The Casual Blog

Tag: Shelley Lake

The eaglets fell but are OK, as am I, having retired

The eaglet last week at Shelley Lake

Last week one of the two eaglets at Shelley Lake fell from nest and was rescued.  The following morning I got some pictures of the remaining youngster and the storm-damaged nest, and caught up on eagle family news with other eagle fans.  I went up there again yesterday, and learned that the other eaglet had also been found on the ground and also got rescued. I saw one of the eagle parents fly to the nest site and perch briefly, with its back to me, before flying out again.

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Jocelyn and Kyle came down from New York to visit and help with a surprise party dinner for my retirement.  Yes, this week, after 32 years as a licensed attorney and 11 years as vice president and assistant general counsel at Red Hat, Inc., I came to the end of that chapter.  Mainly I felt happiness and excitement, but there were other complicated feelings, including regret that I won’t be as close on a daily basis to my work friends.  

But I’m looking forward to new adventures.  I’ll be the father of the bride in Jocelyn’s and Kyle’s wedding.  I’m planning on learning some new dishes to cook for Sally, and getting some golf coaching from Gabe. Also, in the next several months I expect to be traveling, studying photography, and making photographs of various living things, including flowers, fish, and grizzly bears, and lots of birds (like puffins, cranes, snow geese, and penguins).  

I’ll be exploring new piano repertoire, including more Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and Debussy, and also reviving my jazz studies, which have been sitting in storage for quite a few years.  I’ll be sketching with pencil and paper, and also with an iPad. I’m hoping to improve my language skills in French, Spanish, German and Italian. I’ve also got a long English-language reading list — mostly history and various branches of science and philosophy, but also poetry and fiction.

My retirement dinner at Caffe Luna. Left to right: Jocelyn, Kyle, Sally, me, Gabe, and Clark

First off, though, I’m taking a few deep breaths.  When I left Red Hat on Friday, I went up to Raulston Arboretum to check on new flowers.  Then I stopped for coffee at Cup A Joe’s and sat for a while with a new e-book (Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan).  It was a new thing for me to sit reading well after I finished my beverage, with no urgency to get to the next thing.  The next day, I went to our rooftop pool area with Jocelyn and Kyle to chat and read, and for the first time since we moved here almost 10 years ago, I got in the pool.  For such a hot day, it was surprisingly chilly and refreshing.

The eaglets test their wings, and I finish The Overstory

The eaglet siblings and their nest at Shelley Lake

I went up to Shelley Lake last Saturday morning hoping to see the two bald eagle chicks and take some photos.  I put my long lens (a Sigma 150-600 mm zoom) on a tripod, and watched the nest for a couple of hours.

It wasn’t boring!  There were quiet periods, but I found them peaceful.  The eaglets were dark, and from about 70 yards away, I couldn’t see a lot of detail.  It wasn’t until the next day when I processed the images with Lightroom and other tools that I understood what they were up to:  waiting for their mama, flapping their wings and getting ready to fly, and eating.

The eaglets looked to be about three-quarters as big as the adults.  Each spent some time standing on the edge of the nest, probably thinking about taking off.  But when mama eagle returned from the hunt with food, they opened their beaks wide to be fed like little baby birds.

 

I was looking at the nest a little differently this week, giving more consideration to the pine tree that held it.  I had just finished The Overstory, a novel by Richard Powers, which has at its center the complex lives of trees.

Powers has a lot of human characters, who gradually converge, and he draws on recent scientific discoveries about trees’ social behavior and responses to their environments.  His characters struggle to come to grips with the slow motion disaster that humans are wreaking on the planet. It’s a big novel in every sense, with a lot of beauty and urgency.  

The growing eagle family, and the consciousness of other animals

Papa eagle at the nest

On Thursday afternoon I went up to Shelley Lake with my camera equipment to check on the nesting eagles.  The walk to the nest is close to a mile along a paved path on the east side of the lake. It was clear and mild, though breezy.  When I got there, papa eagle was perched in the pine tree beside the nest. A fellow eagle watcher said there were two chicks in the nest, and mama was off hunting.  Forty-five minutes later, she flew in with some food in her talons and disappeared in the nest. When she emerged, she spent a few minutes perched with her mate, and then flew off.  

