The Casual Blog

Tag: THe New Yorker

Attacking fact checking, and the big election lie emergency

Osprey and fish at Jordan Lake

I’d planned to head to eastern NC this week to look for black bears and other creatures.  Unfortunately, in Raleigh and elsewhere, there was a gas shortage.  For a few hours, drivers and cars waited in long lines to get into stations, and then, the lines disappeared, and all the stations that I checked were out of gas.  

The primary cause was a criminal hack of a major fuel pipeline company, with a secondary cause of a mass freak out (panic buying).  People will probably calm down eventually.  In the meantime, anyone taking a long road trip faced a good chance of getting stranded without gas, and so I sadly put off the bears.  These pictures are ones I took recently at Jordan Lake and Raulston Arboretum

I’d been looking forward to taking a break from the subject of Trump, elections, and democracy.  For a couple of weeks, it looked like we were heading towards normal, still with big problems, but having avoided a crash into full-on fascism.  Right now we’ve got a full plate of wars, diseases, and other miseries, and it would be good not to add to the to-do list.  So I’m sorry.  But this is an emergency:  our democracy is in a crisis.

Before I get to the crisis, a related development:  this week a state legislator in Michigan proposed a new law aimed at fact checkers.  As a former professional fact checker, I wondered what was up.  According to the Washington Post, the legislator in question was a supporter of “Stop the Steal” and opponent of Covid safety measures.  He proposed that fact checkers be required to register with the state, post a million dollar bond, and face fines and lawsuits for their mistakes.

As an ex-lawyer, I’m pretty confident that such a law would be struck down as unconstitutional, as long as we have anything resembling our current constitutional system.  But the proposed law is one more indication of the fragility of that system.  

It’s been four decades since I worked as a fact checker at The New Yorker, and through the years it never occurred to me that the government might try to put the lid on fact checking.  I assumed that almost everyone would prefer to have truthful, reliable information, as opposed to mistakes or lies.  Even though right-wing propaganda networks regularly play fast and loose with facts, the idea of making it a crime to try to get the facts right is something new.     

Here’s fact checking in a nutshell:  the job of the checker is to figure out whether statements purporting to be factual are accurate.  Sometimes this is straightforward, as with correctly spelling names and confirming addresses, but other times it requires more research and analysis.  On issues requiring expertise or first-hand knowledge, it requires consulting reliable experts or sources.  It requires judgment when, as happens, experts or sources disagree.  In such cases, the checker may add a note that there’s a disagreement.  

Like all humans, fact checkers sometimes make mistakes.  In such cases, they may be reprimanded, fired, or, in cases of libel, sued.  So the proposed Michigan law would seem pointless, if the point were to punish mistakes.  It makes sense, though, if the aim is to clear the way for big lies by discouraging checking.  For those whose careers depend on lies, facts are pesky things.

And so we come to the crisis.  This week Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney was tossed out of the Republican leadership because she called out the big lie that Trump won the 2020 election and was denied the presidency because of fraud.  

This action resembled Republicans’ refusal to impeach Trump, but it was actually worse.  It’s the difference between quietly tolerating a lie and loudly shutting down those that oppose the lie. Instead of merely declining to hold Trump accountable for the January 6 attempt to overthrow the election, the Republicans are now effectively co-signing his lies about the election and endorsing the January 6 insurrection.  

In an almost-but-not-quite comic development, some congressional Republicans are now rechristening the mayhem of January 6 as a normal tourist visit unrelated to Trump and his supporters. 

For any who have forgotten, Trump supporters waving MAGA flags and sporting MAGA paraphernalia stormed the Capitol, shouting death threats, and vandalizing the premises as they searched for fleeing legislators who’d been about to complete certification of the election of Biden.  There were several deaths, dozens of injuries, and legislators and guards who feared for their lives. 

Meanwhile, having narrowly lost the last election, Republicans in 30-some states are moving forward with new voting laws designed to reduce the number of Democratic voters.  According to a new report in Mother Jones,  this effort has been organized with military precision by a right-wing dark money outfit associated with the Heritage Foundation.  

The quasi-clever cover story for these laws is that they are needed to address voter fears of election fraud.  There could be such fears, but in fact, there is no significant election fraud problem.  The fears are based on the outrageous lies propagated at high volume by Trump and his supporters in connection with their effort to overturn the last election.  

Senate Bill 1 could put a stop to the worst of the state level election rigging, but that legislation is opposed by Senate Republicans and can’t advance as long as the filibuster stays in place.  At the same time, state Republicans are getting rid of election officials who refused to go along with the Trump attempt to steal the 2020 election, and replacing them with Trump loyalists.  That is, they’re putting in place election officials who appear committed to stealing elections when directed.  

