The Casual Blog

Tag: Swift Creek Bluffs

Wildflowers, back problems, conspiracy theories, and hope

Wild geraniums at Swift Creek Bluffs in Cary

There were a lot of wildflowers in bloom this week.  One morning I went to Swift Creek Bluffs and took some pictures.  For these, I got down in the dirt, trying to stay clear of poison ivy, ticks, and snakes.  At times a light breeze was blowing, moving the flowers slightly, and I waited for a while for the wind to pause.  It took some work, but it was also cheering to be close to the wild geraniums and lilies. Especially in this difficult time, I found these images soothing, and I hope they are for you as well.  

The next day, I somehow managed to pull a muscle in my back.  I think it was when I was practicing juggling with my three bean bags.  Juggling can look frantic, but for me it’s usually calming. But I probably should have done a little stretching before working on under-the-leg throws.  There was no sudden violent pain, but over the next several hours it got harder and harder to move.  

Atamasco lilies

So I’m struggling physically.  But otherwise, things are OK. Actually, I’m feeling surprisingly cheerful and energetic.  It’s been a great time to try new photographic processes (both with the camera and with software).  I’ve learned a lot about Lightroom, Photoshop, Topaz, and Nik applications from knowledgeable and generous people who’ve put up instructional videos on YouTube.  

I’ve also been trying new musical experiments on the piano, including working on some Liszt flourishes and the blues.  I cooked a crock pot full of Jocelyn’s famous vegetarian chili. I’ve made progress on my German and Italian with Rosetta Stone lessons.  My sketching is improving. And I’m getting better at juggling, though that is on hold for the moment.     

We were starting to get a bit worried about running out of toilet paper.  Anxiety and panic buying is understandable, but still, it’s odd, and kind of disturbing, that people are hoarding TP.  Fortunately, our neighborhood pharmacy/convenience store on Glenwood Avenue got a shipment just in time.  

The tenuousness of our relationship with reality is also in view with some bizarre new conspiracy theories.  Max Boot in the NY Times  wrote a piece describing some of these.  Some are self evident nonsense, like the idea that cellphone networks cause the virus, or that the pandemic was engineered by Bill Gates on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry.  Some are not absurd, but are unsupported and unlikely, like the idea that the virus is a bioweapon from China, or else the United States.  

Why do people gravitate to conspiracies?  According to Boot’s sources, people are especially likely to latch onto conspiracy ideas when they are feeling overwhelmed, confused and helpless.  By providing explanations, the conspiracy theories provide a degree of comfort, giving people a sense of power and control. The more bizarre theories may give a greater sense of agency, in that the believer has secret and therefore especially valuable knowledge.  Sharing such theories provides a tenuous sense of community and significance. 

Whatever psychological needs such ideas satisfy, there are major downsides.  They lead some people to disregard the recommendations of the most knowledgeable experts, and, say, refuse to adopt social distancing.  People have attacked cell phone towers and relied on unsafe cures.  

There is also a dangerous feedback loop.  As people get more accustomed to disregarding experts that oppose their conspiracy ideas, they’re more prone to adopt more conspiracies and disregard more actual experts.

Jack Krugman, Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist, had an interesting column recently related to this problem.  He pointed out that trickle down economics and climate change denialism both rely for their survival on disregarding informed scientists and experts.  The habit of disdain for science and expertise seems to have carried over to the pandemic.  

Krugman also noted that for those who think all government should be done away with, it’s a particularly difficult time.  For the less ideologically committed, it seems obvious that pure market forces aren’t going to get the job done in this pandemic, and we need effective government.  Right wingers may worry that if people see that government is saving lives, their central creed that government is bad may be unveiled as a sham.

The Times had a very good essay proposing that this moment of crisis is also a moment of opportunity. The editorial board observed that the pandemic is casting new light on some of our system’s worst failures, including shameful inequality and indifference to the suffering of those less fortunate.  Our systems for healthcare, housing, and the social safety net are costing many lives. The essay points out that at earlier times of national crisis, Americans have achieved a greater measure of compassion and fairness.  It is possible that this crisis will as well.

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:

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.

My surefire tax cut system, and some thoughts on the military and terrorism

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake, November 15, 2015

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake, November 15, 2015

Gabe had his birthday this week, and we went out for dinner at An to celebrate. Diane, who’s not been well recently, joined us, and seemed in good form, as did Gabe’s sparky redheaded girlfriend, Clark. I had a lychee cosmopolitan and veggie ramen, and enjoyed everything.

Gabe is about two-thirds through his first semester as an on-line grad student in graphic design at Parsons, and seems to be kicking it. Initially I was dubious about the on-line approach, but it’s working well for him. He’s getting challenging assignments and feedback that keeps him focused and motivated, working really hard. His projects look fantastic. He’s played some of the audio critiques he’s received from teachers and students, and they are trenchant and highly positive.
Tiller6Bug 1-7

Because of the birthday dinner, we missed the Republican debate, which I wanted to catch, because I really would like to understand the Republican mindset better. But from reading the press accounts, it didn’t sound like I missed much that was ground breaking. The candidates all are in favor of lower taxes, and most are in favor of a stronger military.

One exchange between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul was particularly revealing. I strongly agree with Paul on a couple of things (and disagree on many), and could probably agree with Rubio on something. But I was stunned to learn that Rubio wants to raise the military budget by a trillion dollars.