Of course, I was excited to see the birds, but there was also something calming about being near them.  The wind sometimes blew the pine branches in front of them, or blew them aside for one second, just enough for a picture.

Speaking of animals, I’ve been reading two good books — Mama’s Last Hug, by Frans de Waal and Beyond Words, by Carl Safina.  Both books explore animal social organizations and thought processes. Dr. de Waal’s primary subjects are chimpanzees and other primates. De Waal explains that when he was a young scientist, the orthodox view in academia was that animals did not have emotions.  He’s devoted his career to testing this view, and has succeeded in thoroughly debunking it.  In exploring non-human animal emotions, he shows us more about our own minds.

Dr. Safina focuses on elephants, wolves, and killer whales, and closely observes a few of their social organizations and personalities.  The stories are moving, and raise absorbing questions about the consciousness of these animals. Some of the human behaviors, including killing elephants for their tusks and killing other creatures merely for pleasure, raise uncomfortable questions about human morality.

 

The eagles at Shelley Lake, looking for wildflowers, finding conspiracies, and new music

Things are blossoming like crazy here, and I’ve been itching to spend some time outside with the beautiful plants and animals.  In the last few days, I’ve succeeded, and had both good luck and bad luck with my camera.    The good luck was at Shelley Lake, where the two adult bald eagles came out of their nest and posed nicely for pictures.  There may well be a couple of eaglets in the nest, as someone said. The area near the nest has become a little social center for nature photographers, bird watchers, and assorted other humans.  It was fun chatting about the birds, and seeing the excitement when people saw them for the first time.

On Friday morning I took a vacation day and went over to the UNC Botanical Garden to see what was blooming and to get a special pass for Mason Farm Biological Reserve.  I was hoping to find unfamiliar wildflowers. When I got there that my camera battery was almost dead (due to taking many eagle shots), and I’d forgotten my backup battery.  The creek was too high to get well into Mason Farm. So, bad luck, but I did find a few interesting wildflowers, which I admired and photographed.

Later I met Gabe Tiller in Chapel Hill for lunch at the Mediterranean Deli.  The falafel, hummus, and baba ghannouj were all delicious! We caught up on family and work news, and I walked him back to work.  Then I made my way to the UNC Arboretum. Traffic on Franklin Street was busy, and I was lucky to find parking at the planetarium.  There were a lot of blossoms at the arboretum which inspired photographic ideas, but my battery gave out after three shots.

On Saturday morning, after visiting the eagles, I drove over to Durham to see the flowers at Duke Gardens.  I’d seen on Instagram that the tulips there were blooming, and that spectacular collection always brings me joy.  But lots of other people had the same idea; the traffic was crawling. After some slow poking through the various lots, I admitted defeat and drove sadly home.

On the way back to Raleigh, I listened to an episode on This American Life about conspiracy theories.  It’s a timely topic, with Donald Trump declaiming loudly that there was no conspiracy involving him, but there are plenty of conspiracies involving his foes.  As one of the program’s segments noted, for fans of anti-government conspiracy theories, everything Trump says makes perfect sense.

Not being such a fan, I’ve assumed that such ideas, however nutty, are mostly harmless.   But my harmlessness hypothesis  was shattered by reports this week by reporting on Alex Jones and others who have decided to believe that the murder of 28 school children and staff  at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 was a hoax. In a podcast of This American Life,  I learned that these people have conducted sustained harassment of the parents of murdered children, including sharing their addresses and personal information and threatening them with violence.  

