The Casual Blog

Tag: Ron Chernow

Hitting the little white ball, the appalling debate, ocean concerns, and reading Hamilton

At Raulston Arboretum, September 18, 2015

At Raulston Arboretum, September 18, 2015

On Wednesday after work, I went over to Raleigh Country Club and practiced on the range for a bit. Lately I’ve been trying to get out to practice a couple of times a week, with a view to making prettier and longer parabolas. It looks so much easier than it is. The late afternoon was peaceful and mild.

Sally was waiting on the terrace looking out on hole number 10 when I finished, and we had dinner there. It was overcast, and looking west we couldn’t see the sun directly as it was setting. But suddenly the clouds lit up a bright orange-pink, and for a few minutes the colors were amazing.

After dinner, Sally had to go to her mom’s apartment to take care of Diane’s two greyhounds, and so I watched the Republican presidential debate alone. It was, of course, appalling, though also by moments fascinating. The eleven candidates were all, in their various ways, intelligent and well spoken, and also in varying degrees bizarre or utterly benighted. I watched a good chunk of the three-hour spectacle, and kept waiting for a serious treatment of the serious issue of climate change. From press accounts, it appears I missed a few brief comments on the subject, to the effect that either it’s a liberal conspiracy or there’s just nothing to be done about it, so there’s no point in thinking or talking about it. Appalling.

I read most of the World Wildlife Fund’s report this week on the state of the world’s oceans, and recommend it. The news, of course, is not good. About half the population of creatures that live in, on, and over the oceans have disappeared since 1970. Coral reefs, on which much ocean life depends, have likewise diminished, and may disappear by 2050. But the report presses the point that the situation is not hopeless. There are ways we can address the over fishing and climate change problems that largely account for the crisis.

Through diving dive on some of the world’s most beautiful coral reefs, I’ve developed a deep love for reef ecosystems, and will be seeing another one next week. Sally and I are leaving next Friday for a trip to see the reefs and animals of Mozambique. We’re hoping to see whale sharks, manta rays, humpback whales, and many other remarkable creatures. We’ll also be doing a land based photo safari in Kruger Park in South Africa. This trip has been a big dream, and has taken a lot of planning, but it should be amazing. Anyhow, I expect to be offline for a couple of weeks, but hope to have some good stories and pictures to post after that.

For this long trip, I’ll need some good books to read, and I’d expected I’d be working my way through Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, a biography of the Founding Father who was our first Secretary of the Treasury. But I’ve been so fascinated by the book that I may finish it before the trip. The Times review is here.

Hamilton, it turns out, was a brilliant, energetic, and passionate person, who accomplished an amazing amount in his short life. Among other things, he helped win the Revolutionary War as Washington’s most trusted aide-de-camp, played a primary role in fashioning the Constitution, wrote most of the Federalist to win passage of the Constitution, established a financial system for the new republic, and served as President Washington’s primary advisor. And he was handsome and well-liked by the ladies, and also the gentlemen. Of course, he had his flaws of character, and his enemies, including the sainted Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The politics of the time were at least as ungentle as now. This is a remarkable and remarkably relevant book, which I highly recommend.

A dive trip to Hatteras with a harrowing episode, visiting Manteo, and reading Robot Futures

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We undertook a four-day dive trip out of Cape Hatteras beginning last Thursday, but the weather didn’t cooperate. We made it OK to our base at Hatteras Landing, but high seas prevented our going out for the first three days. We made the best of things, enjoying some time together, exploring the local points of interest, listening to music, and reading.
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For us the most interesting non-diving local point was the N.C. Aquarium at Manteo. I particularly liked the sting ray encounter tank, where Atlantic and cownose rays came up to be petted. There was a large tank with several sand tiger and sand bar sharks, which are impressive. Their keeper got in the tank in scuba gear with a full face mask and speaking equipment, and answered questions as they swam around her. Her high degree of comfort with these fierce-looking creatures was, I’m sure, an educational moment for the kids and adults in attendance.
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While in Manteo, we also visited the Elizabethan Gardens. Sally remembered my mother had talked about how beautiful it was, and we found it so. The first part is a formal garden with ornamental hedges, but the greater part of it is wooded, with enormous oaks and shade loving plants.
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With no other pressing business, I did some walking on the Hatteras beach, and took some pictures of the birds at work there. I got a few of sanderlings and willets on the edge of the surf that I liked.
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As for reading, I started a biography of John D. Rockefeller, Titan by Ron Chernow, which seems lively so far. And I finished Robot Futures by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh. Nourbakhsh is a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon, and his book describes the current state of the art in robotics and also gives a forward projection of what several decades might bring. Some of it seems science fictiony, but that may be unavoidable – technology has already surpassed some of the science fiction of my youth.