There are a lot of moving parts, but the direction is clear:  the end of our traditional system of transferring power peacefully based on fair elections.  Republicans are in the process of replacing it with a system in which elections are a sham used by the powerful to fool the gullible.  Such systems have a long history, but only in countries that we would not call democratic, such as China, Russia, and North Korea.  To put it plainly:  Republican leaders are now working on a large-scale effort to undermine the foundation of American democracy.

There are, of course, some principled Republicans who oppose this effort, and others who haven’t yet heard what’s happening, but would not support it.  But right now the Republican leaders at the national and state level are moving ahead to set up a system where only their candidates can win.  For many rank-and-file Republicans, persuaded by decades of right-wing lies that Democrats are evil socialists and otherwise very scary, changing the system to keep out Democrats may seem like a good idea.   

Possibly the Trump fever will break, and those with the illness will revert to traditional support for fair elections and facts over lies.  But I wouldn’t count on it.  It’s more likely that our democratic experiment will only survive if we fight for it (non-violently, of course).  We could start by junking the filibuster and moving ahead with Senate Bill 1.

The case of the missing lake, making paintings out of photographs, fake videos, Harari’s 21 Lessons, and Stevenson’s Just Mercy


On Saturday morning I went up to Durant Park to see how the leaves were doing.  It was a brisk 51 degrees, and the light was undramatic, without a cloud in the sky. I was sorry to find they’d drained the lower lake to repair the dam, and the mud in the lake bed wasn’t so pretty.  But the upper lake was still a lake, and it was good to be outdoors, smelling the fallen leaves.

I took a few pictures, including some with my 10 stop filter for long exposures that smoothed out the lake surface.  I wasn’t especially enamored of any of them, but I did enjoy experimenting on them with Topaz Studio. This software will turn photographs into many different styles of paintings.  A few of my initial efforts with the tool are paired here with their source photos.  

Is it OK to make an impressionist painting in a few minutes, without a paintbrush?  I say yes, with this qualification: we should be honest and forthright about what we’re doing.  We’re interacting with nature using our own imagination, aided by our DSLR cameras and our processing software, which draws on manifold technical and creative sources, including the artistic geniuses of times past.  That said, if the images work — touching us, moving us — they work.

There is certainly the possibility of artistic fraud, and it should give us pause.  This week we’ve seen the White House promoting fake video of a reporter assaulting a press office person.  It wasn’t a particularly good fake, so it was quickly detected. But it’s getting so easy to make reasonably convincing fake video that you and I could do it.  This technology will surely change the way we think about the images, and probably make us trust our eyes less. There’s a good piece by Joshua Rothman in this week’s New Yorker about the people who are advancing this technology, including some who worry about its implications.  

That said, photographers will continue to seek interesting subjects, and interesting things to do with those subjects.  On the way back from Durant, I stopped at Peace Camera. The store used to be on Peace Street, a couple of blocks from our building, but it’s now in north Raleigh.  I was sorry when it moved, but I really like the new store, and the sales people were friendly and helpful. I found a couple of new gadgets I liked, and enjoyed talking shop with one of the sales guys about practical photography challenges, like finding a good storage bag for circular filters.  

On the trip home, I listened to the latter part of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli history professor, and also a vegan and dedicated meditator. The title is unfortunate, since it sounds like it might be a self-help or text book.  In fact, it’s a bracing discussion of serious global problems, including racism, authoritarianism, robotics and AI, genetic engineering, economic dislocation, climate change, and nuclear war.

Harari takes a very long historical view, starting prior to homo sapiens, and has broad geographic and intellectual scope.  He moves along quickly (sometimes too quickly), but of course, some of the issues he addresses are existential, with short deadlines.  Among other minor points, he notes that there is nothing new about fake news. The earliest civilizations were organized around animating myths with no factual basis, and generally speaking this is true of us as individuals.  This could be viewed as depressing, but I prefer to take it as a foundation for humility and tolerance.

I finally finished Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.  Stevenson started the Equal Justice Initiative, and has spent decades seeking justice for row inmates and others.  He provides new perspectives on the death penalty, mass incarceration, and racial bias in the American legal system.  He has a really big heart. Given the brutality of his chosen for his battleground and the long odds against success, it’s remarkable that he has not given in to cynicism and despair.   I found his book an inspiring source of hope.