I have a hard time conceiving of how anyone could get disconnected enough from reality and human decency to attack people based on their being the parents of murdered children, but I’ll try.  1. Humans have a deep-seated drive to find explanatory patterns, and a deep aversion to uncertainty and disorder. 2. Finding a group of people who share your beliefs is satisfying, for it is our nature to want friends and allies.  3. It is surely satisfying to believe you have grasped an obscure truth that only a few can fathom. 4. You may get into a feedback loop: those who resist your conspiracy theory are part of the conspiracy, and their efforts to unpack your theory are attacks on your group and proof of the theory’s validity.  

At any rate, I’m guessing that’s part of how people get to believing in a flat earth, UFOs, the Illuminati, and any number of other fantasies.  But for most of those, I’d expect there’s some hedging. If it came to actually doing violence, physical or psychological, in support of the theory, many people would say, hmmm, I might be wrong, and that germ of uncertainty would hold them back.  It probably takes a big mouth con artist like Alex Jones or Donald Trump leading the charge to overcome those doubts. That may take the group over the edge.

This is sick and scary stuff, and it shows no signs of going away soon.  But some good news: as reported in the NY Times and Washington Post, some of the targeted parents have sued Jones for defamation.  As flawed and error prone as our system of justice is, it’s good to think it’s still there, and may well shut down this particular madness.

This is one of the things I like about spending time with non-human animals and plants:  at a fundamental level, they’re truthful. This week I started another book about animal feelings and intelligence:  Moma’s Last Hug, by Frans de Waal. De Waal is a psychologist at Emory University, who wrote Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? which is a good overview of recent research that is transforming ideas about the limits of animal intelligence.  His new book contends that the emotional lives of some animals are not so different from ours.  Most dog owners already think this, and it’s interesting that science is catching up.  

At my lesson that afternoon with my piano teacher, Olga Kleiankina, she invited to be an audience of one for her run through of most of the program she’ll be performing next week at the Smithsonian Institution, and after that at the N.C. Museum of Art.  The works were all by living composers, including Ligeti, Salonen, and Crumb. The music was challenging for both the performer and listener, requiring great virtuosity and intense attention.  Lacking the traditional binding agents of tonality, performer and listener had to find other orientation points. I didn’t love everything, but I really liked most of it. As she noted, the music could open things up, and make you listen to other things with new ears.

That evening, I discovered on Spotify a wonderful recording of Mahler’s ninth symphony streaming performed by the Essener Philharmoniker led by Tomas Netopil.  It was an excellent orchestra, and Netopil (Czech, b. 1975) was brilliant. And kudos as well to the gifted recording engineers. I’ve enjoyed this music for decades, but felt like I was hearing it for the first time.  I knew nothing of that orchestra, but checked: Essen is the ninth largest city in Germany. Interesting coincidence!

Eagles, gums, eyes, and the music of Robert Schumann and Leah Crocetto

Mama eagle and nest

After another mostly raw and rainy week, it warmed up and cleared up for a bit on Saturday.  I went up to Shelley Lake to try out my big new Sigma lens (150-600mm) and to check on the nesting eagles and other creatures.  Right after I got there, one eagle flew to the nest, and the other flew out. I stayed for another couple of hours, but saw only tail feathers — no more flying.  It was not lonely, though. There were several other photographers staking out the nest, and many hikers, joggers, and dog walkers who stopped for a bit to get the latest eagle news.  Apparently there are eggs in the nest, and eaglets are expected at the end of March. It was a friendly, cheerful scene. As I was leaving, I saw some other birds, and this deer with Canada geese.  

Last week, I had some health maintenance work done, including my regular (every six months) dental check up and cleaning.  As most people know, good teeth are a critical tool for eating and smiling, and we need to take good care of them. And so I’ve long been reasonably diligent about brushing and flossing. Even so, I’ve come in for some criticism by my dental hygienists.  Six months back, Debbie, the new hygienist, gave me a “needs improvement” grade, and heavily promoted my getting a water pick . The machines shoot a concentrated stream of water at the gums, which I always assumed was redundant with flossing and probably a waste of time and money.  But Debbie was extremely passionate and knowledgeable about teeth and gums, and I figured I’d better do what she said. I bought a cheap water pick and used it once a day, after the morning flossing.