Our current military budget is around $615 billion , so raising by a trillion would be a 162 percent increase. Leaving to one side the obvious impossibility that this could be paid for while lowering taxes, there’s the question of why anyone would think this a good idea. We have the most expensive military in the world by far. Our military expenditures are currently greater than the next seven countries in the world combined. To state the obvious, our relative military power is unparalleled.
Tiller6Bug 1-3

Our military strength is wonderful, in a way, but also useless, in a way. It is of no help at all against a disciplined, determined cell of terrorists. Indeed, it could well be that our military activities of recent decades have inspired and invigorated more terrorists than they’ve destroyed. In any case, there’s no basis for thinking that even massive amounts of bombs and bullets could ever eliminate a fanatical, violent ideology. We’ve already tried that, and it doesn’t work.

I have written before about the havoc wrought by our military misadventures, and I still think there’s a huge disconnect between our ideals and our misdeeds in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. But for argument’s sake, forget all that, and just look at the finances. We’ve spent a huge portion of our wealth on those unnecessary and unsuccessful wars. And we continue to to spend sums that are barely conceivable on them. There’s an interesting graphic showing how we’re hemorrhaging money for military purposes here.

So, for those who believe the most important possible political reform is to lower taxes, wouldn’t it be appealing to take the largest single item of nonrecurring expenses – defense – and cut it by, say, twenty-five percent? Could anyone seriously doubt that there’s at least that much waste and useless spending in the existing defense budget? Admittedly, we might need to think more carefully before embarking on and continuing unnecessary wars, but that would not be a bad thing. So, for my friends who view the issue of lowering taxes as the preeminent public policy, could we agree on this: we’d be better off, in a lot of ways, if we stopped the financial bleeding of an out-of-control military?
Tiller6Bug 1-6

I wrote most of these thoughts before the horrible carnage this week in Paris, where the death toll from 8 suicide attackers now stands at 129. I lived in Paris for several months years ago, and feel a special affection for the city, and like everyone, I’m in the midst of shock and sorrow at the attacks.

We should be outraged. But these strong emotions may lead France and other countries to policies that cause many more deaths and ultimately increase the risk of terrorism, as happened after 9/11. Already President Hollande has characterized the attackers as “a terrorist army” that committed “an act of war,” and Nicolas Sarkozy has called for “extermination” of ISIS. But it wasn’t an army, and we can’t end jihad fanaticism by killing all the jihadists. As I learned in my rescue diver course, in an emergency, the first thing to do is stop, and think.

On Saturday I went out to Cary for a haircut with Ann, my longtime hair cutter, and then went for a walk in Swift Creek Bluffs park. The path was covered with brown leaves, and they crunched as I walked. A few leaves were falling. The colors were mostly yellows, browns, and pale greens.
Tiller6Bug 1-4

First Friday gallery hopping, new wildflowers, and tolerating Scientology

Dogwood blossom on Blount Street

Dogwood blossom on Blount Street

This week the big trees in Raleigh started to shoot out baby leaves, and the horizon got green. The mild temperatures encouraged me to walk to work, and on the way there were cherry blossoms on Lane Street and the season’s first blossoming dogwoods on the Capital grounds.

Cherry blossoms on Lane Street

Cherry blossoms on Lane Street

On First Friday evening we went out to visit some galleries. We particularly enjoyed the photographs of Simon Griffiths at 311 West Martin Street. There were Raleigh street scenes, landscapes, and portraits of workers in small businesses. The works were clearly subject to extensive post-production work, which caused the views to seem at once familiar and unfamiliar, somewhere between hyper-reality and a dream. His work can be seen here.

I would have loved to learn some technical details, but didn’t have a chance to ask him, because we were cutting it close for our dinner reservation and had to start walking. There were a lot of people out strolling. We ate Lebanese food at Sitti, where the baba ghanoush was delicious, but the falafel was a bit dry. Service was great, and the vibe was lively.

Spring beauty

Spring beauty

Over the weekend I went out to Cary’s Swift Creek Bluffs park to check for wildflowers. There were thousands of little white ones (spring beauties) and a few other interesting species. It was windy, so these guys were moving around. I had to get down on the ground with them to take their pictures, and got a bit muddy, but I thought it was worth it. These little wildflowers do not last long. If you’re interested, the time to see them is now.
_DSC8818_edited-1

We watched Going Clear, the much-discussed documentary on Scientology, on HBO this week, and liked it. It included both historical footage of L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer and founder, and other movement leaders, as well as interviews with several ex-Scientologists. It recounted without particular ridicule the foundation myth, which involves beings from outer space and nuclear bombs exploding in volcanos, and its pseudo-scientific technique of E-meter auditing.

Although it’s tempting to make fun of the wackiness, many better established myths are no less untrue, and many long-established customs and rituals are unsupported by science. Tolerance of other beliefs (and non-beliefs) is a good and vitally important thing. The film focused on what deserves to be criticized: the group’s paranoia, abuse, and thuggery. Apparently it secured its US tax exempt status by harassing individual IRS officials with lawsuits. !!! It has harassed and intimidated many others, though not me (at least so far). _DSC8863_edited-1
_DSC8833_edited-1