Sunrise this morning, looking northeast toward Raleigh, with the new Metropolitan apartment building in the foreground nearing completion

Duke blossoms, rising ballerinas, AlphaGo’s victory, and the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Tiller7Bug 1-6
On Saturday morning it was overcast and threatening to rain when I drove over to Durham to see what was blooming at Duke Gardens. Did you know it’s one of the top 10 public gardens in the U.S.? It is certainly a treasure. There were new cherry blossoms, tulips, and many other delights. I shot 234 closeup images with my Nikkor 105 MM macro lens before it began to drizzle. I got a few that revealed aspects I’d never looked at as closely before, and expressed some of my own joy of the season. The images here are all from Duke, except for the daffodils, which I took late Friday afternoon at Fletcher Park.
Tiller7Bug 1-4

That evening we saw the Carolina Ballet with new works by Zalman Raffael and Robert Weiss. Raffael’s new piece was set to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. As it launched, I worried a little that 24 variations to this familiar music could easily bog down, but far from it: this was a lively, kinetic work that developed organically with continual surprises. Working in the Balanchine tradition, like Weiss, Raffael makes ballets that are abstract but intensely expressive. He’s so accomplished and assured already, and so young!

In the performance we saw, some of the younger company members who normally are in the background stepped into the spotlight, and performed beautifully. I very much enjoyed the subtle elegance of Courtney Schenberger and Rammaru Shindo in Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie. Ashley Hathaway, with Adam Crawford Chavis, was really sensual and powerful in the adagio Meditation from Thais. Amanda Babayan was a lovely Miranda in Weiss’s Tempest Fantasy. So much talent, developing quickly, like those blossoms. It’s a privilege to receive their art.
Tiller7Bug 1-3

Speaking of surprising progress, this week AlphaGo finished its five game Go match with a popular Korean grandmaster in Seoul, in which it prevailed 4-1. It was a significant moment in the advance of artificial intelligence. I learned the rudiments of Go a few years back. It seems so simple at the very beginning, as you take turns laying single stones, black or while. But it is massively more complex than chess. There are more possible moves than there are atoms in the universe.

Anyhow, I tweeted congratulations to the Google team, though with mixed feelings. The Age of AI is on its way, and the prospects are both good and bad. Computers are mastering tasks that we thought impossible for them a few years ago, like driving, reading MRIs, and reviewing legal documents. In the new Age of AI, there will be safer cars, more reliable medical care, and cheaper legal services. On the down side, a lot of jobs are going to disappear forever. We’re going to need to figure out what to do about having a lot of redundant humans. We’ll probably need to come up with a system with a guaranteed minimum wage, which seems impossible at present from a political perspective.
Tiller7Bug 1-2

But maybe the AI on the way can help with some of our political and mental problems. I’m thinking particularly of our magical thinking – areas where our biases and received ideas prevent us from seeing what’s right in front of us. The drug war is an example. After several decades of being taught that particular plants and chemicals are inherently evil and threatening, and that we need to fight those drugs, we have trouble conceiving of any alternative. It makes no difference that the drug war never moves any closer to victory, and that the human collateral damage is enormous. The facts that do not fit with our long held beliefs are suppressed or ignored.

Climate change denialism is another example of magical thinking. Another one: the Republican mainstream belief that cutting taxes will lead to increased growth, higher tax revenues, and balanced budgets. The New Yorker had a good essay by James Surowiecki this week explaining that decades of evidence now show that, as you might initially expect, cutting taxes leads to lower tax revenue. But current Republican leaders and followers, like those before them, devoutly and streadfastly deny the obvious.
Tiller7Bug 1

The WSJ had a must-read essay this week by David Gelernter on AI. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, argues that the intelligence of our machines will inevitably surpass our own, and we cannot reliably predict what will happen after that. Thinks of machines with IQs of 500, or 5000. They could be dangerous, perhaps viewing us as we view houseplants. Gelernter suggests that in experimenting we exercise the kind of caution we use with biological weapons.

But hey, assuming that the machines do not decide to enslave or kill us, they could really be helpful. They would almost surely see more possible moves in addressing difficult problems, like global warming. Perhaps it would be so obvious that they’re reliable authorities that we would give up on magical thinking. Then again, such thinking is almost perfectly hermetic and impervious.
Tiller7Bug 1-5

My New Yorker, a touching Traviata, Whiplash, and sparkling new ballets

As I’ve noted before, The New Yorker magazine was for me a formative influence, having given me my first job out of college, my True Love, and weekly jolts of literacy ever since. Thus it was with mild shock I received the February anniversary issue, which for 89 consecutive years has reprinted the same cover, and saw that Eustice Tilley, the top-hatted dandy, had been replaced by multiple new covers of various ages, styles, and ethnicities. But after a few deep breaths, I let it go and moved on: the new covers were bold and entertaining.