Nourbakhsh describes robots as “a new form of living glue between our physical world and the digital universe we have created.” He gently makes clear that robots are not limited in their mental or physical abilities to what humans can do. Forget the Jetson and their butler robot. Real robots can be stronger and faster, and move in different ways (like flying, or crawling like a snake). They can perceive parts of the visual spectrum we can’t, and hear pitches that we can’t. They can connect to the internet more efficiently than humans, and potentially process information from numerous sources that are far beyond our capacities.

Robot Futures recognizes that there will be many different types of robots with widely varying abilities, including ones that are closely controlled by humans and others which will be partially or entirely autonomous. It will not be easy for humans to tell the difference. Autonomous robots with access to robot Google and links to other robot databases may well know more about us when we encounter them than we about them.

Nourbakhsh imagines a distant future where we can smoothly enter the consciousness of various robot agents that in effect teleport us to different places and allow interactions with multiple people and environments at once. He also has a darker vision of a possible world where human bodies are purchased for use as the physical casing for robot intelligence. Impossible? Let us hope so. But there is little doubt in my mind that, barring global catastrophe, the world of intelligent robots is taking shape. Robot Futures does a good job at starting the conversation of what that might mean for humans.

We finally got to dive on Sunday with Captain J.T. Barker on his dive boat, the Under Pressure. As I noted last year, J.T. designed and built an elevator on the back for getting divers out of the water. This comes in very handy in rough seas. The vessel has a large air-conditioned cabin, which permits some relaxing on long boat rides. Some video of the boat and our dives in early August last year is on his web site.
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We did two wrecks: the Proteus and the Dixie Arrow. The first was, for me, nearly disastrous. Immediately after I reached the bottom (118 feet), I paused briefly to clear water from my mask and tune my buoyancy. Visibility was limited to about 20 feet at that point. Then I looked around and saw no one and nothing. In just seconds, the current had carried me out of sight of the anchor line.

I struggled against the current for a bit, then relaxed and started working on plan B – ascend and find the boat. I began to slowly go up, then at 80 feet I suddenly noted that the air was not working at all well. The air pressure gauge showed zero. This seemed impossible – I had been under for only about 20 minutes, and usually the air lasts two or three times that long. Anyhow, it happened. Plainly, I should have checked the gauge earlier.

Although I thought it unlikely I could make an emergency ascent on one breath from 80 feet, I saw no choice but to have a go. I really didn’t feel panic, even at this point, though I was seriously concerned. I remembered my PADI training and exhaled gradually as I kicked upward. I ran out of air at about 30 feet, and hoped very much there was one last breath in the tank. I breathed in, and there was a tad — just enough to make it the rest of the way.

On the surface, I felt relief, but also concern that I might well have some degree of decompression sickness, a/k/a the bends. I was hoping to get some oxygen, but the boat, with oxygen, was far away.

As I started kicking against the current toward the board and watching to see if I was going to get sick, I felt something bump me. I reached down and felt a firm, smooth animal. A shark? I thought how really unfair it would be, after all my speaking up in defense of sharks, to end up as shark food. I finally figured out it was a ramora, which apparently wanted to attach itself to me.

I swam for quite a while with little progress, until at last Bobby, the mate, came out with a line. As we kicked, our divermaster Jim reeled us in. It was, of course, embarrassing. But I was grateful to be alive and not even ill, and it certainly was a learning experience.

During our surface interval, Captain J.T. put out some fishing lines, and hooked a fish. As the fish came near the boat, J.T. Announced with excitement that it was a wahoo, and grabbed a hook, with which he impaled the fish and hauled him aboard. The wahoo was about 3 feet long and about 30 pounds – a fine specimen.

Several folks commented on what a delicious meal he would make. Then J.T. and others observed Sally crying. These were tears for the wahoo. Our fellow divers were concerned but really puzzled. They just couldn’t comprehend Sally’s sadness at the brutal torture and death of this creature.

Our second dive, the Dixie Arrow, was less exciting, thank God. I had only a minor equipment problem: the wire to my strobe came loose – so no pictures. We got close to a lot of sand tiger sharks (maybe 10), a lot of Atlantic sting rays (maybe 12), a number of barricuda and thousands of minnows in shimmering thick clouds. It was fantastic.