyes at so much rare beauty. It was a privilege.
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Welcoming daffodils, and re-starting golf lessons

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This week I saw the first daffodils! I just love those little guys, especially the early ones –- the harbingers. On Sunday, I got up to Raulston Arboretum, where the daffs were exuberant, while most other occupants were still slumbering.

Through the long winter nights, I spent some time learning more about photography and adding to my tool kit. I’ve got some new tools to try out, including a nice flash (the Nikon SB-910) and a new macro lens (Tamron 180 MM) that should be great for closeups of insects. I’ve got new software (the CC versions of Lightroom and Photoshop) and have been experimenting with image healing, filters, and focus stacking. I’m ready for the great blossoming of spring.
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Partly with spring in view, I began taking golf lessons a couple of weeks ago. A golf course is a type of garden, and we are privileged to have a good number of such extraordinary gardens in piedmont North Carolina. It seems a waste not to explore and enjoy them. And so I’ve vowed once again to try to get over the hump that separates me from playing golf at a better-than-mediocre level. I’m healthy, fit, and mentally able, so it’s not implausible. I just have to improve my technique – by a lot.

As I’ve noted before, when there’s something difficult to be learned, I’m a big believer in finding a gifted teacher and doing what she says. The teacher-student relationship can be rich human experience, but even when it isn’t, it’s generally the most efficient way to get a skill set. When you don’t know how to do something, it’s hard to teach yourself. This is especially true of complex physical endeavors.
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I found my way to GolfTEC in north Raleigh, and Jessica Yadlocsky. Jessica is an ex NCAA all American and a former touring professional on the European tour, so she knows something about the game. She’s patient and encouraging, and has a good supply of tricks and strategies for addressing common problems.

At our first lesson, she said my set up was fantastic – tour quality. The problems began, however, when I put the club in motion. I have a bad habit of coming over the top, a not uncommon swing flaw. I found her diagnosis persuasive, and her suggested treatments made sense. She stipulated that I should practice at least two hours a week.

As the name suggests, GolfTEC has a technology angle, with lots of video equipment and measurement algorithms. Jessica set up a space just for me on their website with video of my lesson and video drills. As her student, I’m entitled to practice in their shop, which allows viewing every swing from two angles in slow motion. That feedback is revealing and helpful, although also a bit humbling. Already, thanks to Jessica and the video feedback, I’ve made progress addressing some of my swaying, overswinging, and going off plane. I’m optimistic.
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A photo contest, getting shoulder therapy, trying fasting, and not debating climate change

Rob Tiller -- Passionate Embrace -- 2015 (1 of 1)
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.

Butterflies, Vermeer, and blind spots

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After work on Friday, I zipped up to Raulston Arboretum with my camera to see what was blooming and flying. It’s a lovely place, and it’s soothing to stroll among the quiet growing things. But when you’re trying to manually focus the camera on tiny quick-moving creatures, there’s a burst of adrenaline. When it all clicks, I feel happy. This week there was a profusion of butterflies, and I had good luck in capturing images of a few.
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I’ve been reading the book Diane gave me, Travels in Vermeer, by Michael White. It’s a memoir about a tough time in White’s personal life, which was relieved by his falling in love with the art of Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch artist. I share his passion for these rare paintings, and like his accounts of his personal encounters with the master’s work.

White shows how feelings flow out of the paintings, and how they reward the viewer who keeps looking and looking. This is one way to tell when art is truly great — when you can’t exhaust it. I had the bright idea of googling the paintings as I came to his descriptions, and confirmed that Google takes far less than a second to locate a decent image of any Vermeer you care to name. It enriched the reading experience.
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As I mentioned last week, I’ve been listening to audio book lectures while working out about ancient Greece and Rome. This week I learned that as much as a third of the population of classical Athens were slaves. For all the pathbreaking philosophers among the Greeks, it appears that none of those great minds questioned the institution of slavery. Though I found this surprising, it also occurred to me that there have been and are still huge blind spots in our moral vision. I’m thinking of those things that are almost impossible to think about, let alone criticize, let alone change, because they’re so integral to the way we live. An example: our industrialized cruelty to farm animals.

Raulston Arboretum, July 24, 2015

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But these things can seem unshakably settled and then get unsettled. Think of progress on racism, sexism, homophobia, and our heedless destruction of the natural world. This seems to be happening with our views of imprisonment. This week President Obama visited a federal prison and spoke out about some of our most egregiously cruel practices with regard to convicted criminals, including solitary confinement.

What’s wrong with solitary confinement? The NY Times nailed it.

“When they get out, they are broken,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist in California who consults on prison conditions and mental health programs. “This is permanent damage.” Cornell William Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said prolonged solitary confinement amounted to torture. “Putting someone in solitary confinement does horrible things to a person’s personality, their psyche, their character,” he said.

It seems like we’re starting to be able to see this problem and address it.
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And it seems like a good thing that Iran has agreed in principle to back off from building nuclear weapons. What’s not to like? Our usual unquestioning acceptance of the possibility of massive nuclear destruction is sort of like the Greeks and slavery – we just can’t bring ourselves to think about it. But we know, in the back of our minds, that existing hydrogen bombs, always on alert and ready for launch, always subject to human error, could quickly end life as we know it. Shouldn’t we be pushing our governments to find ways to back off the nuclear precipice? If you aren’t familiar with the science regarding nuclear winter, information is here.
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