There were several good short pieces on the history of the Magazine (as it was called by editorial staff then and perhaps now), and one longer one that I particularly relished. Mary Norris, who joined the Magazine around the time we did, contributed a piece about her career there as a junior minion and eventually a senior copy editor. I wouldn’t say Mary and I were close friends, but when I also was a minion, we were friendly, and would talk companionably at parties as we kept a lookout for potentially more exciting adventures.

It was a pleasant trip down memory lane remembering how we put out the Magazine and some of the now departed editorial figures of our world, like Eleanor Gould, Bob Bingham, Pat Crow, and William Shawn. And Mary successfully communicates the spirit of grammatical fanaticism that is part of what makes the Magazine unique. I’ve never seen a more humorous discussion of the serial comma, a punctuation practice that in those days I took as serious business. Thanks to Mary and her colleagues who have kept the fussy but proud tradition alive.

Raleigh is not New York, and it is hard to believe, even for people who live here, that Raleigh is producing world class opera and ballet. But it’s true. In the last week, we’ve been treated to both.

The N.C. Opera’s production of La Traviata was really beautiful and moving. The story is simple in a way – a party girl and a playboy unexpectedly fall in love, break various social conventions, are separated by misunderstanding, and reunited, just as she dies. It works in large part because Verdi’s music is highly evocative – of joy, love, and tragedy.

I was especially moved by this production, which had a marvelous Violetta in Jacqueline Echols. She had an extraordinarily fine voice, as well as musicality and expression. She is a rising star. I also particularly loved the singing of Joo Won Kang as Giorgio. The costumes and settings were lovely. The staging was a bit meandering and uncertain, but it didn’t undermine the force of the performance. Conductor Timothy Myers was outstanding, always serving the music, but creatively, with flexibility of tempo and sensitivity in tone. In the sad parts, this strange thing happened with my eyes – they got all watery.

Also last week, we saw the movie Whiplash at home via streaming service. The story is about a music conservatory student (a jazz drummer) and a sadistic/idealistic music teacher who do battle and try to make great music. Aspects of it were pure Hollywood – no half-sane performer would ever sabotage a performance as here – but there was something true about it that drew me in. As a former conservatory student myself, I was reminded of the highly competitive aspect to music education, and the intense drive for perfection.

The student (Miles Teller) was believable, and reminded me of the hidden and scary sacrifices that all serious musicians make for their art. And J.K Simmons as the foul-mouthed professor was wonderfully evil. I’ll say, though, I could have done without the anti-gay slurs, which were copious and ugly. We’ve quit tolerating nigger, and we should quit tolerating faggot._DSC8412_edited-1

We saw the Carolina Ballet’s new program, Master Composers: Music for Dance, on Saturday night. The program of new works by Robert Weiss and Zalman Raffael featured dance music by Chopin, Byrd, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Granados, Brahms, Stravinsky, Adams, and Tchaikovsky. As Weiss’s program notes noted, there is there is a wealth of music in the classical tradition that is, in some sense, dance music, but has never been used for ballet, and this program mines those riches.

This company has so much talent! It was delightful to see some of the junior members shining in solo roles, including Elizabeth Ousley, Ashley Hathaway, Alyssa Pilger, Amanda Babyan, and Rammaru Shindo. There were moments of moody drama, particularly with Lara O’Brien and Cecilia Iliesiu, and also light-heartedness,with Sokvannara Sar having fun with six ballerinas. I thought that the Mozart and Brahms sections could have been trimmed a bit without loss of effect, but there was nothing I didn’t enjoy.

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

14 08 15_1497_edited-1

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

It was also fun to examine the results in Photoshop Elements after the fact. To state the obvious, you can’t really see much detail in little insects with the unaided human eye. To me, it’s fantastic what you discover about these creatures with the aid of magnifying lenses and sensors. I’ve also been experimenting with improving the raw image with the Elements editing program. Typically I do some cropping and minor adjustments to the lighting and contrast. This week I decided to start working with the “expert” user interface and figured out (with help from some YouTube instructors) how to work with layers.
14 08 15_1512_edited-1