It worked!  At my appointment this week, Debbie gave me an A+, declaring that my gums looked fantastic. She also acknowledged that it took sustained daily effort to get such a result.  I was very proud!

I also had my annual eye exam with my optometrist, Dr. Cloninger.  The good news was, my right (good) eye was fine, and in fact slightly less near-sighted than last visit, as sometimes happens with age. Dr. C didn’t think I needed new glasses.  But he mentioned some research regarding the harmful effects of blue light from computer screens, including macular degeneration. This was disturbing, since I really need to take care of my remaining vision.  That very day I activated the blue light protection mode on my computers. (For Apple devices, that’s Night Shift mode.)

A chickadee

As usual, I’ve been giving myself regular music therapy — practicing the piano, including a fair bit of sight reading, and listening to some music that’s new to me.  I also started the new biography of Robert Schumann by Judith Chernaik. It’s a pleasure to read, and it inspired me to listen to more Schumann via Spotify.

At some point when I was a serious music student, someone I trusted made a negative, dismissive remark about Schumann’s style, which was enough to steer me away from it.  That was unfortunate! He was bold and original, with emotional depth and insight. I’ve been listening to his piano works, chamber music, and songs, and finding a lot of beauty.  Just one example: Dichterliebe, a song cycle of 1840, is so beautiful it hurts. With the internet, this wonderful music is at our fingertips, almost free and easy to find. But as noted, in a world full of attractions and distractions, it’s also easy to miss.  

A singing Carolina wren

On Sunday afternoon we went to a recital of soprano Leah Crocetto with pianist Mark Markham.  Crocetto sang the title role in Norma with the N.C. Opera a few months ago, and I was overwhelmed by her enormous talent.  But I was unfamiliar with most of the music she programmed for the recital — sets of songs by Respighi, Poulenc, Rachmaninoff, and Gregory Peebles (b. 1977) — and wasn’t really expecting to love the show.  

But it was wonderful!  Crocetto, it turns out, is not just a great voice.  There’s also an extraordinary intelligence in her musicianship at every level, from the programming to the subtlest nuance of expression.  For all that, it didn’t feel over-engineered. She seemed to inhabit the songs, rather than just singing them. She gave them, and us, everything — total emotional commitment.  It was powerful.

The last part of the program was a selection of songs from the great American songbook — that is, show tunes by Gershwin, Arlen, Rodgers, and Fain.  When I saw them on the program, my expectations were low; I figured these songs were pretty well mined out by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and countless others in the mid-twentieth century.  How wrong I was! Crocetto brought the songs to life, and made each one a dramatic story. Unlike with some great singers, her performance was not at all about her, but rather about the song. She was generous and unselfish.  

The same was true of Markham on the piano.  He was an excellent musician and a superb accompanist.  If I was a singer, I’d love to have him as a partner.

Another good singer — a cardinal (the North Carolina state bird)

 

Looking for eagles, My Brilliant Friend, patterning, and a brilliant string quartet

Red shouldered hawk (I think)

On Saturday and Sunday mornings I went up to Shelley Lake to see if I could spot and photograph the eagles.  I had no luck on Saturday, though I enjoyed walking around the lake and seeing other birds. On Sunday I located the eagles’ nest and got a brief view of one of them, but it flew before I could raise the camera.  I waited around for a while hoping it would return, and some other nature lovers stopped to share eagle news. A photographer named Don said that his buddy got a shot of the eagles mating a couple of weeks ago, which could result in eaglets in a month or so.  I didn’t see the eagle again, but I did get a close view of (I think) a red-shouldered hawk.

This week  I finally finished the fourth and last book of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.  Ferrante has a kind of passionate naturalness, and something that seems fundamentally true.  At the start, I had my doubts that I could get involved with a long story of working class Naples, Italian literati, crime families, and complicated female friendships, but I did.  I loved some big chunks of it, though by the end I was ready to move on.

