The Casual Blog

Tag: This American Life

Saying farewell to our best dog

This week we said goodbye for the last time to Stuart, our beloved family dog. He was a long-eared, short-legged Beagle-Basset mix with soulful eyes and a waggly tail.  Stu was with us a long time — from puppyhood to almost 15 (about 100 in dog years).  In his younger days, he was playful and athletic, always eager for walks, and relishing every meal.  He was a sweet, friendly little guy who greatly liked being petted, and he made many friends in our building during elevator rides.  

In these last months, he lost almost all of his hearing and much of his eyesight, and with hip problems he found it increasingly painful to walk. His tail wagged less and less.  

Now Stu’s suffering is over, and I’m glad for that.  In this regard, we often treat our pets better than our fellow humans, accepting death as a reality and helping our animals to have a good death.  But it’s hard.  He added sparkle to the world.  We loved him, and he loved us.  In that way, he became part of us, and changed us for the better.  I keep thinking he’s here, just in the next room, and then remember with a sharp pang that he’s gone.

Speaking of complex emotions, I recommend the edition from last week of the podcast This American Life .   The first of its three stories related to a former physicist talking about Fermi’s Paradox, which raises the question of why, given the evidence we have that complex life can arise, we haven’t encountered any evidence of it elsewhere in the universe.  The reporter felt sadness in thinking we’re existentially alone, and discovered that those around him couldn’t relate to that sadness.  

The second story related to a couple in couple’s therapy with serious problems who discovered that talk was not the primary solution.  The third was about a delightful 9-year-old girl who kept asking her father annoyingly big questions about the world.  He worked on long scholarly answers, only to find that what she was really looking for was to connect with him.  In short, three explorations of the modes of loneliness and possible paths to redemption.  

Eno River wildflowers, a good spin, and some favorite podcasts

The Eno River, near the ruin of the old pump station

On Friday, I had a mini-adventure exploring Eno River State Park.   I asked a friendly staffer  at the park office for a good place to look for wildflowers, and so found my way to the pump station trail.  

It was a lovely calming place.   I walked slowly, looking for tiny blossoms, some of whom are shy and easy to miss.   Sometimes I got down on my belly for an extreme close up.   I heard the river and a  number of migrant warblers singing, though I couldn’t see them in the new leaves.  

On Saturday morning I did a 45-minute spin class at Flywheel, which I’ve been trying to do once a week.  As usual, it was hard.   I met my objectives of getting 300 points ( though barely, with 301), and staying out of last place.  In fact, I finished first in the class.  I also set a new record for my average heart rate, with 158, and a peak of 168.  And I didn’t die!

Eno flowers-3Most mornings I’ve been getting up at 5:05 and heading to the gym.  I’ve been swimming one day a week, and on the others I do a combination of various aerobic machines (stairs, treadmill, elliptical, bike, row) and weights.

During the non-wet workouts I’ve been listening to some stimulating and fun podcasts.  I usually start with some news in Spanish (Voz de America) and French (RFI), and then explore some history, science, or other interesting domain.  Here are some recent favorites.

S-Town.  I finished the seventh of seven episodes last week, and loved it!    This was done by  some of the same creative folks that did Serial and has a similar format.  It starts out being about a crime in a small Alabama town, but ends up being about a quirky and mercurial guy and his community.  Parts of it are shocking and tragic, but it’s also funny and compelling.     

Radiolab.  These folks focus on science and social issues, and sometimes they’re very lively.  I particularly liked their recent episode on our nuclear command structure, which gives the President complete and unconstrained control of a nuclear force that could end the world as we know it.    That is, we put the question of whether the human race survives or not in one person’s hands.  I learned there’s a pending bill that would add some congressional oversight, which could mitigate this existentially risky situation a little.

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Common Sense.  From time to time, Dan Carlin does long form podcasts on public policy matters, and they are well researched and thought-provoking.   His most recent one concerns America’s health care system, which he points out is not by any measure the best in the world, but is far and away the most expensive.   Carlin has some ideas on how we got to this absurd state of affairs, and how we might get out.

Rationally Speaking.  The format here is Julia Galef interviewing smart people about social and philosophical issues.  This week I went into the archive and listened to her conversation with Peter Singer about ethics and animal rights, and liked it a lot. 