Is such editing somehow dishonest? I don’t think so. A photograph is always a combination of technology and human feeling, which is to say it is never purely objective. The sensor in my Nikon D7100 is amazing (24 million pixels!), but it is not God. My own vision has its imperfections and biases both from ocular structural issues and brain processing. Yours, too. We see through a glass darkly. But if we use our best tools as well as we can, we’ll see some new things and some amazing things.
14 08 15_1513_edited-1

How many of our fundamental assumptions are seriously flawed? Every so often, I get spun around when I find that an idea that I had thought was beyond question is far from it. This week in the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell’s piece titled the Crooked Ladder, destabilized my assumptions about the Italian mafia and inner city drug gangs. I thought I knew that the mafia was a serious threat to the social order that was barely contained by virtue of strenuous law enforcement efforts. Gladwell cites scholarship indicating that the early mafia was generally less violent and lawless than the Godfather movies and journalism have led us to think. For some waves of new immigrants (including Irish and Jews), crime was a route to family stability and assimilation taken by relatively innovative community members. And it isn’t a curse on subsequent generations. On the contrary, the grandkids of mafia dons turn into ordinary suburbanites.

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

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

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

Buds, laughs, and cries, including Romeo and Juliet (the ballet)

14 03 22_7848
Sally’s taking a flower arranging class at Wake Tech, and here is her latest project, which I really liked. With spring officially here, I’m very much ready for the big blossoming , and took a Saturday morning walk through Fletcher Park and Raulston Arboretum to see what was up. They’re not here in numbers just yet. But it was fun to take a close look at some things on the point of bursting out.
14 03 22_7831
Is there anything more boring than people bragging about their marvelous kids? Perhaps hearing people complain about their aches and pains. But other people’s impressive kids are still a serious problem, conversation-wise. Why is it, then, that stories about my own kids are so interesting?

So, sorry, but here goes a proud papa: Jocelyn, having conquered the book publishing business in Manhattan (i.e. getting an entry-level job in ebooks at Macmillan), has now published her first professional writing. It’s a humorous essay about getting the fun of a good cry, which you may read at Quarterlette, a site for twenty-something women. The pay was not good (zero), but she was very excited to be a beginning author. Who knows what comes next? She’s got a piece on online dating in the works, and we kicked around ideas for a funny piece about the annoyances of Facebook.
14 03 22_7829

At an opposite extreme, there’s a piece in last week’s New Yorker by Andrew Solomon about Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza. Remember Adam, the Sandy Hook killer, who took the life of 26 little kids, his mom, and himself? This is worse than a parent’s worst nightmare. I hadn’t known that he was a high functioning autistic kid who may also have been psychotic. We want to know why he did what he did or what might have made things unfold differently, but there are no full, satisfying answers. Nobody saw Adam’s potential for horrific violence, including the mental health professionals who examined him or his parents. I was moved by Peter Lanza’s struggle with both the pain of loss and profound guilt.
14 03 22_7816

There’s another good story about death and love called Romeo and Juliet, which the Carolina Ballet performed on Saturday night. We’ve seen Robert Weiss’s choreographed version several times over the past 15 years, and it’s one of my favorites. Shakespeare’s story, it turns out, works quite well without words. The language of ballet is fully sufficient to convey the richness of the trembling, tingling ecstasy of first love, and the explosive violence of feuding clans.

In this production, Margaret Severin-Hansen played Juliet with sweet innocence, and her Romeo, Sokvannara Sar, was strong and sensitive. Their balcony scene was complete, unmitigated, overwhelming love — love that obliterates everything else. Eugene Barnes was a smoldering, intimidating Tybalt. I thought the group sword fights could have used a bit more edge and brio, though I hesitate to say so – I wouldn’t want any dancers to actually get hurt.

Lindsay Turkel was radiant in the trio of gypsy street dancers. We were also happy to see Alyssa Pilger, a corps member and our pointe shoe sponsoree, get a high-profile solo as the Mandolin Girl. She rocked! I’d previously been struck by her beautiful technique, but last night she danced with amazing power, impassioned and electrifying.

Skiing in Virginia, and considering, has the NSA ended privacy as we know it?

My nephews Josh and Adam, humoring me with a short pause on Sunday

My nephews Josh and Adam, humoring me with a short pause on Sunday

Last weekend I went skiing at Massanutten Resort, near Harrisonburg,l Virginia. I thought it would be good to see my brother and nephews, and have a little ski tune up before our Colorado trip in February. The drive up on Friday night was five and a half hours through fog and rain, and the ski conditions were far from optimal, but it was still well worth it.