I also read again a good portion of The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent.  Lent’s subtitle is A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, and it’s hard to improve on that description.  At a high level, the book covers the entirety of our history as a species, and compares and contrasts major cultures and their modes of thought.  For anyone interested in why how human consciousness works, it is very thought-provoking. It’s also highly readable.

Lent breaks down the hierarchy that we in the West think of as natural, with rational thought given a privileged position, and all other modes of thinking and sensing viewed as far inferior.  He draws a connection between many of our belief systems and the way we generally view nature as separate from us, with it having no importance other than sustaining humans. This orientation has caused us to wreak enormous havoc on the natural world, and indirectly on ourselves. But it is certainly possible to change that perspective, and to view our relationship with nature more as an organic whole, regarding our human lives as vitally connected with those of non-human lives.  I’m working on that.

I also came across a lively, much shorter discussion of some of the inherent flaws in ordinary human thinking on  Vox.com:  Brian Resnick’s interview with David Dunning, co-discoverer of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which concerns people’s tendency to overestimate their own intelligence and abilities.  Dunning explains the broad applicability of the theory — we all are prone to such errors — and has a few suggestions as to how to address the problem. Thinking in terms of probabilities, rather than certainties, should help, and consciously seeking to hear the views of others.  He’s in favor of cultivating intellectual humility.

There’s a lovely new biographical essay in the last New Yorker magazine by Robert Caro.  I’ve been a Caro fan from his first book, and have read each volume so far of his biography of Lyndon Johnson.  In his essay, he writes about becoming a journalist who loves to dig through files and provoke people to honesty.  As part of his Johnson research, he lived for three years in the Texas Hill Country where the future president grew up.  That’s commitment!  At age 83, Caro is still working hard on the last volume of the Johnson biography and planning a memoir.  Let’s wish him a very long life, with much for him and us to look forward to.

We heard some excellent live music in the last week.  The N.C. Opera did a wonderful production of Carmen. The performance we attended last Sunday looked to be sold out, and the crowd was enthusiastic.   On Saturday evening at Duke’s Baldwin auditorium we heard the Schumann string quartet. This young group of three Schumann brothers from Germany and violist Liisa Randalu from Estonia,  was superb — technically flawless, intellectually rigorous, and emotionally powerful. Their account of Schubert’s great Death and the Maiden quartet was epic — a battle to the death, as first violinist Erik Schumann called it. Before playing a Mozart encore, he also told the audience that it was a privilege to play for us in Baldwin, which he said was acoustically the best hall they’d ever played in.  Nice to hear!

Chilly birds, a friendly fish in hot water, and a successful cell phone repair

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

Saturday morning was overcast and chilly.  I put on some layers and warm gloves and went up to Shelley Lake to check on the birds and take some pictures.

Ring-billed gull

  There were a few dozen ring-billed gulls that mostly bobbed on the lake, but occasionally took to the air for some fast acrobatic flying.  Back home, when I looked at my pictures, I saw a pattern: when there were groups of gulls, they were usually chasing a gull that had some food.  That seems mean! A friendly passerby pointed out a couple of eagles sitting in a tree on the other side of the lake. I also enjoyed seeing the double-crested cormorants, Canada geese, and great blue herons.  The shots here were taken with big heavy lenses (Nikkor 80-400mm, and Sigma 150-500mm), and no tripod.

Chasing gulls

Why are some birds so beautiful?  This weekend I read a really good piece in the NY Times on this by Ferris Jabr:  How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution.  Some birds, like peacocks, are extravagantly gorgeous, with colors and shapes that seem to make them easy targets for predators.   This seems to contradict some of Darwin’s theory of natural selection (“survival of the fittest”), and after 150 years scientists have still not agreed on an explanation.

But there’s modern support for the view that natural selection is supplemented by sexual selection (usually, females preferring males that look or sound better).   This implies that the animals have preferences that aren’t purely functional — that is, aesthetic preferences. Jabr’s piece gives a sense of the strong passions of the scientists involved. It’s well worth reading.