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Waking Up.  This is another podcast where a smart person, here Sam Harris, interviews another smart person.  The most recent one is a conversation with Lawrence Krauss, which covers a wide range, from quantum physics to the under-appreciated nuclear threat to the overhyped threat of Islamic terrorism.

The New Yorker Radio Hour.  Somehow David Remnick manages to edit the New Yorker, read everything, watch a lot of television, and do this podcast. Each episode has several segments, which usually include an author talking about a recent piece in the magazine.  Those are usually goods, though just as with the magazine, there are some that I would skip.  

This American Life.  Even after all these years on NPR, Ira Glass and company are still almost always fresh and original.  

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Going to a new gym, the battle for truth in Trumpworld, and intelligent animals

Sunrise at Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Sunrise at Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Last week I got a new gym membership at Lifetime Fitness at Six Forks. Why? I needed to get out of a workout rut and push forward. The cardio and weight equipment at Lifetime is more plentiful than at O2, and the space is larger. It also has a pool. It’s a little farther, but still easy to get to. I think I will like it.

My usual early morning workout starts with 10 minutes on the stairs machine, then 10 on the treadmill. Then I do core work (planks, leg lifts, etc.), balance, and flexion for 10-15. The next 25 is for resistance training, doing upper body and lower body on alternating days. Then 10 intense minutes of intervals on the elliptical or bike. At the end I stretch for 5-10 minutes. The numbers don’t quite add up, but it covers a lot of systems, and takes about an hour and a half.

Speaking of exercise, I want to give a little shout out to my new heart rate monitor, the Polar M400. Keeping track of my cardio effort level when exercising sometimes inspires me to work harder, and at least shows something is happening. The new device has a chest strap with a small snap-on Blue Tooth transmitter that signals a wrist monitor. In addition to showing current heart rate, it calculates average and maximum heart rate, steps, calories burned, and (with GPS) speed and distance traveled. It comes with some easy-to-use software for saving results on a smart phone or a laptop. There’s a little stick figure salutes you and congratulates you enthusiastically. My former device, a low-end Garmin, was less reliable, less entertaining, and more costly, so in hindsight I’m glad it finally broke down and needed replacing.

Waiging for sunrise at Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Before sunrise at Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

While working out, I’ve been listening to various podcasts, including the latest This American Life. This show just keeps getting better – taking on some big subjects, with insight and dark humor. This week Ira Glass looked at Trumpworld, where lying is non-stop and shameless. We know this now, but we’re still struggling with something even more disturbing than pathological lying: that in Trumpworld, truth has no force.

It doesn’t matter that clearly indisputable facts show that crime is down, immigration is under control, our military is by far the strongest in the world, election fraud is incredibly rare, and the President is not a Muslim who founded ISIS – the true believers will not believe it. Until recently, I thought that these bad ideas were a problem of ignorance – just not having the right facts – but it turns out that that’s not it. For these folks, if evidence contradicts their beliefs, the evidence must be disregarded. We know that some of these people are intelligent, generous, and well-meaning, but they live in an alternative reality.

Sunset at Horseshoe Bend, Navaho Nation

Sunset at Horseshoe Bend, Navaho Nation

Speaking of unconventional psychology, I finished reading Jonathan Balcombe’s recent book What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins. I liked it. Balcombe challenges the conventional wisdom regarding fish intelligence, which has it that their lives are largely automatic and instinctual, without consciousness or creativity. There’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. Some species have astonishing memories, the ability to plan, and to use tools. They experience fear and pain, and also pleasure. They have complex social relationships, and form groups both for hunting and protection. And they have an incredible range of skills in sensing and responding to their environment.

I also recommend Frans de Waal’s new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? De Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, debunks with overwhelming evidence the old chestnuts that only humans use tools, cooperate in social groups, and recognize individual identity. He presents an array of fascinating examples of non-human cognition, and invites us to use our imaginations to enter those other worlds. After reading De Waal, it is hard to view humans as entirely distinct from other animals and inherently privileged to exploit them. The gifts of other creatures are awe-inspiring.

Sunset at Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, Utah

Sunset at Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, Utah