On Saturday the weather report was for rain, and it did rain a bit, but the snow was pretty good. It was fun skiing with my nephews, both in their twenties and fast. They decided at lunch time to go to the movies, but my brother had ski patrol duty, and I decided to keep skiing with him on the advanced slope (number 6).

He had to leave for a period, and it got very foggy, with perhaps 50 feet of visibility. It rained a little. On the first run on my own, I noted that I didn’t see a single skier on the mountain. The same was true on the second, third – and fifth. It was the better part of an hour before a few other hardy souls ventured out.

Despite the fog, I enjoyed the skiing. I focused on sensing more of the ski edges, and making smooth, graceful turns. And I enjoyed the solitude of the trips up the mountain in the chair lift.

It occurred to later, though, that my smartphone was still sending out signals of my movements. My perception of privacy has been changing with the Snowden revelations, and I suspect I’m not alone. (LOL) Is it real so bad? I think it is, and have a concrete example.

A few weeks back, I wrote an email letter to the President. The gist of it was to commend him for commuting the sentences of some non-violent drug offenders, and to recommend that he expand that effort to help more of the thousands serving lengthy prison terms for minor drug crimes. As I prepared to send the email, I paused, thinking that this communication could easily mean a new NSA or other agency file would be opened on me, with unpredictable consequences.

Paranoid? Maybe. I sent the email anyway. But I expect that many citizens, now knowing how easily they can be monitored and how committed the spy bureaucracy is to expansive monitoring, might decide that expressing a political view just isn’t worth the risk of becoming a target.

There was a good piece in the New Yorker of a few weeks back by Ryan Lizza on the history of the NSA’s domestic metadata collection program, including efforts to establish a legal basis for it. It wasn’t surprising that a spy agency would tend to conceal its work, but it was surprising that agency representatives repeatedly lied to Congress and the FISA (special secret programs) court.

It raises the question, is this agency unconstrained by law? I expect most people involved in massive electronic surveillance are patriotic and well-intentioned, and not personally seeking world domination. But what if an agency with effectively unlimited resources and powers came within the control of a megalomaniac sociopath?Impossible? Remember J. Edgar Hoover?

If we’re lucky, we won’t become a police state in the Big Brother sense. But just knowing we’re subject to constant surveillance will probably change us. The interesting question is how much.

If the government forbade curtains on windows, we’d quit doing certain things within sight lines of the street. Maybe, without much discussion, we’ll get more guarded or stop discussing controversial topics using our electronic devices. Once that habit develops, it could extend to our face-to-face exchanges, or even our interior monologues. It wouldn’t happen all at once, but little by little. We might not even notice the change.

The justification for the government’s massive technology surveillance programs, of course, is prevention of terrorism. It’s hard to argue with that, since anything that grows the database of human activity could also increase information about terrorism. But is it possible that we’ve gone a little overboard with this fear-of-terrorism thing? Does it remind you a little of people preparing to end the world as we know with a nuclear conflagration it to prevent a takeover by communism?

There was a very interesting piece in Slate last week on the national hysteria over alleged sexual abuse and Satanic rituals in preschools back in the 80s. There were several of these cases in which little children testified that their preschool teachers molested them and also engaged in ritual murders and other bizarre and horrifying conduct.

Based almost exclusively on the testimony of the children, juries sent a number of these teachers to jail for lengthy terms. It slowly emerged that the abuse stories were fabrications produced by so-called therapists who essentially planted false memories in the children’s heads. Most of the teacher-victims eventually were freed.

In retrospect, the children’s stories seem way too bizarre to be believed – yet most of us believed. It’s a reminder of how our powers of reason and critical thinking are limited, and how they can be overwhelmed and defeated by sensational media and groupthink.

P.S. Needless to say, I paused again before publishing this post. But I think the danger of silence and retreat from dialog is even greater than the danger of surveillance run amok.

More cute cats (sorry), improving vision, getting fitter, web retail news, and tech trends

Isabel -- the mysterious one


This week Sally spotted this bumper sticker: Life is a little better with a cat. That isn’t a very grand claim, which is what makes it appealing. “A little” seems about right. Our three (Phoebe, Isabel, and Rita) have been good sports in serving as my models.



I’m happy to report that my vision, while still blurry in the left eye, really improved this week. That eye is actually providing some useful signals for the first time in a long time. Also, my eye doc cleared me to resume normal exercise, and I happily did so.



After consultation with the ski friends, we agreed this week that the big ski event of 2014 would be a return to Telluride, Colorado, in February, where I’ll try to keep up, or semi-keep up, with young Gabe. And so at my early morning gym sessions I began focusing on some ski-oriented activities – lunges, side lunges, side kneel lunches, squats, with weights one-legged extension balances, duck walk with two big bands, step up onto medium table and balance, and jump up (landing softly) on the medium table.