Double-crested cormorants

Speaking of animal intelligence, I want to make a note about a particular fish who captured my heart when we were scuba diving in the Bahamas.  As we prepared for a dive onto a ship wreck, our leader recommended we look around for a friendly grouper they called Binks, who she said liked to be petted.  Near the end of the dive, I looked over the top edge of the wreck and saw a little grouper (perhaps 18 inches) watching me. I extended my arm, and he came up and nuzzled my hand.  I petted him with gentle strokes, like a dog. Binks was such a sweet little fish!

I was startled at Washington Post’s report this week that recent studies have found oceans are warming significantly faster than had been thought.  Oceans cover 70 percent of the earth.  Warmer oceans mean rising sea levels, more severe weather disasters (hurricanes, cyclones, droughts, etc.). This is terrible for many living creatures, including humans, and fish, including Binks.

The Sierra Club magazine this month had an encouraging piece titled There Is No Planet B:  It’s Up to Us to Craft the Shape of the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson.   Robinson acknowledges the possibility of mass extinction, but outlines the possibility that we can still reverse course.  He notes that need to rethink some of our traditional capitalist assumptions, which will not be easy. But those assumptions were created by humans, and they can be changed.  

Two bald eagles on the far side of the lake

Finally, I need to give a shout out to CPR — that is, Cell Phone Repair, a local business at Holly Park, off Wake Forest Road.  I discovered last week that I’d broken the camera in my Samsung Galaxy S7 device. The guys at CPR said they could get it fixed in 3 hours.  I asked if there was anything to be done about my weakening battery, and they said, sure, they could help me out with a new battery. They got it done in 2 hours, and everything worked great!  

 

A macro photography class, and two soccer games

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Today I took my first ever photography class: a three-hour session on macro photography. It was offered by the Raleigh Parks department at the Sertoma Arts Center at Shelley Lake. The teacher, Eric Krouse, was pleasant and knowledgeable, and an even bigger gear hound than I, and possibly as great a lover of dragonflies. After discussing theory, we went down to the lake, where we didn’t see much, but I got a couple of dragonfly shots I liked. The others below were taken at Raulston Arboretum yesterday.
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It was a big soccer week for us, and I do not mean the World Cup. We went out to Cary on Wednesday night to see the Carolina RailHawks take on Dallas, a major league team, in the U.S. Open cup quarterfinals. The RailHawks played gamely, but finished the first half down 3-2. That turned out to be most of the story, though Dallas scored twice again in the last few minutes. In truth, Dallas had a couple of very speedy, impressive scoring threats, and we did not have a good answer. It was a good game, but after a long stretch of home wins, painful to lose.
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It’s been good to see the world enjoying World Cup soccer. Soccer is a pleasing sport in many ways, with speed, agility, grace, and force. Why hasn’t it become more popular in the U.S.? I would guess it’s mostly a matter of custom and tradition, with most people happy enough with what the games they learned about as children and a little fearful of trying to learn the rules of a new game.
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On Saturday we saw the RailHawks lose again, this time to Indianapolis. We led at the half 1-0, but the Indianapolis team had a better attack, and ultimately prevailed 3-2. Again it was painful to lose, but good to be see great athletes.
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Fireworks, wildlife, and Carl Hart’s book debunking drug myths

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Fourth of July fireworks are hard not to like. As a friend once observed of sex, even when it’s not particularly well done, it’s magnificent. On Friday we were planning to walk a few blocks to see the one of the two downtown Raleigh fireworks shows, but Sally was not feeling well, so we got some takeout Indian food from Blue Mango and watched from our twelfth-floor balcony.
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That afternoon I’d Googled how to take good fireworks photos, which is a bit involved (use a tripod, remote control, bulb setting, manual focus, etc.), but I found it interesting. I got a few images I liked of the display at Red Hat Amphitheater. I could also see parts of the display at Memorial Auditorium, which appeared to be more magnificent, but this could be the grass-is-greener effect.
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I continued exploring local parks, looking for dragonflies and other wildlife, this time stopping at Shelley Lake. There were lots of mallards and geese, but the one below, by herself, got my attention. I also stopped in at Raulston Arboretum on Sunday morning and focused on some little creatures communing with the flowers.
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On Saturday I finished reading an unusual and worthwhile book: High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, by Carl Hart. Hart is a professor at Columbia University who’s devoted his scholarly career to studying the effects of illegal drugs on the brain. His book is an autobiography of growing up poor and black in south Florida, and somehow not getting shot, becoming a dropout, becoming a hardened criminal, becoming an addict, or going to jail (which were common outcomes of his friends and family), and instead somehow getting an education, becoming a respected scientist, and learning to question his own assumptions. It’s remarkably honest.

I was particularly interested in his take on the war on drugs. As I’ve noted before, I view the drug prohibition regime as a terrible social policy from every perspective. Hart focuses particularly on the costs to the black community, with draconian laws resulting in mass long-term imprisonment and destruction of the social fabric. He combines an overview of the human toll with his own drug experiences.
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Like almost all of us, he initially accepted uncritically the media/government claims that crack cocaine was a menace that threatened to make addicts of everyone who tried it and turn them into zombies who cared for nothing but the next high. He gradually realized, based on his own experience and his research, that this was a wild distortion of reality. Crack cocaine is chemically almost identical to cocaine, and the effects on the body are basically the same. The primary difference is social: crack cocaine is cheaper and marketed more to black communities, while cocaine is an expression of wealth and status. And crack prison sentences are much more severe.

This has become almost common knowledge, and the sentencing disparities have been substantially reduced (but not eliminated, unfortunately). For me, Hart’s account highlights how media and politics can create a moral panic, and even otherwise responsible scientists can get swept along. Thus the famous example of the experimental rats that can’t resist crack, which supposedly proved that crack was uniquely addictive. Hart explains that the rats, which are social creatures, were unhinged by isolation, and had no alternative activities to getting drugs.
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Hart did experiments with human subjects who were in fact crack addicts, and offered them a choice of getting high or getting $5. They took the money frequently enough to disprove the idea that addicts cease caring about anything but drugs.

Hart contends that the problem of drugs in poor communities is complex, and viewing drugs as the primary source of social ills is mistaken. The kinds of social problems that he grew up with – domestic violence, petty crime, an extreme culture of honor magnifying violence, teenage pregnancy, and unemployment – preceded the arrival of crack. The central problem of poor communities is poverty. It’s not surprising that people with few other entertainment options are more prone to entertaining themselves with drugs.

Hart finds that the great majority of people who use drugs, including crack and heroin, are in no sense addicted. Most users have jobs, families, and orderly lives. The notion that addiction always results from exposure is simply false. This doesn’t mean that addiction never happens, or that it is not a serious medical and social problem. There are addicts who need help. But we need to get our facts straight, quit moralizing, and quit punishing people for addiction.

The war on drugs is a fascinating case study of how fantastically wrong ideas with horrendous consequences can propagate and take over entire societies. We tend to think of this happening in the distant past (think of witchcraft) or foreign lands (murderous religious extremists). But it happened to us! With all our wealth, education, science, and technology, we were still overpowered by groupthink that stopped critical thought. And while we may be winding down the war on drugs, it is definitely not over.

Thus it took courage for Hart to write this book. With an entire population raised on constant messages of moral panic, to challenge the basic foundations of the war on drugs is risky. You will be viewed by many as dangerous and immoral, which could be career-limiting.

But this book may help shift the debate. I was a little disappointed that Hart didn’t follow his sound reasoning all the way on the question of legalization, and ended up promoting instead decriminalization. As the Economist has repeatedly pointed out, decriminalization leaves the drug markets in the hands of criminals, whereas legalization with careful regulation would deprive criminals of a major source of revenue. But never mind. I’m grateful for Hart’s book.
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