I bought a speed jump rope and doing a few dozen speedy jumps between these activities, then worked on core matters with various species of crunches, reverse crunches, planks, and side planks. Finally, half an hour of straight cardio. I’ve been doing 10 minutes on the treadmill (with an incline), a few minutes on the ski (sideways push) machine, a few on the stairs (escalator type), and then some intervals on the elliptical. If there’s time after that, I’ll do 10 minutes of stretching and foam rolling.

I like using a heart rate monitor during work outs, which can confirm that I’m working hard, or at times show I’m not working as hard as I think. I got one when I began going to spinning classes, when I worried that keeping up with super fit young teachers could cause me to drive my poor heart into an extreme and dangerous state. But it’s gratifying to take it up into the red zone from time to time, which for me is in the 160s. I usually feel great afterwards.

My Polar heart rate monitor finally wore out this week For some months it had been behaving erratically, but I didn’t feel good about throwing it out while it was still sometimes working, so I was glad when it finally quit. I immediately went Googling to vet the options. I had some interest in finding a model that didn’t require a band around the chest, but learned that such models are not as accurate and do not give continuous read outs. I settled on a relatively cheap one, a Timex T5K541Personal Trainer, that did the two basic functions that I needed (tell the time and tell how fast my heart is going). I bought on Amazon, where as a Prime member I get free shipping, and had it two days later.

This isn’t quite instant gratification, but it’s close. I put this type of Internet retail plus efficient delivery in the pantheon of life-sweeting innovations, right up there with pay-at-the-pump gas, cash machines, and the lickless stamp. Amazon is now familiar, but we tried a similar new service for the first time last week called

It does exactly what you’d expect. It has most of our preferred consumer products at normal drugstore prices, and can get them to us in two days. Shipping is free for orders of $35 or more. A bottle of Crew shampoo that I ordered had leaked a little in transit, but everything else arrived in a proper and timely manner. Ordering online made me realize I don’t particularly like chain drugstores, with all their household goods, toys, cards, and snack food. I’m perfectly happy to stay out of those places and just send out for the stuff. (For actual medical stuff, I do like my little neighborhood drugstore, Hayes Barton Pharmacy, where you still get the personal touch.)

Speaking of the constantly new, there’s a piece in the current New Yorker about the young tech entrepreneur scene in San Francisco. For those interested in tech business trends, this is a must read. (This link worked for me, but I’m afraid that non-subscribers will not be able to get it without paying.) The piece, by Nathan Heller, describes people who are starting one new business after another and working with a rock band, doing something arty, or going on meditation retreats in between their ventures. The very shape of business and finance is being transformed, getting smaller and faster. At the same time, the entrepreneurs are not only making money, but also having fun, and asking good questions about what makes life meaningful.

Stuart -- the best dog

Stuart — the best dog

Sensationalizing homophobia, engaging with aging, and testing mindful eating

Coming back yesterday from a short trip to Manhattan, I had a few minutes to spare in the crowded Delta terminal at LaGuardia. There were no seats near my departure gate, but I found one three gates away, and flipped through The New Yorker magazine. With only a few minutes, I purposely chose a story I expected to be relatively uninteresting — a piece by Ian Parker titled A Reporter at Large: The Story of a Suicide: Two College Roommates, a Webcam, and a Tragedy.

The story keyed off a widely reported incident at Rutgers University in 2010 in which a student spied on his roommate with a webcam and tweeted that he’d spotted homosexual behavior. The ensuing mediathon developed the story line that a heartless homophobe had posted video on the web that caused a vulnerable closeted gay student to kill himself — an emblematic hate crime.

In Parker’s reexamination, the popular media story turns out to be a gross distortion. Dharun Ravi, the surviving roommate, is now facing a criminal trial on vague charges with the potential of years in prison. Ravi created an extensive record of tweets, texts, and other communications that seem stupid and immature, but not unusually so for a 17-year-old. There turned out to be no web cast of video. The suicide victim was actually out of the closet. Ravi’s juvenile online socializing comes across as frenetic and somewhat pathetic. He seems smart, selfish, insecure, and not all that unusual.

I got a few a columns into the story before I decided with boarding time approaching I needed to position myself closer to my gate. I wheeled my possessions a hundred yards or so. Somewhere in that process, my New Yorker disappeared. I retraced my steps, but it had vanished. How annoying! I hope whoever recovered it enjoyed it. After I got home, I managed to download the piece to my iPad and finished it.

It’s too bad, in a way, that the facts don’t support the story line of a bullied gay martyr. Homophobia plainly exists, and violence against gays exists, and those things need to be publicly condemned and appropriately punished. Tyler Clementi’s suicide was unquestionably a tragedy. But, as Parker’s story shows, the cause is unknown, and probably complex. There’s no simple way to assign blame for it. The media’s hype and erroneous reporting fed hysteria and calls for revenge, and now comes a criminal trial that will at a minimum scar a second life.

As an alumnus of the editorial staff of The New Yorker, I enjoy flipping through it every week, though I admit to reading less of it than in days gone by. Last week I read with intense pleasure in the January 23d issue a piece by Donald Hall titled Out the Window: The View in Winter.

The 83-year-old poet has written about getting old. He now needs a wheelchair and has various physical problems. He’s conscious of being “a separate form of life,” treated with either indifference or too much solicitude. He spends a lot of time looking out the window at his bird feeder and the countryside beyond. The outline of his life sounds sad and dull.

This is the amazing thing, though: his life is full of incredible beauty! His descriptions of the drama at his bird feeder are marvelously clear and vivid. He writes of the sequential blossoming of spring flowers with rhythmic, muscular prose. To think that this depth of perception and power of expression can be part of growing old is inspiring.

I’d like to become more conscious of ordinary sensory experience, and to reduce, if only a little, the percentage of each day lived on autopilot. It’s challenging, though, to engage with the present. There are distractions inside and out. Art, like Hall’s essay, can help. I find yoga is also helpful. I hadn’t really thought of meal time as a possible aid, but was inspired by a column this week in the NY Times headed Mindful Eating as Food for Thought.

The basic notion is to focus carefully and completely while eating on the sensations of eating — the flavors, smells, and textures, down to tiny details. The way I normally eat involves talking to people, reading, listening to music, thinking about things, and sometimes combinations of these, jumping from one to the next, hardly noticing the food. Mindful eating is the opposite — quiet and slow.

According to the column, this approach to food is an antidote to over eating and helps with distractedness. It also could lead to greater pleasure. I was reminded of my old friend Tom, now departed many years, a casualty of AIDS, who considered great cooking to be an art entitled to no less respect than painting or music. Accordingly, he had an enthusiasm for high-end restaurants at a time when neither of us could well afford them. He once used part of his Watson fellowship money to treat me to a meal in a four-star restaurant in Paris. His only request was that we not talk while we ate. We enjoyed the incredible meal in perfect silence.

More recently, on an average day I have a hard time focusing for half an hour on anything, and that includes eating. But at least now I’m thinking about it. So far, I’ve managed to eat only a few mindful bites at the beginning of a meal, but I’m going to keep trying.

Post-Enlightenment thinking and Michelle Bachmann

Is there any question that science, logic, and reason are excellent tools for problem solving? OK, these systems aren’t perfect, and they don’t apply to every problem. But can any thoughtful person fail to recognize their power to transform civilization and improve lives?

The answer is yes. Some people rely primarily on myth and magic as thought systems. But I normally think of these people as a not-very-significant minority. It may be, though, that that minority is getting more significant.

A column in the NY Times today by Neal Gabler posits that we live in a post-Enlightenment society that has gone backward intellectually to a method that does not employ rational thought. Gabler takes this as settled, and argues that it’s even worse: that we are moving into a post-idea world, where thinking is simply no longer done. Instead, we exchange undigested facts. As evidence, he cites social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

I’m not persuaded that social media is killing ideas, or even that the post-Enlightenment has arrived. But anti-rationalism is alive and well. Exhibit A: Michelle Bachmann. Yesterday Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll. In this week’s New Yorker, Ryan Lizza discusses the ideas that shaped her thinking.

Bachmann comes out of a tradition that believes the Bible is the literal, infallible, and unerring word of God. She claims to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and believes that he controls her life. She’s also been influenced by various fundamentalist thinkers who have some disturbing notions, including a revisionist view of slavery that holds that it was not all that bad.

It strikes me as implausible that Bachmann could be a serious contender for the presidency, but her style of thinking is having an impact on public policy. It’s hard to understand how the Tea Partiers could refuse to discuss the issue of tax rates, and be prepared to insist on this point at the cost of economic catastrophe. But if you believe that your ideas are coming directly from God, how could you question them? Why would you care to listen to opposing views? Why would you consider compromise? Thus usually harmless nonsensical beliefs become dangerous.